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.

FBI asks Miami judge to reconsider, keep secret ‘sensitive details’ about 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 9/11 hijackers

The FBI is pushing back against a federal judge’s findings that certain classified details about the funding of the 9/11 attacks and the 19 al Qaeda suicide hijackers should be made public.

Specifically, the government is asking Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to reconsider her May 16 ruling that would largely open for public inspection a 60-page FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI showed the overview to the 9/11 Review Commission in secret on April 25, 2014.

The FBI released some of the overview’s pages in full earlier this year, but many more were either partially blanked out or withheld completely for privacy or other reasons. The overview and numerous other FBI records are the focus of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog one year ago.

Here’s what an FBI official told the court last week about four blanked-out PowerPoint slides regarding “the transfer of money prior to and funding of the attacks”:

“The release of this information would reveal sensitive details about how much money was being moved around, when it was being moved, how it was being moved, the mode of transfer and locations the FBI had detected movements in. Disclosure of this information would provide a playbook to future subjects on how much money one can move around in certain forms without attracting attention,” FBI record chief David M. Hardy said in his sixth declaration in the case.

Questions about who financed the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of sprawling civil litigation brought against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others by survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day. The plaintiffs and their lawyers contend that the kingdom, its official charities and others were responsible. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Florida Bulldog’s Miami FOIA case seeks records of the 9/11 Review Commission. The Bulldog also sued the FBI in 2012 in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records about its 2001-2002 Sarasota investigation of a Saudi family who moved abruptly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal possessions. The probe was triggered by neighbors’ calls to authorities, but the FBI never disclosed its existence to Congress or the original 9/11 Commission.

Six months after that initial FOIA case was filed, the FBI released a small batch of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and the hijackers. In 2014, the FBI told the 9/11 Review Commission in closed session that the agent who wrote the 2002 report had no basis for doing so, but did not further explain or identify the agent.

Also in 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to produce its records about the matter. The FBI turned over all classified records about 9/11 maintained in its Tampa field office — 80,000 pages. The judge continues to review those documents for possible public release.

Trial date sought

Judge Altonaga’s order last month granted in part and denied in part an FBI motion for summary judgment, notably on the lawfulness of the FBI’s redactions of certain information from several records that it has produced. The FBI, however, has not restored any of those redactions, and attorneys for the Bulldog have asked the judge to set a date for trial this summer.

“At trial, the FBI will be required to offer admissible evidence through witnesses – not through inadmissible hearsay by declaration – to attempt to sustain the redactions,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin in a June 2 “Joint Status Report” to the court. “The Bulldog will have the opportunity, in accordance with due process, to cross-examine any FBI witnesses presented.”

The government asked Judge Altonaga to reconsider her prior ruling the same day. The judge has not yet decided whether an FOIA trial is needed, but if one does happen it would be highly unusual.

Hardy, who heads the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS), went on in his most recent declaration to discuss other redacted pages in the 9/11 Overview. He said they were withheld to protect FBI “techniques and procedures not well-known to the public as well as non-public details about the use of well-known techniques and procedures.” Hardy’s descriptions shed some light on what’s in those records.

One page, withheld in full, “is a photo taken by a security camera.” The FBI does not identify the photo’s subject, the date it was taken or its general location.

“This was withheld because the release of this picture would disclose the location of the security camera at the site where the photo was taken. The disclosure would allow future subjects to know where to find the security camera so as to avoid the area in which the camera points, thereby circumventing detection or the ability for the FBI and law enforcement to try to obtain an image of the subject.”

Two more pages from the overview section about the FBI’s “ongoing investigation,” also completely withheld, contain “information about a conspirator and his actions taken in preparation for the attacks. This is sensitive information, which if revealed, would put at risk the collection techniques used to obtain such information. It also reveals sensitivities that future subjects could exploit in the future while planning and performing an attack.”

‘Under the radar’

Another page the FBI wants to remain hidden “contains specific factors deemed pertinent in the analysis of the actions of the hijackers’ concerning financial transactions before September 11, 2001. Disclosure of this information would reveal what the FBI already knows about the hijacker’s [sic] financial actions and how they were able to stay ‘under the radar.’”

The FBI’s Hardy similarly advocates for secrecy regarding:

  • The kinds of weapons and identification the conspirators carried.
  • Information about the arrival of the pilots, intended pilots and conspirators in the U.S.
  • Information about when the conspirators moved to their respective departure cities and the timing of their plane ticket purchases.
  • “A timeline of telephone records and money transfers between conspirators.”
  • Information about “previous flights the conspirators took before the attacks to include the collection and timing and locations of flights.”

Finally, Hardy said that information about “investigative leads derived from forensic analysis” and “leads and the sources of data the FBI finds useful to or significant in its analysis” should also remain veiled.

“The places the FBI does not look for information can be just as telling as the places it does look for information,” Hardy wrote.

In responding to Hardy’s assertions in court papers filed Monday, attorneys for Florida Bulldog noted that the “referenced techniques apparently are those techniques that the 9/11 hijackers evaded on September 11, 2001. One would hope that different techniques are in place today.”

“If anything, the PowerPoint slides might reveal outdated, failed law enforcement acts or omissions,” wrote attorney Julin. “The 9/11 attacks on the United States are a consequence, at least in part, of the failure of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to detect and halt them.”

The government has until Monday, June 19 to file a reply. The judge will then decide whether the case will go to trial.

Red light ticket? Enforcement depends on where you got it and how you try to resolve it

By Susannah Nesmith, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin played a series of dramatic videos of crashes caught on tape by red-light cameras. The people in the audience gasped each time someone t-boned a car, flipped over a railing, struck a motorcyclist or nearly plowed through a line of kids crossing the street.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise,” Benjamin told the audience after playing the videos. And then he surprised everyone. “Be safe out there. Case dismissed. Thank you.”

Three times that recent afternoon, groups of 20 or more filed into the courtroom, only to learn one of the quirks in the uneven enforcement of the state’s red-light camera tickets. Hundreds of tickets issued by Florida City for running red lights have been dismissed in recent months after drivers failed to pay them. That’s because the small town at the southern reaches of the county simply wasn’t sending an officer the 50 miles to court in Miami.

The way the state’s red-light camera statute is enforced varies depending on which city or county someone is ticketed in, and how the ticketed person tries to resolve the ticket. Different cities have different definitions of what constitutes a violation, and the hearing officers hired by cities are, at least in one case, interpreting the statute differently from the traffic magistrates hired by the court system.

Broward cities aren’t currently using red-light cameras pending the outcome of high-profile litigation.

While the differing enforcement may turn out to be a key issue for the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed in mid-May to take a case challenging the cameras, two things remain constant across the state. Like modern-day small town speed traps, the cameras raise significant revenues for cities and the state, and the tickets cause thousands of car owners statewide to have their licenses suspended every year. Approximately 40 percent of those suspensions happen to Miami-Dade drivers, according to records compiled by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

On a recent afternoon in traffic court, Magistrate Alex Labora suspended the licenses of 12 drivers who didn’t pay $158 when they initially received a notice of violation from the city of Miami, didn’t request an administrative hearing at Miami City Hall and then didn’t show up in court once the violation was converted into what’s called a Uniform Traffic Citation. The magistrates routinely do the same thing day after day for citations issued by Miami Gardens, Homestead and a dozen other cities in Miami-Dade that issue the tickets.

