Broward Shell Game

It wasn't Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant who done the county wrong but the County Commission itself

For almost a year, the Broward State Attorney's Office investigated Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant for violating the statutes that govern her office. Late last month, investigators concluded that there had been misconduct: not by Oliphant but by the Broward County Commission. Oliphant may have been guilty of being a lousy administrator, investigators said, but the commission blatantly disregarded a county ordinance designed to break the lock on public contracts by white contractors.

In administering a county deal to purchase and install touch-screen voting machines from Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software (ES&S) in the fall of 2001, county officials used a kind of sophisticated shell game to give the appearance of minority participation in the lucrative $17.2 million contract, according to state documents obtained by New Times. The commission funneled $750,000 to a "minority subcontractor," an Asian-owned medical supply company. The medical supply firm was to manufacture voting booths for the county but simply passed money along to a nonminority firm that did the actual work.

So is the Broward County Attorney's Office looking into the violation? "I've not been directed to do anything like that," says Edward Dion, the county attorney. In fact, he said, he hasn't even read the state attorney's report.

Broward County Commissioners Graber and Parrish: looking the other way?
Colby Katz
Broward County Commissioners Graber and Parrish: looking the other way?

"I think the whole incident should become a model for revamping the entire minority contracting process," contends Christopher Hood, a black businessman in Plantation who has hounded the commission for years to get serious about the program. "What happened here should be the example to pick apart the current procedures and processes to see that this never happens again. I think the commission should take this on as a priority."

Indeed, Ben Graber, the commissioner who two years ago made a stink about "brokering" -- the practice of simply funneling contracts through minority companies in return for a small cut of the money, which is specifically forbidden by a county affirmative-action ordinance -- has finally gotten the commission to schedule a review of the system in December. "Basically," Graber says, "we violated our own rules."

The tale begins with the confluence of two events: the 2000 election and a stinging critique of good-ol'-boy contracting.

Minority business owners like Hood have long goaded Broward officials to increase the percentage of minority-owned companies receiving county contracts. A study in the early 1990s found a strikingly low percentage of contracts going to minority companies. Despite an ordinance passed in 1993 by the County Commission that mandated goals for minority contracts, an inordinate share was still going to companies owned by white males, according to a 2001 study that looked at contracts awarded from 1990 to 1999. The study found, for example, that African-Americans made up almost 10 percent of architects and engineers qualified to handle county contracts, but they received only 1 percent of county dollars for those services. The rate was worse for Hispanics.

"The commissioners basically look the other way," Hood asserts.

With this backdrop, the commission began grappling with the aftermath of the contested presidential election of 2000. The Florida Legislature in early 2001 prohibited further use of the punch-card ballot machines, which had produced the infamous "dimpled" and "pregnant" chads. The Broward commission quickly began soliciting companies interested in replacing the county's obsolete punch-card machines. The county's Division of Equal Employment and Small Business Opportunity (EESBO) unit advised that the project's goal for participation by "small disadvantaged business enterprises" (SDBE), which are in essence minority-owned firms, was 10 percent.

In August, the commission selected ES&S, which would supply about 5,000 machines for $17.2 million. ES&S agreed to satisfy the 10 percent requirement through $1.7 million in subcontracts with four minority-owned companies. One of those companies, D.C. Miller and Associates, was slated to receive $908,000 for voting booths, voter outreach, and media coverage.

But county officials smelled something fishy. The company is owned by Dorsey Miller, who at the time was also the diversity chief at the Broward school district and a board member on the North Broward Hospital District. Miller's company clearly did not qualify for that cash. Robin Upshaw, who was on staff in the EESBO office, later told investigators that D.C. Miller "didn't cut the mustard" for the voting machine contract because the firm was not in the manufacturing business, nor did it have warehouse space.

The $750,000 slated for voting booths was withdrawn from D.C. Miller because "it seemed like it was going to be a pass through," Upshaw said in a deposition.

Upshaw discussed the matter with Oliphant and then informed Pete Corwin, assistant county administrator, that ES&S should handle the manufacturing of voting booths directly. Minority contracting would be best-suited for outreach and education, Oliphant and Upshaw agreed.

At that point, though, with the voting booth out of Miller's grasp, he helped connect ES&S with American Medical Depot (AMD) in Hialeah, a firm owned by two Asian brothers, Sukrit and Akhil Agrawal. AMD was certified as eligible in only four days, unlike the usual months-long process other companies had gone through in the past. The $750,000 for voting booths was quickly earmarked for AMD, even though it had nothing to do with election equipment.

County officials squirmed to justify the decision. Phyllis Korab, director of the county's equal opportunity office, explained the stretch to investigators this way: "A lot of people were having difficulty with that. [But] if the company has a capability of doing work, there's no reason why they can't expand. There's no reason why they can't have their application expanded to include that scope of work because we're in the business of trying to help minorities and women to participate in county contracts." Sure, and the neighborhood hot dog vendor might like to manufacture car mufflers some day, but you wouldn't hand him a dollar for a frank and a million bucks for a gross of glass packs.

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