Broward Health’s $70 million settlement leaves risk of criminal charges

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org WhistleblowingDoctor

Court documents describe the massive healthcare fraud that led Broward Health to pay $69.5 million to settle a whistleblower’s lawsuit last week as an illegal “scheme of mutual enrichment” between the hospital system and its physicians.

Was it a criminal scheme?

Justice Department attorneys who handled the case aren’t talking. “As a general policy, the Justice Department does not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation,” said Nicole A. Navas, a department spokeswoman in Washington.

Still, the settlement agreement between the North Broward Hospital District, Broward Health’s legal name, and the government leaves open the possibility that the district and some of its past and present officers, commissioners, attorneys and physicians are the focus of a behind-the-scenes criminal probe.

For example, after releasing them all from civil liability the Justice Department specifically reserved its right to prosecute “any criminal liability” arising from the case. And Broward Health and its affiliates agreed to waive “any defenses they may have to any criminal prosecution” under the double jeopardy clause or the excessive fines clause” in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Similarly, the settlement agreement left Broward Health on the hook for any tax liability under the Internal Revenue Service code. That could be a considerable sum given both the large dollar amounts involved and the duration of the fraud scheme, 14 years.

The chairman of Broward Health’s governing board, David Di Pietro, and the whistleblower’s Atlanta attorney, Bryan Vroon, both said they don’t know if a criminal investigation is underway. Vroon added that such a probe would be “rare, historically.”

NEW RULES 

Earlier this month, however, the Justice Department announced new rules for fighting corporate wrongdoing that emphasize holding individuals, not just companies, criminally accountable.

“One of the most effective ways to combat corporate misconduct is by seeking accountability from the individuals who perpetrated the wrongdoing,” says a Sept. 9 memo to top-level prosecutors by Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates.

Dr. Michael Reilly, an orthopedic surgeon who blew the whistle on fraud at Broward Health

Dr. Michael Reilly, an orthopedic surgeon who blew the whistle on fraud at Broward Health

Should a criminal investigation be initiated, court records reveal an abundance of evidence describing how Broward Health and its individual administrators and physicians profited personally from the enormous fraud.

The $69.5 million settlement ended a five-year-old federal investigation that began with a 2010 federal False Claims Act lawsuit filed by whistleblower Dr. Michael Reilly, a Fort Lauderdale orthopedic surgeon. The government paid Reilly $12 million as a reward, or a bit more than 17 percent of the settlement amount.

Broward Health must pay Reilly an additional $860,000 for his attorney’s fees and costs, bringing the district’s immediate outlay in the deal to $70.4 million. That doesn’t include more than $10 million the district has already paid to an out-of-state law firm for legal advice in the matter.

Broward Health Chairman Di Pietro said the payout, while huge, wouldn’t require the district to cut services or hike taxes. He said that’s because the money will come from the district’s approximately $800 million in reserve funds.

Nevertheless, Broward Health’s proposed operating budget expenditures for 2015-2016 are 6.8 percent more than last year, or $1.27 billion.

In addition to the penalties, Broward Health Chief Executive Dr. Nabil El Sanadi signed a 46-page Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that requires the district to establish a compliance program. Among other things, the agreement imposes new duties on both commissioners and staff to monitor, report and certify that its financial arrangements with physicians and vendors meet federal requirements.

Dr. Reilly, who court papers say rejected an employment offer that would have required him to join Broward Health’s illegal scheme, blew the whistle in April 2010 when he sued the district on behalf of the U.S. alleging fraud under the False Claims Act. The case was filed under seal as provided by law.

Two years later, Reilly filed a third, highly detailed complaint under seal that was the basis for last week’s settlement.

The 118-page complaint contends that numerous doctors were paid in excess of $1 million even though collections for their personal work were much less. It also says Reilly alerted Broward Health’s leadership to the law breaking in 2003, 2004 and 2009, but was ignored.

U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez unsealed the complaint on Sept. 15.

The government’s investigation of Reilly’s claims, led by HHS agents, focused on what turned out to be numerous apparent violations of federal laws enacted to address abuses that occur when doctors have financial relationships with entities to which they refer patients.

THE STARK LAW

The federal Stark Law, for example, generally bars physicians employed by hospitals from referring patients to their employers and prevents hospitals from presenting healthcare claims that flow from prohibited referrals. Exceptions exist for “bona fide employment relationships” in which a doctor’s remuneration takes no account of referrals, is “commercially reasonable” and consistent with fair market value.

Another law, the Anti-Kickback Statute, prohibits hospitals from paying and doctors from accepting “anything of value” as a reward for referrals. The law includes civil assessments of up to three times the amount of the kickbacks. 

Violators can also be barred from participation in federal healthcare programs and face up to five years in prison per violation.

Reilly’s third complaint says that instead of complying with the law “Broward Health has done the exact opposite.”

“In compensating its employed physicians from 2004 through the present, Broward Health has deliberately and repeatedly violated all three of these requirements,” the complaint says.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine

While Broward Health admitted no wrongdoing, it settled without challenge serious and embarrassing allegations about a long-hidden scheme involving the payment of kickbacks to doctors who referred their patients to Broward Health’s four hospitals and other facilities for expensive testing and treatment.

“I think paying $70 million without litigation says something,” said attorney Vroon.

Representing the government were Justice Department Senior Trial Counsel David T. Cohen and West Palm Beach Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine.

The settlement agreement, signed by Dr. El Sanadi and lawyers for the district, says the illegal scheme went on from 2000 until last year.

Nine staff doctors are identified in the settlement as having had “improper” contracts that the government contends violated the federal Physician Self-Referral Law. Specifically, it was alleged that Broward Health grossly overpaid those doctors to obtain larger referral profits in return.

The physician who benefited the longest from such overcompensation was cardiologist Michael Chizner, medical director of Broward Health’s Heart Center of Excellence. His contract was in effect from April 1, 2000 until May 31, 2014, the settlement says.

PHYSICIANS TAKE PAY CUTS

FloridaBulldog.org reported in January that Chizner accepted a pay cut from $1.2 million to a maximum of $867,000, and a requirement that he treat poor people after the district threatened him with termination. Broward Health acted to impose those terms after declaring Chizner’s contract illegal in the wake of pressure from federal authorities.

