Broward School Board mum on why it gave up $507,942 to help developer

Megan O'Matz   Sun-Sentinel  10-23-10

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Six Broward School Board members voted unanimously in 2007 to forgo $507,942 in fees from a developer without question, without debate. Today, nobody will say why.

Yet that vote is at the center of the criminal case against suspended School Board member Stephanie Kraft, who is accused of taking a bribe to help Prestige Homes of Tamarac. She pleaded not guilty on Wednesday.

Phyllis Hope and Robin Bartleman can't recall the vote. "We're in 2010! I wouldn't even remember that," Hope said in a phone interview.

Jennifer Gottlieb won't talk about it because it's "an ongoing State Attorney's investigation."


Bob Parks, who is weeks from stepping down, said he doesn't have to account for his yes vote. "I'm retired."

Beverly Gallagher couldn't be reached for comment because she is in prison, in an unrelated event, for taking bribes from undercover FBI agents to rig school construction contracts

And Eleanor Sobel, now a state senator, did not respond to three calls and an email to her office. She could not be found at her Hollywood headquarters Tuesday afternoon.

An aide, Zachary Learner, refused to provide her cell phone number, make a later interview appointment, or place an immediate call to her.

"You can't blame people for not wanting to be mentioned in a School Board story," he said.

The vote nobody wants to talk about involved mitigation fees that Prestige developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, a father-son duo, had to pay to offset the costs of educating additional students who were expected to live in new homes Prestige planned to build in Tamarac.

Prestige President Bruce Chait told authorities he gave Kraft's husband Mitch, who is an attorney, $10,000 to help smooth negotiations with the school district.

Development fee waivers are not unheard of. On the same 2007 agenda, the board agreed to give up $92,522 from another company. But it was a non-profit: Habitat for Humanity, which intended to build 30 homes for poor people.

The district initially decided Prestige would pay about $1.7 million, but the company wanted to give the school system four modular classrooms worth far less: $1.2 million.

Staff resisted and prosecutors say Stephanie Kraft worked behind the scenes to get the item on the July 24, 2007 agenda.

Then on the day of the vote, she quietly left the dais when the matter came up and did not cast a ballot or file the required conflict disclosure form.

But six of her colleagues rubber-stamped the item. (Board members Maureen Dinnen and Ben Williams missed the meeting and so did not vote.)

Now, none of the six can or will talk about it. That troubles Philip Sweeting, a resident of Coral Springs, an area Kraft represented on the School Board.

"Something smells," Sweeting said. "That whole process."

A former Boca Raton deputy police chief, Sweeting filed a complaint in 2009 with the state Ethics Commission against Kraft for her role in the Prestige affair. The commission is still investigating.

To give away $507,942 without question, Sweeting said, the six board members either were "totally incompetent…or there was a behind the scenes deal done."

The item authorizing the reduced fee had been lumped with 80 other matters – such as a resolution in support of Brazil National Day – on a "consent agenda" and adopted with one vote.

Under district policy, revenue issues such as the Prestige matter involving a "positive financial impact" automatically are placed on the consent agenda.

However, land purchases and construction contracts costing more than $1 million cannot be placed on the consent agenda. Nor can any other expense totaling more than $500,000.

During the 2007 meeting, any board member could have removed the Prestige deal from the consent agenda and asked that it be debated. But no one did.

To be sure, the title was long and dry, even seemingly mundane: "Revised Voluntary Mitigation Commitment for the Students Anticipated from Land Use Plan Amendment PC 06-30, Located in the City Tamarac."

The explanation accompanying it was more than 750 words long.

But there was no doubt the board was being asked to allow the developer to pay "a considerably less amount ($507,942)…due for the project than the initial proposed and accepted mitigation option."

The agenda said as much. And the number $507,942 was written in bold.

Pressed to explain her yes vote, Hope could not. "You know how many votes that was ago? You probably can look at the School Board records and tell …the way I voted, but to try to remember votes over three years ago, I'm not that good!"

Megan O'Matz can be reached at momatz@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4518.

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