DeSantis picks man linked to billboard scandal to lead FDOT

Kevin Thibault was assistant secretary of FDOT in 2009, when the “flagrant violation of the law” took place, a grand jury wrote.
Florida's 46th Governor Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd, Tuesday, January 8, in front of Florida's Old Capitol during his inauguration.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida's 46th Governor Ron DeSantis addresses the crowd, Tuesday, January 8, in front of Florida's Old Capitol during his inauguration.
Published Jan. 18, 2019|Updated Jan. 18, 2019

Gov. Ron Desantis has chosen a former Florida Department of Transportation supervisor at the center of an illegal tree-cutting scandal to be the state’s next transportation secretary.

Kevin Thibault was assistant secretary of FDOT in 2009 when a company looking to put up dozens of billboards on state land along Interstate 10 reached out to then-state Rep. Greg Evers.

Evers, a Republican from Baker, was high school buddies with the company’s general manager, and he was also chairman of the powerful House Transportation Committee.

Evers reached out to then-FDOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos, who assigned Thibault to handle the case. What happened next is unclear, but it resulted in the company, Salter Advertising, being allowed to chop down 2,000 state trees without filing the required permits.

By getting around the permit process, the state of Florida lost between $1 million and $4 million in permitting fees, according to a grand jury report. (The Jacksonville Times-Union, which wrote extensively about the scandal, uploaded the grand jury report online here.)

But no one was charged, nor was anyone disciplined. The grand jury, which could not pinpoint blame, found that Thibault was in contact with the District 3 director, James Rodgers, who ordered a colleague to sign off on the permits.

“Whether Rodgers was told to do this by Thibault or someone else is not clear,” the grand jury wrote in its report. “Although Rodgers has suffered a lapse of memory on this point, it is clear that he did order [the colleague] to issue the permits in flagrant violation of the law.”

Rodgers was able to retire with full benefits 18 months later, the grand jury wrote. Kopelousos is now DeSantis' legislative affairs director.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment about the 2009 scandal.

DeSantis, in a Friday press release, called Thibault a “proven leader.”

“One of the most pressing issues facing our state is the need to relieve congestion and continue modernizing our transportation system," DeSantis said. "As he returns to FDOT, I know Secretary Thibault will work hard to achieve the mission of providing a safe transportation system that ensures the mobility of people and goods, enhances economic prosperity and preserves the quality of Florida’s beautiful environment.”

He worked for FDOT for more than 16 years before leaving for the private sector, according to the governor’s office press release.

Thibault was most recently southeast regional senior vice president for TranSystems Corporation, an engineering firm that contracts with FDOT for studies, bridge inspections and road designs. The company has had dozens of contracts with FDOT worth at least $100 million collectively, records show.

Before that, he was senior vice president for Parsons Corporation. With that company, Thibault “developed a national toll practice and engineered the management of the $2.5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge in Windsor, Ontario,” according to the governor’s office.