By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Convicted killer Robert Burkell Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office
Ten years ago, killer Robert Burkell bludgeoned to death his 81-year-old tenant Charles Bertheas, cracking open his aged skull like an eggshell, according to police. The motive: money.
Today, Burkell is in prison for life. But his wife Susan, a Lauderhill resident who authorities say did not participate in the slaying but knew what was happening, is set to inherit more than $214,000 of the victim’s money.
Bertheas’s eight elderly brothers and sisters, who live in France, won’t see a dime. Charles Bertheas designated the Burkells as co-beneficiaries on his accounts at the Bank of America.
Florida law blocks convicted killers like Robert Burkell from receiving property or other benefits because of their victim’s death. The law, however, does not extend to their spouses or consider the murderous circumstances of their crime.
“This is a travesty,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden. “She’s benefiting from her husband’s criminal offense…It stinks.”
“We couldn’t prove she was involved in the murder,” said BSO Detective Tim Duggan. “The only thing we could say was there was no way that she could not have known it was going on. She left moments before it happened.
Mary Susan Burkell, 63, says prosecutors and police have it completely wrong. Her husband was mistakenly convicted of Bertheas’s murder, she said, and now Holden and Duggan are falsely slandering her.
“They said I knew what was happening? What a pair. What a pair,” she said. “No. That’s not correct. They have fantasized over this for so long. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Charles Bertheas, whose skull was crushed
The Florida Department of Financial Services, which has been holding Bertheas’s money, awarded it to Susan Burkell in a final order dated March 21. With the help of a Tampa private investigation agency, SRS International, she filed a claim for the property last August after the department rejected a claim by the dead man’s brother. SRS stands to collect a 20 percent commission.
Marc Bertheas, who is 80 and lives in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, opposed the award and sought an extension of the state’s 30-day time limit to file an appeal. In a letter to the department postmarked April 19, he stated he needed time to find a U.S. lawyer, explaining that he was not fluent in English and had special medical conditions that limit his ability to communicate with legal counsel.
The Financial Services department rejected Bertheas’s request. The reason: It did not receive his letter until April 23 – the day after the deadline.
“Unfortunately, the referenced time period has expired and the department has taken steps to disburse the underlying unclaimed property funds in accordance with the final order,” Financial Services attorney Kate Pingolt Cotner informed Marc Bertheas in an April 25 letter.
Widower Charles Bertheas died Nov. 23, 2003 on the floor of the converted family room he rented from the Burkells in their four-bedroom home at 9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac.
9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac, the scene of the crime
Robert Burkell, now 64, summoned police that afternoon after reportedly finding the body. Bertheas had been dead for at least several hours.
Burkell told police he’d last seen Bertheas the night before when they had dinner together at a bar in Sawgrass Mills. He said he thought Bertheas might have hit his head in a drunken fall.
But “a large pool of blood” around the body, and a detective’s observation of “considerable trauma to the victim’s face and head” raised suspicion, court records say. The medical examiner’s office later classified the death as a homicide and attributed it to blunt trauma. The weapon used by the killer to crush Bertheas’s head was never identified.
A motive soon became apparent when it was found that Burkell had “forged a $10,000 check in Mr. Bertheas’s name” the night before the murder, according to Duggan. It wasn’t until later that police learned Bertheas had designated Robert and Susan Burkell as the beneficiaries of accounts containing $280,000 in savings at the time of his death, records say. That included proceeds from the sale of the condo he once shared with his late wife.
No signs of forced entry or a struggle were found at the home, and no valuables were missing. The victim’s DNA was discovered in bloodstains on a bath mat and counter top in the master bath – a location Susan Burkell later testified only she and her husband used. Likewise, two bare sole footprints found in dried blood adjacent to the body were matched to Robert Burkell, the records say.
Burkell was arrested two days before Christmas. It wasn’t his first arrest for murder.
Detective Duggan said that in 1986 Burkell confessed to bludgeoning William Yalden, a Geneva, N.Y. businessman whose body was later found in an Ohio cornfield, “in the exact same manner as he killed Bertheas.” Burkell’s confession was thrown out prior to trial, however, because of a Miranada rights warning issue, Duggan said.
“He definitely got away with that one,” said Duggan.
Things turned out differently for Burkell 20 years later in Florida. While Burkell did not confess to killing Bertheas, he was nevertheless convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal in 2008.
The money in Bertheas’s bank accounts was turned over to the state as unclaimed property in 2005. In 2011, Marc Bertheas tried to claim it, but his claim was denied because he was not a beneficiary.
