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By Ryan Cortes
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When Stacy Ritter was elected to the Broward County Commission in November, her lobbyist-husband, Russ Klenet, promised to cut ties to companies that contract with the county in order to avoid legal and ethical conflicts.
But evidence — in the form of electronic mail and a possibly purloined notebook — surfaced last week indicating that Klenet has been secretly lobbying for URS Corp., the embattled company that oversees construction projects at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. At the same time, Ritter, a former state legislator and longtime political fixture in Broward, has served as the airport liaison to the commission and at times has advocated for URS on the dais.
The company needed all the help it could get. URS has been reeling from a county audit issued in June 2006 that found it has provided insufficient documentation to justify the money it has billed the county — a total of about $85 million from 1995 through 2005 alone.
URS, a San Francisco-based multinational engineering firm, has withstood the controversy in part by engaging in an aggressive lobbying campaign. The company employs what it calls a "posse" of high-powered lobbyists — including Ron Book, George Platt, and Bernie Friedman — to make sure it keeps its lucrative contract, which is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the future, thanks to a planned $3 billion airport expansion that includes a new runway.
Klenet wasn't supposed to be part of that posse. The lobbyist, who is notorious for persuading the county to buy controversial touch-screen voting machines, had served as a registered lobbyist for URS before his wife's election but supposedly ended that association when she won office.
But intriguing evidence has surfaced that shows Klenet, who now works for the Tallahassee-based lobbying firm Dutko, Poole & McKinley, has covertly maintained a working relationship with URS. And it comes from an unlikely place: a notebook that belonged to Todd McClendon, the URS project manager at the airport.
McClendon says the notebook, in which he detailed his work at the airport, disappeared a few months ago.
"I have a notebook that is missing," McClendon told me. "We have not labeled it as stolen, but I do not have it in my possession."
He later told me that he'd filed a theft report with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.
Initially, I had copies of key pages from the notebook. On Monday afternoon I received the entire notebook, which had been anonymously delivered to the New Times office.
The notebook, which has 135 pages covering August to April of this year, contains several mentions of Klenet and Ritter. For instance, McClendon wrote on April 18 of this year that the URS "posse" was going to meet and lists the names of its members. "Russ" is at the top of the list, right over the names of "Ronnie," "Bernie," and "George."
This would seem to indicate that Klenet was working as a lobbyist for URS at the time, several months after Ritter's election to the commission.
McClendon was a bit circumspect about the matter. "I don't know if Russ is a registered lobbyist with URS at this time," he said. "I would have to seek that answer from corporate. If I wrote that, then I wrote it... If Russ was there, Russ was there."
McClendon later denied that Klenet had lobbied for URS in Broward since Ritter's election but said he did not know if Klenet had done work for the company outside the county in that time.
Pages from the notebook suggest Klenet had a role in lobbying the commission — and his wife — after Ritter's election.
In December, McClendon jotted down the names of county commissioners along with the URS lobbyists who were supposed to influence them. Across from "Ritter" are two names: "Russ" and "George."
McClendon also wrote several notations suggesting that Klenet was in charge of making pre-Christmas charitable donations and contributions. On one page, McClendon, misspelling Ritter's first name, simply wrote: "Staci = Russ." And, on the same page, dated December 20, he wrote, "Ritter heading up the airport change," apparently referring to her becoming the commission's liaison.
When I called Ritter's commission office for comment, she requested through her aide Priscilla Rogers that I put questions in writing. I did, but she didn't answer them and also failed to return numerous phone calls.
But many of Ritter's actions regarding the airport are a matter of public record. The commissioner, whatever her motive, has taken an active interest in the airport and has defended and protected URS not only on the dais but also in cyberspace.
An example of the latter came on the morning of March 5, after Ritter received what county officials often simply refer to as the "Delta letter." Delta Airlines' regional director, James Masoero, who serves as chairman of the airline industry's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport committee, wrote commissioners about the URS contract, complaining that it adds "an additional layer of fees and charges that inflate" construction costs.
