Digital Domain's $20 million grant could happen again, report states

TALLAHASSEE -- Lawmakers and former Gov. Charlie Crist sidestepped normal checks and balances to award $20 million to now-bankrupt Digital Domain -- a process that was legal and could happen again, according to an inspector general report.

The report released Tuesday shows how top legislators and Crist staff still awarded Digital Domain millions after Enterprise Florida suggested against giving out the cash.

Digital Domain shuttered its Port St. Lucie location and laid off 346 employees before declaring bankruptcy in September.

Based on Digital Domain's plans, in 2009 Enterprise Florida could only suggest an award of $6.1 million. The agency's staff repeatedly expressed concerns that the company hadn't picked a location yet. John Adams, former president and CEO of Enterprise Florida, recalled that the finances for Digital Domain were "extremely weak." With each additional piece of information Enterprise Florida received from Digital Domain's applications, the return on investment "seemed to get worse." Enterprise Florida could not recommend the $20 million deal Digital Domain wanted.

Dale Brill, then director of Crist's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, recalled being called into the office of former Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa. Digital Domain CEO John Textor complained that Enterprise Florida didn't treat him fairly.

The conversation at the meeting shifted to finding ways around the normal process to award Quick Action Closing Funds, the type of incentives Digital Domain received.

The Legislature then took leftover money from the economic incentive pot in the 2008-09 fiscal year and put $21.52 million toward six projects. That included $20 million for Digital Domain.

"Great energy was put into play to deliberately and intentionally sidestep the process," Brill said.

He added that he "did not believe anything unethical occurred or that any laws were broken."

Brill sent a letter to Crist recommending the Digital Domain project on June 17, 2009. Asked by the inspector general if he agreed with his own recommendation, Brill said "no." Brill said it was clear if he disagreed with granting the money, he would have been looking for other work.

Former Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, added in the report that he didn't think there were any controls that could have been put in place to prevent a deal like this.

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