Broward Health cardiologist Michael Chizner Photo: WPLG-Channel 10

Broward Health cardiologist Michael Chizner Photo: WPLG-Channel 10

Many other doctors also accepted pay cuts and contracts modified to comply with federal law.

The other Broward Health physicians on the list are cardiologists Violeta McCormack, John Rozanski and Ashok Sharma; orthopedic surgeons George Caldwell and Erol Yoldas, team physicians for the Florida Marlins; Rudolph Roskos, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Chris Evert Children’s Hospital, and pediatrician Hector Rodriguez-Cortes; and Shazia Zafar, a hematologist now with Memorial Healthcare.

More than a half-dozen other doctors are mentioned elsewhere in the third amended complaint as having been paid excessively as part of Broward Health’s scheme to generate lucrative referrals.

Court documents estimate that from 2004 to 2011 Medicare and Medicaid suffered $147.5 million in damages due to improper claims filed as a result of “tainted” referrals by Broward Health physicians. If the case had gone to trial, Broward Health faced the possibility of being found liable for more than $700 million in actual and punitive damages.

The estimates did not include damages prior to 2004 or damages suffered by Tricare, the military’s health system, or other federal health insurance programs for federal employees.

Dr. Reilly’s complaint says Broward Health, a medical safety net that’s obliged to treat patients regardless of their ability to pay, used a secret accounting system to turn up the heat on doctors whose referrals lagged “even when patient care was compromised.”

“When employed orthopedic surgeons had significant concerns regarding the quality of Broward Health’s radiology and MRI imaging services and chose to refer patients to other facilities for such services, Broward Health’s financial strategists pressured the orthopedic surgeons to continue to make referrals of all radiology services to Broward Health,” the papers says.

Broward Health chairman Di Pietro denied that patient care was compromised in a statement released last week. He said the investigation was “focused solely on highly complicated contracts with physicians. This investigation was never about patient care.”

Broward Health Commission chairman David Di Pietro Photo: WPLG-Channel 10

Broward Health Commission chairman David Di Pietro Photo: WPLG-Channel 10

Vroon, however, said the probe “has everything to do with quality of care.” He said that if the case had not settled, government lawyers would have scoured physicians’ medical charts looking for unnecessary patient testing or procedures. “But Broward Health settled way before it got to that point,” Vroon said.

To obtain referrals, the district grossly overpaid doctors in each of its five physician practice groups – primary care, cardiology, hematology/oncology, orthopedics and “other,” the complaint says.

That excessive compensation generated approximately $160 million in losses for Broward Health from 2004 to 2012 alone, the complaint says.

In an interview, lawyer Vroon, said the estimated losses rise to $200 million for conduct dating back to the start of the scheme in 2000.

Thousands of Medicare and Medicaid patients referred to Broward Health for testing and treatment by its staff physicians more than erased those losses.

EXCESSIVE COMPENSATION, BIG LOSSES

In 2009, for example, excessive compensation paid to employed physicians across the Broward health system was cited as the primary factor in a net operating loss of $17.5 million. But $28 million in doctors’ referral profits transformed that loss into an $11.4 million profit, the complaint says.

Doctors went along with the scheme because their pay was “more than fair market value and more than they can ever hope to collect for their personal services,” the complaint says.

Broward Health’s focus on bottom-line profit was part of a “deliberate” scheme in which administrators used what amounted to a second set of books to secretly track and conceal the fraud from Broward taxpayers and federal regulators.

“Broward Health’s physician compensation strategy has been a scheme of mutual enrichment in which Broward Health has paid its employed physicians far in excess of the value of their personal services while Broward Health has received massive profit in inpatient and outpatient referral from such physicians,” the complaint says.

Much of those profits came via federal healthcare programs. Since 2004, Broward Health was paid more than $2 billion by Medicare and Medicaid.

“A significant portion” of those dollars “derived from inpatient and outpatient referrals by employed physicians receiving excessive compensation,” the complaint says.

Broward Health and its doctors weren’t the only ones to make money in the fraud scheme. The complaint cites district “financial strategists” who “personally profited from their scheme under a bonus compensation program based in part on revenues from inpatient admissions and outpatient visits to Broward Health hospitals and clinics.”

Broward Health’s first management incentive plan for executives was approved in 2003. Bonuses were as high as 20 percent of annual salary based on financial performance.

Besides the hospital district, the complaint lists 100 “John Doe” defendants identified only as “contractors, agents, partners and/or representatives” that were part of the conspiracy to submit false healthcare claims.

“The Broward Health defendants have knowingly and repeatedly violated federal Stark and Anti-Kickback laws (and) have knowingly submitted thousands of false claims to federal healthcare programs which arose through tainted referrals from employed physicians receiving excessive compensation,” the complaint says.

The case surfaced in May 2011 when HHS agents served a subpoena on Broward Health seeking records of its business dealings with 27 physicians, including information about compensation, hospital admissions and referrals dating to 2000.

Federal agents went on to build a case based on “extensive evidence” supplied by Dr. Reilly, including information that court papers say was derived from “secretive internal reports kept and concealed by Broward Health and from private communications and private admissions of Broward Health officers.”

FLORIDA’S PUBLIC RECORDS LAW VIOLATED?

The complaint says that before hiring a physician, Broward Health projected the value and volume of their anticipated referrals and used it to calculate compensation. After a doctor was hired, the district tracked their referrals in secret “Contribution Margin Reports,” Broward Health lingo for referral profits, the complaint says.

The complaint notes that those “CMR” reports and other evidence of Stark law violations were “deliberately concealed” from the public even though the hospital district is subject to Florida’s Sunshine and public records laws.

The CMR reports were also used to track physicians’ uncompensated referrals – that is, referred patients whose care is subsidized mostly by Broward tax dollars. Broward Health forced doctors who referred those patients to pay the balance due out of their income, the complaint says.

Similarly, the district tracked charity case referrals and “used such data to discourage employed physicians from making significant charity referrals” that would reduce Broward Health’s profits.

Indeed, the idea of giving back to the community appears to have been foreign to many of Broward Health’s staff doctors.

