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DeSantis agency sent $92 million in covid relief funds to donor-backed project

The administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) steered $92 million last year in leftover federal coronavirus stimulus money to a controversial highway interchange project that directly benefits a top political donor, according to state records.

The decision by the Florida Department of Transportation to use money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan for the I-95 interchange at Pioneer Trail Road near Daytona Beach fulfilled a years-long effort by Mori Hosseini, a politically connected housing developer who owns two large tracts of largely forested land abutting the planned interchange. The funding through the DeSantis administration, approved shortly after the governor’s reelection, expedited the project by more than a decade, according to state documents.

Hosseini plans to develop the land — which includes a sensitive watershed once targeted for conservation by the state — into approximately 1,300 dwelling units and 650,000 square feet of nonresidential use, including an outdoor village shopping district. He has called the Woodhaven development, which has already begun construction, his “best project yet” and promised to pull out all the stops for its success.

“With or without the interchange, we would have built Woodhaven there, but it certainly helps,” he told the Daytona Beach News Journal in March 2019.

Government documents obtained by The Washington Post through open-records requests show a steady relationship between DeSantis and Hosseini in recent years. The governor’s office occasionally received requests for DeSantis to attend events or support proposals from Hosseini, and DeSantis extended invitations to Hosseini in return for events in Tallahassee.

Hosseini helped DeSantis arrange a round of golf at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in 2018, according to the Tampa Bay Times. A year later, Hosseini donated a golf simulator that retails for at least $27,500 to the governor’s mansion, according to records previously obtained by The Post. In the 2022 campaign cycle, companies controlled by Hosseini gave at least $361,000 to political groups that benefited the DeSantis reelection campaign, according to state campaign finance records. Hosseini’s plane has been repeatedly used by DeSantis, according to a Post analysis.

A DeSantis spokesman, Jeremy Redfern, published on Twitter on Wednesday night, before this story published, emails from a Post reporter seeking comment.

“You are trying to make an accusation to play ‘gotcha,’” he wrote in one email to The Post, after he had been asked whether the governor had spoken to Hosseini about the Pioneer Trail project or advocated for its funding.

He referred questions to Jessica Ottaviano, the communications director for the state transportation department, who also did not directly respond to questions about DeSantis’s or Hosseini’s involvement in the decision to fund the project.

She said in a statement that state transportation planners “determined and prioritized projects that had local support and were production ready to use” the federal covid funds. The Pioneer Trail project has been a priority for some local officials for decades.

“[T]his enhanced interchange project will help keep up with Florida’s growing population,” she said. “Florida currently leads the nation in net in-migration with a majority of these new residents moving to Central and Southwest Florida.”

Hosseini did not respond to multiple requests for comment by phone and email.

DeSantis, who campaigned in 2018 with on a pledge to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee,” reported a net worth of about $320,000 in 2021, according to public filings. He has subsequently relied more on benefits from wealthy supporters than his predecessor, current Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who was independently wealthy and flew on his own private plane.

DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, initially criticized the American Rescue Plan in March 2021 as “Washington at its worst,” arguing that much of the money “had nothing to do with covid” and that politicians were using the bill “as a Christmas tree” on which to hang pet projects.

But since the money arrived in Florida, he has used it for favored projects unrelated to the pandemic, including using interest from the federal funds to pay for the flight of mostly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year. DeSantis called on the state legislature to direct about $1 billion in covid relief to transportation projects in March 2021.

State transportation leaders notified local officials about the decision to use covid relief money for the interchange during a public meeting on Nov. 30, 2022, three weeks after DeSantis’s reelection.

The $126 million interchange budget — which includes about $34 million in funding from other federal, state and local sources — covers purchasing land for right of way, along with construction costs, records show. It also includes funds to build partial access roads near the interchange onto Hosseini’s property, a feature that was not in the 2021 design plans but appeared in 2022 plans, according to public records.

Ottaviano said the state’s decision to pay for the partial roads into the Woodhaven development was made in coordination with local governments and agencies. “Future connections to Pioneer Trail were considered when we applied for the permit to ensure adequately sized ponds and designs for the existing and future drainage patterns in the area of the proposed interchange,” she said.

The new exits on Interstate 95 will allow highway travelers to more easily access Hosseini’s development rather than having to use highway exits four miles to the north and three miles to the south, according to design plans. Other developments south of the interchange are also expected to benefit from the new off-ramps.

John Tyler, the Florida transportation secretary for the central district, told local officials at a Jan. 25 meeting of local planners that federal pandemic relief money will be used for three projects in Volusia County, with most of the funds going to the Pioneer Trail interchange because it was “ready for construction.”

