By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
A former Hallandale Beach commissioner said he voluntarily met with Broward Inspector General investigators Monday who questioned him about the city’s embattled Community Redevelopment Agency, its purchase of property once owned by a group headed by Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders and a city loan to a local newspaper.
The former commissioner, William “Bill” Julian, is currently running for city commission. He declined to discuss details of his four-hour interview with three investigators because “they asked me not to talk about anything.”
For more than a year, however, Broward Bulldog has reported about questionable city loans to local businesses and land purchases through the CRA – whose board of directors are also the city’s commissioners.
The IG’s office investigates suspected misconduct that includes fraud, corruption and mismanagement. IG investigators appear to have begun focusing on Hallandale Beach and its CRA this spring with a trip to City Hall in April. In response to their requests, the city recently turned over thousands of pages of records.
Records indicate that investigators are examining the CRA and a city grant program that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations to eight local non-profits, including several linked to Vice Mayor Sanders or his wife, Jessica.
In 2009, after Sanders’ appointment to the commission the year before, the city spent $235,000 in CRA tax dollars to purchase a building and land at 501 NW First Avenue owned by Higher Vision Ministries, a not for profit corporation whose officers included Sanders and his wife.
Sanders, who did not vote on the city’s purchase, was a director of Higher Vision Ministries when it bought the property in 2001 for $45,000. The nonprofit received a $46,000 property improvement loan from the city not long after the purchase.
The terms of the loan immediately forgave $7,500 in principal. An error by the city at the time the property was sold in 2009 doubled that forgiveness to $15,000 – meaning Higher Vision Ministries only had to pay back $31,000.
LOCAL NEWSPAPER DEAL
Julian, who served as a commissioner and vice mayor from 2001 to 2010 when he was defeated for reelection, said the investigators also asked about a CRA loan to the for-profit South Florida Sun Times.
The weekly newspaper, which regularly features a column by Mayor Joy Cooper, received a $50,000 CRA business loan under favorable terms in 2009.
Half of the loan — $25,000 – was forgiven even though for two years prior to the loan the newspaper’s two top executives each reported incomes averaging more than $200,000.
Julian told Broward Bulldog there has been turmoil at the CRA, with several directors being removed in past years. He added that CRA funds were used for a variety of charitable contributions to community groups.
“I didn’t question use of CRA funds for charitable contributions,” Julian said of his time on the city commission. Commissioners, he added, wanted to “take a load off the general fund…I don’t know if that was legal. That will have to come to light.”
“I don’t know of wrongdoings by commissioners or myself,” Julian said. “I don’t know if I did something wrong.” Julian added that if something was done incorrectly “let’s fix it.”
VOLUNTEERED TO TALK
Julian said he contacted the IG office Friday and volunteered to be interviewed because “there’s a cloud of suspicion over me.”
He said he was compelled to come forward because of public comments on recent stories about the IG investigation and what his involvement might have been while in office.
“I want to be as open as possible,” Julian said. “I have never been accused of anything in my life.”
Inspector General John Scott did not respond to a request for comment.
Julian is one of six candidates vying for two at large commission seats up for grabs on November 6. The other candidates are Vice Mayor Sanders, Gerald Dean, Ann Pearl Henigson, Csaba G. Kulin and Michele Lazarow.
Dorothy Ross, a commission member for 17 years, is not seeking reelection.
CITY BALKS AT COOPERATION
County investigators have asked to speak with each of the commission’s current members. The City Manager’s Office has informed them that it won’t schedule any interviews until the IG’s office informs the city about its intentions.
In addition, CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz recently told the IG’s office by letter that the CRA is “a separate legal entity” and not subject to the authority of the IG under county and state laws.
Historically, however, the city administration and commissioners have treated the CRA as a part of the city government.
*The CRA has been operating since 1996, but it wasn’t until March that its board of directors – the city commissioners – voted to establish it as a separate “agency” reporting directly to the board in accordance with state law. Until then, the CRA functioned mostly as a subdivision of the city’s Department of Development Services.
* All 59 properties purchased with CRA funds are in the name of the City of Hallandale Beach – not the CRA. The CRA is now seeking to re-title 43 properties to itself, but 16 will remain in the name of the city.
*Hundreds of thousands of dollars in past city grants and charitable contributions to local non-profit community groups did not clearly spell out how much CRA money was used in those taxpayer-provided gifts.
*CRA business loan policies changed frequently under former city managers, allowing for some loans to exceed established limits, some funds to be distributed without repayment agreements, and questionable forgiveness arrangements.
A critical study of city and CRA record keeping this year by an outside auditing firm recommended that a financial manager be hired. The recommendation was also in agency bylaws adopted by city commissioners sitting as the CRA’s board of directors. In June, however, those same board members voted down a CRA staff request to hire a financial manager.
That study was ordered after it had become clear that management problems existed. The commission, however, authorized a limited review rather than a more intensive financial audit. Aside from poor record keeping the recent report by the auditing firm said some $20 million in vendor contracts were never reviewed because city staff failed to provide them.
William Gjebre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org