Broward General and other hospitals losing their names in marketing campaign

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward General Medical Center

A plan to change the name of Broward General Medical Center, the county’s oldest hospital, and the names of three other public hospitals has physicians and others protesting.

Broward General will become Broward Health Medical Center, a change that will roll out this summer as part of an advertising campaign.

The three other public hospitals in the Broward Health system will lose the words “medical center” in their titles.

Coral Springs Medical Center will be Broward Health Coral Springs. Imperial Point Medical Center becomes Broward Health Imperial Point. North Broward Medical Center switches to Broward Health North.

The changes were approved late last month by a 4-3 vote of the governing board of Broward Health, North Broward’s tax-supported public hospital system, whose legal name is the North Broward Hospital District. The district adopted the new name in 2007.

Not everyone is happy about it, especially at Broward General, which celebrates its 75th birthday on January 2.

“Broward General is a historic place. Broward General was the first hospital in Broward and has a historic name. Just a few years ago we were advertising that ‘I am a Broward General baby’ and now we are doing away with the name,” said David Di Pietro, a hospital commissioner who voted against the change. “I have a real problem with this. So do many of the doctors.”

BRANDING TRUMPS HISTORY

Broward General was the county’s first public hospital, built in a remodeled apartment building with space for 45 patients. In 2010, it had 716 licensed beds, making it one of the nation’s top 20 largest public hospitals, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

The name change is intended to downplay the perception of Broward General as a public hospital.

Commissioner Richard Paul-Hus said too many prospective patients stay away from Broward General because they believe it is a facility for the uninsured.

“The idea was to create a brand that doesn’t suggest a public hospital,” Paul-Hus said.

Sara Howley, Broward Health’s marketing vice president, agreed that was part of the reason for the change.

“People say, ‘That’s where you go when you don’t have insurance.’  We want them to understand we are so much more and by better marketing we can do that.”

Howley said streamlining the hospital names were necessary in an extremely competitive environment. She said it would enable the system to have more effective marketing campaigns unifying every hospital under the shorter, more memorable name Broward Health.

Howley pointed out that the University of Miami Health Systems, which has moved into Broward County, is now known as UHealth.  The county’s other public hospital system, the South Broward Hospital District, changed its business name to Memorial Healthcare Systems years ago.

“Our names today are very long,” Howley said.

There has been a 56 percent increase in the name recognition of the four North Broward public hospitals in the five years since the conversion to the Broward Health name.

“It went from almost zero,” Howley said.

She expects such recognition to increase with the renaming.

The renaming of the hospitals is the second phase of a five-year long business conversion of the North Broward Hospital District into Broward Health.  It was arrived at with the help of a strategic planning consultant and extensive research that included phone surveys and focus groups.

“The word ‘general’ did not test well,” Howley said. “People didn’t know what it meant in that context.  So all we are doing is changing the word ‘general’ to ‘health’.  One word is changing.”

One word is too much for some.

“Broward General is a recognized brand and much of our staff was born there.  Many of our physicians are against this change,” said one doctor who practices at the hospital and asked that his name not be used.

RESISTANCE SPREADS

Physicians at other hospitals also had problems with new titles.

Dr. Carrie E. Greenspan is an obstetrics and gynecology doctor and chief of staff at Coral Springs Medical Center representing 500 physicians. She said doctors at her hospital were against losing the words “medical center” in the name.

“The way the renaming is proposed makes it sound like the only real medical center of BH (Broward Health) is the current Broward General, and that the other facilities are some sort of undefined subsidiaries, with unclear purpose. We all agreed that taking away the name ‘medical center’ from the other facilities takes away the status conferred by that title,” she wrote the commission in January.

“We believe that moving forward with the proposed changes would be a very big mistake,” she wrote. “Members of the community, particularly if they are new to the area, will not understand what “Broward Health—Coral Springs” means.  It could be a clinic, a medical office building, a laboratory, a diagnostic facility.”

Clarence McKee, another commissioner opposed to the plan, lamented that the hospital system was not listening to physicians like Dr. Greenspan.

“The name “Medical Center” carries prestige and is important to our present and future physicians who bring us patients. This is one case where the views of our physicians should have been given more weight as they are key stakeholders–without them we would not exist,” McKee said.

Howley, who is married to a Broward Health physician, called the protests from physicians “turf protection….We’ve had resistance from doctors.  Doctors don’t tend to like change. Five years ago they didn’t like the name Broward Health and now they say it is great.”

The renaming will cost about $750,000 over four years. Some of the hospital signs were already wearing out and needed replacement anyway, Howley said.

Stationery, medical forms, lab coats and other items with the hospital names on them will be replaced when the existing stocks run out.  The cost of this is not included in the estimate because they would have been replaced anyway, she said.

Di Pietro said they change should have waited until after the 2012-2013 budget was set in the fall.

“I wonder if we should spent $750,000 now,” he said. “We should wait until budgeting is complete and see what vital services we need to preserve.”

Paul-Hus said now was the time to spend the money.

“We’re in a competitive situation,” Paul-Hus said. “If this was my business, I would do it.”

Miami cop jailed in trio of rapes had “dozens” of victims; city’s lawyers tell of hiring screw-ups

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Ex-Miami Police Officer Michael Ragusa

There was little public discussion last fall when Miami commissioners voted unanimously to pay $550,000 to a working mom who had been kidnapped and raped by a city police officer in his patrol car.

But for 53 minutes before the vote, commissioners privately heard a disturbing earful from city lawyers who told them about aspects of the case that were not made public, and described a stunning breakdown of police hiring practices under former Chief John Timoney.

Broward Bulldog has obtained a copy of the 21-page transcript of the Oct. 13 closed-door meeting using Florida’s public records law.

The discussions concerned a lawsuit filed by Kenia Perez against the city about ex-Officer Michael Ragusa, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and went on to become the Miami Police Department’s worst nightmare: a sexual predator with a badge.

Among other things, the federal complaint filed by prominent Fort Lauderdale civil rights attorney Barbara Heyer contended that, under Timoney, the city failed to weed out officers like Ragusa with “dangerous propensities” that made them unfit for duty.

Ragusa pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of rape and attempted rape for attacks on three women in Miami Beach – including Perez. He’s halfway done serving a 10-year prison sentence.

The transcript reveals that police thought those attacks were actually the tip of Ragusa’s sexual crime spree in blue.

“Both our officers and the City of Miami Beach police officers believed that there were dozens of people that he did,” Assistant City Attorney Henry Hunnefeld told commissioners. “Dozens.”

The FBI’s public corruption unit is investigating Ragusa in connection with those alleged attacks, Broward Bulldog has learned. A bureau spokesman declined comment.

It was the city’s own failings when it hired Ragusa that were the focus of City Attorney Julie Bru and her liability-minded legal team.

“We’re cooked,” said Bru, as she presented a recommendation for settlement.

“A case with this set of facts is something that a jury could do very bad things with,” added Hunnefeld.

BAD BACKGROUND

Some of the worst facts for the city involved Officer Willie F. Bell.

Bell was in charge of conducting the disastrous pre-hire background check on Ragusa in 2004. According to the city’s attorneys, he gave a green light to hire Ragusa despite Ragusa’s admissions on an employment application to numerous incidents of illegal sexual activity and dishonesty.

