Here's a job for new Broward County government chief Bertha Henry: End the county's business dealings with the Westside Gazette.
The newspaper has been claiming false circulation levels for years and has used the trumped-up numbers to fleece taxpayers. Broward County is just one of many government customers of the black-owned publication, which is rife with puff pieces and reprinted press releases.
If Henry, who took over last week after the resignation of Roger Desjarlais, would take a stand against the Gazette, she would show everyone that just because a newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for local government, it shouldn't be allowed to cheat the public. But I doubt the interim county administrator, whose salary was just bumped up to $232,500 a year, will do anything about it.
Henry's family owns the Westside Gazette, after all.
Her husband, Bobby Henry, serves as publisher of the newspaper, which was founded by his father, Levi, in 1971. The county places ads in the Gazette that run taxpayers more than $20,000 a year.
That might seem like a conflict of interest for Bertha, who oversees the department that handles accounts with the Gazette, but before we tackle that issue, let's look at the newspaper's circulation numbers.
Over the years, there have been a lot of them.
According to published reports, it jumped from 37,000 in 1993 to 70,000 in 2001. Not bad for a small, hard-to-find publication run almost exclusively by the extended Henry family. On January 12, 2002, the Sun-Sentinel repeated the figure of 70,000 in a story about a black media conference held in town. The next day, the Miami Herald put the number at 50,000. Apparently, the newspaper lost 20,000 subscribers in one hellish 24-hour period. Or it was all a pack of lies.
Last year, the Gazette issued a "media kit" for prospective advertisers again listing a circulation of 50,000. In it, the publisher claimed that the number had been certified by a company called the Community Papers Verifications Service (CPVS).
And then, this past December, someone had to mess things up and blow the whistle on the newspaper. An anonymous tipster sent a meticulously researched and well-organized five-page complaint to federal and state authorities alleging circulation fraud and implying that Bertha Henry, who was hired as deputy county administrator in 2000, had helped steer taxpayers' money to her family's business.
"Since her hiring as deputy county administrator, the Gazette has increased its advertising contracts with Broward County Government substantially," the mystery complainant wrote. "Bertha Henry oversees the division that awards county contracts."
The masked crusader alleged that CPVS had never audited the newspaper's circulation. "The Gazette's claims, which have been made statewide and nationally," he or she wrote, "is a clear case of fraud exacted upon countless governmental and private sector customers."
The feds and the state Attorney General's Office referred the case to Broward County, prompting an internal investigation by the county's Office of Professional Standards (OPS). Then-county chief Desjarlais wrote to his underlings: "This investigation should be conducted without regard for Ms. Henry's position in the organization."
As if. The investigation proved to be just what you'd expect from staffers investigating their boss -- incomplete, slipshod, and full of faulty rationalizations. Yet it did find a few scintillating facts. For instance, investigator David Paul confirmed that the county had paid the Gazette much more after Henry was hired as deputy county administrator. The amount jumped from $18,543 in 2000 to $26,555 the following year -- an unexplained 40 percent increase.
The newspaper also began charging the county more per column inch. In fact, the rate nearly doubled, from $13 in 2000 to $25 at the time of the investigation (today, it's about $30).
That rate, of course, is based on circulation figures -- and those figures were bogus. Paul found that the Gazette's circulation claim had never been certified. Tim Bingaman, president of a company that had bought CPVS, informed the county that not only did the Gazette fail to pass an audit in 1999 but that it wasn't possible the tiny newspaper had a circulation of 50,000.
Paul didn't find this information very convincing. "Unless we can produce evidence that we depended on their circulation claims, and that they were false claims made knowingly, we're missing the essential elements of fraud...," Paul wrote to James Poag, who was then director of the OPS. "There is some evidence (not necessarily reliable) to substantiate that the Gazette made such claims."
The media kit, of course, was as reliable a source as you could get, right from the Henry's mouth. Paul, however, claimed he couldn't find a copy of it. He tried to get it from the newspaper's website, but it had been taken down. So the county failed to obtain the key piece of evidence in the case.
And what a piece it is. Along with the ridiculous circulation claim, the media kit, which I got without too much trouble, boasted 350,000 readers, an absurd number even if the 50,000 circulation figure were correct. And it didn't stop there. Check out this line: "The Westside Gazette readers are cultivated African American consumers who have tremendous buying power to the tune of $60 billion a year."
After this impossible boast, Bobby Henry ended the media kit with a nonsensical rant in which he defends his paper from unnamed detractors and blends in the craziest claim of all. "We don't have to take a lot of stuff!" he types in bold black letters. "As customers with an economic base of $600 billion, we should speak with our dollar$ -- let's do business with those that respect fair play!"
Now it's $600 billion? Damn, that's nearly equal to the Gross Domestic Product of India. Who knew Gazette readers were such a global economic force? Why, they could rebuild New Orleans and Iraq and still have a couple of hundred billion left.
Why the county couldn't locate a copy of this loony media kit is a mystery. Broward Community College, which also advertised in the Gazette at the time, was furnished a copy by the newspaper, according to BCC Chairman Levi Williams. BCC also became aware of the five-page complaint and conducted a review of its own.
"[The Gazette] was using those circulation figures to get more money for ads than other newspapers, like the [black-owned] Broward Times and El Heraldo," Williams says.
Bobby Henry didn't respond to BCC's request for an explanation.
"And we dropped them, of course," Williams adds.
That would be what some might call a "responsible" way to do business with public money. Not Broward County, which didn't bother to question Bobby Henry or Bertha Henry and pays inflated ad rates to the Gazette to this day. Just last week, the county ran a half-page ad in the newspaper, at a cost of about $2,000, urging citizens to recycle. Other governmental bodies placing ads during the past two weeks include Hollywood, Oakland Park, the State of Florida, the School Board, the Sheriff's Office, and the Broward County Housing Authority.
So what is the newspaper's actual circulation? Well, Bobby Henry recently issued a new media kit, which can be downloaded from the Gazette website. In it, he claims his paper has "grown to a weekly circulation of 30,000." Damn the luck -- another overnight 20,000 slide.
There is no claim in the new media kit that the new figure has been audited or certified. But the newspaper still asserts, hilariously, that it has 300,000 readers -- meaning each newspaper is read by an average of ten people -- who have a spending power of $60 billion and an economic base of $600 billion.
If you met Bertha Henry, you wouldn't expect such shenanigans to come from her household. She's a pleasant woman who exudes professionalism. But did she steer county money to her family's newspaper?
No evidence has come to light proving that she did, but the steep increase in county payments to the Gazette doesn't look good. In his investigative report, Paul defended the administrator by pointing out that there were other steep increases in dollars given to the Gazette in 1996 and 1998, before she was hired. Apparently Paul and his bosses had forgotten that Henry first worked for the county in 1996 before leaving in 1998 for a stint with the City of Miami.
Don't worry; the new county boss has a blanket defense. "I don't engage in discussion with any of the staff about where they advertise or don't advertise," she says. "I'm very conscious about how that conversation might be perceived."
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When asked if she was going to investigate her, um, family, she said, "It would depend on the relationship the county has with the Westside Gazette. I'm not going to engage in speculation."
It's about time we got some refreshingly straight talk like that from a bureaucrat. Though she was listed as an officer with her husband in a Gazette-related printing company in the early 1980s, Henry says she has absolutely nothing to do with the newspaper today, other than reading spare copies in her house.
"I find that hard to believe," she said after I recounted the evidence that the newspaper had engaged in circulation fraud. "I don't even understand the issue of circulation with respect to how that's done. I'm not involved in the business. I can't tell you what their circulation numbers are or aren't."
That makes all of us.