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First it was a mysterious journal; now it's a trail of telling e-mails. Both strongly indicate that Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter has compromised her public office for her lobbyist/husband, Russ Klenet, choosing love and money over ethics.
When Ritter was elected to the commission last November, her husband claimed to have stopped lobbying for a company called URS Corp., which currently has an exorbitant and wasteful contract to oversee all construction at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
But e-mails I obtained last week from Ritter's county office reveal that the commissioner was feeding Klenet county information regarding URS. At the same time, she was serving as the commission's liaison to the airport and defending URS on the dais.
URS has made about $100 million as the airport's "program manager" during the past 12 years and was blasted last year in a county audit that found it couldn't justify its massive fees.
Ritter and Klenet's ties to the company even led to behind-the-scene conflicts with Interim Airport Director Robert Bielek, who supports firing URS.
On March 5, Ritter used her county e-mail account to forward a letter to Klenet that she and fellow commissioners had received from Spirit Airlines. In it, Spirit endorsed a call by the airport's Airline Affairs Committee to fire URS because the company's "inflated" costs were unnecessary and caused an undue burden on passengers' wallets.
After receiving the e-mail from his wife, Klenet referred to the airport director in his reply from his lobbying office e-mail.
"Bielick [sic] is pretty dastardly," he wrote.
"Or maybe he is on to something," Ritter sent back.
It's not known what, exactly, Ritter meant by her reply, since neither she nor her husband will comment on the matter. But her loyalty to URS was evident for all to see at the commission meeting the next day. She claimed that the figures being used by the airlines were faulty — a statement that itself is demonstrably false.
And Ritter said that because the money the county allocates to URS is "factored into the contract," it will "not actually increase the cost of doing business at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International."
Her misleading bureaucratic babble, which sounds as if it came directly from URS lobbyists, didn't impress the airport director, Bielek, who was unaware of the couple's e-mail banter regarding his "dastardly" disposition.
On March 10, four days after the meeting, the interim director e-mailed Assistant County Administrator Dick Brossard: "Ritter's comments regarding the cost of the [URS contract] are completely out of reality. They really fed her a load — hope she didn't buy any bottom land in the 'glades."
Last week, I told Bielek about the e-mails between Ritter and Klenet.
"The reason probably why he says I'm dastardly is that I've said we don't need a program manager" at the airport such as URS, Bielek said. "Don't need one now and don't need one in the future."
Despite the mounting evidence against the company, Ritter has stood by URS. Her e-mail records indicate she has also met with the company's Fort Lauderdale project manager, Todd McClendon, and its regional director, Laddie Irion.
And the records show that URS may have influenced her vote on the controversial south runway expansion at the airport. On April 30, Irion wrote Ritter, advising her to vote for the 8,000-foot south runway — which is bitterly opposed by south county residents and is expected to cost as much as $3 billion.
"It is obvious that this is a high priority for you and your staff and that you are interested in selecting the best alternative for the citizens of Broward County," he wrote after the two met in person.
No surprise that URS would support the expensive plan, since it expects to get a cut of the action. Ritter voted in June for Irion's favored option.
Over and over, Ritter betrayed a special interest in URS through her e-mails. For instance, a staffer sent her a consultant's report regarding URS county billing practices. She then e-mailed the attached report to an address she has at her husband's lobbying office.
And she kept her husband in the loop. On April 17, she sent Klenet an e-mail she had received from Pamela Brangaccio that included information on the search for a new airport director.
The e-mails received from the county also confirmed that Ritter e-mailed Klenet the letter from the Airline Affairs Committee that urged the commission to terminate the URS contract. I had already obtained that particular e-mail from a confidential source and wrote about it last month. I also received records at that time showing that Klenet promptly forwarded his wife's message to URS' project manager, Todd McClendon, which shows that the lobbyist/husband served as a conduit between his wife and the company's manager.
Klenet's e-mail to McClendon seems an odd move for someone who no longer works for the company. But if you believe what McClendon wrote in his own work journal, Klenet remained a member of the URS "posse" after his wife was elected.