Miami Assistant City Attorney Henry Hunnefeld

Hunnefeld described Bell as uniquely unqualified for the important job of checking out recruits for a troubled police agency with a decades-old “reputation of having bad cops who do bad things.

“He is the most disciplined officer in the history of the city,” Hunnefeld said. “Twenty-six times he was disciplined by our department.”

Bell, 55, a 26-year officer who retired in 2006, acknowledged his lengthy discipline record in an interview with Broward Bulldog. He said drug dealers lodged most of those complaints in attempts to discredit him when he worked the streets in Liberty City and Overtown.

Bell also confirmed that he had approved Ragusa’s hiring. He said he did so because “there was nothing negative in his background.”

“I’m a scapegoat. I didn’t hire a rapist. The guy became what he did,” said Bell. “Things were kept hush-hush, and it was blame Willie Bell.”

Miami police spokesman Major Delrish Moss said he was unaware of the city attorney’s statements to commissioners that Ragusa is believed to have had dozens of other victims

“If there were dozens of cases, and I have never heard anyone allege this, the Miami Beach PD or the State Attorney’s Office would be investigating rather than us. We were only the hiring and later firing agency with regard to (Ragusa’s) employment,” he said.

A WAITRESS HEADS HOME

In the early morning hours of March 19, 2007, Kenia Perez, 31, stepped off a county bus in Miami Beach on her way home from a 10-hour shift at a South Beach restaurant where she waited tables six days a week to support herself and her five-year-old son.

Ragusa was there. He lived in Miami Beach, and was driving his take-home patrol car in uniform. He called Perez over, forced her inside, drove a few blocks away and raped her. He was arrested the next day.

The attack left lasting psychological scars on Perez, who no longer lives in the United States. She became afraid to be alone and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the transcript says. Her name hasn’t come out before, but attorney Heyer said she wanted it known.

The transcript reveals the city also paid $62,500 to settle another damage suit filed by another of Ragusa’s rape victims. That woman got much less after the city “uncovered that she had been a prostitute and that she had actually done some other things that were difficult.

Hunnefeld traced “this tragedy” back to before Ragusa was hired – to the day in 2002 when former Police Chief Raul Martinez installed Bell as background investigator, apparently to get him off the streets.

Bell had a dismal internal record as a cop. He’d been disciplined for using excessive force, neglect of duty, improper discharge of a firearm and theft. He also was arrested for battery, falsifying public records and official misconduct, but those criminal charges were dropped after Bell agreed to attend an anger management program.

“I believe Chief Martinez’s heart was in the right place, but it just didn’t turn out well…from the time (Bell) was selected, bad things happened,” Hunnefeld said.

NEW CHIEF AND NEW HIRES

Former Miami Police Chief John Timoney


Timoney became chief a few months later. Bell remained at his post as the new chief led a push to recruit new officers. As Timoney wrote in his 2003 Blueprint for the Future report, the focus “is not on how to improve the quality of the men and women on the MPD, but the urgent need to increase their quantity.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, bad hires had led to scandal and embarrassment. Between 1990 and 2001, Miami paid nearly $18 million to resolve more than 110 federal and state lawsuits alleging brutality, misconduct or unnecessary death caused by city police officers.

Then, in 2001, more than a dozen officers were indicted for conspiring to cover up police shootings by planting evidence. Nine of those officers were later convicted.

Reforms were instituted, and Timoney pledged to restore the public’s trust.

Perez’s lawsuit, however, alleged that Timoney failed to institute any meaningful change.

Worse, under Timoney pressure was put on the department’s psychologist to qualify recruits like Ragusa who should not have been hired, according to the city attorneys.

Hunnefeld told commissioners how psychologist Dr. Mark Axelberd had described the city’s “unusual” psychological examination form as a way to classify recruits as not just acceptable or unacceptable, but also as “borderline” acceptable.

“The only reason (the form was used) was because he got so much pressure from police officials to hire what he didn’t think were qualified individuals that this was the only way, having borderline candidates,” Hunnefeld said. He added, “if Axelberd gets on the stand he will testify as to this.”

Timony, who resigned in 2009, is currently working as a police consultant in Bahrain. He did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Timoney was deposed in the case in March 2011. Attorney Heyer asked him if he was satisfied that the department’s hiring process, including background checks, was being done appropriately after he became chief.  “Yes,” Timoney said.

Axelberd found Ragusa to have “a problem with impulse control” and classified him borderline. But Alexberd also warned Bell “this is not somebody you’d want to hire,” Hunnefeld said.

The city no longer evaluates recruits that way, Hunnefeld said. But that wasn’t the only red flag that escaped Bell, including ones hoisted by Ragusa himself.

“I’ve filled out many (job) applications before. I’m sure everyone has,” Hunnefeld told commissioners. “I have never put sexual assaults on my applications…However, Michael Ragusa did. How that slips through the fingers of the investigator I am not sure.”

Bell approved Ragusa even though he was rejected by numerous other police agencies including the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Miami-Dade, North Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Cooper City, Hunnefeld said.

Ragusa went on to do plenty of damage is a three-year career as a Miami police officer. In addition to the rapes, he was involved in numerous excessive force incidents.

“I have so far defended four lawsuits about Ragusa and his excessive force,” Hunnefeld said.

HOW MANY OUT THERE?

How many other borderline candidates were hired by the city was not discussed at the settlement meeting. But the Miami Police Department remains a focus of controversy.

The Miami Herald reported in November that the Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations in the deaths of seven black men shot by city officers between July 2010 and February 2011.

Meanwhile, City Legal Advisor George Wysong informed commissioners that police leaders had a takeaway from their experience with Ragusa.

“This case has impressed upon them the significance of – you know, you may think that the background unit is a place to put your problem child. Now they understand the consequences of a little decision like that,” Wysong said.

The lesson should come in handy.

One week after agreeing to pay $550,000 to settle with Perez, Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez lifted a two-year freeze on hiring new police officers.

 

 

Archaeologists confirm major find in Fort Lauderdale; a “top five” historical site

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org

Archaeological workers monitor construction work at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park last May

Archaeologists hired to examine artifacts unearthed last year at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park now say they are convinced they mark the sites of both a U.S. Army fort built in 1839 and a prehistoric home of the Tequesta Indians.

A team led by Robert Carr, executive director of the non-profit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, conducted the research.  A decade ago, Carr led the team that excavated the Miami Circle at Brickell Point in downtown Miami.

“Significant archaeological evidence was uncovered that includes artifacts associated with the Tequesta Indians and the historic Seminole War fort, the third Fort Lauderdale built during the conflict,” says Carr’s recent report to the city.

More than 200 artifacts – including buttons from military uniforms, musket balls, and even hand-hewn Dade County pine posts used to construct the fort – were used to establish the fort’s location at the park. Prehistoric pottery sherds, animal bones and shell refuse are cited as evidence that the Tequestas inhabited the site as early as 1200 AD, the report says.

Like the Miami Circle, the report says Fort Lauderdale’s richly diverse beachfront dig site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Carr recommends in his report that the city consider seeking that protected status, and authorize additional archaeological investigation.

“I think if you were to rank the historical sites in Broward, this would be in the top five,” Carr told Broward Bulldog. Hundreds of archaeological sites – on land and under water – have been recorded in Broward since the 1970s, according to the county’s web site.

