There are a lot of people in Hernando County — business owners, county staff, candidates running for office, and the general public – asking the question, is County Administrator Len Sossamon asleep at the wheel?
If he’s asleep, who’s driving the bus?
The most recent controversy involves the Hernando County Commission and a special session they held on April 29th to consider three companies bidding on an ‘Alternative Waste Processing Contract’ with the county.
The contract could easily be worth more than a $100 million dollars. The point of the special session was to choose a winner from the three bidders.
We don’t have enough space here to document all of the twist and turns leading up to this special meeting. But, we do want to share a few highlights that you might find interesting.
First, we had visions of Déjà vu when we started doing a little research on the company, Freedom Energy, who won the bid and with whom the county is currently negotiating a final contract.
Fact one, Freedom Energy was not incorporated until March of this year. The company has no business track record and the address used for the company is the home address of CEO Leland (Nat) Mundy. A fact eerily similar to Transformation Aviation Services and over whom we have had a very public spat with County Administrator Len Sossamon.
Fact two, the company address and home of Leland (Nat) Mundy was in foreclosure proceedings in November of 2014 according to records obtained from the Lake County Clerk of the Circuit Court. The foreclosure proceedings ended when the mortgage was satisfied several months later. Mundy still owns the home.
Fact three, Freedom Energy and Transformation Aviation Services have something else in common too. Both companies employed local businessman Tom Barnette to represent them and lobby the County Commission on their behalf.
We have detailed Barnette’s relationships with certain County Commissioners in the past (see Tony and Bradley Dye allegations). While Tony and Bradley Dye tell us that Barnette was introduced to them as a lobbyist, Barnette insists that he is NOT a lobbyist, but a consultant. A fact that we have duly noted.
Fact Four, it appears that during the vetting process (more on this later) County Commissioners overlooked the fact that the owner of Freedom Energy, Leland (Nat) Mundy has over $145,000 in tax liens currently filed against him. In a phone interview, Mundy confirmed that the liens were in the $145,000 to $150,000 range.
Think about that. The CEO of a company vetted by Hernando County Commissioners and awarded a county contract that could be worth more than $100 million dollars, has a home that was in foreclosure as recently as 2014 and has more than $145,000 in current federal tax liens. Despite these issues, Hernando County Commissioners have faith that this individual can obtain the financing to build and manage a $15 million dollar ‘Alternative Waste Processing’ facility.
You have to admire Mundy’s optimism though. In a conversation with Mundy, he acknowledged the financial issues associated with the project and went on to explain that funding the project would not be a problem. The funding sources (banks) were looking solely at the project, or contract, and not at his credit.
Fact Five, the vetting process for reviewing each company was changed by the Board of County Commissioners in mid-stream.
In January of this year, Energy3, one of the losing bidders, filed a protest asserting that the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) didn’t have the authority to make changes to the final bid specifications at that late date. Changes Energy3 felt benefited Freedom Energy.
So what did the BOCC do? They actually changed the vetting process, taking the authority away from county staff and vesting themselves with the responsibility of vetting the bidders (reviewing financials etc.). Giving themselves that power effectively squashed the protest by Energy3 and cleared the way for commissioners to ignore staff input and choose the company they wanted. (see Policy Change here, changes in red)
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb says he didn’t realize the significance of the policy change at the time. “A do over would be a good thing,” said Holcomb. “Having staff input during the vetting process would be better.” Remember, Holcomb was the only commissioner who didn’t vote for Freedom Energy in a 4 to 1 vote.
Several audience members who watched the full oral presentations, along with Commissioner Holcomb, expressed shock over the outcome of the vote at the special meeting.
Fact Six, Leland (Nat) Mundy came to Hernando County because he was hired by Topline Energy Systems as their representative. Mundy was terminated by Topline Energy Systems in 2015. The owner of Topline, Chet Staron, notified the county that Mundy had been terminated in April of 2015 (see letter).
This is significant because records show that Mundy incorporated another company Freedom Renewable Energy Enterprises in April of 2015.
Did Topline CEO Chet Staron terminate Mundy after learning of the latter’s intention to start his own company? To date, Staron has declined to answer this question.
When we asked Mundy for his side of the story he responded, “Topline ran out of money. They just didn’t have the financial horsepower to carry the project through and withdrew their funding.” Mundy continued, “It’s my understanding that Topline is liquidating.”
Staron flatly denies that he is liquidating anything.
While it is entirely possible that Mundy believes his old boss is broke, it didn’t take long for us to determine that Chet Staron was far from broke. Maybe a little quirky, but not broke.
Staron likes to joke that he “sleeps on the job.” If you ever visit Staron’s office, and we did, you’ll understand why. Directly across the room from his desk is a queen bed. In addition, he has a living area with TV and a full master bath attached to the office.
In talking to Staron, here is what I learned. He pays more than $200,000 a year in real estate taxes in Hernando County alone. He owns three homes with zero mortgages. He owns at least three other manufacturing facilities that produce automotive parts employing over a hundred workers. And by his own admission, he is funding Topline Energy Systems using mostly free cash from his other investments.
And, when you consider that many of his other business investments are in other countries and time zones, it makes sense that he has a bed in his office here. Not a lifestyle that most of us would like to live. But, one that Staron seems to thrive on.
Knowing these facts, wouldn’t it be logical to choose a bidder for this ‘Alternative Waste Processing Contract’ who was already invested in the community, already had the facilities built and paid for, and had a successful business track record. Instead, Hernando County Commissioners chose Freedom Energy.
And so we ask the question again, who’s driving the bus?
Who has represented a plethora of companies, lobbying commissioners behind the scenes, collecting thousands in fees, and is never seen in a public meeting representing these companies?
If you said local businessman Tom Barnette, you’d be right.
We’ve reported on Barnette’s connections with Commissioners Diane Rowden, Wayne Dukes, and Nick Nicholson previously. And, being influential is not a crime. Influence peddling is a part of politics.
But given a choice, do you want a commissioner who puts their relationship with an influence peddler ahead of what’s best for taxpayers and the county? Or, do you want a commissioner who will put the tax payer and the county first?
If you want the latter, then you need to vote these three commissioners out of office. By the way, two of them are up for re-election this year.
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