Ooh, That Smell | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Ooh, That Smell

Hand it to Hollywood City Hall -- even when the commission is dealing with raw sewage, it still reeks more than anything else in town.

A deal to treat the city's raw sewage is fraught with millions of wasted dollars, conflicts of interest, and very likely illegal conduct on the part of Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, who, along with Mayor Mara Giulianti's son, stands to personally profit from the entire stinking mess.

It wasn't supposed to turn out that way. Ostensibly, it all began as a benign plan to treat sludge at the Hollywood Lakes' wastewater plant before it was hauled halfway across the state to Arcadia. To find the right company, the city accepted bids and formed a committee of six public-sanitation experts to evaluate them. That committee, which included four Hollywood officials, eventually chose Punta Gorda-based Florida-N-Viro, a reputable company that offered to do the job for $12.7 million.

The second-ranked firm, Minneapolis-based Schwing Bioset Technologies, put the price at almost $15 million more. Worse, it couldn't explain why it was so expensive, says former Dania Beach utilities director Mike Sheridan, a committee member. Florida-N-Viro, on the other hand, "looked to be very strong," he offers. "They had good backing, their financials were in order, and their initial price was good."

But the committee's work was hijacked. When the contract came up for a vote before the Hollywood commission on March 17, Giulianti and Wasserstrom pushed hard for the losing firm, which won the day. Both, however, recused themselves from voting because Wasserstrom had a "relationship" with Schwing Bioset that involved his uncle. Giulianti bowed out because her son, Stacey Giulianti, is Wasserstrom's law partner. The mayor assured her city on the dais, however, that no money was involved.

The meeting was an obvious sham. Something smelled, so I called Wasserstrom to find out what it was.

The commissioner told me that he had fallen in "love" with Schwing Bioset more than a year ago, before any bids were even accepted. He said a friend introduced him to Larry Wakinyan, a Native American who runs a buffalo meat company on a reservation in Oregon. What does Oregon buffalo meat have to do with Hollywood sewage? Well, Wakinyan runs a company that partners with Schwing Bioset called Bionative Technologies. Bionative's role in the Hollywood deal was to secure an agreement with the Seminole Tribe, which owns thousands of acres in the Everglades, to receive all the treated sewage for fertilizer.

Wakinyan sold Wasserstrom on the Schwing Bioset process. "I said that [Schwing Bioset] should come to Hollywood because it's a great product," he gushed.

The commissioner told me he so adored the company that he got his 62-year-old uncle, Arnold Goldman, a sales job at Schwing Bioset. Wasserstrom also agreed to represent the company before other governments -- including his own. In February 2003, he brought Wakinyan and Schwing Bioset executive Ed Voss to Hollywood City Hall for a meeting with Whit Van Cott, the city's utilities director. "I introduced these guys to Whit and... truly, Whit fell in love with the process just as I did," Wasserstrom said.

Wasserstrom said he also contacted the City of Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade County on behalf of Schwing Bioset and that Stacey Giulianti had assisted with the work for the firm.

How much has the law firm been paid?

"Zero, zero, no money," Wasserstrom responded. "But I honestly intend to make money down the line if it's successful and if they need a lawyer in other jurisdictions. But to date, I've spent a lot of time and effort because I think it's a great thing for the city."

After more questioning, he admitted that he's actually billing his Uncle Arnold for the Schwing Bioset work. "I have been employed by my uncle to help him negotiate his contract with Bioset and have helped him with introductions in other municipalities," Wasserstrom concedes. His uncle "pays hourly attorney's fees to my firm... But he hasn't paid us yet."

Why hasn't his uncle paid the firm?

"Because Bioset hasn't paid him yet."

So Wasserstrom simply uses his uncle as the middleman in his financial arrangement with Schwing Bioset. And that is why the mayor also has a conflict of interest, Wasserstrom says. "Her son is involved," the commissioner admitted. "The problem is that anything that inures to my benefit also inures to his benefit. So, since they are family, she has the same conflict."

In addition to Wasserstrom and Giulianti, Van Cott has been a vociferous advocate of Schwing Bioset. During the past year, he has consistently tried to undercut the committee's decisions. After a preliminary vote last spring ranked N-Viro first and Schwing Bioset dead last among four competing firms, Van Cott urged the city in a June memo to drop the process and negotiate with the losing bidder.

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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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