Florida Alliance for Patronage

A group dedicated mainly to its own business interests is getting taxpayer bucks from Broward County commissioners

With blinds drawn because she's recovering from cataract surgery, Doris Altier sits in her Hallandale condo on the Intracoastal and recalls her career as a jazz singer and bass player. During the '50s, she worked the East Coast nightclub circuit, dating bandleaders and movie stars along the way. Her walls are covered with posters of international jazz festivals she's attended. But this jazz lover has spent much of her time over the past two decades on a very different and much less rewarding passion.

In the late '80s, Altier began a civic crusade to kill what she considered a boondoggle at Port Everglades -- the port's perennial funding of an obscure organization called the Florida Alliance. In 1992 she got herself appointed to the port commission, at least partly to fulfill this goal. During her two years of work as a commissioner and as a citizen activist after that, she argued, testified, and wrote columns and letters urging an end to the then-$300,000 per year subsidy. But county officials have ignored her impassioned pleas. Now Altier is giving in and giving up the fight. "It bugs me because it's such a waste of taxpayers' money," her voice going falsetto with exasperation. "But you can do just so much."

Jean Fitzgerald, chairman of the Florida Alliance, stiffens when asked about Altier's criticism of his group. "We tell our story straightforwardly," says the courtly, silver-haired retired U.S. Navy captain. "Yet somehow we always end up sounding like villainous do-nothings."

That negative image hasn't stopped tax dollars from flowing copiously his way. Fitzgerald and Hans Hvide, founder of Hvide Marine, Inc., started the Alliance in 1983 for the sole purpose of blocking any petroleum pipelines to southeast Florida. If a pipeline were built, there would be less need to ship petroleum from the Gulf to Port Everglades aboard Hvide's tankers, and less demand for Hvide's tugboats to guide the tankers into port. Hvide and Fitzgerald persuaded the port commission to fund the Alliance to protect the port's overall petroleum business, which at the time accounted for 90 percent of its income and still comprises 23 percent of revenues. Port Everglades remains the entry point for all gasoline and jet fuel in southeast Florida. There is none brought in by pipeline.

The Alliance scored its one big victory over pipeline interests in 1986 when Fitzgerald was in the conflict-laden position of being both paid president of the group and a member of the port commission. Largely as a result of Alliance efforts, Transgulf Pipeline dropped its plan to run gasoline through a converted natural gas pipeline from Tallahassee to Port Everglades. Since then, however, no one else has proposed building, or converting, a liquid petroleum pipeline to this area. "There is absolutely no plan that I'm aware of," says Anne Longman, a Tallahassee attorney who represents major pipeline companies.

Yet the Alliance continued to receive funding every year from the port commission until its abolition in 1994 and has since been funded by the Broward County Commission. The allocation this year is $250,000, a big chunk of the group's $565,200 budget. The rest comes from Hvide Marine and five other port business and labor groups. Total public funding for the Alliance since 1983 has topped two million dollars.

With no local pipeline "threat" looming, the Alliance has launched a broad preemptive attack on the pipeline industry. Its stated rationale is to protect the environment, particularly the Everglades, from supposedly spill-prone pipelines. Altier says the true reason is to justify the Alliance's continued existence and protect Hvide Marine's business interests throughout Florida. A Hvide spokesman says his company does not lobby for Alliance funding, but that the Alliance does represent Hvide's interests.

In its efforts to branch out, the Alliance created and funded the Tallahassee-based Friends of the Aquifer, which sued in Leon County to force the state to take over responsibility for enforcing federal pipeline safety regulations. Friends' president Robert Rackleff, a speechwriter who was just elected to a Leon County Commission seat, receives about $40,000 a year from the Alliance for "engineering and technical support," Fitzgerald says. Friends' lawyer, Raymond Vickers, received $287,629 from the Alliance in the first nine months of last year, according to the Alliance's audited financial statement. He also happens to be a Hvide Marine board member.

The Alliance also bankrolled a group of property owners in Osceola County, south of Orlando, who sued to block Chicago-based GATX Corp. from building its third petroleum pipeline from Tampa to Orlando. Vickers is representing the property owners, too. In its most ambitious move, the Alliance last year helped organize and fund the National Pipeline Reform Coalition, which seeks "more effective" federal regulation of pipelines. The ubiquitous Rackleff is president. Fitzgerald is secretary and treasurer.

Longman concedes that the Alliance has given pipeline companies fits. But she scoffs at the notion that anyone could get a government permit currently to run a petroleum pipeline across the politically sacrosanct Everglades. She also questions the appropriateness of county funding for one company's lobbying efforts against its competitors. "Broward County has to protect its investment in the port," she says. "But the Alliance people have gone pretty far afield. They're making a good living as professional pipeline opponents, with county money."

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