During a year when state and federal investigators have been circling the Broward County School Board, it seems as though every member of that ethically challenged outfit would have reason to keep a personal attorney close by. But only one school board member had the nerve to give her legal bill to the taxpayers: Phyllis Hope.
And so far, Hope has no intention of telling taxpayers what they're paying for.
Based on documents provided to Juice by the Broward County School Board through a public records request, Hope has charged $3,339 in legal bills to the cash-strapped school district over the past year -- roughly three times the legal fees charged by nine other school board members combined.
That includes Broward County School member Beverly Gallagher who was charged last fall with taking bribes from undercover FBI agents. Gallagher did not, however, give her attorney fees to school district. She hired a private attorney, David Bogenschutz, who negotiated a plea deal for a three-year prison sentence
Another board member, Stephanie Kraft, has legal concerns of her own, thanks to her having voted on $1 billion worth of school district projects lobbied for by Neil Sterling, who had placed Kraft's husband Mitch on the payroll
. Like Gallagher, Kraft did not give her legal bills to the district.
So why did Hope deserve three-grand for her legal defense? Hope has refused to return calls seeking an answer to that question. The attorney who received those payments, Jonathan Kasen, has also failed to return calls.
Hope, who rules the district on Broward's west side, has been relatively unscathed by the recent corruption inquiry -- with one big exception: She accepted an invitation from Gallagher to attend the December 2008 soiree aboard a yacht, where undercover agents posing as construction contractors wined and dined political figures on the pretext that those officials could steer contracts to the undercover agents' firm.
Considering other passengers on that vessel, like Gallagher and former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesmen, were indicted, Hope had every reason to hire an attorney. But it's not clear if this is the legal defense the district paid for. If so, then it seems strange that the financially desperate Gallagher would not have also benefited from the district's generosity.
Hope failed to disclose the yacht trip as a gift she received through her position at the school board -- doing so only after it became public knowledge that she was there. And even then Hope claimed that the three-and-a-half hour ride from Bahia Mar to Oakland Park Boulevard, with all the booze and crab legs you could eat
, was worth just $500. A very conservative estimate.
If Hope is feeling more talkative today, I'll update this post with her comments.
UPDATE: I still haven't heard back from Hope, but Kasen returned a message I left yesterday. He confirmed that he was retained in connection with Hope's trip on the FBI yacht. "She was contacted some time late in 2009 in conjunction with the arrest and investigation of Beverly Gallagher," says Kasen. "She then reached out to me to represent her with any potential issues that came with that."
According to Kasen, Hope then said she would try to scrape up the money she needed for a retainer, which must have entailed a phone call to the school district attorney, Ed Marko, because he was the next person to call Kasen. Marko told Kasen that the school district would pay the legal fees in his representation of Hope. Kasen says that he doesn't usually charge by the hour for federal cases but that he was talked into making an exception and giving a discount in Hope's case, for which he charged $275 an hour.
Naturally, Hope was concerned that she was a target of the investigation. But Kasen says that he spoke with the investigators and an assistant U.S. attorney on Hope's behalf and found that they were more interested in learning what she could offer as a witness. "Since they never got back to us, my suspicion is that they decided she didn't have much information to give."
Kasen does not believe that Hope is under active criminal investigation.
I left a message this morning with school district attorney Marko to find out why Hope's legal expenses were paid while other School Board members' legal expenses were not. The School Board is meeting right now. I'll update when I hear back.