Who would have thought that Mary McCarty, the onetime slush-fund queen of Palm Beach County, was such an inspirational figure down in Broward?
The Broward County Commission, with only a single dissenting vote (Lois Wexler), decided last week to channel some $600,000 in unspent office funds into their own sweet individual discretionary funds to spread around their districts. That won’t quite amount to the unfettered buckets of slush that empowered (and enriched) Mary — and helped put her in prison — but it’s a start.
McCarty was one of the four Palm Beach County commissioners busted on various corruption charges since 2006. Among her transgressions, she funneled large chunks of her $1 million-a-year discretionary fund into a construction deal that profited her bond-broker hubby.
Of course, most of the misuse of county commissioner slush funds, at least in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, has been less blatantly corrupt and much more political. Commissioners doled out dollops of money to various constituencies to fund public events or underwrite community groups or boost other politicians’ civic projects, as a way to curry political favors.
In 2009, a state grand jury investigating an appalling spate of political corruption in Palm Beach County charged that discretionary funds “created a process that eliminated oversight and, at a minimum, politicized the manner of funding.”
The grand jury recommended “that the board of county commissioners immediately freeze all remaining funds from all discretionary accounts and that these funds be utilized to fund an independent oversight entity and additional investigative resources.”
The county commission and the municipal governments in Palm Beach County got the message and eliminated their long-cherished discretionary funds. Except for Boynton Beach, where the city commissioners came under fire this summer for clinging to their $7,000 individual pots of do-what-we-want money. The Palm Beach County Ethics Commission called this “perilous” and “disturbing.”
Speaking of perilous, Miami-Dade County commissioners have come under withering criticism for giving out hundreds of thousands of dollars from their “excess” office funds willy-nilly, with little oversight or restriction, all according to the whims of individual commissioners. Getting rid of “those $800,000 slush funds” has been one of the key demands of feared civic reformer Norman Braman.
Douglas Halsey, a lawyer with White & Case, investigated the Miami-Dade County Commission’s penchant for discretionary spending last year. “When flagged, they have been clever about calling it something else. It is no longer a ’discretionary’ fund but is buried in the office budget,” he reported. “It is clear that county commissioners have for years enjoyed being able to use taxpayer dollars for patronage purposes.”
Two counties. Two sets of slush funds. Two clear warnings of what can go wrong. Yet, in Broward, the very county sandwiched between Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, county commissioners think discretionary funds are a fine idea.
“I’m afraid this is a slippery slope,” said Broward Commissioner Lois Wexler, the lone No vote (Commissioner Dale Holness was absent). Wexler told me Wednesday that unspent county money should go back into general fund. “My apprehension is that there’s no process, no cap, no criteria. This could potentially evolve into a slush fund.”
No matter. Her fellow commissioners voted to allow Commissioner Barbara Sharief to give out $12,000 to civic and cultural projects in Miramar, West Park and Hallandale Beach. And they planned to divvy up the remnants of their own office accounts by next week.
Ironically, Wexler, who runs the most frugal office among the commissioners, has the largest chunk of unspent money — more than $90,000. “I’ve been searching my soul. If my colleagues decide to give this money way, I’m against it, but I don’t think I should punish the cities in my district. It’s an ethical dilemma.”
She said she expects the commission will blunder ahead next week with the troublesome idea.
As long as the commissioners are so determined to convert public money into neat little gifts of political largess, they might consider hiring Mary McCarty as their financial consultant. I hear she’s out of federal prison and looking for work.