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Ms. Book goes to Tallahassee, sees no conflict voting $ for Lauren’s Kids or dad’s clients

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lauren and Ron Book in Times Square in March 2015 promoting her child sex abuse education book. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Freshman Broward State Sen. Lauren Book says she won’t abstain from voting on matters involving clients of her father, powerful lobbyist Ron Book. Similarly, she sees no conflict of interest in voting on measures to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars to benefit her non-profit charity and political launching pad, Lauren’s Kids.

Book, a Plantation Democrat, offered her thoughts on the issue of personal voting conflicts in an email exchange last week with Florida Bulldog.

“No,” she said when asked if she plans to abstain from voting on any matters involving Ron Book’s clients. “In ALL matters, I will vote my conscience and in what I believe is best for my district, for Broward County, and for the people of the State of Florida.”

Sen. Book also said that Lauren’s Kids would again seek significant state funding during this year’s legislative session that began March 7. Does that mean she will abstain from voting on bills to authorize funding for her organization?

“No. I have met with the Counsel of the Senate and have been advised that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not,” Sen. Book said.

Lauren’s Kids, however, pays Sen. Book a six-figure annual salary for serving as its chief executive. In 2015, her salary was $135,000 – a $20,000 increase from 2014, according to the charity’s federal income tax returns.

“My salary is not paid for with any state funds,” said Sen. Book. “I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse.”

Sen. Book said that to make certain her salary includes no state dollars, she “restructured my employment to ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work” once she declared her candidacy. She declined to elaborate on how she accomplished that restructuring and that separation.

Ron and Lauren Book at a Tallahassee rally promoting Lauren’s Kids in April 2015. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

Sen. Book did say, however, that she resigned from the board of directors of the Lauren’s Kids Foundation “to add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the Foundation.”

Lauren’s Kid’s tax return for 2015 – the latest available – shows the charity received more than 83 percent of its $4.5 million in total revenue that year from the state. Since 2012, records show, the state has contributed more than $10 million to Lauren’s Kids.

The Florida Department of Education has requested another $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids for Fiscal Year 2017-18 “so we can continue to educate children and families to prevent abuse and help survivors,” said Sen. Book. “I might add, the DOE would only recommend funding if as experts they believed the curriculum was of significant benefit to our children.’’

Ron Book as landlord

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, is the unpaid president of Lauren’s Kids. Yet he also makes money from Lauren’s Kids. According to the 501(c) (3) organization’s 2015 tax return, he paid himself $61,651 for renting space to Lauren’s Kids in his Aventura office.

Ron Book, who is also on the charity’s board, collected $63,175 in rent from Lauren’s Kids in 2014, according to that year’s tax return.

Ron Book declined to comment.

On Wednesday, March 22, Sen. Book will face one of the first ethical tests of her nascent political career. As a member of the Florida Senate’s health policy committee, she will be evaluating five bills to establish the rules and regulations for the state’s medical marijuana industry.

While some patient and industry advocates argue the state should open up the market to competition, four of the bills discourage participation by more cannabis providers beyond the seven companies already licensed to manufacture a non-psychoactive, non-smokable form of the drug under a restrictive medical marijuana program set up by the Legislature in 2014.

Among the Florida licensed providers is a joint venture between Homestead-based nursery Alpha Foliage and Surterra, an Atlanta-based medical marijuana company that employs the senator’s father Ron Book as its Tallahassee lobbyist.

While government watchdogs said Sen. Book should abstain from voting on any matters involving her father, she told Florida Bulldog she has no intention of doing so because Florida law and Senate rules do not prohibit it.

“As I stated above, I will follow the letter and spirit of the law in how I vote and how I conduct my business,” she said.

Conflict questions loom

Still, questions about Sen. Book’s potential vote conflicts involving both her father’s 100-plus clients and Lauren’s Kids loom large.

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, noted that because Florida has a citizen legislature that allows members to have outside employment, the bar is set low when it comes to ethical requirements.

Florida’s weak Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees says that state officers “may not vote on any matter that the officer knows would inure to his or her special gain or loss.” It does not prohibit such votes. Rather, the code says vaguely that officers who vote to benefit themselves or a relative “shall make every reasonable effort to disclose the nature of his or her interest in a public memorandum” that can be filed up to 15 days after the vote.

Integrity Florida Research Director Ben Wilcox

Sen. Book, nevertheless, could face questions when it comes time to vote on an appropriations bill that would include Lauren’s Kids, which advocates against child sex abuse.

“You are not supposed to vote on something that has a direct benefit to you personally,” said Wilcox. “That is where she may get into some trouble if her organization is getting an appropriation from the Legislature.”

Wilcox said Book should also be mindful about voting on matters favorable to her father’s clients. “She should be sensitive to the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Wilcox said. “Even if it technically is not a conflict, it raises questions in the public’s mind and causes the public to lose confidence in government.”

Since founding Lauren’s Kids 10 years ago, Book has seemed on a trajectory for public office. In addition to appearing before the Legislature to lobby in favor of laws that crack down on sexual predators and child abusers, Book has led an annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness for child sex victims that receives statewide media coverage. She’s also written two books, including one for children, about her own experience being sexually abused by her former nanny. Book and her father had a starring role in the recently released documentary about Florida’s sex offender laws called Untouchable.

Book, 32, decided to run for the Senate seat previously held by Eleanor Sobel, who left the Legislature in 2016 due to term limits. After raising more than $1.5 million through her campaign and her political action committee, Leadership for Broward, Book automatically won the seat when no one filed to run against her. A Bulldog analysis of her 2015 and 2016 campaign finance reports and her father’s client list show she received $35,000 from 15 entities that employ Ron Book.

Clients and contributions

Of that amount, her campaign received $1,000 apiece from two of Surterra’s owners, Michael Havenick and Alexander Havenick, who is also vice president and general counsel for Southwest Florida Enterprises, a company that owns several pari-mutuels in the state, including Magic City Casino in Miami. Southwest, four affiliated companies and four other Havenicks also each gave the $1,000 maximum to Sen. Book’s campaign.

According to 2016 lobbyist compensation reports filed with the state, Ron Book’s law firm was paid between $40,000 and $80,000 by Surterra to lobby the Legislature. Ron L. Book P.A. also received approximately $30,000 from Surterra to lobby the executive branch.

Lauren’s Kids has also been the beneficiary of millions of dollars in state funding. According to the organization’s 2014 tax return, Lauren’s Kids received $2.7 million in state grants. Its 2015 tax return shows the nonprofit got $3.4 million that year from Florida’s Department of Education. In 2016, records show, the Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids $1 million.

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

Florida’s Department of Motor Vehicles also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature. Lauren’s Kids, which got its specialty tag in 2013, received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015, tax records show.

Further, the DMV allows Lauren’s Kids to insert a brochure asking for donations in every auto tag renewal notice mailed to Florida residents. Lauren’s Kids is one of several nonprofits eligible to insert their brochures under the specialty tag program.

Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches a course on ethics in U.S. politics, said in an interview that Book might derive a benefit from her father’s earnings as a lobbyist. “Parents always help out their kids,” Rosenson said. “Let’s say she had a medical emergency or something in which she needed money so her father’s financial situation is not something that is totally separate from hers.”

