By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Frank Owen
The Broward County School Board is slowly coming unraveled at the seams of its own long-standing corruption. First the FBI brought down School Board member Beverly Gallagher for stuffing bribe money in a doggy bag, and now we know that Board member Stephanie Kraft, long suspected of being a tool for lobbyists and developers, has also been in their pockets.
Kraft's husband, Mitch, spent two years on the payroll of School Board lobbyist Neil Sterling and had also been paid by a controversial Coral Springs development firm, Prestige Homes, that was in negotiations with the School Board on hefty fees it must pay the board. During that time, Stephanie Kraft voted on more than $1 billion in projects related to Sterling clients and personally interceded on Prestige Home's behalf to help the firm get a $500,000 break on School Board fees.
Make no mistake, this is some of the most blatant corruption I've ever uncovered. And Kraft didn't break easily. She guarded the secrecy of those dirty deals as long as she could. And that secrecy very well could seal her fate in the ongoing federal corruption investigation that seems to be slowly consuming the entire county.
That secrecy is also likely what will seal Kraft's fate as federal agents investigate her actions. Just the existence of the deals with Kraft's husband is likely a crime, and the fact that she never disclosed the relationships publicly seems to indicate that she knew they were illegal and that the public wouldn't stand for them.
Kraft's corruption involves huge amounts of taxpayer money, but it also has impacted many lives. Take the school district's health care contract, for instance. While her husband was on Sterling's payroll, Kraft helped steer the district's lucrative health insurance contract to Vista Healthplan Inc., a Sterling client and sole provider of health insurance to School Board employees.
Kraft sat on the Superintendent's Insurance Advisory Committee and used her position to back Vista. She helped the firm get a three-year contract to provide health insurance to 41,000 school district employees. The contract was worth $1.7 billion. That averages out to about $565 million a year. Previous contracts to cover school district employees had cost about $200 million a year. The reason for the huge increase hasn't been explained.
Vista is now jacking up rates on employees' children by as much as 45 percent, a change that will take effect January 1. The huge rate increase will add hundreds of dollars each month to the bills of many shocked and dismayed employees. The committee on which Kraft sits voted unanimously to approve the increase before the full board voted to authorize it.
"Going up that much was a shock," said Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo, who also sat on the Insurance Advisory Committee until recently stepping down. "Normally the committee would look at the rate increases and negotiate the price with the company. If this was the starting point for the rate increase, why wasn't it negotiated down?"
School Board employees with young children are exasperated — some of them will pay as much as $200 more a month for a single child.
"The increase in insurance is completely crazy," said Adriana Martin, a science teacher at Glades Middle School. "The rates on my 12-month-old son are going up from $402 to $600. And it's not even a very good plan. It's silly that you pay that much for insurance. I'm going to another company because it's cheaper. I've already gotten quotes in the $200 range."
So how did Vista get the contract? For several years, the School Board had offered employees a choice between Humana and Vista. But last year, district officials decided to go with Vista as sole provider after Humana attempted a 22 percent rate increase. The committee initially decided to go with Vista without even putting out bids, Santeramo says. That prompted the union to issue a letter of protest, which forced the district to open up a bidding process.
Once bids were taken and companies were chosen for the short list, each committee member produced a scorecard for each firm. The committee was made up of several district officials, a couple of union officials, and three board members, including Kraft, Bob Parks, and Robin Bartleman.
Five companies made the short list, but the committee voted Vista as number one. It was Kraft's job to rank the companies, and she led the charge for Vista. She gave Vista a whopping score of 95, versus her second-highest score of 81 for Humana. Of course, she never revealed that her husband was on Sterling's payroll at the time.
The other two board members, Parks and Bartleman, also voted Vista as number one, though by slimmer margins.
And there, every step of the way, helping to shepherd along the votes, was the Vista lobbyist, Sterling, the guy who was paying Kraft's husband.
"Neil Sterling was involved in the process," Santeramo said. "He's not just involved in the construction department. He's the common denominator. His fingers are everywhere."
Making the situation even more egregious is that the same committee, with Kraft in tow, just rolled over for Vista when it came to the rate increase on children.