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Support slips away from port leader

Walter Browne, the brash labor leader who has curried favor with Broward's political elite while chairing the Port Everglades Authority, is losing support amid a cross fire of questions about shoddy port management.

Today, the port authority is expected to elect a new chairman -- and most likely, it won't be Browne.

One year after he took the job, Browne now says he has no intention of running again. In fact, he is expected to miss today's meeting to attend the special legislative session in Tallahassee.

"I feel I've gotten enough whiplash," Browne, 38, said in a recent interview.

Once considered untouchable, Browne is under fire from an expanding group of critics who object to the port's lavish spending, new property tax and political dealings.

When Browne was elected chairman, the port faced few critics, in part because the port wasn't taxing Broward residents.

Yet during Browne's year as chairman:

* The FBI has begun questioning former port employees about possible corruption at the port. The ex-workers say agents are investigating possible illegalities in bond deals and alleged extortion at the port.

* Just this week, state legislators ordered an audit of the port, saying they were disturbed by reports of questionable spending for gold rings and opera tickets, among other things.

* A private consultant hired by the port, Booz-Allen & Hamilton, issued a critical report in September that said the port could save up to $3 million a year by cutting 52 unneeded jobs. The consultant said that although revenues had soared, the port's profits had drastically dipped because of massive spending.

* Over the boos and catcalls of taxpayers angry about port spending, the port commissioners imposed a new tax Sept. 25. The port spent thousands of dollars entertaining influential Broward politicians with fancy dinners, helicopter tours and an assortment of gifts.

As the port's stock dipped, so did Browne's.

Labor leaders -- who lobbied county commissioners to appoint him to the seat in 1984 and again in 1988 -- now want him out. Just last month, the Broward AFL-CIO voted 51-19 to withdraw its support of Browne.

Their gripes? That he hires friends, double-dips into port funds as head of a private lobbying group and does little for labor.

But Walter "Buster" Browne is not easily discouraged. The strapping, tough-talking Brooklyn native said he won't bow to pressure and intends to serve on the commission until at least 1992, when his term expires. He describes himself as "very aggressive, very cunning."

Browne is confident the recent flow of criticism will soon swing past the port, which he says has gotten an unfair black eye because of a "media frenzy."

"There's been no mismanagement, and I've done nothing improper," Browne said. "I'm not going to be run out of town and I'm not going to be railroaded. I'm going to win here. I'm not here to be labor's flunkie."

His labor critics? "A bunch of malcontents who are incompetent and playing petty politics."

Those critics say Browne is incompetent.

"Browne has done little to help labor," said Alexander "Doc" Cullison, who replaced Browne at the 4,700-member Federation of Public Employees, which represents about 80 port workers. "He has been so eager to help his political friends that he's been insensitive to appearances of cronyism and conflict of interest."

Browne acknowledges he likes to do business with friends. Several have landed port contracts:

* The port hired bond underwriter Bear, Stearns to handle two major bonds worth $167 million this year. Bear, Stearns -- which made $400,000 on management fees alone and thousands more selling the bonds -- is represented locally by William Glynn, a longtime friend of Browne. Glynn contributes to port commission campaigns, is a former Republican Party chairman and owned a North Carolina cabin with Port Director Joel Alesi. Browne's family vacationed there.

* The port this year hired a Michigan firm headed by another of Browne's friends, Anthony Lapiana, to administer its self-insured group health plan. The company won the contract on the third bid, although most port contracts are put to bid just once. The port said the first two bids were flawed. Lapiana and Browne deny any wrongdoing.

* Another friend, Robert Ronchi, was hired by the port to design seven gold and diamond rings for commissioners. Embarrassed by reports of the purchase, the port sold the rings to a swap shop owner for the same price it paid.

"I'd rather deal with someone I know," Browne said. "If I have my house painted, I don't want to have it painted by a stranger. I want it painted by a friend."

Critics also question Browne's role with the Florida Alliance, a lobbying group chiefly funded by Port Everglades that is fighting a proposed pipeline that could decimate the port's petroleum business.

As president, Browne earns $80,000 a year from the Alliance. That's in addition to the $14,400 the high school graduate is paid at the port and the $10,000 or more he earns as business representative for the District 2A engineers union. The U.S. Interior Secretary has said there is little chance of a Florida pipeline for at least the next decade, but port shipper and commission campaign contributor Hans Hvide -- who hired Browne -- said the pipeline threat is real.

Two former port directors, Thomas Burke and James Connolly, blame Browne and Director Alesi for the port's woes.

"The two have run the port into the ground," says Connolly, director from 1981 to 1986, citing the port's sharp decline in profits.

Alesi disagrees and gives his performance a "B-plus, because nobody's perfect."

Burke, director from 1986 to 1988, said Browne was "disruptive and interfered with the day-to-day operations of the port director, certainly during my tenure." Browne denies any allegations of wrongdoing.

With a state audit on the horizon, Broward legislators are beginning to ask questions, too.

"The Broward delegation is watching the port very closely," said state Sen. Howard Forman, D-Pembroke Pines. "Port expenses have mushroomed because they (Browne and Alesi) have not showed as much concern about costs as they should have."

Browne still maintains support with many influential Broward politicians.

"Walter is a strong leader who deserves a lot of credit for the port's successes," said state Sen. Tom McPherson, D-Fort Lauderdale.

County Commissioner Lori Parrish, who invited Browne and his wife to her wedding, described Browne "as a good public official" who is "extremely dedicated, very caring, with a high level of integrity."

Former director Connolly thinks Browne has been able to gain the favor of many Broward leaders in part through the political contributions he hands out.

Those contributions flowed in 1984, as the County Commission moved to appoint the port's first labor representative. Browne wanted the job and persuaded his parent labor union to spread $12,500 among 23 candidates for Broward office: state legislators, county and port commissioners, school board members and judges.

The strategy, Browne wrote in a 1984 memo: ". . . to defuse those elected officials that are friendly" with potential opponents.

"I've probably spread around more contributions than all the other (labor) organizations combined," Browne acknowledged. "It has gotten me into the door, it has gotten me to the bargaining table. But it hasn't bought me any votes or anything."

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