Lobbyist Neil Sterling violated Broward School District policy by not disclosing his business ties to School Board member Stephanie Kraft's husband. But he's unlikely to face any consequences because the district has no penalties for lobbyists who violate its rules.
Even if there were consequences, the district's form is flawed because it only requires lobbyists each year to disclose their connections to board members, appointed officials or district employees. There is no place on the disclosure form to report ties to the immediate family of board members, which is required under the policy.
The discovery that there is no punishment for breaking the rules provides "an opportunity" to revisit the district's lobbying policy and "see if it meets the test of integrity," Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter said Monday.
He said he's going to ask the board to add consequences to its policy at an upcoming workshop. The board would ultimately approve any changes.
Sterling, a former School Board member, is the top donor to and fundraiser for several board members' campaigns. He has faced increased scrutiny in the weeks since suspended board member Beverly Gallagher's Sept. 23 arrest on federal corruption charges.
Unlike the School Board, lobbyist laws for Broward County, the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office and Miami-Dade County Public Schools include penalties for violating their rules. These range from a warning to a two-year suspension.
However, none of those entities prohibit lobbyists from having direct business ties with elected officials' immediate families.
Notter said even if the district had penalties, he can't hold "someone accountable for a form that doesn't align with the policy."
Consequences are meaningless unless they're enforced, said Norm Ostrau, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and former chairman of the state Ethics Commission.
Enforcement is "the absolute thing. A lot of this stuff, you get a lot of hype¥ and we pass extra laws but there's no enforcement mechanism," Ostrau said. "The laws we have on the books now probably don't catch 98 percent of the people who have problems."
Sterling has been a lobbyist since leaving the School Board in 1991. Among his clients: Community Blood Centers of South Florida, the Downtown Development Authority, Klewin Construction Inc., Recreational Design & Construction Inc., Weiss and Woolrich Contractors, and Zyscovich Architects.
He hired Kraft's husband, Mitch, in 2007 to do legal work as an independent contractor for his SRG Technology LLC firm. Stephanie Kraft disclosed the connection last week.
The Broward school district's lobbying policy was enacted in 1998 and has remained unchanged for the past decade.
Lobbying policies vary among the state's biggest school districts. Miami-Dade's policy requires lobbyists to register each year, file expenditures on behalf of their clients for the year and disclose how much they're paid. Orange County's school board recently approved registration and expenditure reporting requirements for its lobbyists.
The Palm Beach County school district does not require lobbyist registration and Hillsborough County's school district also has no rules for its lobbyists.
School Board vice chairwoman Jennifer Gottlieb said she supports strengthening lobbyist requirements.
"I feel that people who do business with the School Board, and lobby the School Board, would be more than willing to follow any guidelines we lay out," Gottlieb said. "It makes it fair and equitable for everybody."
What would more likely help the school district and other local governments would be a countywide Inspector General to serve as a watchdog and train elected officials, Ostrau said.
"That, with an [Inspector General], makes it a good process, makes it worthwhile," Ostrau said. "You try to see where problems could occur and where you could stem the problems, and work so that the Inspector General really doesn't have anything to do. But you do need that enforcement mechanism because things do go wrong."
Staff Writer Megan O'Matz contributed to this report.Kathy Bushouse can be reached at kbushouse@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4556.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun