Slush Money

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

City Attorney Abbott claims there was no conflict of interest in Berman-Miller's development proposals. He also claims there was no conflict in Berman-Miller's urging the city to contract with GHAF when she planned to benefit financially from the foundation, as her e-mails suggest.

"The city negotiated the agreement through the city manager, the city's Budget and Procurement Services Office, and the City Attorney's Office," Abbott says. "The City Commission, of course, authorized our entering into the agreement. There was no conflict of interest because Berman-Miller did not represent the city in connection with the agreement."

But in defending Berman-Miller, Abbott apparently ignores the behind-the-scenes role she played. Internal e-mails document that Berman-Miller received drafts of the contract terms and was at least present in the process of negotiating those terms.

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.

But even more troubling than Berman-Miller's conflict of interest is the city's motivation to shield public money and land from public scrutiny. By using a private organization, city officials are attempting to hide activities and documents from Florida's open government laws. Officials with the foundation and the city claim the move is meant to protect large donors who wish to remain anonymous.

Two weeks before the commission approved the contract with GHAF, for instance, Koslow sent an e-mail to city staff emphasizing the importance of GHAF's not being held subject to public records law. "This is important to large potential donors," he wrote.

"Cities do not traditionally directly fundraise; I believe the reason is that regulations upon government make it difficult to fundraise," Abbott explains. "In particular, potential donors may not want correspondence they send or receive regarding fundraising efforts to be public record."

But that's "outrageous," says Adria Harper, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee and a leading authority on Florida's public records law. An exemption already exists in current law providing for donor anonymity, she says.

"The City of Hollywood, by creating this foundation solely to circumvent the public records laws, is acting contrary to the spirit of Florida's open government laws and the citizens' constitutional right to access," Harper says. "While I understand the desire to keep donor names confidential, I do not think the privacy of donors or the motivation to raise funding by keeping such information private trumps the citizen's right to access the records of a private entity acting on behalf of a public agency."

City Commissioner Frances Russo agrees. "It's got Hollywood's name on it," she says. "It's a public entity. There was no good reason for them to create this foundation. I don't know what's happening to our city."

On Friday, February 10, New Times filed a formal records request with GHAF. Because the foundation is using public money and resources to perform a public function, state law mandates that all records related to the foundation remain open and available to the public. As of press time, GHAF was consulting its attorney and had not responded to the request.

"As one of seven volunteer members on the foundation board, we are collectively trying to better our community by helping to provide cultural opportunities for our residents," comments Koslow, a former Hollywood city attorney. Now a loyal campaign fundraiser for Mayor Giulianti, Koslow is Hollywood's most influential lobbyist.

Samuel F. Morrison defends GHAF as well. Last year, Koslow asked Morrison, former director of the Broward County Library System, to be the foundation's board chairman.

"I would not have become a part of this if it were not straightforward," Morrison says. "There's nothing I know of that is a hidden agenda here at all. There's nothing here that citizens should be concerned with at all. Whatever the public rules are related to the foundation in terms of disclosure, we're more than willing to comply."

Morrison says taxpayers need not worry about any misuse of public funds. So far, Morrison says, GHAF has spent just $4,649 of the taxpayers' $480,000, which includes $2,899 in legal fees, $500 of public money to pay the U.S. Treasury for the foundation's tax-exempt status, and another $500 to advertise for an executive director.

Of course, that doesn't include the taxpayer money being spent on legal fees to keep New Times from getting access to public records.

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