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Autocratic Sen. Alexander casts big shadow

TAMPA - State Sen. JD Alexander wields a lot of power. He used his political position to remake the Florida Citrus Commission this year, a move that cost the executive director his job. He voted his cousin off the board of a family company when the man objected to one of Alexander's business proposals. Now, in his last year as a state senator, he has his sights on the University of South Florida.
USF opposed Alexander's plan to turn USF Polytechnic into an independent university, and a state board gave USF a win when it delayed the separation. Since then, Alexander has berated USF's leaders, demanding they be investigated and advocating that another university take over the Poly campus in Polk County. So what's next? Can Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who's in charge of the Senate Budget Committee, make USF feel the pain when lawmakers convene in Tallahassee next month? "I certainly believe there's a perceived threat there; if it's real, I don't know," said Lakeland certified public accountant David Touchton, who led an effort to delay consideration of Poly's independence. Still, it won't be easy to push around a major state university with 40,000 students, donors who have given millions of dollars and supporters who are "ripping mad" at Alexander, to use the words of former Lakeland Mayor Frank O'Reilly. "This is all bullying and ego," O'Reilly said.   * * * * *   Alexander's cousin, Baxter Troutman, called him a bully in a lawsuit Troutman filed against Alexander in 2008. The court records dealing with Alexander show hints of a man accustomed to conflict, "curt," "aggressive," lacking diplomacy and not inclined to apologize. In an interview for the Troutman suit, when asked about his cousin's "bully" comment, Alexander presented a different description of himself. A lawyer in the case characterized Alexander's response: "When he feels strongly about an issue, he can be aggressive in his efforts to push it to a resolution." Alexander, 52, was born into a wealthy farm family that has battled for control of the business for more than two decades. He didn't respond to requests for interviews. His grandfather, Ben Hill Griffin Jr., built an agriculture empire spanning half a dozen Florida counties. When Griffin died in 1990, his son and four sisters, including the mother of former U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, began fighting over the estate. The fight went on until 2004, when Alexander's father, John, helped forge a settlement that created a new family company, Atlantic Blue Group, alongside the company Griffin built, Alico Inc. Atlantic Blue is private. Alico is publicly traded. At first, Alexander and Troutman were on the same side. The family helped Troutman take over JD Alexander's seat in the Florida House in 2002 when Alexander left it to run for Senate. This is Alexander's last year because of term limits. Troutman didn't respond to interview requests. In 2004, John and JD Alexander proposed a plan to merge Atlantic Blue and Alico. It was so contentious that all five nonfamily members of the Alico board of directors ended up resigning. In a letter to John Alexander, they said they couldn't abide what they viewed as an attempt by the Alexander family to take control of Alico. A smaller shareholder, Mercury Real Estate Advisors, castigated John Alexander in a letter for his "nepotistic practices" and "arrogance and poor judgment." "To simultaneously lose five well-respected, nationally successful and experienced businessmen as independent directors could well make you the poster child for the Worst Corporate Governance Award of 2005," the letter said.   * * * * *   The merger idea receded, but as CEO of Atlantic Blue, JD Alexander brought it up again in 2007. This time, Troutman opposed him, according to a deposition Troutman gave in his 2008 suit. In response, he said, Alexander had him removed from the Alico board. Alexander could do that because Atlantic Blue, which he ran, had obtained a majority of Alico's shares, and those shares gave him voting power. Troutman's lawsuit, which named John and JD Alexander, claimed that the merger effort that began in 2004 damaged Alico and cost shareholders more than $1 million. In a ruling in the case, Polk County Circuit Court Judge Karla Foreman Wright described Alexander's move against Troutman as an "unbridled discretion" that instilled fear of removal in other Alico board members. Circuit Judge Steven Selph dismissed Troutman's case last month, saying the complaint needed more specifics but leaving Troutman the opportunity to amend it.   * * * * * Alexander also used his heavy hand, some say, with the Florida Citrus Commission.   For years, Alexander and commission executive director Ken Keck battled over citrus issues, including production taxes that paid for juice marketing. Keck advocated for higher taxes and more marketing to boost declining sales. And the commission approved increases. Alexander, whose family grows citrus, opposed the hikes. This year, Alexander sponsored a bill that dramatically changed the commission, reducing its membership from 12 to nine and subjecting any executive director to Senate confirmation. Keck resigned soon after the bill was signed and a new chairman, Marty McKenna, took over. Keck declined to comment for this story. Lake Wales grower Victor Story said he had questions about what Alexander was doing at first. It was a drastic change for a tradition-bound industry, and Alexander didn't ask industry leaders for their opinions before pushing his bill through. But now, Story said, he thinks it was the right move. Alexander "has very high standards for himself and the people around him." And he gets things done. "Sometimes maybe folks would like to have a little more input, but that takes up a lot of time and sometimes it doesn't go anywhere," Story said. The way grower and former commissioner Wes Brumback of Oviedo sees it, Alexander can't deal with dissent. After the bill was passed, Alexander met with about 50 growers and citrus industry leaders to explain the changes. He faced a lot of pointed questions, Brumback said. "I thought his head was going to explode" when they started challenging him. Brumback thinks Alexander's bill was a power play. "All you need are five on a commission of nine" to take control, he said.   * * * * * State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican, said Alexander controls by instilling fear in people, though she's dismayed that so many senators and others acquiesce to him.   "He wouldn't have that power if so many people weren't afraid of him," she said. The senators have been at odds since 2007, when both were running to become Senate president and Alexander dropped out and threw his support to Mike Haridopolos, now in that spot. Dockery hasn't hesitated to criticize Alexander since then. "JD doesn't like me, but that's because I stand up to him." And she's paid a price, she said. "He has systematically defunded almost everything I've passed over the past couple of years. "He'll say it's because it's a tough budget year. Who knows where the truth is."   * * * * *   Earlier this year, Alexander proposed slashing the salary of the state university system Chancellor Frank Brogan by more than a third, down from $357,000. Because of state pay limits, the state university Board of Governors' private foundation boosts Brogan's salary with a supplement, which Alexander wanted to take away. Alexander said he had questions about the source of the foundation money. He also suggested cutting the Board of Governors' administrative funding by 30 percent. He ended up dropping his proposal, but it may have accomplished what he intended by putting Brogan and the board on notice, Dockery said. "Now people say 'He could do that to us again.' " Alexander's plan for USF Polytechnic went to the Board of Governors in July in the form of a letter from 30 Polk business and political leaders. He made a direct appeal at a board meeting in September, along with several others including Mark Kaylor, Alexander's lawyer in the Troutman case. Among the board members listening was John Rood, who sits on the Alico board of directors. When Alexander made his final pitch to the board last month, he said he had been pushing for years to develop the USF campus in Lakeland and met nothing but resistance from the USF administration in Tampa, he said. The campus would never amount to anything unless it was separated from USF to become an independent university, he said. USF President Judy Genshaft spoke openly on the matter for the first time at that meeting. She said USF had worked hard to develop Polytechnic, one of four USF campuses, and was committed to its mission of applied learning in science and technology. Behind the scenes, Alexander had been pressing his case with the board members. One of them, student representative Michael Long, told the audience about his meeting with Alexander. He said Alexander told him a story about how a university had opposed him years earlier on a measure to expand a heart program in Polk County. In return, Alexander told Long, he pulled his support from that university.   * * * * *   After four hours of often-heated discussion, the board voted to give Polytechnic its independence — but only after it met several demanding benchmarks, including obtaining campus accreditation. And it gave USF the job of monitoring the process. Alexander at first seemed satisfied, though he took Long aside after the meeting to chide him for his remarks and wish him "good luck" on any future political career. The next day, Alexander's mood had turned dark. He said USF had been "very disingenuous" the day before for allowing board members to criticize Polytechnic Chancellor Marshall Goodman's costly plans for new campus construction. Tampa administrators had been a party to the original contracts. And he said he wanted another university assigned to "sponsor" Polytechnic as it moved toward independence. One week later, on Nov. 16, he sent a letter to board chairwoman Ava Parker accusing USF of waging a "campaign of misinformation" in the Polytechnic debate and asking the board to investigate Genshaft, members of USF's board of trustees "and any others involved in this effort." The next day he made an unannounced visit to a meeting of Genshaft and USF Poly faculty, just standing in the background watching while she talked. Soon after, University of Florida President Bernie Machen revealed that members of the Board of Governors had asked him if he would be willing to "help" in the Poly transition and he agreed — though he made it clear in an email to Genshaft that he had no interest in Poly becoming a campus of UF. Alexander's latest move two weeks ago is a massive request for records from the Board of Governors and all the universities, including records of all travel, foundation spending and gifts from companies that do business with the universities. He noted in his Nov. 16 letter to Parker that Skanska, a construction contractor on several USF projects, had donated $1 million to USF. He said he plans to use the information for a meeting of his budget committee in January as the legislative session gets going. That meeting is likely to have a big audience. "We're going to be watching JD this session," said Frank O'Reilly, currently on the Polk County School Board. "We're going to be watching everything he does."

lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834

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