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Tue, Jan 27, 2009

Florida Investigates Space Tourism Deal

Former State Official Now Works For Company Awarded Contract

These early days of commercial space tourism are heady days... bringing together imaginative entrepreneurs, wealthy would-be space travellers, and optimistic government agencies anxious to commit big pools of taxpayer dollars in the hopes they'll reap future economic benefits. Coincidentally, this also looks like the ingredient list for corruption.

The Orlando Sentinel reports a public-private partnership to train space tourists in Florida is being marred by accusations of impropriety.

Specifically, based on documents and e-mail records obtained by the Sentinel, the paper reports Brice Harris, who worked in Governor Charlie Crist's tourism and economic-development office, appears to have been deeply involved in putting together a half-million-dollar deal to train would-be space tourists at a Panhandle sports-medicine clinic.

As ANN reported when the deal was announced in December 2007, the Andrews Institute -- which caters to a wealthy clientele -- was deemed an ideal place to not only train, but to recruit space tourists. Half of the money came through Space Florida, an agency created to attract private space ventures to Florida's famous launch facilities. The other $250,000 came from an agency that directs the governor's economic-development efforts.

Problems which have come to light include Harris's resignation from his state job to join the institute, in apparent violation of state ethics laws which prohibit a state employee from joining any firm holding a state contract he's facilitated.

The half of the money that came from the economic development fund was taken from a fund earmarked, "for the maintenance and expansion of military missions in Florida." It was supposed to be available only to match private-sector contributions.

There's also a lingering protest from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which had proposed establishing a similar training program, but was snubbed in favor of the Andrews institute, which then hired Harris away from the state.

Governor Crist's inspector general tell the Sentinel he's launched a probe in response to the paper's report. E-mails obtained by the paper suggest the sensitive nature of the brewing scandal had already been discussed at high levels, including exchanges with Lieutenant Governor Jeff Kottkamp (right), who oversees Space Florida.

For the moment, "Project Odyssey," as the training camp program was named, is going forward. Dale Brill, the director of the economic development agency that chipped in a quarter-million dollars from the military missions fund, has tried to minimize Harris's role in putting the deal together before he left his state job.

The expenditure of the military mission money is being justified by a claim that the program hopes to make some use facilities at Pensacola Naval Air Station, and the Andrews Institute claims it is putting up some matching money. Harris's position at the institute has been titled, "director of defense and aerospace programs," although it's not clear there's any actual defense connection aside from the funds received from the military earmark.

There will no doubt be more to report in coming weeks... as the governor's inspector general toils away under a very bright spotlight.

FMI: www.spaceflorida.com, www.theandrewsinstitute.com

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