“It’s definitely a very significant find,” said Broward County archaeologist Matthew DeFelice. “The Indian artifacts go back to between 2,000 years ago and the 16th century.

LOOTERS ARMED WITH METAL DETECTORS

But archaeologists’ excitement about the site has been tempered by fear of looters.

“There was a lot of publicity about the site when the first artifacts were found, and a lot of treasure hunters have gone out there with metal scanners and stolen artifacts from the city,” said Carr, whose Davie firm was hired to fulfill requirements of state and county law regarding the protection of historic properties. “I’ve seen their postings online.”

DeFelice also has read the Internet posts.

“This is a shared piece of history,” he said, pointing out there is no market for such artifacts. “There’s no reason for going out to a site and taking a musket ball. This should not be any more permissible than going out to a park and digging up a tree.

“It’s upsetting that people will go out and they’ll relic hunt thinking they can make a buck or two,’’ he said. “But [the artifacts] will probably sit on a mantle or in a drawer.”

Carr’s report urges the city to take steps to protect the site, including “increased police protection and surveillance.”

Mayor Jack Seiler said he was not aware of the theft of artifacts at the site.

“Nobody has approached us about adding additional security at this location,” Seiler said.

The relics were uncovered between February and July last year during a $3.1 million construction project in the park. The discoveries coincided with the city’s 100th birthday celebration.

DEAD SOLDIERS BURIED ON THE BEACH?

Carr’s team worked alongside construction workers, looking through soil from 15 trenches and various holes dug on the city-owned property to bury utility lines.

The archaeological work cost the city about $27,000.

“Through the artifacts, we can gain valuable information on how people moved around at the fort — what areas of the property were used for cooking, recreation, sleeping, caring for the wounded and ultimately for burying Army personnel when they died,” Carr said.

“It’s not altogether surprising that we found evidence of the fort,’’ Carr said. “We have survey maps from the 1870s and 1890s, and from those maps we had the approximate location where the fort existed.

Only a small section of the 24-acre park was examined. That includes an area that was repaved before it could be studied, Broward Bulldog reported in May.

The site contains additional artifacts, which are buried under sand but could be dug up by looters. Security at the site was provided only during construction.

Carr’s suggestion that the city nominate the site for listing in the National Register of Historic Places would provide protection from redevelopment. He also recommended adding the fort location to the city’s list of historical sites to add another layer of protection.

Bob Carr, right, Rachel Canfield Dr. Ryan Canfield and Ray Skinner examine artifacts recovered last year from utility trenches Photo Courtesy of Tim Harrington

The city has beach regulations that prohibit digging holes, and erecting tents, canopies and fencing, according to city officials. But the city does not have an ordinance that addresses the use of metal detectors.

DeFelice said the city’s Historic Preservation Board is considering an ordinance that would focus on issues such as where metal detectors can be used. If the board agrees that such a measure is needed, it would be forwarded to the City Commission for possible adoption.

“The language should provide additional measures from historic sites being looted, but that will take at least six months,” DeFelice said.

MORE WORK TO BE DONE

Carr’s report recommends more work at the site to search for additional artifacts that would help explain more about the fort, the third of a trio of military posts built during the Second Seminole War.

“We have just scratched the surface,” DeFelice said. “We need much more documentation on the property and we must manage it accordingly. This is an opportunity to share U.S. history with people from all over the world.”

The cost would be about $50,000, Carr said.

But city officials were not optimistic that any local dollars could be found.

“Right now there is no extra money in the budget,’’ Seiler said. “Our budget is set up by priority, and as for money for the work, it depends on priorities.”

Carr said grants from the state or other interested groups might be found. One idea is to make the site a controlled tourist attraction.

“One of the things I am going to propose is to request funding from the Tourist Development Council for the work and do it during tourist season,” he said.

Carr’s report says three forts were established at different locations between 1838 and 1842.

MAJOR WILLIAM LAUDERDALE’S FIRST FORT

Major William Lauderdale and his Tennessee Volunteers built the first at the forks of the New River. It was abandoned on May 7, 1838, and re-established briefly nearly on the north bank of the river the following winter.

The third fort  was sited in an area across the street and slightly south from what is today Bahia Mar. The Army and Navy Chronicle of 1839 described it as “a perfect rectangular closure with a block house at three of its angles – the guns were placed in order to sweep the most assailable points.” the report says.

The beachside fort, constructed on a spit of land that grew due to dredge and fill operations 100 years later, was a launching point for “numerous military expeditions into the Everglades in pursuit of the Indians,” the report says.

The fort was abandoned in 1842, eight months before the end of the Second Seminole War.

In 1876, the U.S. government built a House of Refuge for shipwrecked sailors — a precursor of the U.S. Coast Guard — on the beach just south of the area that is now Hugh Taylor Birch State Park. It moved to the site of the fort in 1891, and the Coast Guard began operating a station there about 30 years later.

The dig turned up artifacts from those periods, too.

Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at ahenson@browardbulldog.org

 

New report details how U.S. House members used their positions to benefit themselves, family

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Rep. Ted Deutch, left, and Rep. Alcee Hastings

A new study by a Washington watchdog group describes how numerous members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including 18 from Florida – have used their positions to financially benefit themselves and family members.

The South Florida standouts in Thursday’s 347-page report by the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) are Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton.

Hastings, a former federal judge and a 10-term member of Congress, paid his girlfriend, Patricia Williams, $622,574 between 2007 and 2010 to be deputy district director of his congressional office. Her most recent annual salary was $166,000, the report says.

“In addition, Rep. Hastings owes Ms. Williams, a lawyer, between $500,001 and $1,000,000 for defending him during an impeachment trial,” the report says.

In 1988, then-U.S. District Judge Hastings was impeached for bribery and perjury. He was convicted a year later by the Senate and removed from office.

Hastings is also cited in CREW’s report, titled “Family Affair,” for having been reimbursed $15,647 for travel and event expenses by his campaign committee.

DEUTCH PAYS RENT TO BROTHER’S LAW FIRM

Rep. Deutch, was an attorney at Broad and Cassel before he was elected to Congress in 2010. His brother, Jeffrey Deutch, is a managing director in the firm’s Boca Raton office.

Deutch’s campaign committee, Ted Deutch for Congress, paid rent to his brother’s employer, the report says.

“During the 2010 election cycle, Rep. Deutch’s campaign committee paid Broad and Cassel $14,720 for rent, shipping and telephone services,” the report says.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, is a 12-term Congresswoman and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The report details her campaign’s reimbursements to her and her father, Enrique Ros. For the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, Ros-Lehtinen was reimbursed $76,000 for travel, meal and other expenses. In the same period, her father was reimbursed $1,500.

Some examples in the report involve small amounts of money

For example, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is cited because her campaign paid about $600 fees to her husband’s employer during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles.  Steve Schultz is a vice president at Community Bank of Broward, where his wife maintains an account for her campaign.

DID MICA EARMARK BENEFIT DAUGHTER’S CLIENT?

Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, sponsored a $13 million earmark in 2009 for the controversial, 61-mile Central Florida Commuter Rail project “that appears to have benefitted his daughter’s client,” the report says.

Rep. John Mica

His daughter is D’Anne Mica. From 2003-2011 she ran Mica Strategic Communications, a public relations firm. The firm’s web site listed the Florida engineering firm PBS&J as one of her clients.

