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State lands director quits amid questions about $500,000 parks contract

Published Dec. 9, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in two years, the boss of Florida's state lands division has quit amid questions about oversight of the state Department of Environmental Protection and its state parks system under Gov. Rick Scott.

Last year, the state lands director quit after a politically unpopular drive to sell off surplus state park land netted zero sales ( tbtim.es/9t).

On Friday, state lands division director Kelley Boree quit after the Tampa Bay Times had been asking the DEP the past month about a sole-source $500,000 contract awarded to a company founded by another DEP employee and her husband. As the Times awaited answers, the DEP canceled the contract.

Boree's resignation came the next day.

Hired last year for the $115,000 a year job after her predecessor quit in 2014, Boree gave no reason for leaving in her resignation letter. When reached Tuesday, Boree said she quit "to pursue other opportunities." However, she said, she has nothing else lined up yet.

The contract with Forestech, also known as F4Tech, called for the company to survey the timber in state parks and evaluate what could be harvested and how much money that could earn the DEP.

Forestech's contract was part of DEP Secretary Jon Steverson's controversial push to make state parks pay for themselves by opening them up to timber harvesting, cattle grazing and hunting ( tbtim.es/qsd). Steverson told a legislative committee this spring that the parks can protect the environment "while still becoming self-sustaining."

The company was one that Steverson knew already. Prior to Scott appointing him the head of DEP in December, Steverson spent two years as the executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District. During his time there, the water district hired Forestech for land management services. Among the jobs it performed was a timber survey similar to the one it was hired to do for the DEP under Steverson.

According to Boree, Steverson is the one who wanted the DEP to hire an outside contractor to review the parks' timber rather than use state employees for the task, which is how it had been done previously.

"The secretary wanted to do something different with technology," Boree said.

Steverson was not involved in drawing up the contract with Forestech other than signing it, she said.

The company was founded in 1998 by Lauren Milligan and her husband, Mark. Lauren Milligan, in a post on Linkedin, said that after 15 years she no longer works for DEP ( tbtim.es/qse). He remains as CEO.

Boree said Lauren Milligan was not involved in negotiating the DEP contract except for making sure her husband signed one document. A DEP spokeswoman said Steverson did not talk to Lauren Milligan about the contract.

After the Times began asking the DEP in September about the Forestech contract, the DEP conducted an internal legal review of the situation. It then hired outside counsel to run a second legal review, which was completed Thursday.

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Both reviews concluded that the agency had followed all state rules for sole-source contracts — yet the DEP canceled the Forestech contract anyway.

"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 a Thursday email, who added that the contract would be rebid.

DEP officials wouldn't specify what questions emerged about the communications or if Boree's resignation the next day was related.

Steverson was tight-lipped. When asked Tuesday if Boree had been forced out, all he said was, "She resigned."

Asked if she quit because of the Forestech contract, Steverson referred all questions to his media relations staff, which responded by releasing Boree's resignation letter.

The Forestech contract runs counter to how the parks used to survey its timber resources, according to Albert Gregory, who retired last year as the state parks' planning director after 30 years with the agency.

Gregory said in the past the DEP generally avoided spending taxpayer money on private contractors for such an assignment. It could be done cheaper using state employees.

"We had our own foresters," he said. If some large task came along, he said, "we worked through the Division of Forestry," which is under Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Putnam was one of two Cabinet officials who in August chastised Steverson for not being open and above-board in trying to squeeze more money out of the park system. Steverson promised then that he would be more open about what he was doing.

At Tuesday's Cabinet meeting, Putnam said he had been told by Steverson's staff that Boree quit because of "circumstances relating to a state procurement." He praised Steverson for keeping him informed.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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