Florida Alliance for Patronage

With blinds drawn because she's recovering from cataract surgery, Doris Altier sits in her Hallandale condo on the Intracoastal and recalls her career as a jazz singer and bass player. During the '50s, she worked the East Coast nightclub circuit, dating bandleaders and movie stars along the way. Her walls are covered with posters of international jazz festivals she's attended. But this jazz lover has spent much of her time over the past two decades on a very different and much less rewarding passion.

In the late '80s, Altier began a civic crusade to kill what she considered a boondoggle at Port Everglades -- the port's perennial funding of an obscure organization called the Florida Alliance. In 1992 she got herself appointed to the port commission, at least partly to fulfill this goal. During her two years of work as a commissioner and as a citizen activist after that, she argued, testified, and wrote columns and letters urging an end to the then-$300,000 per year subsidy. But county officials have ignored her impassioned pleas. Now Altier is giving in and giving up the fight. "It bugs me because it's such a waste of taxpayers' money," her voice going falsetto with exasperation. "But you can do just so much."

Jean Fitzgerald, chairman of the Florida Alliance, stiffens when asked about Altier's criticism of his group. "We tell our story straightforwardly," says the courtly, silver-haired retired U.S. Navy captain. "Yet somehow we always end up sounding like villainous do-nothings."

That negative image hasn't stopped tax dollars from flowing copiously his way. Fitzgerald and Hans Hvide, founder of Hvide Marine, Inc., started the Alliance in 1983 for the sole purpose of blocking any petroleum pipelines to southeast Florida. If a pipeline were built, there would be less need to ship petroleum from the Gulf to Port Everglades aboard Hvide's tankers, and less demand for Hvide's tugboats to guide the tankers into port. Hvide and Fitzgerald persuaded the port commission to fund the Alliance to protect the port's overall petroleum business, which at the time accounted for 90 percent of its income and still comprises 23 percent of revenues. Port Everglades remains the entry point for all gasoline and jet fuel in southeast Florida. There is none brought in by pipeline.

The Alliance scored its one big victory over pipeline interests in 1986 when Fitzgerald was in the conflict-laden position of being both paid president of the group and a member of the port commission. Largely as a result of Alliance efforts, Transgulf Pipeline dropped its plan to run gasoline through a converted natural gas pipeline from Tallahassee to Port Everglades. Since then, however, no one else has proposed building, or converting, a liquid petroleum pipeline to this area. "There is absolutely no plan that I'm aware of," says Anne Longman, a Tallahassee attorney who represents major pipeline companies.

Yet the Alliance continued to receive funding every year from the port commission until its abolition in 1994 and has since been funded by the Broward County Commission. The allocation this year is $250,000, a big chunk of the group's $565,200 budget. The rest comes from Hvide Marine and five other port business and labor groups. Total public funding for the Alliance since 1983 has topped two million dollars.

With no local pipeline "threat" looming, the Alliance has launched a broad preemptive attack on the pipeline industry. Its stated rationale is to protect the environment, particularly the Everglades, from supposedly spill-prone pipelines. Altier says the true reason is to justify the Alliance's continued existence and protect Hvide Marine's business interests throughout Florida. A Hvide spokesman says his company does not lobby for Alliance funding, but that the Alliance does represent Hvide's interests.

In its efforts to branch out, the Alliance created and funded the Tallahassee-based Friends of the Aquifer, which sued in Leon County to force the state to take over responsibility for enforcing federal pipeline safety regulations. Friends' president Robert Rackleff, a speechwriter who was just elected to a Leon County Commission seat, receives about $40,000 a year from the Alliance for "engineering and technical support," Fitzgerald says. Friends' lawyer, Raymond Vickers, received $287,629 from the Alliance in the first nine months of last year, according to the Alliance's audited financial statement. He also happens to be a Hvide Marine board member.