The report says that PBS&J, acquired in 2010 by the United Kingdom’s engineering and design giant WS Atkins, supported that major rail initiative which is also known as SunRail. A number of Atkins’ employees are listed on a “Sunrail Key Contact List” prepared by Mica’s office and updated earlier this week.

Rep. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, is the House’s longest serving Republican. The report says he “earmarked millions of dollars to his sons’ employers.

Billy Young is a senior coordinator at the National Forensic Science Technology Center in Largo. Between 2008 and 2010, his father earmarked more than $12.2 million to the center, the report says.

Patrick Young worked as a security administrator at Science Applications International Corp. in St. Petersburg. In fiscal year 2008, his father earmarked $4.4 million to SAIC, the report says.

Rep. Young also employed his daughter-in-law, Ashley Abreu Young, as a case assistant in his office. Her most recent salary was $44,000, the report says.

BROWN EARMARKED TO DAUGHTER’S CLIENT

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a 10-term Democrat from Jacksonville, earmarked money to a client of her lobbyist daughter, the report says.

Shantrel Brown-Fields is a partner at the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay and lobbies on transportation and infrastructure issues. Her clients include the Community Rehabilitation Center of Jacksonville.

Between 2008 and 2010, Rep. Brown earmarked a total of $939,000 to the Community Rehabilitation Center, the report says.

The campaign of Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, paid the congressman’s sister-in-law a salary and paid two of his private companies for various services, the report says.

Yvonne Buchanan drew a salary totaling $117,000 during the 2008 and 2010 campaigns.

Buchanan’s Jamatt Properties was paid about $76,000 during the same campaign for rent, storage and other services, the report says. Buchanan’s Auto Central Services was paid $6,500 during the same period.

Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns, Gainesville, and Gus Bilirakis, Tampa, were also cited for earmarks in the report.

In 2008 and 2009, Rep. Stearns earmarked $430,000 to his wife’s employer, the College of Central Florida, the report says. His campaign also donated to the college.

Rep. Bilirakis earmarked $350,000 in 2010 to All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. Bilirakis is honorary chairman of the Greek Children’s Fund for All Children’s Hospital, the report says.

Miramar busts Broward’s trash monopoly; Bergeron gets a deal worth millions

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

A decades-long monopoly was shattered Tuesday when Miramar agreed to let an upstart company handle its waste disposal.

Homeowners and businesses in Miramar will see millions of dollars in savings over the existing waste hauling agreement with Wheelabrator Technologies.

It was the first competitive bid disposal contract in the largest Broward cities in more than 25 years.

“You brought competition into the marketplace,” Phil Medico, an executive with the low bidder Sun/Bergeron that toppled Wheelabrator’s monopoly, told commissioners.

The commission voted 5-0 to accept the low bid Tuesday despite furious lobbying by Wheelabrator and its giant parent, Waste Management.

City Manager Robert A. Payton will soon begin contract negotiations with Sun/Bergeron. If successful, the contract will come back to the city commission for a final award. If not, the city could then negotiate with Wheelabrator.

Once finalized, Miramar’s decision means other Broward cities will have the option to piggyback on its deal.  They can also search for their own deal.

CONTRACT EXPIRING

Wheelabrator has since the 1980s held a lock on trash disposal in 80 percent of Broward cities with a contract that is due to expire in July 2013.

Wanting to continue its monopoly, the company two years ago offered a no-bid deal that would have extended its control of the disposal business through at least 2023. But a number of cities, including Fort Lauderdale and Miramar rejected the deal as insufficient and anti-competitive, and the county commission ultimately did, too.

The failure of the deal dealt a heavy blow to Broward’s Resource Recovery Board, which has pushed hard for it.

Miramar stepped forward to become the first local government to competitively bid disposal services.

Only Wheelabrator and Sun/Bergeron submitted bids. Wheelabrator’s bid was $52.50 per ton, compared with Sun/Bergeron’s $43.25 per ton.

Several Miramar officials noted that the competitive process lowered the bid considerably from the no-bid deal originally offered by Wheelabrator.  That agreement had Miramar paying $65.10 per ton climbing up to $140.21 per ton over 10 years.

County waste administrators sat in the Miramar audience Tuesday monitoring the vote, along with officials from other cities.

Broward entrepreneur Ron Bergeron, a partner in Sun/Bergeron, said his company would now consider bidding for other contracts among the cities that Wheelabrator serves.

Up to the last minute, Wheelabrator fought to overturn its competitor’s low bid. Bill Roberts, the company’s vice president for operations, reminded commissioners that the company owns two waste-to energy plants in Broward County and has a local payroll of millions.

One of the partners in Sun/Bergeron is from outside Broward — Palm Beach County’s Sun Recycling.

“We’re part of Broward County,” Roberts countered.

COMMISSIONERS IMPRESSED

But commissioners said they were impressed by Sun/Bergeron’s plan to recycle 25 percent of the waste rather than burn it, in addition to its cheaper price.

Sun/Bergeron’s Medico promised commissioners that the price they offered would not increase over the five years of the contract.

Miramar sought bid proposals from March until June. Seven companies expressed interest, but only two submitted proposals

City staff conducted an in-depth financial analysis. An evaluation team made up of executives from five different cities evaluated and, in December, ranked the proposals.

While city officials said the process followed all the rules, Waste Management has hinted that it may protest the decision.

“Its one of our options,” Wheelabrator’s Roberts said.

Wheelabrator and Sun/Bergeron had bid protest legal experts in the audience observing the vote and taking notes.

Miramar officials used words like “rare” and “revolutionary” to describe the competitive process.

“It had an impact,” said Verne Hargrey, assistant Miramar city manager, summing up the comments of the four city waste experts who addressed commissioners.

Weak ethics agencies, lobbyist regulation tarnish Florida in national integrity investigation

Editor’s note: This story about Florida is part of the State Integrity Investigation, a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states. The project was overseen and edited by The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 
Florida kicked off the modern era of open government reforms when it became the first state to pass an open meetings law in 1967. Today, Florida’s Sunshine Law, and its even older Public Records Law, are among the strongest in the nation.

But while Florida lets plenty of sun shine in on public meetings and records, it has done a poor job of illuminating the activities of lobbyists. Most states and the federal government require registered lobbyists to make public what issues or actions they seek to influence. Florida does not. Lobbyists dealing with the executive branch aren’t even required to report what agencies they are lobbying.

The mixed assessment is reflected in the Sunshine State’s grades from the State Integrity Investigation, a collaborative project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Florida, a state of 19 million residents, receives a grade of C- and a numerical score of 71, ranking it 18th among the states. Florida’s Corruption Risk Report Card.

The lobbying maze

In Florida, lobbying firms are required to file quarterly compensation reports that identify their clients and state how much they are paid – but disclosure is limited to broad dollar ranges. Federal lobbyists are required to report an exact figure.

Compensation reports were enacted, but expenditure reports were repealed, after the law was changed in 2005 to ban gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists, following a scandal.
Lobbyist compensation reports may be lacking, but they are accessible online. The information they contain about lobbyists and their principals is formatted and available for download without cost.
Unlike some of its municipalities, notably Broward County, Florida does not disclose lobbyist contacts with legislators or agency staff. Florida also has not followed the lead of states like Nevada, which publishes a Facebook-style lobbyist list.