Many people say they learn of the tickets only when they discover that their licenses have been suspended.

A security guard’s story

Thaddeus Hughes, a 26-year-old security guard from Florida City, said he had unwittingly driven around for several months with a suspended license before he bought a new car and tried to register it. His original $158 ticket ballooned to $410 with fees, by that point.

But because his ticket was issued by Florida City, it was tossed that day in court.

“I would have paid the $158 if I had known about it,” he said. He paid $60 to get his license reinstated.

Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin

Magistrate Benjamin says he often sees people in his courtroom who say they didn’t know they had been ticketed until they learned their license was suspended. Benjamin said he became concerned that cities were not sending out the notices properly.

“I started really inquiring of people and there was always a reason why they didn’t get the notice,” he said.

What he found was that many drivers hadn’t changed the address on their car registration when they moved, even if they changed the address on their driver’s license. The violation notice goes to the address where the car is registered, whereas the suspension notice goes to the address on file for the owner’s driver’s license.

“Red-light cameras are the number one problem for my clients,” said Jackie Woodward, a ticket attorney in Miami. “I got one myself. I ran my name in the system, that’s how I found out. And I’m a ticket attorney.”

Statewide, 1.2 million people were issued red-light camera violation notices last year, according to a report by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. By the end of the year, 383,000 of them were listed as unpaid. If the violation notices go unpaid, they become traffic citations, which don’t carry any points but do show up on a driver’s record. In Miami-Dade, 200,000 violation notices went unpaid last year and were converted to citations, according to court records.

‘Cutting into my rent money’

Prince Fields, a 33-year-old unemployed driver, tried to resolve his violation before it turned into a citation. He requested a hearing in Miami Gardens to plead poverty because he was having trouble finding the money to pay the $158. Dawn Grace-Jones, an attorney hired by the city as a special master to conduct the hearings at city hall, said that poverty wasn’t a defense for running a red light and levied an additional $150 as an administrative fine for a total of $308.

Traffic Magistrate Dawn Grace-Jones

“I can’t afford this,” he said after the hearing. “It’s cutting into my rent money. They’re just raping the residents of this city.”

What he didn’t know was that the total fine he would have paid had he simply ignored the ticket until it became a traffic citation was only $277, and a traffic magistrate at the courthouse could have given him 90 days to pay, instead of the 30 days Miami Gardens gives. The county clerk’s office also offers an extended payment plan, something Miami Gardens doesn’t.

Plus, the magistrates in county traffic court often try to work with people who say they’re going to have trouble paying the fine.

“All day, I’m trying not to suspend licenses here,” said Magistrate Tom Cobitz. “Because I have to drive on these streets too.”

He noted that drivers with suspended licenses can have insurance problems. While insurance companies don’t generally cancel coverage, they can refuse to cover an accident involving someone driving on a suspended license.

Fields also didn’t know that Miami Gardens is considered one of the strictest cities in the county for red- light camera enforcement. It’s the only city that still issues violations for making a right turn on red at camera intersections, according to traffic magistrates and court personnel. A traffic magistrate might have treated his ticket very differently than the special master hired by Miami Gardens.

“I tell Miami Gardens all the time, ‘y’all are lucky I’m on the bench because if I weren’t, I would represent a ton of people against you,” said Magistrate Benjamin, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law and a resident of Miami Gardens. “I remember one time, we were dismissing so many of their right hand turn tickets their assistant city attorney came in to see what was going on.”

Miami Gardens still right turn trap?

The camera statute says a ticket “may not” be issued if the driver made a right turn on red that was “careful and prudent.” When the Legislature added that language to the statute in 2013, most cities stopped issuing red light camera tickets for right turns. The city of Aventura responded to the law change by putting up no right turn on red signs at the intersections that have red-light cameras, making the turns illegal and the tickets enforceable.

Miami Gardens City Hall

Miami Gardens took a different view of the statute, which also says drivers must come to a full stop.

“The city’s argument is you did not come to a complete stop,” Grace-Jones repeatedly told drivers during the hearing in Miami Gardens City Hall. “The statute must all be read together.”

City officials in Miami Gardens stood by that interpretation of the law, even after being told that the magistrates in county traffic court don’t agree and no other city in the county is using that interpretation.

“The City of Miami Gardens follows the state statute as it relates to right turns on red,” city spokeswoman Petula Burks said in an email. “Motorists must come to a complete stop before making the right turn on red.”

In fact, Miami Gardens has a stricter interpretation of the statute when it comes to other scenarios. On the day when Fields attended the hearing at city hall, another man came in with proof that his tag was not on the vehicle he owned, a trailer, when it went through the light. The video clearly showed the tag on a car. Grace-Jones ruled that was not a valid defense and levied a fine. In traffic court in front of Magistrate Alex Labora, Miami police moved to dismiss an almost identical case the week before.

Grace-Jones also upheld a ticket when a woman came to City Hall with her very young infant and said she received the ticket because she had gone into labor at McDonalds and was rushing to the hospital. Magistrate Benjamin said he probably would have tossed a ticket like that.

The Gardens’ strict enforcement is costly for drivers – and it’s profitable for the city.

Miami Gardens raised $3.2 million in revenue from the cameras last year, Burks said. The city’s budget for this year noted that revenues had improved over the previous year because of the hearings conducted by the special master.

‘Safety not profit’

Burks said the city’s red light cameras are strictly enforced out of a concern for safety, not profit.

“One of the main purposes for the use of cameras is safety,” she said in an emailed statement. “There is a general belief that if motorists are aware of the cameras that they will change their driving behavior, i.e. stopping at red lights, yielding for pedestrians, etc.”

One of the issues the Florida Supreme Court will hear about when it tests the legality of the cameras is whether the law is being enforced in a uniform manner.

Attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal

Miami attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal, who will argue before the Supreme Court that the tickets are not legal, said the whole point of having a uniform traffic code is to make sure the rules of the road don’t change from one intersection to the next.

“The Legislature enacted this law to get rid of the different rules across the state,” he said, referring to the red-light camera law. “If the cities are going to do it and charge people very significant fines, they darn well better do it according to the law.”

The private companies that operate the cameras have the cities fill out business rules questionnaires, which include options for what type of behavior they want the contractor to flag in videos: Should drivers who stopped after they crossed the white line but before they entered the intersection be flagged for review by an officer, for example? The questionnaires also ask how the cities want to handle right turns. Each tweak can change what cities are actually enforcing, and how much money they’re making.

For the moment, Broward cities aren’t using the cameras because an appellate court ruled the tickets aren’t legal because the cities outsource the initial review of the tapes to a private company instead of having certified law enforcement separate the potential violations from videos of lawful driving. The appellate court that covers Miami-Dade, on the other hand, ruled that the contractor, who gets a cut of the ticket revenues, is only performing an administrative function and the tickets are legal because a certified law enforcement agency reviews the tapes to determine if an actual ticket should be issued. A Supreme Court decision might resolve the conflict between the two jurisdictions.

The city of Miami’s red-light camera program made the most of any city in the state last year, bringing in $5.1 million, city records show. Over the past two years, the city has issued more than 350,000 tickets. Miami also sent another $9.6 million to the state from the camera revenues, according to records from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Overall, the state collected $60 million last year from the camera tickets.

