You Scratch My Back, I Write You a Bill | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

You Scratch My Back, I Write You a Bill

The slots are coming. Once Florida lawmakers work out the finer details, gamblers will be able to pull the levers at Broward County's four pari-mutuel facilities — Gulfstream Park and Hollywood Greyhound Track in Hallandale Beach, Dania Jai-Alai in Dania Beach, and Pompano Park in Pompano Beach.

The gambling machines will generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue, a portion of which will go to Florida's struggling public schools.

But don't mention slots to city officials in Hollywood. They're not happy with the current arrangement. Three of the four pari-mutuels — Gulfstream Park, Hollywood Greyhound, and Dania Jai-Alai — are located just outside the city's borders.

Mayor Mara Giulianti believes that because of increased traffic associated with gambling establishments, Hollywood's mutual aid agreements for police and fire services with Hallandale Beach and Dania Beach will drain city coffers. So Hollywood wants a piece of the action.

"If something happens at Dania Jai-Alai and Dania services are not available, the call automatically goes to the City of Hollywood," says Lorie Mertens, Hollywood's director of intergovernmental affairs.

Hollywood officials previously refused to back the slots vote after they were unable to strike a deal with the area's pari-mutuels. Now, Hollywood wants state lawmakers to force pari-mutuels to pay up and has even hired a lobbyist, former County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, paying him $45,000 to lobby specifically on the slots issue.

Fortunately for Hollywood, two of its most trusted representatives have come to the rescue. Rep. Ken Gottlieb and Sen. Steve Geller have sponsored bills in the state House and Senate, respectively, that would compensate Hollywood for having the slots palaces nearby. The bills were later altered so they would benefit other adjacent cities, including Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Park, and West Park.

"I try and do what's in the best interests of my constituents," Geller says of the proposed legislation.

But helping Hollywood may also be in the best personal interests of Gottlieb and Geller. Both of the politicians have done private business with Hollywood. In fact, in Gottlieb's case, the state representative has a pending deal before the city that could make his company millions of dollars.

A former Hollywood city commissioner and a current Democratic state representative who serves parts of Hollywood, Miramar, and Pembroke Pines, Gottlieb is in the process of negotiating a sweetheart development deal with Hollywood in which he's teamed with Cynthia Berman-Miller, a Hollywood political insider and former city employee with no development experience.

In September 2005, Gottlieb and Berman-Miller submitted a development proposal to Hollywood's downtown Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for a project called "Metro Hollywood." They've asked Hollywood for roughly $8.2 million in development incentives on a project estimated to make a $7.5 million net profit, not including about $2 million in sales commissions that likely will go to a real estate company owned by Berman-Miller's mother (see "Access Hollywood," February 16).

After the details of the project have been negotiated with city staff, the City Commission, acting as the CRA, will vote to approve the project and any associated incentives. The commissioners are likely to remember the representative who helped them with the slots legislation.

In other words, Gottlieb is sponsoring legislation that could pour millions of dollars into Hollywood while, at the same time, he waits for Hollywood City Commissioners to hand him millions of dollars in development incentives.

Gottlieb claims the two deals aren't connected. "As a state representative, I am obligated to represent the interests of my constituents, and that is exactly what I have done," he says. "I filed HB 867 to protect the municipalities bordering the Broward pari-mutuels with slots to provide financial relief from the costs of increased traffic and lost business. This includes Hollywood, Aventura, Pembroke Park, Fort Lauderdale, and West Park. Your continued insistence that a conflict of interest exists regarding my company's dealings with the Hollywood CRA is completely baseless."

Geller, meanwhile, also denies that his private business dealings with Hollywood have anything to do with the efforts he's making for the City in Tallahassee. In December 2004, Geller helped Texas-based developer JPI negotiate a deal with the Hollywood City Commission that allowed JPI to buy a parcel of downtown land worth $2.1 million for just $58,000 (see "Geller's Giveaway," Bob Norman, January 13, 2005). When he isn't working for JPI and other developers, however, Geller is a Democratic state senator who represents parts of Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Dania Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. But when New Times asked if he thought it was proper that a state senator should be moonlighting as a lobbyist for developers in the very district he represents, Geller, an attorney, denied that he was lobbying at all.

