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The Mayor, the Landscaper, and the Italian Honeymoon

[Note on faulty comments after the jump -- sorry about that.]

You know something is wrong when an elected official is a close "friend" of a lobbyist or contractor on whom he or she routinely votes. 

Lobbyists and vendors want nothing more than to forge close relationships with government leaders so they can make sure to win big contracts for themselves or their clients. Politicians who become tight with them are suspect at best, since they should know they're just getting used.

It happens all the time. I could go down a list of examples, but I'll spare them the embarrassment for now (one local pol we all know about actually married a lobbyist, after all). A few days ago, though, the Sun-Sentinel had a story about the "cozy" relationship between criminally charged former Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin and the former contracted town manager in Southwest Ranches, John Canada. From the article:

"Among those links, laid out in testimony from witnesses, are that Wasserman-Rubin and her husband, Richard Rubin, took vacations with the Canadas and shared expenses on their credit cards, that the couples bought units in the same Hollywood condominium, and that Rubin and Canada went into business together after working together for Southwest Ranches."

Remember that Canada had hired Rubin as a grant writer for Southwest Ranches and Wasserman-Rubin voted on some of them as a county commissioner, leading to criminal charges of unlawful compensation. The Sentinel quoted prosecutor Catherine Maus in a sworn interview with Canada: "You become friends and you travel together, it looks like you share expenses, and I mean they're [the Rubins] putting plane tickets for you on their credit card and you know, to a stranger it might seem that the Rubins were reimbursing or repaying you for the good you did them at Southwest Ranches by bringing [Rubin] in."

Yeah, it does sort of look like that. They bought condos together and vacationed to Hawaii and the Dominican Republic together as well.

They say their friendship had nothing to do with the way they profiteered on taxpayer coffers together. It's outrageous, really, that you would even mention it.

Inside, see a new example of a prominent mayor who literally went on his honeymoon with a fellow whom he voted on numerous contracts worth millions of dollars. Don't worry, though -- the friendship has nothing to do with his votes. What an outrageous thing to suggest!

Pembroke Pines Mayor Frank Ortis is quick to admit that he and Moshe Morgenstern are best buddies. When Ortis was married six years ago, Morgenstern even went along on his honeymoon to Italy.

They travel together, they dine together, they hang out together. Here's the problem: Morgenstern owns Elan Landscaping ("elan" means tree in Hebrew), a company that mows the grass and tends the bushes and trees along Pembroke Pines roads, around city buildings, and at parks and schools.

Ortis has voted to award Morgenstern dozens of contracts worth millions of dollars over the years. In fact, Morgenstern got his first city contract in 1996, the same year Ortis was elected to the commission.

"Yes, I'm friends with [Morgenstern], but I'm friends with a lot of people who do business with the city," said Ortis. "But he lost a lot of business in the city. He had the whole city at one time, but we've given out contracts to other companies now. I give contracts to those who I think do a good job for the city; that's what I base it on. I have a fiduciary duty to the people of Pembroke Pines. Friendship doesn't play into it at all."

Yes, that's what they all say. I asked Ortis -- who is a lobbyist by trade and is a former union leader -- if Morgenstern had ever paid for his travel or given him any gifts of value. The mayor answered in the negative. I asked him if Morgenstern ever picked up his tab at restaurants. "I think I usually pay," the mayor told me. "I'm usually the one who pays."

So he votes to give the guy millions in business on the taxpayers' dime and then has to pick up the check too? That's not fair, is it?   

When I asked Morgenstern about his relationship with the mayor, he confirmed they'd been friends for a long time and said they'd met in a bagel store in Pembroke Pines. Then he said he didn't want to answer any more questions. "If you're asking if I paid for his vacations, I haven't," he said before ending the conversation.

ADDED: Well, the comments have shut down again. What happens apparently is the comment field becomes a tiny slit. Here's a screen capture of the problem:


You can't type in the space. I don't understand what's wrong, apologize, and let you know NT Central is working on it.

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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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