He credited state leaders in Tallahassee in making the pandemic relief money available.

“The 2021 legislature asked the department to identify projects for that funding that they prioritized,” Tyler told the officials at the meeting. “It was adopted in the 2022 legislature into the department work program, signed off by the governor and we are here today to continue moving forward.”

The local planning authority approved the state’s plans at the meeting over the objections of Jeff Brower, the Republican chairman of the Volusia County Council, who argued that the interchange would encourage the development of sensitive wetlands that feed into nearby Spruce Creek.

“There are areas that just shouldn’t be developed,” Brower said at the meeting, referring to the Woodhaven project. “The pollution that we’re creating to our entire state’s water system is clearly resulting from the decisions that we’re making to develop essential wetlands and watersheds.”

Former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who ran as a Democrat against DeSantis last year, also opposed the interchange, arguing during his 2022 campaign that Hosseini’s development would damage the local watershed. Hosseini sold part of his land to the government about a decade ago for conservation.

“This is a project Florida does not need and is one the community does not want — the state should not keep pushing for it,” Crist wrote in a 2022 opinion piece for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “Powerful developers want the interchange so they can more easily build on nearby land they own.”

One prominent local supporter of the project is Hosseini’s sister, Maryam Ghyabi-White, a regional transportation consultant at Ghyabi Consulting, who DeSantis reappointed in 2021 to the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board. The water district, at the staff level, provided a permit for the project, without direct input from the board, she said.

She travels frequently to Tallahassee to push for local funding for transportation programs, working as a paid consultant on other interchange expansion plans along I-95. She said in an interview that the Florida Department of Transportation directed federal money to the Pioneer Trail interchange because “it was the only interchange in Volusia that design was ready,” not because of any intervention from DeSantis. The federal funds would have gone to a Tampa project if local officials had rejected the funds, she said.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, she spoke in favor of the project, calling her brother the “elephant in the room” and saying the project was needed to relieve traffic congestion at nearby interstate exits. She said in an interview that she does not have a business relationship with her brother and was not paid to consult on the Pioneer Trail interchange.

“It has nothing to do with family,” she said of her support for the Pioneer Trail exits on I-95. “His project has been approved. He does not need to have this interchange.”

The ethics manual of the executive office of the governor says employees “may not accept a benefit of any sort when a reasonable observer could infer that the benefit was intended to influence a pending or future decision of the employee, or to reward a past decision.” It specifically bans gifts to state employees from “parties who have pending matters awaiting decision by the state.”

However, the rules do not bar in-kind donations of private plane travel for political functions or campaign contributions. Hosseini’s purchase of a golf simulator for the cabana at the governor’s mansion was approved by a state attorney because it was given as a loan to the mansion, not to DeSantis personally, according to documents obtained by The Post.

DeSantis reappointed Hosseini to the University of Florida Board of Trustees during his first term in office. In 2019, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis took a private jet owned by Hosseini to announce a mental health initiative outside Jacksonville, Politico reported. Ron DeSantis appears to have taken a private plane owned by one of Hosseini’s companies to a February fundraiser hosted by his political action committee in Miami, according to flight-tracking data and campaign finance disclosures.

A person familiar with DeSantis’s operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private information, said the governor’s team would call Hosseini regularly because he would usually provide his plane with late notice.

“They had a long, close relationship, and his plane was nice — it was a comfortable plane,” this person said.

A review of more than 2,700 pages of documents from 2020 and 2021 — given to The Post in response to a public records request — show a working relationship between the two men, but no mention of the Pioneer Trail interchange.

They show Hosseini recommending someone for a position on the University of Florida Board of Trustees, calls on DeSantis’s schedule with the developer and the appointment of Hosseini’s wife to a different board in 2019. They also include invites from the governor’s office for Hosseini to attend events, such as receptions at the governor’s mansion and the State of the State address. Hosseini was also involved in transportation projects as part of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace finance and development authority, where he serves on the board of directors with DeSantis.

Stephan Harris, a project manager at the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization, said construction on the interchange is expected to begin early next year, with completion in 2025.

Local opponents of the plan are still hoping to stop the project.

Several groups have challenged in state court the permit for the project given by the local water management district. They argue that the project plans fail to fully consider the secondary and cumulative impacts of the exchange.

“It is the zombie interchange that just won’t die, despite being fought back several times before,” Save Spruce Creek founder Derek LaMontagne, who has been leading local opposition to the project, said in a statement. “Spruce Creek and its nature preserve are idyllic treasures that need to be protected.”

Nate Jones and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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