Thousands of palm trees along Florida's highways are dying or need to be moved, a Tampa TV station has reported. Now the ABC Action News I-Team is suggesting Gov. Rick Scott's politics are part of the problem.
In a broadcast yesterday, the station reported that Scott's expensive landscaping program, known as "Bold," which some observers say is the cause of the die-off, was really the idea of Homestead tree farmer Manuel Diaz. Under the 2012 program, hardwood trees and shrubs were replaced with palm trees, many of which are nonnative to Florida and cost thousands of dollars each.
The TV station obtained a letter showing that Homestead tree farmer Manuel Diaz pitched the idea of Bold to the governor soon after he was elected in 2011. “I would like to present you with a wonderful dream, which working together, we can quickly turn into a reality,” Diaz wrote. “Presently, I have the largest ornamental tree farm in the world. Certainly, nobody is greener. I know that each palm tree will be a living monument for our citizens and visitors to enjoy during their lifetime.”
Records show Diaz and his businesses donated at least $60,000 to help Scott get elected. You might have heard of Diaz. A Miami-Dade County grand jury indicted him in 2000 after prosecutors said he stole a million dollars from taxpayers by failing to deliver the size and quality of palm trees purchased by the county. That case never went to trial.
And Miami-Dade later placed Manuel Diaz Farms (MDF) on a delinquent-contractors list after the company allegedly failed to replace nearly $100,000 in dead and dying palm trees purchased by the Parks and Recreation Department.
MDF hired an attorney and eventually reached a settlement in 2010 to provide new trees to the county for free. In return, the company was removed from the debarment list, which had to be disclosed whenever MDF sought state or other municipal contracts.
Emails and letters show Diaz developed a close relationship with Scott’s first FDOT secretary, Ananth Prasad. In a letter dated September 25, 2011, Diaz thanked Prasad for the opportunity to discuss in detail the “New Bold Concept” with FDOT landscaping architects.
“Your intervention is critical to finalize the approval of the piggyback process,” Diaz wrote to Prasad. “This will be the only method to get to work now.”
Soon MDF earned millions of dollars in what FDOT called pushbutton contracts, a concept Prasad introduced in 2013. They were initiated to “provide the Department with a means of quickly responding to critical highway construction needs via a competitively bid indefinite quantity contract,” according to an estimates bulletin released by FDOT.
“Due to the scope of these contracts, plan details are not available at the time of bid,” the bulletin said.
Records show the state paid MDF as much as $7,800 for date palms available from other dealers for less than half that price.
“That money just evaporated,” said Mahendra Setaram, president of Dynamics Group Inc. of Ocoee, which has done millions of dollars in landscaping work for FDOT over the past 30-plus years.
He notified FDOT that trees MDF planted as part of a $10 million project along Florida's Turnpike did not meet state standards and that many were dying.
At the same time, FDOT was attempting to fine MDF for planting trees that didn’t measure up. “Their standards, the way that we're being treated compared to them, are totally different,” Setaram said.
FDOT reports released after Prasad resigned in late 2014 indicate MDF sold the state dozens of substandard trees at multiple sites, failed to perform regular contracted maintenance, and refused to replace dead trees still under warranty.
But during Prasad’s tenure as secretary, emails show MDF received special access to the secretary. In one email, company employees told Prasad which Bold projects Diaz wanted to do, providing approximate prices before the projects went out for bid.
An FDOT official copied in that email chain added, “Looks like you guys have it wired tight already... I should have known."
“That provides an unfair advantage to them. They have more information, more time,” Setaram said of MDF's receiving advanced notice of potential projects.
FDOT is required by Florida law to advertise projects online simultaneously so that all vendors have the same opportunity to submit bids.
Another email obtained through a records request referred to a landscape design for the I-595/I-95 interchange in South Florida.
That plan had not yet been advertised, but a top FDOT employee wrote, “The project has already been gamed.”
An FDOT landscape architect wrote to the director of transportation development: “In meeting here with Secretary Prasad last Monday, Mr. Diaz committed to preparing a BOLD landscape plan to give to the Secretary on April 29th.”
The director replied, “I am not sure why Mr. Diaz is preparing a bold plan, I had discussed, and the Secretary approved going forward with a lettering as quickly as possible."
According to the email, the bid letting, which is the opening of bid proposals for highway construction and maintenance projects, was scheduled for July 2013, three months after Diaz indicated he would have a plan prepared for the Prasad.
The email said the project would be advertised 14 days before the bids were opened.
“You want as many qualified people bidding these projects as possible to give you the best price,” Setaram said. “The taxpayers end up paying more because of that reason.”
Other emails show Prasad traveled to South Florida from Tallahassee at least seven times in one year for face-to-face meetings with Diaz. Taxpayers picked up the tab for the secretary's travels. He listed the purpose of trips as meeting with business leaders.
One visit to Manuel Diaz Farms occurred in December 2014, after Prasad had announced his resignation as secretary of transportation.
Emails show MDF employees picked up Prasad and other FDOT officials at Miami International Airport and drove them to the farm.
“I don't see why a secretary would want to meet with a landscaping vendor. I see no reason for that, especially multiple times,” said Setaram, who says neither he nor his father, who founded his company, has ever met with an FDOT secretary.
“He wouldn't return my email,” Setaram said.
The station contacted Prasad, who is now president designate of the Florida Transportation Builders' Association.
He replied, “Not sure I want to comment.”
New Times sent him a long list of specific questions, but he did not respond.
FDOT spokesperson Tom Yu sent the following statement: "As previously reported, the contracts awarded to Manuel Diaz Farms went through the normal, open, and competitive procurement processes in accordance with Florida law. Push button/task work order driven contracts are approved by the Federal Highway Administration as a process that enables a shorter schedule based upon pre-approved contract pay items and corresponding unit prices to achieve a Bold Vision landscaping program. Florida law requires no less than 1.5 percent of the amount of annual construction projects to be allocated by the Department of the purpose of plant materials. Secretary Prasad, and other Department Secretaries, frequently traveled the state to meet with transportation contractors, consultants, and local officials to discuss the implementation of the Department's work program."
Yu did not respond to a series of follow-up questions from New Times.
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The I-Team also called, emailed, and visited Manuel Diaz Farms in Homestead, but nobody would talk. Members of the team also visited Diaz’s mansion in Coral Gables, which is listed for sale for $55 million, but were told he wasn’t available.
FDOT recently stopped planting large numbers of palm trees but is still paying millions of dollars to maintain those planted as part of Bold.
Setaram thinks the state should review FDOT’s bid process and how contracts involving MDF were handled. “Whoever is not involved in this mess needs to do a shakeup and make sure these projects are bid right,” Setaram says. “It would benefit us all.”
To see the full video report of this story, visit ABC Action News.