The Paper Case

Joe Forkan

Because his left eye is completely blind and his right one only 60 percent functional, Ed Foley spends most of his time indoors. The 51-year-old editor of the weekly Pompano Ledger used to get out more often, sticking his nose into every foul-smelling cranny in the city he lovingly calls "Loserville." That changed three years ago, when his eyes started going bad from cataracts and other complications. Now he does most of his work from the comfort of his home, which also serves as the newspaper's base of operations. Sometimes, though, outdoor excursions can't be helped.

About three months ago, Foley found himself in an unusual spot. Sweating and panting, he bumbled his way through downtown Fort Lauderdale, walking from the Broward County Courthouse to the Governmental Center. "I'm on this bridge without a sidewalk," he recalls. "One wrong turn and I'm in the New River." County officials had requested his presence at a hearing, and he was given the right room number but the wrong building. Negotiating his way through five blocks' worth of blurry cars and midday sun, he eventually made it to the hearing. He now wishes he hadn't. "I'd rather have stayed at home and treated my hemorrhoids than be at that kangaroo court," he says.

The administrative hearing took place on April 29. In dispute was the Broward County Purchasing Division's decision, a month earlier, to award a contract to publish delinquent tax notices to the Broward Daily Business Review. Both the Ledger and the Review had bid for the contract, which is worth $85,000, and Foley was now claiming that he and his wife, Karen, the Ledger's publisher, were victims of a rigged process, during which the county and the Review conspired to block his paper from landing the contract.

Despite Foley's protestations, the hearing did nothing to reverse the county's decision, which went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media. Three months later, however, Foley admits to New Times that he knew, going in, that the bidding process would be "a sham." It wasn't until the hearing was over, however, that he realized just how far a government agency would go to keep a long-time crony in its employ. "Listen, if Jesus Christ had come down from the heavens in a chariot pulled by ten white horses, we still wouldn't have won this bid," he says.

The Foleys have been running the Pompano Ledger for 20 years. The entire operation -- editorial, production, and advertising -- is run out of the couple's modest house in Pompano Beach. Asked one recent afternoon where his staff is, Ed cheekily proclaims, "You're looking at him." All the writing for the weekly six-page paper is done by Foley and a handful of freelancers, and the editorial content is known for its strident muckraking. "We literally put the paper out of our garage," Karen says. "It's a labor of love."

In January, Karen received something unusual in the mail: a formal invitation from the county. Every year, the county solicits bids for a contract to publish delinquent tax notices, which are a form of legal advertising, a source of revenue for both the Ledger and the Review. This year the minimum bid was set at $85,000, and as far back as Glenn Cummings, county purchasing director, can remember, the Review has been awarded the annual contract "with little or no competition." (Dating back 15 years, all county records indicate the Review as the contract winner.)

Claiming the Ledger had never been invited to bid before, Karen says she figured that, if the paper did win the $85,000 contract, publishing the ads would cost only $11,000, meaning the Ledger would earn a $74,000 profit. "Call me blond," she says, "but I thought we had a legitimate shot at this bid." Her husband chuckles at her naiveté. "I knew we weren't gonna get [that bid] from day one," he says.

But the Ledger and the Review did bid, both for the minimum amount. Thus the county had a tie on its hands, and from the outset, according to Ed Foley, the tiebreaking process was rigged to guarantee victory for the Review.

The first sign that something was amiss popped up early on. Standard procedure dictates that, in the event of a tie, the county's last resort, only after exhausting all other possibilities, is to award the contract to whichever bidder comes first in the alphabet -- in this case the Broward Daily Business Review. On February 17, just days after the bids were received, John Kunzman, the county purchasing agent handling the process, called the Foleys and told them the alphabet option would probably be exercised. "Are you telling me we're alphabetically challenged?" Foley said to Kunzman. His wife called county commissioner Lori Parrish to complain, and a few days later, the B-before-P business was dropped. Asked during the administrative hearing if a commissioner's call was the reason he'd decided to forgo the alphabet option, Kunzman paused, then replied, "Probably part of the reason."

So the county concentrated instead on circulation figures. The Special Instructions to Bidders, which had been sent with the invitations to bid, states that a tie is broken by giving the contract "to the bidder with the highest circulation within Broward County." At first glance the Ledger should have won the bid easily: Its countywide circulation -- distributed via mail, stores, and newsstands -- is 4450, the Review's 3580. (All circulation figures were provided by the county.)

But the county purchasing division also cited a Florida statute declaring that publications carrying legal ads must "be for sale to the public generally," meaning, in the county's view, that only those papers paid for should be included in a circulation count. For promotional purposes both papers hand out free issues, but the Review dispenses only 180 freebies a week, whereas the Ledger distributes 2000.

The Ledger's attorney, M. Ross Schulmister, bristles at the county's "screwy decision." "There was no basis for it, no precedent," he says. "Basically, what they're saying is that if [a newspaper] isn't bought, it isn't read." He argues that the statute to which the county was referring only requires that a newspaper be, on the whole, offered for sale to the public. The Ledger, which can be purchased from newspaper boxes and in grocery stores, fulfills the requirement.

The bigger issue, according to Schulmister, is where the papers are distributed. The county's tiebreaking rules clearly stipulate that only circulation within Broward County should be considered. While the figures the Ledger submitted to the county -- 4450 total, 2450 paid -- were strictly Broward numbers, the Review's total of 3400 paid copies includes circulation in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. Schulmister emphasized this oversight at the hearing, but the county never asked the Review for a more specific breakdown. Thus the Review's circulation number stood at 3400 throughout the process.

Ruth Brown, executive editor of the Review, refused to answer questions about the bidding process for this article, deferring all queries to the county. Kunzman, when pressed for details, deferred to the tapes of the hearing, claiming that he'd just moved to a new office and his files were unavailable. The tapes themselves aren't much help. At one point Schulmister raises the circulation-count issue with the hearing officer, only to have his complaint quietly dismissed. "They ignored me," Schulmister acknowledges.

Shortly after the hearing, the officer ruled in favor of the Review, a decision that didn't surprise the jaded Ed Foley. Even if the Ledger had won the circulation fight, "[the county] would've found a way to get us," he says, noting that Broward has a buddy-buddy relationship with the Review's lawyer, John Copelan, who served as the county attorney for nine years. "Here's the ex-county attorney representing the Business Review!" Foley exclaims. Schulmister believes the Review's role as the perennial publisher of the county's legal ads may also have tipped the scales. "It could be that they've always given it to the Review and didn't want to give it to an upstart," he suggests. Summing up, Karen Foley is a little more blunt: "Basically, [the contract] was an $85,000 gift for a friend of the county."

Joe Goldstein, who along with Copelan represented the Review during the bidding process, finds little basis in these suspicions. "John Copelan's prior relationship with the county had nothing to do with it," he says. (Copelan was out of town during the reporting of this article.) Kunzman likewise disputes the Foleys' assertions, claiming that only the merits of the case led to his recommendation in favor of the Review to the county's purchasing director.

Three months after the contract was awarded, Ed Foley seems more amused than annoyed by the whole thing. Putting the finishing touches on the week's issue of the Ledger, as his two statuesque rottweilers stand nearby, he waxes poetic on the experience. "They live in a world of handshakes and nods and winks," he says of the politicians he has spent his life observing. Karen is a little more grave. "It was a display of raw power to show that they could do what they want," she says. Her husband swivels playfully in his beat-up chair and chuckles. Skeptical as ever, he turns to his wife and says, "She thought she was playing on a level field."

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