When Russell Met Stacy

There's so much news coming down in the near future, more scandals, more damning information. It's coming.

Ritter and Klenet on vacation in Croatia.
Ritter and Klenet on vacation in Croatia.

But apparently nothing big is going to happen today (despite rumors). So I thought we would look to the past, specifically the roots of one of the most storied power couples in South Florida history, Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter and her lobbyist husband, Russell Klenet.

Today, they are under an State Attorney's Office investigation, and the history of their relationship is surely interesting. I'm going to tell it in excerpts from other newspapers as reporters followed the sometimes-baffling genesis of the relationship that has led to a host of conflicts of interest and investigations. 

What is most interesting to me is that not a single reporter, myself included, has conducted a thorough investigation of Ritter's voting in the state Legislature as it related to Klenet's clients. It's almost inconceivable that she was allowed to vote for years on issues relating to her husband's work. But in Tallahassee, there are few rules, and the state Commission on Ethics is terrible joke. Representatives and lobbyists have been in bed together, literally, for decades while most everyone has looked the other way.

Understand that when she initially ran, she was married to attorney Greg Ritter, and the pair had two children. Russell Klenet was also married, to a woman named Bonnie. I contacted Ritter today for comment and will update if I hear from her.  

Enjoy. It's long, so thankfully we have a three-day weekend ahead of us.

June 7, 1997, Miami Herald, Steve Bousquet:

Stacy Ritter burst upon the Broward political scene last year like a breath of fresh air. Walking and rollerblading her way to a House seat, she won over voters with her energetic spirit and a promise to voters in Tamarac and Coral Springs that she was "not part of any special interest."

During the campaign, Ritter's friendship with Russ Klenet, a Fort Lauderdale-based lobbyist for a number of special interests, blossomed as he raised money and gave her advice. And when Ritter went to Tallahassee, far from her husband and two young children, her marriage suffered, she says.

Klenet -- lobbyist for Alamo Rent A Car, Columbia/HCA hospitals, sugar growers, labor unions and three Broward cities -- was still there, advising and lobbying her.

Ritter and Klenet were seen together in the capital so much that her fellow legislators began wondering if they were

discussing something besides the state budget. Their friendship has been the talk of Broward's political network for weeks, but both say there's less there than meets the eye.

"He's been extremely supportive during my personal problems," Ritter says. "I believe I'm entitled to enter into a friendship with whomever I choose."

"There is no relationship other than we are very close friends," Klenet says. "It's a very deep friendship that has become very close."

So close, in fact, it has become a political problem for Ritter. One of her first supporters, sensing a liability in a district of middle-class retirees and families with young kids, talks about running for her seat in 1998.

The potential opponent is lawyer Ari Porth, who gave $100 to Ritter's campaign and walked precincts for her. Porth, 26, is not someone to be taken lightly. He is president of the Coral Springs Democratic Club, an area leader in the Broward Democratic Party, an assistant state attorney and the son of a very successful orthopedic surgeon.

Porth won't discuss Ritter's relationship with Klenet, except to say that "these allegations" could jeopardize her re-election chances.

... Klenet is widely known in Broward and state politics. He used a job as a legislative aide as a springboard to a much better-paying job at The Rubin Group, which has a list of powerful clients in Tallahassee. He points out that, despite their friendship, Ritter voted against his clients on two high-profile bills dealing with building codes and liability limits for rental-car companies.

"You can look at her voting record and see that she hasn't favored anybody," says her attorney, A. Matthew Miller of Hollywood. "She has represented her district very competently."

Using his extensive political contacts, Klenet has the ability to raise money for Ritter's re-election campaign, which is under way.

"I expected an opponent," Ritter says. "I'm a first-term legislator. But my personal life is my personal life."

Through attorney Alan Braverman, her husband, Gregory Ritter, declined to comment. Stacy Ritter, a lawyer like her husband, no longer practices with him. She said this week she now rents office space in Coral Springs from former Sen. Peter Weinstein.

June 21, 1997, Sun-Sentinel, Buddy Nevins:

Broward County politics may have come a long way, but there still is a double standard operating for women politicians.

Witness what is happening to Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs. Ritter is being pilloried because she is getting a divorce at the same time she has developed a very close friendship with lobbyist Russ Klenet. The talk is everywhere in political circles. Ritter and Klenet will not comment, saying it is personal.

But the political sharks have picked up the scent of blood and Ritter's political career now is threatened.

... Broward feminist leader Suzanne Coleman says if Ritter were a man getting a divorce, no one would raise an eyebrow. ... Coleman says that when she was a legislative aide, some male legislators were openly having affairs and nobody considered them politically "weakened."

For instance, state Sen. Fred Dudley, R-Cape Coral, had a highly publicized affair with a lobbyist last year and is so secure politically that he is talking about running for state attorney general. State Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood, was admonished by the House in 1991 for sexually harassing female state workers, but got re-elected the following year without opposition.

[Ari] Porth says that "this isn't about gender. It's about a conflict of interest - a legislator getting together with a lobbyist."

