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In the late '60s, Kane studied political science at Georgetown University. It was during his college years, he has said, that he got interested in polling, after working for one of the first companies that conducted telephone surveys. When he returned to Fort Lauderdale, he became a key political operative for the Forman empire by helping friendly candidates with their campaigns. In 1968 he married Bobbie Loos, the sister of his buddy Jack.
Kane worked for a variety of businesses associated with the Formans -- cemeteries, waste disposal, quarrying, bus advertising, Port Everglades warehousing, and real-estate management and development, according to state and county court records. In the early '80s, he took advantage of the development of cheap, powerful personal computers to start his own polling firm, USA Poll, which conducts voter surveys for political candidates and special-interest groups. In 1988 he coordinated Parrish's successful reelection campaign. Several months later the Formans helped arrange his appointment to his first political office, commissioner of the Port Everglades Authority, in which the family had business interests. In 1990 he was accused of conflict of interest in voting to grant port business to two political insiders, attorney William Scherer and lobbyist George Platt, with whom he shared -- and still shares -- ownership of a land trust. The county attorney, however, ruled that there was no ethics violation.
But public dissatisfaction with perceived waste and corruption prompted voters to abolish the Port Everglades Authority in 1992 and turn the port over to the county government. Helen Ferris, who for many years led the criticism of port officials, recalls that, more than the other commissioners, Kane went down with a sense of humor. "He told me he was getting up at 4 in the morning to read the newspaper and see how stupid he had been the day before," she says. "That made me laugh. You couldn't help but like him."
Maintaining a sense of humor must not have been easy for him at the time. In 1992 he filed for divorce from his estranged wife, Bobbie. With custody of their two teenage children at issue, the situation got ugly. When the divorce -- and large alimony order -- went through in March 1993, he faced serious financial problems. Those problems only increased his dependence on his old friend Austin Forman, for whose company American Marketing and Management he was working at the time. "He's owned by the Formans," says the Broward politico who didn't want to be named. "He'd like to extricate himself, but he needs the money and hasn't figured out how to get out of it."
Lobbying helped pay the bills. His services were in demand because he had built up chits with county and city officials by helping them with their election campaigns. Two years ago he served as a key fundraiser and consultant for Parrish during her short-lived candidacy for the vacant Broward sheriff's post. She and the other six current county commissioners received at least $32,392 from business associates and lobbying clients of Kane's, such as American Marketing and Management and Hvide Marine, during their last election campaigns. Commissioner Scott Cowan hired Kane as his pollster last year.
Those chits proved valuable when he asked for favors for his clients and himself. Taxpayers could never be sure, however, whether elected officials were approving Kane's deals because they were good for the public or because the officials owed Kane favors. In 1994 the county commission decided to buy an Oakland Park building owned by Kane, Austin Forman, Loos, and lobbyist George Platt for more than twice the lowest appraisal price that had been placed on it. The purchase went through, but press allegations of cronyism led the commission shortly afterward to tighten its rules on property purchases.
As a registered lobbyist for Broward taxi king Jesse Gaddis, Kane helped convince the Broward school board this past July to buy a 38-acre site for a new school in northwest Fort Lauderdale for more than twice what Gaddis paid for the property in 1993. One school board member now wants to reconsider the deal. Kane is also a registered lobbyist for Health Insurance Plan of Florida. Earlier this year the school board voted to terminate its long-standing employee health insurance contract with Humana Health Plan and award the $50 million plum jointly to HIP and another health plan.
Next spring the county commission will have to decide whether to exercise its $1.2 million purchase option on Kane's own building on NE Fourth Street, which houses the county's Sexual Assault Treatment Center. If the appraised value comes in lower than $1.2 million, the commissioners will have to think hard about whether to pay Kane and his partners the full contracted price -- and risk facing criticism that taxpayers got gouged in another insider deal.
"He's very close friends with all the important Democrats in the county, and he gets what he wants," says Doris Altier, who served with him on the port commission.
But those who know him well say Kane's heart is in the study of politics and public opinion, not in influence peddling. "Jim always wanted to be a professor or a writer," says Lori Parrish. "But I guess when you have a family, you have to put your dreams aside and make a living."