Sunday, March 5, 2017
Orlando airport contractors helped fund board member's campaign
By Beth Kassab
The Orlando (FL) Sentinel
Dozens of businesses and lobbyists who compete for contracts at Orlando International contributed nearly $100,000 to help fund the political aspirations of Dean Asher, a member of the board that oversees the airport, Orlando Sentinel research shows.
Just weeks before Election Day, Asher, then a candidate for state Senate, accepted a $1,000 campaign check from a company called HMSHost, which was seeking a major contract extension for the restaurants it runs at the airport.
Then, the month after the Nov. 8 election when Asher lost to Linda Stewart, he voted to approve a five-year extension for HMSHost valued at more than $70 million.
Asher, who was first appointed to the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, said airport business wasn’t a factor in the political contributions he received and that many of the people who gave are personal friends he’s known as a lifelong resident of Orlando.
“Nobody said to me, ‘I’m giving this check to you because I want business at the airport,’” said Asher, a Realtor. “If you look at Mayor [Buddy] Dyer or Mayor [Teresa] Jacobs’ contributions, you’re going to see the same people.”
Accepting political donations from airport contractors is perfectly legal. State statutes do not prohibit board members from accepting contributions from people who do business with the board.
Neither does airport policy. Board members rejected a proposal from Jacobs a few years ago to curb political activity.
But the appearance of aviation board members collecting donations from contractors raises questions, said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
“For someone to use their public position and accept campaign contributions from people who would like to influence the decisions that board is making, that doesn’t look good to the public,” he said. “If people are looking to secure an advantage on getting a contract, they can make an investment in campaign contributions.”
Asher collected about $96,000 from people or companies with ties to the airport or their lobbyists, according to a Sentinel analysis of more than 960 contributions totaling $732,000 to his campaign fund and his political action committee between 2014 and 2016. That represents about 13 percent of the amount he collected.
A review of the most recent campaigns of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who also serve on the aviation authority board, showed that they also collected money from people and companies connected to Orlando International or Orlando Executive airports.
Jacobs took in at least $38,000 from companies and lobbyists linked to the airport when she ran unopposed for county mayor in 2014 and raised about $650,000.
Dyer raised at least $45,000 from such people and companies when he collected $614,000 during his race in 2015.
Jacobs suggested there is a need for greater transparency, perhaps by requiring vendors to disclose campaign contributions to the aviation authority much the way the airport requires lobbyists to disclose when they meet with authority members.
“It’s something I would like to see at every one of the advisory boards,” she said.
The donations came as vendors jockeyed for a slice of the airport’s planned $3 billion expansion.
Host, for example, gave only one other statewide political contribution in Florida during 2016: $10,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political action committee Nov. 30.
Similarly, Orlando-based Johnson-Laux Construction, which boasts of its work for the airport in a testimonial on the company’s web site, gave Asher and his political committee $5,500 — its only contributions to a state candidate in 2015 and 2016. The firm’s vice president contributed $1,000 in 2015, his sole contribution for a state office that year.
And Sheltair, a company expanding its operations at Orlando Executive Airport, gave Asher $14,000 through its affiliated companies.
He campaigned for two years while on the aviation authority board but since he lost the state Senate seat, he would like to serve another term on the volunteer airport board. Three governor-appointed seats on the board are open this year.
Contractors who talked to the Sentinel said they gave to Asher because he is a friend or because they thought he would make a good senator.
Leila Nodarse, an executive with the engineering firm Terracon, which has worked on a number of airport projects and is on the list of pre-approved contractors for the new south terminal transportation complex, said her $250 contribution came about after a friend invited her to a fundraiser for Asher.
“He’s a personal friend of a personal friend,” she said. “It has nothing to do with work.”
Genean McKinnon, a lobbyist who represents HMSHost, said she gave because she is a Republican and so is Asher.
McKinnon, who represents a number of companies at the airport, and her husband gave Asher $1,500 between 2015 and 2016, including $500 on the same day HMSHost gave Asher $1,000.
“I was drawn to Dean because I know his business philosophy and I know his work in the community,” she said.
Derryl Benton, an employee of HMSHost, gave Asher’s campaign $500 Nov. 2, six days before Election Day. Reached by the Sentinel, Benton referred questions to a HMSHost spokeswoman. The spokeswoman did not comment.
The aviation authority approved the extended contract for HMSHost on Dec. 14, a year after Chairman Frank Kruppenbacher said he would insist that the restaurant service agreement be opened up for competitive bidding. The vote for the extension was unanimous among the four of seven board members present, including Asher, Kruppenbacher and Dyer.
Kruppenbacher said he changed his mind because airport staff is busy with the major expansion underway and more money from extended contracts would help the aviation authority stretch every dollar during the period of intense construction. He said HMSHost wasn’t singled out for an extended deal. Similar options were made available to a number of airport vendors.
But he also acknowledged the optics of campaign donations timed near the deal are bad.
“I think it’s fair to say people have the right to donate however they want,” he said. “Can it create the appearance that something is inappropriate? Certainly, it can create that appearance. To say that it doesn’t is to be intellectually dishonest.”
Asher said he hired a fundraiser to solicit money for his campaign and was unaware of the timing of the HMSHost contribution and the contract extension.
“When you hire a fundraiser, they’ll go out and raise money and it’s the same people you see on a lot of [candidates’] reports,” he said. “I’m only one vote out of seven people [on the aviation authority] … I have no power.”
Asher said the $14,000 he received from companies affiliated with Sheltair was separate from his role at the airport.
He and a Sheltair executive serve on an aviation authority subcommittee together that oversees the smaller airport that caters to private planes. The company, which hired Johnson-Laux to build two new hangars under construction now, hosted Asher’s Election Night party inside one of its hangars.
“The owner of Sheltair is a very progressive fundraiser for the Republican Party,” Asher said. “There was no vote I was ever involved in where we voted on what they can or can’t build.”
Todd Anderson, a senior vice president for Sheltair, said he knows Asher through his real estate connections and wanted to help his campaign because Asher has been “very supportive of economic development in real estate.”
Asher said he did not approach contractors for donations and that some local companies likely gave to his campaign because he was endorsed by the Associated Builders and Contractors, a group of trade and construction firms.
Mark Wylie, who leads the local builders and contractors chapter, helped host a Sept. 28 fundraiser for Asher along with others, including an executive at Bags Inc., an airport vendor.
Asher received checks on or around that date from other companies that do work at the airport such 3E Consultants, Cemex and the company that operates rental car brands Alamo, Enterprise and National.
“I’m a pretty ethical guy,” he said. “Everything I do is by the book.”
One person with an airport vendor who did not want to be identified because that person wasn’t authorized to talk said the vendor was approached for contributions.
“The system is sort of tailor-made for that kind of activity to be not just acceptable, but common place,” the person said. “There’s a lot of power in those seats and how those votes go.”
Two years ago, when the Sentinel first reported that Asher was raising contributions from airport contractors, Jacobs asked airport board attorney Marcos Marchena to review the airport’s fund-raising guidelines.
He said he brought up Jacobs’ suggestion to discuss the airport’s policy on political contributions, but there wasn’t support for such a change on the board at that time.
Marchena, who earns between $200 and $315 per hour for work his firm does for the airport, and his law partner have donated more than $2,500 to Asher’s campaign. He also gave at least $1,000 to Dyer in 2015 and $1,500 to Jacobs in 2013.
“As a Cuban refugee who left Cuba to escape a totalitarian regime, I proudly exercise my right to participate in our representative democracy,” Marchena said in an e-mail.
Kruppenbacher said he still doesn’t want to impose stricter campaign fundraising rules at the airport than what is enforced at other government boards.
“I’m not going to put us in a position where there are standards that don’t exist anywhere else and then all of a sudden you’ve got a lot of good people inadvertently messing up,” Kruppenbacher said.
Dyer said he’s not in favor of stricter rules because candidates are already required to report who gives to campaigns, which means the information is available to anyone who takes the time to look. And, he said, airport staff serves as a check on the competitive contract process because it’s staff, not board members, who evaluate individual bids for jobs.
Asher said he would be open to discussing the policy and whether any changes are needed.