"I practice zoning and land use law, which sometimes requires appearances in front of local governments, just as being a litigator requires appearances in front of judges, whose salaries are set by the Legislature," Geller says. "Zoning and land use law is not 'lobbying,' according to the City of Hollywood code."

But no matter what he calls himself, Geller helped JPI win the plum land deal. And now, the Hollywood City Commission that came through on the fire sale is in turn getting Geller's help in the state Legislature.

Geller says the JPI deal did not influence his decision to sponsor the slots bill. Everything is "legal, ethical, moral, and common," Geller says. Besides, he adds, he's received campaign contributions from the state's gambling interests.

"If I didn't file the bill to help my constituents, you'd write about me and say that I didn't because of the support which I received from the pari-mutuels," Geller responds. "Since I did file the bill which my local commissioners requested, you'll say it's because of the 2004 JPI deal. How can I win?"

By Florida standards, Gottlieb and Geller's cozy dealings with Hollywood aren't illegal or even unethical. And both seemed most put off not by the tit-for-tat appearance of their proposed legislation but that they'd been asked about it at all.

Slush Money, Part II

The Greater Hollywood Arts Foundation, a private organization funded with public money and controlled by Hollywood political insiders, reluctantly opened its books for inspection by New Times on March 21.

E-mails uncovered by New Times had revealed that city employees and political cronies — including former Arts and Cultural Affairs Director Cynthia Berman-Miller, City Attorney Dan Abbott, and lobbyist Alan Koslow — had intended that GHAF's status as a private entity would shield it from public disclosure laws, even though it would be handling millions in taxpayer money. But after initially fighting New Times' requests for access to those records under Florida's public records law, GHAF relented. As a result, says GHAF board member Susan Best, the foundation itself may likely dissolve.

On September 20, 2005, the Hollywood City Commission voted 4-2 to award GHAF $480,000 in seed money. The contract with the city put GHAF in charge of raising money for the financially troubled ArtsPark as well as naming rights and future programming control over the city park. But internal e-mails showed that Berman-Miller, who was employed by the city when she helped to create GHAF, expected to become a paid employee of the foundation, an apparent conflict of interest (see "Slush Money," February 23).

According to GHAF records, Berman-Miller was a city employee when she put together the foundation's first board meeting on April 26, 2005. It was held in a City Hall conference room, meaning that, if Berman-Miller expected to be paid by the foundation, she was using public resources for private gain. She told the founding members that the city's Community Redevelopment Agency would kick in $195,000 to seed GHAF. During the next meeting, on May 6, the board discussed hiring Berman-Miller to become one of GHAF's first paid staff members. That meeting occurred more than two months before Berman-Miller left city employment. Additionally, the documents show that Berman-Miller, as a Hollywood employee, met with other city staff members to negotiate how much taxpayer money GHAF would receive.

About a month before leaving city employment, Berman-Miller submitted two development proposals to the City of Hollywood. For one, she partnered with state Rep. Ken Gottlieb on a project that is asking for about $8.2 million in development incentives, including about $6 million in free land. Berman-Miller is positioned to win the development projects despite the fact that her real estate license is less than a year old (see "Access Hollywood," February 16).

Although documents suggest that Berman-Miller had designed GHAF with the expectation of landing another taxpayer-funded job after leaving her City Hall post, that hasn't happened yet. Berman-Miller is still just one of seven unpaid board members. She has declined to comment on her involvement with GHAF and told New Times in February: "To my knowledge, I have not violated any laws, ordinances, or ethics regarding conflicts of interest. I left the City of Hollywood on good terms and started a new career. I still care deeply about the city's future. There are no conflicts of interest."

If GHAF is dissolved, the board of directors will have to return the public's money — minus the $4,649 it has spent and the amount of the legal bills it has yet to receive for fighting New Times' records request.

The Hollywood City Commission is expected to vote on Berman-Miller's development proposals this spring. City Attorney Abbott has maintained that no conflicts of interest exist.