TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Three years after what a grand jury called a flagrantly illegal $2 million tree giveaway to a well-connected Panhandle billboard company, the Florida Department of Transportation settled for pennies on the dollar.
The state agreed to accept just $100,000, although $90,000 of that is yet to be collected. The payments will be made interest-free over the next five years.
Despite agreeing to take just 5 percent of the value of the 2,132 state-owned trees that were illegally removed, the department says the agreement is a good deal for taxpayers.
"The department analyzed all factors in the case and determined the settlement was in the best interest of the public," wrote department spokesman Dick Kane, who ignored specific questions sent by the Times-Union.
The issue emerged after a Times-Union investigation found, among other things, Milton-based Salter Advertising received permits to cut the trees without submitting required documents to show how they would replace the trees, pay costly mitigation fees, turn over an estimated $4 million in older, nonconforming billboards or pay fines it should have incurred after the trees were cut.
The giveaway was aided by former House member Greg Evers, R-Crestview, now a member of the state Senate, and then-Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos, now Clay County's manager. A grand jury determined the permits were doled out "in flagrant violation of the law."
The Times-Union found the department withheld emails from public records requests filed by reporters and conservation groups. In addition, Salter gave the National Rifle Association a break on 32 billboards that carried Evers' image.
As part of the deal, the NRA - which considered Evers' re-election bid a "top priority" - saved nearly $125,000.
Evers, who went to high school with Salter's general manager, was "actively advocating on behalf or Salter Advertising," the January 2012 grand jury report read.
It recommended the transportation department demand between $1 million and $4 million in mitigation fees from Salter and require that the company turn over the 56 nonconforming signs. The grand jury did not require department to act, but only made recommendations.
A March 2012 "tree removal evaluation and appraisal report" commissioned by the department found "mitigation value for all trees cut, was determined to be $1,915,259." The report, which cost taxpayers an additional $17,644, was compiled by Tallahassee-based firm Wood + Partners.
State Attorney Willie Meggs never brought charges because "you can't indict an entire state agency."
In July, that same agency quietly reached a settlement with Salter requiring the company to pay a $100,000 fine. Under the agreement, the company has already paid $10,000 and will make interest-free payments of $18,000 annually over the next five years.
Reached Friday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said he was "aware" of the settlement but had no comment. Scott oversees the department, including Transportation Secretary Annath Prasad, his appointee.
"It happened because two sweethearts sat down in private and agreed on something to just make this all go away," said Rip Caleen, a board member with Citizens for a Scenic Florida. "It's a drop in the bucket."
The agreement also required Salter hand over 35 billboards "non-conforming billboards." Under Florida law, in order to get a new permit, a company has to give up a sign erected prior to 1996. The settlement did not require the company admit wrongdoing.
An internal company document defended the settlement this way: It "furthers the statutory intent to improve the appearance of Florida's highways."
After story was made public, the transportation department made changes to its outdoor advertising section. It "conducted training following these matters and has centralized the function of vegetation management permitting," read the department document.
When approached in his Tallahassee office last week, Evers said he had not heard about the settlement, and needed time to review it before commenting. On Friday, a spokesman sent the Times-Union this statement from Evers: "I can't really comment because I am not aware of how the department arrived at that amount. I do not know the terms or conditions of the settlement other than what has been reported."
The final settlement came after the department backed away from a tougher proposal.
In a strongly worded February 2012 letter penned by Assistant Secretary for Engineering and Operations Bran Blanchard, the department made its "demands" of Salter, which included giving up 54 nonconforming signs and paying a $110,000 fine.
The initial plan also required the company submit what would have been costly mitigation plans for the 61 sites identified in the report. That requirement was dropped under the final settlement.
Kane did not answer questions about why the department backed off the tougher settlement agreement.
No matter what the reason, Caleen said the damage has been done.
"The trees are gone," he said, "and they were taken illegally."
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com
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