When developer Bruce Chait learned last month that the mitigation fees he owed the Broward County School Board had climbed during the past two years from a specially reduced $1.2 million to more than $1.8 million, he wasn't happy at all.
After all, Chait, owner Prestige Homes, had hired Board Member Stephanie Kraft's husband, Mitch, for the specific purpose of helping negotiate that fee down by $500,000 with School Board officials.
So when he had a conference call with Thomas Coates, head of Facility Management, and other School Board officials, Chait let them have it. According to an October 1 memo written by Coates, Chait said during a conference call with two other School Board officials that "he retained two lawyers, Mitch Kraft and Chuck Fink, to specifically handle the revised mitigation through the
School District's process," Coates wrote in the October 1 memo to his boss, Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson, who heads the district's construction department.
Chait was so angry, he said he was going to Superintendent Jim Notter to complain as well as to Gov. Charlie Crist, whom he said was "supportive" of his development projects on two golf courses in Tamarac and "understands that it would create additional jobs."
The memo, which I obtained Friday, reveals the tension created at the School Board over the Krafts' obvious attempt to cash in on her elected office. After Chait hired him in 2007, Mitch Kraft contacted the school attorney's office on behalf of Prestige Homes, and at one point Stephanie Kraft herself got involved to help expedite the reduction of the mitigation fee owed by Prestige Homes by $500,000.
Both Notter and Garretson also personally became involved in the process to knock the half million dollars off fees owed by the developer after Chait hired the School Board member's husband.
Executive Director Coates, though, was clearly displeased with both the meddling by Kraft and the other high-ranking officials as well as the obvious influence-peddling at play by the School Board member and her husband. In the October 1 memo, he pointed out that the $500,000 reduction in Chait's fee wasn't his department's idea and wrote to Garretson, "I suppose [Chait] is aware that Mr. Kraft is the husband of School Board Member Stephanie Kraft, and that he is free to contact Mr. Notter and the Governor regarding the complaints."
The corrupt fiasco began in 2007, when Chait learned that he would have to pay about $1.7 million in mitigation fees for school construction to accommodate the people who would move into his planned housing developments on the old Sabal Palms and Monterrey golf courses in Tamarac. An outraged Chait hired former School Board official Chuck Fink to negotiate the fee down with board staff. "I told [Chait] that he got screwed," Fink said of the fee.
But Fink apparently wasn't enough; Chait also hired Mitch Kraft to help secure Prestige Homes a break on the fees. School Board records reveal that Notter, Garretson, and Stephanie Kraft herself exerted their influence on School Board staff to help the developer get a $500,000 reduction in those fees to $1.2 million on July 24, 2007, a measure on which Kraft herself voted.
It's not known how much Chait paid Mitch Kraft or for how long he was employed.
The recent flare-up came when School Board staff notified Chait last month that the mitigation fee had risen over the course of two years (Chait's development project is stalled) all the way back up to $1,843,355. Staff explained to Chait that the high fee was due to rising school impact fees, and that, by law, the School Board was required to charge him that amount.
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Chait's son and partner, Shawn, responded by firing off an email to Garretson (who appears to be close to the Prestige Homes folks) about it, which led to the conference call.
In what appears to be a blatant example of a married couple selling out an elected office, Mitch Kraft has also been on the payroll of the School Board's most influential lobbyist, Neil Sterling, at the same time Stephanie Kraft voted on hundreds of millions of dollars in School Board projects for Sterling's clients.
Chait, interestingly, is currently under federal investigation for allegedly bribing former Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion to support his controversial project. The alleged payment for Eggelletion's vote and vocal support: a membership worth more than $10,000 at Parkland Golf & Country Club. No charges have been filed in that case, but Eggelletion, who was charged with federal crimes last month, remains under investigation. Through Chait, the federal investigations of the School Board and Eggelletion appear to be colliding.
Former Tamarac Mayor Joe Schreiber says that Bruce Chait also tried to bribe him with $200,000 cash to get his wife, Mae, to drop out of the mayoral race in that town to ensure the victory of current mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco. Schreiber didn't take any money.