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Feud For Thought

Stephanie Kraft, usually busy criticizing lobbyist-driven sweetheart deals, has lately been feverishly defending one.
Miami Herald

There's a feud brewing at the School Board of Broward County and, naturally, it has almost nothing to do with the education of children. Rather it concerns the usual stuff: lobbyists, real estate, millions of taxpayer dollars, developers, and political infighting.

The twist is that it involves a surprising fit of pique by a school board member who won office in 1998 by promising to fight corruption.

The tiff is between reformer Stephanie Kraft and Lee Stepanchak, the board official in charge of buying properties for the school district. Kraft says she doesn't plan to speak with Stepanchak ever again and considers her an enemy. "I'm done with her," says Kraft.

This is no insignificant spat. Kraft, after all, is supposed to rely heavily on Stepanchak to understand land deals involving tens of millions of dollars in public money. Kraft must also vote on all the deals that Stepanchak makes. When told of Kraft's bitter words, Stepanchak, a 15-year veteran of the school district, says she has no idea why Kraft is angry at her. "I'm dumbfounded," Stepanchak says.

To understand the situation, you have to start with one of those big land deals.

Last July the school board bought a piece of land from Broward taxi mogul Jesse Gaddis for $4.3 million. The sale represented a $2.5 million profit for Gaddis, who'd purchased the land in 1993 for a mere $1.8 million. Without a word of discussion, the nine elected school board members, many of whom Gaddis had lavished with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions, unanimously approved the purchase.

Shortly thereafter Kraft found out about Gaddis' profit, heard about some potentially costly environmental problems on the land, and lambasted the purchase, which Stepanchak had negotiated. Then, in a move aimed at bringing accountability to the board, Kraft unsuccessfully proposed that any land deal costing $500,000 or more be automatically pulled for discussion by board members and individually voted upon. It was classic Kraft, who'd won office in 1998 on a promise to limit lobbyists' power and fight against sweetheart contracts between the school board and Broward bigwigs.

While Kraft was complaining about the Gaddis deal, another big land purchase came before the board. This time it was a 30-acre parcel for a school bus depot on the western edge of Pembroke Pines. The seller was Ronald M. Bergeron Sr., a megadeveloper in west Broward. Stepanchak had negotiated a price of $7.5 million, or some 30 percent -- more than $1.6 million -- over the average of three appraisals commissioned by the board. Stepanchak says she worked feverishly to lower Bergeron's price but couldn't.

The deal seemed ripe for Kraft to demand the accountability she had championed. But Kraft said nothing, and the deal was approved unanimously by the county's nine edupoliticos.

The silence continued until this spring, when internal school board auditors reviewed property purchases and determined that the board paid too much for the Bergeron land. School board auditor Patrick Reilly suggested forming an oversight committee to make sure future land purchases conform more closely to appraised values than to the demands of powerful sellers like Gaddis and Bergeron.

When the audit came out, Kraft ended her silence. But this time she didn't blast the land deals. Instead she passionately defended the Bergeron purchase. Last month she wrote a scathing memo to Superintendent Frank Till complaining that Reilly's criticism of the Bergeron deal is "misleading and, frankly, borders on the fraudulent." Kraft was especially upset that the audit included the lowest appraisal, which valued the Bergeron land at a mere $3.9 million -- more than $3.5 million below the ultimate purchase price. Kraft claims the appraisal was "deficient" and shouldn't have been used at all. Reilly and Stepanchak both contend that the lowest appraisal was valid.

Kraft also points out that the parcel's rare heavy-industrial zoning made it more valuable and that Bergeron had spruced up the property with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of landscaping. Bergeron, she says, "is a really nice guy and very honest, not someone who is looking to plunder."

All of which may be true, but professional appraisers hired by the school board believed the land was worth substantially less. Even if the lowest appraisal were thrown out, the other two school board­ commissioned appraisals average out to a value of $6,860,500, nearly 10 percent below the final $7.5 million price tag. By comparison, the average appraised value in the Gaddis deal that so outraged Kraft was just 3 percent under the final price.

So the question lingers: Why was Kraft so vehement in her defense of the purchase? Kraft says it has nothing to do with the fact that her political career is closely tied to Bergeron and especially to Bergeron's lobbyist, Aleida "Ali" Waldman. An influential power broker in Broward, Waldman urged Kraft to run for office, gave her $1000 in campaign contributions, and served as Kraft's chief fundraiser and campaign treasurer.

Bergeron had good reason for backing Kraft. Her campaign opponent, Don Samuels, had voted against buying Bergeron-owned land for the bus depot in the past. Kraft had attacked Samuels for being too close to George Platt, a lobbyist who competed against Waldman for the Bergeron land deal.

After Kraft won the school board seat, Waldman and Bergeron came to her office and lobbied her on the bus-depot deal, Kraft says.

"I sat down with Ali and Ronnie," Kraft says. "I was open to meeting with them and hearing their explanation. And I left knowing this is really valuable land."

But was she unduly influenced by her political backers?

"I'm my own person," Kraft says. "If they tried to buffalo me, I would have seen through it."

Kraft is still angry about the audit, and now her outrage is directed squarely at Stepanchak. Kraft claims that Stepanchak intentionally made the Bergeron deal look bad. Why? Kraft thinks Stepanchak was seeking revenge for Kraft's criticism of the Gaddis deal and decided to go after Kraft's political friends, namely Waldman and Bergeron. Kraft says Stepanchak should have thrown out the low audit before the Bergeron purchase got to the board. "Frankly I wouldn't be surprised if she was trying to sabotage the whole deal," Kraft says.

Such an idea is absurd, Stepanchak says, pointing out that she's the one who negotiated the Bergeron deal in the first place and that she's been defending it ever since. She says she couldn't exclude the low appraisal because it wasn't deficient. It was a professional's opinion. As for the audit, Stepanchak says she didn't conduct it, and she didn't pick the land deals that were reviewed. Reilly confirms that Stepanchak had nothing to do with picking the audited land purchases.

"It's my job on the line here, no one else's," Stepanchak says. "I think [Kraft] must have just been angry about the audit. But I didn't do that. I was the auditee."

While the conflict simmers, some school board watchers are wondering if Kraft is stepping on Stepanchak to protect Waldman and Bergeron. And some of Kraft's supporters are disappointed that she seems to be doing the very things -- pandering to lobbyists and making deals with campaign backers -- that she promised to fight.

"We elected her because we trusted her," says Rose Leiterman, a retiree and political activist in Lauderhill who worked on Kraft's campaign. "Now I have my doubts. It makes me sad. I'm ashamed of her."


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