Florida’s new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Noah Valenstein, flatly denied this week he had any role in the political consulting and polling businesses he turned over to his wife when he came to work for the governor in 2012.
But the company website on Thursday still listed his personal phone number as the contact. It was the same phone number Valenstein used on his application for the DEP job.
“Thank you for raising this issue to my attention,” Valenstein said in an email to the Herald/Times. “I have asked my wife to immediately remove my cellphone number from her company’s website. Upon entering public service in 2012, I removed myself from the business and my wife has owned and operated it since. I was not aware my cellphone number remained on her website and neither was she.”
The companies, Voter Opinions LLC and Campaign Facts LLC (with website Facts2Win.com), are income-producing businesses for Jennifer Valenstein. Started by Noah Valenstein in 2010 out of their Tallahassee home, the companies have been paid nearly $1 million by candidates and political committees.
When Noah Valenstein was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as his policy coordinator for energy, agriculture and the environment in December 2012, Valenstein revised the paperwork to make Jennifer the registered agent. Both are lawyers.
Since then, the company has continued to operate, serving legislative campaigns and the political committees of groups that do business with the governor, his agencies or want to advance his fortunes.
Committees that have hired Valenstein’s companies include those run by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate President Joe Negron, the business lobbyist groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the House Republican Campaign Committee, Sens. Wilton Simpson and Kathleen Passidomo, former Sens. John Thrasher and Frank Artiles, former House Speakers Steve Crisafulli and Will Weatherford, the Florida Medical Association, several current House members, and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, now a congressman.
Although the committees must disclose when they hire a company and why — the reasons listed include polling, political consulting and legal services — the companies have no obligation to show who it contracts with to do the work, allowing the transactions to move underground and shield from disclosure the beneficiaries of the transaction.
Valenstein did not respond to questions about whether he has received any inquiries to his personal cellphone based on the number on the website and, if so, how he handled that.
“I will take every precaution to avoid any potential conflicts of interest,” he said in a statement.
Despite his statements, the perception of conflict persists, said Ben Wilcox, the research director for Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog.
“While it may not technically be a conflict of interest if his wife runs the company, staff is aware and people doing business with the agency are aware and it still can have an impact on decisions made by the agency,” Wilcox said. “Even the perception of conflict is what damages public perception.”
Valenstein was asked how he would handle it if a company seeking a permit application from DEP hires Associated Industries of Florida, or another advocacy organization, who then hires Voter Opinions or Campaign Facts to do polling or consulting work and the AIF lobbyist mentions the transaction as part of a conversation about the permit with Valenstein or his staff.
“I am honored by this appointment and take it very seriously,” he responded. “I will take every action available to me to ensure there is no conflict with my wife’s business. I am reviewing all policies and procedures to ensure that my wife’s business does not cause any issue.”
Valenstein would not elaborate further.
Wilcox said that complying with the state’s conflict of interest laws often does not remedy the situation. He said he was not aware of any remedy for avoiding the conflict short of “distancing himself completely or closing the business.”
Valenstein did not include mention of the businesses when he applied to be DEP secretary in April. Scott was not aware of Valenstein’s business when his staff interviewed him, said McKinley Lewis, a Scott spokesman.
The governor and Cabinet unanimously approved Valenstein to be the new secretary of DEP on Tuesday, replacing Jon Steverson who left in February. Steverson went to work for Foley & Lardner, a legal and lobbying firm that had done business with DEP.
None of the Cabinet officials — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater or Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — responded to requests for comment about Valenstein’s businesses and whether they were aware of them during the vetting process.