Don Curtis said he knew something was wrong when he saw the contract announcement from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
This past spring, the DEP planned to hire a company called Forestech to survey the amount of timber to be harvested from state parks. The Tallahassee company claimed only it had the technology to get the job done.
Yet Curtis, a competing contractor, said the Forestech software is off-the-shelf.
"Anybody can buy it," Curtis said.
Curtis objected to the DEP. The agency soon announced it would take bids for the job. Even then, however, Curtis said he noticed the DEP all but specified Forestech in seeking the bids.
"It looked like they were trying to lock out anyone else," Curtis said.
That $500,000 Forestech contract was canceled last month. Questions about how it was awarded led to the resignations of at least two agency officials and renewed concerns about DEP Secretary Jon Steverson's management of the state park system.
"It's just another example of the DEP operating in the dark," said Albert Gregory, who spent nearly 30 years with the agency and recently retired as the chief of park planning.
Steverson, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last December to head the agency, announced in March his intention to make the parks generate enough money to pay all of their bills.
He named cattle grazing and timber harvesting as moneymaking activities he wanted to explore. The Times subsequently found documents showing that hunting is another activity for parks under consideration.
Initially viewed as an example of how Steverson wants to monetize state parks, the Forestech contract instead became an embarrassment for the DEP.
This spring, DEP employees were told to set up two pilot projects for Steverson, according to Dana Bryan, who until recently was the park service's environmental policy coordinator. Myakka River State Park became a test for cattle grazing, while the Cross Florida Greenway became the test case for timber harvesting.
Steverson wanted to use specific technology for the timber harvesting, according to Kelley Boree, who was in charge of the agency's Division of State Lands at the time. A company that Steverson knew provided that technology.
Before being appointed to run the DEP, Steverson served as executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. In 2013, he hired Forestech, which offered software for reviewing timber harvest possibilities. Forestech got a $10,000 contract to survey the district's timber.
The company could do more than just look at the trees, Boree said. Its software enabled the company to project what the landscape would look like 50 years in the future.
"That was what he had in mind," Boree said. "We were to try to use the same type of tech."
The company, also known as F4Tech, had been founded in 1998 by a timber expert named Mark Milligan and his wife, Lauren, a DEP official. Mrs. Milligan eventually left the company but her husband remained CEO.
Milligan was a staunch supporter of Steverson's push to make state parks profitable. In fact, when parks officials met to discuss how to meet Steverson's new goals, Milligan was one of the speakers explaining what they could do — with his company's help, of course.
Boree said she worked with Forestech officials to craft a document declaring that the company was the only one that could provide what the DEP needed.
In April, a DEP notice went out about the $240,000 sole-source contract for Forestech. That's when Curtis fired off an email to DEP officials asking why Forestech would be considered a sole source. Several forestry consulting companies in Florida could provide the same services, he said in the email.
He never got a response. Instead, DEP officials scrubbed that contract. Instead of using Boree for the next round of bids, the DEP's procurement staff rewrote the job specifications. A new request for bids was posted in June.
But because Curtis thought the job had been specifically written for Forestech, he didn't apply. Neither did anyone else. The job went to Forestech.
There was an obvious problem, however, with awarding Forestech a contract involving timber harvesting at the Cross Florida Greenway. The DEP had already signed a contract in February with a different company, A.W. Powers Forestry, for timber harvesting. Forestech had bid on that then, but its price was far higher than the bid by Powers.
So DEP officials decided to make another change to benefit Forestech.
When timber business owner A.W. Powers showed up in July to collect the DEP files he needed to do the work, he said, he got a nasty surprise: "I was told they changed the entire contract and now it was going to be for five times as much land."
DEP officials then told him something even more unsettling. A company called Forestech would audit him.
"I said, 'No, thanks,' " Powers said. " 'To hell with it. I'm walking. I don't have time for this.' "
Six days later, Powers sent the DEP an invoice for $4,883, which he figured covered his time and expenses up to that point. By mid November, the bill had yet to be paid.
His exit opened the way for Forestech to take over. A clause in the contract allowed the DEP to expand the scope to cover the whole state, and even handle some land management duties for the agency.
In August, Steverson was officially rehired as DEP boss by the governor and Cabinet, despite concerns about his proposed changes to the park system. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam urged him to drop the idea, while Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater urged him to be more open.
The Forestech contract and the Cross Florida Greenway pilot project did not come up.
The Times began asking questions about the contract the following month. As it awaited responses, the DEP had two lawyers review the contract. Both produced October reports that gave the process a clean bill of health because Forestech did not help prepare the documents used in the competitive bidding. Still, it was similar to the request for bids Boree wrote with the help of Forestech officials earlier this year.
Both Boree and Lauren Milligan resigned from the agency last month, and the DEP canceled the Forestech contract.
"While these reviews concluded that the law was followed regarding this contract, questions emerged regarding communications around the agreement," DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email last month.
A new bid package has gone out — but Curtis said that also seems to contain language tilting the odds in favor of Forestech.
Gregory said problems with the contract were a predictable result of Steverson's lack of transparency.
"The public has begged to be involved, and the Cabinet members urged him to operate with more transparency and to involve the stakeholders more," the former park planner said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @craigtimes.