Mike Deeson of WTSP-Ch. 10 in Tampa Bay this week scorched State Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, over a $2.6-million economic development grant his company received from Hardee County. The state's auditor general found a host of problems with the grant to LifeSync Technologies, which Grant started in 2011 - 18 days after applying for the grant - and ran with a couple Tampa Bay Republican political consultants, Jennifer Lux and Jordan Raynor.
The TV report casts the grant process as rife with conflicts of interest. From WTSP: ..."Tampa State Rep. Jamie Grant's company, "LifeSync Technologies," pitched a bold plan to county officials: give them the $2.6 million, and LifeSync would create a cloud-based medical records firm and bring jobs to Hardee County. Public records indicate Grant had powerful allies, including State Representative Jason Broduer from Orlando, State Representative Ben Albritton of Hardee County, and his brother, Hardee County insurance agency owner Joe Albritton.
Grant told 10 News he wasn't interested in an interview after we tracked him down in Tallahassee, after he avoided us for weeks in Tampa.
"Your facts are off there, Mike," Grant told us. "And you need to check your facts."
He added that Joe Albritton has no equity in his company. But when we double checked, we found Albritton, who was on the board that gave Grant the money, abstained from voting on the issue involving Grant's company because he is "part owner."..."
Grant told Buzz he's reviewing his options about what to do next. Does that mean legal action against the Gannett Company? It's too premature, Grant said. Is he demanding a correction? Not yet, Grant said.
The segment opens with Deeson sitting at a picnic table with a 55-year-old unemployed woman. The woman, "We'll call her Theresa," Deeson states on the newscast, isn't identified and has her face blurred out. "She's so embarrassed about being out of work that she asked us not to show her face."
The woman could have been hired as part of a $2.6 million economic development grant the Hardee County was handing out.
"But it wasn't in the cards for her because some powerful people already had their own plan for that money," Deeson states.
The next shot is an on-camera interview of Grant, who, in classic confrontational style-journalism repeatedly tells Deeson he doesn't want to be interviewed.
Deeson states that Grant's LifeSync Technologies won the contract for the $2.6 million to create a "cloud-based" system where patients could check their medical records and provide them to health care professionals and insurance agents. Part of the deal was to bring jobs to Hardee County.
Deeson states that Grant had powerful allies in getting the money, including Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, and his brother, insurance agent Joe Albritton, as well as local officials.
He quotes a Florida Auditor General's report saying "the $2.6 million never should have been given to LifeSync." In addition, he said the report concluded that the company wasn't legally qualified to get the money, the company didn't offer proof that it was capable of making it happen, and there was no oversight of how LifeSync used the money.
Deeson said Grant, Brodeur and the others involved in the deal violated their agreement with Hardee County and sold their interest in the grant money, never developed a product, and then got more than a million shares from another company.
The $2.6 million grant has created only 10 jobs, and of those, three went to relatives of those handing out the grant, Deeson said.
So what's wrong with the report?
"He has misrepresented things in a way that I've never seen," Grant said from his office in Tallahassee's Capitol.
A main offense, according to Grant: Deeson put quotes around the auditor general's report stating that "the $2.6 million never should have been given to LifeSync."
Grant said the report never says that. A search of the report didn't turn up that exact wording.
"He put quotations around statements and said that the auditor general said 'X', that the auditor general never said," Grant said. "His representation of that story is disappointing for a number of reasons."
But the audit does state that the disbursements of the $2.6 million grant weren't supported by invoices or detailed records, the Hardee County board that awarded the grant had weak auditing, and that grant award violated state law by giving the money to LifeSync, which didn't exist at the time it applied for the grant.
"The company was incorporated on September 19, 2011, 18 days after the grant application, and 22 days before the grant agreement," the AG report states. "Accordingly, the IDA had no company history to determine its viability as a going concern or financial stability and responsibility at the time the (Hardee County Industrial Development Authority) received the application or made the award.
"Without evidence of the potential for additional funding sources or financial resources from the company or its officers and directors, the IDA was assuming all liability for the success of the project. Further, the grant agreement did not provide any method for the IDA to recoup its investment in the company nor financially participate in the success of the company if its business venture was successful."
So, while not word-for-word, that seems to be close to the spirit of the quote of the AG report in the newscast.
What was factually wrong?
"At the end of the day, it wasn't a taxpayer grant," Grant said of the $2.6 million his company was awarded. "It's private money, and it was a signed contract. My name is on a contract. … It's no different than me getting a loan at the bank."
Grant said the company was created for the Hardee County job. It has no projects other than Hardee County project.
Grant said Brodeur is a consultant for LifeSync, where he analyzed health care plans. Grant said more than 10 people work for LifeSync in Hardee. Grant earned $70,000. Brodeur got between $48,000 to $65,000. More than 80 percent of the $2.6 million covered payroll for about 20 employees who wrote code for the program, did quality assurance and worked in marketing, Grant said.
Generally, Grant denounced the story. His specific questions of fact, however, are quite technical. He said the agreement was never violated, that there's millions of lines of code that have been written, so the product exists, and that his company employs people in Hardee, though he didn't know if it was true that three of them were related to those who handed out the grant.
"We never violated an agreement," Grant said.
"I'm reviewing every option at my disposal," Grant said.
What sort of options?
"It would be disingenuous to suggest it's easy to go out and raise capital when a reporter is suggesting the things that he's suggesting," said Grant, who added that Deeson got the story from a group of Hardee politicians with questionable motives and that's why he was reluctant to sit down with him.
"There are very good reasons why multiple entities want economic development to fail in Hardee County," Grant said.
UPDATE: Deeson contacted The Buzz on Tuesday afternoon to respond.
The following is his e-mail response (bold is his):
In your piece he says,
"At the end of the day, it wasn't a taxpayer grant," Grant said of the $2.6 million his company was awarded. "It's private money, and it was a signed contract."
However it is public money... on page 3 of the audit it states." Board of County Commissioners Pursuant to Section 125.045, Florida Statutes, and the BCC may expend public funds
to attract and retain business enterprises. The use of public funds for such economic development goals constitutes a
In addition the Auditor General refers to it as public money again several times throughout the audit.
Grant says in your piece- "the agreement was never violated."
However on page 7 of the Auditor General Report it says:
Contrary to the provisions of the grant agreement, the company did not obtain prior
written approval from the IDA to sell this asset or assign the grant agreement to the purchaser
Grant said Brodeur is a consultant for LifeSync, where he analyzed health care plans.
.. however on SunBiz LifeSync list Brodeur under officers and directors as the fourth name on the list.
In addition, at a joint legislative audit committee hearing two weeks ago the legal counsel for the office said
" ….we looked for good things that happened we were unable to find any . At the end of our field work it's our belief this had created no employment in the county."