DeSantis administration funneled $92 million in COVID relief funds to project supported by donor.


                         Vehicles travel along I-95 under the Pioneer Trail Road bridge on Wednesday.

The Florida Governor, Ron DeSantis, allocated $92 million of federal covid stimulus money to a highway interchange project that benefits a major political donor, according to state records. The funding, which came from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, was used by the Florida Department of Transportation for the I-95 interchange at Pioneer Trail Road near Daytona Beach. This decision fulfilled a long-standing request from Mori Hosseini, a housing developer with political connections, who owns land adjacent to the planned interchange. The use of the funds expedited the project by over ten years, as stated in state documents.

Hosseini intends to develop the land, which includes environmentally sensitive watershed areas previously targeted for conservation by the state. His plans include building around 1,300 dwelling units and a nonresidential area spanning 650,000 square feet, which will feature an outdoor village shopping district. In March 2019, Hosseini expressed his intention to proceed with the Woodhaven development regardless of the interchange but acknowledged that its presence would be advantageous.

Government documents obtained through open records requests reveal a close relationship between DeSantis and Hosseini in recent years. The governor's office received occasional requests from Hosseini for support or attendance at events, and DeSantis reciprocated by extending invitations to Hosseini for events in Tallahassee.

Hosseini assisted DeSantis in arranging a round of golf at Augusta National Golf Club in 2018. A year later, he donated a golf simulator worth at least $27,500 to the governor's mansion. During the 2022 campaign cycle, companies controlled by Hosseini contributed at least $361,000 to political groups that supported DeSantis' reelection campaign, according to state campaign finance records. Additionally, DeSantis has frequently used Hosseini's plane, according to an analysis conducted by The Washington Post.
   Mori Hosseini, center, was elected chairman of the University of Florida’s board of trustees in March 2018.
A DeSantis spokesperson, Jeremy Redfern, took to Twitter on Wednesday night to share emails from a Washington Post reporter who had sought comment on the matter prior to the publication of this story.

In one email response to The Post, Redfern accused the reporter of attempting to play a "gotcha" game. The reporter had inquired whether Governor DeSantis had spoken to Hosseini about the Pioneer Trail project or advocated for its funding.

Redfern directed further questions to Jessica Ottaviano, the communications director of the state transportation department. However, Ottaviano did not directly address queries regarding DeSantis's or Hosseini's involvement in the decision to fund the project.

Ottaviano released a statement stating that state transportation planners prioritized projects with local support and readiness for utilizing federal COVID funds. The Pioneer Trail project has been a priority for certain local officials for many years.

She added that the enhanced interchange project would help accommodate Florida's growing population, emphasizing that Florida currently leads the nation in net in-migration, with most new residents moving to Central and Southwest Florida.

Despite multiple attempts to reach out via phone and email, Hosseini did not respond to requests for comment.

DeSantis, who campaigned on a promise to "drain the swamp in Tallahassee" during the 2018 election, reported a net worth of approximately $320,000 in 2021 according to public filings. He has since relied more on support from wealthy backers than his predecessor, Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who was independently wealthy and traveled on his private plane.

Initially, DeSantis criticized the American Rescue Plan in March 2021 as an example of "Washington at its worst," arguing that much of the money had nothing to do with COVID and that politicians were using the bill as a means to fund their own pet projects.

However, once the funds arrived in Florida, DeSantis allocated them to favored projects unrelated to COVID. For instance, he used interest from the federal funds to cover the flight expenses of primarily Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard last year. In March 2021, DeSantis urged the state legislature to direct approximately $1 billion in COVID relief towards transportation projects.

State transportation officials informed local authorities about their decision to utilize COVID relief funds for the interchange during a public meeting on November 30, 2022, three weeks after DeSantis's reelection.

The budget for the $126 million interchange includes around $34 million in funding from other federal, state, and local sources. The funds will be allocated towards land acquisition for right-of-way purposes, as well as construction expenses, according to records. Additionally, the budget includes funds for constructing partial access roads near Hosseini's property. This feature was not part of the 2021 design plans but appeared in the 2022 plans, as documented in public records.

Ottaviano stated that the state's decision to finance the partial roads leading to the Woodhaven development was made in collaboration with local governments and agencies. She emphasized that future connections to Pioneer Trail were taken into consideration during the permit application process to ensure appropriate pond sizes and designs for existing and future drainage patterns in the proposed interchange area.
                                  A road leads into undeveloped lots in the Woodhaven development

The new exits on Interstate 95 will allow highway travelers to more easily access Hosseini’s development rather than having to use highway exits 4 miles to the north and 3 miles to the south, according to design plans. Other developments south of the interchange are also expected to benefit from the new off-ramps.

