Former Orlando expressway authority board member Marco Peña will plead guilty Wednesday to breaking state open-records laws as a grand jury considers more charges in its probe of the agency, State Attorney Jeff Ashton said Tuesday.
The grand jury meets again Wednesday morning, shortly after Peña or his attorney is expected to tell an Orange County judge that he violated Florida’s “Government in the Sunshine” laws, a misdemeanor. Ashton said in a release that he would recommend Peña pay a $500 fine and court costs.
Peña is cooperating with investigators and could testify before the grand jury.
His guilty plea is the latest twist in the investigation, which started in September and initially focused on whether Peña and board members Noranne Downs and Scott Batterson privately discussed the fate of then-expressway Director Max Crumit.
By law, they can only talk about authority matters in a public setting, such as a board meeting.
In April, Batterson was indicted on three bribery-related charges unrelated to the public-records law. Gov. Rick Scott then suspended Batterson from the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
Scott had appointed both Peña and Batterson, an engineer with the IBI Group who is free on $3,000 bond. Peña quit the board last month, citing an illness in his family
Peña, a growth strategist at Florida Hospital, could not be reached for comment.
According to Ashton, Peña spent three hours speaking with investigators May 8. He apparently met at least one more time with investigators, the release indicated, and provided additional information that Ashton would not divulge.
Authority Chairman Walter Ketcham called Peña’s actions unfortunate.
“This man had an opportunity to serve the public and do good and chose to do otherwise,” Ketcham said.
Ashton has said more indictments could be issued Wednesday by the grand jury, which started looking into the authority after Crumit resigned.
Peña, Batterson and Downs voted 3-2 in August to seek a replacement for Crumit. He quit a month later, but not before saying Batterson had told him he had three votes to fire him. Batterson denied the charge, as did Peña and Downs
In a sworn statement to investigators, Crumit said Batterson threatened: “We’re going to vote you off the board, which would be ugly and you don’t want that and we don’t want that.”
Crumit replied that Downs was scheduled to miss the meeting because she would be on vacation, meaning Batterson would be a vote short. But shortly after that discussion, Crumit said, he got an email from Downs, who runs the Department of Transportation in Central Florida.
The email read, “Hi, Max. Looks like I will be at this week’s board meeting. See you soon.”
Batterson, Crumit concluded, “didn’t like my management style, felt that maybe I was too by the book.”
Other emails provided by the authority to Ashton’s office showed that Peña, Batterson and former state Reps. Steve Precourt and Chris Dorworth frequently wrote to one another about the agency and politics.
In one email, Peña asked Batterson’s advice on how to get on the authority board. Batterson, in another email, referred to Peña as “our boy.”
Peña, Batterson and Downs also voted to hire Precourt as Crumit’s successor. But Precourt turned down the job paying $185,000 annually after it was offered to him on a monthly basis rather than permanently because the grand-jury investigation was ongoing.
The grand jury invited Peña, Batterson, Downs, Ketcham, and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, also a board member, to testify in April. Dorworth also was asked to appear.
Downs, Ketcham and Jacobs spoke with the panel, but Peña, Batterson and Dorworth declined.
Along with the “Sunshine” laws issue, the probe apparently settled on Batterson’s dealings with friends and business associates.
Investigative records released by Ashton’s office last month appear to show Batterson and a handful of others plotted to take over the authority and its nearly $300 million in annual toll collections to win contracts for friends and further their own careers.
Batterson is charged with offering a $5 million-a-year contract to a consulting firm in exchange for hiring his friends, records show.