Rosenson said Sen. Book’s potential for conflict is analogous to President Donald Trump and his sons, who have taken over the Republican billionaire’s companies while he’s in the White House. “In a perfect world, she would realize that her relationship with her father raises questions of conflict of interest,” Rosenson said. “So ideally, yes she should recuse herself.”

When it comes to Lauren’s Kids, Integrity Florida’s Wilcox said even if Book’s salary is not being paid with state funds, she should still abstain from voting on matters involving her nonprofit. “In an abundance of caution, that is something she may want to reconsider,” Wilcox said. “While technically it may be correct, I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

Miami-Dade judge sent Shelborne Hotel case to judge with similar conflict

By Francisco Alvarado, Florida Bulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The Miami-Dade Circuit judge who chose to quit presiding over the high-profile Shelborne Hotel case due to an apparent conflict of interest, funneled the case directly to a second judge with a similar conflict in a way that avoided the case being randomly reassigned.

Typically, judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a disqualifying conflict or the appearance of a conflict. But in the Shelborne case, Judge Jennifer Bailey chose another path after disclosing that she briefly had attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which prominent Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property partially owned by one of his companies. Two other of Galbut’s companies were defendants in the Shelborne case.

“If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case,” Bailey said in open court during a Dec. 14 hearing.

But five days later, using her authority as administrative judge of the civil division, Bailey transferred the case to her associate administrative judge, Beatrice Butchko, who also actively campaigned in 2014 to convince voters to approve a bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse to replace downtown’s landmark courthouse built in 1928. The referendum did not pass.

Within weeks, Butchko tossed out the entire case that Bailey had set for trial in early January.

“Cases are randomly reassigned upon recusal,” said court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. “This was not a recusal. This was a transfer.”  Transfers fall under the jurisdiction of the administrative judge, per 11th Judicial Circuit administrative orders adopted in 1979 and 2016.

For more than two years, Bailey had presided over the lawsuit filed by 40 investors who purchased rooms at the historic art deco Shelborne South Beach against the property’s condo association, condo board members, and companies tied to developer Galbut. The plaintiffs, who sued in 2012, alleged the condo association illegally assessed them $30 million in unnecessary repairs and renovations at the Shelborne, damaged their rooms and have tried to force them into foreclosure so the Galbut entities can acquire their units at a huge discount.

Butchko, however, made quick work of the investors’ case after she took over. She dismissed key parts in early January, days before jury selection was to begin.  She tossed the rest the following week. She did so while brushing aside a plaintiffs’ request that she recuse herself from the case and for a change of venue.

‘Dirty work’

“Obviously we were going to ask Bailey to remove herself once we found out about her involvement with Galbut,” Gia Hutt, one of the 40 investors, told Florida Bulldog. “But before any of that happened, she handed off the dirty work to Butchko, who destroyed our case.”

Hutt said the investors’ plan an appeal, but none was filed as of Tuesday.

Miami-Dade court spokeswoman Sigler said Bailey and Butchko would not comment on their rulings. She explained, however, that Bailey assigned the case to Butchko, who are both in the complex business litigation section, because Butchko was the only judge available to handle what was expected to be a 7-week trial for the Shelborne case that was set to start Jan. 9.

“The parties expressed their satisfaction with the transfer at the time, in the interest of keeping their specially-set trial date,” Sigler added.

But the case never got to jury selection. On Jan. 20, Butchko issued a summary judgment in favor of the Shelborne Beach Hotel Condominium Association and its board, as well as Shelborne Property Associates and Shelborne Operating Associates, two companies partially owned by Galbut. Butchko ruled that the plaintiffs had not presented any material facts disputing the defendants’ assertions that the repairs were necessary to address life safety issues.

Alice K. Sum, an attorney at the Fowler White Burnett law firm who represented the condo association, refuted Hutt’s claims that Bailey and Butchko were both compromised because of their public advocacy for a new courthouse and Galbut’s offer to build one.

“On the first day we appeared before Butchko, she said she didn’t know who Russell Galbut is and that her involvement in anything related to a new courthouse dated back to the prior initiative that was voted down in 2014,” Sum explained. “There’s no doubt lawyers and judges would like a new courthouse. But to imply no judge can be impartial because of that is to taint public servants unnecessarily.”

Kevin Malek, lead attorney for Hutt and the other 39 investors, declined comment.

Motions denied

Hutt, however, said that before Bailey disclosed her meeting with Galbut and transferred the case to Butchko, she had denied motions by the defendants to dismiss 8 of the 12 counts in their lawsuit, including civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing. According to a Dec. 29 motion filed by the defendants, Bailey’s rulings were contrary to state law that required her to disclose her conflict before making a decision.

On Jan. 6, 19 days after she took over the case, Butchko granted the defendants’ request to reverse Bailey’s denials and dismissed the eight counts, according to court documents. By doing so, Hutt contends, Butchko crippled their case.

“You have a judge who is on the case for less than a [month] and throws out most of our lawsuit,” she said. “She took our rights away to go before a jury.”

Condo association attorney Sum said Butchko had sufficient time to process evidence presented by the defense that the repairs and renovations were not only necessary, but mandated by the City of Miami Beach. She claimed the plaintiffs’ counsel offered nothing to refute that.

“Judge Butchko explained she has been brought in again and again to take over cases,” Sum said. “So she had a lot of experience getting up to speed on cases dumped on her last minute. Butchko is well regarded among her peers and lawyers as a hard worker.”

Lenny Walder, another the 40 investors, doesn’t buy it.

“The same element of ‘eureka’ and awareness Bailey had on the new courthouse issue should have applied to Butchko, since she too is a courthouse advocate,” Walder said. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Butchko should have recused herself.”

A curious search for justice amid Miami-Dade judges’ desire for new civil courthouse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The effort to build a new civil court building to replace the historic, but crumbling, Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami recently took a bizarre turn that prompted a local judge to remove herself from a high-profile case involving prominent developer Russell Galbut and another local landmark, the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey took herself off the case on Dec. 19 after disclosing she briefly attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property that’s partially owned by one of his companies.

Bailey transferred the case to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko, who like Bailey had actively campaigned to convince voters to approve a 2014 bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse.

Butchko quickly dismissed eight of 12 counts against the Shelborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association and five companies owned by Galbut, his brother Abraham and other relatives. The counts alleged civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing.

“This is so shocking, you can’t believe it’s happening,” said David Kraus, a plaintiff in the Shelborne case.

Miami attorney Kevin Malek represents four-dozen Shelborne Hotel room owners who claim that Galbut’s companies and the condo association illegally tried to force them out. Malek told Florida Bulldog that his clients would appeal Butchko’s rulings, which he said severely weakened their case a week before the beginning of the Jan. 9 trial period. The trial on the remaining counts had not begun as of Thursday.

“This case is not over,” Malek said. “We will be back.”

A fair shake?

His clients, however, have little faith that they will get a fair shake as long as the case remains in Miami-Dade. Several of the unit owners, including Kraus, told Florida Bulldog they don’t believe any Miami-Dade judge can rule impartially on their case while Galbut is talking about building them a new home.

“Pretty much every judge wants a new courthouse,” said plaintiff Mark Shemel.