Burkell’s murder conviction meant he had no longer had a legal claim to Bertheas’ money. Florida law treats killers who stand to inherit from their victims as if they died first.
“Consequently, Susan Burkell is the only beneficiary who is legally permitted to receive the unclaimed property funds at issue,” the Department of Financial Services decided.
Robert Burkell, who has three children by his wife of 40 years, is currently being held at the Broward County Jail while awaiting a ruling on his lawyer’s motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The motion is pending before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.
On the day she was interviewed, Susan Burkell had not received any payout from the state. How much she will ultimately get is unclear.
For reasons that are not made clear in state records, the $280,000 that was in Bertheas’s accounts at the time of his death had dwindled to $214,221.86 by 2008. Detective Duggan said he’s heard that amount has dwindled further – eaten away by attorney fees.
By Nicholas Kusnetz, Center for Public Integrity
The Republican-controlled Florida Senate unanimously passed a landmark ethics reform package on Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, setting the stage for what could be the first major changes to the state’s ethics laws in decades.
The bills would strengthen provisions that prevent lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists, expand the powers of the state’s ethics commission and require that financial disclosure reports be posted online. (more…)
By Lloyd Dunkelberger and Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Canadians wait to obtain an international driving permit in Montreal on Feb. 14. (Pierre Obendrauf / The Gazette)
Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers said they will work to alter or overturn a new law that requires Canadian and other foreign travelers to obtain international permits to drive in Florida.
The law, passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Scott, could be amended as early as March, when lawmakers officially convene. Typically, state laws go into effect in either July or October. (more…)
By Michael Pollick and Justine Griffin, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
In Canada, lines form as people anxiously pursue international driver’s licenses. Photo: Toronto Star
Just because a law isn’t being enforced doesn’t mean it can’t still bite you — in the wallet, anyway.
In the international driver’s license furor now straining relations between the Sunshine State and the Great North, insurance appears to be the rub. (more…)
By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org
This bridge on West Lake Drive in Fort Lauderdale’s Harbor Beach neighborhood is one of seven city bridges targeted for replacement. Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen
Its ocean-access waterways and backyard yachts define Fort Lauderdale’s pricey Harbor Beach neighborhood.
Yet despite its wealth, and its reliance on the water, the neighborhood is home to several of the worst bridges in Fort Lauderdale, according to a study by the city’s Public Works Department.
The worst of the bunch, seemingly freshly painted, shows no obvious sign of deterioration. If you look carefully, however, rebar exposed by cracked and crumbling concrete is visible at both ends of the bridge.
A 2010 inspection report also noted that the bridge’s channel bank is beginning to slump and concrete embankment protection have widespread minor damage.
The bridge is on West Lake Drive between SE 14th Street and Mercedes Drive and scored 24.7 out of a possible 100 points during its 2011 inspection. It is among seven low-scoring bridges in the city declared obsolete and in need of replacement in the Public Works study presented to city commissioners in September.
The estimated price tag to replace all seven bridges is about $17 million.
The city has no budget for the project despite staff recommendations since 2007 citing concerns about the bridges. Instead, Fort Lauderdale officials are waiting on a government handout – from state or federal sources – to replace the bridges.
BRIDGE MONEY NEEDED
The bridges were all built or rebuilt in the early 1950s. They include: the East Las Olas Boulevard bridge over the Himmarshee Canal, the bridge from Lucille Drive to Laguna Terrace in Harbor Beach, the Northeast 41st Street and Castle Harbor Isle bridges over the Toulon Waterway in Bermuda Riviera.
The others are in Harbor Beach on South Ocean Drive near Mayan Lake Drive, West Lake Drive near Lucille Drive and West Lake Drive near Mercedes Drive.
Fort Lauderdale owns 52 neighborhood bridges.
According to a Community Investment Plan approved by the city council in September, which included the Public Works study, work on the failing bridges should begin this year if money can be obtained.
The Florida Department of Transportation inspects bridges every two years – Harbor Beach bridges were last inspected in September 2011, according to state records.
In addition to inspecting bridges, the state also operates a federal bridge replacement fund that pays for the repair or rebuilding of deficient locally-owned bridges, said John Clark, FDOT state bridge maintenance and repair engineer.
“Our program is a statewide funding program of all locally owned bridges and we rank them on a statewide basis,” he said. “There are 200 bridges more or less on the list for replacement, but it’s funding dependent as it is a secondary use of federal funds.”
Because of their deteriorating conditions weight restrictions have been placed on most of Fort Lauderdale’s failing bridges. FDOT provided plans for bridge replacements in 2008, but none are currently on the state’s list for replacement.
“It’s kind of unusual to have sufficiency [ratings] that low and not be on the list,” Clark said of Harbor Beach bridge. “Other things can affect that number. There’s no safety issue, but it has a downgraded load capacity, so you can assume it isn’t in great shape.”
EXPECTING STATE HELP
The city expects FDOT to provide replacement funding, according to Fort Lauderdale spokesman Chaz Adams.
“FDOT has already funded the design portion of the bridge replacement projects,” Adams said. “It’s important to keep in mind that FDOT has provided funding to the city for two bridge replacement projects that are currently along Southeast 15th Avenue. “
Adams also cited FDOT financial backing of a bridge replacement that the city completed last year to the exclusive, gated Harborage Isle section of Harbor Beach. He expects FDOT to provide money for the replacement projects.
The city’s seven failing bridges are located in lightly traveled neighborhoods.
Harbor Beach’s ailing bridge is the only way in or out of the neighborhood that is surrounded by water. In 2005, it was used by an average of 2,690 vehicles a day, according to state reports.
Ultimately, however, it is up to the entity that owns the bridges to maintain and replace them when necessary, according to Clark.
“Our funding is only supplemental,” Clark said. “The federal program primarily supplies funding for our inspection program.”
He added, “Unfortunately, nobody notices these things until they are broken.”
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale is stepping up on another set of bridges it owns.
According to the Community Investment Plan, budgets are in place and bids will go out for eight city-owned bridges that also need lesser repairs. The $3.34 million budget from the public works department’s general fund will cover repairs beginning this year and running through 2017.
The bridges are along Southeast 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th and 13th streets and Cordova Avenue, as well as Northeast 41st Street and Northeast 42nd Street.
Work includes repairing concrete spalling, cracks, expansion, joints, bulkheads, concrete piles and bridge repainting.
City staff said that this preventative maintenance work will extend the lives of these bridges for two decades or more.
Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at ahenson@BrowardBulldog.org
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Miami-Dade County Court Judge Steven Leifman
Two more South Florida judges may have violated ethics rules by serving on the board of a private company that controls public health care spending.
Those Miami-Dade judges sit on the board of a nonprofit corporation that is paid by the Department of Children and Families to administer tens of millions of behavioral healthcare dollars.
A Florida Supreme Court ethics committee issued an advisory opinion in June that said judges should not serve on such boards.
Four judges, including the chief judge of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, recently quit a similar healthcare board in Broward because of the ethics ruling.
Nevertheless, Miami-Dade County Judge Steven Leifman and Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen, the court system’s gurus for mental health and substance abuse, have chosen to remain as volunteer board members of the Miami-based South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman is board chair.
Leifman and Cohen say the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee’s June 11 opinion is a narrowly drawn ruling that doesn’t apply to their situation. They are resisting it out of concern that their forced departure would seriously weaken an organization that “really serves the public,” said Cohen.
The judges together have asked their court’s general counsel to research the ethics ruling with an eye towards possibly getting the situation changed.
“We’re getting a second opinion,” said Leifman, a county court criminal division judge. “We’re in a holding pattern.”
Both judges said that if becomes clear they should step down, they will.
Cohen said the circumstances in Miami-Dade are not the same as in Broward.
“I think it’s a very different situation than what happened in Broward,” said Cohen, a circuit court judge in the unified family and juvenile divisions. “We were never put there to impress anybody.”
The Supreme Court’s ethics committee offers advisory opinions to judges and judicial candidates about whether their conduct might violate Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct.
While opinions are only advisory, conduct consistent with an opinion may be evidence of good faith on the part of the judge in disciplinary proceedings.
SPIN OFF ISSUE
Whether judges should serve on the boards of private companies that have or are seeking government contracts arose as an issue as DCF spins off services it once handled.
An unidentified judge in Palm Beach asked the ethics committee its opinion after he was asked to serve on the board of a managing entity being set up there to administer $52 million “as part of the privatization of DCF funds.”
The ethics panel, made up of a dozen judges and lawyers from around the state, said judges should not serve on the board of a managing entity because it is “in essence a governing entity” – an inappropriate place for a member of the judicial branch.
Oversight of government spending “is a clear responsibility of the executive branch, no different than the operations of the police and fire departments,” the opinion says.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen
Judges Leifman and Cohen acknowledged that their board service may require them to vote on a contract or payout – but it is unusual.