Even Florida City made significant money on the cameras last year, $850,000, according to Finance Director Mark Ben-Asher. That’s because, even though traffic magistrates were tossing the city’s tickets if they made it all the way to traffic court, many people paid them as soon as they got the notice of violation, or after going to an administrative hearing at city hall.

Meanwhile, Florida City police say drivers should not expect their tickets to be thrown out in the future because an officer doesn’t show up in court. Corporal Ken Armenteros said officers stopped attending the hearings more than a year ago to wait for a ruling from the Third District Court of Appeals on whether the tickets were legal. That ruling came down in July 2016. After that, the city had a problem with the way subpoenas were being issued to officers.

“We got them to fix that. We will resume regular operations next week,” he said in late May.

On May 31, an officer from Florida City did not show up in court for the morning hearings and all the cases were dismissed. An officer was on hand for the afternoon hearings, but he requested all the cases be dismissed.

 

 

‘Invisible’ crime: Immigrant scams are big business in South Florida, but few crooks caught

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

Latin American agricultural workers in South Florida are among the victims of scammers who promise to obtain visa for them, charge large fees and fail to deliver. Photo: WeCount!

Infamous as the setting for many cases of high-profile financial fraud and chicanery, South Florida is also home to a relatively unknown scam that targets the region’s large immigrant population, bilking many of them for thousands of dollars for “expert” immigration services that are never delivered, a Florida Bulldog investigation has found.

The victims are mostly legal and undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Haiti, typically people with limited skills and little or no knowledge of English. Some immigrants from other parts of the world arriving in South Florida are also lured into these schemes. Moreover, even for highly educated immigrants, U.S. immigration laws and regulations are extremely complex and difficult to navigate.

The perpetrators, often people from the home country of their targets, are almost never arrested and punished since victims – especially those without legal documents – are worried about deportation and do not call the police.

“Immigration services scams are a serious national problem,” said Ana E. Santiago, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) in Miami. “They exploit the vulnerability of immigrants, refugees, foreign students and others, including U.S. citizens.” USCIS oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. and processes requests from immigrants once they are here.

This virtually invisible crime affects thousands of people in South Florida each year, according to those working with immigrants. But there are no hard figures available either from government agencies or from non-profit groups working with immigrants.

“These scams are not new, but it’s very hard to get your arms around them,” said Ed Griffith, public information officer for the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. There are a lot of instances where immigrants are scammed, “but if they’re here illegally, they’ll never go to the police to file a complaint,” said Griffith, who has worked at the State Attorney’s office in Miami-Dade since 1982.

The general estimate from those who work in legal services assisting immigrants is that the total loss from these specific immigrant scams is several million dollars a year.

How the schemes work

Victims may pay a few hundred dollars to individuals claiming expertise in complex immigration law and regulations for filling out paper or digital forms that must be filed with USCIS. The applications and petitions are later rejected for addressing the wrong issues or providing inaccurate information.

Some immigrants pay many thousands of dollars for more complex help in changing the client’s own status or that of family members.

The Pew Institute, using 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated that there are more than 450,000 undocumented immigrants alone in the areas encompassing Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the most vulnerable target group for immigration fraud.

Jose Luis (not his real name), a Mexican immigrant living in Pompano Beach without a visa, became a victim of one of these scams. He came to South Florida early last year with a tourist visa and decided to stay here and work after his visa expired.

“I knew this was risky, especially after Trump became president,” said Jose Luis, speaking to the Florida Bulldog in Spanish. “Some friends told me that lots of people have done the same thing, and one gave me the name of a Mexican-American legal expert who could help me.”

Jose Luis, who speaks very little English, met with the “expert,” who promised he would arrange for a work visa. The desperate immigrant paid him $2,000 three months ago, and has heard nothing. The man did not return phone calls and has disappeared.

“I’m now an ‘indocumentado’ [undocumented alien],” Jose Luis said. “I still have a job, but the pay is not great and if the police raid the place, I’ll be in real trouble.”

Liz-Marie Alvarado, a community organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Miami, told Florida Bulldog about another case:

A woman from El Salvador living in South Florida under a temporary visa that expired wanted to renew her visa and bring her children here to escape the gang violence and deteriorating economic conditions in her home country. She went to a Spanish-speaking notary public who said he would get her visa renewed and arrange for her children to come here. She paid him $8,000, but what he did instead was to create a false story that the woman had been the victim of a gang rape in El Salvador, and used this to apply for asylum. The notary assured her he had used the false sexual assault story in other cases, and that it would work better than the woman’s real story.

The woman did not understand English well, signed the false asylum application and went by herself to a U.S. immigration center. After speaking with her, the immigration officials realized it was a false statement, denied her application and ordered her deportation. An applicant who gives the government false statements in an asylum application can never request asylum again in the U.S.

As far as anyone knows, the perpetrator is still in business. “I tell immigrants, if you go to a lawyer or other immigration expert and they make you a lot of promises and just want to talk about money, come see me first,” Alvarado said.

Widespread crime, sparse punishment

“The situation for many immigrants has become desperate, especially under the current administration,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a Miami immigration attorney who has worked for decades to defend individuals in immigration matters.

Juan Carlos Gomez

Gomez, a Florida International University law professor and director of FIU’s Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, said immigrants often turn to anyone they think can help them, sometimes to people practicing law without licenses who make extravagant promises. They end up paying for services they never receive, while the scammers often go undetected and carry on lucrative businesses for years, Gomez said.

Immigrants have become alarmed since President Trump took office because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has expanded detentions for visa overstays. “The government says nothing has changed under the Trump administration, but that’s BS,” Gomez said.

ICE did not respond to questions e-mailed by the Florida Bulldog.

Nabbing scammers

Scam artists are hard to catch. Victims are usually afraid to denounce them, and immigrants here illegally know they can be turned over to local police or ICE if they go public. Here are few cases that have been uncovered:

  • Two people running an accounting and translation office out of their home in Lakeland, Domenico Cingari and Rose Cingari, were charged with conspiracy, making false statements on immigration applications and mail fraud. They assisted undocumented aliens in obtaining Florida driver’s licenses by filing fraudulent applications for asylum, petitions for alien relatives and work authorization forms. The two charged clients between $500 and $1,300 for fraudulent immigration applications and collected over $740,000 while their scam lasted, according to the USCIS. The pair were found guilty last year and sentenced to federal prison.
  • Four people were charged with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud in a Miami federal court for running a school to train immigrants – mostly Mexicans – to be Cubans. Under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban immigrants who arrive here without a visa can apply for permanent residence (green card) after living here for at least one year, a much faster and easier process than immigrants from other countries face. Nelson Daniel Silvestri Soutto, Laura Maria Ponce Santos, Amelia Osorio and Fidel Morejon Vega reportedly made over $500,000 selling false Cuban birth certificates to undocumented immigrants, helping them fill out fraudulent immigration forms and teaching them how to pretend to be Cuban immigrants. “Clients” were told that they should tell immigration officials that they arrived here on a raft, avoid speaking to them whenever possible and to say that they picked up their Mexican accents (which are very different from Cuban accents) while working with Mexicans here. One of the group also posed as an immigration officer and threatened some immigrants with deportation.
  • Marriage fraud is a constant source of income for scammers. In 2015, federal authorities in Miami charged 27 people as part of a scheme to arrange marriages between residents of Miami-Dade County and immigrants from Latin America, the Ukraine and Israel, according to Law360. Last year, a Cuban-American woman was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida with allegedly marrying 10 foreign nationals between 2000 and 2012.

