IG: Ex-Gov. Crist, others helped now-bankrupt firm
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 5:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 5:58 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — A now-bankrupt company was able to win $20 million from the state through the help of former Gov. Charlie Crist and other state leaders, according to a newly released investigative report.
The final report issued Tuesday by Gov. Rick Scott's chief inspector general concludes that no law was broken even though it appears that the normal process was sidestepped. Still the 130-page report contains plenty of finger-pointing, directing blame at Crist, a top official in the Crist administration, a former state legislator from Tampa and even Florida State University.
Scott last year ordered an investigation into the decision to award money to help bring Digital Domain Media Group to Port. St. Lucie. The company — known for its work on the film "Titanic" — last year closed the facility and shed about 280 workers.
The report shows that the state's economic development arm questioned the deal and would only sign off on a smaller amount than the company eventually received.
Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel also reported that it's possible a similar arrangement could still occur under current laws and rules if the governor and Legislature want it.
"This Inspector General report shows two things - first, our current economic project vetting process is in place for a reason, and second, that process was clearly circumvented by the previous administration for the Digital Domain deal," Scott said in a statement about the report. "We must ensure Florida has the tools needed to compete for economic investment, but we must also ensure that competitive process includes protocols to safeguard taxpayer dollars by focusing on a return on investment."
Crist, who was elected as a Republican but recently became a Democrat, has signaled that he may seek to unseat Scott, a Republican, in 2014.
Crist didn't immediately answer a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.
The failure of the Digital Domain deal has prompted legislators to remain skeptical about going along with Scott's push to increase the amount of money available for economic incentives.
The report details how Digital Domain reached out to Florida officials about help in locating a facility in the state. Enterprise Florida — the agency charged with recruiting businesses — questioned the financial statements of the company and whether the deal should go forward.
But Digital Domain was able to secure the $20 million with the help of Crist, former Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa and the GOP-controlled Legislature. State lawmakers placed a provision in the state budget that enabled Crist to award money to Digital Domain even though the company was not mentioned by name.
After the budget was passed, Crist wrote legislative leaders in May 2009 to say he planned to give money to the company.
Ambler was later appointed to the Digital Domain board and newspaper reports stated his son went to work for the company.
State auditors were unable to interview Crist.
But an attorney representing Ambler said his client defended the process and said that Ambler was not promised any personal benefit in exchange for helping Digital Domain.
Meanwhile, Ambler's attorney laid some of the blame on FSU. A March 25 letter from Stanley Wakshlag stated that FSU asked Amber for help getting funding for Digital Domain.
FSU President Eric Barron said he has not seen the final inspector general report and could not comment.
Dale Brill, a top official in the Crist administration, was also listed by some as the author of the provision that legislators used to steer money to Digital Domain. Brill, in his own response to auditors, denied this. Brill also said that he did not recommend against the deal because if he had done so, he would have been fired.
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