Senate reneges on transparency payment, threatened with lawsuit
The lawyer for the company that entered into a $5 million contract with the Florida Senate to build a transparency web site has threatened to sue for breach of contract because Senate President Don Gaetz refuses to pay the remaining $500,000.
Kenneth Oertel, lawyer for the owners of Spider Data Services which signed the contract under the previous Senate president Mike Haridopolos, wrote in an email Tuesday that he has been authorized by his client to file suit and included a draft of the lawsuit.
"Frankly, I do not see any point to the Senate’s refusal to pay,'' he wrote in an email to George Levesque, the Senate's general counsel. "If I have to file the suit, there is no realistic defense available to the Senate. All that will happen is that the suit will be a media item and a lot of time will be spent pointing fingers. This will not appear to be a flattering event for the Senate, and, at best, will create an embarrassing distraction. I will be available if you wish to discuss this further to find a resolution. If not, please understand this will be filed very soon."
His email came after Senate general counsel George Levesque told him that the Senate has no intention of paying what remains owed on the contract, which was signed by former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara under Haridopolos. MacNamara left Haridopolos' office to work for Gov. Rick Scott and arranged to have management of the transparency program transferred to the governor's office, which was given $2.5 million to pay for it. Since MacNamara has left the governor's office, Scott's office has refused to implement the transparency program and have raised questions, along with Levesque, about suspcious business links between MacNamara, his friend Jim Eaton, and the owners of Spider Data, Anna Mattson and Sherri Taylor. Eaton is the company's lobbyist and, according to a Herald/Times report, has a business relationship with Mattson to promote the technology to cities and counties.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said in December he is conducting an investigation into the contract but nothing has been announced.
Given these developments, Levesque wrote in a strongly-worded letter to Oertel, that the Senate refuses to pay.
"To continue making payments on such a contract after these facts haven come to light is unconscionable,'' he wrote in the March 20 letter. "The Senate will not abide spending more public money on a product that was questionably procured, barely used by state employees, and not maintained or retained in a manner justifying the significant public expense invested in the product."
Oertel told the Herald/Times the letter astonished him.
"This whole case is about a program my client prepared for the Senate to foster open government and has been highly praised by public interest groups but if it's done such a good job, I don't understand why they're so antagonistic about it,'' he said."This was something that was done under President Mike Haridopolos and I guess President Gaetz doesn't like the deal."
Will it discourage others from signing contracts with the Senate in the future, knowing that one president can nullify a contract signed by his predecessor. "It would cast doubt upon whether you can trust them, I guess,'' he said.
Oertel said he is confident the claim will be an easy one for a court to decide. "They signed a contract and didn't pay their bill,'' he said. "It's not a complicated thing to say to a court."