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Starting in 1997, Fort Lauderdale construction magnate Bob Moss decided to build stronger bridges with Florida politicians. Moss told employees to give money to campaigns "as a means of relationship building."
At the end of each year, employees would hand Moss copies of checks they'd sent to candidates, and Moss would pay them back through year-end bonuses.
Moss also reimbursed himself through a similar scheme. Between 1998 and 2002, he personally gave more than $42,000 to Democratic Sen. Bob Graham, the Republican National Committee, Republican Senate candidate Bill McCollum, and others.
His influence-buying plan unraveled when his employer, national construction company Centex-Rooney, got wind of it. The company launched an investigation that uncovered the scheme. Turns out it's illegal under federal election guidelines to reimburse employees for political contributions.
Centex-Rooney says it fired Moss after an investigation. Moss then went on to found Moss & Associates, and it appears Moss brought the political influence he had bought with him while at Centex-Rooney.
On March 23, the Miami-Dade County Commission awarded a no-bid contract to a joint venture of Moss' company and Indianapolis-based Hunt Construction to build the new $636 million ballpark for the Florida Marlins. The commissioners ignored that Moss & Associates has a history of violating campaign finance laws and a record of complaints about shoddy work.
Now taxpayers are on the hook for more than $2 billion in long-term debt, tying the local economy into a construction deal with Hunt/Moss that could have dire consequences if it comes in late, over budget, or poorly built. That reality has opponents to the plan fuming.
"This whole deal has taught me... how our system really works," says Michael Burnstine, an insurance salesman who founded a grassroots group to fight the stadium plan. "It's not about protecting the taxpayers, it's about getting re-elected."
Moss vigorously defends his company's record and says there have been only "tiny tidbits" of problems. "Why don't we focus on the last five years when we've been one of the best in the business?" he asks.
Moss, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, retains a honeyed Southern drawl. He moved to South Florida in 1986 when he was hired by Centex-Rooney. He took over as CEO of a local Centex-Rooney affiliate, Fort Lauderdale-based Frank J. Rooney Construction. The firm soon became one of the heavyweights in the South Florida construction business, with tens of millions in contracts for schools, jails, and housing projects.
But there was controversy. In 1994, a $71 million Palm Beach County Jail built by Centex-Rooney came in ten months late and cost hundreds of thousands in extra fees to consultants. According to a Sun-Sentinel story from that time headlined "Shoddy Work, Flawed Plans Delay Building," dozens of minor problems — from flooring that wasn't installed properly and had to be reworked to a security system that needed extensive re-tooling — held up completion by months. Moss today terms it "a very successful job."
In 1997, Centex-Rooney collaborated with Hunt to build the new Florida Panthers arena in Sunrise. The management team earned stinging criticism from county leaders including Broward Commissioner John Rodstrom for missing deadlines to hire enough woman- and minority-owned firms.
Moss points to his firm's performance — the arena opened on schedule and on budget with few accidents. "It's one of the best designed and built arenas in the nation," he says.
It was around this same time in 1997 that Moss began his campaign to funnel campaign contributions through his employees, according to an internal investigation led by Centex-Rooney's corporate parent.
Centex-Rooney internal documents claim that the company "moved quickly and decisively to address the problems" and that Moss' "employment has been terminated." Moss then went on to found Moss & Associates, and it appears he brought the political influence he had brought with him from Centex-Rooney.
"I resigned from Centex-Rooney, and I voluntarily went to the FEC. Basically, there were some records poorly kept on activities in the company... There was never a check given that matched up to individual donations," he says.
When he left Centex-Rooney, Moss signed an 18-month non-compete promise. He founded Moss & Associates in 2004. Today, the firm claims to be the second-largest in South Florida, with 81 projects worth $1.6 billion completed in the last five years.
One of those projects — the disastrous Tao Sawgrass Condominiums in Sunrise — has become a new source of controversy for the builder. The twin 26-story luxury towers sit empty today, victims of the real-estate bust and, according to project developer Harry Weitzer, Moss' shoddy construction. Weitzer says Moss' builders caused 29 separate incidents that required insurance claims while building the towers — including a massive flood that ruined electrical systems and dozens of nearly completed units.
Weitzer claims Moss' negligence delayed the building's opening by months — and led the bank to take over the building this past November. "The whole firm is incompetent," Weitzer says.
Moss acknowledges his crews had problems with water leaks, but disputes Weitzer's claims that his construction was to blame for the project's failure. He says both parties agreed on an October completion date and that "every allegation by Mr. Weitzer is demonstrably false."
Regardless, there is no mention of construction controversies or FEC fines in Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess' March 23 recommendation that the Miami-Dade County Commission appoint Hunt/Moss as the stadium's construction manager. Nor was there much discussion of these issues before the vote.
Among those who voted against the stadium is Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez. But even after his vote against approving taxpayer money to build the ballpark, Martinez voted to approve Hunt/Moss as the builder.
How to explain that flip-flop?
"I was against the stadium funding," Martinez says. "But Hunt/Moss ... seemed very qualified to me."
Here's what Martinez doesn't mention: He has accepted thousands in donations from Moss & Associates.
According to disclosure reports, in March 2008 Martinez received $500 checks from both Chad and Scott Moss — Bob's sons and vice presidents at Moss & Associates. He also garnered $500 each from Ron Dunn, the company's executive vice president, and Bruce Moldow, the firm's chief legal counsel. Records show that Martinez is the only county commissioner to take money from Moss execs last year.
Moldow, furthermore, was among the Centex-Rooney employees cited by the FEC in 2003. Chad Moss says he's never met Joe Martinez. "Simply put, a friend of mine asked me to donate," he says, adding that he probably passed that recommendation on to his brother, Scott. "I'm sure [Martinez] doesn't even know who my brother and I are."
Chad Moss disputes the idea that his donations might have influenced Martinez to vote for the Hunt/Moss contract. "I doubt a thousand bucks would buy you much." His father, Bob, adds: "I don't know Martinez personally."
Indeed, despite all the acrimony, Martinez supports Hunt/Moss — which was picked by the Marlins without the normal competition required under county guidelines. "I may question the administration about why this even needs to be a joint venture, but it wouldn't change my vote," he says.