Lauren’s Kids racks up six-figure donations via auto tag registration renewals

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

In January, Broward County car owners who received their auto tag renewal notices also got a special message from Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sex abuse and founded by freshman State Sen. Lauren Book.

Inside the envelopes, colorful flyers bearing Lauren’s Kids logo wished vehicle registrants a happy birthday while segueing into an ominous stat: “Yet shockingly, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

That bit of data was followed by a sales pitch. “But there is hope — 95 percent of abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Celebrate your birthday by donating to the Lauren’s Kids foundation and honor the kids in your life.”

Of course, the advertisement includes a disclaimer in small italicized words that the Broward County tax collector’s office, which sends out the notices, is not endorsing Lauren’s Kids.

Drivers with February birthdates weren’t the only ones to find the Lauren’s Kids flyer in their motor vehicle registration renewal envelopes. Broward residents who received renewal notices in March and April also got the insert. Those automobile registrants whose notices are mailed this month are going to get the flyer too, says Paul Rowe, operations manager for the Broward tax collector’s office.

In fact, more than 6 million vehicle owners across Florida likely will have received the flyer stuffed in their auto tag renewal notices by year’s end. For the past seven years, Lauren’s Kids has been part of an exclusive club of charitable organizations approved by the Legislature that are allowed to hit up Florida drivers and vehicle owners for donations via auto tag and driver’s license renewal notices. But none of the other 43 nonprofits on the list has come close to Lauren’s Kids’ haul during a four-year period from 2013 through 2016 — $572,850, according to figures provided by the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

The department also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature in 2013. According to its most recent tax records, Lauren’s Kids received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015.

Lauren’s Kids’ success has been made possible by the organization’s aggressive marketing strategy to stuff as many auto tag renewal and driver’s license renewal envelopes with flyers requesting contributions and urging people to buy its specialty tag. The practice raises concerns among ethics watchdogs that government resources are being used to help a private organization raise funds without a public benefit. While the motor vehicle department administers annual auto tag renewals, individual county tax collector offices are responsible for mailing out the notices to vehicle owners.

Conflict of interest?

And now that Book is a state legislator, her nonprofit’s participation in the auto tag renewal raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. “In a perfect world, she would not do it,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches government ethics. “It’s an accountability issue that raises questions in constituents’ minds. It leads people not to trust government.”

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, echoed Rosenson. “It may be technically correct,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

In an email response to questions about the inserts, Book dismissed the criticisms. “First of all, none of what we do markets the foundation and you seem to miss the purpose of our messaging,” Book said. “Awareness and education is our focus. Redundancy of message is a part of that.”

She also sees no conflict, Book added. “I have been advised that the work of the foundation may continue as it has for years educating the public and raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “Furthermore, the program is approved by Florida law.”

The Plantation Democrat, whose father Ronald Book is a powerful lobbyist and president of Lauren’s Kids, said she resigned from the board of directors of her nonprofit’s fundraising arm to “add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the foundation.”

“I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature approved a bill adding Lauren’s Kids to a list of charitable organizations eligible for donations through auto tag registration applications and renewals, as well as driver’s license applications and renewals. The charities are listed on a form with a box next to each organization that the recipient can check off to receive a voluntary contribution. The legislation also allows Lauren’s Kids and the 43 other authorized nonprofits to include inserts promoting their cause in the renewal notices.

According to a 2010 legislative bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, the legislation authorizing Lauren’s Kids placement on the list was sponsored by then-state Rep. Marcelo Llorente from Miami and current Senate President Joe Negron. In order to qualify, Lauren’s Kids was required to submit an application to the motor vehicles department, along with a $20,000 check to “defray the costs of reviewing the application and developing the check-off.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids had to submit a financial analysis and a marketing strategy outlining the anticipated revenues and planned expenditures to be derived from the voluntary contributions.

DMV passes the buck

However, after nearly four weeks of repeatedly requesting documentation about Lauren’s Kids participation in the program, motor vehicles spokesperson Alexis Bakofsky told Florida Bulldog there was none. “The department does not place Lauren’s Kids educational materials in driver license renewal mailings or have information regarding Lauren’s Kids educational materials being placed in auto tag renewal mailings from tax collector offices,” Bakofsky said. “You may want to contact a Tax Collector office for any additional information.”

