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Lauren’s Kids funnels $3.1 million to politically connected public relations firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Tallahassee’s Sachs Media Group produced this billboard in 2014.

A nonprofit run by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book and lavished with millions of dollars in state handouts by lawmakers paid a Tallahassee public relations firm with considerable political clout $3.1 million between 2012 and 2015.

The payments by Lauren’s Kids to Sachs Media Group accounted for 28 percent of the charity’s $10.8 million in expenses, according to Lauren’s Kids most recent available tax returns. In the same period, the Florida Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids – which employs Sen. Book as its $135,000-a-year chief executive and counts powerful lobbyist Ron Book, her father, as its chairman – $9.6 million in grants.

The nonprofit’s payouts to Sachs Media for 2016 are not publicly available. A spokeswoman for Lauren’s Kids did not respond to requests to view that information.

Florida Bulldog reported last week that Sen. Book, using a loophole in state conflict-of-interest rules, voted last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids.

Millions of taxpayer dollars flowed through the nonprofit to Sachs Media as it both promoted Lauren’s Kids and cultivated Sen. Book’s public persona as a survivor of child sex abuse. Critics say the domination of Lauren’s Kids by the senator and her lobbyist-father raises concerns that the work Sachs Media does is more about making her look good, not raising awareness about unreported cases of child sex abuse.

“There is nothing wrong with an individual promoting that they have done good work,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch. “However, it would appear the father can pull some weight to push the organization in a direction that would be beneficial for the daughter. It is more likely for that to happen more so than helping kids.”

If that’s the case, then the Books and Sachs Media are abusing the public’s trust, Borochoff added. “Nonprofit money is supposed to be used for a public benefit and not to enhance the aspirations of the charity’s officers,” Borochoff said. “But sometimes there is an overlap and it can become a side effect for someone running a charity.”

‘Proud of our work’

Sachs Media founder and chief executive Ron Sachs did not return two phone messages seeking response to a list of detailed questions emailed to him on June 12. Instead, Sachs Media president Michelle Ubben provided Florida Bulldog with a written statement noting that the firm is “not currently engaged by Lauren’s Kids.”

“We are particularly proud of our work to help the Lauren’s Kids foundation develop sexual abuse prevention curricula for grades K-12, and to raise awareness of the signs of child abuse and public reporting requirements,” Ubben’s statement read. She referred specific questions about the firm’s work with Lauren’s Kids to the nonprofit’s spokeswoman and former Sachs Media account executive Claire VanSusteren.

Ron Sachs

“We have worked with Sachs in the past to raise awareness about child sexual abuse,” VanSusteren said in an emailed statement. “[Sachs] has, over the course of several years, completed communications work and engaged a variety of subcontractors related to deliverables for state contracts.”

A former news reporter and editor who did stints as spokesman for Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Ron Sachs founded his company in 1996, specializing in corporate branding, marketing and crisis management. His early victories included a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission and helping repeal an automatic 20 percent phone rate hike tacked onto a bill in 2003.

Six years later, Sachs landed more than $130,000 worth of work from the Associated Industries of Florida, according to a 2011 Florida Trend article. The same year, Sachs Media was retained by an anonymous group of oil and gas producers called Florida Energy Associates to do a campaign promoting the removal of the prohibition on drilling in the state’s offshore waters.

Sachs Media has also counted the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its clients, producing a web-based public affairs program called “The Bottom Line.”  Another program, “Florida Newsmakers,” features one-on-one interviews with top state bureaucrats answering softball questions. According to an online database of state contracts, Sachs Media has also been awarded small and large media jobs by various state agencies.

For instance, the Florida Lottery paid Sachs Media $150,000 in February 2013 for an educational multimedia campaign. A year later, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs paid Sachs Media $3,720 for table throws stamped with the department’s emblem. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded the firm a $316,250 contract in 2014 to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida’s Panhandle.

Sachs media faced criticism

Sachs Media has faced criticism over its business practices in recent years. In 2014, the firm dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the family of a paralyzed Broward County man after a public outcry over Sachs Media’s heavy-handed tactics against its former client, who was left brain damaged by the car of a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. Sachs had claimed Eric Brody’s relatives owed the firm $375,000 for four years of public relations and media outreach services.

A year later, a state audit of a $296,105 Sachs Media contract with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that the agreement did not clearly establish the tasks to be performed by the firm, did not contain documentation requirements, did not sufficiently identify the activities or services to be provided and included three amendments for an additional $135,421.

“In general, the agreement had no scope of work or deliverable issues,” the audit states. “The amendments did not fall within the original scope of work and did not clearly establish the tasks the provider was required to perform.” (Ubben did not comment on the dropping of the lawsuit and on the audit’s findings.)

