Environment

New DEP secretary says there’s no conflict in political side businesses

Noah Valenstein was appointed secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday.
Noah Valenstein was appointed secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday. Courtesy of the Florida governor’s office

When Noah Valenstein, the newly appointed head of the Department of Environmental Protection, was applying in April to be the state’s top environmental regulator, he left one thing off the application: Companies he started and his wife runs have been paid nearly $1 million by politicians and lobbying groups, many of whom sought to influence the administration’s policy or advance the governor’s political fortunes.

Valenstein, the current executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District, was appointed DEP secretary Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet. He was hired by Scott in December 2012 as the governor’s policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment and worked in that position until he left for the water management district — its board is appointed by Scott — in October 2015. He took a three-month leave of absence in 2014 to advise Scott’s re-election campaign.

Before he joined the governor’s office, Valenstein was director of legislative affairs for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation from August 2011 until December 2012.

But while Valenstein was holding each of these policy jobs, his wife was also operating two political consulting and polling companies that Valenstein started: Campaign Facts, LLC, and Voter Opinions, LLC. Each catered exclusively to Republican candidates, advocacy groups and political committees.

Valenstein started Campaign Facts in June 2010 and Voter Opinions in July 2011 and, as president of the companies, “managed all aspects of the company, including staff and budget,” according to an old résumé posted on the website of a nonprofit environmental group. The companies also “provided polling services to local, state, and congressional candidates within Florida” and “fast, accurate, and discrete polling services to political campaigns,” the résumé said.

But the week before Valenstein started with the governor’s office in December 2012, he named his wife, Jennifer Barnhill Valenstein, the registered agent for both firms and removed himself from the corporate paperwork. The companies continued to operate and, between June 2010 and April 2017, they received $942,117 in payments for political consulting, legal and polling work.

The largest client was the Republican Party of Florida, which paid the companies more than $557,000 from 2010 to 2016, according to campaign expenditure records filed with the Florida Division of Elections. Other clients include political committees run by the state House Republican Campaign Committee, the Florida Medical Association, Associated Industries of Florida, former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and then-state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a U.S. congressman and the son of former state Senate President Don Gaetz.

In a statement to the Herald/Times, Valenstein said he has removed himself from the businesses, but he would not explain how he distances himself from the special interests that contribute heavily to the party, candidates and political committees that hire the companies.

“When I began my job as Policy Coordinator at the Governor’s Office in 2012, I immediately removed myself from all aspects of these businesses,” Valenstein’s statement said. “As Secretary of DEP, I will continue to remain independent of these matters, and I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest.”

Valenstein lists the companies on his LinkedIn profile but did not include them in his application for the DEP job. In his last statement of financial interests filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics in 2014, he reported no income from the companies, although elections records show they were paid $219,365 in that year.

None of this came up during the vote of the Republican-controlled Cabinet on Tuesday as it unanimously approved Valenstein to take over the job on June 5, replacing former Secretary Jon Steverson who left in February. Steverson went to work for Foley & Lardner, a legal and lobbying firm that had done business with DEP.

Valenstein, a lawyer, told the Cabinet he worked in the private sector but did not explain how he navigates his public sector role with his private sector business or how he avoids creating a conflict of interest. His appointment was lauded by environmental groups.

One of Valenstein’s more contentious actions as head of the Suwannee River Water Management District came last summer when the district consented to allow Sabal Trail to lay a natural gas pipeline through an environmentally sensitive conservation area. Reporting by the Florida Bulldog has revealed that Scott owned a stake in Spectra Energy, the Houston company chosen by Florida Power & Light to build and operate the $3 billion pipeline that the district approved.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment about whether Valenstein’s consulting companies were discussed as part of the vetting process.

Read more: Department of Environmental Protection secretary Jon Steverson resigns

Valenstein, a native of Alachua County, was the only candidate of the more than 140 applicants to be interviewed for the job that pays $150,000 a year. Scott commended him for being “very passionate about the environment, and he also works well with others.”

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a candidate for governor, called Valenstein an “outstanding candidate.”

“You’ve had an opportunity to be tested in your management, collaboration and leadership skills,” Putnam said.

Environmental groups, many of whom sparred vigorously with Steverson over land acquisition and management practices, as well as water policy and quality protections, said they were encouraged by the selection of Valenstein.

Anna Upton of the Everglades Foundation told reporters that Valenstein was an outstanding choice. “He knows how the state and federal government have to work together as a partnership to advance Everglades restoration,” she said. “He’s shown that he can effectively manage a state agency that’s funded with taxpayer dollars. He’s responsible, dedicated, and he’s a proven public servant.”

While Valenstein was working for the Everglades Foundation, he was expanding his political consulting reach, starting Voter Opinions in July 2011. The Everglades Foundation would not comment on Valenstein’s business decisions.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, commended the governor and Cabinet for the appointment of Valenstein, whom he credits with being the architect of Scott’s environmental platform in his 2014 campaign.

“He burnished the governor’s environmental credentials in 2014 and skillfully selected a set of issues for the governor to take stands on: springs, committing to Amendment 1 funding and Florida Forever,” he said.

But Draper told the Herald/Times that while he was aware that Valenstein has been a political consultant, “that’s part of his DNA,” he was not aware of his outside consulting businesses.

“I think that Noah is obligated to answer the question and make it clear his wife’s business doesn’t create conflict,” he said.

Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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