The Shelborne was converted into a condo hotel about a decade ago, allowing individual investors to buy rooms that are rented to tourists. In 2012, 40 of those investors sued alleging that the five Galbut entities – three of which own units in the hotel and two others that run the hotel’s operations – and the condo association broke Florida law by authorizing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments, or roughly $107,142 per room, for renovations at the Shelborne.

In court documents, the unit owners accuse Galbut of stacking the association’s board with flunkies and trying to force them out by foreclosing on their rooms because they refuse to pay the assessments. They also allege their rooms were demolished without their consent during the renovations, resulting in the City of Miami Beach revoking their certificates of occupancy until they fixed their units.

Their lawyer, Malek, sought unsuccessfully last week to remove Butchko from the case due to her advocacy for the 2014 bond referendum. She declined to recuse, while also rejecting a motion that sought to move the case outside of Miami-Dade County.

Nevertheless, Judge Butchko’s dismissal of the eight counts against the Galbut entities and the condo association was a jolt to plaintiffs in the long-running case.

“This lawsuit has been going on for years and Butchko dismissed our entire case within days,” said Kraus, who owns two rooms at the Shelborne. “How could she have reviewed so much evidence in such a short amount of time?”

Judges Bailey and Butchko declined comment through court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler, who said state law bars judges from publicly commenting on their rulings. Still, Sigler said Butchko had not been influenced by Galbut’s interest in developing a new courthouse.

“Judges rule based on the facts presented and applicable law,” Sigler said. “And their rulings can always be appealed to a higher court.”

‘A far-fetched theory’

Ron Lowy, Galbut’s personal attorney, said the 40 Shelborne owners are pursuing a “far-fetched” theory as to why Butchko dismissed the eight counts.

“I don’t believe any judge in Miami-Dade is going to give up their view of justice and doing what’s right simply because [Galbut] may in the future submit a formal proposal which may result in the construction of a new courthouse,” Lowy said. “The plaintiffs were simply unable to prove their case.”

Both Lowy and Sigler also noted that Miami-Dade County government, not the 11th judicial circuit, is the actual owner of the current courthouse and it is that body which would negotiate with Galbut for any deal for a new building.

Still, it was Bailey’s concern about a perception of possible impropriety and conflict of interest that caused her to remove herself from the Shelborne case, according to a transcript of the Dec. 14 hearing.

Bailey explained that two weeks before the court hearing, she was invited “out of the blue” to participate in a meeting with Galbut and Chief Judge Soto because she is the only local judge who is familiar with national courthouse standards and guidelines.

Three years ago, Soto, Bailey and Butchko were among a group of judges and high profile lawyers who led a public awareness campaign to tell voters that the downtown courthouse, built in 1926, had fallen into a state of disrepair and was no longer safe for the people who work there. Their goal: to convince Miami-Dade voters to approve a bond referendum to pay the nearly $400 million cost to build a new courthouse, plus repair the existing building, which was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Voters, however, rejected the referendum.

“I was very involved in public appearances with all that,” Bailey said during the Dec. 14 hearing. “Suffice it to say I am very involved in the campaign to get a new courthouse for my judges and the people I work with.”

Bailey relayed that when she showed up for the meeting with Soto, Galbut was also there. She said the plans Gabut presented were very preliminary and that she did not believe his proposal would go anywhere. However, she soon realized that his plan is gaining steam and that she needed to address it with the lawyers involved in the Shelborne litigation.

A judicial ‘epiphany’

“I had the epiphany that it might be a potential issue in this case,” Bailey said according to the transcript. “If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case.”

Five days later, Bailey transferred the case to Butchko. However, the plaintiffs’ don’t believe they got a fair shot in court.

“I don’t think there is a conspiracy between Galbut and Butchko,” said owner Mark Shemel said. “But she is very sympathetic about getting a new courthouse. So it’s certainly possible she is sympathetic to the defendants.”

Shemel noted that Galbut has been involved in new courthouse talks for quite some time. He cited statements made by Greenberg Traurig attorney Ron Rosengarten, who represents two of the Galbut entities.

In a Jan. 3 motion, Rosengarten admitted that Galbut has been communicating with Soto, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, members of the Dade Heritage Trust and retired judge Scott Silverman for more than a year about getting involved in a possible deal to develop an “expanded courthouse project.”

Silverman, who declined comment, was the court appointed mediator in the Shelborne case. Galbut’s lawyer, Lowy, said his client only met once with Silverman and that the encounter took place after the mediation had ended with an impasse.

“That bothers me,” said plaintiff Shemel. “Silverman made the plaintiffs feel doomed. The whole thing stinks.”

Two Miami-Dade charter schools loaned $900K in taxpayer funds to sister schools

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Two Miami-Dade charter schools illegally transferred taxpayer funds by lending a combined $912,094 to sister schools outside the county, the top lawyer for the Florida Department of Education has determined.

As a result, Miami-Dade Public Schools auditor Jose Montes de Oca is recommending the district initiate efforts to recoup the money even as a representative for one of the charter schools claims no law was broken.

On Dec. 6, Montes de Oca will brief the school board audit and management committee on what steps the district can take to recoup the funds used for the loans.

In an Oct. 21 letter to school district attorney Walter Harvey, education department general counsel Matthew Mears said Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead and BridgePrep Academy in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood were prohibited from making loans to affiliated schools not in Miami-Dade.

“Funds that are appropriated to a local school district are for the education of the students within the school district,” Mears wrote. “For this reason, the transfer of appropriated funds across district lines, with or without interest, is not authorized.”

Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Florida Charter Educational Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns Keys Gate disputed Mears’ conclusion that the $700,000 loaned to Clay Charter School in Middleburg, Florida, is illegal. Keys Gate and Clay are operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the country’s largest charter school management companies, under a contract with the foundation.

“We have not received any direction or concern regarding this issue,” Reynolds told Florida Bulldog. “However, we believe we are in full compliance with the law.”

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Juan Carlos Quintana, a principal with S.M.A.R.T. Management, the company that developed and operates BridgePrep Academy, did not return three phone calls and an email message seeking comment about the $212,094 loan given to an unidentified affiliated school in another county. Two other Miami-area charter schools under the BridgePrep name also had loaned a combined $18,949 to sister schools outside the county, but those funds have already been paid back, according to a Sept. 12 Montes de Oca memo to the audit committee.

The dispute over the use of district school funds for loans initially arose in May when Montes de Oca notified the school board’s audit and management committee about the problem following his review of annual financial statements for 2015 submitted by Keys Gate and BridgePrep. At the time, Keys Gate had loaned Clay Academy $750,000 with zero interest. Since then, the loan was paid back, but Keys Gate issued another loan for capital improvements at Clay Academy. This second loan is for $700,000 with a five percent interest rate and a term of five years, according to Montes de Oca’s September letter.

Opinon sought

The school board attorney sought an opinion from Mears after Keys Gate officials informed Montes de Oca that the loans were acceptable under state law, according to a Nov. 30 letter by the school district auditor.

Mears’ response that the loans are illegal prompted Montes de Oca to recommend that the money be returned. “The district administration plans to formally notify these schools of the state’s guidance and that the loan funds must be repaid,” Montes de Oca wrote.

