By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, FloridaBulldog.org
Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca was part of a “concerted campaign” to divert public Broward Health money to pay for a marketing effort run by his employer, Zimmerman Advertising.
Zimmerman had sought to convince Broward Health CEO Dr. Nabil El Sanadi that the district’s “budget was insufficient to do the marketing job that the district needed,” according to an independent special counsel’s report provided to the district on Wednesday.
LaMarca allegedly got so heavy-handed during the push to obtain a no-bid, $71.4-million advertising contract that he once threatened El Sanadi, whose Jan. 23 suicide triggered a series of disclosures about investigations and insider deals that have rocked the public hospital system.
“I put you here, and I can take you out,” LaMarca said, according to Broward Health Vice President Doris Peek, whose statements are contained in a report presented to Broward Health’s governing board on Wednesday.
LaMarca denies making such a threat.
“Having been raised by a good mother, the only way I can describe that woman [Peek] is that she was untruthful,” LaMarca said in an interview on Thursday.
LaMarca also denies lobbying Broward Health on Zimmerman’s behalf.
He takes that position because Broward’s Code of Ethics forbids elected officials, including county commissioners, from lobbying any governmental entities in Broward. The prohibition includes taxing authorities like the North Broward Hospital District, Broward Health’s legal name.
But there’s a loophole in Broward’s Code of Ethics big enough to drive multi-million dollar deals through. The loophole is even broader in state law, upon which the county based its 2011 ordinance.
The problem is in the definition of lobbyist. Lobbyists are generally thought of as people who seek to influence decisions made by government officials.
A narrow definition
Broward’s definition is considerably narrower. With some exceptions, it says a lobbyist is “a person who is retained, with or without compensation, for the purpose of lobbying, or a person who is employed by another person entity, on a full-time or part-time basis, principally to lobby on behalf of that other person or entity.”
Florida law’s definition of a lobbyist is even more limited. Lobbyists are persons who are paid to lobby, or are “principally employed” to lobby “by another person or governmental entity.”
Hired by Zimmerman last May, LaMarca held the title vice president of community relations, reporting directly to company founder Jordan Zimmerman. He has told a reporter, and the county attorney’s office while seeking a legal opinion about the matter, that his principal duty at Zimmerman wasn’t to lobby.
Thus, LaMarca’s not legally a lobbyist even though he acknowledged representing Zimmerman in talks about an advertising deal with Broward Health officials.
Specifically, LaMarca told both a reporter and the Fort Lauderdale law firm that reported to Broward Health’s board this week that he had attended a series of meetings about the advertising deal with Broward Health representatives over several months, including parts of “shade” meetings that are closed to the public. He also said he’d invited all seven board members to tour Zimmerman’s swank Cypress Creek offices, including three who accepted.
“According to LaMarca, the purpose of these tours was educational and no specifics of any marketing plan were discussed,” says the report by attorney Mitchell Berger.
The report goes on to say LaMarca assisted Jordan Zimmerman with a June 25, 2015 fundraiser for then-Broward Health Chairman David Di Pietro’s wife, County Court Judge Nina Di Pietro.
LaMarca ‘advocated’ for Zimmerman?
“We have been advised that Mr. LaMarca advocated on Zimmerman’s behalf, although Mr. LaMarca denies this,” Berger wrote. Yet even if LaMarca advocated for Zimmerman, and it “occurred in the course of his employment by Zimmerman, he would not constitute a ‘lobbyist’ under the district’s policy.”
Berger’s report to the board said he’d been unable to locate “any lobbying registrations related to the Zimmerman contract.”
As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, Broward Health does not require lobbyists to register.
A state governmental accountability bill that would have required hospital districts, children’s services districts and expressway authorities to register lobbyists died during the legislative session that ended March 11.
LaMarca quit his job with Zimmerman on March 25. He said he did so in order to speak with Berger during the lawyer’s investigation. Zimmerman’s lawyer didn’t want him speaking because Florida’s Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel is reviewing Zimmerman’s $2.1-million marketing contract with Broward Health, an agreement that was to be amended by the proposed $71.4-million deal.
“I liked working for Zimmerman. It was a great place,” said LaMarca. “My regret is that Jordan Zimmerman ever met Dr. El Sanadi or got that contract.”