"With the current rate and structure of the [URS contract], and the $1.6 billion dollar list of projects on the horizon, today's fee structure would line the pockets of [URS] by $97,600,000, or an additional $9 per enplaned passenger," Masoero wrote.
It was a damning letter for URS — and Ritter acted quickly. Thirty-eight minutes after Masoero's letter was sent, she e-mailed it to Klenet, according to e-mail records obtained from the same confidential source. Eight minutes later, Klenet apparently sent the letter to URS' McClendon and lobbyists Platt and Friedman with the notation "Check this out."
The Ritter-URS pipeline was revealed, with lobbyist-husband Klenet as the middleman. And it only got worse. The next day, at the commission meeting, Ritter claimed the letter was based on faulty estimations.
"It's important when you read Delta's letter to understand that... [it's] based on one year...," she said on the dais. "I've been taught by not only our own staff but everybody I've spoken with, with respect to the expansion project, that you don't look at airlines in one-year snapshots... Delta is apparently looking at this particular agenda item in one-year snapshots, and it's the impression that the cost is much higher based on that than if you spread it out over a much longer period of time."
Commissioner Ilene Lieberman immediately corrected Ritter, telling her, "I believe they looked at the long term."
In fact, the numbers in the Delta letter were conservative. According to Broward County Auditor Evan Lukic, URS has been paid nearly 11 percent of the total construction cost at the airport during the term of its contract. At that rate, the $97,600,000 figure Masoero said would be paid to URS would actually rise to more like $107 million.
So Ritter, while defending a company tied to her husband, appears to have misled the commission and the people.
It was just a month later that her husband's name showed up in McClendon's notes as a member of the company's "posse."
A review of commission meeting minutes shows that Ritter often acted in URS' best interests, if not taxpayers'. During that same March 6 meeting, for instance, she said that because the money the county allocates to URS is "factored into the contract," they will "not actually increase the cost of doing business at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International."
That's nonsensical bureaucratic babble. It sounds like it came from the mouths of URS officials — whom Ritter said she spent "hours" with.
Ritter also has helped URS keep its controversial contract. After the audit of URS was issued, county staff tried to end URS' monopoly, saying it would likely save many millions of dollars. One idea was to hire new staffers full-time to manage the construction — which might seem a better idea than paying $10 million a year or more to a company that doesn't supply so much as a single brick.
But Ritter and other commissioners, many of whom were heavily lobbied by the URS posse, pooh-poohed that idea. It was instead decided that the county would put the work out to bid and hire multiple companies to oversee airport projects.
Although she initially seemed to support that plan, Ritter ultimately helped kill it. During the March 20 commission meeting, she repeatedly said she wasn't prepared to vote on it, thereby helping to delay the process. "I don't believe that this board should vote for things that are in concept only," she said. "On something of this magnitude, I would need to see exact language... specific language."
At the following week's meeting, she announced that she had turned "180 degrees" on the issue and didn't want to start the bidding process at all, at least not until an aviation director was hired.
The commission agreed, and the process was stopped, ensuring that URS would be the only game in town again when its contract expires in September. The county will then be forced to deal with URS on a month-to-month basis, wasting more money along the way.
The married couple's entanglements with URS might have seemed inevitable back in November, when Ritter was elected. Klenet, who also represents numerous cities in Broward, has been an infamous wheeler-dealer in county business. He and his wife have apparently done very well financially with their government work.
In 2003, they bought a house in upscale Parkland for $925,000. Just last week, they returned from a long European vacation, and they are regulars on the Democratic political circuit, where they've hobnobbed with leading Democrats like Al Gore and Bill Clinton.
But the URS revelations could slow them down considerably. It's illegal in Florida for a politician to profit from public service, even if the money is coming to his or her spouse.
Still, there is no proof that Klenet received remuneration from URS for his work on the "posse" since his wife's election, and there is no known criminal investigation into the couple's actions at this time.
Several political insiders, however, tell me they knew controversy was on the way the instant Ritter was elected, if only because of her husband's work.
"It was trouble waiting to happen," said one.
Now it's here.