Sheriff defends campaign donor's yacht trip on radio

BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. – Broward Sheriff Scott Israel went on the radio Thursday to defend a Bahamas trip he took on a private yacht with his largest campaign donor.

Although he's required by Florida law to report all gifts valued at $100 or more, the sheriff said he didn't have to disclose the 5-day cruise on the $35 million yacht, NewVida, because he paid full value for it under the law.

"I did what's laudable," he said on WFTL-850. "I did what I thought was the honorable thing and I paid for the cruise pursuant to what the law applies." 

The price he paid for the cruise for his family of five: $1,500, or $300 for each member of his family. The NewVida on the market rents for $190,000 a week. He said his general counsel, Ron Gunzburger, based the price on Carnival cruise ship rates. 

"Counsel explained it's determined by using an advertised cruise ship rate," said Israel. "... The Florida law says you use what you would call coach rate."

But the law that the sheriff and his general counsel cite concerns transportation expenses. When donors pay for vacations or multi-day trips for elected officials, the law maintains that "the value of the gift is equal to the total value of the various aspects of the trip." 

Nova ethics professor Bob Jarvis says the trip was undervalued and that the sheriff should have disclosed the trip.

"There is no way you can say that reasonable value has been paid," he said, adding that he believes the sheriff should amend his gift disclosure forms to reflect the actual value.

Israel said he welcomed an investigation by the state's Commission on Ethics, which has jurisdiction over the sheriff's gift disclosures. The commission investigates only after it receives a complaint from a member of the public.

Israel also talked about the man who provided the trip, the wealthy Robert Pereira, calling him a "a very, very dear friend" and claiming he was no different than any other personal friend of his.

The sheriff met Pereira during the campaign, in October, just a couple of months before he accepted the yacht trip.

"We want nothing more than each other's friendships," said Israel.

No mention was made during his WFTL appearance about the fact that Pereira, a construction company owner, had contributed $245,000 to a PAC supporting the sheriff.

Israel refused to answer my questions about the undisclosed yacht trip and, after I asked about it, called Local 10 and vowed never to speak with me again.

"I didn't give up my Constitutional rights either of free speech or not to be free speech when I became sheriff," Israel said. "And if Mr. Norman sticks a microphone rudely in my face or shouts out questions above other people, I'm not obligated to answer that."

A look at the video of the encounter shows that didn't happen when Israel chose not to answer questions about the yacht trip and instead walked away.

"To take the reputation of the sheriff of Broward County who eats, breathes, and exudes honor, decency, and ethics -- it's reprehensible," said Israel of the Local 10 report.