Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff once worked for All Aboard Florida's sister company

Publish Date: 
Sunday, July 6, 2014 - 10:45am

By Matt Dixon Scripps July 6th 2014 Full Article at TCPalm

Tallahassee — Gov. Rick Scott, who had rejected federal money for a passenger rail service, was silent publicly when All Aboard Florida rolled out its plans for passenger trains in March 2012.

Some thought the governor’s rejection of $2.4 billion in federal stimulus money for high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando was a sign he would oppose a high-speed rail project from Orlando to Miami. In June, Scott announced his support for All Aboard Florida’s plan.

The difference? The governor said All Aboard Florida would be privately funded.

Behind the scenes was Adam Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth, now the governor’s chief of staff, worked for All Aboard Florida’s sister company Parallel Infrastructure LLC from August 2011 to May 2012. Just before becoming Parallel chief executive officer, Hollingsworth was in the governor’s office, as transportation adviser for Scott’s transition team.

All Aboard Florida’s plan to add 32 train-trips a day is under fire on the Treasure Coast, where the trains wouldn’t stop. Local officials decry potential taxpayer expenses for safety upgrades to freight railroad crossings, boaters say navigation will be impeded when the railroad bridge is lowered across the St. Lucie River an additional 32 times daily, motorists worry about extra time stopped at tracks that cut communities in two and some residents worry about being on the wrong side of the tracks from emergency services.

Scott’s top officials gave their private support to All Aboard Florida early, which was due in no small part to the lobbying efforts of Hollingsworth, text messages and emails show.

Through a spokesman, Hollingsworth declined several requests for an interview for this story.

TRANSPORTATION ADVISER

During Hollingsworth’s time as transportation adviser — a span that stretched from December 2010 to August 2011 — he played a big role in convincing the newly elected governor to reject the $2.4 billion in federal stimulus funding. That included writing a draft letter to federal officials in February 2011 informing them Florida would not accept the money, emails show.

Hollingsworth’s letter included links to a study authored by the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation that stated cost overruns could cost state taxpayers $3 billion, a number later used by Scott to help explain his decision.

Also as transportation adviser, Hollingsworth helped assemble the Florida Department of Transportation that would later sign-off on All Aboard Florida.

He vetted candidates for transportation secretary — including current Secretary Ananth Prasad — helped shape policy decisions and received internal assessments of the department shortly after Scott was elected.

“We will have our DRAFT agency review document to you no later than midnight tonight,” wrote Doug Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, in a December 2010 email to Hollingsworth and another adviser.

It was roughly two weeks before Scott was sworn in as governor.

In preparing the review, the group had “been briefed” by both the department and the Florida Transportation Commission, which selected a slate of three transportation secretary candidates.

“The three name slate, from the Commission, goes to the governor on Monday,” he wrote in a Feb. 12, 2011, email to other Scott advisers. “From there, I would recommend that: we complete a vet on the three by Tuesday.”

NOT ABOARD

The Scott administration, in June, said Hollingsworth, 45, had “no knowledge of AAF when he worked on transition or when the draft letter was sent.”

Julie Edwards, All Aboard Florida’s chief marketing officer, said rejection of federal money did not impact All Aboard Florida.

“It is a completely different market, a completely different way to think about transportation,” said Edwards, who continues to stress the All Aboard project is free of help from taxpayer dollars.

It’s likely Parallel was talking to Hollingsworth about a position while he was still advising the Scott administration, because of the “small transportation world,” Edwards said.

“I think somewhere in the conversation between 2010 and 2011, he knew all the same players and an opportunity arose at Parallel and he came aboard,” she said in a May interview.

“We should not infer that they were talking about All Aboard Florida at that point,” Edwards added.

When rejoining the governor’s office, Hollingsworth signed a “fire wall” letter, agreeing to not “participate in any meetings or decision related to” companies related to his former employer.

ADMINISTRATION ACCESS

All Aboard Florida has the deep-pocket backing of Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based equity firm with a $26 billion investment portfolio.

That company owns the handful of companies developing the project, including, Florida East Coast Railway. Three of that company’s top executives are also Fortress officials, including Wes Edens, the firm’s founder.

Hollingsworth, while at Parallel, helped connect top company executives with administration officials regarding All Aboard Florida’s plan.

“If you have time prior to 10a.m., perhaps Husein and I could give you an advance look at the deck and provide a fulsome review of the proposal,” read a Jan. 5, 2012, text message from Hollingsworth, to Carrie O’Rourke, then a top Scott administration official.

It’s a reference to Husein Cumber, an executive vice president with FECI. Cumber already had personally briefed both Prasad and state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Hershel Vinyard, text messages show.

The same Jan. 5, 2012, message shows Edens had met administration officials at “the gov’s Christmas Party.” The next day, Scott was briefed by staff and appeared to support the plan.

“Meeting went very well today,” O’Rourke sent in a Jan. 6, 2012, text message to Prasad. “Gov wants us to get together sec vineyard and put a team in this to overview. He is interested. :)”

“Gr8,” Prasad shot back less than one minute later.

That support from Scott and his top transportation official, who Hollingsworth helped select, came three months before All Aboard Florida was officially unveiled, and more than two years before the Scott administration would publicly support the plan.

The day after the Scott briefing, Hollingsworth and Greg Turberville, a lobbyist with Tallahassee-based Ballard Partners, held a meeting with Scott’s then-chief-of-staff Steve MacNamara, according to administration calendars. Turberville’s firm represented Fortress and FECI.

MacNamara said the duo asked for state dollars to directly help All Aboard Florida, but he only offered to potentially help with “eminent domain issues,” he wrote in an email.

A week before the announcement, Hollingsworth helped Scott before a March 14, 2012, meeting with Edens.

“As you know, Wes Edens is meeting with the Governor Wednesday, March 14,” he wrote in a March 2 text message to O’Rourke. “Do you have time today to discuss a pre-brief with the gov.?”

In the day’s leading up to the March 22, 2012, announcement, text messages show, Hollingsworth worked with Susie Wiles, a Ballard Partner employee tasked with doing public relations for the project, write the news release and coordinate with the state.

“I am sitting here with Susie working on next week’s announcement,” Hollingsworth wrote in a March 15 email to O’Rourke. “Is it likely that the gov’s comms staff would answer any press calls or would those get kicked to FDOT?”

Two days later, O’Rourke asked the late Francis Gibbs, then-the department’s chief-of-staff, to “reach out” to Wiles. The two later had lunch.

Less than one week later — after months of administration involvement — All Aboard Florida was unveiled as a “first-of-its kind” project that’s “privately owned, operated and maintained passenger rail service,” it read.