How corrupt is Palm Beach County government? A grand jury report released today counts the ways. From overpriced land deals to shady bond underwriting practices, to slush funds that allow public officials to spend millions on their pet projects, it paints a picture of government that would make Rod Blagojevich proud.
Since five elected officials--three county commissioners and two West Palm city commissioners--have pleaded guilty to corruption charges in the past several years, the findings are not exactly shocking. But the jury, convened by State Attorney Michael McAuliffe after the recent rash of criminal cases, points out a few eye-opening facts that unsuspecting citizens may have missed. A few highlights:
- Overpaying for land. According to the jury report, witnesses testified that "when the county buys property, it overpays, and when the county sells property, it sells too cheaply." This can't be a recipe for smart business.
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For example, three years ago when county leaders wanted to buy 10 acres of land off Northlake Boulevard, they got three different appraisals on the property, coming up with values that began at $467,000 and grew to $1.3 million. It looked as if the county was attempting to screw itself, paying far more than the property was worth. When the owner of the land demanded an even higher price, $1.5 million, county officials didn't blink. The deal was only quashed after it was revealed that one of the owners of the land was William Boose III, a West Palm attorney who was facing federal corruption charges.
- Slush funds. For years, each of the seven county commissioners received more than a million dollars in taxpayers funds to spend on whatever recreational, cultural, or capital project they chose. This lucrative source of pork projects stopped being funded in 2007; but according to the grand jury, there's still $3.4 million leftover, waiting to be spent.Seems a bit strange during a recession, doesn't it?
- The county also wastes money on land it doesn't use. The most glaring example is the 2,000-acre Mecca Farms site, which the county bought in 2004 for $60 million--twice the amount per ace that "credible evidence" suggested it was worth, according to the grand jury. But it was all for a good cause, because the Scripps Research Institute was supposed to be built there. Alas, the County Commission later decided to build Scripps in Jupiter instead. Which means, according to the report, "Palm Beach County now owns and maintains at taxpayers expense the 2,000 acres of unimproved and undeveloped property."
The grand jury report recommends a major overhaul in the way the county does business, including creating an independent "watchdog" office to investigate future waste and fraud. The question is whether our elected officials are enlightened enough to create an entity charged with keeping them honest. To read the full list of problems and recommendations, click here.