Return to Sender

First it was a mysterious journal; now it's a trail of telling e-mails. Both strongly indicate that Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter has compromised her public office for her lobbyist/husband, Russ Klenet, choosing love and money over ethics.

When Ritter was elected to the commission last November, her husband claimed to have stopped lobbying for a company called URS Corp., which currently has an exorbitant and wasteful contract to oversee all construction at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

But e-mails I obtained last week from Ritter's county office reveal that the commissioner was feeding Klenet county information regarding URS. At the same time, she was serving as the commission's liaison to the airport and defending URS on the dais.

URS has made about $100 million as the airport's "program manager" during the past 12 years and was blasted last year in a county audit that found it couldn't justify its massive fees.

Ritter and Klenet's ties to the company even led to behind-the-scene conflicts with Interim Airport Director Robert Bielek, who supports firing URS.

On March 5, Ritter used her county e-mail account to forward a letter to Klenet that she and fellow commissioners had received from Spirit Airlines. In it, Spirit endorsed a call by the airport's Airline Affairs Committee to fire URS because the company's "inflated" costs were unnecessary and caused an undue burden on passengers' wallets.

After receiving the e-mail from his wife, Klenet referred to the airport director in his reply from his lobbying office e-mail.

"Bielick [sic] is pretty dastardly," he wrote.

"Or maybe he is on to something," Ritter sent back.

It's not known what, exactly, Ritter meant by her reply, since neither she nor her husband will comment on the matter. But her loyalty to URS was evident for all to see at the commission meeting the next day. She claimed that the figures being used by the airlines were faulty — a statement that itself is demonstrably false.

And Ritter said that because the money the county allocates to URS is "factored into the contract," it will "not actually increase the cost of doing business at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International."

Her misleading bureaucratic babble, which sounds as if it came directly from URS lobbyists, didn't impress the airport director, Bielek, who was unaware of the couple's e-mail banter regarding his "dastardly" disposition.

On March 10, four days after the meeting, the interim director e-mailed Assistant County Administrator Dick Brossard: "Ritter's comments regarding the cost of the [URS contract] are completely out of reality. They really fed her a load — hope she didn't buy any bottom land in the 'glades."

Last week, I told Bielek about the e-mails between Ritter and Klenet.

"The reason probably why he says I'm dastardly is that I've said we don't need a program manager" at the airport such as URS, Bielek said. "Don't need one now and don't need one in the future."

Despite the mounting evidence against the company, Ritter has stood by URS. Her e-mail records indicate she has also met with the company's Fort Lauderdale project manager, Todd McClendon, and its regional director, Laddie Irion.

And the records show that URS may have influenced her vote on the controversial south runway expansion at the airport. On April 30, Irion wrote Ritter, advising her to vote for the 8,000-foot south runway — which is bitterly opposed by south county residents and is expected to cost as much as $3 billion.

"It is obvious that this is a high priority for you and your staff and that you are interested in selecting the best alternative for the citizens of Broward County," he wrote after the two met in person.

No surprise that URS would support the expensive plan, since it expects to get a cut of the action. Ritter voted in June for Irion's favored option.

Over and over, Ritter betrayed a special interest in URS through her e-mails. For instance, a staffer sent her a consultant's report regarding URS county billing practices. She then e-mailed the attached report to an address she has at her husband's lobbying office.

And she kept her husband in the loop. On April 17, she sent Klenet an e-mail she had received from Pamela Brangaccio that included information on the search for a new airport director.

The e-mails received from the county also confirmed that Ritter e-mailed Klenet the letter from the Airline Affairs Committee that urged the commission to terminate the URS contract. I had already obtained that particular e-mail from a confidential source and wrote about it last month. I also received records at that time showing that Klenet promptly forwarded his wife's message to URS' project manager, Todd McClendon, which shows that the lobbyist/husband served as a conduit between his wife and the company's manager.

Klenet's e-mail to McClendon seems an odd move for someone who no longer works for the company. But if you believe what McClendon wrote in his own work journal, Klenet remained a member of the URS "posse" after his wife was elected.

That's what McClendon calls his team of influence peddlers, which also includes George Platt, Bernie Friedman, and Ron Book, all big names in the lobbying game.

I was leaked McClendon's journal after he apparently left it in commission chambers (see "Marital Law," July 26). In it are numerous references to apparent work being done by Klenet for URS after his wife's election, along with a handful of mentions of Ritter herself, including McClendon's notation "Russ=Stacy."

"Clearly, there are questionable relationships, and that means that Ritter should not be involved with or voting on anything airport-related," says Brenda Chalifour, an attorney and consultant for Dania Beach, who is fighting the new runway plan. "She is facilitating everything that URS is doing — the overbilling, everything — and it all boils down to the relationship her husband has with URS."

It's true that when it comes to the specter of corruption, the Ritter-Klenet-URS connection has it all: apparent violations of the public trust, a literal marriage between a politician and a lobbyist, a sold-out office, and millions in wasted airport dollars. I've written about lesser cases that have subsequently been splattered about the mainstream media and investigated by the State Attorney's Office.

In this case, people are talking plenty about Ritter, but nobody in power seems willing to actually do anything about it. It's as if everyone is walking past a car accident but nobody bothers to check on the victims. While those in power circles know it stinks — and will tell you so privately — none of them has the guts or integrity to stand up against it.

Of course, it's no secret that the County Commission is a corrupt little club — none of the elected officials wants to be seen snitching on another. The county administration, meanwhile, is scared silly to lose their jobs (though Bielek has shown fortitude). And State Attorney Michael Satz needs to be led by his nose to a case before he'll touch it, and even then, with few exceptions, he and his assistants are as docile and harmless as kittens.

Chalifour is calling for the commission to demand an investigation.

"They have a responsibility to the people of Broward County," she says. "They go after contractors who do wrong. This is no different. I don't care if the person is a colleague of yours — that's all the more reason you want to make sure everything is aboveboard."

But right now, it's silence. Even from Ritter.

One of the more recent airport-related e-mails I received from the county regarded the committee of commissioners and county staff that was planning to meet to discuss revamping the URS contract. On June 12, Ritter wrote an aide, "Can I get on this [committee] at this point?"

That committee met last week to discuss downgrading the number of employees URS keeps at the airport and the amount of money it gets from the public coffers. Though the right move is to fire the company, it's at least a step in the right direction.

Apparently, Ritter opted out of the committee. She was nowhere to be found during that bit of airport business — which is exactly where she belongs.

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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