“Rarely or never do we vote on money going to a particular provider,” said Leifman. “Bids are put out, people bid and there’s a point (ranking) system. There are committees that none of us board members sit on that decides who gets what.”
Leifman acknowledged that the board influences contracting indirectly through its personnel and policy decisions.
Relationships with private companies also can lead to conflicts, especially if the managing entity “is viewed as a conduit or agent for (a) vendor,” the opinion says.
It cites Canon 2(b) of the Code of Judicial Conduct: “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”
That was a problem for the judges on the board of the Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, which is chaired by former DCF Secretary Bob Butterworth.
The names and titles of three of the judges were used in bid documents submitted to DCF last winter by Butterworth. Records show their presence on Broward Behavioral’s board impressed DCF negotiators.
Broward Behavioral signed a $44.8 million-a-year contract with DCF effective Nov. 1. The contract ends June 30, 2016.
Miami-Dade’s South Florida Behavioral Health Network became a DCF managing entity two years ago, with Leifman as chair.
Unlike in Broward, there was no bidding process when the Health Network got the contract “so there was no issue about someone using the prestige of the office to become a managing entity,” Leifman said.
Further, said Leifman, the June ethics opinion “flies in the face” of previous opinions that allow judges to serve on boards that have an impact on the administration of justice.
Leifman and Cohen, judges since the mid-1990s, will consider their options after they get their “second opinion.” Leifman said that could include asking the Supreme Court itself for its opinion.
Said Cohen, “We’re not interested in corralling money for treatment. We’re just interested in having a system that really serves the public…but without our expertise, it won’t be as good as it is now.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
When Bob Butterworth filed a bid last winter on a $44.8 million-a-year Department of Children and Families private management contract he signed a “Statement of No Involvement.”
By signing the statement, the former Florida Attorney General certified that neither he nor anyone else at the non-profit Broward Behavioral Health Coalition was involved in developing the DCF program for the project his company was bidding on.
Yet as DCF Secretary in 2008, Butterworth oversaw the state’s push to shift the job of administering local substance abuse and mental health services to private “managing entities” like the company he now chairs.
Butterworth described his involvement at Broward Behavioral’s inaugural board meeting last month.
The approved minutes of that Oct. 1 gathering say, “Chair Butterworth provided (a) history of managing entities created under his leadership in 2008 as DCF secretary with the goal of making local decisions and to advise the state how to best serve the community.”
The minutes also note: “At this time, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) has six (6) statewide ME’s and is now looking to Broward County to contract.”
Butterworth signed a four-year contract with DCF effective Nov. 6 to oversee government-funded programs in Broward. The deal was delayed for months by a competitor’s unsuccessful bid protest that alleged DCF illegally steered the contract to Butterworth’s group.
DCF will pay Broward Behavioral up to $162.6 million through June 30, 2016, the contract says.
‘TO INSPIRE PUBLIC CONFIDENCE’
DCF operating procedures require potential vendors to sign a “Statement of No Involvement” to promote fair competition “and to inspire public confidence that contracts are awarded equitably and economically.”
Fort Lauderdale attorney Joseph M. Goldstein, author of the Florida State Procurement Handbook, said the state relies on certifications made by those it does business with.
“There would be contractual and potentially criminal ramifications if you falsely certified in (bid documents), even if it’s not sworn,” he said.
In an interview last week, Butterworth downplayed his involvement in the creation of managing entities.
He said that while he supported their use as a way to increase local control, and recommended Gov. Charlie Crist sign the bill authorizing their implementation, managing entities were not a major emphasis of his administration and he was not actively involved in advocating for them.
“I don’t recall the issue coming up. It was a small portion of a large bill. I thought it was a good idea,” he said. “I asked my legislative director later on after I got involved, ‘What role did we play?’ He said we basically went along with the bill that the (service) provider organizations were pushing.”
BUTTERWORTH MADE MONEY
Broward Behavioral’s for profit partner in the deal, Concordia Behavioral Health, paid Butterworth and his Fort Lauderdale law firm, Fowler White Boggs, to represent them in the matter.
“Yes, I received compensation, but my total representation was at a drastically reduced rate and I didn’t bill all my hours because it was something I believed in,” he said.
However, Butterworth declined to say how much he and Fowler White were paid by Concordia.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last month that Concordia’s owners include a silent partner, Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur Miguel B. Fernandez, who is a major contributor to Gov. Rick Scott.