... No, the question is, would anybody actually be talking about this if Ritter were a man?

July 16, 1997, Sun-Sentinel letter to the editor, Nancy Zabelin: As a female constituent of Rep. Stacy Ritter in District 96, I did not appreciate the one-sided story reported by Buddy Nevins on June 21. This is not a gender issue. Whether we are represented by a man or a woman, if there are conflicts of interest in votes cast, these need to be brought to the public's attention.

Have there been votes Rep. Ritter has cast for clients of her lobbyist "friend" Russ Klenet? Has she been the voice of the citizens or the voice of special interests? The people in District 96 deserve to know. We want representation with integrity and from an independent thinker.

I want clear, accurate, objective, fact-based reporting. Nevins' failed to provide that in his article "Legislator caught in double standard."

September 6, 1997, Sun-Sentinel

State Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, has filed for divorce from her husband of 12 years, Greg Ritter. The state representative, who says she wants to marry lobbyist Russ Klenet, is asking for primary custody of their two children.

May 10, 1998, Sun-Sentinel, Kathy Bushouse:

Some [Coral Springs] city commissioners are fuming after an ''unacceptable'' effort by the city's lobbyist to fight a bill that could mean increased property taxes for residents.

Russ Klenet, of the Rubin Group, was criticized for not lobbying hard enough against a bill that would create a pension plan for local police and firefighters _ at a cost of about $ 600,000 to taxpayers, according to City Manager Mike Levinson.

''I hate to beat a dead horse, but I'm not too happy with this situation,'' said Vice Mayor Bill Stradling at Tuesday night's meeting.

The bill drew a lot of opposition from cities around the state, but was endorsed by the two elected officials whose districts include Coral Springs, state Sen. Walter ''Skip'' Campbell and state Rep. Stacy Ritter.

[The article did not mention the relationship between Klenet and Ritter.]

January 16, 1999, Sun-Sentinel, Buddy Nevins:

County Commission Chairwoman Ilene Lieberman's matchmaking paid off over the New Year's holiday. Little did Lieberman know when she introduced State Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, to lobbyist Russ Klenet three years ago, they would end up getting engaged. Klenet proposed in London over the New Year's weekend. "I'm so happy to see them happy," gushed Lieberman.

February 12, 2000, Sun-Sentinel, Buddy Nevins:

... State Rep. Stacy Ritter and lobbyist Russ Klenet fell in love during the 1997 legislative session and are now engaged.

That romance is now an issue for Joe Kaufman, a Republican candidate for Ritter's northwest Broward House seat.

"Ms. Ritter ... can no longer cast votes for the will of the people because, in the end, it is not her that's casting the votes. It's her boyfriend, Russ Klenet," Kaufman charged in a speech this week.

Kaufman offered no proof that the relationship has swayed the votes of Ritter, D-Coral Springs, who would not comment.

Klenet, however, had plenty to say about Kaufman: "He is a two-bit nothing with zero experience. He's a yahoo. He obviously has never looked at Stacy's voting record and how she votes against my clients regularly. I'm not apologizing for my personal relationship."

June 22, 2000, Sun-Sentinel, Buddy Nevins, Mark Hollis, "Scott Wyland":

The sex scandal surrounding state Rep. Steve Effman roiled politics on Wednesday from Sunrise condominiums to the state Capitol.

Most politicians said Effman's decade-long political career will be largely unaffected by the revelation that he agreed to a confidential settlement of a case that included allegations he had sex with his client.

Effman's conduct could come under review from the Florida Bar.

Under Bar rules, a complaint alleging unethical conduct by a lawyer can be filed even by someone not involved in the case. The Bar can also launch an investigation on its own.

The state representative and his wife, political operative Barbara Effman, president of the West Broward Democratic Club, were laughing and holding hands at the monthly meeting of the Broward Democratic Party on Tuesday night. A day later, after news of the allegations of scandal appeared in the Sun-Sentinel, Barbara Effman said she and her husband were relaxing at home watching television.

... Effman signed a confidential, out-of-court agreement on April 7 to settle a complaint from a 36-year-old woman he represented in a divorce case. The woman, whom the Sun-Sentinel is not naming, lost custody of her then-3-year-old twins to the state in 1997. She contended that Effman, 49, had sex with her during consultations on the case.

The settlement requires Effman to pay $ 150,000 and his firm's malpractice insurance carrier, Continental Casualty Co., to pay $ 320,000.

... In addition to Clinton, other politicians have easily survived recent sex scandals.

Many mentioned Mayor Harry Venis of Davie, who was caught up in a police investigation of a Dania Beach X-rated massage parlor he frequented in 1997.

"If you look at Harry Venis, he was re-elected after all that stuff came out. It didn't matter to voters," said state Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Weston Democrat who heads the Broward County Legislative Delegation.

State Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, was publicly embarrassed and lost a key Senate leadership position when his former spouse alleged in court papers that he had an extramarital affair with the lobbyist to whom he is now married. But McKay recovered and is now expected to be the next president of the Senate if Republicans retain control.

"As long as it doesn't involve your (political) job, people tend to be forgiving," Craig said.

