An internal investigation requested by Melissa Meeker, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, concludes that neither she nor her staff did any wrong in awarding a billboard contract to her former business partner — who is also a former board member.
“We found no evidence of Executive Director collusion with any district staff or external parties or coercion regarding the (billboard) solicitation,” wrote J. Timothy Beirnes, the district’s inspector general in his 10-page report released on Monday. “We found no indication that the Executive Director was involved in the vendor selection process or in any way attempted to interfere with the process.”
Authority to erect digital billboards on district land came in a last-minute provision added to a larger funding bill on March 9, 2012. Public records do not identify who inserted the billboard provision into the funding bill.
Harkley Thornton, an Orlando billboard executive and former district board member and business partner of Meeker, denied any involvement. Dean Cannon, Thornton’s friend and Speaker of the House when the law passed, also denied knowledge. So did Meeker. However, at its July 12, 2012 board meeting — 12 days after law went into effect — billboards were on the board’s agenda.
The district initially sought one firm to erect billboards. The Lamar Company won the top ranking. But after learning the district would split the contract with the second-ranked firm — Thornton’s Florida Communication Advisors — Lamar filed a complaint, claiming FCA did not have enough experience and financial wherewithal and that “it is well known” that Thornton was a “former longtime member of the district’s governing board.”
On Feb. 5 the district dropped its billboard program amid a flood of criticism that followed a Post article on Jan. 20. Still, Meeker asked for an investigation because the article “implied that she was inappropriately involved in the selection of Florida Communication Advisors,” Beirnes wrote.
In his investigation, Beirnes interviewed Meeker, the district’s procurement staff and members of the selection committee. He also reviewed solicitation and bid documents and state ethics rules. Beirnes does not say whether he interviewed Thornton, officials with The Lamar Company or inquired about who placed billboards on the July 12, 2012 board agenda.
“The scope of our investigation did not include the inferences of secrecy and influence involving how OPIS (Outdoor Public Information System) was enacted into law,” Beirnes wrote.