According to Sachs Media’s website, the firm was retained by Lauren’s Kids in 2007, the year the nonprofit was founded. “Lauren’s Kids engaged our firm to conceptualize and bring to life a breakthrough strategy that would get people aware, educated, and mobilized to prevent this dark, societal secret – child sexual abuse,” a statement on the website reads. “We branded the Lauren’s Kids Foundation and generated extensive, multi-year media coverage – including the cover of Newsweek – around an annual 1,500-mile walk for awareness throughout Florida.”

In addition, Sen. Book and her cause have been featured by Nancy Grace, USA Today, Lisa Ling, Jane Velez-Mitchell and various local media outlets due to Sachs Media’s public relations work, the website states.

Sachs Media was also involved in helping Sen. Book market and promote her autobiography “It’s OK to Tell” and her annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee, as well as producing billboards, public service announcements and a curriculum for grades K-12 about child sex abuse prevention. The curriculum features web-based video lessons starring Sen. Book and reading materials that recount how she was sexually abused by her nanny during her teen years.

In 2015, Sachs Media conducted an online survey for Lauren’s Kids that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children. However, the accuracy of the online survey, which national polling experts dismiss as being unreliable and inaccurate, could not be verified because Sachs Media declined to provide its methodology and backup data to Florida Bulldog.

The payments

Here’s the breakdown of Lauren’s Kids payments to Sachs Media as detailed in the nonprofits tax returns:

  • $670,032 for “public relations.” That accounted or 33 percent of Lauren’s Kids’ $2 million in expenses that year.
  • $957,977 for “program support,” or 63 percent of Lauren’s Kids $1.5 million in expenses.
  • $579,772, or 20 percent of expenses.
  • $966,100 for programming support. Sachs subcontractor, The POD Advertising, was paid $349,800, with both accounting for 28 percent of Lauren’s Kids expenses that year.

The owner of a Miami-based public relations firm who requested anonymity said the amount of money Lauren’s Kids has paid Sachs Media is shocking. “It’s pretty outrageous that a PR firm is billing that much to a nonprofit,” the owner said. “Usually, you are taking on charities on a pro-bono basis or providing them with a significant discount.”

Claire VanSusteren

Sen. Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Ron Book did not respond to requests for comment. However, Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman VanSusteren defended the work performed by Sachs Media, noting the campaigns have taught Floridians the importance of openly discussing child sex crimes.

“We have received countless calls and messages from parents, educators and law enforcement officers sharing stories of children coming forward and disclosing abuse thanks to our curriculum program,” she said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important than protecting childhood. That’s what it’s all about.”

For example, she said, Sachs managed content production and communications related to a Lauren’s Kids public awareness campaign called “Don’t Miss the Signs” developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

She claimed that reports of abuse to the DCF hotline rose by 30 percent during the campaign and that Lauren’s Kids has received positive feedback from numerous teachers and police officers about the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum Sachs Media produced. In her statement to Florida Bulldog, VanSusteren included testimonials from unidentified teachers and guidance counselors.

One was from a self-described educator at James M. Marlowe Elementary School in New Port Richey who said, “I love the fact that it’s simple and easy to implement. I love the fact that there isn’t a lot of prep time needed for the lessons.”

Yet, the testimonial said nothing about the curriculum’s effectiveness in preventing child sex abuse.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “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, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

Hialeah’s mayor, a former crony, an off-the-books city gig and an ethics investigation

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, left, and retired Hialeah police officer Glenn Rice Photo: NBC6

Being a political operative for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez comes with city perks.

Glenn Rice — a former city cop who worked on the mayor’s 2011 and 2013 campaigns — collected roughly $12,000 during a three-year period acting as an off-the-books employee monitoring the company Hialeah hired to collect trash from private homes, as well as investigating potential hires and vendors, according to an April 25 Miami-Dade ethics commission close-out memo.

Ethics commission officials began probing Rice’s work for the city between 2013 and 2016 while investigating separate criminal allegations that Hernandez was shaking down local businesses, and that Rice was collecting bribes on the mayor’s behalf. At the time, Rice was also working as a $2,000-a-month consultant for three city vendors, including two garbage-collection firms.

While ethics investigator Karl Ross didn’t find enough evidence to recommend the filing of ethics or criminal charges against Hernandez, his findings suggest the mayor attempted to conceal his involvement in the city retaining Rice’s services. Hernandez did not return a message left with his secretary Thursday afternoon and his defense lawyer, Tom Cobitz, declined comment.

