- By Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Moments after winning reelection Tuesday, Palm Beach County School Board member Debra Robinson vowed to punish a Haitian-American radio station that grilled her on the air, saying she would cut off the station’s business ties with the school district.
A video recording of her victory party shows Robinson in a profane tirade celebrating her defeat of rival Edwin Ferguson with high-fives and saying she was now “making a list and checking it twice.”
Singling out Haitian Creole-language station WPOM 1600 AM – where a host on Monday had questioned her commitment to the local Haitian-American community during an on-air interview – Robinson said the station now was “not getting business” from the county’s public schools.
“1600 AM already got shut down,” she told about a dozen supporters in a recording of the event obtained by The Palm Beach Post. “I said not only are they not getting business from the school district, they get negative business.”
The recording of her remarks, including several obscene terms, began circulating after a supporter apparently broadcast them live on Facebook Tuesday evening.
In the video, Robinson appeared to suggest that others who didn’t support her campaign would face retaliation as well.
“I keep saying I’m making a list and checking it twice, and I’m writing that [expletive] on the wall,” she said a moment before singling out the radio station.
Reached Thursday, Robinson said she regretted the remarks and that her threat to exact revenge on the tiny station was an empty one.
“These were inappropriate statements, I will admit, but made in the heat of the moment after a yearlong battle,” she said. “It was just fueled by frustration and adrenaline.”
Ferguson and the station’s co-owner, James Leger, both called the threat a troubling attempt to use her authority as an elected school board member to retaliate against critics.
Together, Robinson and her six board colleagues control the school district’s $2.9 billion annual budget.
“The video was clear,” said Ferguson, a Riviera Beach lawyer. “It definitely concerned me, and it should concern the residents of Palm Beach County.”
Florida’s ethics code prohibits state and local government officials from “corruptly” using their position to “secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption” for someone, but it does not bar officials from using their position to hurt or punish others.
In 2014, a developer alleged that West Palm Beach City Commissioner Keith James told him he would vote against the developer’s $200 million project because the developer had supported James’ opponent during his reelection.
But the county’s ethics commission concluded at the time that James’ alleged actions did not violate the state ethics code because they did not “secure a special financial benefit for himself or others.”
Robinson said her threat was an empty one because the school district had no business dealings with the station.
But the school district disputed that Thursday, saying that it does pay the West Palm Beach station to advertise the district’s adult education programs to its Haitian Creole-speaking audience.
Separately, the district this month agreed to spend up to $200,000 on radio, TV and newspaper advertisements to educate voters about a proposed property tax increase on the ballot in November.
The district said no decisions have been made about which media outlets will receive advertising dollars, but Leger said he feared pressure from Robinson would prompt district administrators to snub his station.
“If I don’t get that money I’m going to have complaints with the media,” he said, “and I’m going to blame her.”
In a statement Thursday, the district did not directly address whether Robinson or any other board member could influence the district’s assignment of advertising dollars but said that board members have a direct vote only in approving expenditures of more than $25,000.
Robinson’s anger at WPOM appeared to stem from a Monday morning appearance on a morning talk show hosted by Leger.
During the program, Leger asked Robinson why she hadn’t appeared on the program until the day before the election.
“A lot of Haitians are calling and saying ok, why is Mrs. Debra coming to us now all of a sudden?” he said.
Robinson responded that although it was her first time on the program, she had advocated for Haitian students throughout her 18 years on the school board. Robinson, a retired physician, is the board’s vice chairwoman and longest-serving member.
Leger suggested that Robinson was too unfamiliar with many Haitian families’ complaints about the county’s public schools, including that too few of the teachers educating English-language learners speak Haitian Creole.
Midway through the program, Ferguson appeared in the studio and joined the conversation, responding to questions along with Robinson.
On the air, he echoed the claim that Robinson had had nearly two decades to reach out to Haitian community and had failed to speak out enough, even after retiring from the medical profession.
“My opponent has been retired now, by her own admission, for over a year,” Ferguson said. “And there’s been no change in terms of her involvement with the Haitian community in that time.”
In an interview Thursday, Robinson said that the program’s dynamic had upset her, causing her to lash out later.
“I felt I had been ambushed,” she said. “I went to an interview that turned into a debate.”
Leger said he had been hurt by her threat and her use of profanity in the video.
“I don’t understand why she would be so hurtful,” he said. “She threatened the station.”