Marital Law

When Stacy Ritter was elected to the Broward County Commission in November, her lobbyist-husband, Russ Klenet, promised to cut ties to companies that contract with the county in order to avoid legal and ethical conflicts.

But evidence — in the form of electronic mail and a possibly purloined notebook — surfaced last week indicating that Klenet has been secretly lobbying for URS Corp., the embattled company that oversees construction projects at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. At the same time, Ritter, a former state legislator and longtime political fixture in Broward, has served as the airport liaison to the commission and at times has advocated for URS on the dais.

The company needed all the help it could get. URS has been reeling from a county audit issued in June 2006 that found it has provided insufficient documentation to justify the money it has billed the county — a total of about $85 million from 1995 through 2005 alone.

URS, a San Francisco-based multi­national engineering firm, has withstood the controversy in part by engaging in an aggressive lobbying campaign. The company employs what it calls a "posse" of high-powered lobbyists — including Ron Book, George Platt, and Bernie Friedman — to make sure it keeps its lucrative contract, which is expected to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the future, thanks to a planned $3 billion airport expansion that includes a new runway.

Klenet wasn't supposed to be part of that posse. The lobbyist, who is notorious for persuading the county to buy controversial touch-screen voting machines, had served as a registered lobbyist for URS before his wife's election but supposedly ended that association when she won office.

But intriguing evidence has surfaced that shows Klenet, who now works for the Tallahassee-based lobbying firm Dutko, Poole & McKinley, has covertly maintained a working relationship with URS. And it comes from an unlikely place: a notebook that belonged to Todd McClendon, the URS project manager at the airport.

McClendon says the notebook, in which he detailed his work at the airport, disappeared a few months ago.

"I have a notebook that is missing," McClendon told me. "We have not labeled it as stolen, but I do not have it in my possession."

He later told me that he'd filed a theft report with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department.

Initially, I had copies of key pages from the notebook. On Monday afternoon I received the entire notebook, which had been anonymously delivered to the New Times office.

The notebook, which has 135 pages covering August to April of this year, contains several mentions of Klenet and Ritter. For instance, McClendon wrote on April 18 of this year that the URS "posse" was going to meet and lists the names of its members. "Russ" is at the top of the list, right over the names of "Ronnie," "Bernie," and "George."

This would seem to indicate that Klenet was working as a lobbyist for URS at the time, several months after Ritter's election to the commission.

McClendon was a bit circumspect about the matter. "I don't know if Russ is a registered lobbyist with URS at this time," he said. "I would have to seek that answer from corporate. If I wrote that, then I wrote it... If Russ was there, Russ was there."

McClendon later denied that Klenet had lobbied for URS in Broward since Ritter's election but said he did not know if Klenet had done work for the company outside the county in that time.

Pages from the notebook suggest Klenet had a role in lobbying the commission — and his wife — after Ritter's election.

In December, McClendon jotted down the names of county commissioners along with the URS lobbyists who were supposed to influence them. Across from "Ritter" are two names: "Russ" and "George."

McClendon also wrote several notations suggesting that Klenet was in charge of making pre-Christmas charitable donations and contributions. On one page, McClendon, misspelling Ritter's first name, simply wrote: "Staci = Russ." And, on the same page, dated December 20, he wrote, "Ritter heading up the airport change," apparently referring to her becoming the commission's liaison.

When I called Ritter's commission office for comment, she requested through her aide Priscilla Rogers that I put questions in writing. I did, but she didn't answer them and also failed to return numerous phone calls.

But many of Ritter's actions regarding the airport are a matter of public record. The commissioner, whatever her motive, has taken an active interest in the airport and has defended and protected URS not only on the dais but also in cyberspace.

An example of the latter came on the morning of March 5, after Ritter received what county officials often simply refer to as the "Delta letter." Delta Airlines' regional director, James Masoero, who serves as chairman of the airline industry's Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport committee, wrote commissioners about the URS contract, complaining that it adds "an additional layer of fees and charges that inflate" construction costs.

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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