Message Control

Hollywood deceives the public. NBHD tries to stamp out the truth.

Earlier this month, the district struck out again, this time at two of the county's top minority newspapers, the Broward Times and El Heraldo. After hammering out advertising contracts with both newspapers last month, the district -- which pumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into local publications annually -- suddenly reversed course and canceled the agreements.

Keith Clayborne, the Times publisher and congressional candidate, says he has a good idea why his contract was squelched. His newspaper, which has received about $20,000 a year in advertising revenues from the district during the past few years, has recently mentioned scandals dogging district Commissioner Dorsey Miller. In the June 11 edition of the weekly black newspaper, columnist Elgin Jones, one of Broward's top muckrakers (and I mean that in the most complimentary sense), followed New Times stories about Miller's financial connection to companies that do business with the district.

Miller also happens to be a top fundraiser for Clayborne's political opponent, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Lauderhill). Last December at his Parkland home, the hospital district commissioner raised about $20,000 for Hastings' campaign. Among the contributors were several NBHD associates.

In early July, Clayborne heard rumblings that the district might cancel the advertising contract. Then he bumped into Miller at the Elks Lodge of Fort Lauderdale and asked the commissioner about it. The usually cool entrepreneur, according to Clayborne, became agitated and told him that he and the district vice chairman, John D. Collins, wouldn't stand for his newspaper's criticism. "You can't talk about me and expect the district to feed your table!" Clayborne claims Miller told him.

Just a few days after the encounter, Clayborne received a termination letter from the district.

Miller said he had nothing to do with killing the contract and called Clayborne's version of their confrontation at the Elks Lodge a "bold-faced lie." But he refused to address any more questions.

When I queried district officials, spokeswoman Sara Howley sent me an e-mail stating that Miller wasn't involved in terminating the advertising deal. Neither she nor anyone else at the district, however, would explain why the deal was shelved.

Then a well-placed source at NBHD did some digging for me and found out that Vice Chairman Collins, who didn't return phone calls for comment to the construction company he runs, had suggested killing both the Broward Times and El Heraldo contracts at a June 23 budget workshop. Collins, who was appointed by the governor after he helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush's campaigns, complained that the newspapers had been "bashing African-American commissioners," the source says.

So it was retribution after all. But a nagging question remained: Where did El Heraldo fit into this?

Unlike the flashy and vitriolic Times, it's a sedate, bilingual, community newspaper. Editor Elaine Vasquez says her contract -- worth about $8,500 annually -- was squashed on July 2, a month before it was supposed to take effect. When she asked district officials for an explanation, they sent her an unsigned statement that said, "We have decided to focus our advertising efforts on those publications where we feel the District is fairly represented."

Here, the district boldly admitted it was advertising only with publications that cater to its P.R. desires. But El Heraldo has never slammed NBHD -- or Miller -- in print. Instead, it appears that the Gov. Jeb Bush-appointed commissioners are punishing the paper's owner, Dr. Erwin Vasquez, for exposing the district's political chicanery and poor performance in caring for indigents.

Dr. Vasquez, who is the editor's husband, recently filed an ethics complaint against a district commissioner, whose name has yet to be revealed. "This is nothing unusual for them," Vasquez says. "This is retaliation. I do not believe in their practices or abuses that they do there, so they do this."

The district picked a rather embarrassing time to rebuke Vasquez, a cardiologist who runs the Light of the World clinic in Oakland Park, which provides free health care to thousands of immigrants and indigents each year. On June 22, he was given the Jacqueline Onassis Award for public service in Washington, D.C. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls it the "Nobel Prize of volunteer work."

It's perversely fitting that the district would try to silence a man who serves as a voice for the truly needy in society -- the very people NBHD is supposed to care about. And the commissioners' petty political games in this case also serve to sever thousands of minorities from district information, including job openings and other opportunities.

But the district won't silence Clayborne or Vasquez; both men say that the lost revenue will have no impact on their actions or their newspapers.

"People in this community need to wake up here and become aware of what the district is doing," Vasquez says. "These are little people who are doing a lot of harm to the community. They are punishing me because I make a statement that they are not supporting the indigent care in this community. This is a fear factor. They are trying to intimidate people. They are showing people that if they talk, they are out."

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