Friday, August 11, 2023

ANNALS OF DeSANTISTAN: Florida Department of Education scandal: Shades of Joel Greenberg | Commentary. (Scott Maxwell column, Orlando Sentinel, August 9, 2023)

Thankfully, some of Florida's newspapers are still practicing investigative journalism, without fear or favor.  Thanks to Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald and Scott Maxwell.  

From Orlando Sentinel: 

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Orlando Sentinel

Florida Department of Education scandal: Shades of Joel Greenberg | Commentary

By Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel,

2 days ago

The stench of scandal is back in Tallahassee. 

Now, that part alone isn’t really unusual since Florida politicians are drawn to scandals the way dung beetles are to cow patties. 

But what’s interesting about the state’s latest scandal, involving the Florida Department of Education, is the similarities it has Central Florida’s biggest recent scandal — the Joel Greenberg disaster. 

In both cases, journalists exposed shady dealings and conflicts of interests. 

In both cases, state authorities looked the other way. 

And in both cases, it wasn’t until the Feds swooped in that any accountability came into play. 

Consider the two stories: 

The one unfolding in Tallahassee involves a scheme that sounded shady from the get-go. In 2016, state officials tried to give control of the struggling Jefferson County school district in North Florida to a private company — a plan that failed on multiple fronts. 

For one thing, paying a private corporation to run a public school district didn’t magically help the students in rural Jefferson County. After several years, the company itself reported “extremely low proficiency” in math and reading among the majority of students and “extreme turnover of instructional staff.” 

Also, scandal erupted. After the first effort to privatize the school district failed, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education department decided it wanted to give another private company the chance to gorge at the taxpayer trough. So it let companies bid on the chance to help the local, public school officials retake their control of their district … whether they wanted the help or not. 

That’s when watchdogs, including Polk County education activist Billy Townsend and the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times, started figuring out who was trying to cash in — namely a former GOP legislator and business partner of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. 

Accusations of bid-rigging surfaced as the Herald/Times concluded that Corcoran’s department had designed the new procurement process as “ tailor-made ” for the company owned by former State Rep. Trey Traviesa. 

But it didn’t stop there. The watchdogs also learned that three state insiders — board of education member Andy Tuck, K-12 chancellor Jacob Oliva and former Vice Chancellor Melissa Ramsey — had also united to form a side-hustle corporation that wanted a piece of the action as well. 

So you had two groups of politically connected insiders — some of whom were actually working for the state at the time — competing to cash in on a taxpayer contract. 

After all this was exposed and the deals feel apart, Corcoran said Tuck and Ramsey had  displayed “ gross negligence .” But he also said he believed they had “great hearts.” So, after the two resigned their positions, Corcoran and DeSantis decided no more answers or accountability were needed … which was nuts. 

As I wrote at the time : “In what ethically deficient universe is any of this OK? We have two sets of politically connected cronies trying to cash in on a troubled school district. And the governor and education commissioner are telling you there’s nothing to see …” 

Florida education scandal reveals conflicts, money-grubbing for tax dollars | Commentary 

Yet that’s where things stood for more than a year — until we learned this week that the feds were swooping in. (See: “ Federal grand jury investigates bid-rigging in DeSantis’ education department ”) 

And that’s the aspect of this story and stench that Central Floridians may find fetidly familiar. Because it has shades of the Joel Greenberg debacle. 

You may remember that the Orlando Sentinel also provided evidence of shady behavior at the Seminole County tax collector’s office for years. Yet state and local officials largely looked the other way. 

We’d write about Greenberg paying his buddies — including his own wedding party members — fat salaries in exchange for questionable job duties. And local officials would shrug. 

We’d report on Greenberg trying to act like a cop, even putting a flashing light on his vehicle to pull over a neighborhood driver who was annoying him. And state officials would say: Well, it’s not ideal, but … 

For years, we wrote. For years, local citizens gasped. And for years, state and local authorities twiddled their thumbs. 

It wasn’t until eight months after former Sentinel columnist Lauren Ritchie penned this piece — “Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg gives $3.5 million in consultant contracts, salaries to friends and associates” — that someone took action. And that someone was the feds. 

You have to wonder: Why does Florida so often refuse to clean up its own mess? 

Seminole County Tax Collector Joel Greenberg gives $3.5 million in consultant contracts, salaries to friends and associates | Commentary 

You’ve probably followed the news since. Some of the very people the Sentinel wrote about years ago were more recently arrested and/or convicted. One was convicted just last week — by the feds, mind you, even though this largely involved state and local tax dollars. 

Greenberg himself pleaded guilty to a slew of charges, including sex trafficking of a child, wire fraud, stalking, and conspiracy. 

I obviously don’t know what the feds will turn up as they start to look at the latest scandal in Tallahassee. Maybe everything done by Corcoran, who’s now interim president of New College; Oliva, who’s now the education secretary for the state of Arkansas; and everybody else involved was A-OK and completely appropriate. 

What I do know, though, is that Floridians are, once again, going to have to look to the federal Department of Justice for answers — to questions state officials don’t even seem willing to ask.

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