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State can cancel longtime contract for driver's handbook

TALLAHASSEE — Florida can cancel a longtime contract with a businessman who holds a lucrative monopoly to print safety handbooks for drivers, a court ruled Thursday.

The 1st District Court of Appeal reversed a lower-court decision and nixed the deal between the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and Kenneth Underwood, owner of the National Safety Commission.

Since 2005, the Ponte Vedra Beach company has printed the Official Florida Driver's Handbook for free in return for being able to advertise in it and promote Underwood's online driving schools — LowestPriceTrafficSchool.com — which the court said promoted the perception that Underwood's businesses were endorsed by the state.

Underwood had a five-year contract with a renewal option that led to the court action.

"The contract language tracks statutory language requiring mutual agreement of the parties to renew a contractual services agreement," Judge Simone Marstiller wrote. "The option to renew is not unilateral for either party."

Julie Jones, executive director of the highway agency, said: "It puts the department back in control of the contract. It was unilaterally renewed under circumstances that were not in the best interest of the department or our constituents."

Jones said that barring an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court, the agency would have to quickly publish its own driver safety handbook. "We're going to move quickly," Jones said.

In an e-mail, Underwood said: "We're reviewing our options for the continuation of our free service that has saved Florida taxpayers nearly $5 million."

In its 2-1 decision, the appeals court noted that "a cloud of suspicion about the propriety of the contract" has hung over the transaction from the outset, because the vendor's lobbyist was Sherry Dickinson, the wife of Fred Dickinson, executive director of the highway safety agency at the time.

Times staff writer Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

State can cancel longtime contract for driver's handbook 10/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 6, 2011 11:07pm]
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