Burn, Oliphant, Burn
It's a blessing to live in a county where all elected officials but one are so good and wholesome. Great to breathe the same air as politicians who are as clean as Britney Spears' teeth and who can root out evildoers in a way our great warrior president can only envy.
And we must thank providence that two Broward County leaders, Commissioner Lori Parrish and state Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, have led the deafening charge to excoriate that one bad seed in our political garden, that malignant tumor on our collective lung, that personification of all that is bad in our hearts. I speak, of course, of Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant.
It's not enough that we vote her out of office -- we must hold her out for constant public humiliation, try to force her resignation, and hopefully get her indicted and tossed in prison.
Make no mistake about it: Parrish and Campbell will help smoke her out. Yes, they'll either bring Oliphant to justice or bring justice to Oliphant. Either way, the state of Broward County is, and will continue to be, strong.
We all know Oliphant's sordid story. She took office two years ago, shortly after Broward played a leading role in the greatest election debacle in the history of mankind. Oliphant was elected after the U.S. Supreme Court decided the presidency, and she wasted no time in starting her jihad on Broward's heretofore unshakable tradition of governmental decency and honor.
First, she hired several associates and gave a bunch of contracts to minority companies. We had never seen this shocking brand of chicanery before -- was it what some call "political patronage"? That stuff may play in Peoria but not in Broward. I mean, it's not like Oliphant is the first black person in Broward history to win a countywide election. Oh, wait... actually she is -- but what does that have to do with it?
It may be true that Oliphant was trying to help balance the scales, to give the black community an equal stake in county business. But that just proves that she's one of those backward-thinking, Nubian nabobs of negativism who believe that racism still exists in South Florida. I mean, segregation was dead by the time disco was born. Bought any Gloria Gaynor records recently? I didn't think so.
But that's not the worst of it. Oliphant has also been accused of trying to wrangle extra funds from companies that vied for the lucrative touch-screen voting-machine contract last year. That's right -- she had the audacity to say that if the companies gave her office additional money for voter outreach programs (mostly to bring more black voters to the polls, as if we needed more of those) she would support them in the selection process. You might think this sounds like a simple negotiation tactic, but you'd be wrong. No, it's a crime somehow, and we know it. Right now, the bane of corrupt officials, State Attorney Michael Satz, has his men on the case. Godspeed, Mr. Satz.
There were other problems, including 500 uncounted ballots and a county audit that found that her office overspent its annual budget by $921,000. More than half of that money went to new positions and staff raises. The rest went to operating costs and capital expenditures. Oliphant would have you believe that some of this extra money was spent on the new touch-screen voting system. But really, how hard can it be to revolutionize voting in a ship-shape county like Broward?
Yes, Election Systems & Software -- the company hired by the county over Oliphant's objections -- has proven to be a disaster, making promises it hasn't kept. And yes, the same company's performance in Miami-Dade County was so miserable that it hastened the resignation of election chief David Leahy and, by county estimates, cost $5 million more than expected. There's talk that Miami-Dade might drop ES&S even after spending $25 million on the firm's machines.
Here, though, we know better than to question a contractor, especially one that hires well-connected lobbyists like Russ Klenet, who represented ES&S before the Broward commission. Here, the commission knows the real problem lies solely with Oliphant herself.
County Commissioner Parrish is doing everything in her power to exorcise the diabolical Oliphant from public life. Parrish has always had good instincts; she didn't like Miriam from the get-go. In fact, she actively worked on the campaign of David Brown, a political consultant who ran against Oliphant in 2000. The defeat of a good, loyal lapdog like Brown didn't make the commissioner bitter. No, Parrish isn't like that. She isn't some kind of weird control freak. Ask anybody.
On the contrary, Parrish cares precious little about the dirty process of politics and much about fastidious oversight of taxpayers' money. Sure, she sometimes steers big contracts and lucrative public deals to political contributors, but ain't that America? When she strong-armed the negotiation process in 1997 to give developer Michael Swerdlow $120 million for Port Everglades land valued at half that, she did it because she thought it was a fair deal.
