Florida House speaker tied to Citizens contractor

 
 
Will Weatherford, Florida House speaker.
Will Weatherford, Florida House speaker.
Steve Cannon / Associated Press

Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

State House Speaker Will Weatherford is a founding member and former director of a Texas company that since 2008 has received $826,676 from Florida’s state-run insurance company, according to records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Weatherford, a Republican who represents Wesley Chapel, has never disclosed his and his wife Courtney’s relationship with Mt. Pleasant, Texas-based U.S. Cat Adjusters, which has been a contractor for Citizens Property Insurance for five years — while Weatherford was a member of the Florida House of Representatives.

Weatherford declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an emailed response to questions, the House speaker said he has made no money from his connection to U.S. Cat.

“Since the company’s inception, neither Courtney nor I have ever received a single dollar of income,” Weatherford wrote. He acknowledged that he was “listed” as a board member for several years.

Weatherford has not reported the relationship to U.S. Cat Adjusters on state financial disclosure forms.

“The question is, does Weatherford own stock in [U.S. Cat Adjusters]?” said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at the University of South Florida.

He doubted Weatherford’s claim of no interest.

“He would have to have an interest beyond sitting on the board. He’s not doing this as charity. What is being raised here is the possibility of a rather obscure but significant conflict of interest that would be hard to track and hard to know if there are violations of the spirit of the law.”

This isn’t the first time Weatherford has left questions about potential conflicts of interest unanswered, and U.S. Cat Adjusters isn’t the only company to which Weatherford has connections he won’t explain.

In July, The Tampa Bay Times outlined Weatherford’s recent financial disclosure, which reported $31,500 in income from Simpson Environmental Services, an asbestos removal company owned by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and $52,000 from Texas construction firm Diamond K.

Simpson Environmental Services earned $267,432 in state contracts between 2007 and 2012. Since February, Simpson has been retained for $520,000 worth of work, including $356,000 for three projects for the state Department of Transportation. Earlier this year, Weatherford told a reporter that he helps Simpson “develop private clients.”

Between 2007 and 2009, Weatherford listed Breckenridge Enterprises as his employer, telling The Times he believed it was Diamond K’s DBA. Weatherford later told the newspaper that Breckenridge is the payroll administrator for Diamond K, not one of his employers.

Questions in Texas

Weatherford is listed in U.S. Cat Adjusters’ formation documents in Texas as a managing member and director in 2006, the same year he was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

Although the company filed an amendment to its business records in 2007, reporting that Weatherford’s wife, Courtney, would replace him on the board, the Florida politico remained a board member in the company’s annual filings until 2010, when Courtney’s name replaced his, records show.

Weatherford’s office provided Courtney’s K-1 tax forms showing her with a 2.8 percent interest in U.S. Cat Adjusters beginning in 2006. She is not listed as a board member in documents filed with the secretary of state in Texas through 2009.

“This is not my investment,” Weatherford said in an email. “It is Courtney’s investment. I have no role with U.S. Cat.”

Courtney Weatherford, a former lobbyist, is the daughter of former House Speaker Allan Bense.

In its contract paperwork with the Citizens, U.S. Cat Adjusters declared that ownership of the company was split among three board members — board chair Stephanie Curtis and managing members J. Michael Nolan and Tommy King. The three own 94.4 percent of the company, according to the state contract. Ownership of the remaining 5.6 percent of the company’s stock is not disclosed.

As House speaker, Weatherford has great ability to influence the votes of lawmakers, as he has a say on coveted committee assignments and the chairs of those committees, which in turn propose and debate legislation and approve budgets.

Raising further questions, U.S. Cat Adjusters and the two companies The Tampa Bay Times examined share a corporate mailing address.

U.S. Cat lists the same rural address in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, with Diamond K and Spain-based engineering firm CYMI, which is a contractor on a $50 million private gas pipeline project for Florida Power and Light in Palm Beach County.

In addition to having the same the Texas address, according to records, the three companies are linked to Texas construction manager Tommy King, who did not return several calls.

King is also owner of T King Construction, a company registered in Florida that lists a principal address in Texas, the same as U.S. Cat Adjusters and Diamond K.

One explanation for why Weatherford has never disclosed his connection to U.S. Cat Adjusters could be because he isn’t required to disclose it.

State financial disclosure rules limit required disclosures to specified interests, including financial institutions, cemeteries, insurance companies — not adjusters — and utilities. There is also a general income minimum of $1,000 that business interests must reach for required disclosure.

Weatherford contacted House General Counsel Daniel Nordby Friday morning to ask if he was required to report his wife’s interest in U.S. Cat and was told he need not do so.

“As confirmed by the House General Counsel, I am not required to disclose a company my spouse has an interest in,” Weatherford said in an email.

Voting Record

Weatherford was a critic of the state’s plan to “depopulate” the roster of policy holders of Citizens Property Insurance, a plan that would send those policy holders to private agencies.

A different plan, which Weatherford voted for and was signed into law in May, potentially lessens the amount of money a contracted adjuster, such as U.S. Cat Adjuster, can make from work for Citizens Property Insurance.

“If they have a contract with Citizens, then a smaller Citizens would reduce that contract,” said Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a Washington, D.C.-based free market think tank. “Without knowing everything about it, that would appear to be a conflict, or at least something that should be looked into.”

Despite having an undisclosed relationship with an insurance adjuster, Weatherford is seen as friendly to the movement to resize Citizens Property Insurance, Lehrer said.

The confusing business and financial relationships of Weatherford raise questions about ethics disclosures in Florida.

Unless he is currently being paid as a board member of U.S. Cat Adjusters, Weatherford is within the law to keep his connection to the company a secret.

But do the state’s laws require enough disclosure?

“You can argue both ways,” said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer and expert on election and ethics laws. “But someone can choose to be fully transparent, or the law allows them to be less transparent.”

Michael Van Sickler of The Tampa Bay Times contributed to this report.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.

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