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Parrish Is Burning

Appraise this: County land-valuer Lori Parrish assured everyone she was outraged.

Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish might as well have ridden up on a white horse.

Claiming to be ¨outraged¨ by a plan to build a $45 million governmental complex, Parrish ¨pulled the plug on the deal,¨ according to the October 11 Sun-Sentinel.

¨I never asked to be part of that and spend all that money,¨ she told the newspaper.

And with that, the property appraiser may have saved taxpayers ¨tens of millions of dollars,¨ the Sentinel reported.

Ah, Lori Parrish, the champion of the taxpayer.

Too bad she was lying through her teeth.

Last week, I wrote about Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber´s behind-the-scenes role in steering the county to build the complex on Broward Boulevard land owned by high-rolling developers George Rahael and Charles Ladd. Now it´s time to unmask Parrish´s role in a saga that shows once and for all it´s not politicians and officials that run Broward County — it´s land barons and their lobbyists.

As if that´s a news flash.

Don´t be fooled by recent coverage. Parrish is still the darling of the developers. This time, though, she got cold feet while doing their bidding, likely because she was frightened that one of her dearest political advisers might be investigated for his tawdry role in the deal, which would have cast a dark shadow over her entire office.

Parrish, who didn´t return my phone calls, has flopped around like a landed trout when it comes to her quest for new digs for the property appraiser´s office. To fully appreciate her shenanigans, you just need to walk in her snaking footsteps.

The trail starts in January, shortly after she took office. Parrish sent her chief of staff, Henry Templeton, to tell county officials that she needed more space for her operation. On February 1, Parrish went public with the idea, visiting the County Commission chambers, where she´d served for 16 years before becoming appraiser. ¨The space downstairs doesn´t work... simply, it´s not functional,¨ she told her former colleagues. ¨So the biggest issue is finding a place to put us.¨

Her plea prompted the county to begin looking for either a new building or vacant land on which to build. As staff researched numerous properties, Parrish´s right-hand man, Templeton, met no fewer than 11 times with officials and kept in regular e-mail contact with staffers about the project, according to county land files.

But Templeton wasn´t the only Parrish confidante who was meeting with county staff. When Rahael and Ladd´s property, owned by their company Riverbend South, was chosen as a potential site, they made a strong push to get the contract. And the two developers hired John Milledge to help them win it.

Milledge is the property appraiser´s general counsel. And he just happens to be one of Parrish´s top political patrons. They met back in 1988, when she was a freshman county commissioner and he was a young assistant county attorney. Their friendship runs deep. Milledge has been a major political fundraiser for Parrish and has served as her personal attorney. He´s also done legal work for the Swap Shop, where Parrish works for powerbroker Preston Henn.

When Parrish wanted to become sheriff back in 1998, Milledge served as a campaign aide. That same year, Parrish helped land Milledge a $140,000 job as interim county attorney (he ultimately chose not to take the permanent position).

And when Parrish became property appraiser, one of the first things she did was put Milledge on the public payroll as her general counsel at $185 an hour. When she hired Milledge, she told the Sun-Sentinel that she expected him to ¨always maintain the highest standards of ethics and integrity.¨

You have to wonder how she kept a straight face when she said that.

After taking the job with Riverbend, Milledge was serving two distinct masters. The record shows that he met with county officials on behalf of Riverbend over the summer, but who was he really representing — the property appraiser or the developers trying to profit off the public´s back?

The Florida Bar forbids lawyers from representing clients with adverse positions — and it appears Milledge broke that rule at least twice. You see, he´s also the attorney for the Downtown Development Authority, which Ladd happens to chair.

As DDA attorney, Milledge is supposed to serve the group´s interest, which is to keep county government in the downtown area. At the same time, he was trying to move county offices outside downtown.

If that´s not adverse, then nothing is.

Milledge´s antics are head-spinning, the political version of a triple Lutz. Suffice it to say he´s treading on some very sensitive ground, legally speaking. The man is obviously drunk on his own influence and, at the very least, should be cut off from the Bar until he sobers up.

And if State Attorney Michael Satz took public corruption more seriously, he´d launch an investigation yesterday into Milledge´s intermingling of public and private roles to reap a personal windfall.

But Rahael and Ladd, both of whom have failed to return my phone calls, didn´t hire Milledge just to sway the county. They obviously believed it would also secure Parrish´s own all-important blessing for the Broward Boulevard site.

And, sure enough, Parrish jumped on board with Riverbend. During a June 28 County Commission meeting, she endorsed the property owned by Ladd and Rahael, though in a peculiar form of doublespeak.

¨We have no preference. I mean, if I picked one, the preference would probably be the first one listed here,¨ she told the commission.

The first one listed was the Riverbend site. It was one of only two.

¨The only thing I´d ask you, we´d like to be centrally located...,¨ she continued. ¨I´d prefer you buy us a vacant piece of land and let a developer build a building and hand it over to us.¨

How fortuitous for Ladd and Rahael — that was precisely what they were proposing. But Parrish wasn´t finished. Just before she sat down, she plugged Riverbend once more.

¨Property number one, the School Board is interested in going there as well,¨ she said. ¨It´s a big campus. We would be sort of the trailblazers if that´s the one that´s selected, but there´s several governments looking to do part of that redevelopment project by BSO, just for the record.¨

Thanks for getting that in the minutes, Ms. Parrish.

But we can´t give Milledge all the credit for making Parrish a Riverbender. There was also Judy Stern, another lobbyist hired by Ladd who happened to have been Parrish´s paid campaign consultant.

And we can´t forget about the money. Rahael and Ladd, anticipating a potential deal, began filling county campaign coffers in 2003. Rahael and Ladd were responsible for about $5,500 in contributions to Parrish, while Milledge and his family gave her $3,500. Throw in Stern´s $500 and a few other contributions loosely connected to the Riverbend venture and there´s more than $10,000 in cash that helped persuade her.

After Parrish´s touting of Riverbend, county staff began hammering out terms of the deal. Parrish´s rep, Templeton, urged the county to hurry and get it done. ¨When might we aspect [sic] an agenda item, my friend. Where are we in the queue?¨ Templeton wrote to staff on August 23.

In early September, Riverbend submitted cost estimates ranging from $40 million to $48 million for the project. The figures were no secret, and if Templeton and Parrish didn´t see them, they must not have cared to look. Or perhaps Milledge chose not to tell his boss about the rather elaborate price tag.

The process was steamrolling along until a Sun-Sentinel article questioned Ladd´s role in the deal. Parrish then did a 180 and transformed herself into the savior of tax dollars. She told both the Sentinel and the Herald that she never wanted a new building at all. She said all she wanted to do was take over space ¨across the hall¨ that was expected to be vacated by the Supervisor of Elections office.

This from a woman who boasts on the property appraiser´s website that her ¨straight-talking, tell-it-like-it-is´ style was one of the refreshing changes she brought to county government.¨

Let´s face it, we don´t expect the truth from Parrish anyway. She´s the one who helped bring us the $60 million Michael Swerdlow rip-off and the voting-machine debacle after the 2000 election. She was a regular at the poker games held by her chum Walter Browne, the union racketeer. And she´s always been one who loves to lunch and gallivant with lobbyists of all stripes, orchestrating their desires in the public square.

It´s no secret what Lori Parrish really is. Just don´t let her straight talk fool you.


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