Ex-Florida Official Cleared of Charges in Controversial Space Tourism Case

A former Florida state official has bee cleared of charges that he improperly used his influence to award a controversial grant for a space tourism training center that he subsequently headed up. PNJ.com reports:

An administrative law judge dismissed charges alleging Brice Harris used his position at the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development to secure $500,000 grant for Andrews [Institute], and then took a $150,000-a-year job at the sports medicine clinic.

Judge Diane Cleavinger said there was not enough evidence to prove that Harris’ employment with Andrews violated ethics laws because his employment with OTTED did not substantially or significantly contribute to the funding or creation of Project Odyssey.

“It is bitter-sweet to read the judge’s ruling today, though I knew all along I was innocent of what I was accused,” Harris, a Pensacola native, wrote in a statement accompanying the judge’s order. “It has been my belief all along that the personal and publicly stated allegations were politically motivated.”

Harris’ attorney, Donald Holmes said there was never any evidence Harris played a decisive part in the OTED decision, approval, disapproval, recommendation or investigation of “any project” while an employee of OTED.

In late 2008, Florida gave the $500,000 grant for Project Odyssey to the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Gulf Breeze. The program — done in collaboration with Space Florida — was designed to provide health screening, training and flight preparation for space tourists. Harris left his job with OTTED to head up the program at Andrews at a $150,000 annual salary.

The deal soon became controversial, with lawmakers questioning the ethics of state officials, the competence of then-Gov. Charlie Crist, and the effectiveness of Space Florida. Harris resigned his Andrews job in April 2009. The Institute’s CIO, Joe Story, also resigned amid the controversy.

Another casualty was Space Florida President Steve Kohler, who resigned three weeks after Harris did. Criticis critized Kohler for the Project Odyssey deal and what they believed was his general ineffectiveness at promoting Florida’s space sector and luring new businesses to the state. He was replaced by Frank DiBello, who continues to hold the position.