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Former senator faces questions about deal

A former Florida state senator is under scrutiny for his part in a questionable $1-million deal with the troubled Occupational Access and Opportunity Commission _ an agency he created while in the Legislature.

George Kirkpatrick, who represented Gainesville first as a Democrat and then as a Republican from 1980 to 2000, was the author and driving force behind the 1999 bill that privatized vocational rehabilitation services, affecting about 933 state employees and the almost 100,000 disabled Floridians they serve.

Documents obtained last week by the Tallahassee Democrat show that the state Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability is looking into Kirkpatrick's relationship with a nonprofit college fund after a critical report from the Department of Education Office of the Inspector General.

That office found that Kirkpatrick, who had been appointed to the occupational board in July, lobbied fellow board members for a $1-million no-bid contract with the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida without disclosing that he is the executive director of that association. And a new nonprofit entity called the Florida Independent Colleges Fund, listing Kirkpatrick as secretary-treasurer, was created the same day that the board asked the state comptroller for a $250,000 contract advance.

The contract was written with the new organization rather than the original association. And, contrary to federal rules, it provided Kirkpatrick's company an $80,000 administrative fee.

The contract was stopped last month before any money changed hands.

Kirkpatrick told the Democrat he was not required to fill out a conflict-of-interest form because the full commission never voted on the contract. He said the administrative fee was just 8 percent of the contract, unlike the 12 percent to 17 percent other contractors charged. He also disputed other findings and said he was confident the contract would go through.

"I just don't think they have it correct," Kirkpatrick said. "They never even interviewed anybody."

The commission is a public-private board that runs the Vocational Rehabilitation Division in the Department of Education.

A spokeswoman for Education Commissioner Charlie Crist said the department is continuing an investigation of contracts written by the occupational board and has also turned the information over to other state investigative agencies.

Dennis Celorie, chairman of the occupational commission, said the board is studying the inspector general's report so it won't repeat mistakes made in the contract with the independent colleges.

The contract with the colleges fund would have provided outreach to students with disabilities, as well as scholarships and employment follow-up after graduation. The federal government would have paid $4 for every $1 the state kicked in. The colleges fund agreed to split the state's share.

"The only people that have lost right now are the disabled students because they don't have a scholarship and can't go to college," said Kirkpatrick, who hopes the deal can be reworked.

But Dennis Celorie, chairman of the occupational commission, said he doubts the commission will go ahead with the contract because of a cash crunch.

The contract controversy is just the latest problem for the occupational commission. The Democrat reported last month that the commission has been borrowing ahead to meet its required federal match and is projected to be about $9-million short this year.

Other board members have also worked in or owned agencies that won contracts, but they disclosed their conflicts. The commission rules allow board members to bid on projects as long as they disclose their interests both orally and by filling out a report and don't participate in any discussions or votes on the subject.

Celorie said he and other board members don't think Kirkpatrick did anything wrong.

"We just didn't feel that this was an issue," he said. "We didn't feel he pushed us that hard. It was more of an idea that came from several people."