Ross began looking into the relationship between Hernandez and Rice on Aug.13, 2015, according to ethics commission records. The ethics investigator, along with a detective and a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez and Hialeah firefighters union representative Eric Johnson. Both men accused Hernandez of “extorting” two local businessmen and claimed that Rice was the mayor’s bagman.

When Hernandez, who was a high-ranking Hialeah police officer before becoming a councilman, ran for mayor in 2011 and re-election two years later, Rice often engaged his political godfather’s opponents in public confrontations. Among the Hernandez detractors Rice accosted include former Mayor Raul Martinez and blogger ex-Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, who first wrote about the ethics investigation on her blog, Political Cortadito.

Hernandez and Rice have since apparently had a falling out. “Lt. Fernandez stated Rice is no longer on good terms with Mayor Hernandez,” a March 30 ethics investigative report said. “[Fernandez] stated he knows Rice well, and that [Rice] might be willing to cooperate if issued immunity via subpoena.”

In a sworn statement last fall, Hernandez said Rice volunteered to be his campaign’s “ally,” “political informant” and “snitch.” But the mayor — despite being Hialeah’s top bureaucrat — said he did not know how Rice ended up overseeing the rollout of trash-collection services by Progressive Waste Solutions. “I think he volunteered,” Hernandez told investigators on Sept. 26. He then referred them to Armando Vidal, the city’s public works director, for more specifics. “I think he can better answer the question,” Hernandez said.

Mayor denies wrongdoing

The mayor also vehemently denied directing any vendors or local business owners to make payments to him via Rice. “He said he felt Rice ‘took a lot of liberties’ and ‘used the perception of influence’ to make money,” the close-out memo states.

On Feb. 3, Vidal gave a sworn statement contradicting the mayor. “Mr. Vidal advised that several of the jobs originated with Mayor Hernandez and that Rice’s involvement was expressly requested,” the close-out memo states. “He said the mayor wanted Rice to assist the public works department in monitoring issues relating to solid waste, and also to assist the city attorney in vetting a consulting firm.”

Additionally, Vidal said he believed Hernandez was aware that Rice was being paid through a legal services contract the city had with the law firm of Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre, who told ethics investigators he has been friends with the Hialeah mayor since 1983. Rice was subcontracted to handle “relevant investigative duties.”

“[Vidal] said the mayor trusted Rice to provide an independent look at matters relating to City of Hialeah affairs,” the close-out memo said. The public works director also showed ethics investigator Ross invoices totaling $18,056 the city paid Mestre’s law practice. Two-thirds of the money was paid to Rice, according to ethics investigators. Vidal could not be reached for comment because he is on vacation this week.

On April 4, Mestre met with Ross and told him it was either Vidal or Rice who approached him about providing legal services and that the arrangement would include the former Hialeah police officer. (Mestre was also a city cop from 1983 to 1987.) “Mestre said he never considered that his law firm was being used as a way to conceal payments to Rice from public view,” the close- out memo states. “He said, ‘that was never discussed… Mayor Hernandez and I never talked about this until after the fact.’”

Mestre did not return a message left with his secretary or an email requesting comment.

When Ross contacted Rice, the ex-cop said Hernandez “was aware of these payments” through Mestre’s law firm. In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rice did not comment on what is written about him in the close-out memo and other investigative reports. But he said Vidal told the truth.

“Armando Vidal may be considered to be brash and an a-hole by many,” Rice said. “But he is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever come to know and he DOES NOT and will not lie for anyone.”

Lauren’s Kids racks up six-figure donations via auto tag registration renewals

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

In January, Broward County car owners who received their auto tag renewal notices also got a special message from Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sex abuse and founded by freshman State Sen. Lauren Book.

Inside the envelopes, colorful flyers bearing Lauren’s Kids logo wished vehicle registrants a happy birthday while segueing into an ominous stat: “Yet shockingly, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

That bit of data was followed by a sales pitch. “But there is hope — 95 percent of abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Celebrate your birthday by donating to the Lauren’s Kids foundation and honor the kids in your life.”

Of course, the advertisement includes a disclaimer in small italicized words that the Broward County tax collector’s office, which sends out the notices, is not endorsing Lauren’s Kids.

Drivers with February birthdates weren’t the only ones to find the Lauren’s Kids flyer in their motor vehicle registration renewal envelopes. Broward residents who received renewal notices in March and April also got the insert. Those automobile registrants whose notices are mailed this month are going to get the flyer too, says Paul Rowe, operations manager for the Broward tax collector’s office.

