A former Florida House Speaker may soon be a target of a federal grand jury investigation. Lots of make-work and unauthorized work being done in the name of putative disaster recovery contracting.
Florida is blessed with natural beauty and cursed with corrupt jurisdictions and corrupt officials.
They all "bear watching'," as they say in Tennessee.
Footnote: Former Florida House Speaker Allan Bense's sister, Dr. Judith A. Bense, Ph.D., an archaeologist whose dissertation was on climate changer, was President of the University of West Florida for seven years.
From the News Herald:
FBI: Company led by former Florida House speaker bilked 'millions of dollars' for hurricane cleanup
PANAMA CITY — GAC Contractors, a local company whose top executives include former House Speaker Allan Bense, bilked “millions of dollars” from local governments in 2018 when it was contracted to clean up debris caused by Hurricane Michael, newly released court documents from an ongoing federal investigation show.
The company’s top executives, including Bense and its late CEO Derwin White, commanded its crews to visit work sites with equipment but not perform any work, and then billed Bay County, the school district and other government municipalities, federal investigators allege in an affidavit filed with a search warrant carried out last year at the company’s headquarters.
Federal law enforcement authorities, in the affidavit, said that Bense and White ordered GAC's workers to clean up their own homes or properties and that of other top public officials, including state Sen. George Gainer, Lynn Haven City Attorney Adam Albritton's house and Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt, among others.
Bense is not charged in connection with the federal investigation of GAC Contractors. White has since died. Bense, who was the company’s managing partner, is the company’s chairman.
Bense did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
The allegations against GAC Contractors surfaced in the affidavit that was unsealed Monday in federal court. The affidavit was written by FBI agent Lawrence Borghini. The search warrant was executed Aug. 5, 2021, court records show.
The criminal allegations raised in the affidavit expand the scope of possible corruption in Bay County following Hurricane Michael far beyond the borders of Lynn Haven, where five city officials and four local businesspeople previously have been charged with federal crimes.
The 45-page document quotes a director of operations for a national debris removal company as saying "Bay County was more corrupt" than either New Jersey or New Orleans — locations where he previously had done work following hurricanes.
The search warrant itself called for government review of any and all records, documents and supporting documentation relating to owner account expenditures and accounting entries for Derwin White and Allan Bense.
It calls for the seizure of information pertaining to credit card loans, lines of credit, expenditures made on behalf of used by or at the direction of Derwin White, Allan Bense or Steven Clements.
It also seeks any and all records relating to entities owned or controlled by White, Bense or Clements.
The U.S. Attorney's Office and Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford declined to comment on the status of the investigation of GAC.
Allan Bense and GAC Contractors
Bense, who served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1998 to 2006 and as House Speaker between 2004-06, has been a managing partner of GAC Contractors, alongside Derwin White, since 1996. This year he is listed by the Florida Division of Corporations as the company's chairman.
Through April of 2019, Bense was listed as GAC Contractors president. He became chairman when White assumed the title of president, according to Division of Corporations documents.
Prior to Hurricane Michael, GAC pre-positioned equipment throughout Bay County, and after the storm passed the School District executed an emergency plan and utilized GAC, along with some other contractors, to clean up hurricane debris, make repairs and assess damage, the affidavit said.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, GAC crews "would receive their assignments each day from Derwin White or Allan Bense, whichever one had attended the morning meeting at the operations center that day," the affidavit said.
"Both of them would instruct the crews to report to the school sites but not to do any work,” the affidavit states.
GAC also brought at least one piece of equipment to each site at which its crews were doing nothing.
"The GAC crews were being sent to the schools because GAC had a contract with Bay District Schools and their presence was necessary to give the appearance that GAC was doing work at the schools," the FBI agent wrote. "The GAC crews did this for about a month."
Work that was being done at the school sites, the affidavit states, was performed by subcontractors such as Erosion Control Specialist, whose owner, David White, has been previously indicted as part of a scheme to steal millions from the city of Lynn Haven. David White, Derwin White's nephew, has pleaded guilty in the case.
