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A controversial economic growth 'visionary' makes his comeback in Central Florida

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Marshall Goodman is selling a big dream, and public officials are buying into it with pledges of millions of taxpayers dollars.

Goodman, 64, is promising government officials that he can “spark a revitalization” of private enterprise in rural Central Florida. He has requested $40 million in taxpayer funds to build and operate five 20,000 square-foot business incubators – where fledgling companies can pay a fee for office space and management training – in small towns in Polk County.

“We sit with those entrepreneurs and we try to make their dreams into reality,” Goodman told the Haines City Commission during a Sept. 23 board meeting.

Goodman’s pitch was successful in Haines City, where the commission voted to provide $900,000 to his non-profit, Central Florida Incubator. The money is contingent on Goodman obtaining millions more in public funding to actually build the incubator in the town of about 26,000 people.

Nearby Lake Wales and Auburndale, which have populations of about 16,000 each, voted yes to essentially the same deal. With land included, a total of more than $3 million in public money has been pledged to Goodman’s project in those towns. Goodman, who is also planning incubators in Winter Haven and at Lakeland Lindner International Airport, has also said he intends to request millions of dollars from the State of Florida.

Haines City Commissioner Anne Huffman said she knew nothing about Goodman when he pitched his plan to her city and has lingering doubts about the project, specifically about whether the county, which already has a 40,000 square-foot privately built incubator in Lakeland, can sustain five more.

“Our towns are only 12 to 15 miles away from each other,” she said during a phone interview. “We're going to be feeding off the same people. It's not enough to sustain one of them, let alone five of them. …Was it going to be like "Field of Dreams," where you build it and they would come?”

When she asked a similar question of Goodman during the Sept. 23 meeting, he assured her he knew what he was doing.

“I have quite a track record,” Goodman told Huffman. “I was the chancellor for USF Polytechnic... so I have a very good feel.”

Goodman, who didn’t respond to numerous messages requesting comment, was chancellor of the USF Poly campus in Lakeland, but he didn’t mention to the commissioners that it ended badly. He was removed from his post in 2011 amid controversy, dogged by numerous allegations of mismanagement and misspending of university dollars.

He didn’t mention his more recent five-year stint in Collier County either. It was in Collier where Goodman raised more than $5 million in taxpayers’ money to build two incubators in Naples and Immokalee. Goodman resigned his position there in 2018, shortly after an audit conducted by the Collier County Clerk of Court alleged that he’d again mismanaged and misspent public funds. That audit went so far as to allege “misrepresentations, general malfeasance and possible fraud.”

While no formal charges of wrongdoing have ever been levied against Goodman, it’s a track record that might raise questions about his current push in Central Florida.

Goodman, though, has a very powerful friend at his side: J.D. Alexander, the former state senator and wealthy grandson of the late cattle and citrus magnate Ben Hill Griffin, whose name dons the University of Florida football stadium and the main road leading to Florida Gulf Coast University.

Alexander, who has large land holdings in the area, is among a group of investors promising $500,000 a year to the project, Goodman told commissioners. Goodman’s non-profit is operating out of Alexander’s office space in downtown Lake Wales, and Alexander’s wife, Cindy, is a member of the CFI board of directors.

The question is whether Goodman’s promise will pay off or end in further public controversy.

Ousted From USF Post 

When Goodman left a professor’s job in California in 2006 to become CEO of the USF Lakeland campus, he immediately embarked on a tour of Central Florida to tout a $100 million campus overhaul and urge those he met to “dream no small dreams.”

Hailed as a “visionary,” Goodman also pushed the concept of business incubators and would open two on the campus, which was renamed USF Polytechnic in 2009.

The first sign of trouble came in 2010, when USF investigated a complaint that Goodman had directed USF Poly to enter into a contract with a friend’s firm that also employed a business owned by Goodman’s son, Steven. The investigation found USF Poly had given Steven’s business a $3,000 contract and that Goodman’s other son Robert was working directly for USF Poly, as well.

“Dr. Goodman should receive appropriate counseling and implement corrective action for the violation of the Florida Code of Ethics,” wrote USF’s chief compliance officer at the time. “There is credible evidence to suggest that the hiring and purchasing practices employed by the campus have created an atmosphere of perceived nepotism and cronyism.”

A year later Goodman, became embroiled in conflict when he publicly backed a plan to break off the campus from USF and make it Florida’s 12th standalone university. The idea was championed by Alexander, then a powerful Republican state senator, and the two men joined forces to push for it.

Alexander and Goodman faced widespread opposition. USF officials questioned the feasibility of spinning off the small campus, which had an enrollment of just 1,300 students, into a full-fledged university. State Democrats called it an “appalling and wasteful power play,” and even some Republicans, including then-state Sen. Mike Fasano, joined in the criticism.

Goodman publicly compared the plan to the building of Disney World and said an independent Florida Polytechnic University could boast 16,000 students in ten years.

The Tampa Bay Times meanwhile reported that Goodman had authorized elaborate spending at the campus, including $500,000 toward a promotional video and public relations campaign touting the proposed new university and $10,000 on life-sized Star Wars, E.T., and Star Trek statues, one of them a seven-foot stormtrooper adorning Goodman’s office. The subject of Goodman’s son’s employment at Florida Poly – as a “community liaison” for one of USF Poly’s economic incubators at a salary of $50,000 – also made the news.

In November 2011, the campus’ Faculty Senate handed Goodman a vote of no confidence. The following month Goodman was removed from his job and placed on a year of paid “professional development” leave with his $254,000 salary intact.

No explicit reason was given for Goodman’s ouster, but Alexander, who refused to comment for this article, claimed at the time that it was unfair and driven by the opposition to their new university plan. Whatever the truth, an ensuing university review USF Poly found 11 violations of USF regulations and accounting principles during Goodman’s tenure as chancellor.

That report alleged that Goodman had authorized spending $30,000 for an adult-sized slide between floors at the incubator and artwork, some $400,000 for a high-tech video and audio wall, and nearly $5,000 for a Coca-Cola fountain. The Times reported that some staffers complained that Goodman, who has an affable public presence, created a hostile work environment for those who questioned his spending, complete with threats and yelling. One employee described the campus as “Marshall Goodman’s own playground,” according to the newspaper.

After the USF report was made public, Fasano issued a statement to the Times demanding USF dump Goodman altogether.

“The fact that [Goodman] is lurking in the shadows … is troubling,” Fasano said in the April 26 statement. “Unless the Board of Governors makes a clean sweep and permanently cuts ties with this individual, the reputation of the University of South Florida will suffer, and Florida Polytechnic will forever have a pall cast over it.”

Goodman resigned from the university in July 2012. His successor, David Touchton, cited lack of results when he later shut down both university incubators.

"I closed them down because they weren't working and they were using too many resources for very little return," Touchton told the Lakeland Ledger.

Despite all the contention, then-Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill in April 2002 to make Florida Polytechnic University a reality. The campus was named for Alexander and his wife Cindy, who currently serves on the board of FPU’s foundation.

FPU today boasts just 1,550 students, a far cry from Goodman’s prediction, and there has been a so far unsuccessful legislative push to consolidate the college with the University of Florida.

The Collier County Allegations

The year following his departure from USF, Goodman stood before the Collier County Commission looking for a chance to start over in public life.

“I believe there is a fabulous opportunity for Collier to carve out an important niche in Florida’s economic landscape,” he told the commission in December 2013. “There’s no question in my mind Collier County can be Florida’s [economic development] hub.”

Soon Goodman’s nonprofit at the time, Economic Incubators, Inc. (EII), was entrusted with more than $5 million in county and state dollars to develop and run two business accelerators, which were aimed at more mature businesses in Naples and Immokalee.

Then-Collier County Manager Leo Ochs admitted in a 2014 Naples Daily News article that he didn’t conduct much due diligence on Goodman before handing him the no-bid contracts, but said he was “optimistic” EII would deliver on Goodman’s promises.

But in March 2018, Goodman was beset with serious allegations of financial mismanagement and worse. Dwight Brock, the Collier County Clerk of Court and Comptroller known as a fierce public watchdog, issued an exhaustive audit report alleging his office had "uncovered numerous instances of misrepresentations, general malfeasance, and possible fraud."

The Clerk of Court alleged that EII had “knowingly submitted false information” to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity to help facilitate receipt of tax dollars from the agency.

“EII continues to overstate revenue potential, is unable to collect estimated private contributions, and is unable to generate revenues necessary to sustain operations, relying instead on taxpayer dollars,” the audit alleged. “EII has continually misrepresented plans and accomplishments to continue funding.”

EII’s “internal controls [were] woefully inadequate or non-existent,” according to the audit, with $76,850 misspent on “personnel related costs” that included $31,500 in bonuses and travel allowances for Goodman and two other EII employees.

The audit alleged that for the $5 million-plus in taxpayers’ money the nonprofit had received, it had only created 16 validated non-EII jobs. Brock, who died of cancer a few months after issuing the audit, also noted a “similarity” in the audit’s findings with those of USF regarding Goodman in 2012.

Goodman was backed by Ochs and both vigorously challenged the findings. In a formal response, Ochs claimed the audit didn’t adhere to “universally accepted internal auditing standards” and was rife with “inflammatory language, attempted character assassination, [and] unsupported and erroneous findings and conclusions.”

Though Goodman was largely publicly silent during the USF controversy, he specifically addressed that situation in his response to the Collier audit, writing that responsibility for the alleged violations of rules and regulations there rested “on the institution and its board and not me per se.” He also singled out a former finance director, who was also removed from his post, as being “directly responsible” for the alleged violations.

When contacted by Florida Center for Government Accountability, current Collier County Clerk of Court Crystal Kenzel, who worked extensively on the audit, said only that “the audit speaks for itself.”

No formal charges were ever levied against Goodman, but he resigned his position a month after the audit was released, telling the media he was tired of the roughly 290-mile round trip commute from his home in Polk County. The following year the county commission cut ties with EII altogether. “They haven't been able to document the amount of employment that was theoretically put forth for that organization,” explained Commissioner Bill McDaniel at the time.

While the business accelerator in Immokalee remains open and affirms that nearly 25 companies have been aided by the incubator, the accelerator in Naples has since been shut down altogether.

“We Should Have Known”  

Huffman, the Haines City commissioner, said Goodman’s past travails were never disclosed by city staff and she felt blindsided by a call from an FLCGA reporter.

“I'm very surprised that I didn't know anything of that,” Huffman said. “If I had known … I would have voted no to the $900,000.”

Haines City Mayor Morris West said he too was unaware of the USF and Collier County troubles until receiving a call from FLCGA.

“I don't want to hear this from a news reporter,” Morris said in a phone interview. “We should have known. Our [Community Redevelopment] director brought him to us and she should have done the [vetting].”

That CRA director, Jane Waters, said she too was unaware of the Collier County audit, which is easily accessed with an Internet search. Waters, who resigned from the CRA in January to take a management job at an area fish camp, said Goodman had personally assured her that the USF controversy boiled down to a dispute with a local newspaper and that he’d done nothing wrong.

When asked if any other due diligence had been done, Waters said, “I think the answer to that is no.”

“Would I have liked to have known? Yes,” Waters added. “Would I have presented [the information to the commission]? Yes.”

She said she first met Goodman about his plan at a local country club and then had a meeting with both Goodman and J.D. Alexander at the latter’s Lake Wales office. Waters said Alexander’s involvement was the deciding factor for her support. “I trust what J.D. is involved in, absolutely,” she said.

Commissioner Huffman said she has asked the city manager to produce a report on Goodman’s history for discussion at an upcoming city commission meeting, but Goodman received a setback when the Polk County Commission shot down his request for $2.5 million in funding. The amount had been whittled down from his original $16 million ask, according to county records.

While denying Goodman the money on Jan. 18, the Polk commissioners voiced support for his efforts and didn’t rule out doling out funds in the future.

“I don't think this is the last we'll hear from this as this continues to unfold,” said Commission Chairwoman Martha Santiago. “We may be able to revisit this down the road.”

Waters said Goodman, despite the rejection, is going full steam ahead.

“I think they will move forward to the completion of the project,” she said. “He told me he was still moving forward with it.”

WUSF Public Media and WGCU Public Media have done additional reporting on this story.

Bob Norman is the journalism program director at the Florida Center for Government Accountability (www.flcga.org), a non-profit organization that facilitates local investigative reporting across the state.  Norman can be reached at journalism@flcga.org.

Bob Norman is the journalism program director at the Florida Center for Government Accountability (www.flcga.org), a non-profit organization that facilitates local investigative reporting across the state. Norman can be reached at journalism@flcga.org.