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House Speaker Will Weatherford connected to Citizens contractor

State House Speaker Will Weatherford is a founding member and former director of a Texas company that since 2008 has received $826,676 from Florida's state-run insurance company, according to records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Weatherford, a Republican who represents Wesley Chapel, has never disclosed his and his wife Courtney's relationship with Mt. Pleasant, Texas-based U.S. Cat Adjusters, which has been a contractor for Citizens Property Insurance for five years — while Weatherford was a member of the Florida House of Representatives.

Weatherford declined to be interviewed for this story, but in an emailed response to questions, the House speaker said he has made no money from his connection to U.S. Cat.

"Since the company's inception, neither Courtney nor I have ever received a single dollar of income," Weatherford wrote. He acknowledged that he was "listed" as a board member for several years.

Weatherford has not reported the relationship to U.S. Cat Adjusters on state financial disclosure forms.

"The question is, does Weatherford own stock in (U.S. Cat Adjusters)?" said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at the University of South Florida.

He doubted Weatherford's claim of no interest.

"He would have to have an interest beyond sitting on the board. He's not doing this as charity. What is being raised here is the possibility of a rather obscure but significant conflict of interest that would be hard to track and hard to know if there are violations of the spirit of the law."

This isn't the first time Weatherford has left questions about potential conflicts of interest unanswered, and U.S. Cat Adjusters isn't the only company to which Weatherford has connections he won't explain.

In July, the Tampa Bay Times outlined Weatherford's recent financial disclosure, which reported $31,500 in income from Simpson Environmental Services, an asbestos removal company owned by state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and $52,000 from Texas construction firm Diamond K.

Simpson Environmental Services earned $267,432 in state contracts between 2007 and 2012. Since February, Simpson has been retained for $520,000 worth of work, including $356,000 for three projects for the state Department of Transportation. Earlier this year, Weatherford told a reporter that he helps Simpson "develop private clients."

The Times could not determine what work Weatherford did to earn his $52,000 salary from Diamond K, and in previous financial disclosures, Weatherford has not been upfront about explaining his connection to Diamond K.

Between 2007 and 2009, Weatherford listed Breckenridge Enterprises as his employer, telling the Times he believed it was Diamond K's DBA. Weatherford later told the newspaper that Breckenridge is the payroll administrator for Diamond K, not one of his employers.

The Times did not question Weatherford about U.S. Cat Adjusters, because the House speaker did not disclose his interest in the Citizens Property Insurance contractor.

Questions in Texas

Weatherford is listed in U.S. Cat Adjusters' formation documents in Texas as a managing member and director in 2006, the same year he was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

Although the company filed an amendment to its business records in 2007, reporting that Weatherford's wife, Courtney, would replace him on the board, the Florida politico remained a board member in the company's annual filings until 2010, when Courtney's name replaced his, records show.

Weatherford's office provided Courtney's K-1 tax forms showing her with a 2.8 percent interest in U.S. Cat Adjusters beginning in 2006. She is not listed as a board member in documents filed with the Secretary of State in Texas through 2009.

"This is not my investment," Weatherford said in an email. "It is Courtney's investment. I have no role with U.S. Cat."

Courtney Weatherford, a former lobbyist, is the daughter of former House Speaker Allan Bense. During his time in office, Bense fielded questions similar to the ones reporters are asking Weatherford now. While he was House speaker between 2004 and 2006, Bense's company, Gulf Asphalt Contractors, received $7.6 million in state contract work.

Other members of U.S. Cat's board of directors — which includes Weatherford's uncle, J Michael Nolan — did not return calls seeking comment.

In its contract paperwork with Citizens, U.S. Cat Adjusters declared that ownership of the company was split among three board members — board chair Stephanie Curtis and managing members J. Michael Nolan and Tommy King. The three own 94.4 percent of the company, according to the state contract. Ownership of the remaining 5.6 percent of the company's stock is not disclosed.

As House speaker, Weatherford has great ability to influence the votes of lawmakers, as he has a say on coveted committee assignments and the chairs of those committees, which in turn propose and debate legislation and approve budgets.