The rules for reporting are weak, but a deeper flaw is that the law requires so few people to register and report at all, according to Philip Claypool, the former longtime executive director and general counsel for the Florida Commission on Ethics.

The state definition of executive lobbyist has as many holes as “Swiss cheese,” he said.

Florida law defines a lobbyist to include “a person who is principally employed for governmental affairs by another person or governmental entity.” That seems to exempt corporate employees, said Edwin Bender, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Large governments within the state also exploit loopholes to avoid the registration and disclosure requirements in Florida’s lobbyist regulations.

Florida’s five regional water management districts manage water quality and flood control. They award tens of millions of dollars in annual contracts. But lobbyists who seek to influence those deals are not required to register or disclose who hired them or how much they are being paid.

The districts contend that as independent taxing districts they are not covered by lobbying rules that govern other state agencies.

A lack of enforcement

Enforcement of state lobbying disclosure requirements – such as they are – is minimal. Florida requires lobbying firms and principals to preserve their accounts and records for four years to substantiate compensation for possible audit. Audits, however, are virtually non-existent.

“The law contemplates audits, but they are not done,” said Claypool. He explained that the high cost of audits and the unwillingness of private accountants to do the limited audits contemplated by the Legislature combined to kill the idea.

Claypool and Bender explained that when irregularities are found, which isn’t often, it is the Legislature that investigates.

“The process is cumbersome,” said Claypool. “Investigations are initiated by sworn complaint and if a committee finds  a violation it can recommend a penalty of not more than $5,000, a reprimand or a prohibition on lobbying not to exceed two years. Any penalty is subject to a majority vote of the House or Senate.”

“It’s set up so it’s a wink and a nod,” said Bender. “The incentive is not to investigate and a $5,000 fine is a slap on the wrist.”

Florida's Capitol in Tallahassee

Florida agencies that enforce ethical standards for public officials – the Commission on Ethics and the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) – are weak, too.

The Ethics Commission, which investigates misbehavior, has no power to initiate investigations. It can only respond to sworn complaints on an approved form, Claypool said.

The Judicial Qualifications Commission has the authority to launch an inquiry of a judge, but rarely does so on its own initiative, according to its longtime executive director Brooke Kennerly.  Both commissions can only recommend penalties – to the governor and the Supreme Court, respectively.

Florida’s Statewide Grand Jury issued a corruption report in December 2010 that was critical of the Ethics Commissions’ civil fine structure – saying its $10,000 maximum penalty was inadequate.

“We find the Legislature should increase the cap to $100,000 as it would be more of a deterrent and more justly set apart the violations based on severity. We point out that the Commission on Ethics has no enforcement authority and that it goes to the Governor to be enforced,” the report reads.

But Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, who represents public officials accused of ethics violations, attributed the criticism to a general misunderstanding of the commission’s role.

“I can understand where the grand jury is coming from, but by the same token there are things called ‘crimes.’ Things related to administrative rules and the ethics code are for the most part not crimes,” said Herron. “Getting whacked for $10,000 and being branded as an unethical guy, is that significant?”

While the two commissions are ostensibly independent, each is undermined by structural deficiency. The nine Ethics Commission members are political appointees of the governor, House speaker and Senate president. The JQC is dominated by appointed judges and lawyers – a structure the 34-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group HALT has criticized as an “insular” system in which “litigants are reluctant to file ethics complaints” because “the oversight system itself is controlled by judges.”

Gift-giving

As for gifts to public officials, Florida regulations are generally tough, but tempered by both limitations and exceptions.

State law, for example, prohibits elected officials, candidates and employees from soliciting or accepting “anything of value…based upon any understanding that (their) vote, official action or judgment” would be influenced.

But the law also says that individuals required to file financial disclosure statements, and state procurement employees, may accept a gift from a lobbyist so long as it is worth $100 or less.

“So you can take $100 worth of stuff every day,” said Herron. “Under state law, these public officials have no obligation to inform the public that they have received these gifts. The lobbyist is supposed to make a report of any gift given in excess of $25, but less than $100, but most of the time they don’t do that report.”

State legislators face a broader general prohibition, and can’t take any gift from a lobbyist, except flowers “displayed in chambers on the opening day of a regular session.” Judicial rules say judges are not supposed to accept gifts and are also obliged to discourage family members from accepting them.

But exceptions are written into the law when lobbying is kept all in the family. An all-expense paid vacation, for example, provided by relatives, is perfectly fine, even if the relatives are also lobbyists.

In Florida, a relative is defined to include everyone from a parent to a step-great-grandchild, or even a fiancé.

Florida’s quarterly gift disclosure reports, like its annual financial disclosure reports, are filed with the Ethics Commission and available for public inspection. They are not online, but copies can be obtained via email free of charge.

Access to information

It is the strength of Florida’s open records law that makes the lobbying rules seem that much weaker.

The right of Florida’s citizens to access such government records is rooted in the state’s constitution, state statutes and legislative and judicial rules. No state agencies or officials are exempt, although there are certain statutory exemptions regarding items like trade secrets or active law enforcement investigations. In a disturbing trend, however, the Legislature adds more specific exemptions to the list every year.

There are other problems, especially when it comes to the cost of electronic records.

In addition to copying charges, agencies are allowed to assess extensive user fees from those who seek information about their government.  Fees are charged for clerical and supervisory personnel, as well as “information technology resources” used to search or build databases.

“That’s where we are really seeing a lot of push back at the agency level, mostly related to electronic records,” said James Rhea, former director of the Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation. “We are seeing people who don’t get what they ask for because of cost…It’s a growing problem in Florida” that has not been adequately addressed by the legislature.

Costs can vary wildly between agencies, said Patricia Gleason, special counsel for open government at the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

“So much depends on the type of computer system the agencies have,” Gleason said. “Ask for emails in one jurisdiction and you might be charged $25. In another because a computer system is out of date, it might be $200.”

She added that it’s helpful for the public to tailor their requests in order to narrow agency search time and limit the fees they will be charged.

Costs also can ramp up quickly if a citizen must go to court to force an agency to release public records. But there is redress. Under Florida statute 119.12, agencies that refuse to produce a public record can be ordered by a judge to pay a requestor’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

“I tell government agencies: You lose. You pay,” said Gleason.

 

New questions about FBI probe of Saudis’ post-9/11 exodus

By Robbyn Swan, Special to BrowardBulldog.org

A departure board at South Carolina's Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport shows cancelled flights around the country on September 11, 2001

The FBI mishandled its investigation of the travel of a Saudi prince and his companions out of Florida within days of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, new interviews, 9/11 Commission documents and FBI files reveal. And its detailed report on the matter, drawn up for members of Congress and President George W. Bush, was inaccurate.

The new reporting springs from suspicions that a well-connected Saudi living in Sarasota, Fla., may have associated with the 9/11 hijackers. Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, has suggested that the FBI’s investigation of the Sarasota matter “was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI. An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as fact.”

These concerns have led to a re-examination of the efforts to get out of the U.S. immediately following the 9/11 attacks by a Saudi royal, Prince Sultan bin Fahd, and several companions.  Their travel began in Tampa, a short drive from Sarasota.

The review of how the FBI dealt with and reported on the travel of the Florida-based Saudis, and their subsequent departure from the United States with other Saudis, shows that the FBI failed to interview principal witnesses; relied on erroneous second-hand information; misinterpreted the orders under which the FAA managed the closure and subsequent reopening of U.S. airspace after the 9/11 attacks; misreported the means of travel; and even got Prince Sultan’s identity wrong.