“The overall charity care numbers for employed physicians are extremely low,” the complaint says. For example, in 2009 25 employed physicians practicing at Broward General produced total revenue from compensated care of just over $13 million, but their total charity care was “a minuscule $88.”

The complaint cites former Broward Health Vice President of Physician Services Brian Ulery as having “touted” CMRs in private meetings and confirming they’d been “concealed and ‘not listed in our financials.’” Ulery resigned four months after the subpoena was served in 2011.

Likewise, the complaint refers to a similar admission by then-Broward Health Chief Executive Frank Nask during a private conversation with Dr. Reilly in May 2009. Reilly had asked Nask why sports medicine orthopedic surgeons were being paid at such high levels to cause operating losses each year.

“We are making money off these guys,” the complaint says Nask replied. “These numbers don’t include what they’re bringing in with labs, P.T. (physical therapy) diagnostics etc.”

Nask was pushed out last fall by the district’s board of commissioners, all appointees of Gov. Rick Scott, amid the pressure of the federal investigation. To get him to step down quietly, one knowledgeable source said, Nask was given a lucrative one-year consulting deal at his CEO salary of $617,000, plus benefits.

“These payments and benefits shall be provided to Nask regardless of whether a request is made for consulting services by the district,” his contract says.

In search of referrals, Broward Health boosted compensation to some cardiologists by awarding them what the complaint calls “sham” contracts as medical directors that required little or no work.

“One medical director does his personal exercise workout and counts such hours as his ‘medical director’ hours. One ‘medical director does not know how to read studies in the laboratory for which he is the director. Yet another ‘medical director’ counts hours doing procedures as ‘director’ hours,” says the complaint, which labeled the practice a “boondoggle.”

The cardiologists identified in the complaint as having gotten those sham medical directorships were Drs. Chizner, Sharma, McCormack, Rozanski and David Perloff.

Florida’s First Lady invests quietly in investment firm that mirrors governor’s old company

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Governor Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott Photo: Meredyth Hope Hall

Governor Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott Photo: Meredyth Hope Hall

Florida First Lady Ann Scott doesn’t talk publicly about where she invests the many millions of dollars in assets her husband, Governor Rick Scott, has transferred to her since his election in 2010. She doesn’t have to because Florida’s public officials, including the governor, are not required to disclose a spouse’s assets.

But Securities and Exchange Commission records reveal one place she’s sunk a lot of money is an obscure “family” investment firm that boasts $160 million under management and operates using the online name Scott Capital Partners.

Scott Capital looks a lot like a corporate doppelganger of Richard L. Scott Investments, the governor’s private equity firm where he made millions for himself and his family putting together big-money investment deals.

SEC records show that three men who worked for Gov. Scott when he ran Richard L. Scott Investments now operate Scott Capital, which describes itself using the same three-sentence paragraph once used by RLSI. Scott Capital’s online portfolio boasts more than a half-dozen large investments actually made years ago by RLSI.

One of those investments was Solantic, which operated a chain of walk-in clinics. According to media reports, Gov. Scott transferred his $62 million investment in Solantic to his wife’s revocable trust amid allegations of conflict of interest shortly before taking office. Mrs. Scott reportedly sold the family’s stake in Solantic in June 2011.

Another Scott Capital feature that makes it look a lot like the RLSI organization run by Rick Scott is that RLSI’s law firm – Bradley Arant Boult Cummings – is now Scott Capital’s law firm.

That legal link also ties Scott Capital back to another Rick Scott venture because partner Stephen T. Braun, based in the firm’s Nashville office, was general counsel to Columbia/HCA Healthcare when Gov. Scott led that company. Braun and his firm have represented RLSI and Rick and Ann Scott in various stock transactions.

HIDING CONNECTIONS

While lineage with a sitting governor could be a valuable asset, Scott Capital has gone out of its way to obscure its connections to Florida’s governor and First Lady.

Online biographies of Scott Capital’s three principals – Gregory David Scott, Andrew K. Maurer and F. Bradley Scholtz – don’t mention that they once worked for Gov. Scott at RLSI. Instead, the bios each say they started with Scott Capital in the years the men actually began at RLSI.

The governor and Mrs. Scott would not be interviewed about Scott Capital, and the governor’s office did not answer written questions about the family’s relationship with the investment advisor firm based in Rowayton, Connecticut.

While Scott Capital doesn’t capitalize on its heritage, its website does not identify the firm’s own full legal name: G. Scott Capital Partners LLC. That omission is an impediment to obtaining public regulatory information about the firm and is odds with the company’s own statements on its annual registration applications to the SEC.

On those forms, the SEC requires investment advisers to disclose both their full legal name and the “name under which you primarily conduct your advisory business.” The name Scott Capital Partners isn’t listed on the company’s SEC filings.

The SEC disclosure forms are more forthcoming about the backgrounds of Gregory Scott, Maurer and Scholtz, stating that each worked for Richard L. Scott Investments LLC until 2012, around the time that name was shed and Scott Capital Partners was incorporated.

“Yes, it was in that time frame,” Scholtz said when asked when the name Richard L. Scott Investments was dropped and Scott Capital Partners was formed. Scholtz, who originates and evaluates private equity deals, referred further questions to Managing Director Gregory Scott.

Gregory Scott indicated his name was used to reflect his majority interest in the firm, which records show was organized as a limited liability company in Delaware in November 2012.

‘NOT RELATED TO RICK’

“I have the same last name. I’m not related to Rick, but that’s all I want to say. Why would I speak to a reporter?” he said.

SEC records say Gregory Scott owns 50 to 75 percent of the holding company that owns Scott Capital. Tally 1, a limited liability company incorporated in Delaware in November 2012 and controlled by the First Lady, owns the rest. The Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust, which pumped $11.3 million into Gov. Scott’s 2010 campaign, owns a controlling interest in Tally 1.

Gregory Scott described the First Lady, an interior decorator by trade, as a “passive investor.”

The governor’s office did not respond to written questions asking whether Gov. Scott has an ownership interest in Tally 1. When Gregory Scott was asked if Gov. Scott was involved with Scott Capital he said, “That’s enough” and concluded the interview.

