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The Plot To Depose King Jenne

When Bill Bucknam pulled into the parking lot of Bill Scherer's law firm one Friday morning, he was alarmed to see two people sitting some distance away in a car that had been backed into place. The car's two female occupants were trying to maintain low profiles. As he walked, Bucknam saw that one woman in the car was holding a camera with a long lens. As the pair watched Bucknam from the vehicle, the woman with a camera aimed it his way.

The round-bellied Republican lawyer was worried. So were the others he was meeting clandestinely that day last fall, an unusual Broward County mix of about 20 behind-the-scenes politicos. The group included lobbyists, lawyers, blacks, Hispanics, Republicans, and Democrats. They were political friends and political foes. And they didn't want attention brought to their efforts.

Bucknam wondered if his secretive group had been found out, on that day as he rode the elevator up to the meeting, located in a paneled conference room on the eighth floor of the Equitable building in Fort Lauderdale.

He gathered the cabal of political plotters near the windows, where a striking panorama of west Broward County unfolded below them. So did a bird's-eye view of the parking lot, which they studied through dark, tinted glass that veiled insiders from public view.

The women were still there, camera at the ready. Were they spies from the group's designated political enemy, Sheriff Ken Jenne, Bucknam wondered?

Encouraged by his compatriots who remained behind at an invisible distance, Bucknam marshaled his courage and rode the elevator back down. He walked up to the car and confronted the women.

"It was Beth Reinhard from The Miami Herald, on a very amateur stakeout," Bucknam recalls on another Friday morning recently, just after another secretive meeting. "I asked her what she thought she was doing. She said she'd heard that two county commissioners were meeting out of the sunshine. They weren't."

So Reinhard and her photographer left, and Bucknam rode anxiously back upstairs to get down to work with a group of political allies probably never before seen in Broward County, at least not gathered at one table.

Operating under the old saw that "the enemy of your enemy is your friend," they began plotting. Their goal: put Sheriff Ken Jenne permanently out of the business of becoming Broward's strong mayor once and for all. Their fear: that if they fail and Jenne becomes mayor, he will hobble their lucrative business interests at the county, and he will control commissioners positioned to dispense contracts or favors to them.

One obvious example is Scherer himself, a well-positioned Republican lawyer. Scherer hires Commissioner Ilene Lieberman's husband to do legal work for the firm, he represents clients who have business with the commission, and he has a stake in New River Village, a development on the south bank downtown. The development owners pay less than the general public for tenant parking spaces in a nearby county parking garage.

That could stop if Jenne becomes mayor.

Members of the group frequently express a concern: Whether Jenne wins or loses, he could put into practice his reputation as a politician with a long memory and an ability to exact retribution.

"I think the perception of that occurring is what makes him so powerful -- the legend exists, and that may be stronger than reality," says Russ Klenet, a lobbyist helping direct the group's effort to bring down Jenne.

Candidate for sheriff Lionel Stewart puts it another way: "I don't care what they say, Jenne's going to come after us. Win or lose. So they're going to have to put him down good."

Bucknam tries to shrug off a Jenne threat, perceived or real. "This isn't about Ken Jenne," he says, "it's really about business. Some people want to consolidate power and business, and that's all we really object to."

Jenne declines to comment, but Russ Oster, his hired political consultant, calls the allegation "ludicrous. We're here to reform government."

Officially the group resisting Jenne's version of reform is the steering committee of Broward Citizens For Good Government, a political action committee. Members have raised roughly $100,000 as of mid-January to fight the ballot referendum asking Broward voters if they desire a "strong" mayor. Should voters agree to the concept in March, candidates will seek the office in the November general election.

Critics say the winner arguably would gain more power than any other elected official in Florida's 67 county governments. A strong Broward mayor could hire and fire employees, veto legislation, and dispense contracts at will in this county of 1.5 million residents.

The members of the group working against Jenne have names that range from the well-known to the obscure in Broward's ranks of the powerful and privileged. Their interests and even their personal lives are sometimes tied directly to the county commission.

The group includes lawyer Stuart Michelson, who is married to Commissioner Ilene Lieberman; engineer Tom McDonald; former Fort Lauderdale city manager George Hanbury; and Hispanic advocates Rich Sierra and Louis DeRosa. Others holding seats at the table are lawyers Bernie Friedman, George Platt, Sidney Calloway, and Earl Hall, who is part of Lieberman's reelection campaign staff; lobbyist Russ Klenet; Republican activist Ellyn Bogdanoff; and Lionel Stewart.

Even Robin Rorapaugh, the chief of staff to U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch, a Democrat, is flying in and out of Broward from Washington, D.C., to offer fundraising muscle and advice. If voters approve a strong mayor, she says, Deutsch "would have to think strongly about running for the office."

Committee members are amicable, but their alliances are delicate, crossing personal and party lines. They meet, after all, in the prominent Republican law firm of Conrad & Scherer, where Jenne, an influential Democrat, was once hired to bring the firm business from a county controlled by Democrats. He did. And then when he was appointed sheriff by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998, he asked Scherer for a $1 million buyout. Scherer firmly refused, and his now public falling-out with Jenne is at the heart of the antimayor committee, according to some observers. Scherer declines to comment, but he does host the clandestine meetings in his conference room.

But Scherer is not in attendance the day a reporter attends the meeting. So his fellow Republican, Bucknam, takes the head of a long table surrounded by plush leather chairs. The first to arrive is Dan Lewis. A paid political strategist who is volunteering to help stop Jenne in order to settle an old score, Lewis picks a seat about midway down the polished expanse of wood.

From that seat he will attempt to guide matters with quick, strong opinions about strategy. This is his chance to repay Jenne for resisting his bid to win a commission seat in Miramar a couple of years ago. A smiling Lewis tosses out charts, advertising copy, and scripted presentations from a heavy folder that hits the table with a thump when it arrives. The presentations will help committee members argue their case before community groups. But Lewis refuses to share with the news media any content or placement of paid ads that will run on radio or TV. "Jenne could use anything he gets wind of against us," he explains.

Across from Lewis is Ellyn Bogdanoff, the Republican who lost a bid to win a U.S. congressional seat in 1998 against U.S. Rep. Steve Geller. She is less cheerful. No love is lost between Bogdanoff and Democratic lobbyist Russ Klenet, and smiles are not exchanged when he arrives to sit with his back to the wall at the end of the table. Klenet guided Geller, whom he describes as "my best friend," through a U.S. congressional campaign against Bogdanoff that is still remembered as one of the roughest in Broward history.

A few feet from Klenet sits lawyer and lobbyist Bernie Friedman, who grew up near Jenne's Hollywood home and once worked as a Jenne adviser during his days in the state senate. Friedman is turning against Jenne now, he claims, because a Jenne-style strong mayor could limit the range of businesses that make money off the county. His business could be limited as well if Friedman has to lobby for such clients as the Pompano Race Track or the City of Hollywood in front of a Jenne-controlled commission.

Another kind of business, the business of winning commission seats for minorities, brings Earl Hall to the committee table. Both Hall and Sidney Calloway are lawyers who "have put their entire careers on the line to see elected black commissioners," says Bucknam. They say a strong mayor could render mute the influence of a minority commissioner, or for that matter any Republican fortunate enough to win a commission seat, by vetoing his or her proposals.

Coming from a speakerphone in the middle of the conference table is the voice of Rep. Stacy Ritter, a Coral Springs Democrat and Klenet's fiancée. She's standing by via phone when Klenet calls to her. "Stacy, you there? What happened with Campbell?"

Klenet is referring to Sen. Skip Campbell, a Democrat, a friend of Jenne's, and a reputable trial lawyer who had just opposed Ritter in a public debate on the strong-mayor issue a couple of nights earlier.

The committee grows silent while members listen to her disembodied voice. In gleeful tones that crackle through the speakerphone, she describes the reaction of about 200 condominium owners at a Democratic club in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. This is a revealing test case, committee members figure: Both Campbell and Ritter are Democrats, and Campbell, Jenne's friend, argued in favor of the strong mayor.

"They booed Skip, they actually booed him when he finished," Ritter reports. "Skip says he won't debate this in public anymore."

Sighs of relief and pleasure are heard. Self-congratulatory nods circle the table before someone finally gets the meeting under way by calling out, "OK, what have we got?"

"I'm speaking to a Republican Club," Bucknam announces, inspiring a snappy reply from the Democrat Klenet.

"We'll try not to be sick," Klenet says. The comment characterizes the sometimes stinging undercurrent in the room between members of the two parties.

The committee gets down to work: who is going to raise money (Friedman, Klenet, Bucknam, some others); who is going to organize the speakers bureau and keep members informed (Bogdanoff, who set up 167 speaking engagements, she said -- Republicans to Republican clubs, Democrats to Democratic clubs); who will help write television and radio adds (Bucknam, Klenet, and Lewis); who will decide where and when they run the ads and how to spend the money raised by the PAC (many others).

Members try to keep animosity at bay and get on with business.