Bakofsky did provide Florida Bulldog with a spreadsheet detailing how much money each of the 44 organizations received in fiscal years 2013-2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, Lauren’s Kids received $161,936, $213,517 and $197,397, respectively. Only one other group has been able to raise a six-figure sum. Support Our Troops collected $108,791 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money raised through the renewal notice program is in addition to other funding Lauren’s Kids receives, including $8.5 million in state grants since 2012.

Sen. Book referred specific questions about the program to Lauren’s Kids communications director Claire VanSusteren, who did not respond to a list of 11 questions about the inserts despite four requests for comment via email and voicemail during a two-week period in March.

VanSusteren provided Florida Bulldog only with a copy of Lauren’s Kids 2015 tax return, which states Lauren’s Kids spent $449,785 to “develop an educational piece regarding protecting children against sex abuse that is included with all vehicle registration renewals… the goal is to reach as many individuals with direct messaging as possible.”

The tax return also states “that over 6 million individuals will read the material this year.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids reaches another 50,000 individuals in December of each year through a “targeted program [that] occurs in driver’s license renewal offices” that provides “educational materials on how to better protect our children from predators and pedophiles.”

Broward County’s Rowe told Florida Bulldog that Lauren’s Kids was added administratively in 2011. “We don’t advertise it to participating charities,” Rowe said. “It’s up to the organizations to submit a request for the inserts to be included.” Only two other nonprofit organizations have asked to include inserts in renewal notices besides Lauren’s Kids, he added.

“Outside of those three, no one else has done it,” Rowe said.

$100 million water and sewer contract decision due in Miami-Dade

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Water & Sewer repaired this water main break along NW 15 Avenue and 36th Street  in Miami in 2012.  Photo: CBS 4

Miami-Dade Water & Sewer repaired this water main break along NW 15 Avenue and 36th Street in Miami in 2012.
Photo: CBS 4

A global engineering firm with a problematic track record has one final shot at winning a coveted Miami-Dade County government contract worth nearly $100 million.

For close to a year, Denver-based CH2M Hill has been trading accusations with rival AECOM of Los Angeles as both firms vie for the job of managing a crucial and federally mandated $1.2 billion overhaul of the county’s decaying water and sewer system.

On Tuesday, CH2M Hill lobbyists will try to persuade the Miami-Dade County Commission to disregard Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s recommendation to go with AECOM.

CH2M Hill has won $28 million in Miami-Dade contracts since 1996 and provides management and engineering services in other Florida cities and counties, including Broward. It remains in the running for the water and sewer job despite a troubled work history that’s peppered with criminal investigations and allegations of bribery, kickbacks, and overtime fraud at different projects across the country.

Most recently, former CH2M Hill employee Grace Randazzo sued her former company claiming she was fired because she tried to stop her supervisor from hiding and destroying evidence sought by Department of Justice investigators.

Federal agents ultimately discovered rampant overtime fraud by scores of CH2M Hill workers and supervisors hired to clean up a shuttered nuclear bomb production site in Hanford, Washington. Court records say that between 1999 and 2008 the employees billed the Department of Energy for thousands of overtime hours they did not work during a nine-year period between 1999 and 2008.

MILLIONS PAID TO AVOID PROSECUTION

CH2M Hill agreed to pay an $18.5 million fine to avoid criminal prosecution in March 2013. But 10 former managers and supervisors now face federal criminal charges, including conspiracy, submission of false claims, and major fraud against the United States. Nine hourly workers have cut plea deals and await sentencing.

When the company settled its case, CH2M Hill spokesman John Corsi issued a statement saying it had acted swiftly to cooperate with federal authorities.

“It goes without saying that we are very disappointed by the conduct that made the settlement necessary,” he said. “This conduct is not consistent with CH2M Hill values, but it happened on our watch and we should have rooted it out sooner.”

Yet Randazzo’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Denver on Dec. 6, claims the scam reached all the way to corporate headquarters, where she worked as a paralegal for nine years until her termination in 2011, midway through the federal investigation. She had been assigned to prepare responses to government subpoenas.

“The TC (timecard) subpoena represented enormous potential exposure to the company, and the legal department knew it,” her complaint says.