The FAA grounded all flights less than an hour after the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center, and reopened U.S. airspace to commercial and charter air traffic only at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13. By then, with Saudi-born Osama bin Laden fingered as the principal suspect in the attacks and 15 of the 19 hijackers identified as Saudi citizens, panicked Saudis were doing their utmost to get out of the country.

Sometime on the day following the attacks, Prince Sultan, a grandnephew of the late King Fahd and a student at the University of Tampa’s American Language Academy, began trying to leave Florida, according to 9/11 Commission files. He did so on the instructions of his uncle, Prince Ahmed bin Salman, a Saudi media baron and fabulously wealthy racehorse owner who was in Lexington, Ky. for the annual yearling sales. According to a Lexington police officer – his name is redacted in FBI documents –  who coordinated security for the younger prince’s travel from Tampa, Ahmed told Sultan to get to Lexington and join him on a flight out of the U.S. 

Reportedly scared by what he considered a hostile atmosphere in the wake of the attacks, Sultan requested and received a guard detail from the Tampa Police Department. A Tampa police officer, John Solomon, later told the 9/11 Commission that he contacted Dan Grossi, a former policeman turned private investigator, to accompany the Saudis on the planned flight to Lexington. Grossi, in turn, contracted retired FBI agent Emanuel “Manny” Perez, to partner with him on the assignment.

The closure of U.S. airspace, meanwhile, led briefly to talk of Prince Sultan and his companions instead making the 700-mile journey to Lexington by car. But an FAA Notice to Airmen – a “NOTAM” – that U.S. airspace would reopen to domestic commercial and charter flights at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 13, cleared them to fly, FAA records show.

At about 4:30 p.m. that afternoon, Grossi met the prince and his party of four – later named as Fahad al-Zied, Ahmed al-Hazmi (the fact that this is the same last name as two of the 9-11 hijackers may well be mere coincidence) and Talal al-Mejrad, son of a Saudi army officer – at Raytheon Services, away from the main Tampa airport terminal. With the Saudis and the security men on board, a cream-colored Lear Jet supplied by the Fort Lauderdale charter company Hop-A-Jet lifted off at 4:37, FAA records and Tampa Airport data show.

Prince looked ‘like a kid who was scared’


Perez, the security man, said that only on landing around 6 p.m. at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport did he realize the flight had been very sensitive – that one of his passengers was a Saudi royal. They were greeted, he recalled in an interview, by a phalanx of security men and a flurry of hand-kissing for young Prince Sultan, who was then in his early 20s.

Lt. Mark Barnard of the Lexington Police Department, who worked liaison at the Kentucky end, would later tell the 9/11 Commission that the prince seemed to him just  “like a kid who was scared,” escorted the young Saudi and his companions to his uncle Prince Ahmed’s hotel, and the two princes and twelve companions left three days later aboard a chartered Boeing 727 en route to Saudi Arabia.

Two years after 9/11, in a Vanity Fair story titled “Saving the Saudis,” author Craig Unger raised numerous questions about the role the FBI had played in facilitating that and various other flights involved in the panicky Saudi exodus from the United States. The article obscured the facts on the travel from Tampa, unfortunately, with a claim that the flight had been allowed to take place “when U.S. citizens were still restricted from flying.” In fact, as the FAA record makes clear, the flight took place several hours after the FAA had opened airspace to charter flights.

In the wake of the Vanity Fair story, when U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and John Kyl raised questions, the FBI prepared a 40-page response for the senators and the White House addressing all Saudi travel out of the U.S. after 9/11. What it reported on the Tampa-Lexington flight, however, was not true.

Instead of just noting that the FAA record showed the travel occurred after U.S. airspace was reopened, the FBI said Sultan and his three companions “had arrived in Lexington from Tampa by car.”

“The four individuals,” the report went on, “had disobeyed the Prince [Ahmed] by traveling by car instead of by jet as the Prince had instructed them.”

FBI insistent: ‘No flights arrived’
The FBI insisted that “No flights arrived” in Lexington on the day in question. The assertion that there had been an incoming flight from Tampa, the FBI claimed, had been “perpetuated” by “hired security personnel” – a clear reference to the Saudis’ escorts, former policeman Grossi and former FBI agent Perez. “One of the members of the private protection detail,” the bureau’s response claimed, “had confidentially told FBI agents in Kentucky the truth about how they arrived in Lexington.”

A 9/11 Commission analysis and FBI documents, however, show  that the FBI’s inquiry into the Tampa flight had relied on a lone source, a  Lexington police officer whose name is also redacted in the released documents. He had merely “hemmed and hawed” when an FBI agent doubted his belief that the Saudis had traveled by air – then suggested the men had in reality traveled by car. The police officer, however, had no first-hand knowledge of the event. The FBI did not at the time interview Grossi or Perez, the security escorts who had flown with the Saudis from Tampa. It interviewed Perez only years later and has never interviewed Grossi.

An FBI departmental memo dated 2003, meanwhile, shows why the bureau was reluctant to believe there had been a flight from Tampa. Having failed to check aviation records that would have shown when exactly the men had flown, it believed “such a flight on 9/13/2001 would have been in violation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight ban.”

As early as four days after the flight, however, the bureau had had good reason to realize that the flight had occurred. Other FBI documents, obtained by the public interest group Judicial Watch, make clear that one of the bureau’s own agents in Lexington had the information as early as Sept. 17. That fact, it seems, was filed and forgotten.

Hillary Clinton presents the 2001 Belmont Stakes winner's trophy to Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, owner of Point Given

The now-retired FBI special agent-in-charge in Tampa, Robert Chiaradio, did not respond to a request for an interview. His counterpart in Lexington, retired Supervisor Robert Foster, agreed last month to discuss these events by email. Of Prince Sultan and his party’s travel from Tampa, Foster said, “We didn’t question the passengers about how they arrived in Lexington.” His agents’ assignment, Foster said, was to identify each passenger leaving the U.S. and “determine if they were on any watch or no fly list prior to their boarding.”

Watch lists aside, the security check was complicated, Foster wrote, because Prince Ahmed had “given an interview to a local TV station attesting to the fact that he was a cousin of Osama bin Laden.” There is no known evidence that Ahmed was in any way related to bin Laden, and no such interview has ever surfaced. If he did make that comment, however, one would have expected it to have alerted the FBI at both local and headquarters level. Apparently it did not. “We did not interview him,” Foster said in his email last month, “I did not investigate his claim to be related to bin Laden. … I did furnish this information to FBI HQ. I do not recall having discussions with FBI HQ regarding not allowing him to leave the U.S.”

The 9/11 Commission later established that none of the 14 Saudis who left for home from Kentucky was interviewed by the FBI before they were allowed to depart. According to the files, moreover, the bureau did not even figure out who Prince Sultan actually was. A Tampa police document had his name correctly as “Sultan bin Fahd,” which  translates as “Sultan son of Fahd,” one of the king’s nephews. Yet FBI documents repeatedly described Sultan as the son of Prince Ahmed, who was his uncle.

Asked to comment on the catalog of apparent errors and omissions reported in this article, FBI spokesperson Kathleen Wright said on Tuesday that the matter was complex and “would be reviewed  for consideration of a response.”

