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Legislators grill Florida Lottery chief over advertising deal with Cooper DDB

TALLAHASSEE — The chief of the Florida Lottery waited eight months to follow legislative orders to seek new offers for the agency's lucrative advertising work, then skirted a legislative order to seek competitive proposals.

All that time, Lottery Secretary Leo DiBenigno kept the existing advertising agency on the payroll on a month-to-month basis and paid the company more money for extra work.

A legislative committee grilled DiBenigno over his decisions for 90 minutes Tuesday. It was by far the most critical interrogation of any of Gov. Charlie Crist's agency heads since he took office in 2007.

"This time, we did not get the results we wanted," said Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, chairman of the House Government Operations Appropriations Committee.

Last year, the Legislature made clear it wanted the Lottery to find a new vendor for the $3.5 million set aside for advertising in place of Cooper DDB, a Miami firm hired in 2002 that employs former Lottery Secretary David Griffin as a lobbyist.

Lawmakers required the Lottery to "competitively solicit for advertising contracts," and told the Lottery it "may not extend or renew the current contracts."

But DiBenigno didn't follow those demands.

Instead, the Lottery retained Cooper DDB on a month-to-month "extension," as DiBenigno called it. He said the Lottery was preoccupied with Florida's participation in the multistate Powerball game while negotiating a new contract with the Lottery's scratch-off ticket vendor.

The Lottery's advertising expenses have increased under the firm's month-to-month arrangement from about $298,000 a month to an average of $346,000 a month this fiscal year, according to a legislative watchdog agency. DiBenigno attributed the increase to the promotion of Powerball.

By the time the Lottery got around to seeking a new advertising agency, it was Feb. 6, and the letter seeking proposals referred to an "informal" competitive process, a term DiBenigno said Tuesday was "a very poor choice of words."

DiBenigno, guided by a recent legal opinion by his general counsel, Ken Hart, said the "informal" approach was allowed by an exception in Florida's competitive-bid law for "artistic services." That is the same exception that Attorney General Bill McCollum used recently to pay a political consultant $1.4 million for public service ads alerting Floridians to the dangers of cybercrime.

Rep. Clay Ford, R-Gulf Breeze, a lawyer, took issue with the Lottery chief's reliance on his attorney's retroactive approval of the action.

After receiving detailed proposals from 29 advertising agencies, DiBenigno said a review committee has whittled the list of finalists to seven. One of the firms is Cooper DDB, he said, and the new agency should be chosen by May.

Legislators grill Florida Lottery chief over advertising deal with Cooper DDB 03/31/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 9:34pm]
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