Many scams, many victims

The cases mentioned above represent only part of the immigration scam spectrum. The USCIS field office in Miami also sees different fraudulent schemes, according to Santiago. Some of the most common are:

  • Notaries – Immigrants often turn to notaries who improperly offer to solve their problems, but notaries in the U.S. are not authorized to provide any legal services to immigrants. They are individuals authorized by state governments specifically to witness the signing of documents and administer oaths. In Latin America, however, they perform some legal work.
  • Phone scams – People posing as officials from the USCIS or other government agencies call immigrants and ask for personal data, tell them there is “false” information on an individual’s immigration records and offer to correct the problem for a payment.
  • Business scams – Some individuals or community businesses guarantee that they can obtain benefits like an employment authorization or green card when they cannot. They sometimes file inaccurate forms with the USCIS, charging higher fees than the government agency’s normal fees and falsely promise to speed up processing times for a price.
  • Diversity lottery – Every year the State Department makes 50,000 diversity visas available to randomly selected applicants based on special criteria and related to countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Scammers send out emails and set up websites saying that, for a fee, they can make it easier for an immigrant to enter the lottery.
  • Phony websites – Some websites offer step-by-step information on filling out a USCIS application or petition, sometimes providing links to the government website. USCIS has only one official website: uscis.gov.

“USCIS combats scams and the unauthorized practice of immigration law, in part, by educating and warning applicants about immigration scams and ensuring that applicants know how to find legal advice and assistance in completing and submitting forms,” Santiago said. “The wrong help can hurt.” USCIS works closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to support investigation and prosecution efforts for fraudulent activities, she added.

A senior official at the USCIS office in Miami, who asked not to be identified, told Florida Bulldog in a telephone interview that scammers charge their victims between a few hundred dollars to fill out immigration forms and as much as $15,000 or more for other false services, like telling a legal visa holder that he or she can become a naturalized citizen.

“These scams cost immigrants a lot of hard-earned money,” the official said. “They are damaging to immigrants and to our national security.”

USCIS reaches out to local communities, libraries and offices like the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate immigrants about proper procedures and how to contact non-profit organizations that can help them solve immigration problems, he said.

Any immigrant who wants to deal with complex U.S. immigration laws and regulations without expert assistance or prior counseling is at a serious disadvantage. The rules governing most visa changes, renewals and the like require lengthy written or digital applications, substantial fees and strict adherence to complicated procedures and timelines. Fortunately, South Florida is home to many honest immigration lawyers, advisors and for-profit firms who help immigrants, as well as a host of non-profit and advocacy groups, pro-bono immigration attorneys and others who work to assist immigrants.

The USCIS offers assistance in multiple languages at its regional offices. It has five in South Florida.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and USCIS are part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is the agency that enforces border control, trade and immigration laws and is almost universally feared by legal and undocumented immigrants.

Who are the scammers?

There appear to be legions of scammers and exploiters who prey on the fears of immigrants: They include people pretending to be attorneys, individuals who paint themselves as “experts” in immigration law, irresponsible notaries public (who in Latin America have a more substantial legal role than in the U.S. and are sometimes confused with attorneys by immigrants), unscrupulous lawyers and even “friends” or acquaintances from an immigrant community looking to make a fast buck.

January, 2016
Randolph P. McGrorty is the executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Photo : Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic

The “experts” sometimes appear in an office space or work informally out of their homes. They buy advertising in community newspapers in Spanish or Creole and post ads on local buildings. In some cases, they have helped local people deal with simple immigration forms or applications and receive word-of-mouth referrals.

Badly handled immigration assistance is a serious, ongoing problem in South Florida, said Randolph P. McGrorty, an experienced immigration attorney and executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, an organization that works with about 3,000 immigrants every month. The bad advice may come from people innocently trying to help friends and family or from Latin Americans promoting schemes that prey on their own people.

“Sometimes, unqualified people do the immigration work with good intentions and really screw it up,” said McGrorty, whose organization has a staff of 45, including 22 attorneys. “We see the results after the damage is done.”

As for scams, “the most benign type involves improperly filling out forms or filing the wrong documents,” he said. The individual loses some money, but these problems often can be resolved.

“The real, critical problem involves scammers who fill out asylum claims. The applicant doesn’t speak English and just signs the document.”

People have a real story to tell, but scammers often make up information and immigrant officials don’t believe the story. “Any asylum application deemed to be ‘frivolous’ (containing false information) means that the immigrant is barred forever from access to the asylum program,” McGrorty said. “Some errors are correctable, but some can end up getting you deported. The consequences are dire.”

Victims fearful of police

The individuals returned to their native country must face the same problems – violent crime, discrimination, political oppression, etc. – that caused them to emigrate. “We are well aware of notary fraud that targets immigrant communities lacking the resources to seek legal help,” said Paola Calvo Florido, a representative of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “Especially at this time, when fear [among immigrants] is so high, we urge community members to take extra precautions so that they don’t become victims of fraud.” FLIC, as well as other similar groups, has an immigrant hotline and provides lists of attorneys offering free or low-cost legal services.

So why don’t these types of scams receive more attention in the media? Why do very few people go to jail for stealing many thousands of dollars and repeating the fraud again and again in South Florida neighborhoods?

Fear. Most victims, after waiting for weeks or months are typically too frightened or ashamed to tell any legal authorities about the problem. They complain to the “expert,” who invents a convenient excuse: “The gringos turned you down,” or “The rules have changed,” or today they can blame anything on Trump. Irate clients are warned that the “expert” has contacts in the police and that they will be deported if they raise a fuss.

In some cases, the victims find a pro-immigrant organization or pro-bono lawyer and tell their stories. In others, they remain quiet and try to survive as undocumented workers. In still others, they are bilked for more money or are eventually deported.

Japan’s Teijin buys biggest asset in Scott’s blind trust; Governor pockets $200 million

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott appears to have pocketed $200 million in January when the biggest asset in his blind trust – Continental Structural Plastics – was sold to a subsidiary of the giant Japanese conglomerate Teijin Ltd.

The proceeds would nearly triple Scott’s reported net worth of $119 million in 2015, the most recent year for which Florida’s wealthiest governor has filed a financial disclosure form.

Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), a manufacturer of lightweight composite materials used in cars, trucks and air-conditioning systems, was sold for $825 million in a deal that closed Jan. 3.

Gov. Scott’s exact windfall is not clear, and the governor and his representatives aren’t talking. The $200-million-plus estimate of Scott’s personal haul is based on numbers compiled from a variety of public records. The exact figure is difficult to discern, and could be less, because Scott’s assets are hidden in the blind trust and details are not made public.

First Lady Ann Scott had her own significant private investment in 3,300-employee CSP that was held outside the blind trust.

The governor’s apparent bonanza arose from his relatively modest investment in Michigan-based CSP 12 years ago via his then-private equity firm, Richard L. Scott Investments (RLSI). The purchase price in the leveraged buyout of CSP, as well as the governor’s initial investment, is not known. But public disclosure documents Scott filed later valued his personal ownership stake in RLSI-CSP Capital Partners LLC at $19.4 million at the end of 2009.

By April 2011, when Scott opened his first blind trust three months after his inauguration, Scott’s reported stake had dropped to $14,212,869.

