TALLAHASSEE—Last year, Brice Harris, an employee in Gov. Charlie Crist's tourism and economic-development office, shepherded a deal to give a Panhandle sports-medicine clinic a $500,000 contract to train tourists for the rigors of spaceflight.
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.