BRADENTON – Three years after a politically-connected billboard company illegally removed over 2,000 state-owned trees, the state has agreed to accept just 5 percent of their value, which they will collect over a five-year period – interest free. A grand jury report said FDOT was "in flagrant violation of the law" when it permitted the removals, despite multiple problems with the applications. The company escaped over $4 million in mitigation fees because the applications were illegally permitted, though no one at FDOT has been charged or otherwise punished.
FDOT recently agreed to settle the matter for a mere $100,000, which will be paid to them over the next five years. The grand jury followed a series of reports by the Jacksonville Times Union, regarding the relationship between the agency, Bill Salter Advertising, and Florida Senator Greg Evers (R-Crestview). The grand jury said that Evers actively advocated on behalf of the company, where a high school classmate of his was the general manager.
According to the Times Union, the company also gave the National Rifle Association a discount of over $125,000 for 32 of the billboards, which promoted Evers in his Senate campaign. The grand jury report indicated that a district director told staff to sign off on 110 permits for the company, though the company failed to submit documentation regarding how they would either replace the trees or pay mitigation fees.
FDOT was found to have withheld emails regarding the incident in public record requests by the paper and environmental groups, while Evers was discovered to have used his personal email to discuss the matter, rather than his state account, which is subject to sunshine laws.