Charter school watchdogs told Florida Bulldog the loans illustrate a total disregard for taxpayer funds diverted from public schools to private educational institutions. Lisa Guisbond, executive director for Citizens for Public Education, an organization that advocates against charter schools and standardized testing in Massachusetts, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should be held accountable for the mishandling of school district funds.

“It seems bizarre that a charter school would have an extra $750,000 to loan out when so many public schools are scraping by to meet the needs of their students,” Guisbond said. “That kind of blows my mind. It’s outrageous, even.”

Carol Burris, executive director for the New York-based Network for Public Education, said Keys Gate and BridgePrep should not have given out the loans in the first place.

“In the case of these charter schools, their allegiance to their sister charters was greater than their allegiance to the children of Miami-Dade County they are supposed to serve,” Burris said. “They put the needs of the charter schools ahead of the needs of the kids. That is a problem.”

It’s a good thing both schools were caught, she added. “Hopefully, it will discourage other charters from doing the same,” Burris said. “And I hope the citizens of Miami-Dade have all of their tax dollars returned.”

Non-profit donors allegedly acting as “fronts” for utilities backing Amendment 1

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org solar-panels

Consumers for Smart Solar, the Political Action Committee supporting controversial Amendment 1 that critics say would give Florida utility companies a monopoly on solar energy, has raised $4.45 million from three non-profit groups allegedly acting as “fronts” for utility industry contributions.

“Big monopoly utilities filter money through outside organizations in an attempt to make it appear like they have support from non-utility interests,” said Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a group that supports a marketplace for solar energy that allows consumers to choose their provider. “But the money [donated to Consumers for Smart Solar] all comes from the same place.”

The three alleged fronts for the state’s largest electric companies are Let’s Preserve the American Dream, the 60 Plus Association and the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Records show that each has received money from utility interests in the past, and each does not disclose the identities of its financial backers.

For the Amendment 1 ballot measure to pass, it must get 60 percent voter approval.

Although the money raised by the non-profits is a fraction of the $20 million-plus utility companies have given to Consumers for Smart Solar, their donations create the false perception that Amendment 1 has the support of regular people, said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, a group promoting environmental protection and clean energy.

“These groups supporting Amendment 1 have brought up the legitimate concern about protecting consumers,” Moncrief said. “Unfortunately, they are acting as fronts for the big utility companies.”

Consumers for Smart Solar chairman Jim Kallinger did not respond to two requests for comment sent to his company’s email address. The company, Stamp Vault, does not have a listed phone number, and the phone number listed on the Political Action Committee’s campaign filings belongs to a Tallahassee accounting firm.

Sarah Bascom, the PAC’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment before deadline.

According to Consumers for Smart Solar’s campaign finance reports, Let’s Preserve the American Dream has donated $1.3 million since 2015 with its most recent contribution of $250,000 made on Oct. 28. The Tallahassee-based non-profit organization’s executive director is Ryan Tyson, who is also vice president of political operations for Associated Industries of Florida, a group that bills itself as “The Voice of Florida Business” and counts former Florida Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney as its chief executive.

Funding sources not disclosed

Let’s Preserve the American Dream’s 2015 income tax return shows the non-profit generated more than three quarters of its $1.6 million in annual revenue through contributions, grants and gifts. However, the sources for those funds are not disclosed on the tax returns. Reached via email, Tyson declined to comment on who or which companies financially support Let’s Preserve the American Dream. He also would not explain why Let’s Preserve the American Dream did not use its Political Action Committee (which has the same name) to donate the $1.3 million that went to Consumers for Smart Solar. Had the money gone through the PAC, Let’s Preserve the American Dream would be required to disclose its donors.

According to campaign finance reports, the Let’s Preserve the American Dream PAC was disbanded on Oct. 6 after raising and spending $33,000 since 2015. The group collected $10,000 apiece from FP&L and The Mosaic Company, the owner of the Central Florida fertilizer plant where 215 million gallons of contaminated wastewater recently drained into an aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.

Another Consumers for Solar backer, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, also does not disclose the source of the contributions, gifts and grants it receives, according to its 2012, 2013 and 2014 tax returns. However, a brochure for the group’s 2015 annual convention at the Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood lists several energy and fossil fuel companies as sponsors, including Gulf Power, Koch Industries and Chevron.

The black chamber, which generated $1.3 million in revenue in 2014, donated $200,000 to Consumers for Smart Solar through its National Black Chamber of Commerce Free Trade Initiative, a 501c(4) non-profit organization that had its tax-exempt status revoked by the Internal Revenue Service for not filing tax returns for three consecutive years.

With no tax-exempt status, the Free Trade Initiative can essentially engage in political activities without any restrictions, said Steve R. Johnson, a Florida State University tax law professor. “The revocation of tax-exempt status does not prohibit them in any way from making contributions,” Johnson said. “It can spend money on any kind of lobbying activity.”

Harry Alford, the black chamber’s longtime president, did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

The 60 Plus Association, a Virginia-based senior citizen advocacy group that supports privatizing Social Security and ending the federal estate tax, has contributed $1.69 million to Consumers for Smart Solar since last year. Like the black chamber and Let’s Preserve, 60 Plus does not disclose its donors.

However, tax filings for Freedom Partners, an organization that receives substantial financial support from industrialists Charles and David Koch, shows it gave $15.7 million to 60 Plus in 2012. American Encore, another organization supported by the Kochs, gave 60 Plus a combined $14 million between 2010 and 2012. James Martin, 60 Plus chairman, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to Moncrief, “Everyone knows 60 Plus is a front group for the Koch brothers trying to appeal to seniors.”

Glickman said voters deserve to know that the three non-profits backing Consumers for Smart Solar are indebted to energy and fossil fuel corporations. “Power companies are spending tens of millions of dollars to deceive people into voting for Amendment 1,” she said. “Don’t be misled by this deceptive campaign.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner questions value of $3.7 million Beacon Council subsidy

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

An elected official’s recent inquiry into The Beacon Council, a private agency that is tasked with keeping companies in Miami-Dade and attracting new ones, revealed that 10 firms that supposedly received assistance in the past year have either zero presence or no employees based locally.

County Commissioner Xavier Suarez said his investigation raises doubt about whether Miami-Dade should continue subsidizing The Beacon Council, which it does to the tune of $3.7 million a year.

“My instinct tells me we could use that money more effectively for micro-loans and insurance subsidies for small businesses,” Suarez told Florida Bulldog. “Just about anything else but giving money to The Beacon Council bureaucracy makes more sense.”

Dyan Brasington, The Beacon Council’s executive vice president of economic development, defended the agency’s performance in an email statement that claimed the agency facilitated the creation and retention of 2,840 jobs in the past fiscal year.

“These jobs contribute an estimated $50 million to the local economy and help families thrive and prosper while generating additional indirect jobs,” Brasington said. “The companies that have expanded or located to Miami-Dade will spend $188.2 million in new capital investment and occupy over 1 million square feet of commercial space.”

Suarez colleague Daniella Levine Cava, a Beacon Council board member, also defended the agency’s track record. “I think the Beacon Council has done a good job in the narrow aspect of economic development,” the county commissioner from South Dade said. “What they have done has not been effectively communicated to the public.”

