Our Mayor, the Lobbyist, Part 2

Either Ilene Lieberman's timing is miraculous or...

After Commissioner Lori Parrish remarked on the dais that McKinley had apparently chosen Lieberman as his representative on the board, Lieberman denied it. "Jim McKinley did not call me," she announced. "I met with staff, and when I was getting some answers from staff that caused me additional concern, I picked up the phone and called McKinley because [he is] our benefits consultant. And I was told that Mr. McKinley had been ill... and they would have Carlton Moore call me back. Carlton returned my call."

Commissioners shot down the motion 8-1, leaving McKinley without the $10,000 "gift." Lieberman was the only one to vote for the plan.

Ten days after the failed amendment, a six-member Housing Authority selection committee met to choose the developer for the Crystal Lakes project. McKinley, who was appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the authority board in 2000, was one of two Housing Authority board members who agreed to sit on the committee. Lieberman attended the September 5 meeting on behalf of Pinnacle.

As the developers presented their plans to the committee, the housing authority's executive director, Kevin Cregan, took notes. In describing Pinnacle, he jotted down Lieberman's name, along with other powerful members of the company's team, including engineer Bill Keith and lobbyist Bernie Friedman. Over the names, he wrote that Pinnacle had "met with all the right local people," according to the Crystal Lakes file at the Housing Authority office in Lauderhill.

Even with such a formidable host of hired guns, Pinnacle was in a tight race with Cornerstone. In a scoring system based on criteria like project quality and financial stability, McKinley's fellow committee members all scored the companies within two points of one another. Two favored Cornerstone, two Pinnacle, and one had them tied.

When the scoresheets were added up, Pinnacle was ahead by just one point. McKinley's score was crucial -- and it wasn't even close. He gave Pinnacle a perfect score of 100 and slammed Cornerstone with an 85, a full eight points below its next lowest mark. McKinley insists that Lieberman's involvement with Pinnacle had no influence on him. He said that while they see each other about town -- both are active in economic development groups like VisionBROWARD and the Broward Alliance -- they don't discuss his public contracts. "I don't believe she even spoke at the meeting," he says. "I haven't talked to her in three years about county business. I mean, I see Mayor Lieberman -- like everybody here in town, I see her at things. But we don't discuss county business."

The insurance broker also insists that Moore never spoke to him about Lieberman and Pinnacle. "We agreed that we wouldn't discuss our public service," McKinley says of Moore. "I don't discuss Housing Authority matters with him, and he doesn't discuss City of Fort Lauderdale matters with me."

On September 19, 2003, McKinley made a motion during a Housing Authority board meeting to approve the firm as the Crystal Lakes developer. The five-member board did so unanimously, without substantial discussion.

Less than a month later came a meeting of the Broward County health insurance committee, on which Lieberman sat. In attendance at the October 14 meeting were both McKinley and Moore. There, Lieberman urged committee members to renew McKinley Financial's contract as a health care consultant. "What Ilene tried to do was to extend McKinley's contract because she felt they were being discriminated against" because he is black, Graber says. "McKinley made the same charge, that they were being discriminated against by staff."

Lieberman's attempt to give McKinley more business failed. The committee shot it down. Graber, who voted against the proposal, says he had no idea of the ties between McKinley and Lieberman regarding Crystal Lakes. When told about the relationship, he said only, "That's interesting."

Two months after the committee rejected her proposal, Lieberman cast a December 9 vote to give McKinley a $109,000 contract to handle the county's property and casualty insurance. Eight days after that, McKinley agreed with the rest of the Housing Authority board to approve a memorandum of understanding with Pinnacle regarding Crystal Lakes.

The mayor's conflicts of interest regarding the development didn't end there. Earlier this year, the Broward County Commission approved more than $550,000 in housing grants for the Crystal Lakes project. Lieberman recused herself from voting on the matter. The City of Hollywood has also promised $500,000 in public funds to the development, which Pinnacle estimates will cost $22 million. The company has applied for federal tax credits to pay for Crystal Lakes, which could add some $13 million in public subsidy to the venture.

How much money Lieberman made on the deal isn't known -- she won't discuss her Pinnacle compensation, which supplements her $84,000 annual pay as a commissioner. But a credible source close to one deal says she was given a $100,000 "success fee" after helping the company win an affordable housing project in Pompano Beach where the Holiday Lakes apartment complex used to stand. In her e-mail, Lieberman denied this was true but did not elaborate.

Lieberman and McKinley, in the case of Crystal Lakes, either traded public favors to enrich themselves, which would implicate each in a crime, or they simultaneously scratched each other's backs by sheer coincidence and failed to catch themselves in blatant conflicts of interests.

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