Nine years ago, Jennifer Gottlieb resigned. Seeking comeback, she says controversies ‘in the past.’

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By Anthony Man |SOUTH FLORIDA SUN SENTINEL | JUL 06, 2020

Jennifer Gottlieb, who wants the job of running all elections in Broward County, resigned from public office nine years ago as the School Board she led was engulfed in turmoil and a grand jury had reported widespread mismanagement and corruption.

The grand jury report, investigative reports prepared as part of its investigation, and news accounts at the time were filled with damning details about many aspects of what went on at the Broward School Board. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report went into details about Gottlieb’s personal life, detailing romantic involvements with two different Citigroup representatives seeking School District business.

Now, as she’s seeking to return to elected office as Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Gottlieb is citing her School Board experience as a central credential, along with her extensive work in the public arena since then.

What sets her apart from the other five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for supervisor of elections — the seat is open, with no incumbent — Gottlieb said, is that she can bring “the right balance and the right experience” to the job, adding that she has “a public servant’s heart.”

“The past is over. It is not where I am now. It is not who I am now,” she said during a South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board video-conference interview with the six candidates for supervisor of elections who are running in the Aug. 18 Democratic primary.

Besides emphasizing the positive and downplaying the negative, Gottlieb is emphasizing that she wasn’t indicted.

Had she done anything illegal, Gottlieb said repeatedly when pressed on the subject, she would have been charged. “What’s important is that I was never charged. I was never indicted, and I never did anything that violated my fiduciary responsibility as a School Board member,” she said. “If I did anything wrong, or illegal, I would have been indicted or charged, trust me.”

Grand jury

Gottlieb and other board members were not named in the February 2011 grand jury report, which was scathing in its assessment of the School Board.

The grand jury report about the school district said there was evidence of such widespread “malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance” by elected School Board members and district managers that it could only be explained by “corruption of our officials by contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.”

The panel concluded the School District suffered from “gross mismanagement and apparent ineptitude.” The report said the School Board meddled in day-to-day affairs, interfered with personnel decisions, “directing contracts to friends and acquaintances for consulting work,” “pushing unnecessary building projects,” and “manipulating the process to get the children of friends and family into specific schools.”

‘Beachside Boondoggle’

The grand jury found that the Beachside Montessori School in Hollywood was “a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the board and district.”

The grand jurors said the board “engaged in underhanded tactics” to build the $25 million school in an area where nearby schools had plenty of empty seats.

Six of the report’s 51 pages focused on the “Beachside Boondoggle,” which it described as one board member’s “pet project.” The official wasn’t named, but news accounts at the time said Gottlieb was its strongest champion.

Personal relationships

One section of the report, titled “voting conflicts,” described a possible “inappropriate relationship,” between an unidentified board member and a vendor, including embarrassing e-mails.

The grand jury report was issued in February 2011. Gottlieb resigned the following August. In September 2012, Florida Department of Law Enforcement material prepared for the grand jury was released, detailing some of Gottlieb’s relationships while she was a School Board member.

According to the FDLE documents, in the summer of 2007, Gottlieb was briefly involved with a married Citigroup employee who was vying for bond work from the school district. After that relationship ended, the report said she took up with another Citigroup representative who was seeking money-making deals with the School Board.

Gottlieb said last week she made some personal mistakes. “It was also 10 years ago. I handled my personal life in the past poorly, and I have regrets for that. Absolutely. I don’t think anybody here is perfect. I’m surely not perfect.”

‘That’s in the past’

In the Sun Sentinel interview, Gottlieb said there were “a lot of untruths” in the grand jury report and that it was “was one-sided. I was never given the opportunity to address any of those questions.” And, she said, she has never read it.

That’s in the past. So I’m here today. I’ve done a lot since then. I did a lot while I was on the School Board, and again I’m proud of my service on the School Board and all of the things I’ve accomplished then, and since then and now. And I did not break any law.”

In response to further questions, she said: “Again, what is in the past is over. It was a long time ago. If there was any malfeasance or laws broken, I would have been indicted or charged with a crime. My personal mistakes did not cross over into my policy work, my leadership role, or the things that I voted on on the School Board.”

Touts record

Gottlieb said she is “very proud of my professional record, of my voting record, of my public service.” Included in that is her time on the School Board, including services as chairwoman, which she said helped improve the system, the organization and the culture.

Gottlieb won her first term on the School Board in the September 2006 election, was re-elected in 2010, and resigned in August 2011.

Gottlieb also pointed to her recent job as legislative aide to state Sen. Gary Farmer, a position she left when she became a candidate for supervisor of elections last month. In that role, she said, she helped get legislation passed in Tallahassee, and helped constituents with a multitude of problems.

And, Gottlieb said, her organizational skills were shown by her performance as Broward political director for Democrat Andrew Gillum’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign. While he received 49% of the vote statewide, and lost, he received 68% of the vote in overwhelmingly Democratic Broward County.

Last-minute candidacy

Gottlieb entered the race on June 11, the penultimate day for candidates to get on the Aug. 18 primary ballot.

Four of the other candidates — Ruth Carter-Lynch, Mitch Ceasar, Tim Lonergan and Joe Scott — had already been running for 12 to 14 months. A fifth candidate, Chad Klitzman, had been running for seven months.

The race for supervisor of elections will effectively be decided in the Democratic primary. Broward is so overwhelmingly Democratic that the primary winner is virtually assured of winning in November. One Republican, Catherine Seei McBreen, is running.

Gottlieb said she had contemplated running for different offices over the years, but “didn’t think anything was the right time or the right place.”

While participating in a protest march a few weeks ago, she said she saw signs that said, “‘If you stay silent you’re part of the problem.’ And I really felt that it was a calling for me to get involved. This has been where my work has been, my passion for democracy has been for my whole life.”