TALLAHASSEE—Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday that a former staffer in his office might have violated state ethics laws when he shepherded a $500,000 grant to a Panhandle sports-medicine clinic -- and then went to work for the clinic to administer the grant.
"Well, there's no question it probably doesn't pass the smell test," Crist said. "And that's why I've asked our inspector general to do a thorough investigation and review it and see if he's complied with the appropriate ethics rules attendant to it."
The governor ordered the investigation last week, after the Orlando Sentinel presented his office with e-mails and other documents showing the involvement of Brice Harris, then the space-and-defense economic-development coordinator in Crist's office, in setting up a grant to the Andrews Institute for Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Gulf Breeze.
The grant was to train so-called "space tourists" for the rigors of suborbital spaceflight. It included $250,000 from the governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development and $250,000 from Space Florida, the Brevard-based public-private agency set up to encourage the aerospace industry.
Harris, who came to OTTED in 2007, resigned his $70,000-a-year state job in August, two months after the space-tourism grant was approved. He now runs the program at Andrews, with the title of director of defense and aerospace programs.
State ethics laws bar government employees from taking a job with a company if they were "substantially" involved with overseeing or negotiating a contract with that company, or even if the contract was "within the employee's responsibility." After Harris quit, a high-ranking member of the governor's staff wrote that his involvement with Andrews could lead to a "disaster" if exposed.
However, Nikki Troxclair, marketing manager for Andrews, said both OTTED and Space Florida recommended Harris as "the best candidate to run this program."
She added that Harris had met with Crist's deputy general counsel, Jerry Curington, to discuss the job before he took it.
"He was assured that due to the fact that he was only a staff member . . . and was not involved in the procurement process and did not substantially participate in the approval of the award, the possibility of his being found in violation of ethics regulations was quite small," Troxclair wrote in an e-mail.
Erin Isaac, Crist's communications director, said the governor's office had no comment.
Aaron Deslatte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-222-5564.