Broward Inspector General hits first legal hurdle; Hallandale CRA says hands off

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, run by the city’s five elected commissioners, has sent a message to Broward’s new Inspector General’s Office – you can’t touch us.

Numerous questions have been raised about the business dealings of the CRA, in which city commissioners also serve as directors of the agency.

But now the agency has called into question the IG’s authority to delve into its management practices, declining to have commissioners answer county investigators’ questions about their actions as CRA directors. The move is the first significant challenge to the authority of the year-old criminal justice agency whose job is to investigate possible fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement.

“It is our opinion that the authority of the Inspector General does not generally extend to a community redevelopment agency (CRA) and its board members,” CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz wrote in a June 18 letter to Inspector General Counsel Jennifer Merino.

“As we both know, the individual Hallandale Beach CRA board members and the city commissioners are each one in the same person. However, in these separate capacities they wear separate hats and are guided by separate legal requirements.”

The Hallandale CRA’s bottom line: the IG’s auditors and agents can talk to the five commissioners about their actions as commissioners, but not as CRA board members.

INVESTIGATIVE AUTHORITY QUESTIONED

Zelkowitz’s legal opinion is rooted in the CRA’s status as a special district, a distinct legal entity under Florida law. According to him, board members are public officers regulated by Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials, not the recently updated, and more stringent, Broward County Code that covers all officials and employees of the county and its municipalities.

The CRA uses property tax dollars collected within the district to promote businesses and redevelopment.

What may happen next is unclear, but the Inspector General’s Office is not expected to back down from continuing its probe in the face of a challenge that could impact its authority over the many other special districts in the county. They include large the North and South Broward Hospital Districts and smaller ones such as the Performing Arts Center Authority or the Hillsboro Inlet District.

Inspector General John Scott declined comment.

Robert Jarvis, a professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University, said this is the first big test of the IG’s authority, and that Zelkowitz may have a point. He cited a recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that limited the jurisdiction of the Attorney General to investigate foreclosure mills.

“I think the CRA may be right,” said Jarvis. “I think this has to be decided by a court.”

Last week’s letter is the second push back from Hallandale Beach.

Several weeks ago, City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield informed the IG that the City Manager’s Office would not voluntarily schedule meetings between city commissioners and county agents investigating city management practices, including those at the CRA.

In last week’s letter to IG counsel Merino, Zelkowitz allowed that the IG has the authority, under county code, with respect to the same city commissioners in their city functions – but not those concerning the CRA.

He also stated that the IG may have the authority to review any goods and services that CRA provides to the city. However, Zelkowitz, stated, “In such case, the Inspector General would have authority, but solely with respect to the provisions of such goods and services.”

Zelkowitz declined comment.

City Attorney Whitfield also declined comment. In her June 13 letter to the IG, she said her office wants to know whether the probe is targeted at commissioners as a whole or to actions of individual commissioners to determine what type of legal representation they may require.

The IG is a watchdog agency established in the wake of recent county scandals. It can investigate, but not arrest. It is a member of Broward’s Public Corruption Task Force – a specialized group of federal, state and local investigators and prosecutors – that in April was designated as a “criminal justice agency” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

CITY WANTS MORE INFO

Renee Crichton, Hallandale’s newly appointed city manager, said when the office received a call from the IG it contacted the city attorney and the CRA attorney to discuss the IG’s request to interview commissioners. She declined to comment on whether any member of the city commission was involved in the discussion at some point.

“The CRA and the city commission has not taken any position” on the dispute, Crichton said. “On our part, we need more information as to why the Inspector General wants to interview commissioners. There needs to be some structure; what do they want to discuss.”

“We are not saying we will not cooperate,” Crichton said, adding the city has done so by providing many of the documents requested by the IG.

A call to Broward County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey resulted in a callback from Assistant County Attorney Anthony Myers. Asked about the IG’s authority in the matter under county law, Myers said he does not have “sufficient knowledge” to comment. He added it is possible the matter could end up in a court of law.

