Best Of :: People & Places
Welcome back to Topical Currents. I'm your host, Joseph Cooper. Today's guest is, well, it actually doesn't matter who today's guest is, because he has long ago fallen asleep. Apparently he has listened to our show before, because he brought his own pillow. He's spooning with it now on the floor of the studio. Anyway, I'll be taking your calls for the rest of the hour. Hello, Pembroke Pines, you're on the air. Pembroke Pines? Asleep, I'm guessing. Seeing as that was our only caller, I'll be taking my own nap now. By now, I assume you are all asleep and nobody will notice. So stay tuned at the top of the hour for NPR News, or as we call it here on Topical Currents, our alarm clock.
Broward County power couples sure have been taking big hits lately. At one time, it looked like Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter and her lobbyist husband, Russ Klenet, were going to take over the world. Now she's the subject of multiple criminal investigations, and he's scooted off to D.C., as he lost a lot of his local business. Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman was at one point Broward's queen of mean, and her husband was the legal czar out in Sunrise. Now she's as quiet as a mouse, and he's been booted from his cush government gig. But Drew and Dawn Meyers have the makings of a Broward-worthy power combo — and that means there are hints of a conflict of interest. Drew Meyers is an assistant county attorney. Dawn Meyers is a lobbyist with the law firm Berger Singerman, who, of course, lobbies the same Broward County commissioners for whom her husband works. When the County Attorney's Office produced a draft of the new ethics code that basically gutted it, there was some controversy for the Meyerses, but for the most part, they've been careful to separate their sometimes slightly intertwining jobs. The power duo took a hit when the hubby was passed over for the county attorney's job in favor of Joni Coffey, the wife of big-time lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey. Uh-oh — we may already have next year's winner.
When recently criminally charged Tamarac Mayor Beth Talabisco was running for her seat in 2006, she tried hard to pretend she wasn't under the thumb of dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, who were trying to get government approvals to build a much-too-dense housing development on two golf courses in her city. She went so far as to inform the Sun-Sentinel that she had returned some $2,000 in campaign contributions tied to the Chaits and boasted about the distance she was keeping from the developers in her own campaign ads. It seemed that Talabisco was taking the high road, and voters promptly put her in the mayor's seat. But the reality was that Talabisco may have been in the Chaits' pockets more deeply than anyone realized. According to state prosecutors, she struck a deal with the Chaits for them to secretly fund an electioneering committee that would put out a barrage of negative ads against her opponents on the final weekend before the election. In fact, she met with Sean Chait to talk about forming the committee just before the father-and-son bribers put $21,000 in cash into the committee via two subcontractors who worked for them. In exchange for the dirty political money, Talabisco voted for the Chaits' controversial development just days after her election. It took five years, but when state prosecutors learned of Talabisco's lies and corruption, they slapped her with bribery, unlawful compensation, and official misconduct charges. She currently awaits trial.
People know Beverly Stracher's name these days as a key cooperating witness for the state in what is perhaps the biggest corruption cases in Broward County history. Or they know her as the husband of Les Stracher, who was a key partner of notorious Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein. But before the notoriety and political shenanigans, Beverly Stracher was just a Piper High grad and Broward Community College student who made her mark as a mediocre reporter for the mediocre Sun-Sentinel before becoming a government flack and, shortly thereafter, a Lauderhill city commissioner. She didn't last long in elected office, but she stayed in politics, becoming one of those shady behind-the-scenes "operatives." For years, she operated in relative obscurity before she struck a deal with Prestige Homes, owned by developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, to help them get influence with politicians with whom she worked — including Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and then-Tamarac Mayor Beth Talabisco. She took money from both sides — the influence peddlers and the politicians for whom she campaigned — in what was a sleazy arrangement. Now several of those politicians are awaiting trial, the Chaits have already pleaded guilty to bribery, and Stracher has become one of the county's chief canaries, giving one sworn statement after another to implicate her former friends. On top of that, her husband has filed for divorce. Don't cry too hard for Stracher, though; she's got a cush job at the county now, courtesy of Lieberman.
A vocal group of parents and teachers had been calling for Art Johnson's head for a year, blaming him for a new cookie-cutter curriculum many detested. Johnson canned his reviled chief academic officer, Jeffrey Hernandez, but he couldn't quell the uproar. Parents soon discovered that Hernandez had been moonlighting in Memphis while still on the payroll in Palm Beach County. They asked to see emails from Hernandez's last six months on the job and learned that the emails had disappeared. The possibility that Johnson sanctioned the moonlighting and/or had a hand in destroying the paper trail turned out to be the end of the superintendent's career. Before the board could publicly discuss firing him, he stealthily began crafting an exit plan that gave him a $428,000-plus golden parachute. It all happened so fast that even his worst enemies were surprised. Ordinary citizens ousting a powerful politician over a public records scandal? Only in the Sunshine State.
