Friday, March 7, 2014
By Colin Woodard firstname.lastname@example.org
The head of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation has withdrawn her lobbying firm's registrations, one day after a Tampa newspaper raised questions about the legality of the tangled relationships between the two entities.
AP File Photo
Florida media reported that Patricia Levesque is also becoming a full-time employee of the Foundation for Excellence in Education rather than a contractor paid through her lobbying firm, which represents a number of for-profit education concerns in Florida.
A Maine Sunday Telegram investigation published Sept. 2 revealed the considerable influence that Levesque and other officials in Bush's foundation had over the development of the LePage administration's digital education policies for Maine, including the draft text of a key executive order on the topic.
It also showed the entanglements the Tallahassee-based foundation had with for-profit education providers that stood to gain from the agenda they pushed in Maine and other states, including K-12 Inc. and Pearson's Connections Learning, which have sought to manage virtual charter schools in Maine
Levesque and her then-deputy, Deirdre Finn, have not been employees of the foundation, federal tax returns show, but have been compensated for their work through their lobbying firm, Meridian Strategies, where Levesque has represented the foundation's Florida subsidiary and a range of for-profit education providers before Florida's legislature.
On Friday, the Portland Press Herald reported that the foundation also advised Maine officials on the implementation of letter grades for schools and other policy measures that were adopted in Florida when Bush was governor there.
Levesque and two other foundation officials will kick off Gov. Paul LePage's education conference in Augusta on March 22. Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, a close ally of Bush, will give the keynote address.
On March 3, the Tampa Tribune published a story that said the foundation may be evading Florida's legal prohibition "for lobbyists or lobbying organizations to provide benefits such as free trips to Florida legislators or top executive branch officials."
The foundation has hosted education summits, paying the travel costs for Florida legislators and officials -- as well as LePage and Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.
Last week, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that Levesque's Meridian Strategies has the same post office box address as the foundation.
The center also reported that Levesque and Meridian pulled their 2013 lobbying registrations in Florida on March 4, the day after the Tampa Tribune story appeared.
The foundation did not respond to an interview request from the Press Herald. It forwarded a one-sentence statement from Levesque that had appeared in Florida media, indicating that she is becoming a full-time employee and that the decision was made before the Tampa newspaper published its report.
"At our annual board meeting last November the board expressed an interest in having me work full-time as an employee of the foundation because of our growing work on education reform in Florida and across the country," Levesque's statement read.
The foundation did not respond to written questions regarding why Levesque waited until last week to pull her lobbying registrations if the board had encouraged her to become a full-time employee four months ago.
Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a teachers' union, said Levesque's dual roles as lobbyist and foundation head were troubling.
"If you're presenting yourself as a fair player who is only interested in the good of children, it does raise questions when people find out you're pulling down big bucks lobbying for all the big (education) firms that get all the big contracts down here," he said.
Last week LePage's spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said Florida Education Commissioner Bennett's travel costs were being covered by the governor's contingency fund, not by the Florida-based foundation.
Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at: email@example.com