Picture this scenario: officials lawyering up, high-ranking personnel angry about possible news leaks, people dodging the FBI, and the top man trying to assure everyone that his agency isn't full of crooks.
No, this isn't the Nixon White House; it's the Broward County School Board. With one School Board member, Beverly Gallagher, arrested last week and federal authorities continuing to investigate, the entrenched management at the School Board might be expected to clean up its act.
Instead, it's been thumbing its nose at the FBI and digging in deeper.
The School Board attorney, Ed Marko, wrote a memo last week reminding employees that they don't have to talk to the FBI and encouraging them to hire lawyers — on the taxpayers' dime, of course — if special agents request interviews.
The remaining elected School Board members have, for most part, taken that advice, holding counsel with attorneys while keeping their mouths shut before the public. Board member Stephanie Kraft, for instance, still hasn't answered questions regarding her husband's alleged financial relationship with School Board lobbyist Neil Sterling.
The School Board's leaders have, in short, behaved more like mobsters than public officials. And no wonder, since the culture of corruption at the district dates back decades. Remember that the inept State Attorney's Office ran a years-long grand jury to investigate School Board corruption during the 1990s, finding all kinds of dirt but failing to file any criminal charges.
One arrest now, no matter how scintillating, isn't going to break a machine that's been running this long and spent so much of our money (billions of dollars).
But this latest generation of School Board swine is far worse than any from the past. This gang has overbuilt the district with tens of thousands of empty seats, literally wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. It's the same group that ignored plummeting enrollment and failed to execute required state surveys, instead continuing to feed the lobbyists and contractors who bankroll School Board candidates' campaigns.
The federal case against School Board member Beverly Gallagher only hints at the corruption festering at the board. Charged with extortion, fraud, and bribery, Gallagher is accused of accepting $12,500 in bribe money from undercover agents in exchange for helping them obtain work on School Board construction.
At the heart of the complaint filed against Gallagher is an allegation she rigged a board committee to choose her favored contractor, James B. Pirtle Construction, for a $70 million renovation project at Hollywood Hills High School.
A look at the School Board documents from that committee indicate that Gallagher did a bang-up job, though she may have exaggerated her involvement in the committee to justify the bribe money supplied from undercover agents.
According to the complaint, Gallagher schemed to steer the Hollywood Hills project to Pirtle so that the company could then give subcontract work to a company represented by the FBI agents.
Gallagher, according to the complaint, told the FBI agents she could rig the Qualification Selection Committee (QSEC) that was made up of 11 representatives, including School Board members Jennifer Gottlieb and Ann Murray. When the QSEC met and voted last December 17, Pirtle lobbyists Neil Sterling and Barbara Miller sat in the audience.
The complaint doesn't indicate that Gallagher made any claims about rigging the School Board members' votes. She focused instead on two other members of the committee: Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson, who heads the construction department, and Hollywood Hills High Principal Harold "Chip" Osborn. Both chose Pirtle for the job, putting the company over the top.
Garretson gave Pirtle a score of 95 points out of a possible 100. He gave his second-ranked company 93 points. Osborn penciled in Pirtle with 83 points, with the next highest score going to the Weitz Co., which he gave only 72 points.
The other two members of the board that gave Pirtle first place were Gottlieb and Antoinette Setari, who was the designee for Deputy Superintendent Donnie Carter, who heads School Board operations.
The feds allege that Gallagher told them she spoke to both men and instructed them to vote for Pirtle. She said one reason Osborn would do what she wanted was that he mistakenly believed he owed her his job as Hollywood Hills principal.
For rigging the vote, undercover agents paid Gallagher $6,000 in cash, according to the complaint. The feds allege that Gallagher, in all, accepted $12,500 in bribes, some of which she stashed in her own doggy bag at a restaurant.
Osborn didn't respond to a request for an interview, but Garretson flatly says that Gallagher lied about him to the undercover agents so she could take credit for the Pirtle vote and get the bribe money. He says that Gallagher didn't affect his vote for Pirtle in any way and that he never prequalified the construction company represented by the undercover agents.
"She's lying," Garretson told New Times shortly after he was interviewed by an FBI agent in his office last Wednesday. "Obviously she took money from someone, and she made it sound like she did something with me, and it's a bold-faced lie. I'm a nasty little Irishman, and nobody tells me how to vote. It didn't happen. It's a goddamned lie."
He said he told FBI Special Agent Kevin Griffin the same thing when questioned last week. Also present during questioning was a Homeland Security agent, representing FEMA. "I told them I had no intention of taking flying lessons if that's what they were there for," Garretson quipped.
Although Garretson may very well be telling the truth, his flippant attitude may not do him or the School Board any good. Several sources have reported that, during a staff meeting after Gallagher's arrest, Garretson belittled the FBI's efforts, saying agents' post-arrest interviews indicated they didn't know what they were doing and that their sting operation on the board was poorly run.
It's clear that the School Board is taking a combative stance toward the FBI rather than using this historic moment as an opportunity to truly clean out corruption in its ranks. It was the day after Gallagher was arrested (along with County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion and former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman) that School Board Attorney Ed Marko issued a memo to Notter and employees reminding them that they are not required to speak with FBI agents. Marko added that if employees chose to proceed with FBI interviews, they were encouraged to hire lawyers at the School Board's expense.
The obfuscation indicates there is a lot more to School Board corruption than Gallagher, whose arrest should come as no surprise. She has maintained close ties to lobbyist Sterling, who represented Pirtle Construction at the time of the FBI investigation. In 2006, near the beginning of the federal probe, I reported that Sterling had helped Gallagher obtain a job at Community Blood Center, another of his clients.
Understand that the most powerful person at the School Board in recent years has been Sterling, who, along with partner Barbara Miller, funds and runs several School Board members' campaigns and represents numerous large clients, including Pirtle and architect Bernard Zyscovich. Sterling knows his way around the board; he used to be a School Board member himself, after all.
When I interviewed Gallagher in 2006 to ask about the blood center job, she began crying. She said she would quit the job, a promise she didn't keep. After her remarks were published, she issued a denial to the Miami Herald and claimed to have been confused by my interview.
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Gallagher's arrest coincides with new, unsubstantiated allegations that Sterling gave School Board Member Stephanie Kraft's lawyer husband, Mitch Kraft, work with the firm SRG Technology. The owner of SRG is none other than Neil Sterling.
There's no proof that Mitch Kraft took any money from SRG, but neither he nor his wife will answer questions about the allegations. Instead, they have followed the School Board's recent theme by shutting up.
Let's hope the FBI gets to the bottom of that, no matter what the truth. If the Krafts have no financial connection to Sterling, we should know that just as well as if they do.
The truth about a lot of things may not be far away. The feds are now digging up more information on lobbyist Sterling, which is crucial should any lasting change come from the FBI's foray into Broward political circles. It's great that corrupt elected officials have been charged with crimes, but until the real puppet masters — i.e., the lobbyists and contractors — pay a price, the same old shenanigans will continue, only with a new set of faces on the public dais.