9 Investigates Enterprise Florida financial awards

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. —

Each year, Enterprise Florida – a public-private partnership focused on economic development – awards millions of tax dollars to companies to encourage growth. But 9 Investigates found big chunks of that money are going to companies whose leaders sit on Enterprise's board of directors.

One example is the Harris Corporation, which operates out of Melbourne. It creates high-tech electronics and employs thousands of people. Last year, Enterprise awarded Harris as much as $4.5 million in tax incentives to create 100 new jobs. At the same time, its vice president, Jeff Shuman, sat on Enterprise's board of directors – a coveted seat his company donated $50,000 for.

"This certainly has the appearance of 'pay to play' at Enterprise Florida," said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida.

The practice is not illegal, but Krassner said it doesn't pass the smell test.

You can think of critics' allegations as a circle: High-powered companies donate $50,000 to Enterprise -- it's the expected "investment" from board members. Then, Enterprise awards millions in tax dollars to some of those same companies to create jobs.

According to Krassner's report, Lockheed Martin contributed its $50,000, and Enterprise staffers awarded it at least $1.7 million in incentives. Publix contributed the same amount and was awarded at least $1.4 million. Darden contributed, and its subsidiaries were awarded $620,000.

"The Enterprise Florida price tag of $50,000 for a board seat says, 'Small business owners are not welcome,'" said Krassner.

But Enterprise said there is no connection. In a response to Krassner's allegations, it wrote, "[The] board of directors has no role in evaluating, approving or granting incentives of any kind…[such decisions] are based on economic benefit…"

Even though Enterprise staffers negotiate the incentive deals, final approval comes from the Department of Economic Opportunity. In many cases, a large number of jobs are retained in addition to the new ones created.

Enterprise defenders also note that the Integrity Florida report was partially sponsored by a controversial, highly conservative political committee, Americans for Prosperity.

READ: Enterprise Florida response to 9 Investigates