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TMCNet:  No more free lunch for Broward officials

[January 14, 2013]

No more free lunch for Broward officials

Jan 14, 2013 (Sun Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Ethics reform in Broward County put a serious crimp in politicians' social lives, a review of public records shows.

In the year since a new Code of Ethics went into effect for all city and county officials in Broward County, questions poured in to their attorneys, as they wrestled with invitations -- and whether to say yes or no. The answer, more often than not, was no, a survey of the legal opinions shows.
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Commissioners and council members often had to reject invitations or dip into their own wallets to attend fundraisers and events. One commissioner, Barbara Sharief on the County Commission, said she spent $14,000 last year paying her own way.

"You want to be participating," she said. "You want to go out and be seen in your community where they know you're representing you." Just as it was designed to do, the new rulebook put a damper on the acceptance of endless invitations to free lunches and gratis dinners from charities, companies and community groups clamoring for politicians' attention.

Now, any gift, including food, drinks and admission to events, is illegal for a politician to take if it's given by lobbyists, vendors or government contractors. Box of chocolates Illegal. Cup of Starbucks coffee Illegal. Dinner on Las Olas Definitely illegal.

Lauderhill Mayor Richard Kaplan and Broward Commissioner Sue Gunzburger said they turn down invitations, rather than pay and go.

Gunzburger said no to opera tickets, for example, because county attorneys said the gift could be seen as an effort by the Opera Guild "to curry favor with you" in order to get money from the county in the future.

"I've always said you and everyone who lives in Broward County pays me a decent salary," said Gunzburger, "and none of you get to go to these dinners and luncheons for free. Why should I " Commissioner Bobby DuBose in Fort Lauderdale was told he'd have to pay the full cost if he attended a "Death by Chocolate" event that Waste Management Inc. invited him to.

He was told he'd have to pay to attend another event he was invited to solely because the person who passed on the invitation was a lobbyist.

Commissioner Chip LaMarca was told in February that he'd have to pay for food and drinks if he attended a reception for the St. Patricks' Day Parade & Festival Sponsors at Yolo and Huizenga Plaza.

LaMarca said he's spent a few thousand dollars, choosing events he feels passionately about and skipping the others.

"A lot of times we'll find out it's a reception we're invited to and its $125 a person, and I'll ask my wife and she'll say, 'Do you really need to go ' " But once in while, the attorneys do give a green light.

In Fort Lauderdale, Commissioner Bruce Roberts and his wife, Sharlene, were given the go-ahead to visit an elite hospitality lounge at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. Roberts told the city attorney's office he was invited by Allied Kitchen and Bath not because he's a politician, but because two and a half years ago, "we hired them to remodel our kitchen." In that case, City Attorney Harry Stewart -- who more often than not told his commissioners "no" -- said Roberts could go, but would have to follow state law that requires the reporting of gifts valued at more than $100.

Gunzburger was allowed to keep an Oriental Year of the Rabbit wind chime given to her by the Atlantic Institute of Oriental Medicine, provided it wasn't worth more than $50, the threshold for gifts given by non-vendors.

LaMarca was also allowed to keep a desk cardholder he was given at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Pink Ice Ball, because those aren't considered gifts, attorneys said..

"It takes a little more caution," said LaMarca, "but at the same time, it's what the people wanted and I'm happy to do it." Sharief agreed, taking issue only with the part of the ethics code that restricts the employment of politicians' spouses.

"That doesn't bother me," she said of the gift restrictions. "I always pay for my own stuff." bwallman@tribune.com or 954-356-4541.

___ (c)2013 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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