TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Rick Scott ran for governor in 2010, the GOP establishment supported former Attorney General Bill McCollum.
So when Scott, a former health care executive, spent nearly $40 million of his own wealth to beat McCollum in the Republican primary, fences needed to be mended between the rookie politician and the party he now led.
Enter Adam Hollingsworth.
At the time of the 2010 primary, Hollingsworth was making $189,000 a year as chief of staff to then-Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton. He took a leave of absence, recruited by both the Republican Party of Florida chairman and Scott campaign manager Susie Wiles, to help fix the relationship between Scott and the party’s elite.
Hollingsworth became one of Scott’s most trusted advisers, a position he used to influence the administration’s rejection of billions in federal high-speed rail money, then later lobby for a rail project that would benefit his employer, emails, text messages and administration documents obtained by the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau show.
Hollingsworth, through his office, declined to comment.
After the November 2010 election, Hollingsworth was brought on to serve as a transportation adviser to Scott’s transition team.
His role was not ceremonial. As adviser, Hollingsworth penned a draft letter informing federal administrators Florida was rejecting $2.4 billion in federal money for a high-speed rail line between Orlando and Tampa.
“Please find attached a draft letter for the governor to send U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on high-speed rail,” Hollingsworth wrote in a Feb. 13, 2011, email to a handful of Scott advisers.
Hollingsworth’s letter included links to a study authored by the Libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation that found cost overruns could cost state taxpayers $3 billion, a number later cited by Scott.
After the state rejected the federal money, Hollingsworth became an executive at Parallel Infrastructure, a company owned by Florida East Coast Industries. That company also owns All Aboard Florida, now pushing a Miami-to-Orlando rail project.
Julie Edwards, All Aboard Florida’s chief marketing officer, said Hollingsworth working to reject the federal money didn’t help All Aboard Florida.
“It is completely different market, a completely different way to think about transportation,” she said of the different route proposals.
Because it’s a “small transportation world,” employment conversations between Hollingsworth and Parallel Infrastructure likely were occurring while he was advising Scott, Edwards said.
She said no one should “infer” those conversations included talk about the project.
After accepting a job with Parallel Infrastructure, Hollingsworth’s rail advice to Scott changed.
Almost immediately, he started lobbying the administration to support his employer’s new project, which now is being helped by millions in state taxpayer dollars and is expected to generate more than $170 million in revenue annually.
Hollingsworth’s close ties to Scott didn’t end when Hollingsworth went to work for the rail company. In May 2012, he became the Naples governor’s chief of staff, a job he holds today.
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Back in 2010 in his advisory role to Scott, Hollingsworth helped assemble the state Department of Transportation that later signed off on the All Aboard Florida project.
Hollingsworth vetted candidates for transportation secretary — including current Secretary Ananth Prasad — helped shape policy decisions and received internal assessments of the department shortly after Scott was elected.
“We will have our DRAFT agency review document to you no later than midnight tonight,” wrote Doug Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, an industry trade group, in a December 2010 email to Hollingsworth and another adviser.
That was two weeks before Scott was sworn into office.
The Florida Transportation Commission proposes a slate of three secretary candidates for the governor to choose, a process that involved Hollingsworth.
“The three-name slate, from the commission, goes to the governor on Monday,” he wrote in a Feb. 12, 2011, email to other Scott advisers. “From there, I would recommend that: we complete a vet on the three … by Tuesday.”
The Scott administration now says Hollingsworth, 45, had “no knowledge of AAF when he worked on transition or when the draft letter was sent.” When taking the position as Scott’s chief of staff, Hollingsworth signed a “fire wall” letter agreeing not to “participate in any meetings or decision related to” companies tied to his former employer.
The administration produced the letter after being asked by the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau if Hollingsworth had undue influence over the process.
All Aboard Florida had been around for roughly three years when Hollingsworth signed on as a Scott transportation adviser in 2010.