The Friday plotting, planning, and career-risking become serious in January, one year after the fight began and only eight weeks before the public vote. Committee members still express a grudging admiration for the way Ken Jenne manipulated the Broward legislative delegation to recommend the referendum to the state legislature. Florida's lawmakers then agreed to put a referendum on the county ballot.

"I can't prove it, but I think Jenne helped author the referendum; I completely believe that," says Klenet, a fast-talking veteran lobbyist. "Jenne's been after this for his entire career, and the language reads like he wrote it."

The proposal Jenne wants voters to accept is breathtaking in the scope of powers and privileges it assigns to a strong mayor. A Broward mayor would earn $131,000 per year for "part-time" work. He or she would have the freedom to pursue outside income -- in Jenne's case that would allow him to practice law and also to hire lawyers of his choosing for the costly legal work done each year by consultants to the county attorney's office. In the minds of his critics, that would be an obvious conflict of interest mandated by a Jenne-authored law.

A strong mayor, Jenne-style, would also be able to hand out contracts for as much as $100,000 without seeking the approval of county commissioners and hire and fire at will most of the 700 or so key administrators in the county, and in theory all 7000 county employees (although many are protected by unions).

If a strong mayor decided to veto actions of the commission, a two-thirds majority of the seven commissioners would be required to kill the veto.

"That means," says Dan Lewis, "that Jenne could control the commission with only three votes, and he'd have those, at least."

Three votes if there are seven commissioners. But control of the commission would take four votes if there are nine commissioners elected from single-member districts in 2002, which is a part of the strong-mayor proposal. Voters also will have the option of creating nine commissioners who take office after the November election, with no strong mayor. That alternative is being proposed by the county commission and is set to appear on the March ballot.

Klenet claims that Jenne's friends in the Florida legislature, where he spent almost 20 years, helped create the strong-mayor referendum without much public debate. "Those who wanted this saw an opportunity," he says. "They had a young legislative delegation from Broward."

And they had Democratic senators Jim Scott and Skip Campbell. "The Tripp-Scott law firm here, Norman Tripp and Sen. Jim Scott, lost a huge income from Broward's biggest business, the Alamo Rent-a-Car. All of a sudden that business was sold to Wayne Huizenga, and Tripp-Scott was without any business." At that point, says Klenet, the sheriff bailed out the firm by hiring it to do legal work for his office, securing Scott's obligation to him.

"Then Scott puts forward a bill to the Broward delegation that had to have been written by Jenne and company. So the deal had to have been, Campbell will muscle through Jenne, and Jenne will help Campbell be [Florida] attorney general, which he has wanted for some time."

Campbell strongly denies that version of events. "As far as Jim Scott and me doing something like that, it didn't happen," he says. "They can say what they want, but that's pure fiction." Campbell admits, however, that he has not counted out the idea of becoming attorney general.

Klenet, watching the legislative action the day it happened, says he was stunned by the quickness with which the Broward delegation secured a referendum that could radically alter the 26-year-old Broward County charter.

"I'm sitting there, and all of a sudden I realize what's happening. So I call to [Sen.] Howard Foreman and [Rep.] Steve Effman, who were behind this thing, and I say, 'What are you guys doing out there?'"

Foreman, a Pembroke Pines Democrat, and Sunrise Democrat Effman assured him "it's no big deal," he recalls. "And Sen. Campbell assures me we'll put all the amendments on the next bill next year -- term limits and so on. What promise is there of that, though? So they go through this, and there's really no debate. Only a few members of the public showed up to discuss it, which means it was advertised quietly. Then they pass the bill, and guess what happens? The first thing that happens is Skip adjourns the meeting." Creating a coup for Jenne, in Klenet's view.

Campbell laughs off that version, insisting that the meeting proceeded fairly, by due process. "Klenet would lose a lot of money if the county had a strong mayor, because he wants the county as a client. That's why he's doing this. His reputation is that of a weasel."

Both sides agree, however, that Jenne has long sought to lead Broward as its mayor.

Although it took him years to act on that urge, he had the mayoral job in mind even when he helped fashion the original Broward County charter in 1974, say those who have known him longest. That charter called for seven commissioners and a county manager, not a mayor. And it ended fair representation in the county, Bucknam contends, because the county's commissioners were to be elected at large rather than from the districts where they lived. "That allowed a huge influx of liberals from the northeast to take over the county," Bucknam says.

It also led to an inevitable and long-term disenfranchisement in Broward not only for the GOP but for blacks and Hispanics. Realistically their only hope of representation on the commission is to win seats in single-member districts where they hold a majority.

That's why Hall and Calloway, who failed to respond to numerous requests for interviews, put their weight behind the committee and an NAACP-sponsored lawsuit to stop the strong-mayor referendum, according to Bucknam.

The lawsuit succeeded in Broward County Circuit Court when a judge agreed the referendum violated a state law that requires ballot issues to be explained clearly to voters. The ruling is under appeal. The plaintiff is Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Carlton Moore, one of many local government officials in the county who fear they would lose power under a strong mayor.

If Jenne wins, a black, Republican, or Hispanic commissioner could be powerless, claims Ellyn Bogdanoff, "because Jenne could veto whatever they do."

Whatever the fate of the March 14 referendum, Klenet says he could see the writing on the wall the day he sat in the visitors' gallery of the state legislature and watched Jenne's allies from Broward County create the referendum. As soon as he picked up the telephone and let the folks back home know the hand they'd been dealt, the steering committee was born.

Jenne himself will speak of none of this and will not return telephone calls. His public information officer at the sheriff's office, Cheryl Stopnik, speaks for him and admits that "for years and years he felt the [strong mayor] would be a good form of government." But, she adds, "the job does not exist, and he doesn't want to speculate right now."

Although Jenne won't talk about it, Stopnik says he has been out raising money to create the job. As she describes it, Jenne has personally stumped for "the majority of the money" for Broward Referendum 2000, the pro-mayor political action committee that now has raised about $260,000.

And the sheriff has been campaigning for two years, according to Lionel Stewart, in large ways as well as small. Stewart makes his case in his favorite diner, Classics, hidden in a small strip mall off Flamingo Road in west Davie.

Low-key and amicable, Stewart jokes with others in the diner, all of whom are white, and discusses a round of golf with one. At 66 years of age, he admits that his desire to be sheriff infuses his daily life. He works out with weights five days a week, he says, and appears to have the stamina to campaign from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Stewart is only lately a tireless politician and a sharp critic of Jenne. A New York City native, Stewart retired from the Army and then spent a second 20-year career as a senior officer in the DEA before serving as a commander in the Broward Sheriff's Office from 1992 to 1993.

He has a strong opinion of what the sheriff's office is like under Jenne. According to Stewart it's like a mayoral campaign.

"Look at this," he exclaims, pulling out a manila envelope full of bric-a-brac acquired from the Jenne administration. Next to the scrambled eggs and toast, he pours an array of pens, key chains, bumper stickers, a pennant or two, and paperwork, all embossed with the BSO logo and the well-positioned and prominent name of Ken Jenne.

Stewart says the forms were all newly printed with Jenne's name to replace old forms. They are expensive to print, and all are useless if Jenne leaves office, he says.

Stewart's biggest irritation, though, was the massive and elaborate funeral for sheriff's deputy Michael Doane. On the force for only about one year, he died December 16, a couple of weeks after he crashed his car en route to a club where a shooting had been reported. The ceremony took place not in a church but at the Broward Center For the Performing Arts, where the main hall was filled with roughly 3000 law-enforcement officers. The ceremony included mounted horse patrols, a drill team's shotgun salute, numerous limousines, and -- in the concluding portion of the funeral outside -- even a fly-over. Eight helicopters created a "missing man" formation that approached high and from the east, with three in the lead and five behind. All for the benefit of viewers on the ground.

Squarely in the center of the action, dark-suited and somber, stood Ken Jenne.

"Who else gets that [kind of funeral] in this county? I mean come on," fumes Stewart. "Nobody gets that unless Jenne is campaigning. And that's what he's been doing, campaigning for mayor."

That kind of campaigning, along with a single-minded determination to achieve a goal, has always been part of Jenne, according to other members of the steering committee who have known and worked with him.

One of those is Bernie Friedman, a corporate attorney and lobbyist with a reputation for winning his clients the favor of local politicians in the Broward communities where they do business.

Publicity-shy and wary of media attention, Friedman nevertheless agrees to meet at the Hollywood offices of his firm, Becker & Poliakoff, where the names of about 40 partners are noted on a bronze plaque that lists offices in Hong Kong and Switzerland. Another plaque reads "Official Consulate of the Czech Republic." The opulence of the surroundings suggests just how successful these lawyers are: dark marble walls; gilded sculptures of racing hounds; even a stream that flows into the two-story entrance, past the lobby, and out of the building some 100 feet to the east. The stream slides through a manicured garden and into a several-acre lake, also owned by Becker & Poliakoff.

During the course of the conversation about Jenne and his prominent role in Broward politics, the 45-year-old Friedman, slender and almost boyish-looking, says he would not want such a public life as Jenne's for himself. "I have a family that comes first," he notes, referring to his wife and 11-year-old daughter. "I drive an Acura, I don't carry a bank of cell phones, I don't have to do all that."

