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For St. Johns County Commissioner Rachael Bennett, there’s little difference between loyalty to her constituents and loyalty to her former employer

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Priscilla was the moniker that adorned corporate documents not so long ago, when she served as vice president of The Hutson Companies, the barons who own so much land throughout Northeast Florida. Rachael was the name under which she ran a staggering campaign for a seat on the St. Johns County Commission in 2012, serving as the figurehead for developers’ ambitions and the Yankee money flooding in to buy houses in planned communities that might have been marsh or forest before they became a subdivision — a nice area with nice people and good schools.

The voters of St. Johns County were first courted by Rachael Bennett when there was still some overlap with Priscilla, when she was the chosen candidate of interests in the development world that had been thwarted by slow-growth locals a few years back. Bennett marketed herself as a no-nonsense Republican woman — Ann Richards meets Ayn Rand — and a master of inside baseball, capable of cutting through bureaucratic red tape and getting things done. She’d been employed for three years by the county’s Development Services Division before entering the private sector and eventually joining Hutson, and knew the halls of government inside and out.

This experience made her an influential player — one her critics say is willing to work the levers of power on behalf of her former colleagues at Hutson. Bennett’s 2012 campaign spent upward of $103,000, more than all her competitors spent combined, money largely derived from Hutson and others in the construction world. During the primary, a Hutson affiliate called AFI Associates (one of 22 Hutson-related subsidiary companies that listed Bennett as vice president or officer in state records as recently as January 2012) financed the Citizens for a Better St. Johns political action committee, which paid for fliers on Bennett’s behalf.

Just a week after winning the Republican nomination, Bennett returned the favor. She met with county staffers to lobby for an interchange on I-95 and a new county road Hutson needed for its SilverLeaf Plantation development, a project approved by the county in 2006 that would feature 10,700 residences and almost 2 million square feet of commercial space.

Back then, the Times-Union asked Bennett if, once elected, she would recuse herself from any votes that affected her clients. “I would follow the law to the letter, as usual,” she replied.

In 2013, Bennett, now a commissioner, shepherded through Resolution 2013-109, in which the county accepted a land donation from Hutson subsidiary Elkton Green (which had also listed Bennett as VP a year earlier) in exchange for the extension of a county road Hutson needed to eventually build a massive subdivision, an artery Hutson has desired for at least a decade. She did not recuse herself.

Bennett says she didn’t have to. She’s had “no ties to Hutson” since taking office, having resigned from the company in January 2012, she told Folio Weekly in an email. “I have conferred with our county attorney, and based on his determinations as well as my own I am confidant that I neither have a conflict of interest nor the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

So long as there’s no current business relationship, county attorney Patrick McCormack says, there’s no conflict that would require her to abstain from voting.

Bennett’s critics, however, point to what they see as discrepancies in her financial disclosure filings, both as a candidate in 2012 and an elected official in 2013 (each covering the previous year). Those records indicate that, even as her income declined substantially, her net worth ballooned by nearly $100,000 in less than a year. That raises the question: How did she become more liquid while making less money?

For 2012, Bennett reported earning $24,977 — $8,885 as a Hutson employee, another $7,137 from her time on the county commission, and $8,955 in rental income. The year before, she reported making $145,500 as a Hutson VP. Despite this lower income, Bennett’s reported net worth more than doubled between May 2012 and January 2013, from $87,851 to $184,107.

Bennett says that occurred “due to returning values of real estate that I own. I owned two properties that appreciated in value.” She declined to give details about these properties and alleged that Folio Weekly had received “garbled information.”

The financial disclosure form she filed in 2013 lists two properties, both in St. Augustine — one appraised at $290,044, the other at $129,370. The form she filed in 2012 listed those same properties as being worth $289,000 and $89,500, respectively, a net gain of about $41,000. The remainder of her improved standing appears to have come from $17,650 in her state pension plan and an additional $24,390 she added to her checking and savings accounts.

Where did that money come from? Her 2013 financial disclosure form mentions, under “secondary income,” an unspecified amount from Cogito LLC, a consulting firm she founded in January 2012. Bennett’s filings from 2012 and 2013 indicate that Cogito’s “major sources” of revenue were Elkton Green and AFI Associates, respectively — Hutson subsidiaries both.

Ken Bryan, the former St. Johns County commissioner whom Bennett defeated in 2012, says he believes that Cogito is a “shell corporation, a pretty obvious cover-up” that allows Hutson to continue funneling money to its former executive.

Hutson did not respond to requests for comment. Bennett denies that charge: “Whoever is trying to lead you down the conflict-of-interest/tie-to-Hutson path is baying at the moon. Some people are determined to see ugliness where there is none.”

It’s worth noting that even Bennett’s fiercest critics — several of whom declined to speak on the record — say they respect her competence and intelligence. Also worth noting: Bennett’s ties to Hutson were well-documented during the 2012 campaign, and St. Johns County voters elected her anyway.

David Wiles, a former member of the Planning & Zoning Agency and intellectual cornerstone of the county’s slow-growth constituency, says that the real test will come if and when Hutson asks the county to amend existing deals to further its interests. “I expect Hutson will demand many concessions to previous infrastructure obligations” made as part of both the SilverLeaf and Elkton Green developments, he says.

Bennett’s 2014 financial disclosure filing, which will cover the calendar year 2013, is due in July. Perhaps then we’ll have a better sense of where The Hutson Companies stop and Rachael Bennett begins.

Tags: St. Johns County, developers, real estate, Rachael Bennett, Hutson Companies
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