In fact, more than 6 million vehicle owners across Florida likely will have received the flyer stuffed in their auto tag renewal notices by year’s end. For the past seven years, Lauren’s Kids has been part of an exclusive club of charitable organizations approved by the Legislature that are allowed to hit up Florida drivers and vehicle owners for donations via auto tag and driver’s license renewal notices. But none of the other 43 nonprofits on the list has come close to Lauren’s Kids’ haul during a four-year period from 2013 through 2016 — $572,850, according to figures provided by the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

The department also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature in 2013. According to its most recent tax records, Lauren’s Kids received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015.

Lauren’s Kids’ success has been made possible by the organization’s aggressive marketing strategy to stuff as many auto tag renewal and driver’s license renewal envelopes with flyers requesting contributions and urging people to buy its specialty tag. The practice raises concerns among ethics watchdogs that government resources are being used to help a private organization raise funds without a public benefit. While the motor vehicle department administers annual auto tag renewals, individual county tax collector offices are responsible for mailing out the notices to vehicle owners.

Conflict of interest?

And now that Book is a state legislator, her nonprofit’s participation in the auto tag renewal raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. “In a perfect world, she would not do it,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches government ethics. “It’s an accountability issue that raises questions in constituents’ minds. It leads people not to trust government.”

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, echoed Rosenson. “It may be technically correct,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

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

In an email response to questions about the inserts, Book dismissed the criticisms. “First of all, none of what we do markets the foundation and you seem to miss the purpose of our messaging,” Book said. “Awareness and education is our focus. Redundancy of message is a part of that.”

She also sees no conflict, Book added. “I have been advised that the work of the foundation may continue as it has for years educating the public and raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “Furthermore, the program is approved by Florida law.”

The Plantation Democrat, whose father Ronald Book is a powerful lobbyist and president of Lauren’s Kids, said she resigned from the board of directors of her nonprofit’s fundraising arm to “add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the foundation.”

“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,” she said.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature approved a bill adding Lauren’s Kids to a list of charitable organizations eligible for donations through auto tag registration applications and renewals, as well as driver’s license applications and renewals. The charities are listed on a form with a box next to each organization that the recipient can check off to receive a voluntary contribution. The legislation also allows Lauren’s Kids and the 43 other authorized nonprofits to include inserts promoting their cause in the renewal notices.

According to a 2010 legislative bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, the legislation authorizing Lauren’s Kids placement on the list was sponsored by then-state Rep. Marcelo Llorente from Miami and current Senate President Joe Negron. In order to qualify, Lauren’s Kids was required to submit an application to the motor vehicles department, along with a $20,000 check to “defray the costs of reviewing the application and developing the check-off.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids had to submit a financial analysis and a marketing strategy outlining the anticipated revenues and planned expenditures to be derived from the voluntary contributions.

DMV passes the buck

However, after nearly four weeks of repeatedly requesting documentation about Lauren’s Kids participation in the program, motor vehicles spokesperson Alexis Bakofsky told Florida Bulldog there was none. “The department does not place Lauren’s Kids educational materials in driver license renewal mailings or have information regarding Lauren’s Kids educational materials being placed in auto tag renewal mailings from tax collector offices,” Bakofsky said. “You may want to contact a Tax Collector office for any additional information.”

Bakofsky did provide Florida Bulldog with a spreadsheet detailing how much money each of the 44 organizations received in fiscal years 2013-2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, Lauren’s Kids received $161,936, $213,517 and $197,397, respectively. Only one other group has been able to raise a six-figure sum. Support Our Troops collected $108,791 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money raised through the renewal notice program is in addition to other funding Lauren’s Kids receives, including $8.5 million in state grants since 2012.

Sen. Book referred specific questions about the program to Lauren’s Kids communications director Claire VanSusteren, who did not respond to a list of 11 questions about the inserts despite four requests for comment via email and voicemail during a two-week period in March.

VanSusteren provided Florida Bulldog only with a copy of Lauren’s Kids 2015 tax return, which states Lauren’s Kids spent $449,785 to “develop an educational piece regarding protecting children against sex abuse that is included with all vehicle registration renewals… the goal is to reach as many individuals with direct messaging as possible.”

The tax return also states “that over 6 million individuals will read the material this year.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids reaches another 50,000 individuals in December of each year through a “targeted program [that] occurs in driver’s license renewal offices” that provides “educational materials on how to better protect our children from predators and pedophiles.”

Broward County’s Rowe told Florida Bulldog that Lauren’s Kids was added administratively in 2011. “We don’t advertise it to participating charities,” Rowe said. “It’s up to the organizations to submit a request for the inserts to be included.” Only two other nonprofit organizations have asked to include inserts in renewal notices besides Lauren’s Kids, he added.

