It's official: The Krafts -- Broward School Board member Stephanie and her lawyer husband, Mitch -- have been cashing in big-time on her elected office.
And they picked a terrible time to do it -- right when federal investigators are zeroing in on the School Board. I will be surprised if they don't get charged with crimes.
First we learned that Mitch was put on the payroll of Neil Sterling, who is the biggest School Board lobbyist in Broward and whose clients Stephanie voted on again and again. Last year, she helped make sure that Sterling's client Vista won a $1.7 billion award to provide health insurance to all the district's employees.
Today, it was confirmed that Mitch was hired by controversial developer Prestige Homes to help negotiate the firm's mitigation deal with the very same School Board on which his wife, Stephanie, sits. When I contacted Thomas J. Coates, the School Board's executive director of facilities management, today on the phone, he confirmed that he had been informed by Prestige Homes owner Bruce Chait that he had hired Mitch Kraft to
work for his firm on the School Board issue.
In 2007, Prestige received a $500,000 break on the mitigation fees it had to pay the School Board for housing developments it plans to build on golf courses -- Monterrey and Sabal Palms -- in Tamarac.
This is an example of the worst kind of influence peddling -- and the influence being sold is obviously the power of Kraft's School Board seat. I asked Coates if it was especially difficult to negotiate with a developer when a School Board's spouse was working on the other side of the table. "You could say that, yes," he said.
Of course it is. And that's one reason why state and federal law makes little distinction between the politician and his or her spouse when it comes to graft: It's all going to the same household.
I established the unlawfulness of these kinds of relationships in a weekend post on the outrageous relationship between Kraft and lobbyist Sterling. I left a message on Kraft's cell phone today asking her to explain how this work arrangement isn't a conflict of interest and "illegal in the State of Florida and the United States of America." I will report here if she responds.
Compounding the sleaziness of Kraft's Prestige Homes connection is the fact that the developer is alleged to have bribed former Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion with a golf club membership in exchange for his support for the two projects. Eggelletion was charged last month in a federal corruption sweep that also netted School Board Member Beverly Gallagher. No charges have been filed in the golf membership case, though sources say it is still under active investigation. (Former Tamarac Mayor Joe Schreiber also alleges that Chait tried to bribe him.)
Although it's a bit surprising just how abjectly corrupt Kraft has proven to be, she's clearly favored special interests over taxpayers for many years. She was first elected over Don Samuels in 1998 promising reform and clean accountable government, but it didn't take long before it was obvious that she was more interested in protecting her political benefactors than the taxpayers.
The first real clue came in 2000, when she lashed out at a School Board audit that found the district had paid way too much money for a parcel of land purchased from developer Ron Bergeron. Kraft complained that Chief Auditor Pat Reilly's criticism of the Bergeron deal was "misleading and, frankly, borders on the fraudulent."
So why was Kraft defending Bergeron's profit so strongly? Well, it might have been because Bergeron was a huge supporter of Kraft who contributed money to her campaign and helped provide her a base of support. Bergeron had reason to back Kraft. Her campaign opponent, Don Samuels, had voted against buying the land for the bus depot (which, by the way, has turned into a huge boondoggle).
Another reason was that Bergeron's lawyer/lobbyist/girlfriend, Ali Waldman, helped run Kraft's campaign and served as her campaign treasurer.
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Kraft's defense of the bad land deal led one volunteer for her campaign to question whether Kraft was corrupt. "We elected her because we trusted her," said Lauderhill's Rose Leiterman at the time. "Now I have my doubts. It makes me sad. I'm ashamed of her."
Kraft showed her true colors again this summer, again when it came to an audit that showed the school district had been hornswaggled. This time, it was the AshBritt audit, which determined that taxpayers had been ripped off to the tune of $765,000 in a dubious post-Hurricane Wilma deal. Kraft was outraged -- at the auditors for exposing the situation.
When a building boom frenzy continued during the past few years that has led to hundreds of millions of dollars wasted and a small city's worth of empty classroom seats, Kraft backed it every step of the way. And every big-money construction project vote, many of them tied to lobbyist Sterling, her husband's employer.
Kraft can claim that this is legal, but she's wrong. It's illegal, corrupt, and morally bankrupt. She should do the county a favor and resign now, but don't hold your breath for that to happen.