John Tyler, the Florida transportation secretary for the central district, told local officials at a Jan. 25 meeting of local planners that federal covid relief money will be used for three projects in Volusia County, with most of the funds going to the Pioneer Trail interchange because it was “ready for construction.”

He credited state leaders in Tallahassee for making the pandemic relief money available.

“The 2021 legislature asked the department to identify projects for that funding that they prioritized,” Tyler told the officials at the meeting. “It was adopted in the 2022 legislature into the department work program, signed off by the governor, and we are here today to continue moving forward.”

The local planning authority approved the state’s plans at the meeting over the objections of Jeff Brower, the Republican chairman of the Volusia County Council, who argued that the interchange would encourage the development of sensitive wetlands that feed into nearby Spruce Creek.

“There are areas that just shouldn’t be developed,” Brower said at the meeting, referring to the Woodhaven project. “The pollution that we’re creating in our entire state’s water system is clearly resulting from the decisions that we’re making to develop essential wetlands and watersheds.”

Former Republican governor Charlie Crist, who ran as a Democrat against DeSantis last year, also opposed the interchange, arguing during his 2022 campaign that Hosseini’s development would damage the local watershed. Hosseini sold part of his land to the government about a decade ago for conservation.

“This is a project Florida does not need and is one the community does not want — the state should not keep pushing for it,” Crist wrote in a 2022 opinion piece for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. “Powerful developers want the interchange so they can more easily build on nearby land they own.”

One prominent local supporter of the project is Hosseini’s sister, Maryam Ghyabi-White, a regional transportation consultant at Ghyabi Consulting, who DeSantis reappointed in 2021 to the St. Johns River Water Management District Governing Board. The water district, at the staff level, provided a permit for the project, without direct input from the board, she said.

She travels frequently to Tallahassee to advocate for local funding for transportation programs, working as a paid consultant on other interchange expansion plans along Interstate 95. She said in an interview that the state Department of Transportation directed federal money to the Pioneer Trail interchange because “it was the only interchange in Volusia that design was ready,” not because of any intervention from DeSantis. The federal funds would have gone to a Tampa project if local officials had rejected the funds, she said.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, she spoke in favor of the project, calling her brother the “elephant in the room” and saying the project was needed to relieve traffic congestion at nearby interstate exits. She said in an interview that she does not have a business relationship with her brother and was not paid to consult on the Pioneer Trail interchange.

“It has nothing to do with family,” she said of her support for the Pioneer Trail exits on I-95. “His project has been approved. He does not need to have this interchange.”

The ethics manual of the Executive Office of the Governor says employees “may not accept a benefit of any sort when a reasonable observer could infer that the benefit was intended to influence a pending or future decision of the employee or to reward a past decision.” It specifically bans gifts to state employees from “parties who have pending matters awaiting decision by the state.”

But the rules
                                       A biker rides down the street in the Woodhaven development. 
DeSantis reappointed Hosseini to the University of Florida board of trustees during his initial term in office. In 2019, Florida first lady Casey DeSantis utilized a private aircraft owned by Hosseini to announce a mental health initiative outside Jacksonville, as reported by Politico. Ron DeSantis seemingly traveled on a private plane owned by one of Hosseini's companies to a February fundraiser hosted by his PAC in Miami, according to flight-tracking data and campaign finance disclosures.

A source familiar with DeSantis's operation, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that the governor's team would frequently contact Hosseini because he would often provide his plane on short notice.

"They had a longstanding, close relationship, and his plane was quite comfortable," the source said.

A review of over 2,700 pages of documents from 2020 and 2021, provided to The Post in response to a public records request, reveals a working relationship between the two individuals but does not mention the Pioneer Trail interchange.

These documents show Hosseini recommending an individual for a position on the University of Florida board of trustees, scheduled calls between DeSantis and the developer, and the appointment of Hosseini's wife to a different board in 2019. They also include invitations from the governor's office for Hosseini to attend events such as receptions at the governor's mansion and the State of the State address. Hosseini is also involved in transportation projects as part of Space Florida, the state's aerospace finance and development authority, where he serves on the board of directors with DeSantis.

Stephan Harris, a project manager at the River to Sea Transportation Planning Organization, stated that construction on the interchange is expected to commence early next year, with completion anticipated in 2025. However, local opponents of the plan are still hoping to halt the project.

Several groups have challenged the permit for the project in state court, arguing that the project plans do not adequately consider the secondary and cumulative impacts of the interchange.

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a town hall event at the Alpine Grove Banquet Facility in Hollis, N.H. on Tuesday. 

"It is the persistent interchange that refuses to go away, despite being fought back on multiple occasions before," said Derek LaMontagne, founder of Save Spruce Creek, who has been leading local opposition to the project. "Spruce Creek and its nature preserve are precious treasures that need to be safeguarded."

Nate Mohamed El hady contributed to this report.
طلحة عبد الكريم
By : طلحة عبد الكريم
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