The Kraft Question: A Primer on Public Corruption

Broward School Board Member Stephanie Kraft refuses to answer questions about whether her husband, Mitch, received money from a company owned by School Board lobbyist Neil Sterling. It has been alleged, without evidence, that there was a work arrangement between SRG Technology, a company owned by Sterling, and Mr. Kraft.

That hasn't been confirmed, and there is no proof of a financial relationship, but as far as I'm concerned, the silence of Kraft and her husband, a former Tamarac city attorney who also refused to answer questions about SRG, gives us the go-ahead to analyze the implications of such a relationship were it to exist. In light of the ongoing federal corruption investigation that snared Kraft's colleague, Beverly Gallagher, it's surely worth considering. In fact, I think it's the most important question that federal agents have to answer. (If it turns out to be untrue, then shame on the Krafts for not informing the public about it weeks ago.)

First off, such a financial connection would be illegal on every level, from the toothless and laughable Florida Code of Ethics to the state criminal statutes to federal law. Let's start with the Code of Ethics, specifically the clause regarding "unauthorized compensation." Read it and weep:

UNAUTHORIZED COMPENSATION. No public officer, employee of an agency, or local government attorney or his or her spouse or minor child shall, at any time, accept any compensation, payment, or thing of value when such public officer, employee, or local government attorney knows, or, with the exercise of reasonable care, should know, that it was given to influence a vote or other action in which the officer, employee, or local government attorney was expected to participate in his or her official capacity.

Anybody who doesn't think that a Neil Sterling hiring of Mitch Kraft wouldn't have been done to influence his wife's 

votes would have to be quite insane (or just a bad attorney). Sterling, of all the creatures lurking in Broward politics, knows the value of cold hard cash when it comes to securing School Board contracts for his clients. He controls a campaign money machine that pumps $25,000 into board campaigns in a single day. When he holds a fundraiser, his clients come out, as do a host of subcontractors who work with those clients.

The clients begin with school builder Pirtle Construction and consultant Bernard Zyscovich. The board has probably done a couple of hundred millions dollars' worth of projects with those two entities alone during the past several years. On top of that, Sterling represents Vista, the company that provides health insurance to School Board employees. And playground builder Recreational Design & Construction and Klewin Construction and Weiss and Woolrich Contractors, among others. Again, I don't pretend to know the exact dollar amount, but Kraft has voted to approve literally hundreds of millions of dollars to Sterling clients.

Sterling, a former School Board member himself, has fundraisers at his home during which School Board members walk away with tens of thousands of dollars for their campaign coffers, as well. Sterling and his wife and sometimes even his children pump in $500 apiece. Pirtle and Zyscovich and other clients chime in with a grand or two. Then there's a host of attorneys and a small flood of cash coming from subcontractors, companies with names like Imperial Flooring and Stone Circle Underground.

During Kraft's last election in 2006, Sterling threw her a fundraiser on May 18. On that day, she raised $34,500, including about $1,500 directly from Sterling, his wife, and his company.

To put that day in perspective, understand she raised a total of about $125,000 for the entire campaign. So I don't want anyone to ever imply that a Sterling hiring of Mitch Kraft -- or the spouse of any School Board member -- is anything but a further attempt to purchase influence for his clients at the district. That is what Sterling is all about.

Now I want to show you the state criminal statute for unlawful compensation. It's a beautiful thing, and here's the key passage of Statute 838.016:

(2)  It is unlawful for any person corruptly to give, offer, or promise to any public servant, or, if a public servant, corruptly to request, solicit, accept, or agree to accept, any pecuniary or other benefit not authorized by law for the past, present, or future exertion of any influence upon or with any other public servant regarding any act or omission which the person believes to have been, or which is represented to him or her as having been, either within the official discretion of the other public servant, in violation of a public duty, or in performance of a public duty.

There you have it. You prove any Sterling money went into the Kraft household and the unlawful compensation statute kicks in. The Florida Supreme Court has made it clear that you don't need concrete evidence that a corrupt deal was struck. The justices realized, thank goodness, that these arrangements don't involve contracts or, often, any communication at all between the two parties. It's the old wink and nod, if that. So all a prosecutor has to show is circumstantial evidence that a corrupt deal was struck (in this case, it would be Kraft's votes on the dais for Sterling and evidence that Mitch Kraft was paid by Sterling).  

And it's not like Sterling doesn't have a history of helping to provide board members with personal income. He clearly helped arrange a job for federally charged Beverly Gallagher's job with the corrupt Community Blood Center. Gallagher admitted that to me in tears a couple of years ago before later denying it. Every penny Gallagher made in that job -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- was unlawful compensation in my book. 

Now let's go to the federal laws, which are fairly simple. For a clue, look at the federal case involving former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty. She pleaded guilty to honest services fraud for helping to steer county bond work to her husband's firm. What more do you need to hear?

And that case was peanuts compared to what we're talking about here. Here (if Mr. Kraft really was paid by Sterling's firm) we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars of waste and a deep culture of corruption that could consume the entire School Board. Don't forget that Sterling's partner, Barbara Miller, helps manage board members' campaigns, furthering Sterling's already obscene influence.

It's the ties between Sterling and district officials that need to be investigated -- and it should start with finding out the truth about Sterling and Kraft, since they refuse to provide it themselves. 

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