Don't Drink the Water

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The administrator charged Fox with insubordination. At a September 10 predisciplinary hearing, Flaherty demanded that Fox be demoted and accept a 25 percent pay cut. The maintenance supervisor refused to accept the demotion and, while appealing it, continued working for the city.

But Fox knew his days were numbered, so he hired an employment attorney named Robert Slotkin and began to document the problems with the new membrane filtration plant, which was expected to begin operating on September 27 -- the date set for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Fox wasn't the only one scrutinizing Pompano's water department; so was the Florida Department of Health.

Regulators based in Jacksonville were eyeing Gerard Weber's lab. The director, whose formal education in chemistry is limited to a college minor, had failed two years in a row to properly test water for routine chemicals like fluoride and chloride. So the health department revoked the Pompano lab's state certification on September 12, forcing the city to contract with a commercial lab.

But the state still allowed the city to do its own chlorine testing in the field. That was Hoffman's job.

Fox led me to Hoffman. The two men are friends and neighbors. The city employed Hoffman in December 2000 as a service worker. The $25,000-a-year job was a way to make money while he trained to become an emergency medical technician.

Hoffman says it took only a few weeks working under Weber before he realized the lab director cut corners and often failed to follow state regulations. "Gerry Weber has no ethics -- he operates on the sole basis of keeping Bill Flaherty happy," Hoffman says. "And he knows that if the health department has to get involved, then Flaherty will get mad. So he denies all the problems and tries to cover them up."

It's not hard to alter the truth in the lab, Hoffman explains: "There is no data kept by machines, and there is nobody looking over the operation. It's just Gerry Weber writing down numbers on paper. It's a very shady operation."

Hoffman says that Weber routinely deceived the health department. If a water sample was found to have less-than-acceptable chlorine levels, Weber ordered Hoffman to discard it, flush a nearby hydrant, and then retest. "That made no sense to me -- are you going to tell the public that if you want a glass of water, turn on the tap and let it run for an hour before you drink it?" Hoffman asked. "Tests failed all the time, but according to what Weber sent to the state, everything was good to go. This wasn't [the state's] standard operating procedure."

He's right. The state requires the reporting of all water samples the city tests, regulator Mueller says.

Hoffman also alleges that Weber didn't follow Florida rules that dictate testing procedures when a sample comes up positive for bacteria. The city is required to retest not only where the failed sample was taken but also upstream and downstream. Hoffman said Weber expressly told him not to follow this procedure.

Weber also routinely failed to report positive bacteria tests, Hoffman says. "Five or six samples would fail, and he would only report two or three of them to keep the state off his back," Hoffman told me. "This happened every week. He called them 'false positives.'"

One veteran state-certified water plant employee confirms Hoffman's complaints. The employee says that Weber regularly fails to follow state guidelines and will do whatever it takes to make it look as if the water in Pompano meets regulations. "Weber constantly calls everything that goes wrong a 'false positive,'" claims the employee, who didn't want his name used for fear of losing his job. "And when Weber gets involved, all the problems magically disappear."

And that is precisely what happened on September 17, when Hoffman discovered the lack of chlorine in Palm Aire. A few days later, water plant superintendent Stephen Scully called Hoffman into his office and asked who discovered the chlorine problem. The service worker told the superintendent about the failed tests. Then Scully showed Hoffman the result sheet that Weber had completed for the Broward County Health Department. It showed that Hoffman had found high chlorine levels in Palm Aire.

"I didn't write those numbers," Hoffman told Scully. "I left them blank."

"Are you telling me that Gerry Weber falsified this report?" Scully asked him.

"Yes," Hoffman answered.

The only problem with the planned opening ceremony for the new plant was that, by September 27, nothing was ready to open.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman