Nelson said to press for favorites
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 31, 2008.
A Jacksonville Port Authority consultant who complained about the role Tony Nelson played in choosing contractors to build a new terminal was ousted from that job after relaying his concerns to the board.
The complaints were raised in May 2007 by Lake Ray, who heads up the Jacksonville office of international engineering firm Halcrow. The company is overseeing construction on the port's new terminal at Dames Point.
Ray's issues with Nelson, and the port's response, came to light during a Times-Union review of documents released to the FBI as part of its investigation into Nelson, who was the port authority's chairman of the board, and into contracts that were awarded.
According to those documents, Ray told port board members that Nelson was pressuring port executives to pick particular companies, including ones to which Nelson had ties, for jobs related to the new terminal.
Ray confirmed his concerns Friday, but refused to comment further, saying it would be inappropriate while the FBI investigation continues.
At the time of his complaints, Ray was a member of the Jacksonville City Council. He is now running for the state House of Representatives.
Halcrow has worked for the Port Authority since 2003, when it was hired to serve as the authority's on-call engineer. In 2005, the port signed a $7.8 million contract to have the company serve as engineers for the $220 million terminal being built at Dames Point for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd.
The awarding of that contract was delayed at the request of Nelson, who said he wanted to review the level of participation by Jacksonville Small and Emerging Businesses.
The relationship between the Port Authority and Halcrow began to fray just over a year ago, according to notes kept at the time by Port Authority Executive Director Rick Ferrin. Tensions arose when Ray and Jim Lindner, a senior Halcrow vice president, approached board members with concerns about Nelson's influence.
The executives' visit came shortly after the port advertised that it was looking for supplemental engineering firms to fill in if Halcrow was too busy. That would have opened the door to cut Halcrow out of the contract, Ray told board members, and bring in companies with ties to Nelson.
NELSON CONFRONTS RAY
Nelson showed up to confront Ray about his allegations during a breakfast meeting scheduled among Ferrin, Ray and Ron Baker, the port's deputy executive director, Ferrin wrote in his notes.
"It was very clear from the beginning that Tony was livid, " Ferrin wrote about the gathering at Cracker Barrel. "Ron and I were literally moved to the far side of the table and Tony proceeded to chastise and admonish Lake with the most extreme righteous indignation."
Because of the executives' visits to board members and the allegations, the port refused to work with Ray. In June, Ferrin sent a letter to Lindner saying that he and the port board felt there must "be a change in your Jacksonville offices, and specifically, our liaison [Ray]."
"Were we not in the midst of the most important project the port has ever embarked upon, I would terminate our contract with HPA immediately, " Ferrin said in the letter.
Lindner did not return a message left Friday afternoon. Port spokeswoman Nancy Rubin returned a message left for Ferrin and said the documents released to the FBI reflect his recollection of the situation. It would be premature to comment while the FBI investigation and an internal review are ongoing, she said.
Ray still leads Halcrow's local office, but is not involved in Port Authority-related work. The company is still overseeing the terminal construction project, but did not have its broader contract renewed when it expired a month ago.