However, Suarez’s probe turned up some troubling evidence when members of his staff attempted to verify The Beacon Council’s assertions in its Third Quarter Key Performance Indicators Report. During the first week in August, Suarez’s staffers conducted on-site visits to the addresses of the 10 firms that were provided to The Beacon Council, according to an Aug. 22 memo the county commissioner sent the agency’s then-CEO Larry K. Williams.

For instance, on Aug. 10, Suarez aide Joanne Padron visited The Doral Professional Center at 7950 NW 53rd St., where Alpha Trade, a construction materials import and export business that received Beacon Council assistance, supposedly had an office suite. Instead, Padron found Offix Solutions, a shared-office space for multiple companies with a single receptionist, who informed her that no one from Alpha Trade was available to meet with her.

Padron was also unable to find any state incorporation records for Alpha Trade or its phone number. On Oct. 21, during a visit to Offix Solutions, the receptionist told a Florida Bulldog reporter that there was no Alpha Trade located in their shared office space and that the company’s CEO, Sergio Santa Ana, was not listed in their directory. “I’ve got an Alpha International,” she said. “But there’s no one with the name Sergio Santa Ana. Maybe they went out of business.”

Santa Ana did not respond to a request for comment sent to an email address listed on Alpha Trade’s Facebook page, which lists the Offix Solutions location as the company’s location.

Another Suarez aide, Ela Pestano, stopped by 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables on Aug. 12 to verify the existence of GeoGlobal USA, a start-up company that is going to import and sell home goods and furniture in the United States and Mexico, according to The Beacon Council’s third-quarter report. The agency claims it helped GeoGlobal by providing contacts, referrals, training and workforce recruitment assistance.

Pestano informed Suarez she found an accounting firm, Hernandez & Co., at 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard, but no GeoGlobal. She also visited another address in Doral that GeoGlobal listed in its state incorporation records that turned out to be the headquarters for A Customs Brokerage, a shipping and logistic company. Padron told her boss that individuals at Hernandez & Co. and A Customs Brokerage had never heard of GeoGlobal.

Florida Bulldog visited Hernandez & Co. and A Customs Brokerage the same day as Offix Solutions. A woman at the accounting firm said GeoGlobal was her client and uses 2330 Ponce de Leon Boulevard as a mailing address. She declined to provide Florida Bulldog with a contact person for GeoGlobal. At A Customs, a company representative also said GeoGlobal was a client that used their address, but was not physically located there.

Suarez’s aides turned up similar results for the eight other firms identified in The Beacon Council’s third-quarter report.

According to a Sept. 2 memo from Williams to Suarez, The Beacon Council’s then-CEO informed the commissioner that it was not unusual for new companies like Alpha Trade and GeoGlobal to have temporary office space before establishing a permanent address. “Given the nature of decision making for corporate relocations and expansions, the outcome of your staff’s outreach does not surprise me,” Williams said. “The person knowledgeable about the transaction is not the person at the reception desk and is sometimes in a different office.”

In his response to Florida Bulldog, Brasington said CEOs and executives whose companies receive Beacon Council assistance must attest in writing to the work the agency provides their businesses. “Company leaders often do not share information about location or expansion decisions with employees or even middle management, which is why some employees may not be aware of the assistance provided by The Beacon Council,” Brasington explained. “The economic development process of educating and then recruiting or retaining businesses can be lengthy.”

However, the same week Williams sent Suarez the letter, he resigned as Beacon Council CEO to assume the same role for Atlanta’s Technology Association of Georgia, where he was previously a vice president. The commissioner’s inquest occurred just as The Beacon Council — which relies on $3.7 million in county permitting fees for its $5.2 million annual budget — became an issue in the county mayor’s race. Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, who is in a runoff with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, has made eliminating The Beacon Council one of her campaign promises.

Suarez told Florida Bulldog he held a public meeting earlier this month with Levine Cava and Beacon Council chairman and Greenberg Traurig co-managing shareholder Jaret Davis to discuss his findings. “I stated my views that a lot of people in the business community don’t see the sense in giving $3.7 million to The Beacon Council for promoting economic development,” Suarez said. “I am leaving it in the hands of my colleague, who expressed some of the same concerns I have.”

Levine Cava told Florida Bulldog that The Beacon Council does have room for improvement, but doesn’t believe it should be cut off from county funding. “I found The Beacon Council’s response to Suarez to be credible,” she said. “In each case, there was a logical explanation for what his staff found. There is nothing that cries out a problem exists.”

Developer’s trail of lawsuits backdrop claim of illegal campaign contributions

Miami World Center site.

Miami World Center site.

Editor’s note: The Oct. 19 story below about lawsuits involving developer Arthur Falcone did not note that Tom Derington, his accuser in a recent lawsuit, was found guilty of bank fraud in federal court in Texas in 1999. Derington served 11 months in prison, five years on supervised release and was ordered to pay $48,565 in restitution.

Further, Derington, also known as Tommy Claude Derington, was wanted in Travis County, Texas on a state charge of harrassment that involved an alleged death threat he made against his son-in-law. A police affidavit filed in August described Derington as having an “extensive criminal history with multiple arrests and convictions, including aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, delivery of controlled substance and impersonating a public servant, among other charges.”

The story also reported that in June 2014 a civil jury assessed $2 million in court costs and attorney fees against Falcone and his brother in a fraud lawsuit stemming from their purchase nine years earlier of Heritage Manor, a Boca Raton cemetery. A judge later reduced those fees to $900,000.

Falcone could not be reached for comment before the story ran. His spokespersons have since called Derington’s complaint “meritless.”

Derington sued Falcone in federal court in September, but soon withdrew the lawsuit only to refile it later in state court. Derington told the Miami Herald he withdrew the suit because a settlement was in the works. Falcone’s spokesperson said that statement is “completely false.”

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Arthur Falcone, a Boca Raton-based developer behind a downtown Miami project at the center of illegal campaign contribution allegations, has blazed a trail of lawsuits accusing him of swindling business associates and creditors out of tens of millions of dollars during the height of the real estate market crash.

According to two complaints filed in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach circuit courts, as well as filings in Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy court, Falcone committed fraud in three separate real estate-related transactions involving a cemetery, a national development company that went bankrupt and a prominent real estate broker who helped him secure various properties for the 10-block condo, hotel and retail site in downtown known as Miami World Center.

Falcone did not respond to two messages left on his office voicemail and two email requests for comment.

In a fourth and most recent lawsuit filed Sept. 14 in Miami federal court, a construction and plans examiner named Tom Derington sued three companies tied to Falcone and a business partner developing Miami World Center for wrongful termination. In the complaint, which was withdrawn and refiled in state court earlier this month, Derington claimed he was fired after he objected to, among other things, demands that he falsely promise subcontractors work on the project in exchange for their campaign contributions to local candidates.

Derington was convicted of bank fraud in 1999 and spent nearly a year in federal prison.

Specifically, Derington alleged that an executive for Square Edge, a construction company managing the Miami World Center project, instructed him to raise money for the re-election campaigns of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, as well as the campaign of Teresa Sarnoff, who last year lost a bid for the Miami City Commission seat vacated by her husband Marc Sarnoff.