At least one city commissioner disagrees with the CRA’s position. “The IG does have jurisdiction,” said London, who is running for mayor against incumbent Joy Cooper. A part of the state law, he said, speaks to the mingling of city and state funds and that would give the investigators authority.

If called by the IG, London said, “I’ll go; I look forward to it.”

Commission members Dorothy Ross and Anthony Sanders both said they would be guided by the city legal counsel on whether to be interviewed.

As Broward Bulldog reported last week, the IG has requested city documents about several community-based groups associated with Sanders or his wife Jessica. The complaints made to the IG, Sanders said, are “coming from the negativity of people. I’m not saying who specifically. It is what it is; it’s a part of the politics.”

When and if he speaks to investigators, Sanders said, “I’ll be glad to talk to them in any capacity, as a city commissioner or a CRA director.”

Mayor Joy Cooper and Commissioner Alexander Lewy could not be reached for comment.

In his letter, Zelkowitz asked the IG to restrict his questioning of city commissioners “to their actions as city commissioners and not as HBCRA Board Members. In this regard, we defer to the City Attorney as to the direction of your investigation with respect to the City and Commissioners.

“Notwithstanding the foregoing, the HBCRA is ready, willing and able to comply with all public records requests of the Inspector General as the records of the HBCRA constitute public records under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

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8 Comments Post a Comment
  1. FrustratedInHallandale says:

    City Manager said “On our part, we need more information as to why the Inspector General wants to interview commissioners.”

    Where do you want to start:

    Buying Sanders property for over the appraised value in a down market?
    The purchase NEVER being an official agenda item?
    Jessica Sanders signing her own time sheets?
    Why is Jessica Sanders in the Hepburn Center, is she a city employee?
    Giving $50,000 of Weed and Seed money to Jessica Sanders and PCAC never an agenda item?
    Properties bought with CRA funds and titled in the Cities name?
    Who voted for all the above items?

    “On our part, we need more information as to why the Inspector General wants to interview commissioners. There needs to be some structure; what do they want to discuss.” said the City Manager

    City Manager, City Attorney, and CRA Attorney can you start with just the above questions?

  2. Chad Lincoln says:

    “WE WON’T GET CAUGHT WITHOUT A FIGHT” seems to be the Hallandale Beach Commissions position on co operating with the IG to wash their hands of the growing list of allegations of wrong doing and self dealing between commissioners and political pals.

    The throwing down of the challenge to the IG’s investigative authority would seem to beg the question of the IG’s authority for a Court Ordered search warrant of the CRA files, the City Files and records, and the homes of the commissioners. And ex Vice Mayor Julian. While Mayor Cooper and the Merry Band might think they are fire walled from sunlight reaching in to the recessed proofs of their actions, they are not bigger than the law, nor the citizens resolve to see the truth on parade.

    Mayor Cooper, also Chair of the CRA Cooper, open the books and records! What are you hiding from the people? Open the books and if there is nothing wrong, you win the adoration of the people, If there is wrong doing you can always blame someone else if you can, and claim your self the champion of the people … if you can. Of course there is always the off chance you are complicit, which would wrongly justify the stonewalling action so as to slide past the elections without having to face justice. Think the citizens will buy it?

    The citizens tax payers of this fair city would be crazy to place one scrap of trust in the Mayor or her Merry Band until their past dealings are exposed to the light of day by the IG’s office, or … States Attorney or the AG, I think the Mayor and the merry band will fair far better with the IG’s office.

    Mayor Cooper open the books and records, do it now!

    Vice Mayor Sanders, Resign! Enough is enough you and your wife have filched all you will ever get from the citizens without a fight, go now!

    HB Commissioners, Freeze all funds flowing to the Sanders Machine, not a dime until the IG has cleared all self dealing and transactions between the Sander’s and their operations.

