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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Precourt firm has financial link to CSX project



4384 After a deadly train collision last year, state Rep. Steve Precourt went on the offensive. He wrote an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel that said the "tragic event in California should not obscure the fact that rail transit remains a far safer mode of travel than the automobile."

Precourt used the piece to make an ardent pitch for the CSX commuter rail project in Florida. "Providing transportation alternatives to the entire state is vital to our economy and the health of our communities," he wrote.

But what the Orlando Republican did not reveal is that the engineering firm that bears his family name has received $1.7-million from the state to do survey and mapping work for the controversial CSX project in Central Florida. Nor did Precourt disclose his ties when he voted for the deal last session, as some other lawmakers have when their public and private interests appeared to overlap.

Now, CSX is back under the SunRail moniker, and a fight is brewing -- one that will shine more light on advocates like Precourt. On a broader level, Precourt’s situation illustrates the line citizen lawmakers walk as they navigate their day jobs and legislative duties.

Precourt said he does not have a conflict.

He said he sold his interest in the Dyer, Riddle, Mills and Precourt engineering firm before the 2008 session and therefore did not have to file a conflict disclosure before voting on the project.

The proposal calls for CSX to sell 61.5 miles of tracks to the state and got moving Tuesday in the Senate, despite fierce opposition from Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

“I have no idea of the status of any of DRMP’s contracts, as I am not employed by them nor have any interests or control in the firm,” Precourt wrote in response to questions from the Times/Herald.

Precourt, first elected in 2006, said he left the firm after "it became clear that I would better serve my constituents by focusing on the Legislature. And DRMP needed someone full time in the position I had." (He started a consulting firm, Precourt Solutions, in May 2008.)

But Precourt acknowledged that he occasionally assists Dyer, Riddle, Mills and Precourt on "miscellaneous stuff for continuity sake, given my 20 years with the firm" and that he has a small contract that pays him for his time.

Records also show that after the 2008 session he was still being identified as a vice president of Dyer, Riddle, Mills and Precourt. He is listed on the company’s 2009 annual report. And letterhead dated May 29, 2008, lists him as a principal.

In fall 2006, the firm secured a $784,936 subcontract with the Department of Transportation to perform survey and mapping of the CSX property the state wants to buy. Subsequent documents show the firm eventually got a contract worth $1.7 million.

Don Barton, a DRMP vice president, said he did not know why Precourt's name was on the annual report. He said Precourt still does some consulting work but is "no longer with us."

Dockery said she was unaware of Precourt's past work history and could not comment. But she said the questions his situation raise demonstrate a need for clearer disclosure in potential conflict-of-interest cases.

"I can sense among the voters in the state of Florida and nationally that they have the lowest level of confidence and respect for elected officials. We need to be good examples of ethical behavior," Dockery said.

-- Alex Leary

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 7:30pm]


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