Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson spent $100,000 to buy a sponsorship package at the 2017 NCAA National Championship in January and can’t account for who got the tickets. But sources say that Anderson strictly controlled access to the tickets and doled them out to a small handful of existing customers, a few port staff and people that sources say were close friends of Anderson. Port Tampa Bay is funded in part by millions of dollars each year through grants funded by state and federal tax dollars.

“The national championship event was Paul’s baby,” a source with knowledge of the event told The Capitolist. “He decided who got tickets and who didn’t.”

Port Authority spokeswoman Samara Sodos conceded that it was possible that some people who were not potential clients participated in the sponsorship events, but disputed the allegation that Anderson played the sole role in deciding who got passes to the event.

“Paul was not the only person who decided who received invitations,” Sodos said, “Although certainly with the goal of generating business and being President/CEO, he did have some major input.”

Anderson frequently points at growing revenue numbers as his defense for recent reports of profligate spending. Indeed, his job is to grow Port Tampa Bay’s revenue to justify the $24 million cost of two new gantry cranes purchased using taxpayer dollars. But critics point out that the revenue growth that Anderson claims is a result of his leadership is actually a direct result of Port Tampa Bay putting those new gantry cranes to use, and the growth has little to do with Anderson doling out tickets to existing customers who are geographically closest to Port Tampa Bay than any other port.

In fact, of the five companies known to have been invited to attend the big game, four of them: Mosaic, Rooms To Go, Kane’s Furniture, and Tampa Ship, all are existing clients of Port Tampa Bay and most have been for years. As for the fifth company, the port says it is currently negotiating a deal with one potential customer that accepted an invitation to attend the game. The Capitolist agreed not to disclose the name of the company to avoid jeopardizing the ongoing negotiations. None of the other attendees or guests of Anderson or his staff that have been positively identified by The Capitolist were potential new clients.

And Sodos confirmed that no records were kept of who actually accepted tickets to the championship events.

Sources say that some of the tickets went to friends of Paul Anderson, and were not potential port clients. And while previous comments from Port Tampa Bay Board members regarding the event were defensive of Anderson, those comments were based on the assumption that Anderson doled out the tickets to potential new customers. Steve Swindal, one of the board members, had this exchange with ABC Action News:

Reporter: “What business deals were closed as a direct result of the football game sir?”
Swindal:  “The business deals are cultivated ok?  You can’t say that you closed a deal at a football game, or a golf course, or a steakhouse, but it’s obviously developing a relationship with that customer.”

Swindal apparently was (or is still) not aware that the four existing “customers” invited to the game have their business operations located near Port Tampa Bay and already use the port by default. None of those invitees, such as Mosaic, which has operations co-located with the port, needed to be “cultivated” through complimentary football tickets. It’s also unclear whether or not Swindal was aware that some of the tickets were used by friends, and not actual customers. And some critics point out that the Port’s $100,000 could have been spent in other ways with a much higher return on investment. Or at least with a return on investment that could be documented, measured and compared with other marketing ventures.

Ethics experts say that giving tickets to friends presents serious problems for taxpayer-funded organizations, like Port Tampa Bay, who are expected to use the tickets the same way they use grant money: to attract new business. Port Tampa Bay collects millions of dollars every year in taxpayer funded state and federal grants. The taxpayer money is generally earmarked to offset major capital purchases, such as the previously mentioned gantry cranes, dredging or similar projects. Those funds are all allocated by state and federal officials under the belief that the projects will help grow the local economy. Sponsorship events, tickets and event passes should be earmarked for the same purpose, they say.

Port executive posing with championship trophy

While port officials could not account for who got the tickets, publicly available photographs on official and unofficial social media accounts confirm what sources say are Port executives hobknobbing with politicians and professional hockey players with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, among others. One photo shows a port executive at the concert posing with known Tampa-area businesspeople who have confirmed to The Capitolist that they were not guests of the Port, nor do they do business with Port Tampa Bay. Another shows a port executive posing with the 2017 NCAA Football Championship Trophy.

No existing or potential customers are visible with Port Tampa Bay staff in any of the public photos reviewed by The Capitolist.

Out of 24 tickets to the championship game, The Capitolist has only been able to confirm six previously existing customers used the tickets. The Port acknowledges that six more tickets went to Port executives, including Anderson himself, Raul Alfonso, Karl Strauch, and three others. Twelve additional game tickets and dozens of other event passes, including tickets to the “Taste of the Championship Buffet” and tailgate party, parking passes, and a live concert, have not been accounted for, some of which, the sources say, went to people who were friends of Anderson and not potential clients.

By contrast, the Florida Lottery, which also sponsored the 2017 NCAA event, received the same number of tickets: 24 passes to the championship game and dozens of tickets to other events, including the “Taste of the Championship” buffet. Virtually all of those passes were given away as part of lottery prize packages. Lottery winners received 20 of the 24 game tickets and received all of the passes to the buffet and other events. In a phone conversation with The Capitolist, Florida Lottery accounted for all of the tickets and passes the agency received in exchange for its sponsorship of the event.

“None of the Lottery tickets went to friends or family,” confirmed Florida Lottery communications director Connie Barnes.

Port executive with Tampa Bay Lightning players

Governor Rick Scott‘s office said they were awaiting a full analysis of all prior expenditures being conducted by newly appointed board member Mike Griffin. Scott says his office expects accountability and transparency from Anderson and Port Tampa Bay executives.

“The Governor believes that any use of tax dollars must be done with accountability and transparency,” said John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott. “Currently, third party audits of expenses have been directed by the Port Authority Board. If those audits find any misuse of tax dollars, our office will take the appropriate action.”

The Port confirmed the audit expected by the governor hasn’t been completed yet and isn’t expected until around the beginning of next year. But earlier this week, Griffin gave Anderson an annual review rating of just 2 out of 5 (Needs Improvement) in the area of business, finance and customer relations, according to the Tampa Bay Times. It is unclear if Griffin’s review was done before or after he learned how Anderson doled out the tickets.

The review still qualified Anderson to receive a 4.5% hike in pay, making him one of the highest paid Port executives in the nation, earning more than the executives at major ports including New York, which posted operating revenues of $5.1 billion. By comparison, Port Tampa Bay posted “record revenues” of only $55 million this year. All of the top paid executives at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey made less than $350,000 in 2016. But this year, Anderson will earn more than $417,917 in salary, $50,000 in deferred compensation and tens of thousands of dollars in other perks.

While some states have a law on the books requiring quasi-public agencies to keep records of who gets tickets in cases like this, there is currently no such law in Florida.