They stayed at a vendor’s beach house. Now, a School Board member and a director face an ethics complaint.
By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel,
A Broward school board member and an administrator could face a state ethics investigation over whether they showed any favoritism toward a district vendor after staying at his $1.1 million beach house.
The Florida Commission on Ethics has received a complaint from a member of a Broward schools watchdog group, accusing School Board member Donna Korn and Shawn Cerra, director of student activities and athletics, of ethical breaches related to a vendor for graduation caps and gowns.
Each could face fines of up to $10,000 if the commission determines they violated the state’s ethics law.
Korn couldn’t be reached for comment despite attempts by phone, text and email Wednesday and Thursday. Cerra, in an email, declined to comment.
The state ethics commission will not provide copies of complaints or even confirm their existence until they are either dismissed or referred for action, a commission spokeswoman said.
The resident who filed the complaint, Amy Shield, of Parkland, received confirmation that her complaint was successfully delivered Monday.
Shield is one of the moderators of a Facebook group called Concerned Citizens of Broward. Another group moderator, John Daly, of Coral Springs, also similarly filed a complaint and on Saturday obtained confirmation it was received by the commission.
The complaints are the result of a Nov. 19 South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation that revealed Korn and Cerra had vacationed multiple times at the Naples area home of Chuck Puleri, whose company Chuck Puleri & Associates has been the district’s longtime distributor of Herff Jones caps and gowns.
“Ms. Korn failed to disclose that she has a personal relationship with Chuck Puleri and has received gifts from him and his company, including vacationing with his family on at least two occasions,” Shield wrote.
She wrote in her complaint that Cerra, who is also a Coral Springs city commissioner, has directed principals to inform parents that their kids can’t attend graduations unless they are in Herff Jones caps and gowns.
“Cerra is a ‘close friend’ of Puleri and has received gifts from Puleri and failed to disclose their relationship,” Shield wrote.
Shield told the Sun Sentinel that she believes Korn and Cerra “chose to benefit their friend and his business over the interests of Broward students and their families.”
Puleri could not be reached for comment Thursday. In November, he told the Sun Sentinel, “I won’t be making any comments. I haven’t made any comments so far, and I won’t be making any comments going forward.”
The Sun Sentinel first raised questions in July, after discovering parents were paying high markups for caps and gowns, and the district was using questionable bidding and administrative practices to maintain Puleri as the sole vendor for caps and gowns.
Puleri had made campaign donations to most School Board members and to Cerra for his Coral Springs City Commission seat, as well as provided free food and drinks to administrators.
A reporter identified at least seven school district administrators, including Cerra, at a party Puleri hosted at the Funky Buddha brewery in Oakland Park in June while Puleri was waiting to learn whether he would be awarded a three-year exclusive contract.
Last month, the Sun Sentinel learned that Korn and her three children stayed with Puleri and his wife in August 2016 and March 2017.
Korn said she repaid Puleri for the fair market value of the trip before she left, which would prevent her from running afoul of the state’s gift laws‚ which prohibit School Board members from accepting gifts from vendors valued at more than $50.
Korn said she didn’t remember how much she paid and didn’t respond to the Sun Sentinel’s requests for records.
Amid concerns of high prices and questionable bidding practices, the school district’s purchasing department asked the School Board last month to vote against a recommendation by a selection committee to give Herff Jones an exclusive three-year contract. Korn was the sole board member to vote against it, saying the action was unfair to vendors.
She also was part of unanimous votes to award Herff Jones a contract in 2016 as well as several extensions and about $500,000 in funding above the contract in the years since.
She said in November the friendship didn’t create a conflict and there was no reason to recuse herself.
“I don’t have a benefit from him. I’ve never received any gifts,” she said last month. “I stayed with him, but I paid for my stay. There’s no grounds by which to recuse myself.”
Cerra and his wife stayed with the Puleris at least twice, in May 2019 and March 2021.
He has made multiple requests to the School Board to increase funding for Herff Jones.
Last spring, he set up a selection committee consisting mostly of his staff, which recommended Herff Jones get an exclusive contract, and he also directed principals not to allow students to attend graduation unless they wore Herff Jones caps and gowns, according to emails.
“Chuck Puleri is one of my closest friends,” Cerra said in a November email to the Sun Sentinel. “Our friendship started back in 1994, well before he started his own business. I’m very proud to have him as a friend.”
Asked if he reimbursed Puleri for lodging, Cerra replied, “When you stay at a friend’s house, someone you are very close with, does your friend charge you?”
On Tuesday, two and a half weeks after the Sun Sentinel’s investigation raised questions about Korn and Cerra staying at Puleri’s house, the School Board held its yearly ethics training.
Gray Schafer, a lawyer for the state Ethics Commission, spent nearly an hour reviewing the laws on what types of gifts public officials can accept.
He said it’s illegal for a public official to solicit a gift of any value from a vendor or lobbyist.
Public officials must be careful about accepting gifts from vendors, especially if there’s a chance the vendor wants something in return, such as business from the school district, he said.
“I’m aware this is a very controversial subject,” Schafer told School Board members at the training.
He even used examples that appeared to directly refer to the questions raised about Puleri’s beach house.
“A gift can be anything of value, including tickets, a nice meal out, a cup of coffee, even the use of property can be considered a gift, because the use of someone’s property has value,” he said. “If you’re staying a couple of nights at someone’s house on the beach, that has some value to it.”
He said if the public official repays the value of the gift within 90 days, as Korn said she did, it doesn’t count as a gift.
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