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Senator to testify before grand jury over tree-cutting deal

TALLAHASSEE — A state senator from the Panhandle has been called to testify in front of a grand jury about a deal that let a billboard company chop down more than 2,000 trees without paying any state fees.

Sen. Greg Evers said in an interview that he did nothing wrong and was only trying to help a constituent. He said he would do everything the same as he had done in this case.

"I'll do it next time and the next time and the next time," said Evers, R-Baker.

"As long as my constituents send me to Tallahassee to represent them," he said, "I'm going to represent them in the best way that I know how."

Evers was chairman of the House Roads, Bridges & Ports Committee in 2009 when he helped Bill Salter Advertising navigate the permitting process at the state Department of Transportation.

The company wanted to cut down trees along Interstate 10 to make room for about 100 of its signs. But Salter did not want to pay fees or comply with all of the regulations.

"All I was doing was trying to cut through the red tape by allowing a constituent to receive a phone call back that he'd been trying to get for an extended length of time," Evers said.

After Evers got involved, the DOT awarded the permits and waived the required mitigation fees. Stephanie Kopelousos, the Clay County manager who was DOT secretary at the time, insisted she was "not involved" in the deal.

"The decision in question was made at the district office level, and I was not involved with the apparent issuance of any permit related to this matter," she wrote in an e-mail. "I have let the state attorney know that if he would like to discuss this matter with me, that I would be more than happy to talk with him at any time that he deems appropriate."

On Wednesday, Evers initially refused to acknowledge questions about the investigation as he walked through the Senate Office Building. He later agreed to an interview after discussing it with his attorney and a public relations consultant.

Evers said he didn't answer questions at first because he wasn't sure about the issue. But he then acknowledged that he had already informed Senate President Mike Haridopolos about the investigation.

"It's my understanding from him is he thinks there's nothing here," Haridopolos said.

Evers said he would not give up his positions as vice chairman of the Senate transportation panel or chairman of the chamber's Criminal Justice Committee while the grand jury investigation proceeds.

"Of course not. What? For helping people?" Evers said. "If we did that then we would never have any chairs to have committee meetings, because we're all assisting folks at different points in time."

Bill Salter, 80, and his wife, Helen, contributed $500 each to Evers in February 2010 as did a pair of companies registered to the couple's Milton home. Bill Salter also gave the Florida Republican Party $5,000 in June.

Helen Salter said neither she nor her husband would comment on the investigation. Asked about the political contribution, she said, "That's none of your business."

In the past 10 years, Evers has received at least $5,000 in campaign contributions from the billboard industry.

Since 1996 the industry has donated more than $1.6 million to various candidates, state party organizations and political action committees in Florida. Many of those contributions were classified as "in-kind" — in other words, the billboard companies provided space on their billboards to candidates without charge.

Photos of the areas Salter cut down show that one billboard featured a picture of Evers holding a gun and saying he belongs to the National Rifle Association.

Earlier this year, Evers introduced a bill that would make it easier for billboard companies to cut down trees. The bill did not clear all of its committee hearings before the annual spring lawmaking session ended.

On Wednesday, Evers said he pushed the bill at the request of Transportation Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. He said it was written by the Florida Outdoor Advertising Association.

"It's not my language," he said.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Craig Pittman and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Watch the Times/Herald interview with Sen Greg Evers here:

Senator to testify before grand jury over tree-cutting deal 11/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 1:51pm]
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