Publish Date: 
Friday, April 1, 2016 - 10:00am

George Andreassi - www.tcpalm.com


All Aboard Florida has $3 billion riding on a passenger train project that could be derailed if Florida denies just one of the 17 permits the company needs to proceed.

What are AAF companies doing to ensure that doesn't happen? To answer that question, Treasure Coast Newspapers pored over lobbyist compensation databases, state campaign finance reports and state and federal records, and conducted more than a dozen interviews to see how the companies invested money in Florida's political machine.


All Aboard Florida and its affiliates have spent more than $3 million on the Florida political system since 2011 as it prepares to launch a Miami-Orlando passenger train project, a Treasure Coast Newspapers investigation found.

More than $2 million went to five consultants to lobby the state government, including two who were major fundraisers for Gov. Rick Scott's 2015 inaugural festivities, the investigation found. More than $900,000 went to state political parties, candidates, elected officials and the independent committees that support them, including nearly $200,000 to Scott's "Let's Get to Work" since 2011, the investigation found.

The project needs 17 permits and approvals from six state agencies, records show.


The heads of those agencies serve at Scott's pleasure, making him the most important figure in the state permitting process. The campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures are part of AAF's strategy to get a green-light for its $3 billion project, several political experts said.

"They are trying to do their best to keep the governor supportive and to get the agencies to issue the approvals they need," said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. "The various agencies make the direct decisions, but since Gov. Scott appoints those agency heads, the governor is extremely important in this process and agencies are unlikely to go against his expressed wishes."


AAF companies have ramped up their spending since Jan. 1, 2015, pouring $1.2 million into lobbying fees and campaign contributions. The largest campaign contributions went to political committees working on behalf of two state lawmakers moving into leadership positions, as well as Scott's committee.

AAF companies contributed $50,000 on Jan. 11, 2016, to Florida Roundtable, a political committee supporting state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, who will be House speaker for the 2017-18 legislative term. Corcoran voted March 4 for a bill to allow alcoholic beverage sales at AAF stations.

Corcoran declined to say whether he supports the AAF project.

“If that issue comes before us next year, we will address it in an open, collaborative, and principled manner,” Corcoran said in an email from a publicist. “Anyone with even a passing familiarity with my voting record or legislative career could tell you that campaign contributions have zero impact on my decision-making.”

Corcoran also declined to answer other questions posed by Treasure Coast Newspapers about the political spending by the AAF companies.

“Leadership positions always draw money,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “Speakers of the House control the docket, who goes on committees, what bills are ultimately heard. They have tremendous influence over what legislation can actually be heard in their chamber.” 

The companies have not donated any money, however, to the lawmaker who rounds out the top-three most powerful in the state: Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who will be the 2017-18 Senate president. Negron's district runs the length of the Treasure Coast, the epicenter of public opposition to AAF's faster and more frequent trains.

"I do not support the All Aboard Florida train proposal," Negron said in 2014. "I have serious concerns about the project — from the noise and safety issues to the traffic and boating congestion the trains will cause. I will oppose any state funding for the All Aboard Project."

Many Treasure Coast residents worry AAF trains will ruin the region's quality of life, tie up traffic, delay emergency vehicles, increase the dangerousness of the railroad tracks, divide communities in half and harm downtown businesses.

"There's an old saying, 'You go where your support is,' " MacManus said. "If it looks like support would put a particular legislator in a difficult position or that legislator would likely not support the proposal, then it would make sense to go to a person who was in a better position to yield a favorable decision."


That person is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who will chair the powerful committee that will decide on state spending for the 2017-18 term. AAF companies contributed $6,500 to the Florida Leadership Committee, the political committee supporting Latvala, who was Negron's rival for the senate presidency.

Latvala said he supported AAF and previous passenger rail projects to encourage motorists to switch to mass transit. AAF companies' contributions to Latvala's political committee was a minuscule percentage of the $3 million in donations to that fund, he said.

"I accept contributions from legal entities doing business in all types of industries in Florida," Latvala said in an email. "Many of the groups who contribute to that committee end up having issues that I vote against. There is no correlation between political contributions and my voting record."

AAF companies also contributed $18,500 to the campaigns and political committees of 14 lawmakers and candidates from the Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville regions. Those contributions make sense because Florida East Coast Railway is based in Jacksonville, Florida East Coast Industries is headquartered in Miami and the train line will run between Miami and Orlando, MacManus said. "Those are places where the railroad company has been very successful."

