By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority awarded a lucrative, no-bid contract for its security patrol program to a private guard firm with political ties to Congresswoman Lois Frankel.
Frankel was actively involved in the DDA’s selection last year of Professional Security Consultants (PSC), which does business as Professional Security Concepts. DDA records state that Frankel introduced the company to DDA officials and later met with a DDA delegation about the matter in 2014.
“Lois spoke highly of the work they had done for the West Palm Beach DDA when she was mayor,” said Fort Lauderdale DDA board chairman Michael Weymouth.
Democrat Frankel’s glowing endorsement of PSC and its regional boss, Willie Perez, was used in a marketing PowerPoint presentation to the DDA’s board of directors before it voted unanimously on June 12, 2014 to hire PSC without seeking competitive bids.
Two months after the vote, PSC’s founder and owner, Moshe Alon, began contributing to Frankel’s campaign.
Alon is a California businessman and ex-Israeli Secret Service agent who the New York Post once reported was a longtime bodyguard for the late film star Elizabeth Taylor. Alon has contributed nearly $11,000 to Rep. Frankel’s election campaigns since August 2014, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Frankel, whose elongated congressional district covers downtown Fort Lauderdale, declined to be interviewed, but her office did release this statement:
“The congresswoman has known Willie Perez from his work with the city of West Palm Beach as a security consultant. He was instrumental in helping turn West Palm Beach into one of the safest cities in America. While meeting with the (Fort Lauderdale) Downtown Development Authority, she mentioned her experience with Willie, and they asked for his contact information.”
The DDA is a special taxing district created in 1965 with a mission to provide for the rehabilitation, redevelopment and revitalization of slum and blighted areas in the downtown area. Governed by a seven-member board appointed by the city commission, the DDA levies property taxes on commercial properties within its compact boundaries.
Los Angeles-based PSC says on its website that it has 2,500 employees and approximately $80 million in annual revenues. The company says it is licensed in more than 40 states and provides security guards to about 100 malls, hotels, private communities and municipalities.
PSC was hired to provide a small team of unarmed “security ambassadors” to enhance downtown safety by patrolling on foot or on bicycles in areas like Riverwalk. The company also provides security ambassadors to the Pompano Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) as well as the West Palm Beach DDA, according to its contract with the Fort Lauderdale DDA.
In addition to hiring PSC to patrol downtown, the contract says the DDA also wanted to hire the firm to provide security guards for the Fort Lauderdale CRA. Wren said that plan fell apart when Jenni Morejon, the city’s director of sustainable development, said PSC could not be hired without a competitive procurement process. The city’s Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA is currently rewriting its plan to mitigate slum and blight and its plan to bid out an ambassadors program would not occur until after that.
The contract between the Fort Lauderdale DDA and PSC was signed Sept. 30, 2014 and the program began three weeks later. The agreement is on a month-to-month basis. DDA board-approved minutes indicate that the board was pleased with PSC’s work.
The DDA’s original budget for last year’s pilot program was $100,000, but that soon rose to $154,882 when the city kicked in additional funding. The current budget is $200,000, said Fort Lauderdale DDA executive director Chris Wren. The funds pay for two or three patrol guards, Wren said.
Wren said he recommended to the board that bids be obtained for the security ambassadors contract, but that his idea was rejected.
“We did not competitively bid it. I brought that up at a board meeting. I wanted to competitively bid it and they didn’t want to wait around. They asked the general counsel and he said it did not have to be competitively bid,” said Wren.
Wren explained that the board was enthusiastic about the idea of establishing a security ambassadors program – an idea in use in a number of cities across the country, including West Palm Beach – in order to better address safety and nuisance issues often caused by the homeless downtown.
“They said no, we don’t want to go out to bid. Get a contract and hire them,” said Wren. “I thought we might get a better deal with bids, but in their minds it was an emergency.”
AN EAGER BOARD
DDA chairman Weymouth said Monday that he did not know why the contract was not bid and had no recollection of Wren’s recommendation that bids be taken. The board’s non-verbatim minutes don’t mention such a recommendation by Wren, but do make clear the board was eager to move ahead quickly.
PSC’s Perez told the DDA in 2014 that he’d been running an ambassadors program at West Palm Beach’s City Place for 13 years. It was during that time that Frankel’s involvement with PSC began. She served as mayor of West Palm Beach from 2003 until 2011.
The Palm Beach Post reported in 2010 about police union anger with IPC International, the security guard company Perez was then working for, after the city commission hired it to guard the city’s waterfront – one of a number of city contracts obtained by the company. Universal Protective Service acquired IPC in 2013 – the same year Perez’s Linked In profile says he started at PSC.
The paper also reported that Perez’s full name is Wilfredo Perez-Borroto. Perez-Borroto, while employed by IPC International in 2011-2012, contributed a total of $2,700 to Frankel’s campaign.
In an editorial several days later, the paper fretted about a possible perception of favoritism due to Perez’s close relationship with then-Mayor Frankel. Mayor Frankel, the editorial said, publicly “gushes” over Perez’s company and, while denying Perez was giving her free bodyguard services, did say he accompanied her on weekly inspection tours.
Wren said Frankel did not lobby in Fort Lauderdale for PSC. “She just said we do a program, why don’t you talk to (West Palm Beach DDA boss) Rafael (Clemente) about it?” Wren said. “I wasn’t told to hire them as much as it was presented as an opportunity.”
Wren did meet with Clemente and said he came away impressed with PSC’s work. He also said that Rep. Frankel’s endorsement of PSC “made me feel more comfortable” about the company.
Board minutes from Feb. 13, 2014 say that James Ellis, a local real estate developer who today is a DDA board member, also led a DDA team to evaluate the ambassadors program to West Palm Beach where they “met with Lois Frankel and the DDA and it was positive.”
FRANKEL ‘DROPPED BY’
In an interview Monday, Ellis denied that there was any substantive meeting with Frankel, explaining she merely “dropped by” during a lunch meeting he was leading with about a dozen people, including PSC officials.
“She introduced herself and I believe she took off. That was the only time I’ve met or seen her. It was just a ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ ” Ellis said. He added that Frankel might have mentioned how pleased she was with West Palm Beach’s ambassadors program.
Support for the ambassadors program solidified a month later after discussions about funding sources and additional positive input from Mayor Jack Seiler and police officials in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. At that time, Wren announced his goal was to begin in October.
“Mr. Weymouth said the DDA (is) invested in getting this up and going and once up and running the DDA would step away and let the police take over,” the minutes say.
In the months that followed, there was no discussion of bids or considering any other private security guard firm. The board made its intention to hire PSC explicit in May 2014.
The deal came formally together at the board’s June 12, 2014 meeting following Perez’s PowerPoint presentation about PSC. Wren said Fort Lauderdale would “mirror” West Palm Beach’s program, and help pay for it with a tax rate increase. The millage rate was raised a month later.
Compliments about the program began to flow after it began that October. In February 2015, amid discussions about expanding the program and obtaining additional funding from both the city and the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA, “Chairman Weymouth reminded the board that Lois Frankel introduced them to PSC.”
Draft minutes of the DDA’s most recent board meeting on Dec. 10 say Wren is now working with Perez on creating an ambassadors program for the next three years. Wren said the DDA would need to supply $1.2 million to make that happen.