Aaron Deslatte and Robert Block
Sentinel Staff Writers
January 24, 2009
E-mails and other documents obtained by the Orlando Sentinel show he was involved even in the minutiae of the negotiations, down to the design of the logos and shoulder patches the would-be space tourists would wear.
Then in August, shortly after the project had been provisionally approved by agencies that included Brevard-based Space Florida, Harris resigned his $70,000-a-year state job -- to take a job overseeing the project for the company he had helped get it.
State ethics laws prohibit government employees from taking a job with a company if they were involved in any way with negotiating a contract with the company. After Harris quit, a high-ranking member of the governor's staff wrote that his involvement with the company would lead to a "disaster" if exposed.
Nevertheless, the deal went forward.
This week, after the Sentinel asked about it, Crist ordered an investigation by his inspector general.
"You have brought to our attention a series of e-mails that warrant further review," Crist spokeswoman Erin Isaac wrote to the Sentinel.
The investigation is almost certain to bring greater scrutiny to Space Florida, the state's 2-year-old aerospace development body that kicked off the deal.
Crist's office shouldn't have been surprised. Problems with the deal -- between the state, Space Florida and the Gulf Breeze-based Andrews Institute -- were well-known within Crist's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development for at least six months.
Among those brought into the e-mail loop: Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who oversees Space Florida.
Sorting through exactly who did what may require a state investigation because Space Florida is a so-called "public/private" partnership. Even though much of its funding is public money -- $4 million this year -- it operates under special rules that don't require full disclosure of its dealings.
Still, it's clear the Andrews deal was problematic from the start.
"Project Odyssey" is billed as a "first-of-its-kind" spaceflight medical and training program for individuals willing to pay big money to fly to suborbital heights -- so-called "space tourists."
Two companies -- one owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson -- are planning to start flying passengers by next year from spaceports in the Southwest.
Cape Canaveral, once America's only spaceport, has been looking for a way to get a piece of this business.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach pitched a bid to establish a space-tourist-training facility near Kennedy Space Center in 2006, soon after Steve Kohler, an economic-development expert from Pennsylvania, was named to head Space Florida. Other groups later made similar proposals.
But Kohler said he never pursued the idea until he toured the Andrews Institute -- an orthopedic and sports-medicine facility just east of Pensacola -- in November 2007. When he saw its "world-class facilities," Kohler said in a recent interview, he realized that the clinic dealt with a wealthy, "high-value" clientele -- the same kind of people interested in exclusive trips into space.
"It was the perfect fit," he said.
The deal Kohler proposed was a joint undertaking: $250,000 from Space Florida and $250,000 from OTTED, the Tallahassee-based agency that directs the governor's economic-development efforts. Space Florida's board tentatively approved it in June.
Embry-Riddle immediately protested that Kohler had, in effect, stolen its proposal.
That prompted Dale Brill, OTTED's director, to write Kohler on July 9 that he was looking into the complaint. He urged Kohler "to ensure that Space Florida is above reproach in this matter."
OTTED's deputy director, Keisha Rice, had other concerns.
"This is definitely bad," she wrote to Brill.
Her issue: The $250,000 awarded by OTTED -- half the grant -- was to come from a pool of money set aside "for the maintenance and expansion of military missions in Florida."
Andrews, Rice complained, wasn't required to put up any matching funding or spell out how the project would use military assets. The institute has since said it hoped to use facilities at the nearby Pensacola Naval Air Station and is putting up some matching money.
'Lots of potential'
But despite the complaints, the project moved forward -- thanks in part to Harris. Among his jobs was managing the military-base funds.
The 31-year-old Pensacola native had overseen space and defense projects for OTTED since July 2007. He has a Ph.D. in politics and international relations from the University of Reading in England.
Besides overseeing the project's contract dollars, Harris rewrote large portions of a $60,000 market study by the University of West Florida to make the business case for creating a commercial-spaceflight-research center in the Pensacola area.
He approved photos for the project and even picked out logos for lapel pins and shoulder patches the would-be space tourists would wear. In late June, he and Andrews Director Joe Story met with Navy officials in Pensacola to explore use of the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory.
He bragged about it to Tim Williams, a former classmate who worked with the Society for British Aerospace Companies.
"We still need to discuss the space program that I'm putting together . . . lots of potential," he wrote in a July 10 e-mail to Williams.
On July 30, he wrote: "We should be public in a few weeks time. I'll be leaving my current post 2 wks from Friday."
On Aug. 4, Harris resigned, writing he was leaving to "pursue other opportunities for personal growth and professional development."
He also signed a letter acknowledging he was prohibited by Florida ethics law from working with "any business entity in connection with any contract that the employee personally and substantially participated in . . . while a public employee."
During the past several weeks, neither Harris nor Andrews has responded to repeated interview requests. And Crist's office said Friday that no one from OTTED would speak until the inspector general's probe is done.
But in an interview earlier this month, Brill -- the OTTED director -- denied Harris had played a large role in the project.
"He didn't OK anything," Brill said. "His job was to tell me what applications are completed. . . . His job was to tell me what's in my in box."
Space Florida's Kohler was similarly dismissive: "Brice did not come up with the idea, nor did he have a role in the approval process. His role was to introduce the parties involved."
How big a role for Harris?
But there was suspicion inside OTTED that Harris had played a much larger role.
On Dec. 2, Space Florida issued a news release that the contract had been finalized. It listed Brice Harris as Andrews' director of defense and aerospace programs.
Rice -- who had been battling with Space Florida over the military-base dollars and the need for investment by Andrews -- forwarded the release to Brill with a note:
"I cannot be any more clear than to say that any inference that [Harris] had a significant part to play in this project, ESPECIALLY considering the problems that we have been trying to correct over the past 2 weeks, would be a disaster," she wrote.
"I do not use that word lightly in this instance."
On Dec. 3, Crist's press office was preparing to send out a release announcing the "Project Odyssey" venture and wanted to confirm information with Brill's staff.
Brill wrote back: "We do not recommend sending out the release. Let Space Florida send it."
Aaron Deslatte, who reported from Tallahassee, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-222-5564. Robert Block, who reported from Cape Canaveral, can be reached at email@example.com or 321-639-0522.