Family Ties

Broward Commission, lobbyists ooze coziness

It isn't so much a how-to on influencing the Broward County Commission as it is a who-to.

As in, who do you have to pay to sway the commissioners' votes?

Anybody who keeps up with Broward's power crowd knows the inordinate sway that lobbyists hold over its elected officials. But info on those relationships usually comes through off-the-record talk, whispers, lunch sightings, and, occasionally, obvious financial connections.

But a document recently surfaced that puts those gray-area camaraderies in black and white. It's a page from the notebook of Todd McClendon, program manager for a company called URS Corp., which supervises all construction at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

URS is a big player that relies on the commission's support to keep its job — and the roughly $10 million a year it has been paid for its advice during the past decade-plus.

The company has been under fire since June 2006, when a county audit found that it had failed to justify the money it charged the county for its services and those of its subcontractors.

So if anyone needs to hire the right lobbyists right now, it's URS. And it didn't disappoint. The company's dream team of influence peddlers has included Ron Book, George Platt, Bernie Friedman, and Russ Klenet, all longtime lobbyists with deep ties to elected officials.

Which brings us back to that work journal. McClendon apparently left the hard-bound, maroon-colored book sitting in the commission chambers a few months back.

An anonymous party spotted it, picked it up, and saw that it had some incriminating-looking notes inside. Ultimately, the thing made its way into my hands, damning information and all.

On page 75 of the journal, McClendon wrote up the lobbyist list. On one side were the names of the commissioners. Beside them were the names of the lobbyists expected to sway their vote.

But in the case of Mayor Josephus Eggelletion and Commissioner John Rodstrom, it wasn't a lobbyist at all.

It was an engineer named "Tom," as in Tom McDonald, a politically connected campaign fundraiser whose firm, Craven Thompson & Associates, has worked on everything from the Office Depot Center to CityPlace to Port Everglades.

McDonald's firm has made more than $10 million as a URS subcontractor at the airport. County Auditor Evan Lukic, however, found that invoices from McDonald's firm and other subcontractors were "insufficient to properly verify and/or determine the cost-effectiveness of basic services provided."

McClendon, the project manager, told me that he considered McDonald a member of his "posse," which is predominantly made up of lobbyists and comes up with political strategy.

I wondered: Was some of that public money paid out to McDonald by URS because he was such good friends with commissioners that he could help keep URS in their good graces?

The engineer says no. He says he met with Rodstrom about URS (though he doesn't remember pow-wowing with Eggelletion), but insists that it wasn't lobbying, just "client relations."

"URS has been under fire," McDonald acknowledges. "I'm not a lobbyist, but I've been their partner for ten years, worked with them for 12 years. I'm sure what my name was [in the McClendon journal] for was, 'Do we need to get in and see the commissioners about any outstanding issues?'

"It's part of business. I'm not getting a lobbying fee."

Rodstrom is upfront about his friendship with McDonald, with whom he's been golfing for many years. But he says his relationship with McDonald hasn't influenced his position vis-à-vis URS.

"It's no secret he's a personal friend of mine," Rodstrom told me. "But if anybody thinks that will affect my vote, they don't know me very well. I think URS has overcharged us. I think they ripped us off, and I've been very vocal about that."

Though he hasn't made a direct stand against URS, Rodstrom has criticized the company publicly. In other words, he hasn't been a cheerleader for the company. The one with the pom-poms in her hands has been his colleague Stacy Ritter.

She's been a steadfast supporter of the company since her election in November. The lobbyist penciled in next to her name was Russ Klenet.

You know, Ritter's husband.

Klenet was supposed to have quit lobbying for URS after his wife's election, but, as I reported two weeks ago ("Marital Law," July 26), McClendon's notebook seems to put the lie to that. Klenet's name is mentioned several times in it, including once in April where he's listed as a member of McClendon's "posse."

But Klenet isn't the only commissioner's spouse who figures into the URS matter. So does one Richard Rubin, the husband of Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin. Assigned by URS to garner Wasserman-Rubin's support was veteran lobbyist George Platt. If you follow local history at all, the linking of Wasserman-Rubin and Platt is no surprise. Platt hired Wasserman-Rubin's husband a few years back to work for his Fort Lauderdale firm, Shutts & Bowen.

It was a shady monetary connection between a commissioner and one of the most prominent lobbyists working in her county. Such shenanigans sadly pass muster in ethically lax Broward County, but Wasserman-Rubin did get in a little trouble a couple of years ago for failing to separate her marriage from public business. The Florida Ethics Commission slapped her on the hand for voting to give grants to the town of Southwest Ranches. The problem: Richard Rubin wrote the grant proposals and got bonuses based on the county's approval.

Platt has a history of hiring commissioners' relatives — he also put Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger's son, lawyer Ron Gunzburger, on his payroll for a couple of years. But Platt wasn't linked with Gunzburger on McClendon's list, just two other commissioners: Ritter (who was also linked with Klenet) and Kristin Jacobs.

Jacobs is known to socialize with Platt, who has contributed to her campaigns and raised money for her. When she vacations in North Carolina with her family, she dines at the Platt house, which sits on a high mountain.

Yeah, it's cozy at the top.

"North Carolina is a beautiful place, and he said when you're out, come to our house, and we did," Jacobs says. "I'm not really close to George Platt, but I do like him. I think he's one of the cleaner guys out there."

The URS lobbyist who seems to have had the least amount of luck is Bernie Friedman, the combed-over top gun for the powerhouse legal and lobbying firm of Becker & Poliakoff. His name was scribbled next to those of commissioners Gunz­burger and Lois Wexler.

Friedman has longstanding relationships with both commissioners, mostly due to his work in Hollywood, where Gunz­burger began her political career. Neither woman, however, has proven to be a loyal supporter of URS. In fact, Gunzburger is one of the company's most vocal critics.

The biggest lobbyist of them all, likely, is Ron Book. His name came up next to only one commissioner, Ilene Lieberman. They too are known to socialize. Just this past February, Lieberman, who didn't respond to my questions for this column, was mentioned in a Miami Herald gossip column as having attended an "engagement bash" for Book's daughter at Hawk's Landing in Plantation.

And then, finally, there's Ken Keechl, the only commissioner who also happens to be a political novice. Next to his name is... a blank space. That doesn't mean he didn't get the URS treatment, though. McClendon noted in his journal that he was scheduled to meet with Keechl on the balcony of Stork's Bakery on Las Olas Boulevard. And McClendon's notes indicate he considered Keechl an ally of his company.

But it's encouraging news that Keechl hasn't developed a strong bond with the big-name lobbyists.

Just give him time, though. It's Broward County, after all.

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