But CSP shares exploded in value during Scott’s time in the governor’s mansion. At the end of 2013, the last year for which such information about Scott’s blind trust is available, Scott declared his RLSI-CSP stake to be worth $43.9 million. RLSI-CSP is the single-purpose limited liability company that Gov. Scott formed to facilitate his CSP investment.

Seeking ‘direct investment’ from Japanese

That same year, Gov. Scott led a high-profile mission to Japan to recruit more Japanese “direct investment” for Florida. Teijin, which boasts $8.6 billion in assets and twin headquarters in Tokyo and Osaka, struck its deal to buy CSP amid Scott’s continuing focus on that goal.

In papers filed with the Tokyo Stock Exchange when it bought CSP, Teijin identified RLSI-CSP as owning 66.7 percent of CSP, meaning that the 13 investor-partners in RLSI-CSP – as stated in Securities and Exchange Commission filings – were due about $550 million.

Jun Suzuki, left, president and CEO of Teijin Limited and Frank Macher, chairman and CEO of Continental Structural Plastics

A comparison of financial data filed in 2014 by Gov. Scott and, separately, by Scott Capital, valuing RLSI-CSP at $120 million, reveals that Rick Scott owned about 36.5 percent of RLSI-CSP. If he owned the same percentage when the company was sold, as it appears he did, it was worth about $200.75 million.

Scott’s aggressive push to convince Japanese businesses to invest and create new jobs in Florida began in earnest on Jan. 1, 2013. That’s the day Enterprise Florida, the state-supported business organization Scott chairs, opened its first economic development office in Tokyo. A phone message for director K. Sam Tabuchi was not returned.

That November Scott led a delegation of 20 Florida business leaders to Japan on an economic development mission. The group stopped in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. The governor later reported in a financial disclosure form that the value of his CSP shares had by then rebounded to $43.9 million.

Florida officials released few details about whom the governor met with during his Asian travels. Official statements say only that Scott met “with more than a dozen leading Japanese companies and spoke to more than 350 business leaders.”

But the governor’s six-day mission produced little benefit for Florida. Scott’s office and Enterprise Florida announced no new jobs or investments by high tech or other industries.

At a press conference, Scott highlighted a meeting with Aderans, a Japanese “hair-related business” that in 2012 purchased the Hair Club of Boca Raton for $163 million. The governor praised Aderans, saying it was next looking to invest “in in-house salons of cancer centers where patients undergoing chemotherapy will be able to receive custom styled wigs.”

No jobs for Floridians

While Teijin bought Gov. Scott’s company, it created no jobs for Floridians. Instead, Teijin announced in November 2016 that it would build a “state-of-the-art” carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Greenwood, S.C. State officials boasted the project would bring $600 million in new capital investment and 220 jobs. The plant, on 440 acres, is slated to begin production by early 2019.

Teijin said six states competed and South Carolina was chosen because of its “pro-business atmosphere and proactive support from Governor (Nikki) Haley and her team. Enterprise Florida communications director Nathan Edwards said Florida was not one of the six states that competed to land the project. The governor’s office declined to comment.

The Partnership Alliance for Greenwood South Carolina touts landing Teijin’s manufacturing plant.

A highlight of Scott’s 2013 Japan trip was a Tokyo luncheon hosted by the politically influential Japanese Business Federation (Keidanren), The group’s active members include top executives of Teijin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, another reported bidder for CSP.

At the time, Gov. Scott showed a keen interest in Mitsubishi. He toured a Mitsubishi manufacturing plant in Nagoya followed by a luncheon with Mitsubishi executives. Four months earlier, Scott visited the New York headquarters of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America “to promote further job creating partnerships in Florida.”

Scott’s interest in Japan has continued. He’s twice dispatched Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to follow-up economic development missions arranged by the Japan-U.S. Southeast and Southeast U.S./Japan associations in Tokyo and Birmingham, AL. And in May 2015, the governor traveled to Broward to announce that Tokyo-based SATO Holdings had opened a subsidiary, SATO Global Solutions, in Fort Lauderdale and would create 35 jobs.

“Japan has been a great partner in our work to continue Florida’s economic growth and we are excited to welcome another Japanese business to the Sunshine State,” Scott said, according to a press release about SATO.

A representative of Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems serves today on the board of Enterprise Florida.

In March 2016, CSP and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. agreed to work together to research and develop innovative, lightweight carbon fiber structural components for the U.S. auto industry.

Did Gov. Scott discuss CSP with Mitsubishi? Did he meet with officials of Teijin, a major supplier of high performance composites, to discuss Teijin’s interest, expressed publicly in December 2012, to expand in the U.S. to meet growing demand?

Gov. Scott’s office says no.

Recycled statement

Scott, however declined to be interviewed. And his office would not discuss Scott’s CSP investment, his profit or his plans for re-investing. Instead, a statement that’s been released several times before was recycled:

“When Governor Scott took office in 2011, he put all of his assets in a blind trust so they would be under the control of an independent financial professional.  As such, the Governor has no knowledge of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”

Alan Bazaar, chief executive officer of the investment firm that’s the trustee of Gov. Scott’s blind trust

An independent professional, however, does not run Scott’s blind trust. Rather Hollow Brook Wealth Management, whose chief executive officer is longtime Scott crony Alan Bazaar, runs it.

Florida’s qualified blind trust law was enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott in 2013. Its purpose was to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” office holders to the nature of assets placed in a blind trust. Thus, public officials who place their assets in a blind trust can avoid disclosing them publicly.

But Florida’s blind trust statute has been ineffective in keeping tens of millions of dollars worth of Scott’s investments hidden from either Scott or the public. Florida Bulldog has for several years used SEC records to report about Scott’s large investments – those held in his blind trust and others beneficially owned by Scott but held in his wife’s name.

Teijin announced its purchase of CSP in a filing with the Tokyo Stock Exchange in September. Teijin said that by acquiring CSP, which had $634 million in sales in 2015, it “will benefit from CSP’s established sales channels in the North American automotive market.”

The filing identified CSP’s “major shareholder” as RLSI-Capital Partners, saying it owned 66.7 percent of CSP. Further, the filing identified the manager of that private equity fund as Gregory D. Scott, who runs the Connecticut-based private investment firm G. Scott Capital Partners, also known as Scott Capital.

Scott Capital’s SEC filings say there were 13 beneficial owners of RLSI-Capital Partners. They include Rick and Ann Scott. Greg Scott, who served on the board of directors of CSP, owned a maximum of one percent. Other partners are believed to be the governor’s family and a handful of his close associates.

Scott and Scott Capital

Scott Capital is closely tied to both Rick and Ann Scott. Greg Scott has said he is not related to Rick Scott, but he led RLSI’s private equity group from 2000 to 2012 when the governor, then a venture capitalist, created RLSI-CSP for the purpose of acquiring Michigan-based CSP.

SEC records show that First Lady Ann Scott is invested heavily in Scott Capital. She controls Tally 1, a limited liability company incorporated in Delaware that owns as much as 50 percent of Scott Capital.

Further, Scott Capital has an interlocking relationship with Alan Bazaar, who runs the governor’s blind trust. Bazaar is another former employee of Gov. Scott who is today chief executive officer at New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management. Hollow Brook’s SEC filings state that Bazaar “is an advisory board member of G. Scott Capital Partners.”

