On Sept. 23, Shawn Foster of Southern Strategy Group stood in front of the Pasco County Commission and helped guide the discussion on county priorities for the 2015 session of the Florida Legislature. Foster, in this role, was acting as the commission's $50,000-per-year Tallahassee lobbyist.
That afternoon, commissioners considered a proposed ordinance that would have private ambulance companies to transport advanced-life-support patients on non-emergency trips among hospitals and to hospice facilities. It is a potentially lucrative concession by the county, giving up about 3.5 percent of the ambulance calls that generate 11 percent of revenue in the EMS budget.
The company pushing for the change is MedFleet. The company's lobbyist who accompanied a MedFleet executive to private meetings with commissioners?
It's a dual role that has raised eyebrows inside the Pasco County Government Center.
"It's really, really troubling,'' Commissioner Ted Schrader said. "That absolutely is a concern of mine."
Schrader and Commissioner Jack Mariano opposed the proposed ordinance and lost a 3-2 vote last month when the commission scheduled it for an Oct. 21 public hearing. Lame-duck Commissioner Henry Wilson, the most vocal advocate for the change pushed by MedFleet, said he has no qualms about Foster wearing multiple hats.
"I believe in his character and his integrity,'' Wilson said. "I believe Southern Strategy is the right person to represent the county.''
Foster, through his companies, and MedFleet executives made multiple campaign contributions to Wilson's unsuccessful 2014 re-election campaign. On Jan. 22, nine days before MedFleet applied to the county for its certificate to transport advanced-life-support patients, Wilson's campaign received a $250 donation from Foster's company and $500 from MedFleet president John Williams. By the end of the campaign, Wilson received $1,300 from MedFleet's executives and $500 from Foster's companies, Sunrise Consulting and Sunrise Auctions.
Wilson said the campaign contributions didn't affect his position.
"It has never influenced me one bit,'' Wilson said, "because I'm doing the right thing for the county, the right thing for the public.''
Foster said he was unaware that he and Williams contributed on the same day.
Andrew Williams, MedFleet general manager and vice president, downplayed the contributions.
"I supported Ted and Jack when they were up for election,'' Andrew Williams said. "If political influence is what I'm trying to get, I should get my money back from them.''
Foster's other clients include Seven Diamonds, LLC, an 18-month-old company that earlier this year bought 183 acres in north-central Pasco for what Foster said was a planned sand mine. Company officers include president Lew Friedland and vice president Daniel Aldridge who hold the same titles with the developer of Trinity, Adam Smith Enterprises. Foster said he was retained to work on Trinity's unresolved issue of construction of Interlaken Road in Odessa.
Though Foster reported Seven Diamonds LLC as a client on his state disclosure forms, he said he does not plan to represent them in Tallahassee. So, he was hired to influence Pasco commissioners and Pasco County government administrators?
"Absolutely,'' Foster said.
That remains a problem for Schrader.
"It's just that appearance,'' Schrader said. "It just doesn't look right and if that's the way it's going to be he won't get my vote next time.''