Another Lobbyist Who Wasn't There

Sam Weber

Vinnie Grande's name doesn't circulate much, but he's still a player.

In a few short years, Grande has become a power broker in Broward County, especially at the city halls of Lauderdale Lakes and Davie. Like all the really successful lobbyists in South Florida, he's become an expert at earning paychecks from governments and private contractors at the same time. In doing so, he's gained valuable political leverage and stretched ethical boundaries to the snapping point.

But his rise has been quiet. One reason that the bearded, balding, 42-year-old Grande (whose name is pronounced "Grandy") isn't very well-known is that he often works in the ballooning shadow cast by his mentor and sometime boss, Ron Book, a superlobbyist who has all the notoriety and recognition Grande so far lacks.

Not that Grande wants fame. His policy is never to speak to the media, and true to form, he ignored repeated phone calls for this article. It wasn't until he was tracked down at his Pembroke Pines apartment that Grande finally spoke. Sort of. "I don't talk to the press," Grande declared in front the place he shares with his wife and son. "I've never been quoted and probably never will."

A fitting first quote for such a secretive operative -- and sometimes there are very good reasons for his secrecy. His role in Lauderdale Lakes' recent selection of a Miami developer for a $100 million town center project -- the largest in the city's history -- is a fitting example. When asked if he had been hired to lobby for United Homes International, Grande gave this highly circumspect nonanswer: "I'm not saying I did, and I'm not saying I didn't."

The response had the resigned quality of an admission, and indeed, the evidence shows that he lobbied on behalf of United Homes, the company chosen by the City Commission to build the town center near Oakland Park Boulevard and State Road 7. Grande accompanied company representatives during their October 5 presentation before the commission, and at least one elected official, Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Barrington Russell, concedes that Grande called him on behalf of the developer prior to the vote.

Lobbying for that project, however, was against the rules. The city instituted what is called a "cone of silence," forbidding developers and their lobbyists from contacting elected officials during the bidding process. The idea was that such a rule would allow Lauderdale Lakes to hire the best firm, rather than the best-connected one. And Grande is the second lobbyist known to have been hired by the firm for the Lauderdale Lakes project. Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion also was on board, though he refuses to discuss his work, and no evidence has yet surfaced that he actually lobbied anyone (see "The Lobbyist Who Wasn't There," December 16).

United Homes Chairman Tony Mijares declines to comment on his company's business, but Grande makes himself crystal clear when it comes to any charge of impropriety. "I know cones of silence, and I don't violate cones of silence," the lobbyist said.

If true, that's a good thing for United Homes, since a violation of the cone of silence is considered a "fatal flaw" for the offending company, meaning that the commission could vote to reverse the award. When told of Grande and Eggelletion's involvement, Lauderdale Lakes redevelopment director Gary Rogers said the city may have no choice but to investigate. But he added that he's not sure what action would be taken. "[Eggelletion and Grande] never talked to me, and they were not listed as part of the [United Homes] team," Rogers said. "If there was a violation of the cone of silence, there would be no way to know about it unless someone reported it. There was never a report of any kind saying that anyone had been lobbying anyone on this project."

The commission chose United Homes over Lennar Corp., which was rated as the best firm by city staff, and a third company formed by Fort Lauderdale developer Milton Jones, who many officials said had a strong proposal. And United Homes won the bid even though it has little experience building the kind of commercial and office space planned for the project.

While not admitting his involvement, Grande did say there was a loophole in the cone of silence rule. He insisted that there was a two-month window during the selection process when lobbying was allowed. After issuing the initial request for proposals (RFP) in March, the city rescinded it on April 29, following a United Homes' complaint about financial disclosure requirements. The new RFP wasn't issued until June 27. The time between the two RFPs was fair game for lobbyists, Grande insisted.

"The cone of silence went out during the break," he contended. "I'm not a lawyer, but there's no RFP there at that time, and if there's nothing there, how can you have a cone?"

The city official in charge of the RFP disagreed.

"That's not true -- the process was still ongoing, and the cone was still there," city Purchasing Director Neil Appel said when told of Grande's assertion. Appel was the lone city representative allowed to communicate with developers during the selection process.

Russell, for his part, said he doesn't remember when Grande phoned him. And the commissioner downplays the significance. "He just called to say that [United Homes] was a good company and that I should consider them," the commissioner commented.

The lobbying imbroglio presents not only legal but ethical dilemmas. And those aren't new to Grande, who not only lobbies Lauderdale Lakes but also works for a Miami accounting firm, Grau & Co., that has the contract to serve as the city's auditor until the end of the year. And just last month, the commission voted to hire his firm, Grande Consultants, to lobby on behalf of the city. Grande shares that contract, which is expected to be worth $75,000 a year, with Book.

Grande has pulled off the same trick in Davie, where he has served as the city's $36,000-a-year lobbyist since 2002 and where Grau recently won a three-year contract for more than $85,000 annually to provide auditing services.

It might seem that lobbying a city while serving as a contracted employee would create an unfair competitive edge, but the State of Florida doesn't bar such activity. Grande is following a growing number of lobbyists who do the same thing, notably Alan Koslow in Hollywood and James Blosser for the North Broward Hospital District.

In addition to United Homes, Grande has represented bus-bench advertising company Martin Outdoor Media, which he helped win a contract in Lauderdale Lakes early this year. But Grande said his work for the city doesn't help sway elected officials (whom he simply calls "electeds") when he lobbies.

"Honestly, I don't think an elected is going to make a decision because you work for the city," he opined.

Presenting an even more complicated ethical minefield is Grande's position with Grau, especially in Davie, where he works simultaneously as a paid lobbyist for the town and as a high-level employee of the town's auditing company. Those dual roles can come into conflict, as the Enron scandal painfully illustrated. Grau is charged with objectively auditing the city's finances, which, when done honestly, can create a strained, even adversarial relationship. His role as a lobbyist requires something else altogether.

Grande defends the dual responsibility by noting, in part, that he doesn't do auditing work for Grau. Though he's a certified public accountant, he does strictly business development. And he added that he's aware of the potential ethical problems of what he's doing and steadfastly avoids them. "There are several tiers here, and I'm not trying to make this complicated, but it really all starts with Enron," Grande said. "I have spoken to several lawyers, and I'm confident that accounting rules support what I'm doing."

In the end, Grande said he believes he's working in a profession that is much more honorable than people know. "I've seen the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the ugly, frankly, has been overrated," he said. "If you have a good [client] that is very capable and skilled, being good at what they do takes time. They don't have time to go out and spend all the hours to establish trust with [elected officials]. They need someone to do that for them."

Still, he was ambiguous about his future role in the City of Lauderdale Lakes. When asked if he'll represent business clients before the city now that he's one of its paid lobbyists, he gave a typical Grandean answer.

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," he said.

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