Op-Ed

Scores of applicants;one has it in the bag

This is what more than 140 people feeling like a penny waiting for change looks like.

But then again this is Tallahassee, which is an old Seminole word for “public trough,” where bonds of friendship wrapped in cronyism is how business is conducted.

Last February, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson resigned to take a job with the Foley & Lardner law firm. It was a great fit for Steverson since Foley & Lardner often lobbies DEP. And who can deny running the agency that regulates the Florida environment didn’t provide some swell on-the-job training to become a lobbyist?

More than 140 people applied for the DEP gig. Presumably, many of them had considerable experience in the environment game. There had to be some scientists, perhaps, and maybe a few with prior regulatory experience.

But none of them even received an invitation to interview for the job — with one, just one, exception.

Noah Valenstein obviously loomed head and shoulders above all the other 140-plus candidates to run DEP. Why this chap must be such a towering figure in the world of environmental protection he makes Al Gore look like a walking coal mine.

Well, Valenstein does ascend to the DEP post from his job as the executive director of the Suwannee River Water Management District. And he has advised Gov. Rick Scott on energy, agriculture and the environment. But, then again, advising a climate change-denying governor on the environment has to be like trying to educate the Three Stooges on diplomatic protocol.

And it is true Valenstein also once worked for the Everglades Foundation. So on paper at least, you could make an argument Valenstein certainly deserved to be among the finalists for consideration to take over DEP.

And that’s the problem. It’s what wasn’t on paper that should raise a few concerns.

The Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau’s Mary Ellen Klas has reported that Valenstein conveniently left a few items off his application to head the DEP. Minor, little things like the companies he and his wife, Jennifer Barnhill Valenstein, created that were paid nearly $1 million by numerous Republican pols and lobbying groups seeking to influence Scott.

The Valensteins’ consulting and polling companies worked exclusively for Republican entities, and received $557,000 alone from the Republican Party of Florida between 2010 and 2016. Klas reported that the couple also did work for the Florida Medical Association, Associated Industries of Florida, former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and former state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is now a member of Congress.

You might say Mr. and Mrs. Valenstein are more wired than the International Space Station.

Now to you, you poor, innocent, naive gullible lamb, at first blush it might seem Noah Valenstein might have just a pinch of a conflict of interest problem. But you, dearest reader, are woefully unfamiliar with the mores and customs of Tallahassee.

Tut-tut, Valenstein explained to Klas, there is absolutely no conflict of interest between his DEP job and the work he and his wife performed for a broad range of Tallahassee political interests because he had removed himself from all the businesses and turned everything over to his wife.

And thus, while the companies he founded were included in his LinkedIn profile, they were not included in his DEP application. And though Valenstein did not declare any income from the companies on a Florida Commission on Ethics form in 2014, elections records show the couple were paid $219,365 for that year.

But that’s not Valenstein’s only potential conflict of interest issue. During his time as the head of the Suwannee River Management District last year, Klas reported, the agency approved the construction of a natural gas pipeline through an environmentally sensitive conservation area. The Florida Bulldog reported that the contract for the work went to Spectra Energy, in which Scott owns a stake. Nothing to see here.

You’ll hardly be stunned to know the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously to approve Valenstein’s DEP appointment. And why not? As Scott himself noted, Valenstein had proven he is “very passionate about the environment and he works well with others.” Yes he does.

Perhaps Noah Valenstein will turn out to be a splendid head of the DEP. But it certainly looks, with none of the other 140-plus candidates even considered for an interview — and that the job was open to a Tallahassee insider from the very beginning.

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

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