POLITICS

Gov. Scott backs project with ties to his top aide

 

Associated Press

The $200 million that Florida Gov. Rick Scott pledged to put toward a train depot at Orlando’s busy international airport also will benefit a company that previously employed the governor’s chief of staff.

Text messages obtained by The Associated Press show chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth discussed the rail project with a top aide in the Scott administration while he was still working for Flagler Development Group and Parallel Infrastructure.

Both companies are connected to the company building All Aboard Florida, a private passenger line that would link central and South Florida. All Aboard Florida stands to get a significant boost from the airport depot.

Monica Russell, a spokeswoman for the Scott administration, said this week that Hollingsworth never discussed the $200 million spending request with the governor. Russell said Hollingsworth didn’t even see the press release announcing Scott’s support for the depot.

Florida Department of Transportation officials also maintain that Hollingsworth, who has been Scott’s chief of staff since July 2012, was not involved in any discussions about the project.

Three years ago, Scott scuttled a planned high-speed rail line linking Orlando and Tampa after he rejected billions in federal aid awarded to the state. He said the project was too risky and predicted the state would wind up subsidizing the project because ridership and revenue projections were “overly optimistic.”

Scott told the AP on Thursday that the request from the airport “made sense” because Orlando is growing and because he wants to attract more tourists to the state. He did not answer when asked if he had spoken to Hollingsworth about the project.

Florida East Coast Industries announced in March 2012 that it would spend $1 billion to build the All Aboard Florida line by combining 200 miles of existing tracks and 40 miles of new track between Miami and Orlando.

At the time, Hollingsworth worked as CEO of Parallel Infrastructure, a subsidiary of Florida East Coast Industries. On his job application with the state, Hollingsworth said he was responsible for helping with sales, marketing and “growing the business into new markets.”

Hollingsworth stepped in as chief of staff after Steve MacNamara abruptly resigned following a series of news stories detailing his job performance and handling of contracts. Hollingsworth, who spent time as chief of staff for then-Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton, had ties to Scott’s campaign manager and had worked previously for the railroad company CSX.

Hollingsworth, who worked on Scott’s transition team in late 2010, exchanged several text messages with Scott’s deputy chief of staff shortly before the All Aboard Florida project was publicly announced. Hours before the release came out he texted Carrie O’Rourke and told her she would get a copy of it in advance. “If you see any hiccups, let me know,” Hollingsworth texted. “Thanks for all your help.”

Last year, All Aboard Florida reached an agreement with Orlando International Airport to develop its central Florida rail station at the depot the airport wants to build south of the main terminal. The nearly $700 million project includes a people mover that will shuttle passengers between the rail station and the airport.

The airport authority last year requested that the state pay for 30 percent of the cost of the project.

The current state budget includes $15 million for design costs. But Scott wants state legislators to set aside another $200 million over the next two years to pay for construction costs.

Rosalie Hagel, a spokeswoman with All Aboard Florida, said that while the rail line discussed the depot project with the state, the conversations were limited to financial transactions with the airport authority.

The All Aboard Florida issue marks the second time Hollingsworth’s prior ties to a railroad company have surfaced while serving as Scott’s chief of staff.

Last December Hollingsworth admitted he had misled people about receiving a degree from the University of Alabama. He put out a statement apologizing for “misrepresentation.”

The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times reported that when Hollingsworth worked for CSX Corp., the company twice put out news releases saying he had a degree in communications. But Hollingsworth did not receive his degree until 2009.

The newspapers reported that on Hollingsworth’s application with the city of Jacksonville in 2004 and on a previous application in 1994, Hollingsworth answered truthfully.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com.fineout

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