Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti held a news conference yesterday to show off his department's newest and trendiest purchase: four tiny Smart cars that will zip around Fort Lauderdale International Airport and Port Everglades. TV stations and the Sun-Sentinel followed the announcement with stories about BSO's new "European minicars" that will save the department tons of money on gas prices.
Nobody asked why BSO would actually buy Smart cars. The two-person cars are more expensive than several other micro-cars, they're foreign-made, and the fuel savings is negligible.
One possible explanation: The cars will be great exposure for Smart dealers. And it just so happens that the Smart dealer that sold BSO the four cars was a major contributor to Lamberti's reelection campaign last year.
Rick Case Automotive Group and people connected to it gave the sheriff at least $10,500 in donations last year. Rick Case himself, his dealers, and his family members made at least 21 separate donations of $500 -- the maximum allowed -- to Lamberti's campaign in 2008.
BSO spokesman Mike Jachles declined to discuss the donations.
Case, reached today at his office, said the donations had nothing to do with the purchase of the Smart cars. He says that came about after he saw the sheriff at a recent fundraising event. Lamberti mentioned that he was in the market for small, cheap cars to patrol the port and airport.
"I said, 'You really ought to look at a Smart car,' " Case recalls telling Lamberti.
When I asked Case about whether the purchase of Smart cars was payback for the donations, he pointed out that he is a contributor to many Republican candidates. That's true -- state and federal records show he's made thousands in donations to the Republican Party and its candidates (click on the links to see them).
On April 27, BSO released this request for bids for an unspecified amount of Smart cars. (Jachles is looking into whether any other dealers submitted bids.)
By requesting bids only for the German-made Smart cars, the BSO bypassed several other options for small, American-made, fuel-efficient cars. Ford and General Motors offer several comprable minicars -- like the Chevy Aveo, which costs about $3,000 less than the Smart.
Rick Case Automotive Group, which has six dealerships in South Florida, doesn't sell Ford or GM cars.
Jachles said that any question about the donations would have to be referred to Lamberti's campaign staff. But Jachles pointed out that the Smart cars will be driven by civilian employees -- not deputies -- who work the port and airport, mostly doing traffic control, and that these employees need smaller cars that can park in tight spots. He said the Smart will also save BSO in gas costs because it uses one-sixth the amount of gas while idling compared to the department's standard ride, a Ford Crown Victoria.
But traffic enforcement employees don't need to park their cars -- they typically stop in nonparking areas that wouldn't require a car that can fit into a tight squeeze. Also, the Smart's idling costs are far greater than those of hybrids, which use no gas while idling.
In response to these issues, Jachles pointed out that the purchase was made from a Fort Lauderdale-based company. "The important thing here is, as the sheriff said yesterday, is that we're dealing with a family-owned, local business," he said. "It's important to support businesses locally."