Gov. Rick Scott, state officials, use Canadian firm to attract jobs to Florida

Gov. Rick Scott and the state hired a Canadian company to persuade Pennsylvania companies to bring jobs to Florida, contradicting the ‘Think Florida’ policy at the state’s economic development agency.

Scott’s 36-hour jaunt to Philadelphia in February cost more than $43,000. Taxpayers paid about $10,000 and the rest was paid by private donations to Enterprise Florida, a public-private entity chaired by Scott that promotes economic development.

The trip’s single biggest expense was a payment of $16,500 to Research on Investment (ROI), based in Quebec. Retained by Enterprise Florida, the firm built leads and set up meetings with at least eight Pennsylvania companies that make medical devices, handle port cargo, manage fleets and run convenience stores.

“We already have a contract with them. They are our arm in Canada,” said Enterprise Florida Senior Vice President Melissa Medley, noting that ROI has offices in the U.S. “It makes perfect sense to use them for this service.”

However, the use of ROI contradicts a policy directive by Enterprise Florida’s own chief executive, Bill Johnson, who took office after ROI was retained for the Pennsylvania work.

On his first day on the job, in a March 2 memo to employees, Johnson wrote: “It will also be a priority that we ‘Think Florida’ when conducting EFI business. Our state has much to offer and we should always look in our own backyard first when procuring goods and services for EFI projects and activities.”

In a statement, Johnson said Thursday: “No one other than myself can authorize a firm unless it’s a Florida-based product. We need to understand and respect the businesses that are in Florida.”

Enterprise Florida also got stuck with a $3,000 bill for 15 room nights that the state never used at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Philadelphia.

EFI, which paid the penalty with private funds, missed the cancellation date and received a bill for $3,075.98.

Medley noted that the Four Seasons charged a discounted room rate of $189 a night because Florida held a luncheon, banquet, reception and business meetings at the same hotel. The charges included $75 a bottle for Castle Rock pinot noir wine.

Medley said the reason for the room-rate penalty was that Scott’s party changed its travel plans. She referred questions to the governor’s office.

Scott’s chief spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said: “Our office searches for cheaper rooms for EFI events.”

Scott’s staff members stayed at an Embassy Suites hotel for $139 a night.

The governor brought an entourage of 15 people to Pennsylvania on Feb. 22. They included the heads of three agencies and Scott’s chief of staff, communications director, travel aide and a videographer who works in the governor’s office and is paid $50,000 a year.

Enterprise Florida produced travel and expense records that totaled about $37,000.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said its security and lodging for the trip cost $4,400. Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart’s travel cost $1,261 and Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Jesse Panuccio’s travel cost $1,053.

Scott got a burst of positive publicity on Philadelphia TV stations, which Medley said was part of ROI’s duties, and he accepted an award from the chief executive of the Wawa convenience store chain.

Wawa opened a new store Thursday in Fort Myers at a ceremony that Scott attended.

Wawa currently has 65 stores in Florida and hopes to reach 100 locations by next year. The company pays entry-level workers between $8 and $13 per hour, according to the web site payscale.com.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.