The Alliance also bankrolled a group of property owners in Osceola County, south of Orlando, who sued to block Chicago-based GATX Corp. from building its third petroleum pipeline from Tampa to Orlando. Vickers is representing the property owners, too. In its most ambitious move, the Alliance last year helped organize and fund the National Pipeline Reform Coalition, which seeks "more effective" federal regulation of pipelines. The ubiquitous Rackleff is president. Fitzgerald is secretary and treasurer.

Longman concedes that the Alliance has given pipeline companies fits. But she scoffs at the notion that anyone could get a government permit currently to run a petroleum pipeline across the politically sacrosanct Everglades. She also questions the appropriateness of county funding for one company's lobbying efforts against its competitors. "Broward County has to protect its investment in the port," she says. "But the Alliance people have gone pretty far afield. They're making a good living as professional pipeline opponents, with county money."

Fitzgerald dodges the question of whether there is any immediate prospect of a pipeline being built to southeast Florida. Instead he stresses what a lucrative market this would be for pipeline companies. "It's like a delicious cherry on a tree," he says. "You can't prove it, but it's inconceivable that they don't have plans." Spending $250,000 on the Alliance to protect the port's ten million dollars in annual fees for domestic petroleum handling, he argues, is a smart investment for the county.

Many people disagree. Numerous columns and editorials going back to 1986 have assailed the subsidy and exposed dubious ways the Alliance has spent its money. Former county manager Jack Osterholt tried for years to cut off Alliance funding. Until an unexplained change of heart two years ago, port director James O'Brien refused to support funding (he failed to return phone calls for comment). Despite this, the Alliance's gravy train has never been in serious jeopardy and doesn't appear to be now.

One major reason is Hvide Marine, a $400 million company with statewide political clout. Hans Hvide and his son Erik, Hvide Marine's CEO, sit on the Alliance's board of directors. Hvide Marine receives $3000 a month for rent and office support from the Alliance, which is housed at Hvide's headquarters. Fitzgerald, who is paid $96,000 a year as the Alliance's half-time chairman, also serves on Hvide's board and is employed as a Hvide consultant. The Hvides, Fitzgerald, and organizations, lawyers, and lobbyists associated with Hvide Marine and the Alliance gave at least $14,000 to current members of the Broward County Commission for their last election campaigns, according to county records. Fitzgerald's wife Carol is the long-time secretary of commissioner Scott Cowan. "It's like a big family," Altier says. "No one's going to vote to take away a family member's income."

Commissioner John Rodstrom has always supported funding for the Alliance and says he sees no reason to change his vote now. "Every year pipelines get closer and closer to our port," he says, without identifying any pipeline closer than Naples. "Inevitably there will be a pipeline here. Our job is to slow it down."

Cowan compares funding the group to buying insurance, though he seemed surprised to hear about the Alliance's far-flung litigation. "Do I think my house will burn down? No. But that doesn't stop me from buying fire insurance." Asked whether the fact that his secretary is Fitzgerald's wife has anything to do with his position, Cowan snaps, "If you knew either of them, you'd know how stupid that question is."

Simply questioning the Alliance's environmental claims invites attack. Rod Tirrell, Everglades co-chair for the Florida Sierra Club, testified against the subsidy at the county budget hearings last year. He noted the Sierra Club's position that state-of-the-art pipeline transport of petroleum can be safer than tanker transport. Rackleff vehemently protested Tirrell's testimony to state Sierra Club leaders. "I don't think I'll lobby it this year," Tirrell now says warily. "I didn't realize how well-entrenched Fitzgerald and his people are."

Fitzgerald says he's optimistic that the county will fund his group again this year. For the first time in a decade, Altier won't be at the county budget hearings to oppose him. She says she's tired of resisting the inevitable and wants to focus on her other Sisyphean cause -- enacting gun control.

"I hate to let them just glide away so easily with our tax money," she says of Fitzgerald and his cronies. "But no one is ever going to stop them."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Harris Meyer