Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter couldn't make the June 26 commission meeting, but she took the time to call in her vote on one issue: giving the county's health insurance contract to a single company, Vista Health Plan.
"Nobody wants to be perceived as taking away someone's choice, but this was a decision I think that we had to make...," Ritter said on speaker phone. "And this is going to save us some money."
What Ritter didn't bother telling anyone during the meeting was that the firm that employs her husband, Russ Klenet, stood to make money on the deal. Seven weeks before, it had registered with the county administration as a lobbyist for Vista.
Not only did Ritter vote for Vista but she also sat on the county's insurance committee, which laid the groundwork for the vote on the contract, which is worth about $40 million — proving once more that she can't resist mixing her public duties with her husband's work.
Vista is the second major county contractor found to have ties to Klenet. Last week, I reported that evidence had surfaced indicating Klenet had secretly lobbied for URS Corp., which oversees construction at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Klenet was supposed to have quit working for URS after his wife's election. But in his work journal, URS project manager Todd McClendon repeatedly referred to having contact with Klenet after the election. In April, McClendon listed "Russ" as a member of the company's lobbying "posse" in Broward County.
At the same time, Ritter served as the commission liaison to the airport. And she's been an advocate for URS on the dais.
Even longtime, corruption-hardened county government insiders privately say that Ritter and Klenet are violating the public's trust and heading for serious trouble.
Considering Klenet's checkered history as a lobbyist of county officials (he was a key figure in persuading the commission to buy the much-maligned touch-screen voting machines), this trouble was foreseeable. But the power couple tried to quell concerns by announcing that Klenet would stay away from county government — a promise apparently not kept.
In the case of Vista, Klenet enjoys some apparent distance from the vote because one of his partners, William McKinley, is actually his company's lobbyist of record.
Earlier this year, Klenet joined McKinley's Tallahassee-based lobbying firm, Dutko, Poole, & McKinley. At the time, it seemed an unlikely union. Whereas his two new partners, McKinley and Van Poole, are both longtime GOP loyalists, Klenet moves in Democratic circles. Poole and McKinley live and work in Tallahassee; Klenet operates in South Florida, where he serves as the firm's senior vice president and "managing director" of its Broward operations.
But it appears in other ways to be a perfect, symbiotic relationship: Klenet would help give Poole and McKinley entrée into local, Democrat-dominated Broward politics while the Tallahassee firm would insulate Klenet from direct involvement in lobbying his wife and other county officials.
Ritter, who refuses to respond to my questions regarding her husband's lobbying work, was obviously aware that the involvement of her husband's firm in county business might be construed as a conflict of interest. Earlier this year, she asked the state's Commission on Ethics whether she could vote on issues involving her husband's firm's clients. Neither she nor Klenet would receive any compensation from those clients, she wrote in the request. She also claimed that Klenet had no ownership interest in the company and that he wouldn't serve as an officer or director for the firm (though his current title suggests otherwise).
The Commission on Ethics found that, so long as those conditions were met, Ritter could vote on issues affecting her husband's firm's clients.
In the real world of big-money government contracts, that ruling is laughable. The appearance of a conflict is there, and the arrangement makes it ridiculously easy for Klenet to be surreptitiously paid for his wife's support of his firm's clients.
But the ruling wasn't surprising, especially considering the Commission on Ethics' long and much-criticized history of playing softball. Composed of political appointees — many of them lobbyists and former politicians — it has rarely served as much of a watchdog. In fact, current Chairman Norm Ostrau is a lobbyist who works in a Broward firm owned by Jim Blosser and Justin Sayfie. Blosser and Sayfie used to be partners with McKinley and Poole.
Florida politics is a small world. Thankfully, the Commission on Ethics isn't all that relevant. It has no bearing on criminal investigations and holds sway only over the state's administrative Code on Ethics. It's little league.
The fight for Broward County's health-insurance contract was big in every way. County records show that Klenet's firm registered with the county to lobby for Vista on May 2, just seven weeks before the crucial vote. At that time, the issue was being hashed out in the County Commission's insurance committee, where Ritter was a vocal member. A lobbying war was already raging there between Vista and its competitor, AvMed. The two firms had been sharing the county's insurance contract for years.
Although it seems almost inconceivable that Vista would have hired the Tallahassee firm had it not been for its ties to Klenet and Ritter, Ritter already had a strong incentive to bat for Vista. Its owner, Steven M. Scott, gave her campaign $5,000 last summer. The maximum allowable contribution is $500; Scott got around that by having ten of his North Carolina-based companies write $500 checks, a fairly common practice among political high-rollers that is known as bundling.
AvMed lobbyist George Platt, a consummate insider and a longtime Klenet associate, said the company he represented was at a distinct disadvantage. Campaign records show that AvMed gave only $500 to Ritter's campaign. "AvMed is a nonprofit and doesn't generally give contributions," Platt said.
When I asked what influence he thought Vista's hiring of Klenet's company may have had on Ritter, Platt said he had no way of knowing. He said he didn't even know Vista had hired Klenet's company until after the June 26 vote.
The company may have lobbied quietly, but Ritter was loud and clear after she and the other six commissioners voted to give Vista the county's contract.
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"I am very proud of you... very proud," she gushed over the speakerphone to her fellow commissioners.
Broward Mayor Josephus Eggelletion seemed to think that might be some kind of joke, muttering, "Yeah, right, Stacy."
"I'm serious," she said.
It's only now becoming clear how serious Ritter and her husband really are when it comes to county business.