This fair-haired son of a preacher man seems determined to save Fort Lauderdale from itself. Proving wrong the axiom that South Florida's native sons grow up to either chase money or leave, he taught himself to play guitar, and now he tours local bars and art venues with his one-man act, Alexander. When he's not making ladies' knees wobble with his wholesome serenades, Alexander takes on ambitious projects: He was an unofficial partner in the now-shuttered Collide Factory, where he helped build a recording studio inside a graffiti-clad shipping container. And you're right, you do recognize him from somewhere: As a co-owner of Brew Urban Cafe in Victoria Park, he may or may not have drawn a heart in your latte. [Photo credit: Janelle Proulx, via the Museum of Art|Fort Lauderdale]
There will come a time when the social contracts that bind society will fall away. Blood will run, and chaos will rule. People will organize in small packs of roving marauders, pillaging what's left of humanity, perpetually searching for the next meal. The skies will be dark, the waters darker, and safety will be scarce. Then one person shall lead us and protect us from the circling storms. One prognosticator, one seer, one man who knows the unknowable — he can predict when it will rain! — will emerge from the gargling mass of unwashed humanity and guide us back to a civilized way of life. That man could very well be Steve Weagle, lead meteorologist at WPTV (NBC-5). Yes, he's won this award before, but Weagle — and maybe only Weagle — has the cool head, the charm that we will almost certainly need one day. Also, he's pretty tall.
Try this: Next time you're driving home superlate on a Saturday night, just grazing the legal alcohol limit, tune the radio to 91.3 (yes, South Florida's NPR news station) and turn the volume up, way up. Suddenly you're part of a family of late-night wanderers united by a love of Caribbean music and a subtropical nighttime bliss that stretches over silken airwaves from Homestead to Grand Bahama. "The Man Inside Your Radio," Davis lays down a backing track at the top of the hour (the toppa the arr, in his lullaby island brogue) and devotes his voice to shoutouts: Late-night wanderers, partygoers, newspaper deliverymen... cabdrivers... Good morning to ya. Listeners call in to request tracks, tell stories, or just say hello. Your ears are ringing and your friends have left and the drive-through is closed while they're changing over to breakfast, but the man inside your radio plays on in the electric dark.
For political climbers eager to win big on the national stage, the general rule is to hide the crazy — the KKK enthusiasts, the anarchists, the fringe lunatics. Allen West never got that memo. In November, before setting foot in his congressional office on Capitol Hill, he nominated Joyce Kaufman, who hosts an ultraconservative talk show on lowly WFTL-AM (850), to be his chief of staff. Within hours, all hell broke loose. Rachel Maddow unearthed a video clip of Kaufman telling a Tea Party crowd, "If ballots don't work, bullets will." An unhinged woman in New Port Richey saw the clip, got angry, and emailed a threat to Kaufman's radio station that led to a lockdown of all Broward County schools. Overnight, Kaufman and West's peculiar brand of right-wing insanity became national news. Kaufman promptly quit the chief-of-staff post and enjoyed a brief flicker of infamy before fading back into talk-radio obscurity. Turns out, Allen West is plenty crazy all on his own.
In the gritty spring-break bars by the beach in Fort Lauderdale, they call him a "fixture," a "landmark," the man who comes around to put all the regulars in a cheery mood. In what seems like another life, he taught art at Harvard and fronted one of the country's first punk bands. But now he roams these bars. For a dollar or two, he draws delightfully crude caricatures in crayon. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Mickey Clean's drawings dot the walls of drinking establishments all over town. Perhaps more than anybody, though, Mickey personifies this part of Fort Lauderdale: He's a bit dirty and vulgar but also a special kind of charming, and he's as reliable as the morning tide. He offers his artistic services and a moment of companionship to the happy and the sad alike, to the tourists and the locals, to the drunk and the sober, to the lost and the wayward. He isn't beloved by all, and he won't be around forever, but we're lucky to have him while we do.
When Gypsy fortuneteller Gina Marks was swindling vulnerable and desperate people out of their life savings, nobody seemed to be able to stop her. She walked away from numerous criminal allegations, often after paying off the victims with some form of restitution. It happened over and over again — and to add insult to injury, HarperCollins, a major publishing house, put out her bogus book, Miami Psychic, which she wrote under the fake name Regina Milbourne. It wasn't until her victims found a dedicated Palm Beach PI named Bob Nygaard that Marks was brought to justice. He worked the case for several of Marks' victims and then handed it to law enforcement on a silver platter. Nygaard didn't go the easy route and try to work out an off-the-table restitution deal that would have kept Marks on the street to find more marks — he fought for justice and put her behind bars.
More specifically, the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk just west of the railroad bridge, where looming trees and a gazebo provide discreet and scenic respite. But don't take our word for it: On certain evenings, as lulls of conversation rise from groups of shadowy friends, the brackish air is ripe with the smell of smoke, both marine-grade and more organic. And if anyone in blue should inquire about that steaming wad floating seaward, of course you have — cough — no idea.