By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
Like most bad government deals, it wasn't on the agenda. Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman brought it up without giving staff or her colleagues on the dais time to study it. Her motion may have seemed misguided at the time, but it now seems to be something much worse.
On August 26, 2003, the commission was expected to approve this year's health care plan for the county. Before the vote, Lieberman, who is now mayor, proposed that the county fund a $10,000 study to evaluate the health blueprint, which had been carefully hammered out in prior weeks. She specified that the money would go to a firm owned by Jim McKinley, who had done similar reports in the past. In attendance at the meeting was McKinley's firm's vice president, Carlton Moore, who moonlights as a Fort Lauderdale commissioner. He lobbied county commissioners to support Lieberman's motion.
The problem, as county Finance Director Phil Allen pointed out, was that it was too late in the process and that McKinley's reports hadn't saved taxpayers money in the past.
"We're going to spend $10,000 to spin our wheels," Commissioner John Rodstrom complained.
"To spend $10,000 to ask McKinley and his staff to do a review is a nice gift, but this isn't Christmas," Commissioner Ben Graber announced.
Unbeknownst to Graber, McKinley played Santa Claus for Lieberman just ten days later. McKinley, who is a Broward County Housing Authority commissioner, chose the Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group to develop a $22 million, low-income apartment project in Hollywood. Working as a Pinnacle lobbyist was Lieberman, who received an undisclosed amount of money for representing the company.
The new revelation about Lieberman's dealings with the insurance broker raises serious questions about whether she violated a Florida law that makes it a felony for public officials to profit from their governmental actions. The mayor quit her job with Pinnacle last month as New Timesinvestigated her lobbying activities (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist," September 16). Lieberman -- who uses her married name, Michelson, while lobbying -- spent two years with the company, which won contracts countywide worth more than $120 million during that time. Lieberman also abstained from voting 15 times in a 14-month period on Pinnacle-related matters as the commission approved millions of dollars in tax-exempt bonds and grants for the developer. Lieberman insisted she hadn't violated ethics laws, including those that prohibit public officials from having frequently occurring conflicts of interest and forbid employment with firms regulated by the governmental body they serve.
The mayor declined to be interviewed for this story but responded -- in a cursory and rather obtuse fashion -- to written questions. She denied that she'd struck any untoward deal with McKinley. "There is no relationship between the insurance issues and Crystal Lakes... At no time, did I try to give McKinley Financial a new agreement or a gift." The insurance broker, who is one of Broward's most prominent black businessmen, also denies he struck any deal with the mayor, to whom he has given thousands of dollars over the years in campaign contributions.
He says he chose Pinnacle for the Housing Authority contract simply because he thought it was the best company. McKinley, who has served as a health care consultant and insurance broker for Broward and numerous other local governments, claims he wasn't aware that Lieberman tried to give his firm the $10,000 fee. "You're telling me something I don't even know," the owner of McKinley Financial Services said. "As far as dealing with the county, that was Carlton Moore's account. I may have been at one of those [county] meetings, but Jim McKinley, personally, didn't get involved with it."
The record shows that Moore, indeed, was in contact with Lieberman at the time. The Fort Lauderdale politician, like the mayor, didn't respond to numerous requests from New Timesfor an interview.
McKinley Financial, which has received millions of dollars in county business during the past decade, has been plagued with controversy -- and Lieberman, ironically, has at times been its harshest critic. In 2000, she asked county staff to investigate McKinley's financial ties to insurance companies that he was recommending to the county. That same year, county staff discovered that McKinley improperly took $12,000 in interest from a public deal. In 2001, Lieberman and a couple of other commissioners publicly chastised him and made him pay the money back -- but retained him as a consultant and broker.
Just two years after that imbroglio, Lieberman became McKinley's biggest supporter on the commission. To explain, she wrote in her e-mailed response: "McKinley has done much work for the county over many years and he has saved the county a lot of money."
Her support, however, came just as the state-run Broward County Housing Authority -- which owns and operates public housing projects -- revved up plans to tear down the low-income Crystal Lakes apartment buildings in Hollywood's Liberia section and construct a 200-unit complex.
After the Housing Authority issued a request for proposals in June 2003, Pinnacle, with Lieberman as lobbyist, was one of 11 developers to respond. On August 26, Housing Authority staff short-listed five of them, with Pinnacle ranked second behind Miami-based Cornerstone Group Development.
That same day, Lieberman made the surprise motion to give McKinley a $10,000 fee. After likening it to a Christmas gift, Commissioner Graber voiced his annoyance with Moore's efforts to sway the commission. "I also do not approve of Mr. Moore lobbying us right before this vote," Graber said. "I think that was very inappropriate behavior, although legal. And I'm going to say that publicly, I don't appreciate McKinley's position here. I think he went way beyond where a contracted organization should go when dealing with us."