Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter and Sheriff Al Lamberti Face Campaign Finance Investigations

Broward County's Sheriff Al Lamberti and Mayor Stacy Ritter have been waging a high-profile public fight over who wastes the most taxpayer money. Maybe both should be paying more attention to their own campaign finances, though.

Lamberti and Ritter, it turns out, are being investigated by the state for how they raised and spent their campaign cash during the last election.

The Florida Elections Commission has found what it calls "legal sufficiency" to investigate Lamberti and Ritter for alleged violations of election law, according to records I obtained.

The allegations indicate that neither Lamberti nor Ritter are all that good at keeping track of money. Some of the allegations, if true, could lead to criminal investigations.

We'll start with the Lamberti case, because it's relatively simple, whereas Ritter's alleged campaign violations are greater in number and have more serious implications.

Remember the patrol car that hung from a tall crane off Interstate 95 during the sheriff's race? It amounted to an eye-catching endorsement for Lamberti in his race against Scott Israel last November.

On the side of the car were the words "Keep Al Lamberti Our Sheriff." Under it was the disclaimer, "Political advertisement paid for and approved by Al Lamberti, Republican for Sheriff."

It would seem to have been one expensive campaign ad. A crane of that size rents for about $1,000 a day. Since the car was up for at least two weeks, that comes out to about $14,000.

According to a complaint filed by an unknown citizen with the Elections Commission, the problem is that Lamberti's campaign didn't pay for the crane, the car, or the land on which it sat.

Instead, it was provided by Advanced Roofing, a prominent Fort Lauderdale company that has done millions in business for local governments. Owner Rob Kornahrens says the hanging car was basically his idea.

"I met Al Lamberti a couple of times, and I told him, 'I'm over by I-95, and if you want to do something as an advertisement, we can do it,' " Kornahrens told me. "It's my own private crane. It was a private crane on private property that wasn't going to be used. It's no different than a sign on a building."

Kornahrens, who has already submitted an affidavit to the Elections Commission, said that he didn't buy the car but that it was supplied to him by a "private person" with the help of the campaign.

The complaint against Lamberti alleges that the giant advertisement amounted to an in-kind contribution for the sheriff that was worth thousands of dollars. But it wasn't recorded that way, and it seems to have violated the state's contribution limit, which caps donations at $500 before and after the primary. In addition to the weighty I-95 advertisement, Kornahrens also gave a total of $1,000 to Lamberti's campaign, with two $500 checks, one from him personally and one from his company.

Although it seems that Lamberti received a dubious windfall from a campaign contributor, the Elections Commission will have to determine if laws were broken. We may not know the result of the investigation for several months.

The kicker is that Florida law also criminalizes the acceptance of contributions beyond the legal limit of $500. "Knowingly and willfully" accepting illegal contributions is a third-degree felony.

The complaint against Mayor Ritter includes similar allegations — and much, much more.

It also raises serious questions about unreported contributions — nearly $40,000 in missing money. There are questionable payments made from the campaign to her lobbyist husband, Russell Klenet, as well.

In a complaint filed with the Elections Commission last month, Dania Beach lawyer Brenda Chalifour accuses Ritter of accepting contributions in excess of the $500 limit from two sources — well-known lobbyist Neil Sterling and a private firm called Florida Transportation Services Inc.

Chalifour also found that in 2006, Ritter received contributions in excess of $500 each from big-name lobbyists Ron Book and George Platt. That's beyond the statute of limitations for the Elections Commission but could still possibly be investigated criminally by the State Attorney's Office or a law enforcement agency.

But that's just the boring stuff. More interestingly, Chalifour found that Ritter had returned a portion of at least 11 contributions at the campaign's end for which there is no corresponding contribution. Ten of the donations were made by entities controlled by Amera Corp., a Coral Springs developer that leases space to the county. The Elections Commission is investigating why those original contributions weren't recorded.

The complaint also alleges that while Ritter's campaign raised $206,755, it spent only $168,845.32, leaving $37,909.68 unaccounted for. Again, the commission, according to its notice letter sent to Ritter, is now investigating the discrepancy and trying to determine if Ritter had a secret secondary campaign account.

It's not just the money coming in that the commission is looking into but how that money was spent. For instance, the campaign paid Ritter's husband, Klenet, a total of $14,787.72. Although Ritter lists herself as her own campaign treasurer on county forms, sources say Klenet manages Ritter's campaign money. Ritter also received more than $5,000 in expenditures herself.

In her complaint, Chalifour addressed these payments: "While we know it is entirely possible that the candidate and her husband could have expenses that require reimbursements, since the report only lists 'fully receipted reimbursement expense,' one has to wonder what the purpose was for the expenditures."

Also singled out was nearly $10,000 that the Ritter campaign spent on "research."

"As it was pretty clear to everyone that Stacy would not draw opposition for her re-election campaign, one has to wonder what type of 'research' was being done for the purpose of influencing an election that did not need to be influenced," the lawyer wrote in the complaint to the state.

Chalifour has a personal interest in the research angle, as she suspects some of the campaign money was spent investigating her. The elections complaint, in fact, is just the latest volley in a bitter dispute between the two women.

Chalifour, you see, is one of the staunchest opponents of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport expansion and serves as a consultant to the City of Dania Beach on the issue. Ritter is a strong proponent of expansion, and her husband has worked as a lobbyist for one of the airport's managers, URS Corp.

The City of Dania Beach bitterly opposes airport expansion because it will push Dania residents out of their homes and increase noise pollution. The city terminated Klenet's lobbying contract in 2007. He was, after all, working for the other side on the town's most important issue.

About that time, Ritter began to investigate Chalifour. Democratic political activist Robin Rorapaugh made a public-records request on behalf of Ritter to Dania Beach asking for records on Chalifour's work for the city. Rorapaugh's political consulting firm, incidentally, received $7,000 of the research money spent by Ritter's campaign.

Ritter finally revealed at a May 5 commission meeting that she had investigated Chalifour. During the meeting, Ritter brought out a black binder containing city records on the lawyer. The mayor accused Chalifour of lobbying against airport expansion for Dania Beach without registering with the county. Chalifour maintains that she is a consultant for the city, not a lobbyist. During the ensuing argument at the public meeting, Ritter shut off Chalifour's microphone.

Chalifour hasn't minced words about her goal: She says she believes Ritter is a corrupt politician and should be wearing prison pinstripes.

The Elections Commission obviously listened to her. On June 5, Executive Director Simone Marstiller sent a letter to the mayor informing her that she was under investigation on Chalifour's allegations, including whether Ritter had a second campaign account, turned in faulty election records, and received illegal contributions.

If the commission determines that even half of what Chalifour uncovered is true, the mayor may be in serious trouble. The Elections Commission has the power only to fine elected officials, but if it finds evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it can forward that information to law enforcement. That's essentially what happened to the last Broward commissioner found guilty of a crime, Scott Cowan. He was convicted in 2000 after the Elections Commission forwarded its case to the State Attorney's Office.

Although the mayor and sheriff declined interview requests on the investigations of their campaigns, expect more grandstanding from both Ritter and Lamberti as the budget dispute grows. It's what both officials seem to do best these days.

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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