Crist Is King

The king of the North Broward Hospital District fell without a whimper.

Bill Scherer was unceremoniously ousted last month as general counsel for the district, which has a billion-dollar budget and is the largest public health care system in the state. From his powerful perch, Scherer controlled not only $5 million each year in legal work, but also the most powerful political machine in the county.

At the district, which was subsidized by $200 million in property taxes last year, Scherer was both king and kingmaker, able to raise tens of thousands of dollars from NBHD contractors and physicians for the political candidates he favored. And he favored nobody more than the brothers Bush, Jeb and George W., for whom he raised roughly a half-million dollars during the past decade.

You'd think that kind of fundraising juice would have given him some measure of job security, especially since the seven-member district board is appointed by the governor, Jeb Bush. But in a move that came as swiftly as a falling guillotine blade, a newly minted board voted on August 24 to end Scherer's 18-year reign and hire an in-house lawyer.

The question still reverberates among the political crowd: Why?

One of Scherer's executioners, recent Bush appointee Rebecca Stoll, says the move was simply the fiscally responsible thing to do. She pointed out that other major public health care systems, including the better-managed South Broward Hospital District, used in-house counsel. "We're just doing what is best for the taxpayers of Broward County," Stoll declares.

Yeah, right. Nothing is ever that simple at the district, where politics and money mingle like biscuits and gravy. Not to single out Stoll, who may be a wonderful steward of public money, but any time you hear a district leader talking about what's "best for taxpayers," check your wallet. While Scherer has been publicly magnanimous about being dumped, several sources say he's privately complaining that he was the victim of what amounts to a political coup d'état. Behind the overthrow? None other than Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist, a Republican candidate set to replace Jeb Bush in the 2006 governor's race.

It was Crist's supporters on the board who voted to send the lawyer packing. Their motive: Scherer is the county's No. 1 supporter of state Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, Crist's opponent in the Republican primary.

That's Scherer's beef, I'm told.

Shane Strum, chairman of the Republican Party of Broward County, has caught wind of the same thing. "I've heard that he's been saying that, but I think it's a little conspiracy theorist and I don't think there's any truth in it," he says.

Yeah, right. What Strum overlooks is the evidence. Look at the vote, which was 4-3 in favor of axing the attorney. Making the motion was newcomer Robert Bernstein. You may know him from the ten-story building he owns on the west side of Interstate 95. It's the one with the ten-foot-high letters along the top floor urging millions of freeway drivers to vote for both Bushes and join the GOP.

Shortly after Bush appointed him to the district board last month, he put new letters on the building. They now spell out, "Charlie Crist For Governor." Another yes vote came from first timer Maureen Jaeger. She not only supports Crist but calls him "boss." She serves as the office manager for the Attorney General's office in Broward County. Another vote came from hard-core Crist backer Paul Sallarulo, a holdover from the old board.

And finally there's Stoll, who refuses to state her allegiance, saying it has nothing to do with her duties at the district. I'm betting she's on the Crist trolley.

In addition to those four, board member Gul Cumber initially voted against the lawyer, but changed her vote at the last second, after it became clear her approval wasn't needed. It's no mystery where Cumber stands in the governor's race -- her family has contributed $2,000 to Crist over the years and her son, Husein, a major GOP fundraiser, is married to the Attorney General's finance director, Meredith O'Rourke.

Recent appointee Dan Gordon, an insurance man, voted against leaving Scherer in the dust. He's a Gallagher supporter, incidentally, but says that had nothing to do with his vote. Gordon says the motion took him completely by surprise. "There was no discussion about it," he says.

You get the picture. A cabal of Crist supporters decapitated the Gallagher-supporting head of NBHD's political ATM. It's a beautiful stroke of realpolitik, really, and it couldn't have been done without Jeb, who loaded the board with the Cristians in the first place.

But nobody's admitting that politics had anything to do with it. The ostensible reason for the governor's overhaul of the board was to clean out district corruption. New Times (OK, it was me) investigated the district last year and found cronyism, mismanagement, conflicts-of-interest, and rampant waste. "I was told to keep my eyes and ears open and stay out of the paper," Gordon says. "The governor wanted to put new people in and see if we can't put a better face on there."

Scherer just happened to be implicated in most of the reported shenanigans, so it might follow that his ouster was part of that better face. And believe me, I'd love to claim credit for it. Scherer, who never met an interest he couldn't conflict, should be barred by law from being within 500 feet of a pot of tax money. Just this week, he showed his blurring of private/public lines by hiring outgoing Broward County administrator Roger Desjarlais as a "rainmaker" for his development business. But I think the corruption findings, at best, simply opened the door for Jaeger, et al., to make their move against the man who dared to cross Crist.

And you can bet that, had Bush not given some sort of tacit approval, Scherer wouldn't be looking for new work. The district is the governor's chief fiefdom in South Florida, and he keeps a close eye on it. Although Bush hasn't endorsed either of the Republicans as his heir apparent, the backstage dealing at the district seems to indicate he prefers Crist.

Al Martinez, Gallagher's spokesman in Tallahassee, says that's nonsense. "The governor has stayed neutral," he retorts.

Yeah, right. But the idea that Bush likes Crist better than Gallagher is no revelation among serious political observers. They know the governor has never been smitten with the latter fellow. It's been a chilly relationship between the two beginning back in 1994 when they ran a sometimes bitter race against one another for governor (Bush beat Gallagher in the primary only to be defeated by the late Lawton Chiles). In 2002, Bush showed that he still didn't care for Gallagher when he leaned on him to exit the U.S. Senate race so that Bill McCollum could win the nomination (and ultimately get whipped by Democrat Bill Nelson).

Old grudges apparently die hard and, intentionally or not, Bush snuffed out Gallagher's best hope in gaining some ground in Broward County when he filled the NBHD board with Crist supporters. And the Attorney General's capture of the district is a great boon for him in what looks to be an extremely close primary vote (the most recent polls show them statistically even).

Party chairman Strum wonders if the move points to a new era at the district.

"Do they back Crist now? Or do they stay on the sidelines?" Strum asks rhetorically. "I don't know. Maybe they stay on the sideline because there is nobody pushing them to contribute anymore."

Imagine that -- a public health system ruled by people who cares less about politics than medical care. And it just might happen now, with Scherer out of the picture and a new board on the dais.

Yeah, right.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman