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Opinion: Why the CSI appropriations bill is bad legislation

OPINION

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / OCTOBER 31, 2019

As of this writing, my article on the CSI Academy bill has 103 “likes,” 9 “loves,” and a number of disparaging comments about my journalistic integrity. As our masthead says, we try to hold local government accountable, and most of the time, we post the facts about government initiatives and let you draw your own conclusions. In this case, though, it’s important to look beyond the headline and examine how the bill intends to achieve its goal.

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So let’s look at the CSI Academy bill; you can read it here, and it won’t take you long—it’s less than a page long. The details in the Appropriations Project Request, also a quick read, are important. Note that the bill simply says that $2.1 million dollars will be appropriated to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), to be given to the CSI Forensic Sciences Foundation, a non-profit subsidiary of CSI Academy, LLC. Robert Rush, Thomas Sperring, and Phyllis Sperring, the owners of CSI Academy, are also the board of directors of the Foundation.

The appropriations request says that “Any member of any Florida law enforcement agency will be able to take this training [crime scene investigation] for free.” But it only promises to offer courses; if nobody takes the courses, they still get to keep the money, which includes $750k for renovations to their buildings, money for salaries, and funds for new equipment.

CSI Academy, LLC is a business. Businesses succeed when they offer a product that people want at a price they’re willing to pay but only if that includes enough profit to make it worth staying in business. Capital expenses like new equipment and building renovations are part of the costs of running a business and should be built into the pricing of the service provided by the business. If CSI Academy isn’t making enough money to renovate its buildings, they may need to reevaluate their business model. It certainly may be the case that limited funding for law enforcement agencies reduces the demand for their services, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t make sense for the state to just hand them money.

In this case, the stated goal of the bill is basically uncontroversial: nobody wants criminals to go free because of technicalities like crime scene contamination. But if you’re in favor of that, you should write a bill that increases funding for crime scene investigation training and then open up the contract for bids. Those bids would be priced at the amount per student that a business needs to cover its own costs, they would go through a competitive awards process, and the money would be paid per student that actually took the class. If there was enough demand, multiple companies could do the training.

One comment on our Facebook post said, “Great facilities also and top instructors!!” This is great to hear. CSI Academy seems to be a great institution in our community, but that doesn’t make this a good bill.

An employee of CSI Academy said my information was “inaccurate” because I didn’t include Rush’s volunteer work and experience in teaching the classes. She also said, “In fairness you should have published the hundreds of testimonials from officers around the state who have benefited from this school.” All of that is wonderful but irrelevant. The bill does not ask for the money because Rush is a good guy. The bill requests the money because there is a perceived lack of state funding for this training. I go back to my point above: the way to address this lack is to write a bill that opens up a competitive bidding process for the funds. 

This bill has the appearance of cronyism, in which government benefits go to friends of office holders. It is a bill that grants money directly to a business, without any strings at all. The appropriations request specifically says, “Should the contracting agency (i.e., the CSI Academy of Florida) fail to meet deliverables or performance measures, the suggested penalty is a restriction from applying for future funding for the subsequent fiscal year after the deliverables/performance measures were not met.” (Note that the bill lists no deliverables or performance measures; the bottom line is that CSI Academy keeps the money, regardless of what they do with it.)

This bill is bad regardless of the motive for filing it, but there is at least the appearance that Rep. Watson is willing to use the power of government to benefit his friends.

Why is it important that, as I wrote in a second story, the Rush family contributed to Representative Watson’s campaign? Is this just, as another commenter put it, “guilt by association”? 

Well, why are campaign donations public records? It’s because we, as a society, recognize that donations influence candidates. When I wrote the first story, I just thought it was a bad bill. After a commenter mentioned the Rush family, I went to look at campaign finance records, and sure enough, members of the Rush family gave a significant amount of money to Rep. Watson in a year when he was unopposed (it’s only $2200, but he only raised $17k that year). Robert Rush hadn’t contributed to Watson since 2012, and the other members of the family had never contributed to his campaigns, although Watson ran in 3 state house elections before 2018. An employee of CSI said that Rush contributes to “many different candidates,” but in fact he only contributed to two in 2018: Clovis Watson and Nikki Fried. While Rush and his family are free to give to any candidate(s) they choose, it never looks good when a state representative writes a bill that gives state money directly to a donor.

As another commenter put it, this “doesn’t meet the smell test.” If Rep. Watson and the Rush family think the state should put more money into crime scene investigation training, they should rescind this bill and try again with a bill that establishes a competitive bid process for the training.

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