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Bush post raises eyebrows
The former governor has joined the board of a bank whose chief got breaks from him.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER & SYDNEY FREEDBERG, Times Staff Writers
Published December 5, 2007
When an Orlando bank appointed former Gov. Jeb Bush to its board last month, it heralded his eight years in the governor's mansion.
Bush would bring "tremendous talent, leadership and vision" to CNL Bancshares Inc., stated a news release quoting its board chairman, James Seneff.
What the release didn't mention was that four years before the appointment, Bush's administration approved a lucrative tax break for a company that Seneff heads.
Bush's office approved $3.1-million in state and local tax refunds to be paid over eight years to CNL Holdings, which has ties to CNL Bancshares. State records show the company has collected $181,875 so far.
Bush's administration also had another tie to Seneff. It championed a massive toll road that would have boosted the land value of property owned by a second company in which Seneff has a leadership role.
While Bush was governor, his staff pushed the Heartland Parkway, a proposed toll road slated for a rural area that includes a 62,000-acre ranch in Highlands County. Its owner is Atlantic Blue Group, a company that lobbied for the toll road and has Seneff on its corporate board.
In light of this tax refund and road project, Bush should have refused the appointment to CNL Bancshares, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Florida Common Cause, a nonpartisan political watchdog group.
"It smacks of political payback," Wilcox said. "It's the appearance of a conflict that he should want to avoid."
Bush and CNL Bancshares wouldn't comment on how or why he was chosen for the board.
"Seneff doesn't have anything to add to what's in the release," said Mark Tosczak, a spokesman for a parent company, CNL Financial Group, where Seneff is chief executive.
Bush's assistant in Miami said he would not answer questions. "For certain, he didn't want to comment," Maria Barrocas said.
CNL Bancshares is a multibank holding company with assets of more than $1.1-billion, according to its Web site.
It belongs to a group of companies under CNL Financial Group, where Seneff is CEO and founder. All told, the companies manage more than $20-billion in assets, including hotels, retail, restaurants and residential development.
A 2003 tax break
In 2003, CNL Holdings applied for tax breaks to accommodate a $46-million expansion of its Orlando headquarters. Implicit in the company's application was a threat to move its headquarters to another state if it didn't get incentives to stay.
CNL was notified by a division of Bush's office that the project qualified for the tax break in a letter that summer. A second letter, two months later and with the same "Office of the Governor" letterhead, notified CNL it had been approved for the refund.
In exchange for a refund that could include sales, use, corporate income, intangible property and emergency excise taxes, CNL promised to create 418 jobs with an average wage of $62,000.
According to the agreement, CNL was to have created 331 jobs by the end of this year. It's not clear how the company is progressing, however, because it hasn't provided an update since 2004. In that year, it reported having created 171 jobs, said Page Bass, a spokeswoman for Bush's successor, Gov. Charlie Crist. The wages of those jobs and what type of taxes were refunded aren't known either because that information is confidential, Bass said.
Seneff also serves on the board of directors for Atlantic Blue Group, whose CEO is state Sen. J.D. Alexander, a political ally of Bush's.
Atlantic Blue tried to sell a part of its Highlands County ranch in 2006, but failed. The same year, it financed a group that is lobbying for the Heartland Parkway, a toll road that would increase the ranch's development prospects.
The Heartland project under Bush was one of nine proposed toll roads across rural Florida that his administration dubbed "Future Corridors." The project has since fallen out of favor with Crist.
'Shadow over project'
A supporter of a competing transportation vision for Florida said Bush's appointment raises questions about what motivated Future Corridors.
Bill Dunn served on the Florida High-Speed Rail Authority during a period when Bush opposed the effort to link cities with a bullet train.
"It certainly casts a shadow over this project to see (Bush) take this job," he said. "It's the appearance of things, and that's all I can speak to, but it reminds me of Dick Cheney and Halliburton."
Atlantic Blue's largest shareholder, however, didn't see anything improper with Bush's appointment.
"Does it raise eyebrows? Maybe," said state Rep. Baxter Troutman, Alexander's cousin. "But I don't see anything else. ... It's a nonissue. Jeb is a former governor. I'd want him on my board. Who wouldn't?"
Yet if Bush is so desirable, he should have flexibility to avoid appointments that might hint at favoritism, Wilcox said.
"He has a right to make a living after leaving office," Wilcox said. "But maybe there are ways to do that without leaving the perception that he's being rewarded for something he did while in office."
Board pay not public
How much board members get paid at CNL Bancshares, a privately held company, isn't public.
Board members at a related public company, CNL Income Properties, could earn $68,000 a year with salary and payment for meetings attended, according to a 2006 proxy statement.
This is the second corporate board appointment for Bush. In May, Tenet Healthcare Corp. created a special board seat for Bush. Last year, Tenet directors other than the chairman were paid fees of $97,700 to $129,222. Bush will also get restricted stock worth $260,000.
Times staff writer Kris Hundley contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.