Broward County School Board Member Stephanie Kraft's intervened with school staff on behalf of a developer help get it a $500,000 reduction in fees from the school district, according to school board records.
At the same time Kraft's husband, lawyer Mitch Kraft, was on the payroll of the developer, Prestige Homes, that received the half-million dollar favor. School board records indicate Kraft was paid by Prestige Homes' owner Bruce Chait for the purpose of helping to persuade the school board to reduce the fees.
And yes, this is all terribly illegal and the revelations couldn't come at a worst time for Kraft -- during what is looking to be largest corruption probe by the FBI in Broward County history.
Also involved in helping to get Prestige Homes the half-million discount was Superintendent James Notter and Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson, school board records indicate.
The story begins in 2007, when Prestige Homes owner Bruce Chait learned he had to pay the school board $1.7 million to mitigate the large and controversial housing developments he was building on two golf courses in Tamarac.
He hired Mitch Kraft to help him get those fees negotiated down. It's unclear exactly what Mitch Kraft -- who was also on the payroll of school board lobbist Neil Sterling -- did for his money or how much he was paid, but there are clues in public records I received from the school board today.
One thing that is clear is that the developer was in a hurry. Chait wanted the school board to vote on the reduction in fees during the July 24, 2007 school board meeting. The problem was that school board staff wasn't ready to sign off on the $500,000 reduction and the developer didn't meet the deadline to do it on that date.
That's when Stephanie Kraft, School Board Member, took action. She called the facilities department, asking them about the Prestige Homes school board agenda item to make sure it would be heard on July 24. On July 11, Kraft sent an email to facilities department receptionist Bette Ray about the
"What agenda item # will that item be that we spoke about yesterday regarding the development on the golf course?" Kraft wrote in the email.
That's called an application of pressure, folks. It was her attempt make sure that the facilities department put the item involving her husband's company on the agenda. And if you know anything about the school board, when a board member gets involved people listen.
Ray forwarded the email to the head of the facilities department, Thomas Coates, who wrote that he didn't even know what Kraft was talking about. Then he fired off an email to Chris Akagbosu, the director of growth management at the school board.
"Please find out for me what role Mrs. Kraft's husband has in this," Coates wrote. "Is he retained by the developer?"
Akagbosu wrote Coates back: "I understand that [Mitch Kraft] has called [School Board Attorney] Alan [Gabriel] several times on behalf of the developer regarding the project, but I cannot confirm if he's being paid for his efforts."
Mitch Kraft, we now know, was indeed being paid by Prestige Homes. And here we have confirmation that he was directly talking to school board officials to persuade them to give Prestige Homes a break on the mitigiation fees. Akagbosu continued;
"Mr. Garretson came by my office today and told [me] that Chuck has gone to Ms. Kraft and the Superintendent regarding this item. Thus, the direction was that it should be be scheduled for the July 24, 2007 Regular School Board meeting."
Get it? Garretson is personally ordering the director of growth management to put the Prestige Homes item on the agenda. "Chuck," by the way, is Chuck Fink, a consultant working for Prestige Homes. I called Fink and he said that while he knew that Mitch Kraft had been hired by Prestige Homes, he never spoke to Stephanie Kraft about the project.
That leads to the question: If Fink didn't talk to Stephanie Kraft about Prestige Homes, who did? Her husband?
Whatever the truth, Akagbosu was now faced with a deputy superintendent telling him to put something on the agenda at the behest of the superintendent and Stephanie Kraft. He apparently didn't like that and tried to change Garretson's mind, according to the email.
"I proceeded to tell [Garretson] about the problems we have been having ... and that we were following our process regarding the receipt date of request and have not even completed nor mailed our correspondence/report regarding the revised proposal back to [Prestige Homes]," Akagbosu explained in the email. "Also, that the cut off for submission of Items for the July 24, 2007 meeting had passed, and as such, the item would not be scheduled for APG and the Executive Leadership Team meeting."
Here Akagbosu is basically telling Garretson that putting the Prestige Homes item on the agenda was totally wrong and would break all kinds of rules. So what did Garretson say?
"Regardless, he directed that I should schedule the Item," Akagbosu wrote. "We've set other projects aside and are processing the Item for transmittal to Mr. Garretson tomorrow for review. Also, Mr. Garretson told Linda that he would provide her with the Agenda Item number."
Isn't that nice of Garretson? That's the definition of special treatment -- and it was fueled by a school board member whose husband was being paid by the developer getting the gift.
Sure enough, the school board voted on July 24, 2007 to give Prestige Homes a $500,000 break on the mitigation fees they owed.
I've seen a lot of things regarding corruption while covering South Florida, but this is as blatant a situation as I've seen.