St Augustine fundraising choices questioned

Historic City News reporters have been watching, as additional facts become known in the most recent efforts by the City of St. Augustine to pull off a successful fundraising effort in the 450th Commemoration drama.

The question to be answered is “What is going to happen next?”

In mid-July, discussions were already underway between the City of St Augustine, Commissioner Bill Leary, and two men representing Jacksonville consulting firms with their eyes on a wobbly 450th Commemoration team and the city’s checkbook.

On the heels of hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown away with the private First America Foundation, led by controversial lawyer Donald Wallis, who was hired to manage four-year’s worth of celebration leading up to 2015 yet produced nothing, the political campaign fundraiser and lobbying firm, The Fiorentino Group, is making nice with Commissioner Leary through John Finotti and his “Access Public Relations” group.

Fiorentino’s undergraduate degree was earned at University of Florida. Fiorentino graduated from law school; earning a Juris Doctor degree from Mercer University. He was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1984.

Great. Another lawyer.

In the engagement letter from The Fiorentino Group, received by Leary from Finotti, then forwarded to City Manager John Regan on July 20th, the signer, T. Martin Fiorentino, says that he, his agency, Access Public Relations, and another entity, Tucker/Hall, which collectively he refers to as “the TFG Team”, will provide the following specific work:

1. Seek to raise several hundred thousand dollars in public and private funding for the commemoration of the Bicentennial of the Spain’s Constitution and St. Augustine’s unique association with the anniversary.

2. Explore federal and state grants and appropriations, especially from Florida agencies such as Enterprise Florida, Visit Florida, Florida Humanities Council and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

3. Explore and seek corporate sponsorships to further help underwrite the cost of the 200th Anniversary events and marketing. These entities include Florida Hispanic Bar Association, companies wishing to reach the growing Hispanic market and Hispanic owned companies looking to celebrate their heritage and contributions to this great country.

4. Assist the city of St. Augustine in creating and managing St. Augustine’s celebration of the 200th Anniversary of Spain’s Constitution with events such as an official rededication of the St. Augustine’s Constitution Monument, creation of a mold of the monument to present as a gift to the Spanish government and an academic symposium exploring the role of the Spanish constitution on the development of the Western Hemisphere’s legal system, featuring prominent legal scholars and justices, perhaps including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Somehow, between the engagement letter and the contract, the controversial Mr. Fiorentino, well known in political circles and in the national news, disappears.

With the proverbial insanity of doing the same thing over again, while expecting a different outcome, the City enters into a six-page “Contract for Professional Consulting Services” — this time with Jacksonville’s Access Public Relations, LLC.

The preamble to that contract says, in part, that the City will host a “200th Anniversary Celebration of Spain’s Constitution in the year 2012” and, in order to properly prepare for the commemoration, must first acquire “the expertise of consultants intimately familiar and specifically qualified to provide guidelines for that preparation”.

Guidelines? The City wants to throw a party and needs a paid political consultant to establish “guidelines” so that they can “prepare”?

Where did Mr. Fiorentino go? Well, he’s been busy.

In an article titled, “Romney fundraiser lobbied for foreclosure firm”, since late 2009, the 52 year-old T. Martin Fiorentino, Jr., has been a registered lobbyist for a so called “foreclosure mill” in Jacksonville; Lender Processing Services.

While Romney spent time on the campaign trail, railing against high foreclosure rates, his fundraiser, The Fiorentino Group, was paid $180,000 by Lender Processing Services; according to lobbying disclosure forms.

Fiorentino brought in $102,900 to the Republican presidential hopeful’s campaign.

Lender Processing Services has been reprimanded by the government for unsound loan servicing practices, and, according to a class action lawsuit filed against them, Lender Processing Services was engaged in “deceptive and improper document execution and preparation related to foreclosure proceedings”.

In the recitals of the resulting contract with the City, Access Public Relations, LLC., is said to posses “the unique and necessary qualifications to provide the required consultation and guidance” to the City.

As of today, Historic City News is being told that Access Public Relations has raised nothing. The term of their contract is for six months — commencing on August 1, 2011 and terminating on January 31, 2012.

The bad news? Yes, there’s more. The city agreed to pay Access Public Relations a fee of $15,000.00, plus fifteen (15%) percent of all private funding it is able to raise on behalf of the City for the 200th Anniversary Celebration.

The good news? Fifteen (15%) percent of nothing is nothing, so, as of today, we don’t owe them any more money.

For more than an hour of the 90 minute 450th Commemoration workshop on September 26th, City Commissioner Bill Leary gave a lecture to staff and his fellow commissioners which focused largely on his conviction to hire someone, outside of the City Manager’s office, to run the four-pronged commemoration events — the first year of which starts in two weeks.

Mayor Joseph L. Boles, Jr., commented in a previous workshop that it was at Leary’s insistence that he “went along” with entrusting outside management to produce the four signature events that culminate with the 450th anniversary of the founding of the city.

Boles still takes heat for the decision to advance payment for the entire four-year agreement to Upchurch-Bailey-Upchurch attorney, Donald Wallis — at least $100,000 of which remains missing and presumed squandered.

Leary told Historic City News that despite the First America fiasco, he still believes in “the concept” of an outside, non-profit foundation managing the commemorations. He admitted, at this point, that the infant First America Foundation, Inc., simply was not the right choice.

Since that time, the City hired full time employee Jennifer L. Zuberer in a newly created position of “Communication Resources Manager for the 450th Commemoration”. Together with Heritage Tourism Director Dana Ste. Claire, Zuberer is the second full-time employee tasked with moving the events forward and she earns an annual salary of $48,393.19, according to City Comptroller Mark Litzinger. Ste. Claire earns an annual salary of $86,100. Additionally, Tom Seraphin has been hired as an independent contractor to work on the commemoration projects.

Historic City News attempted to reach Leary regarding this matter before Thanksgiving and we were asked to postpone the meeting because he had holiday guests. We have had no additional communication from Leary since that request was made.

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