“Outside of those three, no one else has done it,” Rowe said.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney mum about fat fees paid to White House Counsel’s ex-law firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples

From last July to March, the campaign committee for freshman Florida Congressman Francis Rooney paid roughly $117,000 to the former law firm of White House Counsel Donald McGahn II. However, neither Rooney nor McGahn are answering questions about the payments to Jones Day, a global firm based in Cleveland where McGahn was a partner for nearly three years before joining President Donald Trump’s administration in January.

So far, the only information McGahn, a former commissioner for the Federal Election  Commission, has released is that he provided “legal services” exceeding $5,000 to the Rooney for Congress campaign committee, according to his public financial disclosure report. Campaign finance reports filed by Rooney for Congress show nine disbursements to Jones Day between last July and March. Jones Day received five of those payments totaling $72,328 after the Nov. 8 election, including $17,505 on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 19

Efforts by Florida Bulldog to get answers about the type of “legal services” McGahn and Jones Day provided Rooney for Congress were unsuccessful. Over the course of four days, White House media affairs director and former Miami political television host Helen Ferre did not respond to three email requests to interview McGahn. Likewise, Rooney press secretary Chris Berardi did not respond to three emails and three voicemails requesting comment from the Naples-area U.S. representative, a rising star in the Capitol’s GOP power circle. A spokesman for Jones Day declined comment.

McGahn and Rooney may not want to talk, but a government watchdog group and two campaign finance lawyers who spoke to Florida Bulldog believe the costly legal services may be for defending the congressman or his committee in a civil investigation for either ethics or campaign violations.

“You can never really know without them telling you,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But that pattern of spending is consistent with people who are under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.”

He added: “It certainly raised a flag when we started looking at Donald McGahn’s financial disclosure statement.”

The attorneys, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred that the expenditures seem to indicate that a probe by the commission, also known as the FEC, is taking place. “There could be a civil investigation by the FEC inquiring about donations and expenditures within the campaign,” said one lawyer, who has represented clients accused of federal civil and criminal campaign violations. “Once the FEC starts an inquiry, you got to get a lawyer.”

The other lawyer, who primarily represents city, county and state candidates, said it could also be that Rooney is under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. “That would entitle him to the use of his campaign funds to defend against a complaint,” the attorney said. “I can’t see anything else these payments are for but an investigation.”

Riding the Trump train

Rooney, one of the first prominent Florida Republicans to climb aboard the Trump train, has become a leading conservative voice. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Rooney owns a construction company that built the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium and the presidential libraries honoring the two Bush presidents. Before jumping into the race to represent Florida’s 19th Congressional District, Rooney was one of the top Republican rainmakers in the country.

In February, Rooney participated in two panels about national security and political correctness at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. In a press statement at the time, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp hailed Rooney as a “much needed and welcomed” addition to Congress. “He will stand up for you and for conservative policies,” Schlapp said. “We are proud to welcome him to our stage next week.”

While filings for Rooney for Congress don’t show any warning letters from the FEC regarding impermissible donations and expenditures, McGahn seems to be the ideal counselor to hire when campaigns run into trouble with the commission.

A January Jones Day press release touted McGahn’s commission credentials from 2008 to 2013 when Trump selected him as White House Counsel. “He led what has been called a ‘revolution’ in campaign finance,” the statement says. “He rewrote virtually all of the FEC’s procedures for audits, enforcement matters, and advisory opinions, which provide for an unprecedented amount of due process.”

However, press reports paint a much more controversial tenure. Campaign finance reform groups clashed with McGahn over his efforts to deregulate the FEC. He voted to loosen restrictions that prohibited parties from using campaign money for recounts and litigation. In 2013 before he resigned, he unsuccessfully pushed a rule that would have barred FEC lawyers from sharing information with federal prosecutors without commission approval. But McGahn was instrumental in passing a new rule allowing campaigns and party committees to present their cases in open session instead of behind closed doors.

McGahn joined the Trump team early on in the billionaire developer’s astonishing run to win the White House. He served as the campaign’s general counsel and lists several Trump political committees as clients on his financial disclosure form. When Trump appointed him as the commander-in-chief’s top lawyer, 13 attorneys from Jones Day joined McGahn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Trump took office, McGahn has been at the center of some of the biggest controversies to hit the new administration. For instance, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned McGahn’s office in January that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as National Security Adviser, had misled officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

When Flynn was subsequently forced to resign after his compromised position was leaked to national media outlets, questions arose about McGahn’s handling of the information he received. During a February press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended McGahn, saying he “informed the President immediately” and that he concluded Flynn did not violate any laws after conducting “exhaustive and extensive questioning of Flynn.”

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.”

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