Slush Money

Hollywood sets aside big money for its friends and doesn't want you to know

Hollywood is so eager to give developers unfettered access to public money that city officials recently helped to create what amounts to a slush fund.

By forming a private foundation, lobbyist Alan Koslow, former city employee Cynthia Berman-Miller, and other Hollywood political insiders now control millions of dollars worth of public money and land. They claim the private foundation is intended to protect the identity of potential donors to the city's financially troubled ArtsPark.

But that's only part of the truth. Documents show that Hollywood is using the excuse of protecting donor identities for a more cynical goal: to subvert open-government laws and reward political insiders with public money. The city has created a large pool of cash for its wealthy friends to play with and doesn't want you to know how it's being used.

As a city employee, Cynthia Berman-Miller pushed for the creation of a private foundation funded with public money. She now sits on the foundation's board of directors.
Colby Katz
As a city employee, Cynthia Berman-Miller pushed for the creation of a private foundation funded with public money. She now sits on the foundation's board of directors.

The story begins about a year ago, when Berman-Miller began to sew together her own publicly financed golden parachute. Earning $40,000 per year as director of Hollywood's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, she was responsible for promoting and marketing the arts in Hollywood as well as for raising funds to benefit ArtsPark.

In February 2005, she and other city staff began to promote the idea that a private foundation might better serve the fundraising needs of ArtsPark, whose price tag had jumped from $10 million at its conception to about $20 million at its groundbreaking. Berman-Miller became the primary lobbyist at City Hall for the creation of what's become known as the Greater Hollywood Arts Foundation (GHAF). "I have had an opportunity to meet with all of the commissioners about the arts foundation," Berman-Miller wrote in an e-mail to city staff on February 24, 2005, when she was a city employee.

The private foundation received public money as well as naming rights, programming control, and other authority over the city park. Two of its board members, Koslow and Debbie Orshefsky, are prominent lobbyists in Hollywood. Koslow has represented affluent developers in negotiating tens of millions of dollars in publicly financed development incentives, primarily for buildings near ArtsPark, while Orshefsky represents the Westin Diplomat before the City Commission. As a city employee, Berman-Miller promoted the foundation to city commissioners with the expectation that she would eventually be paid by the foundation once it was seeded with $480,000 in public money, which appears to be a blatant conflict of interest. Berman-Miller was using her position as a city employee to guarantee that she'd get a job with the supposedly private foundation, paid for with public money.

What's more, City Attorney Dan Abbott admits to New Times that the city plans to use the foundation as a way to subvert laws that require government records to be available to the public.

Internal e-mails obtained by New Times show that Berman-Miller, Abbott, Budget and Procurement Services Director Cynthia McCormack, Senior Assistant City Attorney Debra Reese, and private lobbyist Koslow corresponded over a six-month period to strategize about the creation of the foundation and the terms of the contract it would receive from the city.

The driving force behind the project was Berman-Miller, who in e-mails repeatedly badgered city staff to finalize a contract for GHAF and put it before the City Commission for a vote as quickly as possible. "I am being encouraged by Cynthia Miller to have this agreement finalized ASAP, as she desires to have this on the June 1 City Commission agenda," Reese wrote to city staff on May 12, 2005, one month after Koslow filed incorporation papers for GHAF.

Berman-Miller was well-aware that she was using her role as a city employee to benefit her pocketbook. In an e-mail to Abbott, Berman-Miller expressed concern about a possible conflict of interest if she was the one to sponsor the resolution to enter into a contract with GHAF.

"[The resolution] cannot come from me," she wrote. "I think that would be a conflict since I will be paid by the foundation too. But I am at your disposal if you need anything done to facilitate the process."

On September 20, 2005, the City Commission voted 4-2 to award GHAF $480,000 to begin the foundation's fundraising process, with Commissioners Frances Russo and Peter Bober dissenting and Cathleen Anderson absent. "This is actually an attempt to save the city from having to pour any more money in [to ArtsPark]," Mayor Mara Giulianti said of the agreement.

The four-year contract with GHAF does not include performance guarantees and allows for the immediate hiring of an executive director and one auxiliary staff member, who together will earn about $120,000 per year, according to the contract.

Berman-Miller, who declined to comment for this article, has previously maintained that she is an unpaid volunteer for the foundation and will not become executive director. However, Berman-Miller is one of the foundation's seven board members.

Although she was employed by Hollywood for only two years, Berman-Miller has a record of using her public job to benefit her private interests. Before leaving her city position on July 15, 2005, Berman-Miller, who received her real estate license less than a year ago, submitted two development proposals to the City of Hollywood. For one proposal, she teamed with state Rep. Ken Gottlieb, a former Hollywood city commissioner, to ask for $8.2 million in incentives (see "Access Hollywood," February 16).

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