Gov. Rick Scott
A Hollywood resident, Butterworth is a longtime Democrat and Florida political insider whose five decades of public service includes stints as Broward sheriff and judge.
Gov.-Elect Crist named Butterworth to head DCF in December 2006 amid a barrage of negative publicity focused on its failures to safeguard children under its protection. Butterworth served until August 2008.
PUSH TO REFORM
Butterworth said that as secretary his “major emphasis” was on restoring the agency’s reputation and reforming its foster care system.
State records, however, show that DCF under Butterworth was also focused on the development of managing entities as a “new business model” for the delivery of behavioral health services. In fact, it was a “strategic initiative” of the agency in its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Plan for 2007-2010.
In 2007, “the department began to strengthen community systems of care by encouraging the development of managing entities,” says a 2009 DCF report on their statewide implementation following the passage of enabling legislation the previous year.
Former DCF staff analyst John N. Bryant said he helped write the bill that ultimately passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Crist. Bryant said several people at DCF, including then Assistant Secretary Bill Janes “worked actively for its passage.”
Janes said he recommended the bill to Butterworth, but noted that Florida’s provider organizations, not DCF, initiated and developed it. ”It was the department’s role to provide comment on the bill,” he said.
Janes, who reported directly to Butterworth, said managing entities were then a “new concept” for DCF and Butterworth was not particularly familiar with them. “But I’m not going to head in a direction he doesn’t approve. He’s my boss. If he doesn’t agree with it, it’s not going to move forward,” Janes said.
QUIRK IN LAW
DCF Secretary David Wilkins announced in October 2011 that non-profits could submit bids for the job of Broward “managing entity.” Broward Behavioral was incorporated the same month.
Broward Behavioral and the Partnership for Community Health, a group of established local health care providers, were the only bidders. The Partnership ranked higher and state evaluators also deemed Broward Behavioral’s proposal “nonresponsive” because it did not include paperwork required to demonstrate financial stability.
Because there was only a single responsive reply, a quirk in state bid rules allowed DCF to ditch the sealed bid process in January and negotiate with anyone.
Two months later, Wilkins awarded the contract to Broward Behavioral.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer, left, and ex-Judge Marcia Beach
A state appeals court chief judge and three Broward Circuit Court judges lent their names to Bob Butterworth’s private push for a $44.8 million-a-year state mental health management contract, state records show.
The judges are recently resigned members of the board of directors of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit that teamed up with Miami’s for-profit Concordia Behavioral Health to win the deal.
A multiyear contract is to be signed this week that establishes Broward Behavioral as the county’s new “managing entity” for substance abuse and mental health services.
Three judges who joined the board early on are identified by name and title on bid documents submitted to the Florida Department of Children and Families last winter by Butterworth, a former DCF secretary who is president and chairman of Broward Behavioral. Biographies of the judges were included.
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, however, prohibits judges from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”
The judges are Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May, Broward Circuit Judges Michele Towbin-Singer and Marcia Beach – who recently retired, and county mental health court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Towbin-Singer succeeded Beach in drug court.
Each of the judges resigned from Broward Behavioral’s board this month after a state judicial ethics panel ruled in June that judges may not serve on such boards. Earlier, Butterworth had assured DCF negotiators the judges would not step down.
Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May
The last to resign: Judge May, who quit minutes before Monday evening’s board meeting. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The ethics opinion has not stopped judges around the state from serving on the boards of other DCF managing entities.
For example, in Miami-Dade Judges Steven Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen serve on the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman chairs the group.
DCF’s contract award in Broward last March prompted a bid protest from a competing group that claimed the contract had been illegally steered to Butterworth’s group by unnamed state officials. The protest was dismissed, but the corruption allegations were not investigated.
JUDGES’ NAMES MADE AN IMPRESSION
Records show the judges’ presence on the board impressed DCF’s negotiators. Shortly before the contract was awarded last March, negotiators cited the judges as a reason to look favorably on Broward Behavioral’s bid, a review of audio recordings show.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that a silent investor in Concordia, Broward Behavioral’s profit-seeking partner, is a deep-pocketed political insider who has given heavily to Gov. Rick Scott’s campaigns.
On Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, an organization raising money for Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and one of his companies, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, records show.
JUDGES AND ETHICS
The connection of big campaign money to the Broward managing entity contract is particularly problematic for judges who are generally supposed to steer clear of political influence.
But there was another problem.
The June 11 ethics opinion that held judges should not serve on the boards of private, not-for-profit corporations that – like Broward Behavioral – are organized to administer tens of millions of dollars in DCF funds.