  3. Csaba Kulin says:

    In most government investigations not the original acts but the cover up gets people in real serious trouble. Hallandale Beach is heading in that direction.

    Clever legal maneuvers may run the clock out until after the elections. If that is the strategy, it may work with the IG but not with the voters in November.

    Commissioner Ross told us “HB is so transparent, we are almost naked”. OK, prove it to us. If no one has anything to hide, everyone should go to the IG voluntary to be deposed. If anyone is guilty, take your medicine and do what your conscience dictates you to do.

    Do NOT let this drag on forever in the hopes that IG will go away. He will not and HB may invite the State IG and the FBI to look at the issues.

    Is that what HB want to achieve?

  4. FrustratedInHallandale says:

    Sanders said, “I’ll be glad to talk to them in any capacity, as a city commissioner or a CRA director.”

    Hey Sanders will you tell the IG and the residents when you are planning on paying back the extra $7,500 Mike Good and Joy Cooper arraigned for you during the back room, insider closing, back in 2009 for the inflated purchase of your building!

    Well?

  5. Bill Julian says:

    To all of you that have made comments mentioning my name in these articles.
    Chad lincoln, I will gladly be disposed by the IG. I have nothing to hide, never did and never will.
    Casba, I have asked you if you would run your campaign as a gentleman, and it looks like you will not, as expected. Since you have no records of any service in Hallandale , I guess sending out e-mails is your plan to be a commissioner. The voters are much smarter than you would believe, and they will know the truth, about you soon enough.I have a ten year record of service to the people of Hallandale, and that is known to all residents as I have lived here for over 57 years.
    If you check the records, it was I who made the motion to hire an audit company to check, CRA, Developer agreements, and contracts going back to 2005. I wanted to make sure that if there was any wrong doing on my watch it would be found. So to read comments that I have committed any crimes is so far from the truth, and all of you should check your facts before trying to defame anyone’s character.
    I will be calling the IG. and volunteer to answer any questions they might have.
    And yes to you all it is an election year that brings out the very worst in people.
    If anyone would like to call me my personal number is (954) 274.7230.

  6. FrustratedInHallandale says:

    Hi Bill,

    Thanks for checking in with The Broward Bulldog and the IG maybe you can rehearse your answers here first.

    Here are the following questions:

    Did you vote yes or no to purchase Sanders property?
    Did you vote yes or no to then lease the property to Debra Brown for $1 per year for the next two years?
    Did you vote yes or no to give DOI a loan even when they did not have any collateral as required by the CRA rules?
    Did you vote yes or no to give a $50,000 loan to the owners of the Sun Times?
    Did you vote yes or no to forgive $25,000 of the $50,000 to the owners of the Sun Times?

    The taxpayers want to know who has been fast and loose with their money.

    Bill time to live up to your votes and come clean, please answer the above questions.

    Remember most of the time it is not the original offense it is the cover up that gets you.

  7. CurlyCue says:

    If it smells like a rat….it is. This stinks. What do these people have to hide. Obviously, some the of commissioners and you know who you are Pooper are running scared. The IGs office does not investigate unless there’s good reason. FINALLY! These old timers on the Commission and city staff have been participating in corrupt activities for years with the City’s money; hence the residents’ monies. It’s so long over due for a change in Hallandale. Thank goodness there is an election coming up which will potentially get rid of two of the rats.

  8. Michele Lazarow says:

    It seems that in many instances official boundaries have been crossed. City officials should not be profiting either financial or otherwise at the expense of the residents. After a while you cannot continue to blame the negative public or other officials for suspicion. There are direct questions being asked and I have yet to hear one direct answer from any of the Commission.

    “In several of the loan deals involving taxpayer property tax dollars, recipients did not have to pay back the amount as much as half of the value of the loan”.

    This would never be allowed by any other financial institution, nor should it be with our tax dollars. There are too many unanswered questions that warrant straightforward answers. Until then, we will hold the Hallandale Beach officials accountable.

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