The company incorporated with the state in 2007 and almost immediately began signing various right of way agreements with Florida East Coast Railway, according to internal company documents obtained by the Scripps/Tribune Capital Bureau.
Hollingsworth spent his roughly one year with the company before becoming Scott’s top staffer helping pave the way for All Aboard Florida. He set up meetings between top administration officials, including Scott, and company executives, and helped secure early support for the project in that office.
All Aboard Florida’s 256-mile rail service has been touted from the beginning as a completely privately financed project that will not cost the state a dime, which is the reason Scott said he supports the plan.
At this point, though, the project is seeking $1.5 billion in federal loans that could be key to refinancing its existing debt, and more than $230 million in state dollars already have been set aside for projects that either will directly or indirectly benefit All Aboard Florida’s rail line.
The biggest portion of that is $213 million for a “multi-modal” terminal at the Orlando International Airport. The new structure will serve as All Aboard Florida’s terminal in that city. Scott administration officials say the money went to the airport, not All Aboard Florida.
In addition, internal company bond documents obtained by Scripps/Tribune show the project may seek $44 million in direct state-funded grants for upgrades to tie into a Miami rail system. It’s something that was “news to us,” Prasad said in an interview.
All Aboard Florida has the financial backing of Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based equity firm with a $26 billion investment portfolio.
That company owns the handful of companies developing the project, including Florida East Coast Railway. Three of that company’s top executives are also Fortress corporate officers, including Wes Edens, the firm’s founder.
As a company employee, Hollingsworth helped connect top company executives with the Scott administration.
“If you have time prior to 10 a.m., perhaps Husein and I could give you an advance look at the deck and provide a fulsome review of the proposal,” read a Jan. 5, 2012, text message from Hollingsworth to Carrie O’Rourke, then a top Scott administration official.
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It’s a reference to Husein Cumber, an executive vice president with All Aboard’s parent company.
The same Jan. 5 message shows Edens, who co-founded Fortress in 1997, had met Scott administration officials at “the gov’s Christmas Party.”
On Jan. 6, 2012, a day after that text message exchange, Scott was briefed by staff and appeared to support the plan.
“Meeting went very well today,” O’Rourke said in a text message to Prasad. “Gov wants us to get together ... and put a team in this to overview. He is interested. :)”
“Gr8,” Prasad shot back less than a minute later.
The day after the Scott briefing, Hollingsworth and Greg Turberville, a lobbyist with Tallahassee-based Ballard Partners, held a meeting with Scott’s then-Chief of Staff Steve MacNamara, according to administration calendars. Turberville’s firm represented All Aboard Florida-related companies.
MacNamara said the duo asked for state dollars, but he only offered possible “help with eminent domain issues,” he wrote in an email.
That support from Scott and his top transportation official, who Hollingsworth helped select, came three months before All Aboard Florida was officially unveiled — and more than two years before the Scott administration publicly supported the plan.
Asked by Scripps-Tribune in June why he waited so long to show public support despite documents showing his administration was supportive much earlier, Scott responded that he asked federal officials for an extended period of time for the public to weigh in on the project.
Although Scott remained publicly quiet for years, Hollingsworth kept Scott’s administration in the loop.
Leading up to the March 2012 announcement of the All Aboard Florida project, Hollingsworth helped Scott’s staff prior to a March 14 meeting with Edens.
“As you know, Wes Edens is meeting with the governor Wednesday, March 14,” he wrote in a March 2 text message to O’Rourke. “Do you have time today to discuss a pre-brief with the gov.?”
In the days leading up to the March 22, 2012, project announcement, text messages show, Hollingsworth also worked with Wiles, by then a Ballard Partner employee tasked with doing public relations for the project, write the press release and coordinate with the state.
“I am sitting here with Susie working on next week’s announcement,” Hollingsworth wrote in a March 15 email to O’Rourke. “Is it likely that the gov’s comms staff would answer any press calls or would those get kicked to FDOT?”
Less than a week later, after months of administration involvement, All Aboard Florida was unveiled as a “first-of-its kind” project free of government help.