FORT LAUDERDALE—School Board member Stephanie Kraft said Tuesday that her husband worked as an independent contractor since late 2007 for a company owned by Neil Sterling, one of the school district's biggest lobbyists now under scrutiny as part of the federal investigation into Broward government corruption.
The contract between Sterling and attorney Mitch Kraft was set to expire this year and won't be extended because it's "just not worth it," Stephanie Kraft said in an interview. Mitch Kraft was hired to do legal work for SRG Technology LLC, a company founded by Sterling in August 2007 that is registered to Sterling's Fort Lauderdale home address, according to state corporate records.
She declined to disclose how much he was paid.
"There's no conflict, no impropriety, no crime here," she said.
But Stephanie Kraft did not seek guidance from the Florida Commission on Ethics on whether her husband's job could create a conflict for her on the School Board. Rather, she relied on an opinion Sterling sought from Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron, as well as from a 2007 ethics commission opinion for Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter.
The commission told Ritter there was no conflict of interest in her voting on issues affecting clients of a lobbying firm that employed her husband, Russ Klenet, because Ritter's vote would not create any special gains or losses for Klenet.
Stephanie Kraft said she was confident that if the ethics commission found no conflict in Ritter's case, there would be no conflict in her case.
"I know ethically I am fine," she said. "I know legally I am fine."
Florida law states that elected officials cannot do business with any entity in which they, their spouse or children has a "material interest." Herron wrote in his opinion that since Mitch Kraft was not a partner in SRG Technology or in Sterling Resources Group, Sterling's lobbying firm, his employment would not create a conflict for Stephanie Kraft on the School Board.
Herron could not be reached to comment.
Stephanie Kraft's disclosure follows the arrest of suspended School Board member Beverly Gallagher, who is accused of taking bribes to steer School Board contracts to select construction companies. Board members spent a portion of Tuesday's workshop discussing how they can boost public confidence after the scandal.
Stephanie Kraft said she spoke to two attorneys about her husband's employment after Gallagher's arrest and said she also discussed it with federal agents who interviewed her as part of the corruption investigation.
Her attorney, Ken Padowitz, said Stephanie Kraft is not a target of the investigation and she willingly provided information.
Federal investigators have asked about Sterling and his relationship with the School Board during their interviews with board members and school officials.
Sterling is a former School Board member turned lobbyist whose client roster includes companies such as Vista, the school district's health insurance provider; and architectural firm Zyscovich Inc. Until recently, Sterling also represented Pirtle Construction Co., one of the school district's leading construction firms.
Sterling could not be reached to comment.
Sterling raises thousands of dollars for School Board incumbents through fundraisers and his own donations. He lobbied to help get Gallagher a job at Community Blood Centers, another of Sterling's clients.
Stephanie Kraft said her husband did not receive any money from Sterling's lobbying clients and did not represent any of those companies. Nor was Mitch Kraft given the job in exchange for School Board votes, Stephanie Kraft said.
The job "has nothing to do with any of this stuff," Stephanie Kraft said. "It's not a do-nothing job where he just shows up and gets a paycheck."
SRG would not appear before the School Board but would market Riverdeep software to police, fire, public safety and public health agencies, Herron says in the legal opinion he wrote at Sterling's behest.
Had Stephanie Kraft sought an advisory opinion from the ethics commission, their decision would have been legally binding, though appealable, said Kerrie Stillman, a commission spokeswoman.
Taking the issue to the ethics commission might have been a good move in this case, said Joe Little, a government law expert from the University of Florida.
Said Little: "One of the things that public officials should be aware of, of course, is public perception."
Kathy Bushouse can be reached at kbushouse@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4556.