Florida Alliance for Patronage

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

Fitzgerald dodges the question of whether there is any immediate prospect of a pipeline being built to southeast Florida. Instead he stresses what a lucrative market this would be for pipeline companies. "It's like a delicious cherry on a tree," he says. "You can't prove it, but it's inconceivable that they don't have plans." Spending $250,000 on the Alliance to protect the port's ten million dollars in annual fees for domestic petroleum handling, he argues, is a smart investment for the county.

Many people disagree. Numerous columns and editorials going back to 1986 have assailed the subsidy and exposed dubious ways the Alliance has spent its money. Former county manager Jack Osterholt tried for years to cut off Alliance funding. Until an unexplained change of heart two years ago, port director James O'Brien refused to support funding (he failed to return phone calls for comment). Despite this, the Alliance's gravy train has never been in serious jeopardy and doesn't appear to be now.

One major reason is Hvide Marine, a $400 million company with statewide political clout. Hans Hvide and his son Erik, Hvide Marine's CEO, sit on the Alliance's board of directors. Hvide Marine receives $3000 a month for rent and office support from the Alliance, which is housed at Hvide's headquarters. Fitzgerald, who is paid $96,000 a year as the Alliance's half-time chairman, also serves on Hvide's board and is employed as a Hvide consultant. The Hvides, Fitzgerald, and organizations, lawyers, and lobbyists associated with Hvide Marine and the Alliance gave at least $14,000 to current members of the Broward County Commission for their last election campaigns, according to county records. Fitzgerald's wife Carol is the long-time secretary of commissioner Scott Cowan. "It's like a big family," Altier says. "No one's going to vote to take away a family member's income."

Commissioner John Rodstrom has always supported funding for the Alliance and says he sees no reason to change his vote now. "Every year pipelines get closer and closer to our port," he says, without identifying any pipeline closer than Naples. "Inevitably there will be a pipeline here. Our job is to slow it down."

Cowan compares funding the group to buying insurance, though he seemed surprised to hear about the Alliance's far-flung litigation. "Do I think my house will burn down? No. But that doesn't stop me from buying fire insurance." Asked whether the fact that his secretary is Fitzgerald's wife has anything to do with his position, Cowan snaps, "If you knew either of them, you'd know how stupid that question is."

Simply questioning the Alliance's environmental claims invites attack. Rod Tirrell, Everglades co-chair for the Florida Sierra Club, testified against the subsidy at the county budget hearings last year. He noted the Sierra Club's position that state-of-the-art pipeline transport of petroleum can be safer than tanker transport. Rackleff vehemently protested Tirrell's testimony to state Sierra Club leaders. "I don't think I'll lobby it this year," Tirrell now says warily. "I didn't realize how well-entrenched Fitzgerald and his people are."

Fitzgerald says he's optimistic that the county will fund his group again this year. For the first time in a decade, Altier won't be at the county budget hearings to oppose him. She says she's tired of resisting the inevitable and wants to focus on her other Sisyphean cause -- enacting gun control.

"I hate to let them just glide away so easily with our tax money," she says of Fitzgerald and his cronies. "But no one is ever going to stop them."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: Harris_Meyer@newtimesbpb.com

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