A Work of Art | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

A Work of Art

Usually, the Broward State Attorney's Office employs comedy to clear public officials accused of corruption. Vaudevillian top prosecutor Michael Satz and his lovable gang of incredibly inept investigators tie themselves into human knots to do it.

With the investigative instinct of Clouseau and a knack for misinterpreting the law, their clearing of former Pompano Mayor Bill Griffin two years ago was a masterpiece of misguidance. In exonerating that same city's water department last year, the corruption unit showered us with incompetence -- and plenty of laughs. We can only wonder how they'll joke their way out of charging Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom and former North Broward Hospital District honcho Dorsey Miller, both of whom happily await the Satz treatment for their own ethical transgressions.

But last week, the prosecutors surprised us -- and, in so doing, made us more human. Assistant State Attorney Bernie Hollar took an article I wrote on Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and transformed it into something unexpected and beautiful. This was, as Graham Greene might say, more than an entertainment; this was a work of art, an absurd, even surreal, piece of transcendence. The prosecutor showed us that behind the incompetent-seeming shtick lay pure genius, not unlike the best work of Keaton or Chaplin.

But before you can soar with Hollar, you need some basic facts. We'll start with my October 14 article, which was the second part of a series on Lieberman called "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist." The four stories involved the commissioner's former job shilling for the Pinnacle Housing Group, a Miami-based developer that swept into Broward a few years ago to build affordable-housing projects. In that second installment, I told of a mutual back-scratching episode between Lieberman and insurance broker Jim McKinley, who doubles as a Jeb Bush appointee on the Broward County Housing Authority board.

The article was pretty straightforward: At the same time McKinley backed Pinnacle for a $22 million housing authority project in Hollywood, Lieberman urged her fellow commissioners on August 26, 2003, to give the insurance man a $10,000 county contract. The commission, however, voted down her effort, with Ben Graber delivering the most memorable line: "To spend $10,000 to ask McKinley and his staff to do a review is a nice gift, but this isn't Christmas."

Unbeknownst to Graber, McKinley sat on a housing authority committee that ten days later recommended Pinnacle for the $22 million job. After Lieberman accompanied Pinnacle executives to a presentation before a housing authority selection committee, the insurance broker gave her employers the highest score and the second-place finisher the lowest, ensuring Pinnacle the project. Lieberman was paid an undisclosed success fee.

Shortly after that victory, she urged a county health care committee to give McKinley a consulting contract. Again she was voted down, but her lack of success in delivering for McKinley makes no difference in the eyes of the law. Under Florida's unlawful compensation statute, the effort is truly all that counts.

An anonymous citizen sent a copy of the article to Satz, and a public corruption investigation -- nay, an odyssey into the human condition -- was born.

While we common folk might find it a pretty standard case of two public officials trading mutually profitable favors, prosecutor Hollar immediately saw in the case something profound, mysterious, beyond normal human comprehension. On May 10, he concluded in his already classic five-page "close-out memo" that "it would be virtually impossible to convince a judge or jury that Ms. Lieberman and Mr. McKinley devised such an elaborate and complex scheme."

It's a stinging rebuke of his fellow man; Hollar intimates that regular folk, judges included, are little more than dumb animals. We are left to consider whether he's right.

Hollar meticulously and forcefully dissected my story in his memo, poking holes in what seemed to be the most basic facts. For instance, I noted that McKinley made the motion at the housing authority meeting to award Pinnacle the contract. Hollar saw right through it.

"However, a close examination of the BCHA minutes revealed that Mr. McKinley only made the initial motion, which he stated he normally does at these meetings, and that [another commissioner] seconded it," Hollar deciphered.

I thought it was worth mentioning that McKinley made the motion but never thought to consider the fact that he didn't second it, probably because that would be against the rules. Therein lies Hollar's audacious brilliance: He dares us to consider the impossible.

As for my contention that a second Lieberman attempt to give McKinley a consulting contract was "shot down," Hollar once again bared his inestimably brilliant analytic teeth. "However, the minutes of the meeting indicate a new consultant was chosen and approved by a close vote of 4 to 2," he waxed.

Here, I believe that Hollar is employing sarcasm, but I can't be sure. Is he illustrating the power of the red herring in prosecutorial discourse? I only wish I knew.

But he definitely lays on the irony when he seemingly cautions political rascals: "The circumstances of this complaint/news column show that public officials who also are employed by private companies that secure government contracts must be excessively diligent in separating their public/private roles to assure that there is no criminal or ethical conflict-of-interest, whether real or perceived."

Feed at the trough, public officials -- Hollar almost goads -- just make sure you're diligent about hiding any sleazy trail you might leave behind. This may be one of the most powerful statements about the futility of man's feeble attempt at that thing called "justice" ever written. We here at the State Attorney's Office are fools, the prosecutor tells us, part Orwell and part ornery. And so are we all.

It's not surprising that the mainstream media would misinterpret such a devastating and complicated work. In a story appearing this past Saturday, Sun-Sentinel political reporter Buddy Nevins took Hollar's masterwork literally, as if it were the product of some common pencil-pushing courthouse bureaucrat.

Nevins also missed the point of my original story. The first sign of that was when he wrote that "the [New Times] article alleged that in 2003 Lieberman engineered a plan to get McKinley county insurance-related contracts."

Of course, I didn't "allege" such a thing. I simply reported that she tried to win McKinley the county contracts at the same time the broker was backing her company. It's all in the public record.

Undeterred by truth, Nevins continued: "But prosecutors wrote that when they examined the minutes of the county commission meetings, they found that McKinley got one $110,000 insurance contract... and that Lieberman hardly said a word."

I barely mentioned that contract in the original story and never claimed that Lieberman said anything during that particular meeting. Instead, I focused on the commissioner's very public pleading for the county to give McKinley $10,000 (also known as my point).

So what did Nevins write about that?

"McKinley failed to obtain a second $10,000 contract."

And that was it. I wrote about political wrongdoing, Hollar expounded eloquently upon the absurdity of the human condition, and Nevins misconstrued everything in between.

And Lieberman?

She's still laughing.