“Square Edge provided Plaintiff with a list of names to demand contributions from, sometimes under the false pretense that the proposed professional or subcontractor would get work on the Paramount Ft. Lauderdale project or Miami World Center project, which the Defendants then did not deliver upon,” read the lawsuit by Derington, who said he was fired over his “numerous objections” to improper business practices.

Derington told the Miami Herald last week he withdrew his federal suit because a settlement was in the works. A spokesman for Falcone later called that assertion “completely false.”

A Falcone spokesman called Derington’s complaint “meritless,” stating that Derington “is not and was never an employee of any company tied to Falcone.”

In a written statement, Miami World Center spokesman Aaron Gordon denied any wrongdoing by the Miami World Center developers: “Their fundraising efforts have always been above board and in compliance with the law, which ultimately led to this lawsuit being withdrawn.”

Arthur Falcone

Arthur Falcone

Falcone, along with his brothers Edward and Robert, have been major real estate players in South Florida since the mid-1980s. In 1989, Falcone established Transeastern Homes, a firm that specialized in buying distressed homes in foreclosure brought on by the national recession. The company grew into one of the largest private homebuilders in the U.S. and by 2005, Falcone and his brothers were looking to cash out.

In August of that year, Transeastern merged with Hollywood-based Technical Olympic USA, or TOUSA, another national builder, in a deal that gave Arthur and Edward Falcone 50 percent ownership of the new company. TOUSA paid $857 million to acquire Transeastern’s assets and operations.

However, the joint venture floundered within a year. In November 2006, Falcone hit TOUSA with a notice of default after the company failed to pay him tens of millions of dollars still owed on the deal, according to a 2010 lawsuit filed by TOUSA’s creditors against Falcone, his brother and several entities they controlled.

$50 million fraudulent transfer?

The complaint alleged the Falcones induced a fraudulent transfer of more than $50 million from TOUSA, which went bankrupt by 2008, as part of a settlement releasing the brothers from their ownership stake and any liabilities arising from the company’s implosion as a result of the housing crash.

“The Defendants were intimately familiar with the crashing Florida homebuilding market, were well aware of the financial distress suffered by the Transeastern JV, were familiar with TOUSA’s operations and its various entities, and were privy to internal and publicly available information reflecting the severity of the housing crisis and its impact on the Debtors’ businesses,” the lawsuit alleges. “Upon information and belief, the Defendants received the value of the Fraudulent Transfers, lacking good faith, and with knowledge of their avoidability.”

At the time, Falcone issued a press statement that dismissed the lawsuit as meritless. “Just because in hindsight TOUSA’s creditors think they overpaid, it doesn’t mean they can now go to the courts and demand their money back,” Falcone wrote. “Imagine if you bought your home a few years ago for $300,000 and now it’s worth $150,000. You can’t just go back to the seller and demand your money back. That’s the market.”

The fraudulent transfer claims against the Falcones individually were later dropped. Other counts continue alleging the fraudulent transfer of funds against TEP Holdings, of which Arthur Falcone is chairman and chief executive officer. The case remains pending.

Edie Laquer

Edie Laquer

The same year TOUSA went bankrupt, Miami real estate broker Edie Laquer sued Falcone alleging he squeezed her out of a promised 10 percent ownership stake in Miami World Center without compensating her. Laquer also brokered the deals for the first seven properties used to assemble the site. In April of last year, the 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing Laquer’s complaint. Her lawyers successfully argued that even though the properties went through foreclosure, she should have remained in the Falcone partnership that purchased the parcels from the banks. The case was later settled.

In June 2014, a jury concluded that Falcone and his brother committed civil theft when they purchased the Boca Raton cemetery Heritage Manor from a pair of widows for $6.1 million nine years earlier. The two women sued the Falcones after finding out that their then-attorney, Michael Masanoff, received an allegedly under-the-table payment of $100,000 from the brothers. According to the widows’ trial lawyers, the cemetery was actually worth $40 million in 2005 when the deal closed.

The judge later overturned the jury’s finding of civil theft against the Falcones because the jury awarded no damages relating to the sale of the business and land. The plaintiffs are appealing.

Jurors awarded only $2 million in court costs and attorney fees to the adult children of the plaintiffs Elishka and Kathleen Michaels, who died during the drawn-out legal battle. A judge later reduced the award to $900,000. Under Florida law, the amount automatically tripled because the jurors found “clear and convincing evidence” that the Falcones acted with criminal intent to obtain the plaintiffs’ business and land, according to the jury form.

During the trial, Masanoff — who was disbarred and is now a real estate developer — testified that the Falcones encouraged him to breach his fiduciary duty to the widows, in addition to concealing the $100,000 payoff. In court motions and at trial, Falcone attorney William Cornwell dismissed Masanoff’s testimony by citing a confidential settlement he reached with the Michaels family members.

The Falcones’ appeal of the verdict is pending. In a brief phone interview, Cornwell told Florida Bulldog that the jury reached the wrong conclusion. “We believe the verdict will be overturned,” he said. “And we are vigorously pursuing an appeal.”

Miami City Attorney’s Office in another fight – this time with the county ethics commission

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

A City of Miami senior assistant city attorney is trying to block the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust from reconsidering its decision six months ago to not sanction her for breaking local ethics rules.

In a recent petition filed with the appellate division of the Miami-Dade Judicial Court, Robin Jones Jackson claims the ethics commission doesn’t have the authority to reopen a closed complaint. The complaint alleged that she knowingly gave false statements to city commissioners two years ago when they approved changes to a massive Watson Island development project.

On July 13, the ethics commission voted 3-2 to rehear Jackson’s case after weighing new information presented by Coral Gables-based attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represents Stephen Herbits, a community activist who filed the complaint against the assistant city attorney.

Herbits has been locked in a long-running legal battle with the city to stop a megayacht marina and resort project on Watson Island being developed by Flagstone Property Group. In 2014, the city commission approved a restructured lease agreement with the developer. Herbits claims Jones Jackson was untruthful when she informed city commissioners that Miami was on the hook for $58 million in damages if the deal didn’t go through.

Herbits maintains the city had no liability and that Jones Jackson made her recommendation knowing that the amended lease agreement violated the city charter, thus making the new deal with Flagstone null and void.

“The ethics commission recognized there were serious questions about the quality and objectivity of a staff investigation, so it voted to revisit it,” Dubbin told Florida Bulldog. “No county law prohibits [the commission] from doing so. Otherwise, the commission has no authority over the integrity of the complaint process.”

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Jones Jackson is challenging the ethics commission at a time the City Attorney’s Office faces accusations it’s beholden to developers. Last week, four city commissioners rejected their colleague Ken Russell’s attempt to fire Jones Jackson’s boss Victoria Mendez over her handling of a zoning matter in Coconut Grove. Russell said he lost confidence in Mendez because she withheld public records from him that showed she helped a developer’s attorney bypass a city board’s approval on behalf of his client.

Ethics commission executive director Joe Centorino and ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski, who presents cases to the board, declined comment for this story. Jones Jackson and her lawyers, Joseph Serota and Laura Wendell, did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment.