Unused cleanup equipment
Bay County and the School District were billed for equipment brought to job sites but never used, the affidavit said, citing testimony of a former GAC foreman who worked road and site work projects. The witness testified that GAC Vice President Steven Clements instructed him to "bring as much equipment as he had access to" to the school jobs.
"He said it didn't matter if the equipment was used or not. Clements was going to charge the jobs with 10 of everything," the affidavit said. "In most cases (the foreman) did not have 10 of everything to bring to the jobs and a lot of equipment charged to the jobs was not even needed."
While the GAC crews were supposed to be working for BDS, they were actually removing debris from Derwin White's house, Derwin White's farm, Clements' house, Bense's house, previously indicted Lynn Haven City Attorney Adam Albritton's house and others, the affidavit said, paraphrasing testimony of another former GAC employee.
That employee said he worked one weekend at Gainer's home "cleaning up debris" and he had been informed GAC crews had cleared debris at Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt's house as well.
"It was to GAC's benefit to perform such work for local public officials and government employees, who were either witting or unwitting, for future favorable treatment and lucrative contracts," Borghini wrote. "Many, if not all, of the costs associated with providing these benefits were billed to jobs and projects that GAC had ongoing at the time the benefits were conveyed."
One of the charges Albritton faced when he was indicted in 2020 was for accepting work done at his home as a form of bribe. Lynn Haven Mayor Margo Anderson, indicted alongside Albritton, faces an identical charge. She maintains her innocence.
GAC crews were instructed to remove debris from the home of Don Churchwell, an employee of the Panama City Beach Public Works Department, according to the affidavit. A footnote in the affidavit states that at the time the work was done "GAC had a number of road projects in Panama City Beach" as well as contracts for construction of city buildings.
One of the former GAC employees told the FBI he spent some days removing debris at GAC Contractors headquarters and when that job was complete he traveled to the homes of GAC employees to help there. When the employee and his crew were sent to his own home to do work, Clements ordered him to bill the school district for the cost.
Assistant County Manager Joel Schubert told the FBI that hurricane damage to his home was so severe that for a period of time he and his family could not live at the residence.
Schubert said he asked Derwin White for the names of local contractors who did tree work and White told him he would "put him on the list" for work to be done by GAC, the affidavit said. White did not provide him a price for work or the names of subcontractors.
A few days latter, the affidavit said, Schubert was contacted by someone who told him work was being done at his residence. He arrived to find enough debris removal had been completed to allow him access to his driveway, so he told the GAC crew on site that they could leave.
For months after the work was done, Schubert said he touched base with White, either in person or by text, to inquire as to the status of his bill. Having not received one as of April 2019, he went to the bank, obtained a cashier's check for $3,000 and dropped it off at GAC with a note offering to pay the balance if additional money was needed.
On April 22, according to the affidavit, Schubert received an email from GAC with an invoice for $3,000 attached. When he again inquired about the bill and whether more might be due, he was told, "As far as I know there is no other charges."
A review of a GAC bill sent to the county, signed by Clements, the vice president, sought payment of $9,613 for the work done at Schubert's residence, according to the FBI affidavit.
Sen. George Gainer
The affidavit states that in 2016, Gainer, who had spent 18 years as a Bay County commissioner, was elected to the state Senate. In August of that same year, Derwin White and Gainer went into business together as Yellow Jackets LLC.
In September of 2016, following Gainer's purchase of a condominium in Tallahassee, White sent a GAC superintendent to the state capital to remodel Gainer's unit. He instructed the employee "to charge all his supplies to complete the remodel to other active GAC jobs."
According to testimony provided by a former GAC employee, Derwin White had a large generator installed at Gainer's home following Hurricane Michael.
The search warrant executed at GAC in 2021 sought all records the company had related to Gainer.
As noted in his indictment, Albritton was hired to work as the attorney for the city of Lynn Haven without informing city officials that he was also employed by Derwin White and GAC.