Randazzo claims her then-boss, CH2M Hill in-house attorney Dudley Wright, ordered her to withhold and hide documents from Justice investigators. She also alleges Wright told her the information implicated CH2M Hill executives “in a larger scheme and would cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and not just the few million the company was trying to negotiate in the Hanford settlement.”

Randazzo declined comment through her attorney.

CH2M RESPONDS

Corsi told BrowardBulldog.org that Randazzo’s lawsuit is without merit, incoherent and lacks facts to support any of its claims.

“CH2M Hill has cooperated and continues to cooperate with the Department of Justice,” Corsi said, “including making a full and complete production of documents in response to subpoenas.”

CH2M Hill plans to vigorously defend itself against Randazzo’s suit, Corsi added.

Timecard fraud wasn’t CH2M Hill’s only serious problem at Hanford.

In March 2005, CH2M Hill paid a $316,250 fine for failing to prevent employees from being contaminated with radioactive waste during two incidents at the Washington nuclear production site.

Six years later, in a separate case involving the Hanford site, the company’s subsidiary CH2M Hill Hanford Group paid a $1.5 million fine to settle accusations that it knowingly submitted false claims and paid kickbacks on a contract to operate and manage mixed radioactive waste at the Hanford nuclear site.

In the false claims investigation, the government alleged that between 2003 and 2005, two subcontractors, Paul Kempf and Gregory Detloff, improperly made more than 200 purchases on government purchase cards and charged substantially marked-up costs to the Department of Energy.

Both men were later convicted on federal wire fraud charges. Kempf was sentenced to 46 months in prison; Detloff drew three years probation.

CH2M Hill has also been in trouble with other jurisdictions.

In 2006, CH2M Hill settled with federal prosecutors for violating the Clean Water Act at a wastewater treatment facility in Connecticut. The firm agreed to contribute $2 million to community projects.

In 2009, CH2M HILL settled a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles alleging $2.6 million in overbilling.

CH2M Hill’s Corsi says the incidents were isolated scandals among the 100,000 global projects that represent the company’s body of work.

“We do not condone any misconduct by employees, individuals, or subcontractors,” he said. “The incidents raised are not indicative of CH2M Hill or how we do business.”

LOBBYISTS ON THE JOB

AECOM and CH2M Hill were the only two companies to bid on the Miami-Dade management contract, which arose from a consent decree between the county and the state and federal environmental protection agencies to repair the county’s more-than-50-years-old water and sewer system.

Both firms have hired individuals with ties to county administrators and politicians. AECOM counts Pete Hernandez, a former assistant county manager and ex-Miami city manager, as one of its subcontractors. CH2M Hill brought aboard Rafael Garcia-Toledo, a general contractor who served as chauffeur and political campaign finance chairman for Gimenez. The mayor declined comment.

In addition, both firms retained lobbyists with close ties to the mayor.

Jorge Luis Lopez, who worked with Gimenez at the defunct law firm Steel, Hector & Davis, represents AECOM. Former state legislator Marcelo Llorente, who backed Gimenez against ex-Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina in the 2011 county mayoral run-off, represents CH2M Hill.

Since August of last year, their lobbyists have lodged complaints against one another with the state ethics commission and the state’s inspector general.

For example, one inquiry found that another CH2M Hill lobbyist, attorney Mitchell Bierman, had improper communications with a selection committee evaluating both firms. Gimenez convened a new committee to re-rank the firms.

That led to AECOM being ranked number one and another round of accusations by CH2M Hill, claiming that its rival’s team misrepresented their credentials and should be disqualified.

In late April, Miami-Dade Inspector General Mary Cagle issued a report concluding that most of CH2M Hill’s allegations were baseless. She faulted AECOM for overstating the professional experience of one of its proposed project managers, but said that individual would still be qualified for the job.

Cagle questioned CH2M Hill’s motives regarding its complaints.

“The amount and ever changing nature of the allegations caused the (Office of the Inspector General) to question whether CH2M was really serious about each and every allegation or just trying to build a case through volume,” the report said.

Corsi said CH2M Hill stands by its accusations and that AECOM should not be awarded the contract.

“Based on principle, and to protect our industry, we decided to bring our competitors’ misrepresentations to the county’s attention,’’ Corsi said.

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