Attorneys for Gov. Scott have said Florida’s blind trust law is modeled on the federal blind trust statute and that “an independent trustee” controls Scott’s assets “to avoid the appearance of any conflicts of interest.” Florida Bulldog, however, has reported that the Florida law omits numerous safeguards found in federal law, including one that appears to disqualify Bazaar and his firm from serving as trustee for the blind trust.

Florida law says public officers who place assets in a blind trust “may not attempt to influence or exercise any control over decisions regarding the management of assets in a qualified blind trust” or “make any effort to obtain information with respect to the holdings of the trust.” Trustees face similar restrictions in their management of the trust. For example, Bazaar is generally prohibited from communicating with Scott about his holdings, but trustees are permitted to notify public officers when holdings like CSP are sold.

Under Florida law, blind trusts “may not contain investments or assets the transfer of which by the trustee is improbable or impractical without the public officer’s knowledge.”

The $825-million CSP deal was huge, significantly larger than the other sales of stock by the blind trust, including some that SEC documents show the governor was directly involved in despite statutory prohibitions.

Decision making

The intriguing scenario raises a question: Did Alan Bazaar and Greg Scott make the decision to sell Scott’s interest in CSP, the largest holding in the governor’s blind trust, without discussing it with Gov. Scott?

Bazaar declined to comment. Greg Scott did not respond to detailed phone and email messages. The governor’s office likewise did not respond to emailed questions.

Nine years ago, however, Rick Scott indicated he wanted to grow CSP over the long haul as part of an announcement that Continental Structural Plastics was not for sale despite overtures at the time.

“Our goal with CSP over the next 20 years is to continue to complete strategic acquisitions where our customers and suppliers believe our management expertise will be beneficial,” Scott said.

Gov. Scott has scored political points with voters over the years by refusing to accept the governor’s annual state salary that in 2016 was $130,273. Nevertheless, he’s had other large paydays while in office.

For example, Florida Bulldog reported in March 2014 that since Dec. 20, 2012 Scott and the First Lady made in excess of $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan Inc., a company whose subsidiary, Gemma Power Systems, does business in Florida. SEC records showed the blind trust sold many of those shares. Many other shares were sold by entities in which the governor has acknowledged a beneficial interest, such as his wife’s F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust.

Florida law does not require public officers to disclose assets held in the name of a spouse or certain other relatives.

U.S. judge tosses lawsuit to block All Aboard Florida; Money for Phase 2 still in question

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org 

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline Express train

All Aboard Florida’s plan to operate regular passenger train service between Miami and Orlando survived a lawsuit filed by Indian River and Martin counties when a federal judge on May 10 dismissed the suit. But funding problems remain.

The counties, which opposed the train, sued the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2015, stating the agency ignored the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act when it agreed to issue $1.75 billion in non-taxable private activity bonds (PAB) for All Aboard Florida (AAF), which would mean up to $600 million in lost tax revenue over 10 years, according to court documents.

Phase 1 of the ambitious project, creating a passenger route and terminals at three stops along the Florida East Coast railroad line between Miami and West Palm Beach, is well under way. It is Phase 2 that is now precarious.

AAF, whose parent company – Florida East Coast Industries – is owned by the hedge fund Fortress Investment Group, approached the state nearly three years ago with a plan to build and operate a privately owned railroad that would allow passengers to travel from Miami to Cocoa and from there to Orlando. AAF claims that trains would shave at least an hour off the drive time by car.

Railroad depots are nearly complete in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach; a second set of tracks is being installed, and new engines and passenger cars have been shipped. AAF estimates that both phases now will cost more than $2.9 billion, excluding the cost of easements and land purchases it has already made.

But a lawsuit by Martin and Indian River counties, which challenged DOT’s bonding authority in federal court in Washington, D.C. in April 2015, gained traction last fall as their attorneys fended off DOT’s motion to dismiss the case while uncovering evidence that AAF has little or no money in hand to begin Phase 2 construction.

AAF withdrew its application for the bonds on Sept. 30, 2016 and requested another $600-million bond issue to complete Phase 1, possibly resolving the matter.

Attorneys for the counties argued that AAF will not limit the $600-million bond funding to Phase 1. As evidence, they stated in their earlier motion that AAF said the money would be used to pay for five train sets, which will service the entire route rather than just Phase 1.

Judge Cooper rules

After several hearing delays, Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia now says because the train company pulled its request for the bonds, the issue is moot.

AAF continues work on Phase 1 that runs the trains from Miami to West Palm Beach and is expected to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in late summer. The extension to Miami will open after that, company officials said.

While Cooper previously agreed that the environmental study was necessary for AAF’s second phase from Cocoa to Orlando if PABs were used for funding, he stated in his judgment that requiring the study is a case-by-case matter.

“Whether a particular PAB allocation constitutes ‘major federal action’ requiring compliance with [the National Environmental Policy Act] depends on a host of factors relating to the amount and nature of the federal assistance provided and the degree of control that federal agencies exercise over the project,” the judge stated in his order.

Both sides have hailed the order a victory.

“The ruling includes a severe warning to U.S. DOT should it issue another PAB request for the AAF project without first complying with the nation’s environmental laws: ‘if DOT were to do so, Plaintiffs could readily call it to the carpet by renewing their lawsuits in this Court,’ ” stated Brent Hanlon of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, which also opposes the trains, in a written statement.

In the meantime, AAF’s Brightline took delivery of two new trains that will provide service in South Florida later this year. Named BrightGreen and BrightOrange after the signature color schemes of the train cars, the sets were delivered simultaneously from Siemens Rolling Stock manufacturing hub in Sacramento, CA, according to a company statement.

They joined BrightBlue and BrightPink Saturday, May 13. Brightline trains are approximately 1,000 feet long. They are Buy America compliant, manufactured with components from more than 40 U.S. suppliers in 20 states. The trains are being held at Brightline’s 12-acre railroad operations facility in West Palm Beach.

“All Aboard Florida believes Judge Cooper properly dismissed the case, and we appreciate his thoughtful review and articulation of the facts and the law,” AAF officials said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working with the Treasure Coast in a cooperative and more productive fashion as we advance this important infrastructure project.”

Phase 2 funding murky

Still murky is funding for Phase 2. In his order, Judge Cooper pointed out that obtaining additional funding from the U.S. government might be difficult due to the differences between former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

“Any decision on a future application by AAF will be made by entirely different officials in the new administration. While the new administration has not publicly opined on the AAF project (as far as the Court is aware), its early actions with respect to publicly-funded rail transportation in general suggest that it might take a different track,” he wrote.

In his budget proposal to Congress, Trump would axe DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic (TIGER) grants, which this fiscal year amounted to $500 million in grants across the country. Broward and Palm Beach counties were denied grants in 2014 for crossing improvements necessary for the railway tracks.

AAF stated it is evaluating several options for funding Phase 2 to Orlando.

Another Fortress company, Florida East Coast Railway, over whose tracks AAF’s trains will run, has been sold to Grupo Mexico Transportes. The $2.1-billion deal hinges on regulatory officials’ approval. Grupo Mexico has for years dominated the railway freight sector in Mexico, according to Reuters News Service.

And, Fortress itself was sold to Softbank, a Japanese telecommunications and technology conglomerate, in February. The deal, which as of Thursday May 25 had not closed, brought $3.3 billion.

However, according to The Straits Time, a Singapore-based media outlet, that transaction has not gone smoothly. On March 1, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) froze assets of Maybank Kim Eng Securities, Singapore, and UK-based R.J. O’Brien Ltd.