Friedman is proud of his work as president of the $5 million David Posnack Jewish Community Center, too, and of the fact that every Friday in the law firm's second-story conference room, he and a group of partners meet with a rabbi to discuss "the Good Book."

What he wants from the political life of Broward County, he says, is "good government," in which power is distributed among decision-makers and business is distributed among the many, not the few. "I'm not against a strong mayor, but [I'd want] one with a lot more limited power than this. And I think single-member districts are a good idea, too."

Friedman praises Jenne and his integrity. "I've known Ken all my life, and I like Ken, I really do," he says. "He's a fascinating conversationalist, always interesting to be around."

But he questions Jenne's driving quest for power and recalls that, in a public and political career spanning almost 30 years, Jenne has lost only two political horseraces -- one when he sought to become the state's insurance commissioner and one when he campaigned to become state senate president. That was in 1988, and Friedman saw it happen.

Although he is careful to keep some stories off the record, he recalls Jenne's 18-hour-a-day effort to make deals, cajole, and collect promises that would carry the vote on the senate floor. Shortly before that vote, the hard-working team even flew to South Florida to lobby a wavering politician, who agreed to support Jenne. But as their chartered jet approached Tallahassee on the return, they discovered by telephone that promises to vote for Jenne had been broken. The king of Broward politics was about to lose.

"We didn't even land," Friedman recalls, and Jenne didn't bother to appear in the senate for the vote. He ordered the plane to head south.

Dan Lewis, a 49-year-old Connecticut native with a degree in political science and history, thinks Jenne is going to lose a third time, and he's doing everything he can to help that happen.

Lewis is a self-proclaimed master of demographics and strategy who compiles detailed records of every voter in Broward County. He will use these to discover which neighborhoods and even which homes are likely to contain voters who will visit the polls during an off-season election, he says. That knowledge will help him decide how best to use the $100,000 controlled by the Broward Good Government PAC.

Lewis hoards his information and refuses to discuss the dates or contents of paid political advertisements. But he eagerly explains an inflammatory guide to the strong-mayor issue, mounted on an easel that he hauls to public speaking events. Each page he flips through contains a succinct title such as "The Deal," or "The Meeting," or "The Machine." Several pages carry robust, full-color illustrations of pigs feeding or frolicking. "Yeah, that's got some complaints," Lewis admits, "But I'm always getting complaints."

Crisply attired in a blue oxford dress shirt with button-down collar, Lewis wears a tie even when he's working alone in the small house converted to office space he keeps on Davie Boulevard.

Surrounding him in that office are the political collaborators of another age, who appear in huge reproductions of 16th-century Dutch or Flemish paintings. The dominating scenes depict pairs of men strolling at court, heads bent, perhaps whispering. They are the silent partners in Lewis' political life, the old masters of political calculation and intrigue exhibited by Lewis "just to help people get in the mood," he says.

Lewis reveals a single computer printout detailing in bars and graphs his strategy for paid political advertising beginning in January and concluding March 14. The printout is the heart of the steering committee's strategy, something "Jenne would love to get his hands on," Lewis says. He seems to have calculated just about every detail: on which hour of which day and in which markets paid political ads should run and how much money must be spent to gain the attention of voters and to win a point in the polls on election day.

"It's a science," he says with pride, "and I'm the best at it around here." A science and a business. Lewis figures he's participated in more than 190 elections "either as doormat or strategist," mostly in Florida, winning 85 percent, which numbers about 158 victories.

He offers his strategic acumen to Republicans, Democrats, or anyone who can buy the service, he says. "I'm like the phone company or the power company -- you pay your deposit, you get the service."

Although Lewis volunteers his service to the Broward Good Government steering committee, his mercenary bent is worrisome to some, including Ellyn Bogdanoff, the Republican activist who works with the committee.

Although she voices suspicion about the motives of several members of the committee, Bogdanoff says her alliance with them is the only way the GOP can gain a foothold in Broward County.

She makes this point during a crowded lunch hour at Chuck's Steak House on 17th Street in southeast Fort Lauderdale. She has chosen the restaurant for conversation, she explains, because she figures she won't be seen talking, either by other members of the steering committee or by Jenne supporters. But no sooner does she arrive than Bogdanoff catches a glimpse of several Jenne consultants dining in a private room.

Though not as dramatic or posed as a Flemish painting, the scene bears an unmistakable whisper of conspiracy and maneuver. And Bogdanoff picks a seat as far from the room as she can get, with her back to the wall. After lunch she hurries out, hoping not to be spotted.

"I wanted to go back and just look, see who's there," she confesses, "but then I thought this might not be a good time."

Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address:

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