A judge in Palm Beach County had sought the opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee that advises judges so they can steer clear of trouble.
“Of particular concern in the present case is the nature of the managing entity. Viewed one way, the managing entity is a stand-in for an agency of the executive branch,” the opinion says. Judges who serve on such boards “could be said to be involved in the granting of governmental funds and overseeing their use.”
The opinion cited another concern: that judges who serve on such boards could be perceived as conduits or agents for vendors like Concordia.
“Whether or not the (unidentified vendor) is itself a corporation not for profit, a judge should take care not to lend the prestige of judicial office to advance its interests,” the opinion says.
Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren
Judges May, Towbin-Singer and Beach served on Broward Behavioral’s board for months after the ruling. In September, records show, then-Judge Beach even participated with Butterworth in a contract negotiation session with DCF.
Judge Wren was not identified to DCF as a board member until Oct. 1.
BUTTERWORTH WANTS A BETTER ANSWER
Butterworth, a politically connected Democrat and former judge and sheriff, discussed the ethics ruling during an Oct. 9 negotiation session. He said Broward Behavioral’s judges had “been advised they don’t have to resign at this time” and that “every judge to the best of my knowledge” would continue to serve.
The state’s former top attorney also declared that he wanted to go back to the ethics committee with a reframed question in search of a better answer.
“We are attempting to work on an appropriate question to ask the committee and we hope we get a different response,” Butterworth told the DCF negotiators.
By last Thursday, however, the status of at least some of the judges had changed.
Hollywood attorney Larry Davis, a Broward Behavioral board member, informed the DCF negotiators that it was now decided the judges “can’t serve at this point” and that a search was on for replacements.
In an interview Friday, board member and County Commissioner Lois Wexler said that Judges Towbin-Singer, Beach and Wren had stepped down from Behavioral’s board.
Judge May, however, remained on the board. Earlier in the month, Butterworth had told DCF that the Fourth District Court of Appeal “is not covered by the advisory opinion,” but did not explain why.
On Monday, May arrived at Butterworth’s Fort Lauderdale law office about 15 minutes before the meeting and went to his office.
She expressed concern about “the negativity that’s around her participation” on the board, said Wexler.
Shortly after that, the judge resigned.
By Dan Christensen, Browardbulldog.org
Gov. Rick Scott
Another political insider – this time a major contributor to Gov. Rick Scott – has cropped up in a $44.8 million-a-year government-business deal to manage mental health services in Broward County.
The Florida Department of Children and Families awarded the multi-year contract in March to Broward Behavioral Health Coalition and its for-profit partner Concordia Behavioral Health of Miami.
Bob Butterworth, the former head of DCF and an ex-Florida Attorney General, orchestrated the deal as president of Broward Behavioral. State officials say they expect to sign a deal by Nov. 1.
Now, BrowardBulldog.org has identified a second insider, this time as a silent partner.
Public records show that on Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a fundraising organization set up with the governor’s support.
Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and a company he controls, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed a total of $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, the records show.
“It sounds like maybe Gov. Scott is running Florida like a business – doing business with his friends, said Katy Sorenson, head of the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami.
“It smells, and it’s not the way to encourage public confidence in the process. Even if it’s legal it doesn’t make it right,” she said.
Bob Sharpe, president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health and a critic of how the contract was awarded, said, “I think we now need to know more. I’m not necessarily going to tie (Fernandez’s) contribution to his participation in the plan…That’s kind of like business as usual.”
KEEP A LID ON IT?
The DCF appears to have tried to keep a lid on Fernandez’s connection to Concordia.
Several hundred pages of public records released by DCF to BrowardBulldog.org about the Broward managing entity procurement make no mention of Fernandez.
And a DCF spokesman said in an interview that while the names of Concordia’s shareholders were disclosed to the department, they were not written down on paper and no one could remember them.
“I spoke to (lead negotiator) Tom Lewis, (Assistant Secretary) Rob Siedlecki – the two key guys – and Secretary (David) Wilkins and to a person none of us knew about Miguel Fernandez’s name or any contributions he may or may not have made,” said spokesman Joe Follick.
Follick added that Gov. Scott did not contact Secretary Wilkins about the contract.
BrowardBulldog.org contacted Concordia chairman and chief executive Carlos Saladrigas this week and asked about the company’s investors. He confirmed that Fernandez, who runs the private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners, and Martin Perez, co-founder of Miami’s Medica Health Care Plans, are fellow Concordia shareholders.
