TAMPA, Fla. — Would you buy cookies that cost $64 a dozen? What about bagels for $58 a dozen? Coffee for $96 a gallon?
Hate to break it to you, but you already did.
Those are all prices Space Florida paid with your tax dollars.
You also paid for their executives to fly internationally in first and business class, even though state law requires they use the most “economical” means of travel.
What’s Space Florida?
We are talking about Space Florida, not Space Force.
Space Force is a branch of the military that just celebrated its second birthday.
Space Florida is a 15-year-old subdivision of the state that promotes the growth of Florida’s aerospace industry.
It does that by facilitating business financing, spaceport operations, research, workforce development and education programs.
That can involve going to events, having meals and drinks with potential clients, and traveling all over the world.
On what planet do cookies cost $64 a dozen?
The Florida Auditor General’s Office called out some of Space Florida’s questionable entertainment and travel spending in a November 2021 audit.
The state auditor flagged Space Florida’s entertainment spending at two events, in particular.
In April 2018, Space Florida hosted meetings at the Space Symposium, which happened at the very swanky Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.
On top of renting a meeting room and audio-visual equipment there, they managed to spend thousands more on coffee, tea, and snacks – including bagels that cost $58 a dozen.
The auditor also called out Space Florida’s spending at a joint board of directors meeting with Enterprise Florida – this time at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando in November 2018.
That included $50-a-head time-sensitive plated lunches, even though the max state law allows them to spend on lunch is $11.
Remember that $96-a-gallon coffee we mentioned earlier?
This is where you bought it.
It’s also where taxpayers bought cookies that cost $64 a dozen.
“In my view, it is an excessive price,” said Ben Wilcox, research director at the nonprofit research institute and government watchdog Integrity Florida. “The reason for these laws is to put some guardrails on public spending so that taxpayers aren’t funding lavish meals or excessive spending.”
10 Investigates went on our own snack run; and we were able to buy three dozen bagels with cream cheese, two dozen cookies, and two gallons of coffee for less than what Space Florida spent on a single gallon of coffee at their November 2018 joint board meeting.
So, on what planet do coffee and snacks cost thousands of dollars?
Space Florida tells us that’s how much the hotels where these events happened charged to supply those items.
And they can’t just pick up some Panera instead because those hotels don’t allow any outside catering.
But that begs the question: Why did Space Florida and Enterprise Florida have their joint board meeting at a theme park hotel instead of a public building?
Space Florida has two offices and Enterprise Florida has three.
Space Florida Vice President of Government and External Relations Dale Ketcham said that’s because hotels “better accommodate the need for additional meeting rooms for breakout committees” and they can provide “a single point of contact for audio/visual support, catering, and other logistical needs.”
Flying first class on the taxpayer’s dime
The Florida Auditor General also flagged Space Florida’s travel spending.
They found, on 10 international trips, Space Florida executives didn’t fly economy; they flew first and business class.
State law requires them to use the most “economical” means of travel.
Those 10 international flights cost taxpayers $62,520.
“It kind of shows the arrogance, in fact, in feeling that they deserve to fly first class, whereas normal state employees would not be able to take advantage of first class flights,” said Wilcox.
So, how much more does business class really cost Florida taxpayers?
Space Florida’s travel records show it cost an extra $400 to upgrade its then-Senior VP of Business Development Bernie McShea from economy to business class on his flights for Paris Space Week in 2018.
While Space Florida did not justify in its travel records why skipping coach was necessary for executives, now-former Public Relations Manager Sara Shell told us reasons “include issues of health and/or that such travels provides them the food and rest on the flight enabling them to go directly to work upon landing. Thus, reducing hotel costs for recuperation.”
We would love to talk to Frank DiBello about all this. We tried.
But after weeks of Shell saying she was working to get an interview with him scheduled, they backed out.
Although he wouldn’t talk to us, he told the Space Florida Board during a Jan. 26 meeting, “As a recipient of state-appropriated funds, we need to be held to a high standard of operating and accountability with changes – and we will be implementing those changes, based on these recommendations.”
Space Florida’s travel and entertainment spending had never been audited before
This is the only time Space Florida’s travel and entertainment spending has ever been audited in its 15 years of existence.
The state audit manager who supervised the report, Christi Alexander, wouldn’t do an interview either, saying it’s against policy.
We asked for a copy of that policy and, yeah, the Florida Auditor General has a written policy that says, “Requests for on-camera or recorded interviews should be declined.”
But Alexander did answer by email when we asked why the state has never audited Space Florida until now.
Her explanation: While the Auditor General is required to audit state agencies every three years, Space Florida isn’t technically a state agency.
It’s an “independent special district and subdivision of the State that receives appropriations through the Department of Economic Opportunity.”
So, the Auditor General is “authorized, but not required, to audit” it.
Alexander pointed out that Space Florida does get financially audited every year by an independent CPA firm.
But 10 Investigates found those audits specifically say they don’t audit Space Florida’s travel, business meals, and incidentals.
“Well, the risk is what we see here in this audit, is that people will take advantage of taxpayer dollars and fund lavish meals, first class travel, and just disregard the laws and the procedures that are set forth in the state statutes,” said Wilcox.
Space Florida says it plans to update its travel and finance policies and procedures – but how?
“Those concepts are pre-decisional,” Space Florida Vice President of Government and External Relations Dale Ketcham told 10 Investigates in an email.
That’s a business class way of saying they don’t know yet.
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