Cliff Hanger: Worker Tells of Subterfuge by Port Everglades Firm

After people are convicted of felonies, they have to wear orange jumpsuits. After Cliff Berry, Inc., was convicted of a felony, it also made a wardrobe change -- into shirts bearing the brand new logo of Everglades Waste Removal Services.

Or at least that's the outfit en vogue at the company's Port Everglades base, says a former Cliff Berry employee who gave an interview to Juice on Friday. Although Cliff Berry employees were convicted for stealing fuel from Miami International Airport between 2001 and 2003, the conviction of the company itself meant that it no longer qualified for Broward County franchises at Port Everglades.

A tough but just punishment that along with the $2.5 million fine seemed a perfectly appropriate way of removing a rogue company that was abusing the public trust. And since Broward County oversees the franchises that allow a company like Cliff Berry, Inc., to operate at Port Everglades (and since a 2005 audit revealed that Cliff Berry, Inc., had also been cheating the port), the county had the opportunity to welcome a new, more ethical company to do Cliff Berry, Inc.'s job removing waste from port ships.

Instead, the founder of Cliff Berry, Inc., founded a new company -- Everglades Waste Removal Services -- and qualified for that franchise. Charley Wight, former safety director of Cliff Berry Inc., describes how that works in practice:

"Cliff Berry drivers put on Everglades Waste Removal Services baseball hats and T-shirts and picked up loads at Port Everglades using Everglades Waste trucks."

Wight's allegations -- which he put into a letter last month to Commissioner John Rodstrom -- suggest that South Florida industrial companies are one step ahead of local regulators. In the case of Cliff Berry, Inc., the transition to Everglades Waste was shepherded through the county commission with the help of shrewd, well-connected lobbyists. The company's attorneys knew exactly how to make cosmetic changes so that the two companies were separate entities legally, even if they were nearly identical in practical terms.

For instance, the company's founder, Cliff Berry, retired in1995, leaving operations of the company to his son Cliff Berry, Jr., but the senior Berry remained a corporate officer, kept a share of the company's profits and, according to Wight, currently maintains an office at the firm's headquarters. "I saw him there almost every day," says Wight, who was dismissed from the company in June.

So even if Cliff Berry Sr. was not directly involved in the fuel theft at MIA, he was certainly involved in the company itself, and like any leader, he bears some responsibility for the culture there. After all he groomed Cliff Berry Jr., who was charged in that fuel theft case but was acquitted. The junior Berry is barred from involvement with Everglades Waste's county franchise.

But Cliff Berry Jr. remains the president of Cliff Berry Inc., which means that if he's allowing his employees to do work for Everglades Waste, then he's involved.

In an interview with Juice, Wight named a project manager employed by Cliff Berry, Inc.'s plant in Miami, and he says:

"This year, he brought a crew over (to Port Everglades) consisting of Cliff Berry employees. They were all wearing Everglades Waste garb. I don't know what task they were doing, but it appeared that (the company) wanted to be seen over there working on a job as Everglades Waste people so that in the future if there was a job it had to do and it didn't have enough people, Everglades Waste would be able to use Cliff Berry employees."

The new company, says Wight, has a staff of just six -- Cliff Berry Sr., the operations manager Kathy Dalton, a transportation manager and three truck drivers. That may not be enough to do the job formerly done by Cliff Berry, Inc., but Wight says it's too expensive to hire duplicate staff. "They're trying to make it look like Everglades Waste Removal Services has a lot more employees than they actually have," says Wight.

Still, it makes a difficult case for regulators. Port Everglades spokeswoman Ellen Kennedy points out that though Cliff Berry, Inc., no longer has a franchise with the county, it's still able to work in a private capacity with other firms in the port. She suggests it would be hard for Wight -- as well as for investigators -- to distinguish between the two.

All the same, Rodstrom's office has shared Wight's allegations with the director of Port Everglades, Phil Allen.

Dalton, the operation manager, refused to comment for this article. This week I hope to speak to an attorney for Cliff Berry about Wight's allegations.

For more background on Cliff Berry, here's an article I wrote in February.

To read about Cliff Berry's alleged efforts to continue making money from fuel hauled from MIA, check out this Juice post.

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