Advertisement
  1. Opinion

Editorial: Full investigation needed of former state fair boss

It’s not exactly the arms-for-hostages scandal, but the alleged self-dealing at the Florida State Fair is an embarrassment to the state and a sorry picture of what happens when a public agency operates largely behind the curtain.
It’s not exactly the arms-for-hostages scandal, but the alleged self-dealing at the Florida State Fair is an embarrassment to the state and a sorry picture of what happens when a public agency operates largely behind the curtain.
Published Mar. 23, 2016

It's not exactly the arms-for-hostages scandal, but the alleged self-dealing at the Florida State Fair is an embarrassment to the state and a sorry picture of what happens when a public agency operates largely behind the curtain. State prosecutors need to conduct a serious and thorough investigation, and the entire operation needs a good spring cleaning.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Tony Marrero and Sue Carlton reported Wednesday, the state fair's executive director, Chuck Pesano, resigned last month, one day after a state investigation found that he used his position to funnel business to his family's company. Investigators found that the fair's history museum, Cracker Country, bought candles from Pesano's family business. He also received a hot tub from a spa manufacturer — a vendor and one of the fair's major sponsors — along with tickets, beverages and food for sporting events from the fair's exclusive catering vendor.

These arrangements might be normal in some private businesses, but they have no place in a public sector operation, where officials need to keep their private lives and official duties separate. The lengthy report by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the agency that oversees the fair, paints a picture of an office out of control. Staff members said Pesano made a point of promoting his family's business. Several subordinates said they tried to raise concerns but were ignored. The report said Pesano had fair employees make signs for the family business at a reduced price. An executive with a major fair sponsor, Lazydays RV, said that during a meeting Pesano "essentially asked" if the company "had any interest" in buying his family's candles.

Pesano down played the issue, telling investigators he traded candles for the hot tub, and that he only mentioned the business "in general conversation" while in his official capacity. But state investigators concluded Pesano broke Florida law by conducting private business with his office, engaging in a conflict of interest and accepting gifts. The agency has asked the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to investigate the findings.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who supervises the fair authority and appoints 19 of the other 21 members of its governing board, deserves credit for acting quickly upon receiving the complaint to investigate the allegations of insider dealing. Putnam showed similar concern for the public interest in 2014 by killing a flawed proposal that would have handed large parts of the fairground property east of Tampa to a private developer.

A major problem then — as now — was a lack of oversight of the senior staff, including Pesano. While the fair authority is legally required to operate in public, in practice the administration has been unresponsive for years, in part because of the closed nature of the fair's governing culture. The commissioner has the power to shake up the board, and in the wake of this scandal, a strong move toward diversity and openness could be the fair's best friend.

Unlike other ethics cases that state authorities routinely pawn off on federal prosecutors, this matter squarely involves a state interest that Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober should address. From its inception, the fair has existed for one purpose — to honor Florida's history and culture. An institution charged with promoting the Florida way of life should not be devaluing it. Ober should keep that damage in mind as he conducts his investigation.

Advertisement

This site no longer supports your current browser. Please use a modern and up-to-date browser version for the best experience.

Chrome Firefox Safari Edge