“They are passive investors and it’s not even in a personal capacity. It’s through some of their funds,” said Saladrigas, reached by phone while traveling in Japan.
FUEL FOR A CONTROVERSY
The disclosure that a major contributor to Gov. Scott’s re-election committee stands to profit from DCF’s Broward contract seems likely to ratchet up controversy about the lucrative deal won by a team whose public face is Butterworth.
Butterworth, a Hollywood resident, has long been a political powerbroker. In Broward, he’s also served as sheriff and judge.
The DCF is privatizing the state’s current job of managing government-funded substance abuse and mental health services for adults and children in Broward. It is a change that is happening across the state.
Shortly after the award, a competitor, the Partnership for Community Health, filed a 22-page bid protest alleging that unidentified state officials had illegally steered the contract to Butterworth’s nonprofit. Likewise, it alleged that Broward Behavioral is a front for its putative subcontractor, Concordia.
DCF administratively rejected the protest and an appeals court tossed out the matter in August because the Partnership did not post a required appeal bond. The underlying accusations were not examined.
Bid documents submitted by Broward Behavioral describe detailed plans to implement “an innovative operating model” intended to save money and improve access to care. The documents also cite Concordia’s role in the new care system and describe the backgrounds of its management team, which includes Saladrigas and his daughter, psychologist Elisa Saladrigas.
The documents offer little detail about Concordia’s owners: “Concordia is well capitalized from private investors to fund its operations.’
But it is the financial muscle of those investors who are making DCF’s contract with Broward Behavioral possible.
BID INITIALLY REJECTED
In January, Broward Behavioral’s original bid was deemed “nonresponsive” because it did not include information the state requires to demonstrate financial stability.
To make up for that, Concordia’s owners offered to provide personal guarantees and/or a letter of credit to the state worth $750,000, according to records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org.
DCF negotiator Lewis endorsed the idea in a Feb. 23 email to Siedlecki and department General Counsel Marion Drew Parker that was not among the documents made public.
“Concordia’s three major shareholders are well known, financially substantial and respected investors with significant expertise in managed health care,” Lewis wrote. I “would intend to sit down and review the financial statements of the three guarantors to be sure the guarantee has substance.”
Lewis does not identify the shareholders in the memo, and apparently never reviewed their financial statements before forgetting their names.
Saladrigas said Monday he expects those guarantees to be signed upon his return to Florida this week.
Fernandez did not respond to a request for comment. Perez declined comment.
INSIDER AND PHILANTHROPIST
Fernandez, whose MBF Healthcare boasts in excess of $500 million in capital to invest in healthcare businesses, is a major philanthropist who has built and sold a number of South Florida businesses and given millions away to charity.
Recipients of his largesse include the University of Miami’s business school, St. Thomas University and Miami Children’s Hospital.
Fernandez is also among South Florida’s most active political donors – mostly to Republican candidates and causes.
Besides the money he sent Gov. Scott’s way, state records show that since 2010 Fernandez has personally contributed $540,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. His MBF Family of companies kicked in thousands more.
The Florida Democratic Party received $25,000 from Fernandez in the same period.
Fernandez is also a strong supporter of Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. He and MFB Family have contributed $1 million to Restore Our Future, a Super PAC supporting Romney.
Another $100,000 spent during the current election cycle went mostly to the Republican National Committee.
Aside from Concordia, Fernandez and Saladrigas are business associates in MBF.
Saladrigas is on a three-person advisory committee at MBF Healthcare Partners that helps Fernandez vet investment opportunities. Both men are on the board of directors of MBF Healthcare Acquisition Corp.
In 2010-2011, another MBF company run by Fernandez and incorporated only in Delaware, was registered as the owner of short-lived Concordia Healthcare Ventures.
CHV was voluntarily dissolved on Aug. 19, 2011 – two months before the October public announcement of the Broward managing entity procurement.
Four days later, on Aug. 23, another ownership group – Concordia Healthcare Limited Partnership – was formed. Its general partner was another company, Concordia Healthcare Management.
Concordia Healthcare Management lists a single officer and director, Carlos Saladrigas.
Miguel Fernandez’s name is nowhere to be found.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Ex-Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth lobbied heavily this year to convince his former agency to award his nonprofit company – and its for profit partner – a $44 million-a-year state management contract.
Butterworth, however, is not registered in Tallahassee to lobby state officials.
The Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, Butterworth’s group, won the competition in March to become Broward’s new “managing entity for substance abuse and mental health services.”
Today, after months of delay caused by an unsuccessful bid protest, Butterworth is negotiating final contract terms with DCF. A signed deal is expected by Nov. 1.
