If ever there was a ferociously fishy foregone conclusion, it's Florida Development Finance Corp.'s impending decision to approve $1.75 billion in tax-exempt, private activity bonds so All Aboard Florida can get funding. FDC has already gleefully included its share in its draft budget for the current fiscal year. Check out the $1.8 million under "pending revenue." (All Aboard Florida on June 19 received a six-month extension to sell the tax-exempt bonds.)
There's been no vote yet. No public bond-validation status hearing, though two previously scheduled hearings on the 235-mile Miami-Orlando rail project -- one May 28, the other June 10 -- were canceled.
Presumably, the meetings were canceled because the FDFC board was a mess.
According to Treasure Coast Newspapers columnist Rich Campbell, writing on Sunday's front page, "The agency’s draft budget makes it clear improper constitution of the board undermined its ability to conduct business. The budget notes the agency 'lost $249,250 due to (the board members') appointment issue' during the previous fiscal year. Interestingly, the finance corporation is still operating with a proposed budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. In the absence of a properly constituted board, the board was unable to formally adopt a budget. ..."
Now here we are at the 11th hour, with a hearing set for Wednesday in Orlando, and as sure as God makes little green apples, there's going to be a rail service zipping through the Treasure Coast courtesy of an FDFC green light -- yes, already granted in so many words -- to facilitate All Aboard Florida's land acquisition, construction, equipment, locomotives and train cars.
In June U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper denied requests by Martin and Indian River counties for an injunction to block the bond sale, saying, in part, that the money was not a linchpin to finishing the passenger rail line.
You can imagine FDFC's eagerness. As the finance arm of Enterprise Florida, that $1.8 million just for endorsing the sale of the bonds is an especially nice haul for a quasi-governmental agency that, in this instance, operated in the shadows and contrary to its own bylaws.
Attorneys for Martin and Indian River counties and the citizens group CARE FL employed "discovery" to require AAF officials and FDFC board members to turn over texts and email conversations. What the documents show is that All Aboard Florida controlled the process and called the shots. In addition, several FDFC members were communicating via private email -- in fact, doing so even before they were appointed or confirmed.
Here's what is obvious:
-A series of text messages between FDFC Chairman Frank White and AAF’s Matt Mohler. A message thread begins on April 8 -- yet White wasn't confirmed until April 19 -- and continues through July. The friendly relationship between the two is unmistakable, with Mohler pushing the schedule of meetings between his “All Aboard Florida folks” and the FDFC.
-A series of calendar entries for FDFC Vice Chairman Daniel Davis. Davis had a meeting with Husein Cumber and other FECI/Fortress representatives in Jacksonville March 30, had a phone call with Cumber on April 28, had a briefing with Cumber, AAF President Michael Reininger and others in Jacksonville on July 7.
-A series of communications between FDFC board members and staff regarding AAF meetings. Of note, board member Ryan Tennyson informs Bill Spivey on June 30 that he “met with All Aboard Florida yesterday and they provided me with some materials. …Their presentation was thorough and professionally delivered.” He goes on to say he is getting many emails from Florida citizens who have AAF concerns, mainly related to safety issues. Then he tells Spivey, “I’m sure there must be a dozen or so regulatory bodies to address those concerns. I assume our role is limited to whether the project meets the criteria for tax-exempt financing.”
-A calendar entry from FDFC Board Member Kevin Hale. Cumber arranged a meeting for Hale in Omaha with Bank of America bond underwriters to discuss AAF. The meeting took place May 21.
No obvious Sunshine Law violation, true. But none of this is seemly, professional, nor does Florida Development Finance Corp. make any attempt to conduct business in a fully transparent manner.
Treasure Coast residents are traveling to Orlando for the Wednesday meeting in good faith. I wish I could say the same for AAF and FDFC. I fear these residents, who have significant safety concerns, who have nothing to gain from a train service that won't stop in their communities, will only be talking to a brick wall. I hope I'm wrong.