Though not widely noticed until the Tampa Bay Business Journal broke the story yesterday, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran fired a letter last month to Port Tampa Bay officials letting them know that Corcoran intended to make good on his promise to investigate the group’s expense account scandal implicating top port executives – including CEO Paul Anderson. The letter, sent on September 19th, but only reported publicly yesterday, is widely seen as more evidence that Corcoran fully intends to position himself politically as a watchdog of taxpayer dollars.
Because Port Tampa Bay receives state and federal grants that are funded by taxpayers, the scandal is perfectly tailored as a low-risk, high-reward issue for Corcoran to exploit going into the 2018 election cycle, in which he is widely expected to enter the race for governor. This past summer, ABC Action News uncovered the scandal, exposing eye-popping reimbursements to Anderson and his top staffers for premium liquor and bottles of expensive wine, cigars, lavish dinners, tickets to premium sporting events, and golf outings at exclusive clubs.
Despite persistent rumors that Governor Rick Scott would prefer Anderson walk the plank, the Port Tampa Bay Board of Directors has thus far declined to fire him. Scott cannot do so directly. But with Anderson clinging to his job, he presents the powerful House Speaker with a lucrative political target to vilify in the media as the start to the 2018 Legislative Session (and governor’s race) draws near.
In the letter, Corcoran asks for:
…all receipts, requests for reimbursement, and credit card statements incurred by port staffers for entertainment or marketing since June 28, 2013. That information includes club or association membership dues, meals, drinks, travel, lodging, greens fees, fishing, tickets to sporting events, concerts or other live performances, car or boat rentals, gas and more, including travel itineraries and the purpose of the trips for the period between Jan. 1, 2013 and June 30, 2017.
Anderson, well aware he’s become a political football, recently hired a former Tampa-area TV reporter as an internal public relations specialist to help him play defense, pinning his reputation, and that of the Port Tampa Bay Board, on the mantra that new reforms put in place after the scandal will be the antidote to ward off further bad publicity.
“We’re complying with Speaker’s request and welcome the opportunity to tell our story: we’re lowering our debt, increasing our revenues, and expanding the Port’s infrastructure,” said Samara Sodos, Anderson’s hired PR gun.
But that line of defense merely served as the jumping off point for Corcoran’s coming onslaught, an open door through which Corcoran can launch a wealth of pithy sound bites about accountability, all set against the backdrop of Anderson’s spending sprees.
“As a tax-funded entity, Port Tampa Bay is accountable to the public for how it spends its funds,” Corcoran wrote in the letter. “While Port Tampa Bay now has adopted new policies in an effort to rein in that spending, the House seeks to understand how the new policies will adequately prevent inappropriate and wasteful expenditures going forward.”
Anderson will undoubtedly tout his “new policies,” but the real pain for him and the Port Tampa Bay board will come when he’s also taken to task for why the changes were necessary in the first place. It’s the kind of public thrashing that most political candidates can only dream about.