Our Mayor, the Lobbyist

The Politics of Profit

Broward County Mayor Ilene Lieberman should know ethics. As a lawyer, she specializes in defending politicians against ethics complaints. And her law partner, Stuart Michelson, is likely the most prolific defender of accused pols in the county.

The pair met back in the early 1990s, when Lieberman, then mayor of Lauderhill, was grappling with several complaints about her own integrity. Michelson defended her, and not only did they win every case, but the city then intimidated the accusers by suing for attorney's fees.

Even as civic vigilance chilled, the relationship between the politician and her attorney heated up. A romance formed and the litigious lovers were engaged in 1996, the same year Lieberman was elected to the county commission. Ever since, she has used her married moniker, Ilene Michelson, in her work as a lobbyist and lawyer. But in the public arena -- like when she recently, and ably, led the government's response to Hurricane Frances -- she uses her former name.

Lieberman, in full mayoral mode, leads the county during Hurricane Frances.
Lieberman, in full mayoral mode, leads the county during Hurricane Frances.
Commissioner Ben Graber wants to tighten up on the ethical morass in Florida he calls the "gray zone."
Commissioner Ben Graber wants to tighten up on the ethical morass in Florida he calls the "gray zone."

With a marriage forged in ethics cases, it might seem Lieberman/Michelson wouldn't flirt with impropriety. But she's been treading in extremely murky legal territory nonetheless. For the past two years, Lieberman has been moonlighting as a lobbyist for Pinnacle Housing Group, a Miami-Dade-based affordable housing developer.

The company, with the help of Lieberman, who began her one-year term as mayor this past November, has become one of Broward's top providers of low-income homes. It has lined up five taxpayer-backed projects worth a total of more than $120 million. Since the mayor began representing Pinnacle in late 2002, the commission has approved tax-exempt bond financing, hundreds of thousands of dollars in county-controlled grants, and fee waivers for the firm.

If the mayor's work for the firm seems an obvious conflict of interest, that's because it undoubtedly is. Lieberman abstained from voting on 15 Pinnacle-related matters during a recent 14-month period. The mayor, who collects an $84,000 salary from the county, won't say how much the company paid her during that time. "I have avoided any impropriety in respect to Pinnacle, and I have stayed out of any county vote regarding them," she says. "I have not lobbied any county agency or county employee on behalf of Pinnacle, nor has anyone else in my law office. I have avoided any of that, and there is nothing in the state's laws that says you are unable to work [outside the commission]."

True, no evidence has surfaced that Lieberman has used her position to pull strings for the firm at county hall, which would constitute a felony under Florida law. But the 57-year-old mayor has used her considerable clout to lobby Broward cities and the school board -- which rely on the county for funding and various approvals -- on Pinnacle's behalf. It's what County Commissioner Ben Graber, widely considered to be a meticulously ethical public official, calls the "gray zone."

"I don't like it," Graber says, speaking generally of elected officials doubling as lobbyists. "Even if there is no direct conflict, there is an indirect conflict, or the perception of a conflict which makes us suspect to the public. People view that as business as usual, and it hurts their trust in government."

At the least, the mayor, who also refuses to discuss the details of her work for Pinnacle, may have violated the state Code of Ethics, which forbids elected officials from taking any job that causes them a "continuing and frequently occurring" conflict. But Lieberman, in full Michelson fashion, claims that such a conflict must involve at least 40 abstentions in an 18-month period and cites 22-year-old case law to back up the assertion. While such a defense may seem legalistic and arbitrary, it's also wrong, according to Bonnie Williams, executive director of the Florida Ethics Commission. "There is no set number," Williams says. "It must be done on a case-by-case basis."

State ethics laws, which are administrative in nature and carry punishments ranging from fines to removal from office, also preclude politicians from working for companies that are regulated by their governmental body -- another area where Lieberman's employment seems to cross the line, since the county is charged with auditing and inspecting some Pinnacle developments. Here again, the mayor cites numerous legal technicalities in her defense.

But Lieberman apparently has some doubts about her employment with Pinnacle: Last week, soon after New Times began questioning her extensively about her employment, she said she had quit the company. She claimed that she resigned to spend more time on her mayoral duties.

Whatever her reason, it's always risky for a politician to work for a developer. A New Times investigation of a project in Pompano Beach called Pinnacle Village, which Lieberman worked on, found that the company submitted contradictory information to authorities in what appears to have been an attempt to abuse the system of government subsidy for affordable housing. A look at the $19 million project, which recently broke ground in northwest Pompano, also reveals the underside of the mayor's lobbying work, which comes complete with questionable political motives and an unsavory connection to a scandal-ridden former Pompano mayor.

The story begins with Pinnacle president Michael Wohl, a disgraced lawyer who has had more than his share of ethical problems in the past.

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