Lori Parrish is a woman who likes to use the phone.
So much so, in fact, that her cellular phone bills alone might bankrupt a person of lesser means than the long-time Broward County commissioner and Swap Shop executive. On her pair of omnipresent cellular phones alone, she routinely racks up charges of $400 a month and more. It's not uncommon for Parrish to break the $500 mark.
A commissioner since 1988, Parrish often foots those bills herself. She says she won't charge the county for commission-related phone calls because she doesn't want her bills becoming part of the public record. It's not just to guard her own privacy -- she says the main reason she keeps those bills secret is that they're full of mobile and unlisted home phone numbers of friends and officials who might not want them available for just anybody to see. So Parrish gamely sends in payment for thousands of cellular minutes.
For the better part of the past three years, however, Parrish has had those hefty phone-company fees actually paid by others, namely campaign contributors. During a largely unopposed run for office that began in October 1997 and ended last month, she's rung off about $13,000 in mobile phone bills, which averages about $400 a month in campaign expenditures. Parrish says she has no idea how many minutes a day she talks on her cellulars -- one of them through BellSouth, the other AT&T -- and isn't sure of the details of her phone plans. A look at other candidates' expenditures shows that many do charge their cell phone bills to their campaigns, but none was nearly as exorbitant as Parrish's. And many of them, unlike Parrish, have fairly credible opposition.
State election laws dictate that all expenses charged to a campaign must have been made to "influence the outcome of an election," which leads to the key question: How many of those minutes were actually campaign-related?
Parrish readily admits that some of the calls she charged to the campaign were with relatives and friends and had nothing to do with the campaign. "When my kids try to reach me, sure, they call my cell phone," she says. Others were related to her job as a commissioner, Parrish says, "but I think being a good commissioner counts in a campaign, too."
She insists that the vast majority of the calls were linked to the campaign. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of those calls were for the campaign," she says. "You can ask anybody that worked on my campaign. They had my portable number. I didn't want them calling my office."
Unfortunately, just how many of the phone calls were personal and how many were campaign-related can't be independently confirmed. While political candidates must record all campaign expenditures, they don't have to file receipts or backup documentation. Those records must be kept by the candidates, but they aren't subject to public-record laws. Only elections officials can demand to see them, and that happens only in the instance of an official investigation, as in the case of Parrish's fellow commissioner, Scott Cowan, who faces trial on criminal campaign-fraud charges for giving tens of thousands of campaign dollars to his daughters and for allegedly writing checks to bogus entities and cashing them himself.
Parrish isn't under investigation, and she isn't about to volunteer to let a reporter see her phone bills. Mary Cooney, who manages the Broward Supervisor of Elections Office, says that even if cell phone bills are scrutinized, it's hard to determine if election laws have been broken. "Who's to say [the calls] were personal?" Cooney asks. "Who's to say you're not calling Aunt Sally to ask her for money for the campaign?"
Making the phone bills more questionable is the fact that Parrish's amazingly long season of campaigning was met with only scant opposition. Beginning in October 1997, it began with a run for Broward County sheriff. Parrish had an opponent in that race, but she dropped out after only three months when fellow Democrat Ken Jenne was appointed to the position by then-governor Lawton Chiles.
Rather than fold up her tent, Parrish simply rolled up the $100,000 she'd raised and transferred it to her new campaign for her fourth term on the commission. That was in January 1998, and since then Parrish has run virtually unopposed. There was one opponent, named Fernando Gutierrez, who declared his candidacy but never raised a dime and never formally filed to run. Parrish was automatically reelected on July 21, 2000.
Parrish is used to running without opposition -- she wasn't challenged in 1992 or 1996, either. With nobody to run against, it may seem impossible that the majority of those phone bills could have been spent running for office. Not so, Parrish says. She says she campaigns as if she has a serious opponent at all times. "I took the campaign seriously, and that was one of the reasons I was lucky enough not to have an opponent," she claims. "I'm lucky enough to get an enormous amount of support from friends and supporters."
All told, her friends and supporters gave Parrish $215,000 and by the end of June, the candidate had spent $100,000 of it. She says she's going to give what's left back to her contributors. Parrish's campaign expenditures show that, in the last couple of months before she was automatically reelected, she became a promotional machine, spending thousands of dollars on shirts, potholders, litterbags, and canvas tote bags, all with her name in bright red ink. And she spent roughly $6000 on "refreshments" for parties she held and candy for parades. She also paid a recent Duke University graduate and family friend named Eric Edison some $6000 for a couple months' work on her reelection bid.
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Toward the end of the campaign, Parrish also decided she needed a better computer for political work, which sits in her home and which she is allowed to keep. She spent $4000 in June for a faster and more powerful hard drive and information on voters. Parrish bought the hard drive and voter information from a company owned by political consultant Dan Lewis. What makes this expenditure interesting is that Lewis had just helped to draw county commission redistricting maps that were favorable to Parrish. Lewis wasn't paid for his work and at the time publicly downplayed his close relationships with Parrish and other commissioners. Both Lewis and Parrish say the computer payments weren't quid pro quo for Lewis' work on the maps.
Parrish says all of her expenditures were essential to make sure nobody deigned to run against her. "I campaigned hard, and as a result of working hard, I have no opponent," she explains.
Her phantom opponent, Gutierrez, says he was never a threat to Parrish. He says Parrish's support among Broward's big political backers makes it impossible for an outsider like him to mount a credible campaign against her. "She has the corner on everything," he says. "With her campaign chest, it would take a miracle to beat her. It's really unfair."
Such a powerful political dynasty represents quite a climb for the 52-year-old Parrish. Her first job after high school in 1966 was as an operator for the Southern Bell Telephone Company.