The SEC is looking into charges of insider trading by customers of the two companies. Trades made just before Softbank announced the purchase produced $3.6 million in potentially illegal profits. Customers, who have been difficult to identify because they are masked in this type of trading, purchased the stock just prior to the Feb.14 offer, driving up stock prices by 28 percent. Buyers held the stock for just 24 hours before selling it for a profit.

AAF did not comment on whether or not the sale of the two companies would affect it. Instead, a spokesperson stated that it was “investing a significant amount on the extension to Orlando. We are in the process of finalizing the remaining permits and launching the South Florida segment in a few months.”

Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York World Trade Center’s North Tower ablaze on Sept. 11, 2001

In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.

At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.

A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.

Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.

Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).

“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”

Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:

‘Significant public interest’

“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”

The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.

Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.

Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”

The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:

  • “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
  • “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.’’
  • “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided.”
  • “Early to Mid-2001: Non-Pilots Arrive U.S.”
  • “July – August 2001: Knife purchases”
  • “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
  • “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
  • “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.

Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.

A future king’s involvement

Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.

The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”

Saudi King Salman presenting President Trump the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal on Saturday at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Photo: Al Arabiya English

Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.

The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.

Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

Smoke rising after the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Val McClatchey

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.

Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.

After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.

FBI tries to discredit own report

In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.

Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.

One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.

The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.

In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”

The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.

Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”

On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.

“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”

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.”

Gov. Scott doesn’t let politics get in way of investing in firm that believes in climate change

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott Photo: CNN

When Rick Scott ran for governor in 2010, he told a reporter he wasn’t convinced that global warming was real. In 2015, the Scott Administration was reported to have told state employees to lay off using “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications.

Today, the governor’s office dodges questions about Scott’s position on the use of those terms, saying instead, “Governor Scott is focused on real solutions to protect our environment.”

Still, the ultra-wealthy Scott hasn’t let his politics get in the way of making money. Through First Lady Ann Scott, the governor has a substantial financial stake in a sizable mosquito control company that recently declared on its Facebook page that “mosquitos will only get worse thanks to #climatechange” and “#globalwarming.”

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC, and it had a banner year in 2016.

The Scotts’ big bet on the Zika fighter MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, a Connecticut investment firm in which Ann Scott is a major investor. The firm is run by Gregory Scott, no relation to the governor, and two other men who worked for the governor’s old Naples-based private equity firm Richard L. Scott Investments (RLSI) – and obscured that connection by omitting it from their online biographies until after Florida Bulldog disclosed it three years ago.

Gregory Scott has described Ann Scott, an interior decorator and owner of AS Interiors LLC, as a “passive investor” in G. Scott Capital Partners.

Mosquito Control Services’ Facebook page from April 27, 2017

Florida Bulldog first reported on Gov. Scott’s indirect and undisclosed ownership interest in MCS last August. Scott’s office would not comment on Ann Scott’s ownership interest in MCS.

Scott Capital, as it’s known online, manages several private funds and “family accounts” for a handful of extremely wealthy clients. The firm thoroughly vets potential company investments before negotiating a purchase. Likewise, the firm monitors the performance of the companies it acquires. Its investment program “aims to generate high financial returns by making direct control investments in established, U.S.-headquartered lower middle market companies” like MCS.

Taking control

As of January 2017, Scott Capital was holding approximately $102 million of its client assets.

GSCP MCS LLC was formed in Delaware in August 2014 to recapitalize and take control of MCS, according to reports filed by Scott Capital with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In March 2016, the fund was valued at just under $10 million. Twelve months later, the fund’s reported value had risen nearly 28 percent to $12,715,853.

Mosquito Control Services is an insecticide spraying company that’s based in Louisiana but does business across the Gulf Coast, including Florida, according to its website. It boasts a spraying “fleet of Beechcraft King Air turbine-powered twin-engine aircraft” and says the company’s primary customers are municipalities. MCS does not do business with the State of Florida.

MCS manager Steven Pavlovich did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The scientific consensus is that global warming and climate change will bring damaging sea-level rise that will create new mosquito breeding grounds and likely hike infection rates for mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, malaria and West Nile virus.

Like the Scotts and their advisors, stock market analysts see investor opportunity in the pest control services market, particularly the mosquito control segment. One recent report by Future Market Insights forecast solid industry growth over the next decade citing a variety of reasons including “prevalent weather conditions supporting insect growth.”

MCS, through its Facebook post, made clear its belief that global warming and climate change are very real concerns. It also shared an April 20 New York Times Magazine article with the ominous title, “Why the Menace of Mosquitoes Will Only Get Worse – Climate change is altering the environment in ways that increase the potential for viruses like Zika.”

Mysterious Saudi businessman in 9/11 puzzle surfaces – online

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City, September 11, 2001

A mysterious figure at the center of the puzzle about an apparent Sarasota-area support network for 9/11 hijackers is a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.

Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, son of a former Saudi ambassador, stepped from the shadows recently when he posted a website publicizing his extravagant design work for Saudi royalty and details about his background. He did not, however, respond to Florida Bulldog emailed requests for comment.

State records show that Ghazzawi, 66, and his American-born wife, Deborah, owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota that became the focus of an FBI investigation after neighbors reported that its occupants — Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud and his son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji — had abruptly moved out and returned with Ghazzawi to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the terrorist attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.

Authorities later obtained security records from the gated community and determined that cars driven by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the al-Hijjis’ residence. A heavily-censored April 2002 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation says FBI agents found “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI, however, kept those findings secret from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.

(The FBI disavowed its 2002 report in 2014, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the agent who wrote it had no basis to do so. The FBI did not identify the agent or further explain the bizarre turn of events. FBI Director James Comey, fired Tuesday by President Trump, publicly mischaracterized the Review Commission as an independent body when in fact he chose its three members and the FBI paid them.)

A decade passed before the FBI’s Sarasota investigation became public when Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, reported it in September 2011. The FBI soon confirmed the existence of the investigation, but said it found no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. Agents also said the Sarasota probe was reported to Congress.

The newly posted information shows that Ghazzawi is a commercial landscape and interior designer whose companies have handled multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia. Until July 2001 he was also an advisor to Prince Fahd Bin Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud (Prince Fahd), an ex-classmate and eldest son of King Salman, who died that month of heart failure.

Bush, Bhutto and John Major

His website, esamghazzawidesigns.com, features photographs of Ghazzawi’s luxurious designs that have “transformed homes into palaces.” Magazine articles from the early 2000s show him meeting world leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major, the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President George H.W. Bush. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi Best Wishes, George Bush.”

Esam Ghazzawi shaking hands with George H.W. Bush in an undated photo signed by the former president. The photo was taken during one of Bush’s visits to Saudi Arabia, according to the Arab language magazine “The House”

An English-language article describes Ghazzawi as a father of five who graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and attended college in the U.S., obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Chapman College in Orange, CA. “Mr. Ghazzawi maintains residences all over the world – the family’s primary residence (which is a sprawling beach house) is in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf. (He) also has a large city penthouse in Riyadh and other secondary residences” in London, Sarasota and Arlington, VA, says the article in On Design magazine. 

Ghazzawi was described as providing turnkey design services “primarily for grand scale residential interiors within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” His clients were said to be “well educated, well-traveled and very affluent. To date, most have been high-ranking government hierarchy in his home country.”