Gov. Scott’s lawyers told the Commission on Ethics last year that the governor placed all of his assets in a blind trust in 2011 to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” himself to the nature of his enormous investments in stocks, bonds and other entities. The First Lady’s assets were not included and nothing in Florida law prevents the First Lady from telling her husband how she is investing the assets he gave her or prevents him from suggesting to her how she should invest her assets.

In March, BrowardBullldog.org reported that Florida’s 2013 blind trust law has proved ineffective in preventing public disclosure of the governor’s personal riches due to federal disclosure requirements regarding large stock transactions.

This year alone, through various entities including the blind trust, the Scotts made more than $20 million selling shares in two publicly traded companies, Argan and NTS communications. Argan’s principal subsidiary, power plant builder Gemma Power Systems, does business in Florida.

TRUSTEE IS EX-PARTNER, EMPLOYEE

A subsequent story reported that Alan Bazaar, chief executive of Hollow Brook Wealth Management which serves as the independent trustee of the governor’s $72 million blind trust, worked for Scott at RLSI for more than a decade prior to his run for governor. The governor and Bazaar also were partners a decade ago in a lucrative investment in a Deerfield Beach computer security company called Cyberguard.

Scott Capital reported to the SEC on March 27 that it provides management services for family investment accounts, a start-up private equity fund and an unspecified number of limited liability companies that facilitate large investments in single companies. The firm is paid a percentage of assets under management, performance fees and is reimbursed by clients for overhead.

As of Dec. 31, Scott Capital said it managed $160 million in client assets, most of it from a handful of high net worth individuals. Its public filings don’t identify them, but Scott Capital’s history, structure, ownership and portfolio indicate they include members of Gov. Scott’s family.

Scott Capital’s largest managed asset is RLSI-CSP Capital Partners, a limited liability company that SEC paperwork identifies as a private fund with a gross asset value of $120 million.

Gov. Scott created RLSI-CSP Capital Partners in 2005 in order to purchase Continental Structural Plastics, an Ohio-based automotive and air conditioning company supplier. Financial records made public last summer state that Gov. Scott put his ownership units in RLSI-CSP into his blind trust in 2011, valuing his stake at $14.2 million.

There is other overlap between the portfolios of Scott Capital and Gov. Scott’s blind trust. Both have reported large stakes in Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy, a Colorado-based drug store chain, and Strike and Spare family entertainment and bowling centers of Tennessee.

A NEW DEAL

Scott Capital’s lone deal since Mrs. Scott’s investment is the May 2013 acquisition of of Valterra Products. The deal was accomplished using two limited liability corporations that Scott Capital’s SEC filings valued at $11.5 million. Valterra, headquartered in California, manufactures fluid control products for recreational vehicles, pools and spas and other industries.

Around the same time that Richard L. Scott Investments LLC employees moved to Scott Capital Partners, RLSI dropped the governor’s name and changed its name to Columbia Collier Management.

RLSI’s corporate history prior to 2007, the year of its incorporation in Florida, is unclear.  The venture capital firm with offices in Naples, Stamford, Connecticut and New York City, said it was established in 1997, yet a search of corporate records in more than a half dozen other states where Scott is known to have done business turned up no record that RLSI was previously incorporated.

Asked about that, the governor’s office did not respond.

It wasn’t until last year that First Lady Ann Scott began signing RLSI’s annual reports. This February, the company changed it name to that of the company that has managed it since 2007 – Columbia Collier Management.

Among Columbia Collier Management’s affiliates is another limited liability company set up by businessman Richard L. Scott in 2007, Columbia Collier Properties. Today, that entity is the registered owner of the Cessna Citation jet that Gov. Rick Scott uses to travel around Florida and elsewhere at his own expense, but with little public accountability.

The asset list for the governor’s blind trust does not mention Richard L. Scott Investments. It does, however, list ownership units in Columbia Collier Management that Scott valued at $2.2 million in April 2011.

Asked whether the governor maintains an ownership interest in Columbia Collier Management, spokesman John Tupps said, “Governor Scott is in full compliance with Florida’s blind trust laws.”

FBI’s attempt to water down judicial order denied; 9/11 documents begin to flow to judge

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers fbitower.jpg

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge Friday gave the FBI another week to produce tens of thousands of pages from its massive 9/11 investigation for his inspection, but forcefully denied government requests that he water down his own previous order requiring disclosure.

Hours after the order was filed, a government lawyer filed court papers saying the Justice Department had delivered “27 pages of classified material” to the court for the judge’s private, or “in camera,” inspection.

The legal developments are among a flurry of recent activity in the Freedom of Information case that was filed by BrowardBulldog.org in 2012. The suit seeks records from a once secret FBI investigation into apparent pre-9/11 terrorist activity in Sarasota.

“What’s important here is that the Justice Department was seeking wholesale reconsideration of the prior order and the judge instead issued a stern rejection of the idea that he undo what he had previously ordered,” said the Bulldog’s Miami attorney, Thomas Julin.

The investigation focused on a Saudi family with ties to the Royal family and apparent connections to some of the 9/11 hijackers and another terrorist figure who once lived in Broward. The investigation began after Abdulaziz al Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their upscale home in a gated community about two weeks before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, leaving behind cars, furniture, clothing and food in the kitchen.

NEIGHBORS CALL THE AUTHORITIES

Suspicious neighbors summoned authorities starting the day of the attacks. Sources have said agents later found evidence that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta, several other hijackers and former Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al Hijji’s home. Shukrijumah is now believed to be an al Qaeda leader and is wanted by the FBI.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show the FBI continued to investigate al-Hijji until at least 2004. Yet the Bureau never disclosed the existence of the Sarasota probe to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11, or the subsequent 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry.

On April 4, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a thorough search of its records for documents responsive to the news organization’s Freedom of Information request and produce photocopies to him by April 18. The order informed the FBI that it had failed to convince him that its prior records searches were adequate under the law.

The order included specific instructions to the FBI as to how it is to conduct the latest search, from requiring it to search using its new $440 million Sentinel case management system down to the names and words that are to be used in text searches.

Sen. Graham applauded Zloch’s order, saying it gave “a strong, clear directive to the FBI. He called it “the closest in 12 years that we’ve been to achieving” the release of government information that might shed new light on who was behind the terrorist attacks.

