Former Opinions Editor rides the revolving door to the Presidency of 1000 Friends of Florida, after using editorials to advocate for their legislative priorities and against projects.
By Jacob Engels
“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation but you can lose it in a minute.” – Will Rogers
A few days ago, Orlando Sentinel opinion columnist Scott Maxwell penned an article decrying members of Congress becoming lobbyists after their elected service ends. Maxwell based his thoughts off a piece of legislation filed by Democratic freshmen and Central Florida Congressman Stephanie Murphy, titled the “Faith in Congress Act.”
Members of Congress pass favorable legislation for big-wigs and business interests, and in return, they get a fat payday as a lobbyist when they leave congress. It’s a sweet deal and certainly calls into question the legitimacy of why people vote the way they do. I don’t often agree with Scott Maxwell, the Orlando Sentinel, or Stephanie Murphy… but on this point, I agree with them all wholeheartedly.
The newspaper’s outrage stops short of applying to their own employees, though.
CASE IN POINT: The Orlando Sentinel’s longtime Opinions Editor Paul Owens embraced the revolving door with gusto by accepting a job with special interest group 1000 Friends of Florida, an advocacy group that is firmly anti-development. He even trashed a development and encouraged the Seminole County Commission to vote against, it even though he hadn’t even read the application yet. This is hypocrisy in its purest form, and the Orlando Sentinel, Paul Owens and 1000 Friends of Florida need to answer questions about the timing.
The misdeeds started in February 2018. 1000 Friends of Florida made opposing rural boundary reform being considered by the Florida legislature a top priority for the legislative session. Paul Owens’ editorial board wrote supporting pieces all along the way.
It probably didn’t hurt that Chris Dorworth, the former Florida Representative and political lighting rod, is the owner and developer of the River Cross project opposed by 1000 Friends. Dorworth is a developer and homebuilder currently seeking approval for the job-creating master planned community, approximately 1.6 miles from UCF, with an application currently pending before the Seminole County Commission.
The project would have 870 homes, 500 apartments and a 1.5 million square foot mixed-use research park and mixed-use retail area, not unlike Heathrow’s Colonial Grand area.
Without even reading what Dorworth proposed, Owens’ opinion board recently described the project as a “rural raid”, employing “sky is falling” scare tactics to encourage citizens and the Seminole County Commission to oppose it. It was riddled with supposition, radical assumptions, and deranged NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) talking points.
Mind you, there was no pending vote. There had been no community review or back and forth. Dorworth hadn’t even submitted an application and Owens slammed it, decided it wasn’t worth reviewing and encouraged the county commission to oppose it sight unseen. In the editorial, he encouraged three other county commissioners to join one of his new bosses, Lee Constantine, in opposing the project. This certainly creates the appearance/possibility for a pay-to-play between the region’s newspaper and a major special interest group.
Unfortunately, this cannot be viewed as a coincidence. If the shoe was on the other foot, the Orlando Sentinel would never believe it was coincidental. For example, if a government official with sole discretion awarded, say, a waste management contract and then went to work for that the waste management provider he selected one month after awarding it, the Orlando Sentinel would be in full on attack mode.
When their guy does it… crickets.
Owens published the editorial on May 4th, 2018. They announced his hiring as president on May 31st. The Orlando Sentinel offered no warning or notice that the editorial board writer casting these opinions was negotiating a compensation package with a special interest opposed to the project. Did they know, or was Owens feathering his nest while the rest of his coworkers at the newspaper were in the dark? Does any of this smell right to you? Do they really expect us to believe they are unrelated?
They certainly aren’t bashful about this. In a press release from 1000 Friends of Florida sharing the hiring of Owens, they include quotes from Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine praising the Owens pick. Constantine is a board member of 1000 Friends of Florida and one of the county commissioners encouraged by and supported in Owens editorial. Constantine even calls Owens “an out of the box choice for President”, which certainly doesn’t lessen my skepticism that he got the job by trading his impartiality and the integrity of his editorial board for a job.
This is a rare misstep for Constantine, who has spent all but two of the last 42 years in elected office. Constantine is a disciplined political actor, but in hiring somebody he was clearly lobbying for press, he opens the door to perception that Owens may have traded support, or expedited the opposition of the paper, in exchange for a new, presumably higher paying job.
Owens formula and the congressmen-turned-lobbyist formula is one and the same. Owens spends years writing favorable things for 1000 Friends of Florida and attempts a preemptive spike Dorworth’s project before announcing his retirement and a new job. I bet his new bosses were just thrilled with him for that, because they knew all along he wouldn’t be there to write the scathing editorials when the application was actually pending.
Shame on you, Paul Owens. That reputation you spent a career building was destroyed in a moment of reckless, partisan and entirely partial greed. Your newspaper and its readership deserved better.
Jacob Engels is an Orlando based journalist whose work has been featured and republished in news outlets around the globe including Politico, InfoWars, MSNBC, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Daily Mail UK, Associated Press, People Magazine, ABC, Fox News, and Australia’s New Dawn Magazine. Mr. Engels focuses on stories that other news outlets neglect or willingly hide to curry favor among the political and business special interests in the state of Florida.