State Attorney tells Expressway Authority to delay hiring of director

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ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - State Attorney Jeff Ashton said leaders could have broken the law in the months leading up to their selecting a state lawmaker to run the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.

In a letter to the expressway authority, Ashton asked the board to hold off on officially hiring Steve Precourt as executive director until the State Attorney's Office has completed its investigation.

Ashton said he has questions about the events that led up to the board's decision to hire Precourt.

This could be the second time a grand jury will investigate the expressway authority.

The first time the authority was investigated a grand jury found what it called a "culture of corruption," but recommended no charges.

This time the Ashton said state transportation officials could also be involved.

The letter from Ashton that went out to the expressway authority Friday addresses phone and email records Ashton has gathered from the days leading up to the controversial "no confidence" vote by several board members cast against interim executive director Max Crumit.

In the letter Ashton said, "Those records raise in my mind a reasonable suspicion that Florida statutes may have been violated and that further investigation, which may involve the grand jury, is warranted."

Ashton said he perceives a "lack of candor and questionable lapses in memory" from some witnesses, which reinforce his suspicions.

"I agree with this, I felt this way a week ago. I think this would have been better handled if it had happened before the board took the vote," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.

Ten days ago Jacobs and board chairman Walter Ketcham, whose concerns started the State Attorney's investigation, voted against hiring Precourt to run the agency.

Precourt does not meet the minimum requirements advertised for the executive director position, but three other board members -- Scott Batterson, Marco Pena and Florida Department of Transportation District Secretary Noranne Downs -- cast the majority vote to hire Precourt anyway.

A few seconds after the selection of Precourt, Batterson moved to pay Precourt at least $200,000 a year.

The agency's tentative deal sets Precourt's salary at $185,000, but now board members whose actions have raised some of the questions will have to vote Wednesday on whether to take Ashton's advice and table the decision to hire Precourt.

In a statement sent to Channel 9, Precourt said, "I've reviewed the State Attorneys letter and respect their diligence and independent opinion. While they have an ongoing investigation, we have important and time sensitive work to do here at the Expressway Authority. I serve the Board, and will work hard to carry out their policy directions."