But the government pushed back.

GOVERNMENT SEEKS MORE TIME, LESS REQUIREMENTS

On Thursday, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee filed a motion seeking a two-week delay – until May 2 – to turn over what he estimates is 92,000 pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office.

Lee also told Zloch the FBI was scanning each of those pages, which fill 23 boxes and include some records labeled secret, and asked for permission “to deliver the Tampa (9/11) sub file to the court in a searchable CD format, in lieu of photocopies.”

The judge, however, signaled that he won’t tolerate much delay. He granted just a one-week extension of his deadline and told the government it must produce both the photocopies and the digitized version of the records in searchable format.  He gave the FBI until May 2 to turn over the digitized records.

Zloch denied outright the government’s request that it not be required to conduct a manual search of its records. Lee had proposed instead that the government be allowed to use an optical character reader to search the newly digitized records.

“Defendants may employ the OCR search capability, but not as a substitute for the manual review ordered by the court,” the judge’s order said.

Finally, Judge Zloch dismissed the government’s request that he reconsider his prior order directing the FBI to conduct additional text searches using the names of specific individuals, including Abdulaziz al Hijj and his father-in-law Esam Ghazzawi, once an adviser to a Saudi prince and the owner of the home apparently visited by the hijackers.

The government has contended the privacy interests of al Hijji, Ghazzawi and others outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure of records the FBI may have on them.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

Gov. Scott quietly rakes in millions from stock sales; Florida’s blind trust law ineffective

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott Photo: Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel

Gov. Rick Scott
Photo: Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel

Over the last 15 months, Gov. Rick Scott and his wife, Ann, through various entities, made more than $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan Inc., a publicly-traded company whose subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems, does business in Florida.

The Scotts’ Argan profits were magnificent, more than quadruple their investment.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust sold 140,976 of those Argan shares worth $2.54 million on Dec. 20, 2012. After the sale, the blind trust retained more than 520,000 Argan shares worth $9.43 million.

You aren’t supposed to know that. Gov. Scott isn’t supposed to know it either.

Not long after taking office in 2011, Scott put his personal portfolio of stocks including Argan, bonds and other financial assets into the blind trust that’s managed by others. The idea was to eliminate any appearance of a conflict of interest between the governor’s financial assets and his official duties by “blinding” him  – and the public – to the nature of his vast holdings.

Yet an investigation by BrowardBulldog.org has found that the governor’s blind trust, and Florida’s qualified blind trust law, have been ineffective. They have not prevented public disclosure of Gov. Scott’s personal riches.

MILLIONS IN BLIND TRUST ASSETS VISIBLE 

Millions of dollars of assets placed in the Richard L. Scott Blind Trust – securities, partnership interests and the like – are not veiled as the law intended. They are visible to Scott or anyone else who knows where to look. They are a matter of public record.

The reason: Florida’s blind trust law is trumped by the public reporting requirements of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

“The public is not benefiting from Florida’s so-called blind trust policies. It’s really not a blind trust. It’s more like a removable blindfold,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida.

No one in the governor’s office, including General Counsel Peter Antonacci, would be interviewed for this story.

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

In response to emailed questions, Scott spokesman John Tupps said, “The governor’s blind trust is controlled by an independent trustee by law. He has no knowledge of any blind trust activity or transaction since his assets were placed in the blind trust on April 30, 2011.”

Still, publicly available SEC records show that just two weeks ago the governor and the First Lady cashed out another $10 million from the stock market when their five million shares in the publicly traded telecommunications firm NTS, held indirectly through several entities they control, were acquired in a merger. NTS changed is name from XFONE in 2012.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust accounted for a quarter of that total, or $2.5 million, the records show. Half of the Scotts’ stake, including the blind trust’s shares, were acquired at a bargain basement price directly from NTS on Nov. 2, 2011 – nearly one year to the day after Scott’s election.

The governor voluntarily created his blind trust about four months after his inauguration. Because public officials in Florida are not required to report spouses’ holdings, only financial assets owned directly in Scott’s name, or by the Richard L. Scott Revocable Trust, went into the trust.

Florida’s qualified blind trust law, signed by Gov. Scott last May 1, allows public officers to find legal safe harbor from prohibited conflicts of interest by using such trusts to hold their assets outside their knowledge or control.

Over the summer, Scott sought a ruling from the ethics commission that his blind trust met the new law’s standards and that he was entitled to its protection. In September, after Scott’s lawyers disclosed a list of initial assets placed into the trust, the ethics commission ruled that “under the circumstances presented,” Scott’s blind trust complies with state law.

So far, the extremely wealthy Scott is the only public official in Florida to create a qualified blind trust to shield his assets, according to the Commission on Ethics.

‘SECRECY APPROACH FAILED’

Today, however, the governor’s safe harbor seems in jeopardy because of the blind trust’s inability to keep his assets hidden from public view.

Dan Krassner, executive director of nonprofit Integrity Florida

Dan Krassner, executive director of nonprofit Integrity Florida

“The secrecy approach to accountability has failed and full disclosure is the solution. Lawmakers should repeal the blind trust law and instead have a policy of full disclosure of private financial interests of public officials,” said Integrity Florida’s Krassner.

The blind trust’s shortcomings would appear to create an immediate potential problem for Gov. Scott in his oversight role as chair of the State Board of Administration.

The SBA, with more than $176 billion in public money under management, invests widely on behalf of the Florida Retirement System and other funds, including the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, which manages the state’s tobacco settlement monies. The funds are run day-to-day by SBA staff and an executive director who serves at the pleasure of the SBA’s trustees – Gov. Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The pension fund and the Chiles fund own stock in hundreds of corporations. We now know, however, that includes stock in companies in which the governor’s blind trust is also heavily invested. One example is Argan. At the end of 2013, the SBA reported the state funds owned $260,000 in Argan shares.

Do Scott’s large investments in corporations whose shares are also owned by the pension plan and the Chiles fund create a conflict for him as SBA chair?

“The interests in question were acquired prior to (Scott’s) holding office. Interests such as these, residing in an office holder’s blind trust, do not create any conflict of interest,” spokesman Tupps said in an email.

