A Politician Weeps

It started with a hunch and ended with a Broward County school board member crying on the phone, promising that she would quit her day job and concerned there would be a criminal investigation of her financial ties to high-powered lobbyists.

"I don't want improprieties," a sobbing Beverly Gallagher, who represents southwest Broward residents on the board, told me. "I have very high standards... My ethics are the most important thing, next to my children, to me."

The hunch was that Gallagher's outspoken support of the James B. Pirtle Construction Co. to build schools in her district was about more than just helping the children. That it might be tied to more than $100,000 she's made from a part-time job at another firm that does business with the school district.

Gallagher has voted for Pirtle to build three schools in her southwest Broward district, about $120 million worth of business. Not only that but she sat on the selection committee and ranked Pirtle the highest over competing firms, helping to steer the work toward the company.

As one school board insider put it, "Gallagher always backs Pirtle and has pushed his projects in committees. All you can do is ask, 'Why?'"

That question has taken on even more urgency since one of those three schools, the so-called LLL high school planned for Pembroke Pines, has become a symbol of school board waste and inefficiency, including the purchase of $4.3 million in swampland that proved an unsuitable site.

Still, Gallagher and other board members voted to approve the $70 million LLL contract with Pirtle last week.

In an e-mail she sent to her constituents this past Christmas, she wrote about the advantage of one construction company building all the new schools in her district.

"Having Pirtle Construction build all three schools simultaneously will give the school district an economy of scale and actually save time and money," Gallagher gushed.

She neglected to mention that the lack of competition at the district has kept numerous construction firms from bidding on the projects and that the appearance of favoritism has for years marred the board's reputation.

The truth is that Gallagher has more than the "economy of scale" to like about her favorite construction company. Pirtle's high-profile lobbyists, former board chairman Neil Sterling and Hollywood-based politico Barbara Miller, either contributed to or helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for Gallagher's campaigns. Miller also helped run Gallagher's successful 2004 reelection bid.

That's perfectly legal, if a bit unseemly. But Gallagher's part-time job — which was supposed to pay her $50,000 this year — might cross the line into felonious territory.

In 2002, Gallagher accepted a job with Community Blood Centers, an outfit based in Lauderhill that is the recipient of school board blood drives. Gallagher, who makes $39,000 on the public dime from her school board job, continues to work as "executive director" of the CBC's new scholarship program.

Her bosses at CBC also have a lobbyist at the school board: Neil Sterling, the Pirtle rep.

I asked Gallagher this past Thursday how she found out about that job.

"I can't remember, but I think it was either on-line or in the newspaper," she answered.

Pressing her, I asked what role Sterling played in getting her the job.

There was a very long pause.

"I think I knew about the job before he told me about the job, but I don't remember, honestly," she finally said. "I really don't. He did write me a letter of recommendation."

As I continued asking her questions, she admitted that Sterling had procured the job for her but vehemently said that she is qualified for the position and that it had nothing to do with any support she has given Pirtle or any other clients Sterling represents before the school board.

"My job at the blood center is totally different [from the school board]," she said. "I love the work. I love to give scholarships to these kids. It's marvelous, and... I keep it very separate from my political life."

I asked her about that $4.3 million piece of swampland that she had urged the board to purchase for the high school site. The architect for the school, Zyscovich Inc., had lobbied her to buy the land.

Zyscovich's lobbyists are, again, Neil Sterling and his partner, Barbara Miller. On top of that, Pirtle was slated to build the school.

She said she didn't remember Sterling ever lobbying her on the sale and blamed town officials from Southwest Ranches, which owned the land, for "deceiving" her and the rest of the board into buying the acreage.

But the connection is there nonetheless. And I felt that it was time to ask her some really tough questions about her job, Sterling, and the appearance of a quid pro quo.

I mentioned to Gallagher that there were unlawful compensation statutes in Florida that made it a felony to profit from public service. I told her that a case could easily be made that Sterling got her the job with CBC with the expectation that she would vote for his clients, which she has done with alarming regularity.

I added that prosecutors didn't need hard evidence that a corrupt deal had been struck. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that all that is necessary for prosecution was circumstantial evidence that there had been a "meeting of the minds," in this case, between herself and Sterling.

The procurement of the job and the subsequent votes, I offered, seemed ample evidence of that. That's when she began to sob.

"I will quit my job and get another job then," she said through her tears. "But how am I going to pay my mortgage this month? How am I going to put my kids through college? And how will I get another job? If I ask my other friends, like George Platt... I can't do that either?"

Platt is another major lobbyist at the school board. I told her that wasn't a good idea.

"Then, Bob, I ask you, where can I find a job?" she asked through tears. "When people try to find a job, they network to find a job and they talk to people they know. That's the only way I know to get jobs."

I felt both great astonishment at what I was hearing and, call me a softie, some sadness for Gallagher. She was a parent activist and substitute school teacher before she ran for the board. Then the lobbyists and contractors wined and dined her and gave her a job so that she would cast a friendly eye — and a friendly vote — their way when the chips were down.

She became swept up in that swirling social scene, and now she was left with a bunch of "friends" like Sterling, Miller, and Platt — high-rolling users who only want a piece of the school board's whopping $2.1 billion construction budget.

And there's no reason to doubt that Gallagher really does need outside income. Her husband, a lawyer, left her shortly after she was elected in 2000 and, she says, doesn't pay alimony or help with the college bills for the children.

To help calm her down, I told her it would be all right. I told her that Broward State Attorney Michael Satz doesn't prosecute corruption cases, that the worst that would happen was that his office would start an investigation and sit on it for two years before quietly deciding not to file any charges.

This is all true, and I've reported on this pattern numerous times. Satz is sitting on several such cases right now. In fact, his office famously investigated the construction department at the Broward County School Board during the mid-1990s. The grand jury probe cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and came up with reams of evidence of corruption — but Satz failed to prosecute any elected officials or high-ranking school board staffers.

Gallagher only stepped into a culture of corruption and, unfortunately, she was all too susceptible to it. Neil Sterling, Pirtle Construction, Zyscovich, Ira Cor, and Gallagher have profited from it.

Only the taxpayers have been stiffed.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman