By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Here's a job for new Broward County government chief Bertha Henry: End the county's business dealings with the Westside Gazette.
The newspaper has been claiming false circulation levels for years and has used the trumped-up numbers to fleece taxpayers. Broward County is just one of many government customers of the black-owned publication, which is rife with puff pieces and reprinted press releases.
If Henry, who took over last week after the resignation of Roger Desjarlais, would take a stand against the Gazette, she would show everyone that just because a newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for local government, it shouldn't be allowed to cheat the public. But I doubt the interim county administrator, whose salary was just bumped up to $232,500 a year, will do anything about it.
Henry's family owns the Westside Gazette, after all.
Her husband, Bobby Henry, serves as publisher of the newspaper, which was founded by his father, Levi, in 1971. The county places ads in the Gazette that run taxpayers more than $20,000 a year.
That might seem like a conflict of interest for Bertha, who oversees the department that handles accounts with the Gazette, but before we tackle that issue, let's look at the newspaper's circulation numbers.
Over the years, there have been a lot of them.
According to published reports, it jumped from 37,000 in 1993 to 70,000 in 2001. Not bad for a small, hard-to-find publication run almost exclusively by the extended Henry family. On January 12, 2002, the Sun-Sentinel repeated the figure of 70,000 in a story about a black media conference held in town. The next day, the Miami Herald put the number at 50,000. Apparently, the newspaper lost 20,000 subscribers in one hellish 24-hour period. Or it was all a pack of lies.
Last year, the Gazette issued a "media kit" for prospective advertisers again listing a circulation of 50,000. In it, the publisher claimed that the number had been certified by a company called the Community Papers Verifications Service (CPVS).
And then, this past December, someone had to mess things up and blow the whistle on the newspaper. An anonymous tipster sent a meticulously researched and well-organized five-page complaint to federal and state authorities alleging circulation fraud and implying that Bertha Henry, who was hired as deputy county administrator in 2000, had helped steer taxpayers' money to her family's business.
"Since her hiring as deputy county administrator, the Gazette has increased its advertising contracts with Broward County Government substantially," the mystery complainant wrote. "Bertha Henry oversees the division that awards county contracts."
The masked crusader alleged that CPVS had never audited the newspaper's circulation. "The Gazette's claims, which have been made statewide and nationally," he or she wrote, "is a clear case of fraud exacted upon countless governmental and private sector customers."
The feds and the state Attorney General's Office referred the case to Broward County, prompting an internal investigation by the county's Office of Professional Standards (OPS). Then-county chief Desjarlais wrote to his underlings: "This investigation should be conducted without regard for Ms. Henry's position in the organization."
As if. The investigation proved to be just what you'd expect from staffers investigating their boss -- incomplete, slipshod, and full of faulty rationalizations. Yet it did find a few scintillating facts. For instance, investigator David Paul confirmed that the county had paid the Gazettemuch more after Henry was hired as deputy county administrator. The amount jumped from $18,543 in 2000 to $26,555 the following year -- an unexplained 40 percent increase.
The newspaper also began charging the county more per column inch. In fact, the rate nearly doubled, from $13 in 2000 to $25 at the time of the investigation (today, it's about $30).
That rate, of course, is based on circulation figures -- and those figures were bogus. Paul found that the Gazette's circulation claim had never been certified. Tim Bingaman, president of a company that had bought CPVS, informed the county that not only did the Gazette fail to pass an audit in 1999 but that it wasn't possible the tiny newspaper had a circulation of 50,000.
Paul didn't find this information very convincing. "Unless we can produce evidence that we depended on their circulation claims, and that they were false claims made knowingly, we're missing the essential elements of fraud...," Paul wrote to James Poag, who was then director of the OPS. "There is some evidence (not necessarily reliable) to substantiate that the Gazettemade such claims."
The media kit, of course, was as reliable a source as you could get, right from the Henry's mouth. Paul, however, claimed he couldn't find a copy of it. He tried to get it from the newspaper's website, but it had been taken down. So the county failed to obtain the key piece of evidence in the case.
And what a piece it is. Along with the ridiculous circulation claim, the media kit, which I got without too much trouble, boasted 350,000 readers, an absurd number even if the 50,000 circulation figure were correct. And it didn't stop there. Check out this line: "The Westside Gazette readers are cultivated African American consumers who have tremendous buying power to the tune of $60 billion a year."
After this impossible boast, Bobby Henry ended the media kit with a nonsensical rant in which he defends his paper from unnamed detractors and blends in the craziest claim of all. "We don't have to take a lot of stuff!" he types in bold black letters. "As customers with an economic base of $600 billion, we should speak with our dollar$ -- let's do business with those that respect fair play!"