The SEC generally considers beneficial ownership of more than five percent of a publicly traded company’s shares to be significant enough to report to the public. Persons who acquire such a large stake must promptly disclose, then file updates to reflect material sales or purchases. Insiders who own more than 10 percent of a company are subject to additional reporting rules.

SCOTT’S NET WORTH $83.8 MILLION

Gov. Scott reported a net worth of $83.8 million in June. His stock holdings sometimes amount to hundreds of thousands, even millions of shares – stakes large enough to trigger SEC public reporting requirements.

Reports filed at the SEC detail a number of large transactions involving stock beneficially owned by the governor, including shares of Argan and NTS.

The reports bear Scott’s electronic signature as the person who filed them.

Asked about that, the governor’s office said Scott didn’t personally file those reports, adding they were filed by an authorized trustee on his behalf.

SEC regulations, however, require insiders and large beneficial owners like Scott who use an authorized representative to disclose. Representatives are instructed by the SEC to use their typed signature and then indicate that they are signing on behalf of the person they represent. Authorizing documents, such as a power of attorney, must also be filed publicly with the SEC.

SEC reports about the Argan and NTS transactions are signed by one person, Scott. And a review of related SEC records filed by Scott and his blind trust trustee, Hollow Brook Wealth Management, found nothing that authorizes others to sign government forms or schedules on the governor’s behalf.

$10.8 MILLION IN ARGAN SALES IN JANUARY

As recently as seven weeks ago, an ownership report filed under the governor’s electronic signature reported the sale of another 350,000 Argan shares in seven transactions from January 10 to January 22. The reported price per share was between $30 and $30.45. The gross sales price: $10.8 million.

The report lists Hollow Brook Chief Executive Alan L. Bazaar only as a “person authorized to receive [SEC] notices and communications.”

Scott’s report does not identify the specific accounts, trusts or entities involved in those most recent sales of Argan shares. But a prior insider report about the December 2012 Argan sales show the Scott family has used a trio of entities to buy and sell the company’s shares – the blind trust, the F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust, named for Florida’s First Lady, and the Richard L. and F. Annette Scott Family Partnership.

Together, those three entities grossed $6.3 million selling Argan shares at that time, Scott reported.

The Scotts remain large stakeholders in Argan. In January, following the latest sales, the governor disclosed that he remains the beneficial owner of 965,255 Argan shares, or 6.8 percent of the company. At Wednesday’s closing price for Argan stock of $28.10 a share, that’s $27.1 million.

While the federal government deems Scott to be a beneficial owner of his wife of 41 years’ revocable trust and her share of the family partnership, Florida does not require him to report that ownership interest or place it in the blind trust. To protect him back home, Scott’s reports to the SEC about his beneficial ownership include a small print disclaimer that they should not be construed as an admission that he is actually a beneficial owner.

According to its literature, Argan’s primary business is designing and building power plants through its wholly owned subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems.

In the early 2000s, before Argan acquired it, Gemma constructed plants in Bartow, Arcadia and Wachula for Progress Energy and El Paso International. After 2005, Gemma let its registration to do business in Florida lapse for several years. Gemma reinstated its registration with the Division of Corporations in March 2011.

NTS, recently acquired by affiliates of a Connecticut private equity firm, does not do business in Florida. NTS boasts obtaining $100 million in federal stimulus funds to bring its internet access services to rural areas in Texas and Louisiana.

THE SCOTTS DOUBLE DOWN

Records show that on Nov. 2, 2011, the Scotts doubled their substantial NTS stake by taking advantage of an offering to existing shareholders to buy additional shares directly from the company at a discount to the market. The blind trust, the First Lady’s revocable trust and the family partnership paid $750,000 to acquire more than 2.5 million shares, Scott reported. The shares cost 30 cents each. Open market trades of NTS shares that day ranged from 40 to 41 cents a share.

Last month, the Scotts received $2 a share for each of the five million NTS shares they began accumulating in 2007. Profit: $2.5 million.

But the Scott’s NTS gains are eclipsed by profits from their investments in Argan.

In February 2011, about two months before the blind trust was created, Scott reported he was the beneficial owner of 1,673,000 Argan shares. Records show he’d acquired those shares, about 14 percent of the company, in a half dozen transactions by a limited liability company called Argan Investments since 2006.

In the fall of 2010, Argan Investments was dissolved and its holdings distributed to its members: the First Lady’s trust, the family trust and the Richard L. Scott Revocable Trust, which was later placed into the blind trust.

The Scotts paid $9.5 million for their Argan shares. In little more than a year they’ve sold less than half their stake for $17 million while retaining nearly a million shares worth many millions more.

SEC files contain public information about other stocks that were listed as assets in the governor’s blind trust in 2011.

MeetMe is a social networking company known as Quepasa Corp. when it was based in West Palm Beach. It was registered to do business in Florida from 2007 until last September.

MRS. SCOTT BUYS A MILLION SHARES AS 2013 LEGISLATURE CONVENES

The blind trust document valued the governor’s Quepasa investment at $1.4 million. That translated to about 167,000 shares at the time the trust was established.

While no subsequent reports were filed with the SEC regarding Scott’s MeetMe investment, the New York City investment firm Scott hired to manage his blind trust, Hollow Brook, reported holding 331,628 MeetMe shares at the end of 2012.

Hollow Brook has other clients and its report does not identify the owner or owners of those MeetMe shares. Still, MeetMe reported a few months later that in exchange for $2.75 million Richard L. Scott Investments had acquired one million MeetMe shares on the first day of the 2013 Legislative session.

Richard L. Scott Investments, now run by Ann Scott, changed its name this year to Columbia Collier Management. Among its other assets: the nine-passenger Cessna Citation business jet Gov. Scott uses to fly around Florida at his own expense, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Hollow Brook’s quarterly holdings report for the period ending Sept. 30, 2013 listed 1,331,628 MeetMe shares. By year end, however, Hollow Brook reported holding no MeetMe stock.

What happened to the MeetMe shares owned by the governor’s blind trust and Richard L. Scott Investments, now known as Columbia Collier? Were shares sold, transferred or otherwise disposed of?

SEC records don’t say. Scott’s office said the governor doesn’t know, and Hollow Brook Chief Executive Alan Bazaar declined to comment.

Senate leaders want special districts covered by state lobbyist registration laws

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Key lawmakers in Tallahassee say they will introduce reform legislation this session to require lobbyists at independent special districts to publicly register and disclose who they work for and how much they’re being paid.

Those often obscure, special-purpose governments spend billions of public dollars every year raised from taxpayers or through bond sales, fees or assessments. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages more than two to one.

Yet as BrowardBulldog.org reported last week, only three independent special districts have adopted any kind of lobbyist registration requirements.

Legislators from both parties supported a change in state law to make lobbyist registration mandatory at special districts.

“This is an area that we intend to deal with in a second ethics bill that will come before the Legislature this year,” said Senate President Don Gaetz. “There are a number of things that either didn’t get in last year’s ethics bill, or weren’t contemplated, and this is one of them.”

“I personally support the idea that ethical standards, including lobbyist registration, apply to special districts,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue.”

Gaetz also wants to make registration obligatory for all local governments, which also are not covered by state lobbyist regulations.

Most of Florida’s larger counties and cities have enacted lobbyist registration ordinances to promote integrity and transparency in the decision-making process. A notable exception: the city of Lakeland, with a 2012 citywide budget of $556.1 million.

In November 2011, however, a little-noticed survey by the Florida League of Cities found that “only 15 percent of municipalities require lobbyists to register in their city.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, is working with Gaetz to assemble the new ethics bill. He said he was surprised to learn about the lack of lobbyist registration at special districts.

“It never dawned on me that these special districts would not have some sort of lobbying mechanism for registration,” Latvala said. “I think it’s especially important for the water management districts and other large districts, but there are a lot of small independent special districts and I’m not sure whether they have enough staff to keep up with this.”

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, called independent special districts a “shadow government.”

“Special districts should have lobbyist registration,” said Ring, D-Parkland. “They have gotten away with this because they are government out of the sunshine. We need to start treating them more as if they are in it.”

Independent special districts provide dozens of specialized services to residents across the state, including hospitals, ports and airports, mosquito control, transportation and highways and community development. Collectively, they spend in excess of $11 billion in public funds annually.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, documented the absence of lobbyist registration at nearly all of Florida’s 992 independent special districts.

House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a statement indicating he intends to follow the Senate’s lead about ethics reform, including the expansion of laws regarding lobbyist registration requirements.

“Last year, the Legislature passed a historic ethics reform bill and President Gaetz was a tremendous leader on the issue. I look forward to working with him on the issue again this year,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Gov. Rick Scott likewise appears receptive to the idea of reform.

“Governor Scott looks forward to working with the Legislature to make sure special taxing districts operate as transparently as possible so taxpayers can hold them accountable,” said Jackie Schutz, the governor’s press secretary.

Cooper City shrinks official minutes: “Details you really don’t want the public to know about”

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

A Broward Sheriff's captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

A Broward Sheriff’s captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

Emotions boiled as the Cooper City commissioners talked angrily over each other.

“You do this crap all the time,” Commissioner John Sims shouted at then-Mayor Debby Eisinger, accusing her of trying to ram through a commission vote to spend money to send flyers to residents about an upcoming city vote to change the town charter. “I’ve had it up to here.”

“You are extremely disruptive,” Eisinger fired back during that Aug. 12, 2012 commission meeting.

“No, you are extremely dumb…,” Sims replied.

A video of the meeting shows that at one point Sims stood and leaned toward the mayor. Another commissioner, sitting between them, rose to separate them. A woman shouted, “Stop it! Stop it!” The sheriff’s captain, responsible for Cooper City law enforcement, approached the dais to calm the politicians.

Yet Cooper City’s official minutes of that meeting make no mention of the 12-minute donnybrook.

Why? City Clerk Susan Poling offered an answer at a commission meeting one month later.

“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to put in details you really don’t want the public to know about,” Poling said.

INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MINUTES

The record does not establish the basis for change, but since the latter half of 2008 the minutes of Cooper City commission meetings have been shrinking. Or as local political activist Skip Klauber puts it, “scrubbed.”

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Sims complained to Poling at the Sept. 12, 2012 meeting after seeing no mention of the angry encounter the month before in the official minutes.

“You really got to be kidding me, Ms. Poling,” said Sims. “Who is telling you to manipulate the minutes, Ms. Poling?”

Poling denied manipulating the minutes and explained that commission minutes had been reduced to “action minutes” which only record official actions or commission votes and do not summarize discussions.

Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said action minutes were instituted to save staff time and resources. “Nothing is being hidden, nothing is being thrown under a carpet. This is a more effective way to use our staff time,” she said.

Cooper City commission minutes were not always brief. Based on information Sims provided the Florida Attorney General, the minutes in 2007 averaged more than 18 pages and in the first half of 2008 averaged more than 13 pages.

CHANGE IN POLITICAL WINDS

But the political winds in Cooper City shifted in 2008. Bruce D. Loucks replaced long-time City Manager Christopher Farrell after the commission voted Farrell out. Thirty-year City Clerk Susan Bernard retired. City Attorney Alan F. Ruf was fired and replaced by David Wolphin.

During the second half of 2008 commission meeting minutes averaged about 8 pages. In 2012, the average had dipped to fewer than 6 pages.

In an interview, Greg Ross, who took over as mayor last November, noted that video recordings of commission meetings supplement the minutes. The videos are available on demand on the city’s web site and because of the videos, there was no reason for lengthening minutes, he said.

Carla Miller, founder of City Ethics, a non-profit organization that provides local governments with ethics training and programs, agreed with Ross that supplementing minutes with videos is good practice.

“If you have a video tape of it, to have 10 pages (of minutes) and not 16 pages is sufficient,” Miller said, adding that state law does not require “verbatim notes”.

But Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida a non-profit that promotes integrity in government, was critical of Cooper City’s practice. He said recording thorough accounts of commission deliberations in the minutes “would save Cooper City residents the hassle of going through hours of videos.”

“It is important for the public to be able to understand their officials…and their decision making,”
Krassner added. “More detailed minutes offer greater public understanding of how decisions are debated and decided.”

