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New senator’s BBQ company gets $5M from state for Ian relief

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 3/18/2023 Jeffrey Schweers, Orlando Sentinel

TALLAHASSEE — The state has paid more than $5 million to a nonprofit BBQ catering service run in part by Sen. Jay Collins, who defeated longtime Democrat Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa after an endorsement by Gov. Ron DeSantis and support from other GOP legislative leaders.

Missouri-based Operation BBQ Relief was granted the contract on Oct. 14, more than three weeks before Collins defeated Cruz by 10 points, one of three state Senate seats flipped from blue to red to give Republicans a supermajority in the chamber. The money was distributed after he got elected.

Collins, meanwhile, received a committee chairmanship and is pushing at least three of DeSantis’ goals in the Legislature. They would allow people to carry concealed weapons without a permit in Florida, prohibit the sale of certain lands to foreign entities, and give the governor authority to appoint all but one member of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Collins drew criticism on social media earlier this week over a bill he introduced restricting what flags could be displayed on government buildings when he offered an amendment that would have allowed Confederate flags. He withdrew the amendment, saying it was filed in error.

The senator did not respond to an email seeking comment on the contract.

“Since when did it become fashionable to become elected to office, yet feed off the public treasury outside of that office?” asked Mike Barfield, spokesman for the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group. “People used to run for office for public service. This isn’t public service. This is lining your pocket service.”

Those types of contracts would usually go to friends, family or political supporters of elected officials, not directly to the elected officials themselves, Barfield said.

But it’s the kind of thing Florida’s weak ethics laws allow, he said.

“The rules allow people to do that,” Barfield said. “And you see a lot more of it these days. It takes egregious conduct to violate state ethics laws.”

And even when it does happen, the punishment is usually a slap on the wrist, he said.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh was found guilty of state ethics violations when she organized a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site exclusively for residents of Lakewood Ranch, deviating from Manatee County COVID policies.

She settled with the state in November by agreeing to pay a $8,000 fine and legal costs.

Collins, a Montana native who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and South America while in the Army, which he retired from in 2018 after 23 years. He was wounded in combat and lost a leg as a result. He and his family moved to Florida in 2019.

Last year he filed to run against U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, switched to another congressional race and finally settled on the state Senate race against Cruz. He immediately got an endorsement from DeSantis.

“Proud to support (Jay Collins) for Senate District 14. Jay is a conservative, a fighter, and a veteran. He was a Green Beret and is a Purple Heart amputee. I look forward to serving alongside him in Tallahassee,” DeSantis tweeted.

Quiet Professionals FL, Collins’ political action committee, received nearly $625,000, most of it from political committees, including $70,000 from GOP Sen. Bryan Avila’s Fighting for Florida’s Families committee. Avila, who was elected to the Senate in November, played a leadership role in the House.

He also got $5,000 from AMSCOT, which gave DeSantis $50,000 and whose founder Ian MacKechnie donated $1 million to the Florida Disaster Fund headed up by First Lady Casey DeSantis.

The governor’s office granted Operation BBQ Relief a $4.57 million contract on Oct. 14, two weeks after the agency began delivering food to Ian survivors. Collins is chief program officer and the third highest-paid executive with the company at $170,000 a year.

According to the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System, the meals were estimated to cost $4.4 million, more than 25,000 meals a day at $5.50 a meal. Operating costs were estimated at $176,000.

Three payments were paid in late November, January and February totaling $3.836 million and came from the governor’s emergency preparedness and response fund, according to the state’s budget transparency website. A fourth payment of $1.275 million from the U.S. Contributions Trust Fund was made in January, bringing the total to $5.11 million — more than two-thirds of Operation BBQ’s revenue of $7.4 million for 2021, the most recent year financial data is available.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comments about the contract, deferring all questions to the Division of Emergency Management.

“It is my understanding that Operation BBQ Relief came in at the best rate and ... assisted the Division during an exercise last summer,” said Alecia Collins, no relation to the senator, a spokeswoman for the Division of Emergency Management, which reports to DeSantis.

The division doesn’t always know how long the recovery efforts will last, how many additional meals will be served and how many additional locations have to be opened to make the food more accessible to the survivors, she said.

“Feeding is a critical role and would never hold up those efforts or hold up payment to the vendors who support response operations,” Collins said.

As the division adds up the cost of the actual meals served, it may have to pay Operation BBQ relief more, she added.

Operation BBQ also was among the first 10 recipients of donations from the Florida Disaster Fund run by Volunteer Florida and Casey DeSantis.

The first $1 million of that fund went to some of the most recognized charities in the United States, including the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Save the Children and Catholic Charities, as well as lesser-known charities such as Team Rubicon, ToolBank, and Operation BBQ Relief.

The Florida Disaster Fund has raised over $60 million, not including nearly $2.5 million pledged but not yet collected, Volunteer Florida spokeswoman Brittany Dover said.

As of this week, Volunteer Florida has distributed $20.45 million, about a third of what it has received.

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