Just days after Hurricane Michael, Albritton informed Lynn Haven City Manager Michael White, no relation to Derwin White or David White, that he had solicited six companies for tipping fees for disposal of the city's "reduced vegetation debris." According to the FBI affidavit, he told White that GAC had provided the lowest price for the tipping fees and presented "the most economical solution" for debris removal.
"Investigation revealed the businesses Albritton claimed to have contacted had never been contacted or Albritton's listed prices were not accurate" for them, Borghini wrote.
Albritton also told Michael White that any contactors hauling debris for the city should pay the GAC price for vegetative debris disposal.
The affidavit states that in November of 2018, Derwin White took Michael White to one of several Bay County automobile dealerships owned by Gainer.
Derwin White, "arranged with George Gainer for payment of $18,561" for a 2016 Hyundai Tucson for Michael White, the affidavit states. "The vehicle was added to a GAC account and subsequently paid for with a GAC check."
In January of 2019, the city of Lynn Haven requested bids for the construction of temporary facilities to house its city hall and police department. GAC submitted the only bid for the project.
Two other companies, ECS and Phoenix Construction, "both submitted letters saying they were unable to bid on the project due to limited resources and an extensive work schedule," Borghini wrote.
James Finch, the owner of Phoenix Construction, has, like David White, been charged with crimes committed as part of the Lynn Haven corruption scandal. Finch maintains his innocence and his case has been scheduled for trial in November.
Lynn Haven unanimously approved the GAC contract and as of August 2021, when the search warrant at GAC Contractors was served, GAC had been paid $623,508 under terms of the contract for the city projects.
"After a search warrant was executed at (David White's) ECS, Michael White wrote a personal check for the vehicle that was deposited in Derwin White's personal account," the application for the search warrant said.
Michael White was indicted alongside David White and three others in the Lynn Haven corruption case.
Ashbritt and Crowder Gulf
Before Hurricane Michael, Bay County had pre-negotiated debris removal contracts with Ashbritt and Crowder Gulf, two large national providers, as a hedge against hurricane damage. Following the storm, Derwin White went to the county and local municipalities "seeking to secure hurricane clean up business."
Informed by emergency management and government officials that he would have to deal with Ashbritt and Crowder Gulf, the affidavit said, White went to both.
"Crowder Gulf's director of operations told the FBI that White contacted him after the hurricane and asked if Crowder Gulf needed help (implying he had connections). He said if they would cut him in he would help them," Borghini wrote.
"Derwin White wanted to get paid to do nothing."
The affidavit states White attempted to have Crowder Gulf pay GAC a percentage of revenues based on the volume of cubic yards of hurricane debris collected. He also wanted to get paid a percentage to facilitate a site or get Crowder Gulf work.
"Crowder Gulf did not need Derwin White's influence with local public officials or connections to conduct their cleanup operations," the affidavit said. "Thereafter, Crowder Gulf had nothing to do with Derwin White or GAC."
While Crowder Gulf refused to deal with White, Ashbritt chose to contract with GAC. The affidavit said some portion of the work performed at the homes of local government employees, and paid for by Bay County taxpayers, was performed by GAC and billed through Ashbritt.
Ashbritt also negotiated contracts with smaller Bay County municipalities like Springfield and Callaway that had not, like the county itself, pre-negotiated emergency contracts.
"The debris collected by Ashbritt was brought to sites owned by, or that had been secured by, Derwin White for reduction. The reduced debris was then transported to sites for final disposal owned by Derwin White and GAC," the affidavit said.
"Derwin White and GAC made millions of dollars in fees from operations of sites, while Bay County and other municipalities paid an artificial disposal rate that had not been properly bid out," Borghini wrote.
County taxpayers wound up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in excess vegetative debris disposal fees, he added.
The Crowder Gulf director of operations told Borghini that in his career "he had never seen anything like Bay County."
"He had worked clean up operations following Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and a number of other disasters over the years," Borghini wrote. "Bay County was more corrupt than any of those places."