Companies typically make campaign contributions to build relationships with elected officials so they will be more likely to listen to sales pitches for projects and funding proposals, several political experts said.

"They want a 'yes,' " said Frank Schnidman, executive director of Florida Atlantic University's Center for Urban and Environmental Solutions. "I think that what the railroad is doing is making an investment. They're buying access and they're hoping that they can prevail. When you look at this level of campaign contributions, it's like hitting a mule with a two-by-four right between the eyes. They will pay attention."


The failure to obtain even one permit theoretically could halt AAF's train project, said several Treasure Coast officials monitoring it. However, they expect AAF to make every effort to meet the permitting requirements.

"If they cannot meet the permit requirements, they cannot construct that project without those permits," said Amy Petrick, a Martin County senior assistant attorney who has been involved in legal actions aimed at halting the train project.

That's the reason for the full-court press, especially on Scott, said Republican Paula Dockery, a political commentator who served 16 years in the state Senate.

"I think the most important person to see this project through is the governor because of the permitting," she said. "The governor has the ability to influence agencies under his control to grant or deny permits. So without the governor's approval, a project like this could easily die."

Meanwhile, Scott's office and AAF's parent company downplayed the importance of the campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures.

"The state of Florida has taken multiple steps through DEP and FDOT to hold this project accountable," Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said in an email, referring to the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Transportation.

Schenone and Melissa Shuffield, a spokeswoman for Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of AAF and Florida East Coast Railway, did not answer Treasure Coast Newspapers' questions about the project, permitting, lobbying and campaign contributions.

Instead, Shuffield emailed this statement: "FECI has operations throughout the state and invests in significant infrastructure and transportation projects around Florida. Given the nature of its infrastructure investments, the company interacts with governmental agencies on a regular basis. Further, we support individuals, regardless of party affiliation, who support initiatives that further the economic development of our state."


Florida Department of Environmental Protection

-Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certification
-Environmental Resource permit (east-west and north-south corridors)
-Sovereign Submerged Lands approval for bridges
-Coastal Zone Management Act

South Florida Water Management District

-Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certification
-Environmental Resource permit (Cocoa to Orlando segment)
-De Minimis Exemption for upland track work
-ROW permits for work over canals under Coast Guard jurisdiction
-Coastal Zone Management Act

St. Johns River Water Management District

-Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certification
-De Minimis Exemption for upland track work
-ROW permits for work over canals under Coast Guard jurisdiction
-Coastal Zone Management Act

Florida Department of Transportation

-Occupancy and Use permit
-ROW permit

Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission

-Gopher tortoise permit

Florida State Historic Preservation Office

-National Historic Preservation Act Section 106 concurrence

Source: Federal Railroad Administration's Final Environmental Impact Statement, August 2015


All Aboard Florida companies contributed $316,000 to state elected officials, candidates and their political action committees.

Gov. Rick Scott 
$125,000: Let’s Get to Work PAC

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz
$54,000: $4,000 to his campaign and $50,000 to the Florida Roundtable PAC 

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast
$21,000: $1,000 to his campaign and $20,000 to the Florida Foundation for Liberty PAC 

Other lawmakers

$6,500: Florida Leadership Committee PAC (Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater)

$2,000: Floridians for a Strong 67 PAC (Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami)

$2,000: Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-St. Augustine

$1,000: Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Maitland

$1,000: Rep. William Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park

$1,000: Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville

$1,000: Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando

$1,000: Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami

$1,000: Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami

$1,000: Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando

$1,000: Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach


$3,500: Leadership for Broward PAC (Lauren Book, Senate)

$1,500: Jason Michael Fischer, House, R-Jacksonville

$1,000: Sheri Treadwell, House, R-Jacksonville

$1,000: Katherine Van Zant, House, R-Palatka

$500: John Couriel, House, R-Miami

Business political committees

$125,938: Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC

$125,000: Florida Jobs PAC (Florida Chamber of Commerce)

$5,000: JaxBiz PAC (Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce)

$3,000: Business Force PC (Orlando Chamber of Commerce)

$938: Northeast Florida Chamber Alliance PAC

$75: Port Everglades Association PAC