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Orlando Expressway Authority Faces Grand Jury, Possible Dissolution

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June 02 --This promises to be a tumultuous week for Orlando's Expressway Authority, already staggered by the indictment of one board member and the resignation of another.

The Orange County grand jury that charged now-suspended board member Scott Batterson with three counts of bribery charges meets again Wednesday. State Attorney Jeff Ashton has said more indictments are possible but declined to be more specific.

There also is the possibility this week that Gov. Rick Scott signs into law a bill that transforms the agency into a regional authority and disbands what is left of the five-member board.

If nothing else, that would trigger reams of legal paperwork transferring ownership of 109 miles of toll roads and more than $2 billion in debt to the newly formed Central Florida Expressway Authority .

"I think there's a good chance this will be a big week," said Walter Ketcham , chairman of the Orlando authority.

But the grand jury could cause even more problems for the agency if it issues additional indictments in a probe that started last fall.

Batterson, 38, is accused of offering a consultant a lucrative, multimillion-dollar authority contract in exchange for hiring some of his friends. He declined an invitation to speak to the grand jury April 24 and was indicted that day. He is free on $3,000 bond.

Marco Pena , who quit the authority board last month citing an illness in his family, also turned down a chance to speak to the grand jury, along with former state Rep. Chris Dorworth , now a lobbyist with two clients who have contracts with the authority.

Ketcham, board member Noranne Downs and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs , who also serves on the board, did speak to the grand jury. They are not allowed to discuss their testimony.

Pena and Dorworth were mentioned often in 543 pages of testimony and records released earlier this month by the grand jury.

Along with Batterson, Pena and Downs voted in August to find a successor to then authority director Max Crumit . Batterson, Crumit claimed, told him he had three votes to oust him. Batterson denied the charge, but it led to the investigation because authority business can only be discussed publicly, not privately.

The grand jury testimony reveals meetings among a handful of people, including Batterson, who had discussions to put former state Rep. Steve Precourt , R- Orlando , in charge of the $300 million in tolls the agency annually brings in, further their career and direct contracts to friends.

But the authority could well change this week.

Once Scott officially approves SB 230 -- and he has promised he will -- the expressway authority that was created by the state Legislature in 1963 ceases to exist. State Sen. David Simmons , R- Altamonte Springs , said the bill he sponsored could be sent to Scott this week.

"As far we know," Simmons said, "they'll [Scott] be in position to sign it over."

The agency, which was confined to building roads only in Orange County , would have the ability to go into Lake , Seminole and Osceola counties. The existing board would be eliminated and replaced with a nine-member panel that includes representatives from the three new counties.

Ketcham is hoping to be re-appointed by Scott, who previously had placed Batterson and Pena on the board.

"I feel like I've done a good job and have represented this community well," Ketcham said.

The new board will include Jacobs; Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer ; appointees made by county commissions in Lake , Seminole , Orange and Osceola ; and three picks made by Scott.

dltracy@tribune.com or 407-420-5444.

___

(c)2014 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

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