Corruption and conflicts of interest have already sullied the City of Hollywood's multimillion-dollar sewage deal. Now it appears the March vote to choose a company with financial ties to Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom was based on false claims.
The City Commission decided to hire Schwing Bioset to treat and haul tons of biosolid waste after officials from the company and city claimed that a deal had been struck with the Seminole Tribe to accept the resulting sludge on its Big Cypress and Brighton reservations in the Everglades.
The issue came up at a July 7 commission meeting when Vice Mayor Beam Furr made a motion to rescind the Schwing Bioset vote. Utilities Director Whit Van Cott urged commissioners to consider the tribe's promise. "The best advantage we have with Schwing Bioset is the Seminoles...," said Van Cott, an ardent supporter of the company. "If they don't come back, you people are out of luck."
The city, however, never had the Seminoles' commitment in the first place, according to Jim Talik, executive administrator of the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. "We are under no obligation to accept anything from the City of Hollywood," he said. "All we have agreed to [do] is to look at it. What we want to do is test this stuff first. We have one load that we are testing right now. We're so far removed from this whole thing. Maybe down the road, we will be involved, but so far, we've just been kind of dragged into it."
Adds Travis Trueblood, the tribe's attorney: "We have never had any contact with the city or with Schwing Bioset. We have nothing to do with the City of Hollywood at all."
Van Cott, in an e-mail to New Times, conceded that the city didn't verify the tribe's commitment. "I am not sure who the right contact people are at the Seminoles," he wrote. "Our draft contract is with Schwing Bioset."
At the heart of the misinformation is Larry Wakinyan, a buffalo farmer from Oregon who runs a company called Bionative Technologies that has partnered with Schwing Bioset. Wakinyan, who hasn't returned numerous calls from New Times, hired Wasserstrom's uncle and arranged for the commissioner, who is the law partner of Mayor Mara Giulianti's son, Stacey, to represent Schwing Bioset before other municipalities.
Wasserstrom has repeatedly played up the phantom Seminole involvement in his bid to win the contract for Schwing Bioset. The Broward State Attorney's Office is investigating his ties to the company,
In a much-distributed July 9 e-mail that Wasserstrom wrote to city critic Sara Case defending Schwing Bioset, the commissioner reiterated the false claims. "It does not matter to you that we upset the Seminole Indians... who we need to cooperate with the redevelopment of 441?" he wrote. "Do you know that they have not returned a phone call from the city since the contract... has been pulled from the table?"
Talik said he doesn't know who Wasserstrom or other officials have been trying to contact but promised that if anyone at the city phoned him, he would return the call.
Wasserstrom continued: "Do you really think the Native Americans in this country would be applying [Schwing Bioset's product] on their ancestral lands if they thought for one second it was not the only and safest way to return the nutrients to their famished soil?"
The company uses an environmentally questionable lime-stabilization process that could add to pollution in the Everglades, which is one reason the Seminole haven't agreed to accept it.
"Do you or anyone else think that the Seminoles will stand for being treated the way they have been treated by Hollywood?" Wasserstrom wrote. "They were promised that they could count on getting their soil amendment material by fall."
This is all sheer fiction to Talik.
On July 21, the commission will decide whether to rescind the Schwing Bioset contract. The revelation that the vaunted Seminole endorsement is a sham should nail the coffin shut on Wasserstrom's ill-conceived and sleazy plan. And it should lead to the resignations of those who misled the public, including Van Cott and Wasserstrom, since they were either negligent in finding out the truth or willfully lied in their attempts to sell their favored company to the city.
Can a discussion of conniving and deceitful public officials be complete without a mention of the North Broward Hospital District? Of course not.
For a moment, let's forget about the criminal investigations and insider deals that waste millions of dollars at the sixth-largest public health system in the country. Don't fret about the abject cronyism that stretches to the Florida governor's mansion and White House. Cast aside any concern about the unseemly collusion among greedy political opportunists.
Just focus on the way the district, which cashes in on about $200 million in property taxes a year, trashes our most cherished right: free speech.
The district has shown so much contempt for freedom and the press that it should probably be added to the enemies list in the War on Terror. For instance, district officials barred the New Times website from its computers after I wrote a series of stories that exposed wrongdoing at the district. They also ordered a security guard to throw away a box full of our newspapers at Imperial Point Medical Center [see Tailpipe, May 6]. When the guard, Howard Schulman, complained about it, he was first demoted, then fired.
