After squandering hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish dinners, tickets to major league sporting events, expensive liquor, cigars, and luxury hotel rooms, Port of Tampa President and CEO Paul Anderson has done substantial damage to Governor Rick Scott’s port infrastructure improvement legacy.
From his first days in office, Scott recognized the key role that Florida’s port system would play in the state’s economic recovery. Since his inauguration, he led the push for more than $1 billion in state and federal funding to help expand ports in Miami and Jacksonville and modernize port infrastructure statewide.
Scott generally has little tolerance for the kind of malfeasance that could negatively impact his long-term plan to make Florida the brightest economic star in America. And he campaigned on running state government more like a business. Like the CEO of a fast-moving company, Scott has fired or engineered the ouster of dozens of executives who’ve failed to meet expectations.
And although Scott may not have complete authority to fire Paul Anderson, it’s easy to believe that Anderon may be in Scott’s crosshairs. That’s because Scott believes the taxpayer dollars invested in Florida’s port system should provide a much better return on investment (ROI) for the economy than any other major infrastructure project.
The first public signs of trouble began in March of this year, when news reports emerged that the Port of Tampa wasn’t providing taxpayers with a solid return on the investment for the tens of millions of taxpayer dollars it receives from local property taxes and state and federal grants:
“The Tampa Port is lagging way behind when it comes to the number of containers coming in. In 2015, Tampa, the largest Florida port land wise, shipped a total of 39 thousand (39,761) cargo containers, according to the most recent data by the Army Corps of Engineers. But smaller ports like Jacksonville shipped more than 700 thousand (755,452). Miami (765,980). And Port Everglades (716,182) also topped 700 thousand.”]
Local businesses complained that the port charged too much, and that it was actually cheaper to ship goods out of other Florida ports.
When asked, Anderson, who makes $382,000 in annual salary, shrugged it off, claiming that what taxpayers really care about is “diversity” and the fact that he is trying to grow the business.
Then in June, the real scandal emerged: Anderson and his top staffers were caught wasting obscene amounts of money: $30,000 on golf outings and club memberships, $44,000 on Tampa Bay Lightning season tickets and other major events. Tens of thousands of dollars wasted on skeet shooting, target practice and expensive dinners at ritzy restaurants, including charges for $50 steaks, premium liquor and $20 glasses of wine.
In all, ABC Action News in Tampa Bay found more than $870,000 worth of questionable expenditures, all charged to the credit cards of Paul Anderson and his top assistants.
“I was brought in here to compete in the major leagues, not single A,” Anderson told reporters when confronted with expense records.
That’s not exactly the response a “major leaguer” should provide when he’s caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Especially when Anderson also doles out at least $420,000 every year to get media and consulting advice from some of Florida’s high-powered public relations firms and lobbyists – apparently they didn’t tell him how to avoid these kinds of scandals in the first place.
Just weeks after the scandal broke, in an attempt to clean up the mess, Anderson hired an internal communications advisor to augment the outside consultants he was already paying. It’s unclear how hiring yet another PR expert provides taxpayers with a higher return on investment than what they were already getting from the outside firms on the payroll, but Anderson, being a “major leaguer,” surely has a good explanation.
While Scott quickly appointed a new board member to help reign in the frivolous spending and poor management, he has no real authority fire Anderson outright. But he can make it clear that it’s time for Anderson to go, and he may be waiting on House Speaker Richard Corcoran to give him more ammo. But it’s not clear what Corcoran intends to do about the scandal, if anything.
After initially promising an investigation into the matter, and calling it “absolutely wasteful spending,” Corcoran’s office was mum on the progress of the investigation, other than to say he was “still gathering more information.”
Perhaps if and when the investigation is complete, the average Joe Taxpayer will at least see some return on his investment from learning all about Paul Anderson’s “major league” business acumen, where Anderson explains to us regular folk how using taxpayer funds to buy thick-cut ribeye steaks, premium liquor, expensive cigars and front-row seats at the big game all contributed to the Port of Tampa losing ground compared to other ports.
Apparently that’s why we pay him the big bucks.