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I'm a public official (and Ecobank rep)

Published December 18, 2006

Florida has more wetlands than any other state but Alaska. They stop floods, clean up water pollution, and replenish drinking supplies. Yet despite government promises, they are disappearing.

SANFORD - To see how cozy the deal-making can get in the world of wetland mitigation banking, look at what happened when the Orlando-Sanford Airport built a runway through a swamp.

The chairman of the airport authority, Kenneth Wright, told the board they should buy credits from the Colbert-Cameron Wetland Mitigation Bank. Wright said he had checked out a competitor, Ecobank, but recommended against it.

Colbert-Cameron co-owner William Colbert - who happened to be Sanford's city attorney - had offered to sell the airport its $20,000 credits for a discount price of $18,000 each. Thrilled at the savings, board members voted June 2, 1998, to buy from Colbert's bank.

But Ecobank found a way to take the sale away from him: pay politicians for their help.

Ecobank hired the chairman of the Seminole County Commission, Randy Morris, and the chairman of the Seminole GOP, Jim Stelling, to sell wetlands credits.

Ecobank Vice President Alan Fickett testified that the two politicians were hired because of "their ability to deal with political entities." Their first target: the airport project Colbert thought he had sewed up.

"They were very well acquainted with the chairman of that authority, attorney Kenneth Wright. And they indicated they could assist us in getting these credits. ... ," Fickett testified. "And they made contact with Mr. Wright, and we had a number of discussions back and forth with him and with Commissioner Morris and Mr. Stelling."

Morris and Stelling, who sold real estate, had been friends with Wright, a politically active development attorney, for a decade. In 2000, when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed Wright chairman of the state's Environmental Regulation Commission, he listed Stelling as a character reference.

Four days after Morris and Stelling were hired, the deal was done: On June 8, 1998, Ecobank sold 17.3 credits to the airport authority for more than $300,000 in public money. The price: $17,500 per credit, undercutting Colbert's discount by $500.

Records show that Wright alone made the decision to switch to Ecobank, with his board ratifying the purchase after the fact.

"We were able to induce Mr. Wright, due to our friendship with him, to do business with Ecobank," Stelling testified.

But for Wright, friendship only went so far, according to testimony from Fickett and Ecobank CEO D. Miller McCarthy.

McCarthy testified: "Morris and Stelling, one or the other or both - I can't remember - called me late one night and asked if I would pay a commission to Ken Wright if we got the order for the mitigation for the runway," and so the airport chairman "was given 25 percent commission on sales for the taxiway." Fickett gave similar testimony.

Wright did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. Testifying in a lawsuit Morris and Stelling later filed against Ecobank, Wright denied getting any commission for the airport deal, and there is no evidence that he did.

Howard Seitz, the attorney for Ecobank's partner, said that at the time of the airport deal, McCarthy told him Wright "would be entitled to a commission" if Ecobank got the contract. Seitz said he questioned the propriety of that arrangement.

"My concern was whether that was fully disclosed to everyone," said Seitz, a New York attorney. "I didn't want anyone to come back and say they didn't know about it. I was assured by Miller that everything had been done properly."

McCarthy and Fickett now say they were "confused" by an attorney's questions and didn't mean to say Wright was paid for his help landing the airport job.

Fickett testified that Morris and Stelling split a $37,844 commission on the airport deal.

Though Wright denied getting a commission on the public airport deal, his work on behalf of his private clients was another story. He testified that he told Stelling in their first conversation about Ecobank that before he would deal with the company for his development clients, "I would have to receive some kind of discount or commission."

That's how Ecobank gained a third salesman. Wright testified that over the next two years he received thousands of dollars in commissions "marketing" Ecobank credits to his clients.

A month after the airport deal, Wright said he landed a customer for Ecobank: Seminole County. For $48,000, the county bought 2.4 credits to make up for wetlands destroyed by a road widened for a new development.

The check to Ecobank was signed by none other than Wright's fellow Ecobank salesman, the chairman of the Seminole Commission ... Randy Morris.

Wright's commission: $6,000.

A few months later, Morris and Stelling sent Ecobank an invoice that said they, too, were owed money for helping nail down the sale to Seminole County. They pursued payment for that and other sales until, ultimately, they sued the company for breach of contract.

At that point, Stelling testified in 2001, they realized that because Morris was on the county commission, they shouldn't claim any money from that sale.

But Morris says now that the money for the road really came from the developer and not the county, so "technically I could have been paid." However, the commissioner said he decided to let it go "because it wouldn't have been right."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird and clerk Barbara Moch contributed to this story.

Much of the information in these stories came from court records in three cases: Ecobank's and D. Miller McCarthy's bankruptcies, and Randy Morris and Jim Stelling's lawsuit against Ecobank.

Also used were records from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Johns River Water Management District, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Orlando-Sanford Airport Authority, the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Florida Cabinet.

Among those interviewed were Morris, Alan Fickett, Howard Seitz, Henry Dean, George Howard, Dennis Benbow and Denver Stutler.

McCarthy responded to questions submitted in writing and gave a brief follow-up interview.

Florida Environmental Regulation Commission chairman Ken Wright did not respond to repeated phone calls and e-mails.

[Last modified December 19, 2006, 00:05:01]

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