Repairing a golf course in Orlando wasn't exactly what the U.S. Department of Education had in mind in 2010-11 when it sent $867,000 in federal stimulus money to Florida for a program run by Florida A&M University for "targeted student assistance." But that's what federal and Florida taxpayers got in a scheme devised by two term-limited state senators to benefit nonprofits they have ties with. Gov. Rick Scott talks about making the state budget more transparent, and this sham — which initially had ties to FAMU in name only — should be his next target.
It apparently took the federal government to bring this abuse of public trust to light, triggering a recent story in Jacksonville's Florida Times-Union. As part of a routine audit, the education department found $200,000 was given to the Orlando Youth Minority Golf Association, including $180,000 to repair a golf course in Orlando. That is unallowable under the federal program that is supposed to be used for student financial aid or student services. And the audit found the remaining $667,000 in federal dollars was sent to a scholarship program that failed to document spending well enough to know if it was spent properly.
But more disturbing for Florida taxpayers: The state spent another $5.1 million in general revenue on the program that year and another $5 million a year later. Times-Union reporter Matt Dixon found nearly all the money flowed to either nonprofits founded by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, or Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando; or groups where both men served on the board.
And what about FAMU's connection? It apparently didn't exist initially, with the university merely serving as a "pass through" for the funds. But by this year, Dixon reported, the university implemented a competitive process for awarding bids, though with most of the same groups still winning the money.
Meanwhile, Wise and Siplin succeeded for a third time this spring in tucking money into the state budget during the final conference committee process. In 2012-13, the state will award $5 million for "targeted students assistance" to still unnamed organizations. Such chicanery has no place in a state budget. At least this coming year, the governor could demand that the money is awarded appropriately, not just to well-connected nonprofits.