A Lesson in Conflict of Interest
The architectural firm of Pierce Goodwin Alexander & Linville (PGAL) has never seemed to have a difficult time getting public contracts. In Houston, where the company is based, and in Florida, PGAL has profited from designing everything from airports to colleges to courthouses.But PGAL never could crack one of the biggest gold mines in the state, the School Board of Broward County, which has a $2.2 billion overall budget and doles out about a half-billion dollars worth of construction contracts each year. School board insiders say PGAL tried and tried, but it couldn't get any of that money.
To change its luck, PGAL last year hired Ron Greenstein, the owner of a small consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale. Greenstein's mission: crack through the school board bureaucracy. With a tidy $1500-a-month PGAL stipend, Greenstein walked into board offices and began working his magic.
In less than six months, PGAL was awarded a $6 million high-school renovation project. PGAL, which stood to be paid $300,000 on the deal, was suddenly in the loop.
How did Greenstein manage it? He just talked with a few of the citizens who sit on the board's Consultant Review Committee (CRC) and chatted with a couple of elected board members, Lois Wexler and Judie Budnick to be exact. But he's not taking credit for PGAL's breakthrough. Greenstein maintains he had a minimal effect on the process, if any at all. Maybe he's humble, but that explanation also helps him sidestep an apparent conflict of interest with his other job. Greenstein moonlights as a state representative. The Coconut Creek Democrat votes on all education bills that affect Broward County, including the one that provides the board $1 billion in state tax dollars.
So Greenstein isn't just any workaday lobbyist. He's a guy with definite leverage at the board, with the power to help bring great favors -- or withhold them -- from Broward schools.
"It's a blinding conflict of interest," says Charlotte Greenbarg, who sits on the CRC and chairs the activist group Independent Voices for Better Education. "It shouldn't be allowed, but unfortunately, lobbyists can do pretty much whatever they want to do."
Greenstein is just the tip of the iceberg in what Greenbarg terms a "byzantine" network of lobbyists and conflicts of interest at work in the school district. And this coming year, the plot is thickening, as the board last week finalized a decision to more than double its own lobbying payroll in an attempt to influence, well, Greenstein, among others. The board hired two new lobbyists, who'll be paid a total of $100,000 this year and $120,000 next year. The board also kept long-time board lobbyist Georgia Slack on the payroll to the tune of $90,000 this year and $98,000 the next. It means that, in the coming year, the board's lobbying budget, which was $84,000 last year, will reach $218,000, a 159 percent increase.
The new team is charged with lobbying in Tallahassee and making sure Broward gets its share of the state pie. While Greenbarg doesn't agree with the new hirings, what has really rankled her and some other school board insiders is the district's choice of one lobbyist: Billy Rubin.
Rubin is a long-time power player at the board and in the capitol. Over the years he's lobbied board officials on behalf of several Broward cities and health care heavyweights like Humana and American Dental Plan. School Board member Stephanie Kraft opposed the board's hiring of Rubin as a lobbyist, saying that his proximity to the school district makes it look like a political quid pro quo. "The only reason I can think of why Rubin was hired is because he's so close to all the other school board members," Kraft says.
How close? During the past two years, according to a review of campaign reports, Rubin's been at least $14,000 close. That's how much money Rubin, his company (The Rubin Group), and his clients have poured into school board elections since 1998 alone. The very first call that Lois Wexler got last year when she began her campaign was from Rubin, who quickly filled her coffers with four $500 checks, each of them representing the maximum amount allowed by law. The checks came from him, his company, and two clients. It's perfectly legal, and it's called "bundling."
Contributions like this seem to have paid off nicely: His company will pull in $110,000 during the next two years from the school board. "It's political payback," Greenbarg declares.
Wexler insists that her support for the hiring of Rubin had nothing to do with the money he's given her over the years. "It's a leap of faith to assume that just because he gives you money that he controls your actions," she says.
Rubin, who didn't return phone calls from New Times, has promised the board that he will refrain from lobbying the school district while he is on its payroll. That way he won't be working for the board and trying to sell the board on a company at the same time -- something Georgia Slack has been doing for years. While working for the board, Slack has represented numerous clients before the board, including Deloitte & Touche and Honeywell. Like Rubin, Slack, who also didn't return calls from New Times, is another accomplished bundler who has given some $4000 to school board campaigns during the past two years.
Last week the board put an end -- on paper, at least -- to Slack's brand of double-lobbying. She's forbidden to lobby the board during the course of her new two-year contract. It's a step in the right direction, says Superintendent Frank Till. "We all wanted to see that," Till says. "The era of that going on is over."
But there's a big loophole for both Slack and Rubin: Their respective companies are still allowed to lobby the board. So, all Slack or Rubin has to do is put an associate in her or his place and keep Humana and Honeywell and their other clients.
Till supported the move to hire the extra lobbyists, saying that the board needs skilled people who know their way around Tallahassee. "Unfortunately," he says, "those people are called lobbyists." As for a capitol insider like Representative Greenstein lobbying his board, Till concedes that it may have "potential" for a conflict of interest but says he's confident that no lobbyist will wield any undue power in the school district. "Our procedures protect us against that," Till says.
Greenstein argues that the board needs no protection from him: He swears he doesn't mix the statehouse with the school board. "I vote against the school board when I think they are wrong," he says. "I'm not going to hurt my reputation."
Greenstein isn't the only state legislator who risks his reputation for lobbying cash. Sen. Howard Forman has lobbied the school board for the past two years for Johnson Controls, a $16 billiona-year international company that specializes in environmental controls for buildings. Johnson Controls also contracts with the state, as does PGAL, which has designed universities in Florida.
Officials at the Johnson Controls' Weston office declined comment, and Forman, who suffered the death of his mother last week, was unavailable. But his long-time assistant, Joan Glickman, says Forman's lobbying "never entered his legislative agenda -- not at all."
Glickman says that before Forman took the job with Johnson Controls two years ago, he first made sure it was legal, and of course it was. Elected legislators are restricted from lobbying only the legislature itself.
That, says Greenbarg, is the real problem. She's been to Tallahassee to try to make many of the lobbying practices at the school board illegal. Among other reforms she wants to outlaw all lobbying by elected officials and the type of double-lobbying previously done by Slack. Greenbarg's reception among legislators, not surprisingly, has been "cold," she says.
"The way it's set up now is to benefit the lobbyists." Greenbarg says. "It's gonna take a major scandal, probably, to force them to really change things."
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