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A State Senator's Sweet Deal

March 20, 2008

Evelyn J. Lynn has spent much of her professional career as an educator, putting in 30 years as a teacher and administrator in the schools of Florida’s Volusia County and earning a doctorate in instructional leadership and administration from the University of Florida. So it's no stunner that when Florida State University sought someone to help get a new outreach center for its Florida Center for Reading Research on Lynn's home turf of Daytona Beach, they hired her for the nearly $120,000 position, which she began in September.

But Lynn is not just any educator. She is a state senator who heads the Senate’s higher education appropriations committee at a time when state funds are expected to be extremely tight and colleges are likely eyeing any edge in the Legislature. In that way, Lynn's appointment joins a series of other hirings of lawmakers by public universities that are drawing scrutiny in Florida, including the recent hiring of a state senator as a political science lecturer at the University of Florida and the employment of a leading state representative as general counsel of St. John’s River Community College.

The appointment of Senator Lynn raises questions beyond the usual one that arises when colleges or other organizations that come before the Legislature bring one of its members on staff, however. That's because Lynn played a central role in establishing and ensuring state funding for the outreach center that hired her.

As head of the Senate’s education committee in 2006, she worked to ensure that language creating the center made its way into legislation renewing then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s overhaul of Florida’s education system. In 2007, as head of the Senate higher education appropriations committee, she pushed for inclusion of $1 million in one-time funds to help Florida State establish the outreach center on the campus of Daytona Beach College. Soon thereafter, Florida State hired her, without a formal search, to help get the new center off the ground. “We were looking for someone in the area who would be able to get it started, who had the influence to help bring school superintendents and principals together, and who knew something about research on reading,” says Lawrence G. Abele, provost at Florida State. “She’s been doing a terrific job.”

Florida State officials and Lynn herself insist that neither she nor the university have done anything remotely wrong in the arrangement, which they predict will be a short-term position. But watchdog groups and ethics experts say that while the arrangement may fall short of the running afoul of Florida’s conflict of interest laws -- which require proof that misuse of one’s position was “corrupt” – the hiring of Lynn for a position that she essentially helped to create is inappropriate.

“The way it’s going to look to the public is that she is being personally rewarded for creating this outreach center,” says Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a citizens’ rights group. “For a legislator to take direct actions that would result in personal benefit doesn’t pass the smell test.”

Roots in State Education Reform

The Florida Center for Reading Research was established at Florida State University in 2002 as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s overhaul of the state’s education system (the university had long before that had a reading research program). The mission of the center, whose work is well respected, is to conduct basic and applied research on and disseminate information about reading and reading instruction, to help the state improve the literacy of students.

Bush’s original legislation “always intended” that there would be outreach centers, says Lynn. But it was not until 2006, as the Senate Pre K-12 Education Committee she led considered legislation to update the 1999 “A+” legislation that created the original reading research center, that language was inserted calling for the creation of “two outreach centers, one at a central Florida community college and one at a south Florida state university.”

When negotiators for Florida’s Senate and House drafted a compromise version of the bill in mid-2006, with Lynn heading the deliberations, she “was adamant that this had to be put in statute and that the centers had to be created,” says one official who participated in the discussions. Lynn says that “a lot of people [were] involved in that bill” and that she thinks “there was somebody else on the committee” who pushed hard for inclusion of that language in the final measure, but does not remember who it was.

Still, Lynn is not shy in expressing her support for the establishment of the Daytona Beach center and her desire to see it come into being. “It was always intended that there should be [an outreach center], and it was appropriate that it be in Daytona because FSU was going to have space in an existing building there and the center in Tallahassee deemed that that would be a perfect place to have an outreach center,” she says.

Abele, the Florida State provost, says that the university does indeed have a branch campus in Daytona Beach that includes a medical regional campus and a music therapy program. “It is important for people ... to understand that we had already had a very active presence in Daytona,” he says.

The following year, in 2007, Lynn had left the K-12 education panel and become chair of the Senate’s Higher Education Appropriations committee. The spending bill that the panel drafted for the 2007-8 fiscal year included $1 million in “non-recurring” (or one-time) funds for what the bill designated as “Florida Center for Reading Research (Daytona Beach).” No funds were provided for the other outreach center, which was planned for Florida International University.

When the funds for the reading research outreach center in Daytona came through, says Abele of Florida State, “the president suggested we talk to Senator Lynn,” given her experience in the county schools there, and “she expressed interest” in a visiting research associate position in which she would work with school districts, principals and superintendents to encourage their participation in the center’s programs. She began work on September 28, earning “$4,600 biweekly” (well over $100,000 a year), and took a leave of absence beginning March 2, when the 2008 legislative session began, Abele says. (As is true in the many states that do not have full-time legislatures -- Florida pays its state lawmakers about $30,000 a year – many legislators in Florida hold outside jobs.)

Abele says that he warned Lynn that “any time an elected official is employed, there will be questions” about why they were hired and whether politics played a role. But he plays down the idea that the senator would have gone to great lengths to set up a job for herself. “Since it was created with non-recurring money, she could not have been desiring of employment lasting very long,” he says. “By time all of the studies are done, can’t say for sure it’ll last more than a year or so. So if someone wants to take that interpretation, it’s certainly a short term issue.”

Lynn bristles at the suggestion that her job at Florida State is inappropriate just because she played a major role in creating the center that is now employing her. Given her roles on key Senate committees, she says, “I’m very instrumental in anything and everything that has to do with education, so I suppose anytime I get a job in education, they can say, ‘Well, you funded that.’ That would make it impossible for me to get a job anywhere in education in the State of Florida, and I suppose I’d have to decide to get another line of work. I don’t think so.

She adds: “If I wasn’t qualified, then I’d say, boy, that’s correct, that’s a problem. But this is my specialty, and I enjoy making a living.”

Wilcox, of Common Cause Florida, says it is hard to know whether an arrangement like the one between Florida State and Lynn might run afoul of the state’s conflict of interest laws and draw scrutiny from the state ethics commission. ”Those laws are weak, particularly when it comes to the Legislature,” he says. “You have to prove that a person used their influence with the intent of creating a position for themselves and with the fact that position would be for them. You need a quid pro quo that can be proven – an agreement between Senator Lynn and the people who hired her that if she created the center, she would be hired.”

Kerrie J. Stillman, a spokeswoman for the Florida Commission on Ethics, says that state laws regarding misuse of a government position require a finding that the person’s actions were corrupt, roughly defined as “inconsistent with the proper performance of public duty.” She adds: “If somebody’s actions are consistent with the proper performance of their public duties, it’s hard to say that their actions are corrupt .”

But that doesn’t mean the arrangement is going to play well with taxpayers, says Wilcox. “They’re going to see a legislator using her position to create a position and then being appointed to it without any kind of a search.”

 

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