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Documents: Florida legislator helped friend with secret $1 million state payment

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TALLAHASSEE - A state senator helped a friend's business obtain $1 million hidden in the state budget after the two discussed how the lawmaker would promote the business, budget documents and emails show.

Sen. Aaron Bean helped secure a $1 million special appropriation in this year's budget for an early mental health screening program run by Catherine Drew, the wife of Nassau County Tax Collector John Drew. Bean and John Drew have been friends for more than a decade and have supported each other politically.

The Drews operate Florida Psychological Associates in Fernandina Beach in northeastern Florida. They used the state money to start a pilot program that conducts early mental health assessments for schoolchildren and criminal defendants. Part of the program includes the development of a Web application named “Celphie.”

Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, initially asked legislative leaders to add nearly $700,000 as a line item in the state budget for the program, but that request was knocked down to $100,000 and eventually rejected by House members, records show.

Drew then discussed with Bean seeking the money through other House and Senate channels, emails show. And a lawmaker said Bean asked him to make a separate $1 million request for the program that was hidden in the Florida State University College of Medicine budget.

The $1 million secret appropriation, which is not subject to the governor's line-item veto, is among $315 million in special requests granted through universities to lawmakers over the past seven years, with no specific mention of them anywhere in the budget, according to a compilation of the payments by the Naples Daily News. Those special requests were at the center of a clash before this year's session between House and Senate leaders, who resolved the conflict by allowing the requests to continue under certain restrictions.

Emails between Drew and Bean show they discussed obtaining the state money and how Drew hoped to use it in his Florida Psychological Associates. A Dec. 18, 2015, email addressed to Bean, marketing consultant John Daigle and others features Drew discussing how everyone involved in the effort stood to benefit financially from the deal.

“I am truly looking forward to this partnership and FINALLY everyone making money together from a product that will help the community,” Drew wrote to Bean and the others in the email obtained by the Daily News through a public records request for Bean's Senate correspondence.

Emails show the Drews planned to use the taxpayer money to create an assessment program designed to reveal early signs of mental illness in students and criminal defendants around northeastern Florida.

In a Dec. 14, 2015, email, Drew asked Bean to create a presentation with Daigle to promote the program.

“This is the presentation that you will take on the road with you to other states as well as the one that we will use in the Florida Legislature,” Drew wrote to Bean. "We have chosen not to advance further with the design until you provide direction."

Two days later, Drew sent Bean an email asking, "Are you ready to sit down and give Daigle some marching orders on what you want your marketing material to look like? Content? Etc."

Bean responded, "Yes, week after Christmas."

In another email, Drew asked Bean to help him create a marketing flier for the Celphie app.

Bean declined to discuss the issue directly with the Daily News, instead answering questions submitted in emails through a hired consultant. In his emailed response, Bean said he did not benefit from the state money sent to Drew's company. He dismissed claims that the emails could be interpreted as plans for him to profit from Drew's business.

“I have always operated above board and this instance is no different,” Bean said in a statement provided by Tallahassee communications consultant Sarah Bascom. “Over the last 20 years that I have been in public service I have never had my ethics or intentions questioned.”

When asked why Drew's email mentions Bean promoting the program in other states, Bean, an auctioneer who also works part-time at University of Florida Health in Jacksonville, responded, "I don't know why."

The Drews and FSU have declined to detail how the $1 million was spent and who received payments as employees or contractors from the program, although FSU released invoices that show broad areas of spending for equipment, startup costs and other general items.

Drew declined to discuss the funding request specifically with the Daily News but issued a statement through Daigle. Drew noted in the statement that he couldn't comment further "due to a duty of confidentiality." He was named in complaints to the Florida Commission on Ethics by a political opponent, although the accusations did not include Bean's help in obtaining the $1 million from the state.

Drew said the allegations that he misused his office by Carlos Slay, who ran against him last year for the county tax collector position, were "frivolous" and "unfounded."

"I am confident that any further investigations will result in the same conclusion that these allegations are unfounded and malicious as has already been determined by two separate elected state attorneys," Drew said.

Bean also cited a complaint as his reason for not discussing the budget request, “because it was all turned over to the ethics commission and they are investigating.” The complaint questions his role in a failed attempt to secure the initial $100,000 he sought for the Drews' mental health screening program but doesn't mention the $1 million hidden in the state budget.

The Daily News requested all emails between Bean's office and Drew from the Senate. But Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said those emails were deleted from the system. Senate rules allow each member to determine when emails can be deemed obsolete, "at which point they may be otherwise disposed of or destroyed," the chamber's manual states.

However, Betta provided copies of emails sent to Slay in response to his earlier records request.

Those emails show that Drew worked with Bean and an aide to the lawmaker, starting in January 2016, to craft a request for $692,774 in state money for the mental health assessment program managed by Drew's company. The request was for state money in a separate line item for the FSU medical school clearly identified in the budget.

On Jan. 16, 2016, John Drew sent Bean the draft of a budget request form. Four days later, Bean wrote that he approved the draft and asked that it be sent to his aide.

On Jan. 22, 2016, Catherine Drew, who holds a courtesy faculty position at FSU, sent the senator's office the $692,774 request, listing Bean as its sponsor.

But three weeks later, Kate West, an analyst in Gov. Rick Scott’s Office of Policy and Budget, determined that the Drews' program should receive only $100,000.

In a Feb. 15, 2016 email, Drew told Bean he had asked West to reconsider the full $692,774 request.

"Please know that we will continue to attempt to increase this funding amount through the House and Senate," Drew wrote to West and forwarded the email to Bean.

“We really need the $692,774 that was in the original request to make this a STELLAR project,” Drew wrote to Bean.

Bean responded, "Cool beans."

On Feb. 27, 2016, House members discussing budget issues with Senate counterparts rejected the $100,000 line-item request.

The next day, lawmakers negotiating the budget received a request to tuck $1 million inside FSU's medical school budget for the program, where it would not be subject to rejection by other lawmakers or the governor.

Rep. Halsey Beshears, a Monticello Republican whose district does not include the FSU medical school, said he made the last-minute request for Bean.

Beshears said he checked with his staff and reviewed records to refresh his memory that Bean sought the money.

“That isn’t one of the projects I was passionate about for North Florida, but I’m sure there was a good reason for the money, and I trust Sen. Bean,” Beshears said. “In that late hour, especially if you’ve got something like FSU in your community, you’ve got requests flying around left and right.”

Several days later, Bean contacted FSU President John Thrasher about the $1 million going to the medical school, university officials said.

Bean denied asking Beshears to request the $1 million. Bascom, the consultant who offered his responses, said lobbyists Derek Whitis and Rhett O'Doski asked Beshears for it.

​Bean said he lobbied Thrasher because he supports mental health programs.

"I told the president this was a worthy project and told him it was worthy of his consideration," Bean offered in a written response. "To imply that I did so out of anything other than constituent support or support of a worthy effort would simply be untrue."

Later, when asked to respond to Bean's denial that he sought the money, Beshears said he couldn't recall.

“I really don’t remember making that request,” Beshears said. “It could have been Sen. Bean and it could have been a lobbyist."

O’Doski said he asked Beshears to submit the request. But the House request form that Beshears submitted didn't list O'Doski. It identifies FSU lobbyist Kathleen Daly as the requester.

Daly said through an email sent by FSU spokeswoman Browning Brooks she did not make the request and her email listed on the form was wrong.

Beshears could not explain why Daly was on the request.

"I really don't remember," he said.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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