Stephanie Kraft: The Terrible History of a School Board "Reformer"

Like so many corrupt Broward officials, Stephanie Kraft began her career as a supposed "breath of fresh air," running back in 1998 against incumbent Don Samuels to bring ethics back to the Broward County School Board.

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Broward Cleansweep
Recent photo of Stephanie and Mitch Kraft.
When the Miami Herald pointed out that School Board contractors and lobbyists like George Allen (now a supposed ethics reformer himself, thanks to Superintendent Jim Notter), Ruden McClosky, George Platt, James Pirtle, and James Cummings were giving money to Samuels' campaign, Kraft was quoted as saying, "It presents a troubling appearance. It implies that if you give money, you expect repercussions."

The Broward League of Cities endorsed Kraft at the time, announcing that she "can help restore faith in the board's leadership."

The Sun-Sentinel enthusiastically endorsed her candidacy, calling her "a political newcomer who takes reform seriously" and writing that her campaign was about "restoring public trust." Her good friend Ellyn Bogdanoff, now a state legislator, called her "dynamic, educated, and committed."

Bogdanoff was a key supporter, along with other so-called "Steel Magnolias," including Ali Waldman and Mary Fertig. And they helped sweep Kraft into office over Samuels.

After the victory Waldman gushed to the Herald that Kraft was "the future of the board -- it's like a

new day."

While the Sentinel painted Kraft as a grassroots candidate backed by a "network of moms," she had one big player in her corner: Waldman's client and future boyfriend, Ron Bergeron, who was looking to sell some land to the School Board for a bus depot. While Waldman raised campaign cash for Kraft, Bergeron threw in a grand and pushed her candidacy from behind the scenes.  

Samuels, incidentally, had voted against Waldman and Bergeron on the land deal, backing a rival represented by lobbyist George Platt.  

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Bergeron and Waldman
In 1999, Kraft, as if to keep her "reformer" label alive, vociferously objected to a School Board land deal involving taxi mogul Jesse Gaddis. That raised questions about her motivations, however. From a Herald article at the time:

Another large land deal approved by the board without discussion involves 30 vacant acres at Stirling Road and Southwest 196th Avenue owned by developer Ron Bergeron. The district is paying $7.5 million for the property for a facility to park and maintain buses.

Some people in Broward political circles wonder why Kraft didn't question the deal with [Ron] Bergeron, who is represented by attorney and lobbyist Ali Waldman, a friend of Kraft's who helped her get elected last year," the Herald reported. "The purchase price for the Gaddis property exceeded the average of two independent appraisals by 3 percent, and the price for the Bergeron land exceeded the average of two appraisals by 31 percent.

Kraft said the 31 percent figure was misleading, since a review of the two appraisals found the lower estimate to be too low.

"Just because [Waldman] is my friend and I respect her as a person, I'm not going to give her any favors," Kraft said.

But the Bergeron land, auditors determined in 2000, was indeed overpriced. And that's when Kraft went on an attack against Auditor Patrick Reilly and School Board real estate official Lee Stepanchek. It was then that I waded into the controversy. From a column published on July 20, 2000:

When the audit came out, Kraft ended her silence. But this time she didn't blast the land deals. Instead she passionately defended the Bergeron purchase. Last month she wrote a scathing memo to Superintendent Frank Till complaining that Reilly's criticism of the Bergeron deal is "misleading and, frankly, borders on the fraudulent." Kraft was especially upset that the audit included the lowest appraisal, which valued the Bergeron land at a mere $3.9 million -- more than $3.5 million below the ultimate purchase price. Kraft claims the appraisal was "deficient" and shouldn't have been used at all. Reilly and Stepanchak both contend that the lowest appraisal was valid.

Kraft also points out that the parcel's rare heavy-industrial zoning made it more valuable and that Bergeron had spruced up the property with hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of landscaping. Bergeron, she says, "is a really nice guy and very honest, not someone who is looking to plunder."  

Kraft's outrageous behavior was a clear indication that she would be the last person to clean up the School Board, that she too was all about special interests. And some of her earlier supporters, like Democratic activist Rose Lieterman, felt hornswaggled.

"We elected her because we trusted her," Lieterman told me at the time. "Now I have my doubts. It makes me sad. I'm ashamed of her."

And that bus depot deal? It has turned into one of the great boondoggles in the history of the School Board. Here's what I wrote about it last year:

After selling the School Board the land for the bus depot, which was supposedly desperately needed ten years ago, Ron Bergeron also landed the contract to develop the project. His company, Bergeron Land Development, won the contract with a $4 million bid. The firm was supposed to get the work done in 150 days and have it completed by September 8, 2005.

Fast-forward to today. The thing still isn't finished, and its construction budget has ballooned to about $11 million. You can read all about it in this independent audit report. Hurricane Wilma slowed down efforts but is no excuse for the boondoggle this project has become.

More recently, Kraft tried to come to Bergeron's rescue when he was trying to sell another piece of dubious land to the School Board for a high school in Weston. After I wrote a rather scathing column about the glaring problems with the potential deal, Kraft dashed off an email defending the concept and denouncing my article.

She claimed that she just thought it was a good idea and said she and Waldman and Bergeron weren't even very close anymore. "We aren't as friendly as we were," Kraft told me. "We were very friendly in 1998 with the whole Steel Magnolias thing."

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Sterling with recently indicted former county commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin.
It was ugly stuff, but it was her involvement with School Board lobbyist Neil Sterling that ended any doubt about whether Kraft was an honest official. Her husband, Mitch, was hired by a Sterling company and was secretly on his payroll for two years -- and all the while, Kraft voted on his clients in a building frenzy that has left the board $2 billion in debt and the capital budget in a shambles.

Worse still, she played a leading role in steering the School Board's incredibly lucrative health care contract to Vista Health, another Sterling client.

I learned about the hiring last year and asked Mitch Kraft on the phone if he did work for SRG Technology, a Sterling company. "I'm not going to answer your questions," he said before hanging up the phone.

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Bruce and Shawn Chait
I contacted Stephanie Kraft about it and the issue. She  she too refused to address the issue but emailed me: "I honestly don't know why I should respond to you at all. It is obvious you harbor much animosity towards me and my colleagues. I don't expect that you would write a fair piece regardless of what the truth is. What would be the purpose in my responding."

She never did respond to me but several weeks later admitted to the Sun-Sentinel that her husband had indeed been on Sterling's payroll. Then came the revelation about her husband's work for dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait while she was helping them get a $500,000 break on School Board fees. This time, I could find the answers in the public record -- and that scandal led to her arrest today.

For her first campaign manager, political consultant Dan Lewis, it was a "sad day" -- but one he welcomed.

"Her initial support was all about reform, all about education, all about children, but over time, it was never realized," said Lewis. "A number of years ago, I no longer associated myself with the Krafts for a number of reasons. It's just sad. But I hope Mike Satz continues and we have more sad days like this so we can start rebuilding and get the kind of leadership most people in Broward are entitled to."

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