Ghazzawi, through his Esam Arabia Projects Est. and the Luxury Home Collection Ltd., boasted a “full-time staff” of architects, draftsmen, artists and CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) operators. “It is not unusual for Mr. Ghazzawi to have hundreds of workers on site at one time,” the article in On Design says.

An example is Esam Arabia’s 1998-2001work as the principal contractor on a $28-million landscape and lighting project to create a “paradise-setting” at Yamama Palace in Riyadh, the residence of Prince Abdul Azziz bin Fahd, son of then King Fahd. California-based Lee-Wolfe and Associates provided project management. Company co-owner Paul L. Wolfe said he knew Ghazzawi, but declined to be interviewed.

Former British Prime Minister John Major with Prince Fahd bin Salman, center, and Esam Ghazzawi in an undated photograph.

The FBI closely guards its files on Ghazzawi and has steadfastly refused to release even his name – except once in an apparent oversight while processing documents for release to Florida Bulldog.

The documents were a copy of a letter and a list of phone numbers received by the FBI on July 23, 2002. Details about the letter and the list were blanked out, but the “title” of the file into which they were placed – Esam Ghazzawi – was not.

The FBI’s interest in Ghazzawi, while cryptic, is longstanding. In 2003, according to Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, an FBI agent sought to enlist McKay’s help in convincing Ghazzawi to return to Florida to sign legal documents regarding his Sarasota property. The ploy failed.

Ghazzawi on FBI watch list

In 2011, a counter-terrorism agent told author Summers, who with Robbyn Swan wrote the 9/11 history The Eleventh Day, that Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on an FBI watch list and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

The government’s pre-9/11 interest in Ghazzawi likely included his ties to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), or as it came to be known by law enforcement, the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.”  Ghazzawi had three accounts at BCCI’s London branch worth about $400,000, according to a 1996 appeals court ruling published in The Times of London.

Bank liquidators contended Ghazzawi was a nominee owner of the funds and that the true owner was his employer at the time, Prince Fahd. The liquidators had claimed the funds pursuant to a guarantee the prince had given regarding an overdrawn account.

Esam Ghazzawi posing in an undated advertisement for his Saudi company, Luxury Home Collection, in the Arab language magazine, The House.

Ghazzawi is today a member of the board of directors of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, a Saudi company that sponsors multinational companies in Saudi Arabia, including United Parcel Service (UPS).

The investigative website Who.What.Why. has reported that Ghazzawi’s brother, Mamdouh, is the executive managing director the parent firm, EIRAD Holding Co. Ltd.

According to The House of Saud in Commerce, a detailed study of Saudi royal entrepreneurship published in 2001 prior to 9/11, EIRAD was headed by Prince Fahd until his death later that year.

EIRAD had ties to the U.S. intelligence community. “In June 1995, the U.S. government approved a business venture between Orbital Imaging Corp. of the USA and EIRAD International for the supply of satellite images to the government and commercial customers in the Middle East,” the book says.

Orbital Imaging, later known as GeoEye, had contracts to provide reconnaissance for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The company is now owned by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.

Business ties to Bin Laden family

The book says Prince Fahd’s other business interests included Saudi Ceramics Co., whose “prominent Saudi partners” included the Bin Laden family. Today, EIRAD’s chairman is another son of King Salman, Prince Sultan bin Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the former pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force who in 1985 was an astronaut payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Court papers filed last month by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog in its FOIA litigation argue that it “is now clear that substantial evidence exists that Esam Ghazzawi was not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen, but rather was (and is) an uber-wealthy Saudi whose father, Abbas Ghazzawi, had been a Saudi ambassador and close associate of at least three Saudi kings.” Photographs of Abbas Ghazzawi in an article posted on his son’s website reportedly depict him with Saudi Kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd.

Abbas Ghazzawi in undated photos with Saudi King Faisal, left and King Fahd.

Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi, 84, is a Saudi diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, as recently as a decade ago, was ambassador to Germany, according to Who’s Who in the Arab World. Declassified diplomatic cables posted by the State Department show that in 1979 Ghazzawi, was political counsel for the Ministry for Eastern Affairs, represented Saudi Arabia in sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats regarding Soviet military units in Afghanistan, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and terrorist incidents inside Saudi Arabia.

Esam Ghazzawi’s son, Adel Ghazzawi, 46, is also prominent. He is a prior board member at the East-West Institute, the New York think tank whose board members include ex-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Adel Ghazzawi is the founder of Conektas, a company based in the United Arab Emirates that helps foreign companies establish businesses in the Middle East.

According to Relationship Science, which bills itself as the world’s “most powerful database of decision makers,” Adel Ghazzawi is on the board of directors of Arabtec Saudi Arabia LLC. Arabtec Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, set up its Saudi subsidiary in 2009 as a joint venture with CPC Services (Construction Products Holding Company), a member of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, and Prime International Group Services.

At the time, Emirates Business quoted an Adel Ghazzawi, whom it identified as Prime International’s chief executive officer. Ghazzawi told the news service that he began discussions with Arabtec. “We initiated discussions two months ago and have been working very closely with Arabtec Holdings on moving their business into Saudi along with the Bin Laden Group.”

Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.

Panama Papers

Curiously, Prime International surfaced last year in the Panama Papers case, the trove of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing private financial information about hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Such entities are legal, but have been used to commit fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.

The website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies Prime International Group Services Ltd. as having been established in 2004 in the British Virgin Islands, and as being beneficially owned by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, the former astronaut. Its intermediary is listed as the Fahad Al-Nabet law office in Riyadh, and its overseas agent as the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That firm’s founders, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, were arrested in February on money-laundering charges.

About two years after the al-Hijjis moved out their Sarasota home, Adel Ghazzawi tried to get a homeowner’s association lien removed so the house could be sold. The discussions proved to be contentious, according to then-property manager Jone Weist.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that while the al-Hijjis lived in the Prestancia development, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi were frequent visitors to the home they shared with their small children. Florida Bulldog recently has learned that in the summer of 2001 Anoud al-Hijji’s 18-year-old brother, Salman Ghazzawi, also lived at the home.

In 2013, the newspaper interviewed Carla DiBello, who knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi several times. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” DiBello said.

Florida Bulldog’s court papers contend that evidence of contacts between Ghazzawi’s family and 9/11 hijackers provide “additional evidence…of possible Saudi support for the 9/11 attacks…and should have triggered a full-scale and thorough investigation by the FBI.” Instead, the FBI “deliberately concealed” those contacts from congressional investigators to protect the Ghazzawis or “negligently failed to conduct a proper investigation of the possibility of complicity of Ghazzawi family members in the 9/11 attacks,” the court papers say.

FBI records that have been released indicate that as of 2004, the FBI apparently had not interviewed Ghazzawi about what happened in Sarasota.

Florida Bulldog’s attorneys Thomas Julin, Raymond Miller, Kyle Teal and Anaili Cure of the Gunster law firm argued the FBI is today “improperly” withholding records “not because those records would harm national security” or otherwise cause harm, but “rather because disclosure…would result in valid, important public criticism of the actions that the FBI took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

The lawyers asked Miami U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga to set the case for trial “to determine whether the FBI has conducted an adequate search and whether it has properly withheld and redacted responsive records.”

The government, however, has asked the judge to rule on those issues without a public trial, which would likely include testimony by former Sen. Graham, who has accused the FBI of covering up for the Saudis.

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