 A senior bin Laden aide now in Guantanamo, Abu Zubaydah, is said by sources – including John Kiriakou, the former CIA officer who led his capture, who said he got his information from CIA documents and colleagues –  to have stated under questioning that al-Qaida had been in contact with Prince Ahmed before 9/11. The prisoner, Kiriakou said, raised the names of Ahmed and two other royals as if to indicate “he had the support of the Saudi government.”

There is a link, too, between Prince Sultan and the post-9/11 investigation in Sarasota. Esam Ghazzawi, a longtime adviser to Sultan’s father, Prince Fahd, owned the Sarasota home suspected of having been visited on multiple occasions by hijack leader Mohamed Atta and several of his accomplices. 

Prince Ahmed died aged 43 in July, 2002, in circumstances that remain unclear. Prince Fahd, 46, had pre-deceased him, dying seven weeks before 9/11. A 2009 report described Prince Sultan as having become chairman of Eirad, a Saudi holding company.

Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden.”

Broward’s city managers use secrecy in push for huge trash deal; public excluded from meetings

By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

City manager's association president Bruce Loucks as seen through a crack in the door during Thursday's not quite closed-door meeting

Broward’s top city and county managers regularly meet in secret to discuss public business, formulate policy and even negotiate contracts.

Five of them currently are hammering out a $1 billion contract for waste disposal for much of the county with the help of a single company, trash giant Waste Management, which wants the work. They are doing this without taking any public discussion or comment

A no bid-deal like that would affect disposal rates for most of the county’s residents and businesses.

When two Broward Bulldog reporters tried to attend Thursday’s Broward City County Management Association (BCCMA) meeting in Sunrise they were told to leave.

Questioned before the doors were shut, association president Bruce Loucks, the city manager in Cooper City, said the meeting was closed to the public.

“We’re not elected officials,” said Loucks, referring to the open meeting requirements of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.  “This is a manager’s association.”

Asked again if reporters could attend on the public’s behalf, Loucks said flatly, “No. You’re not coming in.”

The Sunshine Law does not generally apply to private organizations like the low-profile BCCMA. Still, the law’s broad access requirements have been held to apply when such groups are delegated governmental functions or play an “integral” role in the decision-making process, according to a 2009 Attorney General’s legal opinion.

Broward Bulldog filed public records requests with several cities today in an attempt to determine if the managers have crossed the line

GOVERNMENT OUT OF THE SUNSHINE?

The managers’ meeting was a catered luncheon at the Sunrise Civic Center’s Grand Ballroom, a glass and stone structure surrounded by decorative fountains with rooms featuring crystal chandeliers and plush chairs. It is not known who paid for the event, but at least one city employee – from Parkland – helped check-in attendees.

Other city managers that showed up included Lee Feldman of Fort Lauderdale, Bruce Moeller of Sunrise, John Stunson of Oakland Park and John Flint of Weston. Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry was also present.

The BCCMA is a private association whose dues-paying members run Broward’s municipalities. Those eligible for membership include city managers, other municipal officers and corporate executives “engaged in a business relationship with a local government,” according to its web site.

The association’s meeting agenda was confidential, and its discussions were private. But its web site identifies a dozen “key” economic and political issues including development, the escalating costs of providing police and fire services, and waste management.

Trash disposal has been a recent focus, according to records made public by other governmental bodies.

For example, minutes from the most recent meeting of the county’s Resource Recovery Board show that Weston City Manager appeared before the board to describe how the association is working to craft a contract that may be used to seal the immense, no-bid trash disposal deal with Waste Management.

Such a pact could squeeze out a competitor who has offered lower rates that would be less costly to businesses and residents.

The company’s Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary has had a decades-long monopoly over waste disposal for about 80 percent of Broward’s cities. That monopoly is set to expire next year.

“The city manager’s group met with Wheelabrator on a number of occasions, and have reached an agreement, with the exception of two points: they have not agreed upon a price and they have yet to select a term,” the minutes say.

INSIDERS PLAYING THE SYSTEM

The RRB, as it is known in the industry, is the governing body of Broward’s Solid Waste Disposal District. Its nine members are elected officials from eight cities and the county.

Flint has been trying to extend Wheelabrator’s contract behind closed doors despite attempts by a competitor, Sun/Bergeron, to offer competitive bids.

Weston City Manger John Flint, left, and Cooper City City Manager Bruce Loucks

He told the board the managers’ association was preparing to circulate the draft agreement negotiated with Wheelabrator to “city officials throughout the county.”

Flint bristled when asked before Thursday’s city manager association meeting meeting if the new no-bid waste contract would be discussed in private again that day.

“I have nothing to say,” he said before adding, “I don’t know yet.”

UPSETTING BUSINESS AS USUAL

The county commission in December 2010 rejected a 10-year, $1.5 billion no-bid proposal with Wheelabrator after cities said the negotiated rates were too high.

Outrage over how that deal was pushed led Miramar to go out for bids on its own. It received lower prices. The low bidder was Sun/Bergeron, but the city has yet to award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on. Broward Bulldog has learned Miramar commissioners will convene a special meeting about the bid on March 20 at 6 p.m.

The managers’ talks with Wheelabrator have been going on quietly for more than a year. The idea was to develop an alternative in case Miramar’s bid faltered.

Flint told the Resource Recovery Board in January the new contract is an improvement on the original Wheelabrator proposal because it eliminates risk to the county.

For reasons that have not been explained, Sun/Bergeron was excluded from that process and a company representative was turned away from an earlier association meeting.

“What they are doing is not open government,” said Phil Medico, lawyer for Sun/Bergeron.

 

 

To resuscitate or not to resuscitate PIP insurance — a South Florida pocketbook issue

By Amber Statler-Matthews, BrowardBulldog.org 

The tug-of-war may be in Tallahassee over personal injury protection insurance, but at the heart of the battle are drivers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties who are paying more each year in premiums.

Florida lawmakers are struggling over two bills that would reform or do away with the system altogether.

Time is running out.

The legislative session ends Friday and Gov. Rick Scott is pressuring lawmakers to have a new law in place by then.

“Big insurance companies embroiled in PIP litigation want to either eliminate PIP or create a system where they have virtual immunity from claims delays and wrongful denial,” said Dave Bierman, a Broward insurance claim attorney and certified insurance fraud examiner. “Neither one is good for Floridians.”

Special interest groups have been holding up the legislative process. Trial lawyers, medical providers, small business owners and the insurance industry are feverishly lobbying to protect their bottom line.

If a new bill is passed it will likely be a compromise that includes key parts of both bills. But many on both sides of the issue wonder if it will be enough to bring relief to drivers paying elevated insurance premiums.

THE COST OF FAKE CLAIMS

“Insurance fraud costs the average Florida family between $400 and $700 a year in increased premiums,” according to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

The top four cities for PIP fraud include Miami, Hialeah, Tampa and Orlando.

According to insurance industry “Fast Track” data, in 2008, the average driver paid $500 for PIP. Today, those same drivers in Miami-Dade County are paying as much as $4,000.

Florida is one of 10 states in the nation that requires drivers to carry personal injury insurance protection to pay for medical expenses no matter who is at fault in an accident. Florida’s No-Fault Law requires a minimum of $10,000 of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and $10,000 of property damage liability (PDL).

