An audit underway at Port Tampa Bay won’t include any investigation of the controversial spending authorized by port CEO Paul Anderson over the past two years. A port spokeswoman confirmed that the spending audit ordered by the Port Tampa Bay Board of Directors will only examine employee expenditures that occured after August 15th, 2017, which is after the board installed new spending controls in response to media reports exposing questionable spending by the port.
This puts the port in direct conflict with the expectations of two of the state’s most powerful officials.
Both Governor Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran each independently confirmed that they expect the audit to include a detailed look at the controversial employee reimbursements and questionable promotional spending that took place prior to August of this year. The scandal resulted in some port employees, including Anderson, being forced to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in unjustified expenses. A comprehensive audit of those expenses has never taken place, and questions still linger about other expenditures by Anderson classified as promotional or marketing costs.
Scott and Corcoran both promised to take further steps if their expectations for the audit were not met. Both declined to elaborate on what that action might include.
“This board is accountable to the taxpayers of Florida and Governor Scott expects a comprehensive audit that provides a full scope of spending to be completed to ensure every dollar is spent transparently and in the best interests of the Floridians they serve,” said McKinley Lewis, Deputy Communications Director for Scott. “The Governor looks forward to seeing the completion of this thorough audit and if any misuse of tax dollars is found, our office will take the appropriate action.”
A spokesman for the Florida House of Representatives indicated that Speaker Corcoran “concurred” with Governor Scott’s expectations for the audit, and indicated Corcoran would have more to say on the matter in the near future. In October, Corcoran sent a letter to the port demanding employee expense and travel records. The port says they are complying with Corcoran’s demands.
In August, Scott appointed Mike Griffin to the Port Tampa Bay governing board in response to the wasteful spending scandal. In a press release from the governor’s office, Scott made it clear that Griffin was appointed with the understanding that the wasteful spending by Anderson and his team would be thoroughly examined.
“Mike has committed to conduct a full analysis of prior and future expenditures by the Port…” the statement from Scott reads.
But Port Tampa Bay board members have indicated they believe the audit should be forward looking, and say the audit was ordered solely for the purpose of ensuring compliance with new procedures put in place after the spending scandal became public. They point to the port’s recent growth in revenues as evidence that Anderson’s leadership is working.
“The Port Tampa Bay Board of Commissioners, including our recently Governor-appointed Commissioner Mike Griffin, unanimously approved new expense policies and enhanced levels of departmental transparency guidelines in August,” said PTB board chairman Stephen Swindal. “We are in lockstep with Port Tampa Bay’s CEO as he provides everything requested for an external audit. We are all focused on moving forward with the business of doing business.”
“We’re looking forward and not behind. We’re excited about our success, and pleased with our new policies. We have checks and balances in place to make sure expenses are being monitored,” said Samara Sodos, Port Tampa Bay Director of Public Relations.
But critics say that amounts to little more than the board sweeping Anderson’s wasteful spending under the rug. They point out that the spending sprees had no measurable return on investment. Instead, they say, state and federal grants worth millions of dollars have enabled the port to expand operations with new equipment, including gantry cranes and cold storage facilities. The new infrastructure, largely funded by Florida taxpayers, is what has led to Port Tampa Bay’s recent growth in revenue, they say.
Anderson was named CEO of Port Tampa Bay in late 2012, and took over the following year. Prior to his arrival, promotional spending at the port averaged less than $300,000 per year. But within the first two years of his arrival, the amount of money spent on “promotional” activities exploded to more than $1.3 million. That led to an investigation by Tampa’s ABC Action News, which uncovered more than $800,000 in charges by Anderson and his top staff, including $44,000 spent at Amalie Arena, where the Tampa Bay Lightning play, and $30,000 spent on golf club memberships and rounds of golf. Premium liquor, dinners at expensive restaurants, and other questionable expenses also came to light.
Then in January, Anderson authorized an expenditure of $100,000 to purchase a sponsorship package at the 2017 NCAA Football National Championship. Port executives received dozens of passes, but could not account for who used the tickets. Sources and photographs obtained by The Capitolist confirm that some of the tickets and event passes were given to friends of Anderson, rather than given to potential clients who might bring in additional business for the port.
Port Tampa Bay receives millions of tax dollars in federal and state grants every year, and is expected to spend those dollars on capital projects and infrastructure. Ethics experts say its impossible for a quasi-public entity like the port – which also generates private revenues – to distinguish between how public and private funds are spent. When public funds are involved, the rules for organizations change.
“The public should rightly question whether that money could have been used to offset other costs that are currently being paid for with taxpayer funds,” says Ben Wilcox, a research director with Integrity Florida. “It’s not ethical to use public funds for operating expenses and private funds for perks and special benefits for port executives.”