... [Effman] had been eyeing a race for state Senate in northwest Broward two years from now. His opponent is expected to be state Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Spring, who is also looking to move up.

Ritter was also embroiled in a scandal several years ago after publicity that she left her husband and began seeing lobbyist Russ Klenet. The two are now engaged.

On Wednesday, Ritter wasn't thinking about her future race. She was thinking about her own experience.

"This is a personal matter, and it's a terrible tragedy," Ritter said. "I feel really sorry for Steve."

October 11, 2000, Sun-Sentinel, Sallie James:

Confident she will be reelected, incumbent Democratic state Rep. Stacy Ritter is running a low-key campaign in her bid for a third term, largely ignoring challenger Joseph "Joe" Kaufman as she passes out campaign sponges and potholders on the condo circuit.

... "I'm going to win," said Ritter, a Coral Springs lawyer who had raised $ 77,927 in contributions as of Oct. 9, about 26 times more than the $ 2,961 in Kaufman's campaign coffers. Ritter said she has about $ 60,000 left and hoped to raise $ 100,000.

... Kaufman, who has been walking door-to-door campaigning, has been vocal in his criticism of Ritter's personal relationship with lobbyist Russell Klenet. Kaufman calls it a conflict of interest.

"You have someone who votes on laws engaged to someone who is trying to get laws passed," Kaufman said. "I suggest one or the other leave."

Ritter says her personal life should not be a campaign issue.

"I vote with Russ when I think he is right and am very critical of him when I think he's wrong," Ritter said. "We're very careful."

March 9, 2002, Miami Herald, unknown author:

Five Broward Democratic lawmakers are facing comparisons to Benedict Arnold this week after they voted in favor of a Republican-drawn map of new political boundaries for the Florida House.

The "Benedict Five" includes Rep. Stacy Ritter of Coral Springs, leader of the delegation of the most Democratic county in Florida.

Party leaders say she and her compatriots -- Reps. Ken Gottlieb of Miramar, Ron Greenstein of Coconut Creek, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Roger Wishner of Sunrise -- cut deals with GOP lawmakers in exchange for their votes.

Five other Democrats voted for the plan, in which only 36 of the 120 House districts tend to vote for Democratic candidates, according to party leaders.

"That vote wasn't about redistricting," said Rep. Bob Henriquez of Tampa, vice chairman of the Florida Democratic Party. "It was about individual horse trading. They'll tell you it's about strategy, but that's a smoke screen for personal issues and selfish self-interests."

Particularly galling to Democratic leaders was that after the vote, Ritter sauntered around the House floor, asking Democrats who voted with her for their priority bills so she could sell them to Republicans.

Said House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel: "Our caucus would have appreciated it if she would be more of a team player."

The scuttlebutt around the Capitol was that Ritter pulled together the 10 Democratic ayes to curry favor with GOP leaders for a bill pushed by her husband, lobbyist Russ Klenet.

Ritter said firmly that she is not involved in the bill.

More important, she said the map was a big improvement on another proposal in which incumbents would have been forced to run against each other in three Broward districts.

"My priority is to make sure Broward is adequately represented," she said. "In order to reach that goal, I have to work with Republican leaders. I have been able to negotiate fixes and will continue to do that."

June 28, 2002, Sun-Sentinel, Susannah Bryan and Jeremy Milarsky:

Vice Mayor Ed Portner arranged a private dinner party at the home of a developer doing business with the city, and voted a week later on a project spearheaded by the developer's company.

The party was held at the home of developer Anthony Mijares Jr. in Fort Lauderdale's Rio Vista neighborhood. Mijares has plans to build two townhouse developments in Tamarac.

"What was in it for [Mijares]? Nothing. He did me a favor," Portner said of Mijares hosting the party, which Portner said was for two Turkish dignitaries in town to forge a sister city relationship between Tamarac and the city of Fatsa.

No other commissioner was invited to the party.

... City Attorney Mitch Kraft said the city has an informal policy in which commissioners are asked to disclose any communications with a developer before voting on the developer's project. But the disclosure is only necessary if they talk about the project, Kraft said.

The mayor, however, said the private party gave the appearance of impropriety.

"It wasn't very smart of him to do it," Mayor Joe Schreiber said. "You don't go into a deal like this where you have a dinner at someone's house who has a matter coming before the city. It's not wise."

Commissioner Marc Sultanof said he saw nothing wrong with the party. "It was not a city function. I'm not miffed at all."

... Portner brought along his family, including daughter state Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, and her husband, lobbyist Russ Klenet.

December 28, 2003, Sun-Sentinel, Christy McKerney:

A shuffle of House of Representatives districts last year has added veteran Democrat Stacy Ritter to the list of elected officials representing Sunrise residents in the state Legislature.

Ritter, D-Coral Springs, introduced herself to city commissioners at a commission meeting Nov. 25, saying Sunrise "has always been near and dear to my heart."

Her husband, Russ Klenet, is one of two lobbyists hired by Sunrise to represent the city's interests to state and local governments.

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