Commissioner Sims made a similar argument in lengthy complaints to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2012 and to Broward Inspector General John Scott in 2013 where he argued that Cooper City was violating the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Trying to find what you want to watch on a three-plus hour video is a frustrating and highly imperfect process,” Sims wrote. “Unless someone tells you where to look, the Internet (video of commission meetings) in no way makes up for the bare, unlawfully taken minutes.”

NO INVESTIGATION

Neither Bondi nor Scott, however, would investigate Sims’ allegations.

Florida Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders’s two-page response to Sims noted that the Sunshine Law does not define “minutes.” He added that his office could not investigate unless a majority of the Cooper City Commission requested an inquiry.

Broward Inspector General Scott did not reply to him in writing, Sims said. Instead, a staffer telephoned him to report that his request for an inquiry had been rejected.

Nevertheless, Sims continues to accuse “the commission, the city manager and the city attorney” of “washing the minutes” because they “do not want the public to know what is going on.”

That includes the scrubbing of other official minutes, Sims said.

In his complaint to Bondi, Sims noted that the minutes of Cooper City’s Charter Review Board meetings also have fallen. Charter Review Boards meet every five years to consider changes in the city charter. In 2006, the average length of the boards minutes was eight pages; last year, about 3 ½ pages.

Klauber, a member of the 2012 Charter Review Board, said the board’s minutes were “dumbed down…to the point of uselessness.”

Klauber said minutes of the Planning and Zoning Board are now “garbage.” Under Ro Woodward, a city administrative coordinator who prepared them, the minutes were detailed. But after she retired this year, he said, quality departed with her.

A records review revealed that the four 2012 Planning and Zoning Board meetings Woodward attended produced minutes that averaged 16 pages. The four 2013 meeting minutes posted thus far on line average less five pages.

Michelle Alvarez is the administrative assistant to Cooper City manager Loucks, who was unavailable for comment.

Alvarez said in an email that the city’s advisory boards have the “option” of audio recording their meetings to help prepare minutes. She said the city’s Planning and Zoning and Pension boards do audio record their meetings. Audio recordings are retained for two years but are not posted online.

Official minutes are permanent, she added.

Lagging in South Florida, Broward County has no on-demand video of public meetings

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don't make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don’t make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

Unlike most local governments, the Broward County Commission limits the amount of sunlight that shines on its meetings.

Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida, and the only major government in Broward County, that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing online by the public.

Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, the Broward School Board, and 18 of 31 Broward cities – including Fort Lauderdale – provide on-demand video or audio web viewing. Only Broward’s smaller municipalities lack this service.

More than 85 percent of Broward’s population resides in cities that offer on-demand web video or audio viewing of commission or council meetings.

Many governments also provide anytime viewing for meetings that occurred months or even years earlier. For example, Coral Springs has archived online video recordings of every city commission meeting since the start of 2007.

Fort Lauderdale started putting video of every city commission conference and regular meeting online in August 2012. The Broward County School Board keeps videos its meetings available online for the last six months.

Individuals wanting to watch a video of a prior Broward County Commission meeting must file a public records request to obtain a DVD copy of the session. A DVD copy costs $8 plus postage if it is mailed.

The Broward County Commission broadcasts live regular meetings and public hearings on its web page and on cable television. The meetings are re-webcast and most of the time re-broadcast on cable once, at 5:30 pm the Friday following the meetings.

FLORIDA’S SUNSHINE LAW

While Florida’s Sunshine Law only requires governments to keep general written minutes of their proceedings, on demand videos increase transparency by preserving the “richness of the discussion” that leads to decisions, said Carla Miller, founder a non-profit organization called City Ethics that provides local governments with ethics training and programs.

“If you don’t do digital recordings there is a…suspicion,” she said. “Anything that decreases the public trust is not good…Withholding things on line will always bring up suspicion.”

Broward residents have reason to be suspicious. According to the Justice Department, Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, reported that public corruption was a factor in Forbes Magazine’s decision to list the greater Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area as the seventh most “miserable city” in the United States in 2012. Forbes ranked Miami #1. West Palm Beach was fourth.

Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, supports on-demand video or audio web access, noting that many people are at work during commission meetings and are only able to watch them later. The Broward Commission meets regularly on Tuesdays starting at 10 a.m. Public hearings begin at 2 p.m.

“There is a difference between transparency and providing easy access,” said Krassner. “Putting them on line would be a best practice for open accessible government.”

Still, there appears to be no urgency to make on-demand video happen any time soon at County Hall.

“There are other things in the pipe line ahead of (on-demand video of commission meetings),” said Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Jacobs pointed out that commissioners were briefed last week about efforts to redesign existing county web sites for mobile devices. “We are really excited about it,” she said.

ON-DEMAND SYSTEMS RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE

Jacobs said, too, that Broward’s limited budget hinders archiving videos of commission meetings for on-demand viewing by the public.

In fact, many on-demand systems are relatively inexpensive.

In Jacksonville, the city purchased a $250 digital recording device and after each governmental meeting city staff links an audio recording on its web site for on-demand use.

“It’s not a hard thing to do,” said Carla Miller, who is also director of Jacksonville’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight.

Broward School Board spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said her board’s more sophisticated video system cost $12,485 to operate this year.

Fort Lauderdale pays Granicus, a California corporation, $2,290 a month to operate the city’s on-line video system. Granicus started managing the city’s system in 2012. The city’s startup cost with Granicus was $27,825.

Chaz Adams, Fort Lauderdale’s public information officer, stressed in an email that Granicus’ cost covers not just online web access to meeting recordings but it also covers many aspects of the city’s “workflow management system.”

Government on-demand web services range from the sophisticated to the simple, from the easy to the difficult to access.

Fort Lauderdale’s system is one of the more sophisticated. Once a video recording is selected, that meeting’s agenda appears below the screen. Clicking an agenda item moves the video to that part of the meeting where the item is discussed.

Miami-Dade County’s online video archives feature more than commission meetings. Also to be found are meetings of various committees, including county finance, health and social services, public safety and animal services.

William Hladky can be reached at whladky@browardbulldog.org

 

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