Monday, October 7, 2013

Scandalized TRDA Wants Brevard County To Take Over


VIERA, Florida --  On the October 8, 2013 Brevard County Commission Agenda is a proposal for the County to assume the debts and assets of the Technological Research & Development Authority (TRDA).


The TRDA is an independent governmental authority created by the State of Florida - not Brevard County -  for the stated goal of economic development of technology-based companies.  The TRDA also administered grants from the federal government as well as state proceeds derived from space shuttle specialty Florida license plate sales.


In March 2012, the the United States Justice Department (DOJ) filed a complaint under the False Claims Act against the TRDA which alleged that TRDA made false statements to obtain federal grants from NASA and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration EDA (EDA), and knowingly spent grant funds on activities not permitted by the grants.   


The DOJ alleged that the TRDA and the Melbourne Airport Authority entered into an agreement to use NASA and EDA grant funds to construct an office building at the airport to be used as TRDA’s headquarters and an incubator facility.   The DOJ further alleged that construction of the office building was outside the scope of the NASA grants awarded to TRDA and contrary to the terms of the EDA grant awarded jointly to TRDA and the airport authority, which prohibited combining funds from more than one federal agency for the project.    


In November 2012, the TRDA agreed to settle the allegations brought by federal officials for $15 million and to dissolve the TRDA.  The Melbourne International Airport and its governing body, the Melbourne Airport Authority, also agreed to pay the United States $4 million to resolve alleged False Claims Act violations based on the same events described in the government’s lawsuit against TRDA.  The settlement agreement states that it "is neither an admission of liability by TRDA nor a concession by the United States that its claims are not well founded." 

  
In June 2013, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed into law House Bill 1013 which will dissolve the TRDA on December 31, 2013.   Under the terms of the DOJ settlement, three days prior to TRDA's dissolution, the TRDA agreed to pay to the United States all of TRDA's remaining cash on hand which will constitute partial satisfaction of the $15 million Consent Judgment liability by that amount, "but shall not otherwise limit the United States' right to seek and recover payment of any outstanding amounts owed to the United States under the Consent Judgment."  The settlement further provides that it "...is binding on TRDA's successors, transferees, heirs, and assigns."  


It is not clear however, because the attachments referenced in the Settlement Agreement were not included in the paperwork filed with the County Commission, whether Brevard County would then become potentially liable for the $15 million consent judgment against TRDA.


Some of the liabilities that are clearly listed that the County would assume include $17,500 to the Melbourne Airport for the TRDA's office lease, $10,000 to Cocoa-based lobbying firm Spearman Management, Inc., over $12,000 for copier leases, and $19,500 to Berman, Hopkins, Wright, & LaHam, CPAs for 2013 audit fees.


The TRDA is just one of a growing list of entities in Brevard rocked by scandals in recent years.  In 2011, Brevard Workforce fell under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Labor because some of its contracts were being awarded to organizations with ties to Brevard Workforce board members.  Earlier this year, federal officials took over the Cocoa Housing Authority for alleged misuse of taxpayer money.  And most recently, the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast has fallen under public criticism for its involvement with BlueWare, a scanning company whose CEO, Rose Harr, was arrested and charged with bribery and bid tampering along with former Brevard County Clerk of Court Mitch Needelman.


UPDATE: The County Commission voted 4 to 1 in favor of assuming TRDA's assets and liabilities.  Commissioner Trudie Infantini was the sole no vote.