According to Jones Jackson’s petition, the ethics commission lacks jurisdiction to reopen closed investigations that ended in findings of no probable cause. On March 29, the ethics commission found no probable cause to Herbits’ complaint. Her attorneys argue that four months later Dubbin was allowed to make his case in an unusual public session as to why there is probable cause.

The ethics commission acted after Dubbin successfully lobbied his point that Herbits was entitled to present his arguments because he was a personally aggrieved party. Dubbin said the county ordinance governing the ethics commission allows complainants to show they have been personally affected by the alleged violation.

“Irreparable injury”

“The actions of the ethics commission departed from the essential requirements of law, deprived Jones Jackson of her right to due process and confidentiality,” her petition claims. “And its decision has caused and will continue to cause irreparable injury.”

The case shows how difficult it is for citizens who file complaints to prove public officials committed ethics violations. According to a transcript of the July 13 meeting, Dubbin assailed the ethic commission’s practice of adjudicating cases without allowing complainants to present evidence that help prove their allegations or dispute Murawski’s recommendations of no probable cause. Cases are decided in sessions closed to the public and in which only Murawski and attorneys for the accused are permitted to address the board.

Dubbin said he analyzed every complaint adjudicated by the ethics commission from July 2014 to July 2016. He found that Murawski has recommended no probable cause in 66 percent of those cases, and that the ethics commission approved 98.5 percent of Murawski’s recommendations.

Dubbin said Murawski never asked him or his client for documents they had showing Jones Jackson was well aware that Flagstone had already defaulted on its lease and could not sue the city.

“For whatever reason, the advocate never asked for that information, never,” Dubbin told the ethics board. “Some of it was in their file and it was ignored by the advocate.” The lawyer also accused Murawski of “making subjective determinations about Mr. Herbits’ credibility based upon collateral information and incorrect information.”

Dubbin told ethics commissioners there is no county law that prevents them from reversing an earlier decision. “There is nothing in your rules that precludes you from reconsidering it or from sending it back for a reinvestigation,” he said. “And anything that is not precluded, I would submit is allowed.”

Murawski, a former prosecutor, countered that the ordinance creating the ethics commission doesn’t allow for the board members to reconsider cases. He also warned them they would be opening the door to other complainants demanding that their cases be reheard. “From a practical standpoint, I would ask you to take a good hard look at whether or not you want to set a precedent of having … people come back and say, ‘No, no, Murawski screwed up, he didn’t do a good investigation,’ ” the advocate said. “There should be a certain finality for all of the parties involved that’s based on what we have done here and the conclusions that we’ve made.”

However, ethics commission board member Marcia Narine Weldon said she would not have made the motion or voted in March to find no probable cause against Jones Jackson had she seen the documents Dubbin presented.

“The reason I was so troubled with this the last time is I think you ought to be held to a higher standard if you are the city attorney,” Weldon said. “As attorney for the people and attorney for the city, she has to be held to a higher standard.”

Jack Nicklaus, partners pay $400K to settle charges they filled wetlands at golf club

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Bear's Club golf course in Jupiter.

The Bear’s Club golf course in Jupiter.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has given up a legal battle over federal accusations that his companies violated the Clean Water Act by disturbing environmentally protected wetlands in The Bear’s Club, a private golf course community he built 17 years ago.

Last month, U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas signed off on a consent decree between the federal government and The Bear’s Club Founding Partners Ltd, four related companies and three of Nicklaus’ development partners to settle a lawsuit filed last October by the Department of Justice. The defendants are required to pay a $400,000 civil penalty and offset the environmental impact done to two patches of wetlands in The Bear’s Club 369-acre property that were filled.

Eugene Stearns, a Miami-based lawyer representing The Bear’s Club Founding Partners, told Florida Bulldog that his client did not admit to any wrongdoing. “The $400,000 is a fraction of what it would cost to litigate this case to its conclusion,” Stearns said. “It was a business decision, and The Bear’s Club believes it didn’t violate any federal law.”

South Florida U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement that the $400,000 penalty “sends a message to anyone who fails to abide by our nation’s environmental laws that they will be held accountable for their non-compliance.”

He added: “When wetlands are filled in violation of the Clean Water Act, the loss is felt not only today, but by all generations to come.”

In 1999, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Nicklaus and his business partners Ivan Charles Frederickson and Robert Whitley a permit allowing them to fill certain wetlands in their massive Jupiter property for the purpose of building a residential golf community. However, the Corps also required The Bear’s Club to preserve certain wetlands in their natural state.

According to its web site, the 270-acre The Bear’s Club was founded in 1999 by Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara. Nicklaus is chairman of the board. Membership is by invitation only.

In the complaint, government attorneys accused The Bear’s Club and its developers of filling close to an acre of wetlands in 2010 without permission from the Corps. The prosecutors alleged it was done to relocate a tee box, improve golfing conditions on the club’s 15th hole and make room for the development of five residential lots. Nicklaus and company ignored the Corps’ denial to modify the original building permit, which included an easement agreement to set aside several acres as protected wetlands, the lawsuit alleged.

Stearns disputed the government’s interpretation of what the original 1999 permit allowed The Bear’s Club to do on the property. He said his client was allowed to make changes to conservation easements as long as he received approval from the South Florida Water Management District. Stearns said The Bear’s Club did not have to go back to the Corps.

“The Bear’s Club got state approval and paid state mitigation fees,” Stearns said. “Then the feds came along and were like, ‘Oh no, we didn’t approve it.’ ”

Stearns also criticized the Corps for going after The Bear’s Club for what he called “minor infractions” when the federal agency should be focused on minimizing the impact of the contaminated runoff water from Lake Okeechobee.

“Who is pumping waste into the Indian River every day?” Stearns said. “Yet, here we are talking about two tiny areas of a golf course that is the perfect marriage between the environment and private development. The Bear’s Club has preserved more wildlife and nature than it has taken away.”

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s son rose to the top skirting lobbying rules, critics say

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, and his son, Carlos Gimenez Jr.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, and his son, Carlos Gimenez Jr.

As his father rose to power from county commissioner to strong mayor, Carlos Gimenez Jr. has climbed his way to the upper echelon of South Florida’s lobbying corps representing prominent clients like Donald Trump, the PGA Tour and American Traffic Solutions, the nation’s largest red-light camera operator.

Along the way, junior has been investigated three times for violating county ethics rules by concealing his lobbying activities involving Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez as well as other county and municipal elected officials. While the probes ultimately found no wrongdoing by junior, critics insist he exploits his family name on behalf of his clients.

Alfred Santamaria, one of six candidates running against Gimenez in the Aug. 30 primary, told FloridaBulldog.org that the mayor’s son provides a clear-cut reason why Miami-Dade should adopt a rule that bans companies and individuals doing business with county hall from hiring the relatives of elected officials.

“Carlos Gimenez Jr. has worked at firms that represented companies getting contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for airport work, roads and red-light cameras,” Santamaria said. “I think it is unethical, not moral and clearly a conflict of interest.”

Gimenez Jr. did not return two messages on his cell phone seeking comment. Michael Hernandez, the mayor’s spokesman, said his boss is not concerned about allegations made against his son because Gimenez “prides himself on operating in a very transparent manner.”

