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All About the Benjamin

Money Graber: Ben says he's just giving the other commissioners a head fake.
Colby Katz

Ben Graber, the man slated to become Broward County's next mayor, is currently battling to lose you $10 million. It's taxpayers' money that could go to, oh, people who really need it, like the thousands of displaced Hurricane Wilma victims. Instead, Graber wants it to go to his top campaign contributor.

But Graber swears he's not selling out the public, though he acknowledges that it sure does look that way.

The record indicates that the vice mayor has tied his boat to a megadeveloper named George Rahael, a filthy-rich Trinidadian who lives in Graber's stomping ground of Coral Springs and wants to sell the county some land for a building it doesn't need.

All the evidence shows that Graber, who is expected to be named the new mayor next week, wants the county to buy land that Rahael owns off Broward Boulevard for a new supervisor of elections building. The deal has already been met with some controversy, most of it surrounding Rahael's partner, Downtown Development Authority Chairman Charles Ladd.

The catch is that the county has already purchased a site for the supervisor. Going with a new location will more than double the cost to $20 million.

For those of you without an abacus handy, that's a net loss of $10 million of public money.

Why would Graber, who has tried hard to foster a reputation for high ethics, want to do such a thing? Well, one might look at the fact that the developer is based in Graber's northwest Broward County district and holds considerable sway there. Rahael's company, Amera, has numerous government-related projects, including a contract to build the $300 million "downtown" for the City of Coral Springs at the corner of University Drive and Sample Road. Graber stands to tangentially profit from that enterprise, since he owns two offices on the same block.

Then there's the hard cash. Rahael's companies contributed at least $5,000 to Graber's 2004 campaign. Throw in nearly $3,000 from Rahael's lobbyists and the total comes to about $8,000, or 8 percent of the $100,000 Graber raised during the campaign.

It's a good round number, but the commissioner ran unopposed. Why did he need all that cash? So he could play Santa Claus, of course. He gave about $60,000 to political concerns and charities, including $35,000 to the Democratic Party ($25,000 went to help pay for last year's presidential convention in Boston and $10,000 to state party coffers). He spread the rest out to outfits like the Urban League, the United Jewish Community of Broward County, the March of Dimes, and a bunch of other causes.

Yes, by all appearances, it seems the man who this year was named Best Local Politician by New Times has gone over to the dark side. Before letting Graber give his explanation, let's look at the record.

It really begins at the May 3 County Commission meeting, when Graber made a motion to construct a new SOE building in a "central location." Problem was, the county had spent two years and $3.2 million procuring a building on 64th Street near the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport for the new SOE office. The building needed renovation, and the two lowest bids averaged about $6 million, putting the total for the new office at just over $9 million. And that, good reader, was the plan until Graber began leading the charge to kill it.

The commission took no action on Graber's motion, but that didn't stop him. He then joined the influential Selection and Negotiation Committee and started pushing his money-wasting plan there.

During a June 30 committee meeting, he claimed that security might be lax at the 64th Street location and that "anyone who wants to destroy an election could put a firebomb in there."

Talk about scare tactics. Well, unlike Graber, who admits he's never seen the building, I actually visited the 64th Street site, which is off Cypress Creek Drive in Fort Lauderdale. What I found was a decent building that weathered Hurricane Wilma just fine. Throw $6 million at it and you've got one dreamy headquarters.

The truth is that the scare tactics are harum-scarum, cooked up by developers who want to make a fat buck off our backs. Lobbyists have demonized the building to commissioners, telling them it's full of mold and mildew.

Nonsense.

"There is no mold or mildew as far as I know," County Property Manager Ronald Mallek says. "It's a fully functional warehouse that can be converted to office use. As a matter of fact, FEMA is going to use it as a temporary distribution center."

When Graber wasn't whipping up hysteria about the state of the building, he was ginning up image envy.

"If you just go to West Palm Beach, look at the Palm Beach supervisor of elections building," he urged the committee. "You will be very impressed."

Oooh, we could be more like Palm Beach, a rich place full of really cool yuppies. All we would have to do is spend 10 million extra dollars. Forget that the money Graber wanted to throw around wasn't budgeted. Those sucker taxpayers wouldn't mind, would they?

And where did Graber want to put the building? At the June 30 meeting, he specified the Rahael and Ladd parcel, which is west of I-95 on 27th Avenue, near the Broward Sheriff's Office complex. He mentioned a couple of other sites in Broward as well. But county staff had already excluded them from possibility, so his intention seemed clear: Build on Rahael's land.

As it happened, Property Appraiser Lori Parrish was pining for a new building at the same time. Well, the more the merrier as far as the vice mayor was concerned. Soon, the official plan was to build a $45 million complex that included offices for both the property appraiser and the supervisor of elections.

And county staff found only two viable sites: Rahael's property and a parcel on Oakland Park Boulevard owned by a national development firm called Tarragon.

The commission was expected to vote on the idea at the October 11 meeting, but then the Sun-Sentinel broke a story about the deal that focused on Ladd's role in it. The gist: Ladd was chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, and now he was peddling land that was outside of downtown.

That slowed things down a bit, but Graber's crusade was far from over. During the October 18 commission meeting, he urged his colleagues to get going on the project. "I'd like to make a motion that we direct staff... to move forward on identifying locations for supervisor of elections along the Broward Boulevard corridor," he said.

Well, everybody in the room knew there was only one site on the "Broward Boulevard corridor": the land owned by Graber's biggest campaign contributor. Graber told the commission he wanted the other potential site, on Oakland Park, excluded from consideration.

Commissioner Lois Wexler, who is also in favor of building a brand new SOE office, pointed out that Graber was basically killing the county's chance of negotiating a decent price. She asked that the Oakland Park property be included to give the county some bargaining power.

Graber balked: "I can't incorporate that."

Then Commissioner Jim Scott let Graber have it.

"It's not a good way to do business," he said. "I don't think we should sit here and say, effectively, there's only one site that we want when we don't have any prices."

Forced into a corner, Graber relented and the commission voted to include the Oakland Park site as a possibility. But that happened only after the vice mayor had revealed where his loyalty lies.

Or so it seems. Graber says he has been engaged in a months-long ruse to make it appear that he was steering the deal to Rahael and Ladd. He says his real goal is only to abandon the 64th Street plan and put the SOE building outside of downtown and in a minority neighborhood where it will spur development.

The time to bring that up, however, was two years ago, when the original plan was formulated, county staff worked hundreds of hours to make it happen, and the building was purchased for $3.2 million.

What about Graber's insistence on October 18 that the county put the SOE building on the Rahael and Ladd land?

"I was making an unreasonable request to get [the other commissioners] to negotiate," he said.

Trudging forward with his tortured explanation, Graber said it was an example of political "sausage-making." Sounds more like one of the most ridiculous examples of doublespeak in recent political history.

But he made an intriguing promise:

"I will never support putting the supervisor of elections building on the land owned by Ladd and Rahael," he told me.

We'll see.

The whole sordid saga raises serious questions about whether Graber is fit to be mayor of this county. But his fellow commissioners will almost surely choose him to replace outgoing Kristin Jacobs at next week's meeting. It's Graber's turn, after all.

Here's an idea for how he can save face. As soon as he's sworn in, apologize to the people of Broward County and promise that he will save them that $10 million. How can he do that? By abandoning the greedy developers and going with the original plan.


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