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Court ruling favors publisher of controversial state driver handbook

TALLAHASSEE — The controversial publisher of the official state driver handbook has scored a victory in court that could allow him to print the book for another five years over the objections of the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The National Safety Commission, run by Jacksonville-area businessman Ken Underwood, has been printing and distributing the handbook since 2005 at no cost to the state. In return, Underwood can charge people $6.95 to ship the book and include advertisements for his driving school.

The contract is set to expire in December, and the department said it intends to begin publishing the handbooks itself.

"We need to overcome the perception of an endorsement of one company," agency director Julie Jones said at a March legislative hearing.

But Underwood cried foul and said he has the sole option of continuing the contract for another five years. And a Tallahassee judge ruled late last month that he is likely to prevail in court.

Underwood has long argued his contract is a good deal for the state.

"The state spends no money on it, zero dollars," said Underwood lobbyist Chris Moya. "So if you're not spending any money on it, you actually get a cost savings. Who could envision that the state would not want to continue?"

The current contract says the National Safety Commission will provide the handbooks for five years "with an option to renew" for another term. An earlier 2003 contract with the agency said it could be renewed only by "mutual written consent."

Tallahassee circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled June 29 that the current contract is "clear and unambiguous" in giving the company the "unilateral option" to renew for another five years. In short, she wrote, the state has no say in the matter.

The agency plans to appeal the case to an appellate court, according to spokesman Dave Westberry.

"That is so unfair to the little guy and gal who runs a driving safety school around the state," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey and longtime critic of the contract. "Government should not be in the business of giving one company an advantage over another."

The driver handbook contract has a rocky past. In 2006, news broke that Underwood hired lobbyist Sherry Dickinson, the wife of then-highway safety director Fred Dickinson, who approved the contract. An audit said the agency should have disclosed the potential conflict.

This year, Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis filed legislation — at Moya's request — that would have required the state to extend Underwood's contract. The bill died in committee under intense skepticism from other lawmakers.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Court ruling favors publisher of controversial state driver handbook 07/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 14, 2010 9:49pm]
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