I know $60 million may sound like a lot of money to waste, but give Oliphant five or six decades in office and I bet she would more than match that.
Parrish doesn't make a habit of crusading against other politicians. In fact, she's usually very kind. She's even agreed to co-host an upcoming fundraiser for Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin. Griffin is in the opposing party (he's a Republican), but those superficial labels don't get in Parrish's way. She's no fair-weather friend; Griffin really needs her. The mayor has come under intense public fire -- and an investigation by Satz' office -- for his shady dealings with none other than Parrish's other friend, Swerdlow, on the massive International Swimming Hall of Fame project.
"I didn't know he was under investigation," Parrish told me. "All I know is that the Bill Griffin I know is a very nice man."
It's camaraderie like that -- along with the requisite ignorance of any wrongdoing -- that makes this county great.
State Sen. Campbell, a Democrat from Tamarac, shares those values. He stood up for fellow Sen. Steve Effman back in 2000, when Effman got in a little trouble for molesting clients in his law office. Campbell didn't criticize Effman -- instead, he offered to help straighten out his colleague's problems with the Florida Bar and encouraged him to stay in office. Effman resigned anyway, as details of his law office/sex dungeon torched his reputation beyond repair.
Campbell knows a real pervert when he sees one, though, and he recognizes that Oliphant is guilty of perverting her budget. The senator recently asked Gov. Jeb Bush to force the county to give back a $600,000 state grant that went to the elections office. He reasoned that Oliphant hadn't complied with the budget attached to it, so it all should be paid back.
I know what you're thinking: Isn't this bass-ackwards? Isn't it Campbell's job to secure state money for Broward rather than the other way around? But Campbell demands the highest ethical and moral behavior -- he's a millionaire personal-injury attorney, after all. He told me last week that he wanted to send a message that abhorrent conduct like Oliphant's must be stopped at all costs.
"The worst thing she's done is to lose the public's confidence," he said courageously.
I told him that I agreed and that I was glad such an ethical giant was there to keep everybody in line. Who wouldn't trust Campbell? He's a strong advocate for the big phone companies, for instance, and we all need telephones. Last year, he sponsored a bill that allowed the companies to charge more for basic service. He said the bill would force AT&T and Sprint (both big contributors to his campaigns) and the like to become more competitive, which must be why the telecommunications industry backed it. They just love to compete.
Sure, the legislation will cost consumers millions of dollars, but, like I always say, what's good for BellSouth is good for Florida. Though several consumer groups and former Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth decried Campbell's bill as a rip-off and a fraud, it's now law. The senator was sending another message, this one showing the little guy who's boss.
Campbell also entertains us, as he did last April, when he went on the cable news circuit to defend another bill he had sponsored. This one forced women who put their babies up for adoption to publish their sexual histories in newspaper ads. It was Campbell's brilliant way of clearing up problems identifying the fathers. He was called all kinds of names for that one, including "the ultimate male chauvinist pig." He told me that he received lots of hate mail and that it was the low point in his political career.
He's admitted it was wrong and is in the process of changing the law. "It made me realize you need to figure out every contingency possible of every bill you support," he said.
Campbell is learning the same lesson in his law practice. Recently retired Broward Circuit Court Judge Estella Moriarty threw out one of his cases in November, calling it a "fraud [there's that word again] on the court," according to the Daily Business Review. Seems that one of Campbell's clients, who was complaining of a back injury, had given conflicting testimony in a similar case in 2001. This wasn't a good thing, but it's not like frivolous civil suits ever tie up the justice system or anything.
Some naysayers might claim Campbell's missteps have weakened the public's confidence in him. But that's a lot of hog swill, and the poor fellow has become overly sensitive from the criticism. "Don't print those bad things about me," he pleaded at the end of our conversation.
What's bad about them, senator? As you have so rightly pointed out, it's Oliphant who is the bad one. You, on the other hand, are one of Broward County's enlightened leaders. Nobody really paid much attention to your mistakes, but Oliphant is in the papers every day, vying for villain-of-the-year honors with Saddam Hussein. We just need to keep the pressure on, wear her down, and destroy her.
This isn't a political lynching; it's just the right thing to do.
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