The crush of bogus claims has caused insurance companies to restrict coverage.

“Because of the over abundance of claims in areas such as Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, insurance companies are already underwriting in a way that denies some drivers the ability to purchase insurance at all,” says Steven Marcus, chairman of the Insurance Committee for Broward Days.

He says some insurance companies look for people who’ve had 5 years of coverage with the same company before they will write a policy.  Others may deny anyone who want coverage of less than $25,000 per person and $50,000 per incident.

“That’s probably going to eliminate 60 percent of the public,” Marcus added.

But the insurance system is not as broken as the insurance companies want people to believe, according to Bierman.

“The insurance industry is blowing up examples of a few bad apples to turn the ‘no-fault system’ into a ‘no-pay system,’” he said.

WHICH APPROACH TO CHOOSE

Trial lawyers like Bierman, the Florida Hospital Association and the lobbying group Floridians for Fair Insurance are backing Senate Bill 1860 introduced by Republican Sen. Joe Negron, of Palm City.

This bill targets fraud by targeting bogus health facilities that file false claims.

Negron’s bill gives hospitals priority standing in PIP claims, tightens licensing requirements on medical clinics and eliminates massage therapists and acupuncturists from filing claims under the PIP system.

What the Senate bill does not do is place specific limits on when drivers or their passengers can seek treatment; nor does it put a cap on attorney fees.

“Negron’s bill is like putting a band aid over a 12-inch slash,” said Marcus, who owns an insurance agency in Coral Springs. “It’s too weak because it doesn’t include criminal penalties for fraud. If this bill gets through, it will be more of the same.”

Marcus, the insurance industry and business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, support House Bill 119 sponsored by Republican Jim Boyd, of Bradenton. This bill basically repeals the current PIP system and requires people injured in auto accidents to go the emergency room.

In an effort to reduce fraud, hospital physicians must diagnose injuries within 72 hours after an accident. This process is designed to keep injured motorists away from fraudulent physicians and suspect medical clinics filing bogus PIP claims.

The Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies, which includes Allstate, State Farm and Geico, also supports the House Bill.

PIP INSURANCE TO LIVE OR DIE

With rising costs fueled by fraud, the state would appear to have reached a critical fork in the road that requires it to either resuscitate the current system or take it off life support.

Insurance companies believe going after fraud is the best approach. The industry backs House Bill 119, which gives them more control of accident investigations.

Floridians for Fair Insurance, made up of lawyers and business leaders, insists supporting the House bill means supporting a “bail out” for the insurance industry.

“Insurance companies want to raise rates and cry poverty but they’re still making massive profits,” said Russell Lazega, an insurance litigator with the group. He is also Bierman’s law partner.

“The solution is simple,” he said. “Just spend the money to prosecute the bad guys and move on to putting Florida back to work. Enough with the insurance industry bailouts.”

Past attempts to reform PIP have failed. But all sides are hoping 2012 is the year for real change.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on a new bill, Florida residents will be left to foot the bill.

According to Bierman, “Big insurance companies embroiled in PIP litigation want to either eliminate PIP or create a system where they have virtual immunity from claims delays and wrongful denial. Neither one is good for Floridians.

Hallandale Beach holds back records in “botched” audit; $20 million in contracts go unchecked

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  

Hallandale Beach City Manager Mark Antonio

An outside auditing firm did not review more than $20 million in Hallandale Beach vendor contracts because the city failed to provide the information and limitations on the scope of the audit.

Auditors mention the large deficiency in an updated audit report to be presented to the city commission for review on Wednesday.

The initial draft audit, obtained by Broward Bulldog six months ago, stated that Hallandale Beach had failed to properly track business transactions made by the City Commission controlled Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

The city hired the Fort Lauderdale auditing firm Marcum Rachlin in August 2010 to inspect three years of vendor contracts that should have totaled $29.2 million. But the vendor contract file city officials turned over to the auditors for review only included contracts for a one year period totaling $8.9 million, the report says.

Auditors later discovered the discrepancy, but by then the terms of the scope of the review had been set and “Marcum’s procedures were limited to reviewing the vendor contracts that were included on the original listing provided by the city,” the report says.

The city is paying $60,000 for the audit.

DISCREPANCY UNEXPLAINED

Mayor Joy Cooper and City Manager Mark Antonio, who were critical of last summer’s draft audit, did not make themselves available to explain the discrepancy, despite repeated requests for interviews.

The city issued a press release late Friday that hailed the audit’s findings, but does not mention that more than two-thirds of the city’s vendor contracts were not audited.

“I am pleased that once all the information was reviewed by the auditors, the results show that city has and continues to follow best business practices,” said Antonio.

Of what auditors could check, a number of the key problems have been rectified but others remain, according to the updated report.

“It shows that the city does not have its financial house in order or doesn’t care about finances,” City Commissioner Keith London said.

London pointed the finger at the administration for an audit he said was “half-done…botched.”

“The city did not provide the information. We can’t blame the auditors; we got to blame the city,” he said. “It’s either incompetence or intentional, either way it’s unacceptable.”

London said he will ask his fellow commissioners to re-hire Marcum Rahlin to review the un-audited $20 million in contracts with vendors.

Auditors stated in both the initial and updated reports that the firm was retained to review procedures applied in vendor contracts between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept., 30, 2010.

The review covered 136 vendor contracts totaling $8.9 million. The report does not say how many vendor contracts are involved in the additional $20 million in contracts.

Of the contracts it reviewed, auditors concluded there appeared to be proper approvals.

CITY SUSPECTED PROBLEMS

Questions about CRA business transactions came to a headafter former City Manager Mike Good was fired by the city commission in June 2010 after chronic absences from work. News reports stated an uncommunicative work style and questionable contracts also were cited as reasons for Good’s dismissal.

Commissioners asked for the audit a few weeks later. Marcum Rachlin was tasked with conducting “an extensive review of the city’s land acquisition program, developer agreements, the awarding of vendor contracts, and CRA expenditures and commercial loan programs,” according to Friday’s press release.

After the initial draft audit was made public six months ago, the city asked the firm to continue working and to revise the report.

The auditors’ updated version lessened some of the problematic findings, but some of the observations regarding land acquisitions and loans to businesses showed continued issues in record keeping.

The updated report cleared previously mentioned problems involving developer agreements with the city.

Regarding loans to businesses, totaling $1.5 million as of June 2010, the report said all agreements reviewed had been properly executed; no loans exceeded the prescribed interest rate; and only two loans did not adhere to a 15 percent forgiveness rate in repaying the city’s money. Those numbers were much higher in the first draft report. The report also said there were various documents still missing in 31 loan files.

The new audit reported progress regarding the location of missing land acquisition documents, as well as some continuing issues.

* Files for 30 acquired properties that were initially thought to be missing were located, but the files for 13 other properties that were later sold could not be found.

* The number of property acquisition files reviewed dropped to 40 from 49 after the files of some properties were accounted for. But 39 of the 40 files were incomplete, and 15 lacked contain purchase authorizations.

In Friday’s press release, Antonio said the report shows the city has “followed almost every policy. The areas they wanted us to address involved misfiled or misplaced documents. They recommended additional checks be added to ensure this does not recur. We agreed and have implemented changes.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

 

Page 43 of 45« First...203040«4142434445»

Newsletter

Notify me by email when new stories are published.

Bulldog Archives