Raising further questions, U.S. Cat Adjusters and the two companies the Times examined share a corporate mailing address.

U.S. Cat lists the same rural address in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, with Diamond K and Spain-based engineering firm CYMI, which is a contractor on a $50 million private gas pipeline project for Florida Power and Light in Palm Beach County.

In addition to having the same Texas address, according to records, the three companies are linked to Texas construction manager King, who did not return several calls.

King is also owner of T King Construction, a company registered in Florida that lists a principal address in Texas, the same as U.S. Cat Adjusters and Diamond K.

One explanation for why Weatherford has never disclosed his connection to U.S. Cat Adjusters could be because he isn't required to disclose it.

State financial disclosure rules limit required disclosures to specified interests including financial institutions, cemeteries, insurance companies — not adjusters — and utilities. There is also a general income minimum of $1,000 that business interests must reach for required disclosure.

Weatherford contacted House General Counsel Daniel Nordby Friday morning to ask if he was required to report his wife's interest in U.S. Cat and was told he did not need to.

"As confirmed by the House General Counsel, I am not required to disclose a company my spouse has an interest in," Weatherford said in an email.

Voting record

Weatherford was a critic of the state's plan to "depopulate" the roster of policy holders of Citizens Property Insurance, a plan that would send those policy holders to private agencies.

A different plan, which Weatherford voted for and was signed into law in May, potentially lessens the amount of money a contracted adjuster, such as U.S. Cat Adjuster, can make from work for Citizens Property Insurance.

"If they have a contract with Citizens, then a smaller Citizens would reduce that contract," said Eli Lehrer, president of R Street, a Washington, D.C.-based free market think tank. "Without knowing everything about it, that would appear to be a conflict, or at least something that should be looked into."

Still, despite having an undisclosed relationship with an insurance adjuster, Weatherford is seen as friendly to the movement to resize Citizens Property Insurance, Lehrer said.

"(Weatherford) has been in favor of reform to shrink Citizens, and the early moves to do that were questioned by a lot of people on all sides, for good reason," Lehrer said.

As a member of the policy and budget council in the House, Weatherford also voted for a failed measure in 2008 that would have mandated more stringent qualification procedures on public adjusters, as well as lessening their fees. The measure would have a negligible effect on contract adjusters, and a similar bill later passed.

In construction legislation, Weatherford has proposed bills that could benefit road builders and other contractors, including Simpson Environmental Services and Tommy King's Florida operations.

In 2008, for example, Weatherford introduced legislation that would have required local governments to open for bid maintenance projects, which include roads, buildings and utilities costing more than $200,000.

According to legislative analysis of the bill, which died in committee, "The Florida League of Cities believes the fiscal impact to local governments will be significant."

The same session, Weatherford cosponsored a measure allowing a contractor to bid on a project in Hillsborough County and waive the performance and payment bond, provided that contractor has done work before, a measure that favored construction firms.

The state's new $74.4 billion budget included a $1.2 billion, or 11 percent, increase in transportation funding, which gives companies contractors and construction-related firms more potential dollars.

The confusing business and financial relationships of Weatherford raise questions about ethics disclosures in Florida.

Unless he is currently being paid as a board member of U.S. Cat Adjusters, Weatherford is within the law to keep his connection to the company a secret.

But do the state's laws require enough disclosure?

"You can argue both ways," said Ron Meyer, a Tallahassee lawyer and expert on election and ethics laws. "But someone can choose to be fully transparent, or the law allows them to be less transparent."

Dan Krassner, executive director of the government watchdog group Integrity Florida, pointed to a study his group released last year that ranked Florida in the lower reaches of the states for public financial disclosure by elected officials.

"The disclosure forms are a way for Floridians to find out if government officials are benefitting in the private world from public office," Krassner said. "Other states have required disclosure of the boards of directors on which officials participate as an added level of protection."

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.

House Speaker Will Weatherford connected to Citizens contractor 08/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, August 2, 2013 9:00pm]
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