Saturday, February 26, 2022

They threw a $74,000 goodbye party for a county official. Lobbyists pitched in. How did that help the public? (South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Retiring Broward County Administrator BERTHA HENRY's 's wretched excess: decadent $74,000 retirement party. 

This is really wrong.  

Thorstein Veblen would have called this party "conspicuous, invidious consumption."

Were state and federal laws violated by lobbyists and Broward County officials?

(Two of nine Broward County Commissioners were appointed by Florida Governor RONALD DION DeSANTIS.)

At least Broward County requires lobbying registrationHere in disgraced ex-Sheriff DAVID SHOAR's corrupt St. Johns County, lobbyists lobbied against lobbyist registration, which our County Commission foolishly delayed and buried in 2018 based on the pretext of waiting on the legislature to do something -- rather like the Samuel Beckett play, "Waiting for Godot."

Do brutal dictators and corporate oligarchs secretly invest in Florida real estate here, win zoning favors here, clearcut our forests here, kill our wildlife here, fill wetlands here, destroy entire ecosystems here, laughing all the way to the bank at the foul, fetid corruption here, which We, the People tolerate and permit?

Broward County Administrator BERTHA HENRY's corrupt, lobbyist-funded, champagne-swilling  retirement party is a stench in the nostrils of our Nation. 

Florida's lax ethics rules require reform.  Now.

Instead, our lousy louche legislators are waging culture wars upon our people. 

Enough flummery, dupery and nincompoopery from corrupt public officials in Flori-DUH.

A federal civil, criminal. and administrative investigation is required.    

Will indictments be handed up?

Or will this event be repeated, ad nauseam?

From South Florida Sun Sentinel:


They threw a $74,000 goodbye party for a county official. Lobbyists pitched in. How did that help the public?





South Florida Sun Sentinel 

Feb 25, 2022  12:45 PM 

A who’s who of Broward’s lobbyists, politicians and county officials made the guest list for a surprise celebration at the Panthers’ FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, formerly known as the BB&T Center.

No, tickets weren’t available through Ticketmaster, but if the general public had been invited, they might have had a great time: There was enough food, alcohol and soda for hundreds of people. There was even a travel-theme cake, complete with four tiers of vanilla, chocolate, red velvet and key lime.

Now the Feb. 4 celebration, marking the retirement of Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry, is facing fresh scrutiny over whether it created the appearance of melding the county’s interests with those of lobbyists and private financial interests.

The county says the event — which cost upward of $74,000 — was done by the book, relying on donations instead of taxpayer dollars. But government-watchdog observers question why the county would condone such as event with some of the very powerbrokers and organizations that could come before the county for contracts and business deals.

A photo posted in a tweet from State Representative Chip LaMarca about Bertha Henry's retirement party. There was a four-tier cake, designer luggage and enough food for hundreds of people when Bertha Henry ended her run as Broward’s top official.A photo posted in a tweet from State Representative Chip LaMarca about Bertha Henry’s retirement party. There was a four-tier cake, designer luggage and enough food for hundreds of people when Bertha Henry ended her run as Broward’s top official. (Twitter of Chip LaMarca)

Some of the funding for the event earlier this month came from the Florida Panthers, the hockey team that has historically come before the county to ask for public assistance to stay afloat, and its top two people were on the guest list.

Henry’s retirement from her $369,000-a-year job is a public purpose, the county says. But “why is it a public purpose? How is that a public purpose?” asks Dominic Calabro, the CEO of Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog and taxpayer research institute. “It sounds like personal inurement.”

Should the county have accepted the money from people it were to do business with? Is it ever OK to party with the same people who could appear before the county to ask for contracts on behalf of their clients? “There are some serious questions,” Calabro said. “And it’s a lot of money for somebody who has been really highly paid. There are community festivals that cost that much money. It’s extraordinary. It’s not like, ‘Let’s have punch or a bon-voyage cake.’”

County officials said the event was a surprise and Henry was not involved in the planning, and she thought she was attending an event unrelated to her retirement.

When asked about the funding Thursday, Henry sounded surprised, replying, “You’re catching me off guard.” She said she was only told there had been “invitations and people could contribute. I never pursued it anymore.”

When asked about the “expensive” party, she replied: “How was it expensive? There was finger food and people.”

Among the county’s expenses:

  • The single biggest expense was almost $27,000 for setting up a stage.
  • More than $15,000 for food.
  • There also was a bill for nearly $12,000 for a custom-made “word cloud wall in a custom aluminum frame” that took two carpenters and an audio-visual technician.
  • More than $4,000 in drinks, because guests got one free drink and then paid for their own after that.
  • Almost $3,000 spent on decorations.
  • There was $2,200 for a valet.
  • A videographer at $3,425.
  • A photographer at $1,350.
  • And $600 for that four-tier cake with two fondant suitcases, featuring the words “Bertha’s Greatest Adventure.”

The donations from lobbyists and businesses didn’t just pay for the party, but also went toward Henry’s parting gifts. Broward County Deputy Administrator Monica Cepero said donations paid for Henry’s gifts, writing, “Everything came from the donations.”

According to receipts obtained from the county, that included:

  • $2,675 for “challenge coins.”
  • $2,055 for a four-piece Tumi luggage set, and a $12 luggage scale.
  • $208 Apple headphones.
  • $160 Size 9 red Nikes.
  • And a $270 brick along the Riverwalk that reads, in part, “Yeehaw to retirement.”

The county is allowed up to 15 events a year for free at the FLA Live Arena, according to the county’s contract with the Panthers, so the county spent nothing on the venue. The contract with the Panthers is next up for review by the county in 2028.