Hernandez added: “Mayor Gimenez is very proud of his son’s professional success which has come due to his hard work, education, dedication and talent and is in no way related to his father being elected as the county commissioner representing District 7, or as Miami-Dade County mayor.”

According to his LinkedIn page, Gimenez Jr.’s career began in 2000 as an associate for the now-defunct law firm Steel Hector & Davis, where his father also briefly worked. When Gimenez was elected county commissioner in 2004, his son went to work for Bilzin Sumberg, a Miami law firm specializing in government relations, land use and zoning. Four years later, Gimenez Jr. moved to his third law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, where he was a senior attorney until February 2013. Since then, he’s been vice president and general counsel for Balsera Communications, a Hispanic-focused public relations firm founded by Alfredo Balsera, a prominent Democratic fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Balsera Communications President David Duckenfield did not address the allegations against Gimenez Jr., but told Florida Bulldog in an email statement that the mayor’ s son was hired based on his qualifications.

‘Well known and respected’

“Carlos brings to our firm top notch experience in real estate development and crisis communications, having worked for the some of the best law firms in Miami,” Duckenfield said. “He is well known and respected among his professional peers.”

Recently, however, Gimenez Jr. stirred up controversy when he and a Balsera colleague tried to convince three candidates running in a Miami-Dade School Board race against his aunt, Maria Theresa Rojas, to drop out.

Documents from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust show that Mayor Gimenez has sought several legal opinions about how he should conduct county business involving firms employing junior, 39, and his other son Julio, 37, who has worked for two construction firms that are frequent county vendors.

Gimenez Jr. is currently registered as a lobbyist In Doral, where he represents Trump and the PGA Tour, and in Miami, where he represents more than a dozen firms. He is not a registered lobbyist with county government.

For instance, on March 27, 2007, then-Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Meyers advised Gimenez, at the time a county commissioner, to abstain from voting on a rezoning application because junior was part of the team representing the developer.

Four years later, shortly after Gimenez was elected mayor, he asked for another ethics opinion. This time, Meyers advised him to delegate the power to award contracts involving Munilla Construction Management to one of his deputies or get a county commissioner to sponsor an item awarding those contracts because the firm employed Julio Gimenez. Meyers also advised the mayor to recuse himself from making any recommendations or decisions when Gimenez Jr. lobbied any arm of county government.

During the five years Gimenez has been mayor, the ethics commission has delved into allegations Gimenez Jr. cloaks his lobbying work by not filing required paperwork identifying him as a representative for vendors and developers seeking to influence the decisions of government officials, including his father.

According to a 2012 ethics commission report, investigators received a confidential tip in October of the previous year that Gimenez and his son held discussions about initiating a red-light camera program in Miami-Dade with executives from Horsepower Electric, a subcontractor to Gimenez Jr.’s client American Traffic Solutions. The report states Gimenez and Horsepower Vice President Humberto Ortiz were interviewed, but not Gimenez Jr.

The mayor and Ortiz vehemently denied they discussed red-light cameras during their meeting, which took place at Horsepower’s main office in Hialeah. They said the mayor was there to collect a campaign check for his political action committee.

Gimenez could not recall if his son, who represents American Traffic in the City of Miami, attended the meeting, but the mayor was adamant that he was not involved in implementing a red-light program in unincorporated Miami-Dade, according to the report.

“He said that, dating back to his tenure as a county commissioner, he has recused himself from any deliberations on the matter as a result of his son’s representation of ATS,” the report states.

In 2014, Joe Centorino, the ethics commission’s current executive director, sent an investigator in mid-May to meet with Susan Fried and Armando Gutierrez, two well-known lobbyists who had pulled him aside during a county commission meeting to complain that Gimenez Jr. and four other individuals who worked on his dad’s campaign “were lobbying on the big Water and Sewer bond issue and had not registered as lobbyists,” according to another investigative report.

Fried alleged that Gimenez Jr. and the four others told potential clients, “I’ll charge you $150,000, and avoid the lobbying registration, but they lobby anyway under the name of public relations,” wrote ethics investigator and former Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback. Fried could not provide specific details, but said Gimenez Jr. and crew “have infiltrated everywhere, including the mayor’s office,” Steinback wrote.

No ‘hard evidence’

Gutierrez was unable to provide names or any firsthand knowledge, Steinback added. Steinback closed the probe shortly after checking the sign-in logs for the 13 county commissioners and finding none of the names of the alleged shadow lobbyists, including Gimenez Jr. “Given the lack of specificity of the original complaint, this investigator could not turn up hard evidence of lobbying on the part of the subjects,” Steinback wrote.

When contacted by Florida Bulldog, Fried and Gutierrez declined comment.

Steinback opened another investigation into Gimenez Jr. on Aug. 27 2014 after an anonymous female called in a tip that the county mayor’s son had bragged to her that he had lobbied six of seven council members in North Miami Beach about a proposal to build luxury floating homes off the city’s coastline by his client, Dutch Docklands. Steinback reviewed the city’s lobbyist log the following day and determined Gimenez Jr. was not registered to represent Dutch Docklands.

In late September, Steinback interviewed three council members, who denied meeting with Gimenez Jr., as well as Frank Behrens, Dutch Dockland’s vice president, who claimed junior’s role was to “address residents of Eastern Shore,” a residential neighborhood in North Miami Beach.

“[Behrens] said that the company has endeavored to be very careful about lobbyist registration,” Steinback wrote in his report, adding that he subsequently spoke to Gimenez Jr.

“It turns out Gimenez Jr. registered with the city as a lobbyist on September 15, 2014,” Steinback wrote. “He stated that he then sent letters to two city commissioners, which he acknowledged would qualify as lobbying contacts, on Sept. 17.”

Nevertheless, Steinback concluded there was no evidence suggesting Gimenez was improperly lobbying city officials.

Gimenez Jr.’s name would pop up again in a fourth ethics investigation that was completed in June of last year. This time, it was junior’s most famous client, Donald Trump, and his dad who were being accused of breaking the county’s lobbying rules when the Republican presidential nominee made an unsolicited offer to take over management of the Crandon Park Golf Course in early 2014. Gimenez told ethics investigators he stopped being involved once Trump submitted a formal proposal because junior represents the billionaire developer in Doral, an independently run city not under the county’s control.

“Gimenez said he immediately recused himself from involvement in the Trump proposal out of an abundance of caution,” the investigative report states. “But not because he is required to since his son does no lobbying work for Trump in the county.”

Three lobbyists, who spoke to FloridaBulldog.org on the condition of anonymity because they fear being blacklisted, said the only way to catch Gimenez Jr. breaking the rules is with good old-fashioned surveillance and wiretaps. “It’s amazing that Carlos Jr. is able to get away with this scam of not being a lobbyist while trading on the name he shares with his dad to do exactly that,” one lobbyist said. “But since we’re in Miami, people just kind of shrug and accept it.”

“Of course, it’s still going on,” another lobbyist said. “Unless you are dishonest with him and his clique, you can’t beat them. It’s not endemic to the county. I believe it happens in most of the municipalities too.”

Santamaria, Gimenez’s opponent, agreed. “The mayor and his inner circle are very sophisticated,” Santamaria said. “”They know how to work the system very well.”

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