State Sen. Greg Evers "was actively advocating" on behalf of a billboard company that had been talking about hiring his wife when he intervened with the state Department of Transportation about cutting down 2,000 trees, according to a grand jury report released Tuesday.
The Leon County grand jury, which subpoenaed Evers and other officials, did not indict anyone in the billboard investigation. But its report found that Evers' intervention on behalf of Bill Salter Advertising enabled the company to "secure permits by circumventing the law."
Evers, R-Baker, contended the grand jury report vindicated him, and complained that a reporter had picked out only "lewd things" from the report to emphasize. "A jury of my peers found I didn't do anything wrong," he said.
In 2009, Bill Salter Advertising wanted DOT permits to cut down more than 2,000 trees blocking the view of about 100 of its signs along Interstate 10 through the Florida Panhandle. Some of the trees were classified as "heritage oaks," said Bill Brinton, of the antibillboard group Scenic America, who later filed a complaint with the DOT.
Normally the state DOT requires payment as compensation for the loss of trees on state-owned property. But Salter did not want to pay the state for those trees. DOT records show that Salter executive David McCurdy sought help from Evers, who sat on the House Transportation Committee.
Although Evers told an investigator that his assistance was a typical attempt to help a constituent, the grand jury noted that he and McCurdy had gone to high school together. The grand jury report also noted that "Senator Evers' wife, who is an attorney, was consulted by Salter Advertising about representing the company on some legal matters."
Evers said McCurdy was two or three years behind him in school, and said his wife was never hired nor paid by the billboard company.
"My wife is approached by a lot of folks," he said.
He said his one complaint about what happened was that "a bunch of things were misrepresented to me" by Salter Advertising. "Sometimes when you get a request from a constituent, sometimes they're overzealous and you may not get all the facts."
Evers said he only asked DOT officials to return McCurdy's phone calls. Reminded that the records show he helped set up a meeting with Crist administration DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, Evers said she just happened to be in his office on another matter "and I said, 'Have you called this man back? You should call him back.'"
So Koupelousas met with Salter executives, and at that meeting, "They agreed and we were granted these permits," McCurdy wrote later in an e-mail. An internal DOT e-mail noted that after the meeting Evers set up, Kopelousos "gave them the go ahead for cutting these sites."
As a result, the grand jury found, the DOT "failed to collect between $1 million and $4 million in mitigation fees" for the loss of those trees. The grand jury urged the billboard company to pay the money voluntarily.
Evers said he would do the same things all over again should the situation arise. He said he had no quarrel with the grand jury findings: "They got to the bottom of the whole barrel of rocks."