Earlier this month, the district struck out again, this time at two of the county's top minority newspapers, the Broward Times and El Heraldo. After hammering out advertising contracts with both newspapers last month, the district -- which pumps hundreds of thousands of dollars into local publications annually -- suddenly reversed course and canceled the agreements.
Keith Clayborne, the Times publisher and congressional candidate, says he has a good idea why his contract was squelched. His newspaper, which has received about $20,000 a year in advertising revenues from the district during the past few years, has recently mentioned scandals dogging district Commissioner Dorsey Miller. In the June 11 edition of the weekly black newspaper, columnist Elgin Jones, one of Broward's top muckrakers (and I mean that in the most complimentary sense), followed New Times stories about Miller's financial connection to companies that do business with the district.
Miller also happens to be a top fundraiser for Clayborne's political opponent, U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Lauderhill). Last December at his Parkland home, the hospital district commissioner raised about $20,000 for Hastings' campaign. Among the contributors were several NBHD associates.
In early July, Clayborne heard rumblings that the district might cancel the advertising contract. Then he bumped into Miller at the Elks Lodge of Fort Lauderdale and asked the commissioner about it. The usually cool entrepreneur, according to Clayborne, became agitated and told him that he and the district vice chairman, John D. Collins, wouldn't stand for his newspaper's criticism. "You can't talk about me and expect the district to feed your table!" Clayborne claims Miller told him.
Just a few days after the encounter, Clayborne received a termination letter from the district.
Miller said he had nothing to do with killing the contract and called Clayborne's version of their confrontation at the Elks Lodge a "bold-faced lie." But he refused to address any more questions.
When I queried district officials, spokeswoman Sara Howley sent me an e-mail stating that Miller wasn't involved in terminating the advertising deal. Neither she nor anyone else at the district, however, would explain why the deal was shelved.
Then a well-placed source at NBHD did some digging for me and found out that Vice Chairman Collins, who didn't return phone calls for comment to the construction company he runs, had suggested killing both the Broward Times and El Heraldo contracts at a June 23 budget workshop. Collins, who was appointed by the governor after he helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Bush's campaigns, complained that the newspapers had been "bashing African-American commissioners," the source says.
So it was retribution after all. But a nagging question remained: Where did El Heraldo fit into this?
Unlike the flashy and vitriolic Times, it's a sedate, bilingual, community newspaper. Editor Elaine Vasquez says her contract -- worth about $8,500 annually -- was squashed on July 2, a month before it was supposed to take effect. When she asked district officials for an explanation, they sent her an unsigned statement that said, "We have decided to focus our advertising efforts on those publications where we feel the District is fairly represented."
Here, the district boldly admitted it was advertising only with publications that cater to its P.R. desires. But El Heraldo has never slammed NBHD -- or Miller -- in print. Instead, it appears that the Gov. Jeb Bush-appointed commissioners are punishing the paper's owner, Dr. Erwin Vasquez, for exposing the district's political chicanery and poor performance in caring for indigents.
Dr. Vasquez, who is the editor's husband, recently filed an ethics complaint against a district commissioner, whose name has yet to be revealed. "This is nothing unusual for them," Vasquez says. "This is retaliation. I do not believe in their practices or abuses that they do there, so they do this."
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The district picked a rather embarrassing time to rebuke Vasquez, a cardiologist who runs the Light of the World clinic in Oakland Park, which provides free health care to thousands of immigrants and indigents each year. On June 22, he was given the Jacqueline Onassis Award for public service in Washington, D.C. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer calls it the "Nobel Prize of volunteer work."
It's perversely fitting that the district would try to silence a man who serves as a voice for the truly needy in society -- the very people NBHD is supposed to care about. And the commissioners' petty political games in this case also serve to sever thousands of minorities from district information, including job openings and other opportunities.
But the district won't silence Clayborne or Vasquez; both men say that the lost revenue will have no impact on their actions or their newspapers.
"People in this community need to wake up here and become aware of what the district is doing," Vasquez says. "These are little people who are doing a lot of harm to the community. They are punishing me because I make a statement that they are not supporting the indigent care in this community. This is a fear factor. They are trying to intimidate people. They are showing people that if they talk, they are out."