The county says taxpayers didn’t fund the party, which they described as done “by the book.”

Cepero, who will be replacing Henry next week, said “100%” of the money came from donations. “Not one penny” came from county coffers, she said.

“This was vetted with the County’s Attorney’s Office, who determined that public funds could be expended for a function because it celebrates the county and serves as a public purpose,” Cepero said. “Additionally, it is appropriate and permissible for the county to accept earmarked donations to be expended for a designated purpose, such as February’s event. There is no gift from any vendor to any individual, but rather donations to the county.”

The March 1 County Commission agenda includes accepting $162,500 “from multiple donors” for the party and then donating almost $82,000 in what was leftover to create a scholarship fund.

County officials said there are no records available of how the party organizers went about seeking the donations.

“The county did not ask for donations,” Cepero said in an email. “It has been well known that Bertha was retiring. Because she is well respected by many in the business community [they] asked to be included and wanted to contribute to any event honoring Bertha and her over 40 years of public service, and they were given an opportunity to do so.”

The generic email reminder sent to people on the guest list that was obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel didn’t mention anything about donations or the scholarship, but thanked guests for keeping it a surprise “so the event is even more meaningful.”

“Since the main event will take place on the main floor, guests are encouraged to wear warmer clothing to accommodate the cooler temperature. Reminder that the dress code is business attire or cocktail,” the email reads, encouraging them to come early to have a bite.

According to documents obtained by the Sun Sentinel through a public records request, there were 24 donations that ranged from $25,000 from AutoNation — a company that has a current contract with both the county and the Sheriff’s Office for car purchases — and another $25,000 from the Florida Panthers, to $500 from a representative with the lobbying firm Shutts & Bowen.

It also included $9,500 from lobbyist Ron Book and $9,500 from the developer Atlantic Pacific Communities. There’s a $7,500 gift from Motorola, which the South Florida Business Journal reported in 2017 that the company contracted with the county for radios for first responders. There’s also $15,000 from Bob Swindell, of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. The organization receives funding from Broward County to help operate.

According to the invite list obtained by the Sun Sentinel, the retirement party had a five-page list of guests. Some of those invited didn’t attend, while some did. Among those on the invitation list:

  • Lobbyists such as Book, George Platt, Yolanda Cash-Jackson, Debbie Orshefsky and Candice Ericks were invited. Shaun Davis, whose website lists him as founder and managing partner at S. Davis and Associates, P.A.., also on the invitation list. County lobbying records show a partner at his firm lobbied a county commissioner days after the party. The topic was listed as “Port” in county documents. Book couldn’t be reached for comment despite a call and text messages.
  • Influential business and nonprofit leaders, including Vinnie Viola, owner of the Florida Panthers; and Panthers president and CEO Matt Caldwell; Rita Case, president and CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group; Kathleen Cannon, president of United Way of Broward County, who also donated $2,500 for the event; George Hanbury, president and CEO of Nova Southeastern University; Shane Strum, president and CEO of Broward Health; Mike Jackson, former CEO of AutoNation, and Jonathan Wolfe, the senior director for AutoNation.
  • Elected officials across Broward, including current and former county commissioners.
  • Select county employees, including Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of Visit Lauderdale, Broward County’s tourism promotion arm; Mark Gale, CEO/director of aviation for the Broward County Aviation Department; and Jonathan Daniels, the chief executive and port director at Port Everglades.
  • Members of Congress, including Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and state politicians such as Rep. Chip LaMarca.

Broward voters in 2002 initially ordered county commissioners to write a code of ethics that required them to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But that didn’t happen, so the county created a task force to write rules.

Dan Lewis was the chairman of the Charter Review Board at the time and their amendments made it into the charter but it was never enforced, he said. He said the former County Commission viewed the laws as “suggestions.” He is no longer as active in county affairs because of it, he said. “I became disappointed,” he said.

There were incidents such as when a former county commissioner wanted to raise money for a favorite charity many years ago and sent a “hope-you-can-come’’ note about a fundraiser to lobbyists who depend on county commissioners’ votes. Critics in 2010 called dealings like that a “favor bank” and argued county officials were abusing their power to force favors and created a “pay-to-play’’ atmosphere.

That year, in 2010, the county passed rules that they could not accept gifts from vendors or lobbyists that are greater than $5 in value. The rule was expanded to include county employees soon after.

But county officials say Henry’s goodbye party was not a violation because it was considered donations, and not gifts.

Lewis said he thinks “Bertha has done a very good job, she’s been a very stable administrator,” he said. Still, because the gifts were made while Henry was still in charge of the county, “I’m not sure the message it sends.” 

Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in Tallahassee, said he considered the circumstances of the event “definitely problematic.” It could “violate the spirit of a gift ban,” he said. “I think it’s questionable and probably does not look good to the public.”Calabro said he supports recognizing good work, but “it’s the degree you spend that much money from the very people who come before the Broward County Commission.” Sometimes, he said, “Less is more. $75,000 is not a modest celebration.”

Henry’s last day on the job will be Monday.

The Miami native began government work in 1978, was hired away to Ohio in 1988, then came to Broward in 1996 as assistant to the county administrator. She left briefly to go back to Miami, and returned to Broward as deputy county administrator from 2000-2005, served a stint as interim administrator, and has been the No. 1 official with the county since 2008.

As the chief administrator, she is responsible for thousands of employees and the county’s day-to-day operations. She became most well-known during the height of the pandemic when she signed emergency shelter-in-place orders.

Staff Writer Brittany Wallman contributed to this report.

Lisa J. Huriash can be reached at or 954-572-2008 or Twitter @LisaHuriash

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