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Former School Board Construction Chief Talked of "Machine"

When we stop to remember Michael Garretson, we should never forget that the late School Board construction chief led the spending of a billion dollars a year in what was one of the largest and most damaging school building booms in Broward County history.

For those who wanted accountability out of the School Board, Garretson, who left the board at the end of last year and died in June, was a big part of the machine that churned out contracts that led to overbuilding that has left the board with a $2 billion debt and a projected 35,000 empty schoolhouse seats. 

The board members want to pretend that they lead the board. Wrong. It's the lobbyists and construction companies that fund their campaigns that drive the machine. One School Board member is in federal prison and another is up on corruption charges because of that culture. 

When questioned just weeks before his death by prosecutors who were investigating Stephanie Kraft's behind-the-scenes bidding for dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, Garretson was surprisingly frank when he spoke about that culture. He talked of how construction companies and lobbyists used School Board members as go-betweens to put pressure on him, mentioning two by name.

Garretson said that as the economy collapsed and School Board construction money began to dry up, the big contractors began to get desperate for public dollars. He said that top school builder James Pirtle, who has built hundreds of millions of dollars worth of schools, complained specifically about the board being late in paying him $165,000 for remodeling School Board attorney Ed Marko's office. 

That remodeling project alone indicates how wasteful and irresponsible the board was during the boom years. Maybe that's one reason Marko wanted to stay around so badly before he finally announced his resignation under pressure earlier this month.

"The fact that Old Man Pirtle -- and I mean that with a great deal of affection; he's a gentleman -- the fact that he did a job to redo Ed Marko's office over in the School Board for $165,000 and that he called complaining about he needed the money," Garretson said. "This is a man who used to carry balances with us of five, six, ten million dollars, and times just got really tough for them."

Inside, see which School Board members Garretson singled out as applying pressure on him on behalf of construction companies and how contractors reacted as the taxpayers' money dried up.

Garretson specifically made reference to longtime Board member Bob Parks, who left office last month, speaking on behalf of construction company owner and major school builder James A. Cummings.  

"I mean, you look at the records, you know the primary source of income for these people running these elections were the construction companies. I mean, you know, in every instance," Garretson testified. "So if things were slow or whatever, somebody would say something to [the board members]. But then you'd get, you know, Bob Parks, for example, would just laugh it off and say, 'Hey I hear you're really giving the aggravation to Cummings.' They all talked to the board members, you know; they'd go to these fundraisers."

He also talked of former School Board member Eleanor Sobel, who is now a state senator, complaining behind the scenes for architect ACAI Associates, a campaign contributor.

"Mrs. Sobel, when she was there, one of the architects, ACAI Associates, was constantly complaining about how slow we were processing contracts and stuff like that," he testified. "And she'd mention it to me."

When describing the lack of money to keep the construction going for the companies that financed the School Board campaigns, Garretson even used the magic word: machine.

"It became unbearable when there was so little work to do," he said. "I used to tell the contractors, I said, 'We can't feed the construction machine that used to be Broward County. The School Board just can't do it. We just don't have enough projects, we don't have enough money, we just can't do it.' And they were all pretty desperate for any small amount of work that could be put out."

When the conversation veered back to Kraft and her corrupt efforts on behalf of dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, Garretson said that even considering other requests from board members, hers was "unusual." 

"I said [to Kraft], 'This isn't even your district, number one, and number two, you've never expressed any interest in growth management whatsoever," Garretson told prosecutors. "[Kraft] actually sat there in a workshop one time where we were trying to understand the concurrency rules and stuff like that, and she was typing away [on her laptop]. And Bob Parks was joking with her, saying, 'Stephanie, why aren't you listening to this?' She said, 'I have no interest in these issues whatsoever.'"

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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

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