The outsized influence of the economic elite in Volusia County politics is best exposed during periods of transition.
Someone once told me that Volusia’s economy can best be described as five well-connected people passing the same nickel around. But what happens when those same influential insiders begin artificially manipulating the allocation of public funds for private gain?
In my view, this weird election season has confirmed my theory that we live in a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ – a mini-oligarchy, controlled exclusively by Volusia’s uber-wealthy who buy and sell political candidates and shape public policy with unnatural infusions of cash and personal influence at the highest levels of government.
Clearly, there are many residents who have simply acquiesced to this make-believe form of democracy, and some simply owe their soul to the company store.
Let’s face it, a significant number of people either work directly for companies and institutions under the direct control of the Volusia Triumvirate of Mori Hosseini, Lesa France-Kennedy and J. Hyatt Brown; or are employed by their subsidiaries and sub-contractors.
To their credit, the Big Three have been extremely successful in their respective – and often overlapping – marketplaces, and they cast a wide shadow in Volusia County and beyond.
That influence begins each election cycle when Hosseini, France and Brown inject huge sums of money into the campaign war chests of hand-selected candidates for local offices through their countless corporate interests and business alliances.
While the spirit of quid pro quo corruption is ever-present in this bastardized political system, the threat seems to be ignored – or at least winked at – by election officials and Florida’s feeble ethics apparatus.
These individuals did not accumulate massive personal wealth without the ability to control their environment – that is exactly what the political influence they purchase provides.
It also places them at the very nexus of public funds and private interests.
Which is exactly where Mortenza “Mori” Hosseini operates.
Florida’s High Panjandrum of Political Power, the Emperor of Embry-Riddle, and reigning King of the Realm – Mr. Hosseini is the titan who built ICI Homes into one of the largest residential and commercial development interests in the nation.
He also serves on numerous influential governing and advisory boards – and is said to be the gatekeeper for Governor Rick Scott’s personal board appointments across the state.
Mr. Hosseini is also a graduate and current chairman of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Board of Trustees.
Like Volusia County, ERAU finds itself in transition; and the students, alumni, and disenfranchised faculty are beginning to pull back the curtain on the Oz-like omnipotence of Mr. Hosseini’s oversized influence on campus.
And from what I’ve seen – things aren’t pretty at our own Harvard of the Sky.
Why does it matter?
In early August, Mr. Hosseini and interim university president Karen Holbrook, came before the Volusia County Council to order $1.5 million in public funds, ostensibly to assist “struggling startups” participating in ERAU’s new research park.
That’s the “John Mica Engineering and Aerospace Complex,” the multi-million-dollar research and technology facility that will – to-date – house elements of the International Speedway Corporation, DuvaSawko (medical business solutions), mega-law firm Cobb Cole, FireSpring Fund (startup funding), accountants James Moore and Company, Vann Data (information technology), and venVelo (venture capital).
Wait. Talk about passing the same nickel around.
I mean, these are all established local companies with little, if any, direct connection to the aerospace industry. So why are we being asked to fund them?
Cobb Cole? ISC? Am I missing something here?
And don’t give me that speculative babble about ‘economic development potential’ – if it were so lucrative, the big boys would be gambling with their own money – not ours.
Regardless, where’s the beef?
Where are all the big engineering and aerospace companies – Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Harris Corporation, General Electric, Raytheon, etc.?
While we’re on the topic, where are the endowed chairs, corporate scholarships and research opportunities from these major industry leaders at ERAU?
Apparently, these aerospace and technology giants are rapidly partnering with other colleges – such as the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne – institutions that aren’t known as the personal fiefdom of Mortenza Hosseini.
FIT, a private, nonprofit college, recently met many of the same challenges facing ERAU through a “strategic shift from outward expansion to inward improvement,” and in doing so, raised over $123 million in private endowments and corporate giving.
You know, they did what a Board of Trustees is supposed to do.
At ERAU, rather than raise funds and build an endowment, I guess it’s easier to just play three-card-monte with taxpayer dollars.
Not only did the County Council pony-up the $1.5 million at the snap of Mori’s fingers – they also authorized the sale of public property near Clyde Morris Boulevard and Bellevue to the university for half its appraised value.
You read that right – your elected representatives sold public property to a private entity knowing in advance it would result in a 50% net loss to the taxpayer.
The college also requested that the county consider lowering the cost of some of its current lease structures and providing future grants for construction projects.
(Oh, did I mention that between 2010 and 2012, Hosseini owned Intervest Construction took that exact amount – $1.5 million dollars – out of the university in office leases, utilities, and aircraft charter services?)
Now, I’m just spitballing here, but what gives? Can that be legal?
ERAU is whole. Mori is whole. And you and I are left holding the bag.
So why do I care about the inner-workings of ERAU?
Because now I’m a Patron of the University. A benefactor, baby.
Now I have actual skin in the game – and so does every hardworking resident who struggles and sacrifices to pay taxes in support of Volusia County’s bloated, caustic and horribly mismanaged plutocracy.
I don’t know about you, but I intend on ensuring that my investment is properly managed.
From what I’ve seen thus far, Mori’s Machiavellian attempts to control virtually every aspect of university operations – including unilaterally selecting the next president – has not been well received by those that matter.
In April, student government representatives going back 15-years issued an open letter denouncing the actions of the current board of trustees and expressing their collective concern for the future of the University.
Then, in August, the faculty senate took the courageous step of issuing a vote of no confidence against the board of trustees – the most powerful statement of disapproval available to faculty members – who must feel increasingly marginalized under Mr. Hosseini’s dictatorship.
That’s a big deal. Or at least it should be.
Unfortunately, it appears both desperate cries for help have melted into the obscurity of a closed system – flippantly dismissed by Mori and his sycophantic minions on the board, and ignored in the executive suites of the expansive Jim W. Henderson Administration and Welcome Center, a 42,000-square foot Taj Mahal where just a handful of ‘very important’ – and very well paid – administrators work. . .
Did I mention that the building’s namesake is Mori’s Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees and former Chief Operating Officer of J. Hyatt’s own Brown & Brown Insurance?
Clearly, Boss Hosseini could care less about the opinions of those whose tuition pays the bills – or the professors and staff who produce and present the very curriculum that has made ERAU top in its class.
In Mori’s World, he controls organizations and institutions with the dominance of a feudal lord – and those that get crossways with the big man suffer the personal and professional consequences.
It’s Mori’s way or the highway – and his benevolence only goes so far.
Well, shit on that.
You’re playing with MY money now – and I, for one, demand transparency.
In my opinion, its risky business infusing $1.5 million in public funds into an organization with a developing reputation for lavish, over-the-top spending so board members can luxuriate in a chateau at the Paris Air Show, extravagant accommodations at New York’s finest hotels, dubious moves by anointed administrators, and the dysfunctional game of musical chairs that has been the interim leadership process.
(In my view, if Mori and the board want to stay at the Four Seasons – they can do it on their own dime. But when my tax dollars – or your kid’s tuition – is involved, they can bunk at the Motel 6 just like the rest of us. . .)
Add to that the exorbitant salaries paid to top administrators (for instance, over $1 million in annual salary for the past president) and Mr. Hosseini’s backdoor siphoning of “office leases, utility payments and aircraft charters,” and you get the idea that ERAU’s moral compass has precessed.
Frankly, it’s a slap in the face to every strapped parent who scrimps to send their kid to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
If Mr. Hosseini and his friends on the board of trustees want to use the university as their private playground – or as a means of accessing public funds with private profit motives – then I strongly suggest it is time for close external oversight by an entity with the independence and authority to affect positive change.
(And, for the record, allowing Mr. Hosseini to simply reinstall his lackey, Dr. John Watret, will not inspire confidence in students, faculty, alumni – or the long-suffering taxpayers of Volusia County who increasingly fund various aspects of the operation.)
I’m not an academician – just a hillbilly with a limited vocabulary – but now that I’m a benefactor of a prestigious aerospace and engineering university, I think it’s important to roll up my sleeves and lend a helping hand.
In my view, it is high time that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools/Commission on Colleges – the agency which accredits ERAU – took a close look at this festering situation.
According to the SACS Principles of Accreditation:
“Integrity, essential to the purpose of higher education, functions as the basic contract defining the relationship between the Commission and each of its member and candidate institutions. It is a relationship in which all parties agree to deal honestly and openly with their constituencies and with one another. Without this commitment, no relationship can exist or be sustained between the Commission and its accredited and candidate institutions.”
Given the on-going discord between the board of trustees and their student, faculty and alumni constituencies, one might think it important for the Commission to reevaluate the nature of their “relationship” with Embry-Riddle.
After all, SACS demands that accredited institutions make “reasonable and responsible decisions consistent with the spirit of integrity in all matters.”
I’m no expert, but I’ll just bet funneling $1.5 million to a company owned by the chairman of the board of trustees – or allowing one man carte blanche rule of a university – is considered an ethical no-no by SACS, and everyone else with the ability to think for themselves.
Look, I could give a rat’s ass who gets the goofy ego-massage of putting their name on the campus lunchroom.
But I’ll be dipped if I’m going to stand by and watch our precious tax dollars squandered by Mori Hosseini, his board of trustees, Volusia County officials, or anyone else.
There are two people I never forget: A friend who stands with me – and someone who steals from me.
If you don’t want the scrutiny – then keep your damned hands out of my pocket.
In my view, it is time for the university’s oversight authority to commission an independent external review of ERAU’s governance practices – to include an investigation of Volusia County’s strange relationship with Mr. Hosseini and the wholesale giveaway of public funds.
The students and faculty deserve better. And so do the rest of us.
Stay tuned, kids. I’ll have more on this important issue later.