ST. PETERSBURG — Florida Sen. Darryl Rouson sought $1.7 million in the state budget two years ago for a daycare center associated with his church. He eventually got the center $1 million.
In his request, the Democrat listed Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and its nonprofit, Mt. Zion Human Services, as the recipients.
According to Senate records, Rouson didn’t disclose that his wife, Angela Rouson, held positions in both organizations.
“If I made a mistake unwillingly, I own it,” Rouson told the Tampa Bay Times recently. “I apologize for that. I don’t believe I broke any laws or conflicts.”
In city and county government, officials must abstain from voting on matters that could benefit them personally. But state lawmakers can vote on matters in which they have a financial stake as long as they disclose it up to 15 days after the vote is cast.
Rouson said no disclosure was needed for his request because he and his wife didn’t stand to benefit.
This wasn’t the first time his wife’s position overlapped with state money Rouson secured for his district. He helped get $100,000 approved in the 2015 budget for an obscure 1,500-square-foot historical home called the Fannye Ponder Council House. Angela Rouson was the president of the board that owned the home.
A former Republican, Rouson credits his transactional approach to legislating for his record of winning state money for hometown projects. He’ll vote for budgets and measures crafted by Republicans, he has said, if it can bring back pork.
“I fought hard in an unfriendly climate by staying on weekends and into the wee hours of the last weekend to find $1 million,” Rouson said in 2010, explaining how money for a youth employment program in his district factored into his decision to vote for the budget — the only House Democrat to do so. “I intend to keep working hard for (my district) and Democratic principles, and I will do so by reaching across lines where it advances the interests of the voters of (my district).”
In early March 2017, Rouson made a written request for $1.7 million. He listed the reason as the daycare needed help to provide educational services, according to a Senate records.
The form requires senators to break down how the money would be spent. In one section, the lawmaker wrote: “$97,500” to pay for “executive director/project head salary and benefits.”
A week later — March 17, 2017 — Angela Rouson became executive director of the daycare operator, Mt. Zion Human Services, according to her Facebook profile. Her involvement at the church started a year earlier, according to her Linkedin profile.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the budget in June 2017, which awarded $1 million.
After the money was awarded, the daycare faced multiple safety violations for not properly training or screening employees and not properly heating classrooms, according to inspection reports.
Two children suffered “severe, humiliating or frightening” injuries, records show.
A 5-year-old boy injured his eye when a worker tried to restrain him. The center also failed to document the incident and did not “immediately” notify the parent about the serious injury, records show.
A 2-year-old girl suffered harsh discipline when a worker grabbed the child by the braid and pulled her over to a chair. The worker yanked the girl’s hair twice, which caused it to come out of her head, according to records.
The Florida Department of Education suspended the payments. The daycare had only spent $76,401, according to an email from the Department of Education.
Even as the center worked to become compliant, Rouson filled out a new request in January 2018 to get the suspended money back in the budget for fiscal year 2018-19, according to Senate records.
“THIS IS NOT A NEW REQUEST,” the form states.
The form lists the church and daycare as the recipients, records show.
In April 2018, the Florida Department of Education terminated the contract with the daycare on “grounds related to the health, safety or welfare of children.”
Rouson said his attempts to secure money for the daycare didn’t pose a conflict.
He said his wife works for the church and “volunteers” 20 hours a week to oversee the nonprofit organization.
“They are two separate entities,” Rouson said. “Not Angela or I gained one penny from this. She took this on in a labor of love.”
His legislative assistant provided a paycheck stub for Angela Rouson. It lists “Human Resources International, Inc.” in St. Petersburg as her employer. She earns about $600 each pay period, the stub shows.
Furthermore, Rouson said it is common knowledge in St. Petersburg that she works at the church and volunteers at the daycare.
Asked to explain how all taxpayers across his Senate district would know the information, he said they could make the connection with “Linkedin, Facebook and Google” or the Internet.
“It was never a secret,” said Rouson, the chairman of Pinellas County’s legislative delegation. “This appropriation was all about the children.”
The year Rouson secured the $1 million came the same year he and five other Democrats broke ranks to support a controversial Republican ballot proposal to increase the state’s homestead property tax exemption to $75,000.
Voters defeated the proposal in November 2018.
“I did not trade that vote for anything,” Rouson said. “I erred on the side of caution to let the voters decide. They did.”