As president of Broward Behavioral, Butterworth led the company’s campaign to secure the lucrative, multi-year contract. Their bid was chosen over one made by Partnership for Community Health, a group of established Broward healthcare providers.
State procurement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org show Butterworth assembled, signed and submitted a lengthy bid proposal on behalf of Broward Behavioral and its partner, Miami-based Concordia Behavioral Health.
Butterworth, a former Florida Attorney General and Broward County Sheriff, later participated in pre-award negotiations that included direct correspondence with DCF’s lead negotiator in which Butterworth advocated the merits of “BBHC/Concordia team’s” cost savings proposal.
HOLE IN THE LAW
One state ethics expert said Democrat Butterworth – also a former judge and prosecutor – may have taken advantage of holes in the lobbyist law.
“It’s like Swiss Cheese,” said Philip Claypool, the retired executive director and general counsel for the Florida ethics commission.
Florida law broadly defines lobbying as “seeking, on behalf of another person, to influence an agency with respect to a decision of the agency in the area of policy or procurement.”
But its definition of lobbyist is narrower, turning on questions of a person’s employment, pay and job description.
“I think there is an argument on both sides,” said Claypool. “The question would have to be determined by knowing who paid whom, for what, and when, as well as what communications were made, when and under what circumstances.”
The Florida ethics commission can investigate alleged failures to register or to submit a required compensation report. It does not initiate probes, but responds to sworn complaints.
Violators may be reprimanded, censured or prohibited from lobbying for up to two years. They can also be fined up to $5,000.
Butterworth declined several requests to discuss his push to obtain the DCF contract and explain why he is not registered to lobby executive branch agencies.
Butterworth, who also serves as Broward Behavioral’s chairman, told Sun-Sentinelcolumnist Michael Mayo in June that Concordia – owned by Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas – was paying him as both a lawyer and a lobbyist.
That potentially conflicting relationship is not disclosed in Broward Behavioral’s proposal submitted to DCF, an agency that he ran from January 2007 to August 2008.
Butterworth’s financial arrangement with Broward Behavioral also is not discussed in the proposal documents. Company bylaws allow officers to be paid “reasonable compensation for their services.”
Nova Southeastern University law and legal ethics professor Robert Jarvis said Butterworth should have registered.
“We say we take seriously government in the sunshine. So having to register as a lobbyist is just part and parcel of that effort to make government as transparent as possible,” Jarvis said.
Carla Miller, a former federal prosecutor who now heads Jacksonville’s ethics office, said Florida’s lax lobbying requirements have allowed many to skate through without registering, including presidents of companies.
“There is an appearance that we are doing something to protect citizens when we aren’t, and that’s the bottom line,” said Miller, who founded CityEthics.org a dozen years ago to promote ethics in government. “Bob Butterworth has probably figured out the lobbying law. “
The idea of using managing entities to privatize oversight of state substance abuse and mental health services was a DCF initiative under Butterworth, according to department documents.
The idea: to save millions of dollars in expenses that can be redirected to improving care in a state where such government-funded services have long lagged the rest of the nation.
In 2007, DCF held a public meeting to hear comment on “the role and functions of a managing entity” in advance of a planned procurement in southeast Florida, records say.
Last fall, DCF Secretary David Wilkins announced an “intent to negotiate” for the job of managing entity for Broward.
DCF Secretary David Wilkins
He said he expected “a significant number” of qualified nonprofits to submit sealed bids.
But there were only two bidders: Broward Behavioral and the Partnership for Community Health.
The Partnership was ranked higher by six of the state’s eight evaluators. It also had the highest score.
Broward Behavioral was deemed to be “nonresponsive” because it did not include required paperwork to demonstrate its financial stability.
Nevertheless, as DCF’s general counsel Marion Drew Parker has put it, a “wrinkle” in the competitive process allowed DCF to scrap the idea of sealed bids.
Negotiations started over, now with just a single DCF employee – instead of a committee – charged with recommending a winner, and Broward Behavioral came out on top.
The deal was delayed when the Partnership filed a 22-page bid protest alleging, among other things, that the contract award was illegally steered to Butterworth’s group.
DCF quickly denied the protest. The Partnership sued, but an appeals panel dismissed the case in August because it had neglected to post a required protest bond
The underlying corruption allegations were not addressed. A DCF spokesman has denied any impropriety.
Broward Bulldog reported last week that DCF awarded the contract to Butterworth’s group without required rules in place to promote public scrutiny.