FDLE’s Miami regional office ‘like ‘The Walking Dead'”

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami FDLE Agent Addy Villanueva, former special agent in charge. Photo: CBSMiami.com

Miami FDLE Agent Addy Villanueva, former special agent in charge. Photo: CBSMiami.com

The Miami regional office of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement was a dysfunctional, hostile workplace where the special agent-in-charge, Addy Villanueva, was in the dark about turmoil between rank-and-file officers and her abrasive second-in-command, Robert Breeden.

That’s the conclusion of a six-month internal FDLE investigation that ended with Breeden being forced out and Villanueva, the first Hispanic female to serve as a special agent-in-charge, agreeing to accept a demotion. 

FloridaBulldog.org used Florida’s public records law to obtain a copy of the final report, which shows that agents attached to the FDLE’s Office of Executive Investigations interviewed 67 current and former special agents, two statewide prosecutors and others.

POTTY-MOUTH MICROMANAGER?

Forty-two agents, the two prosecutors and four other FDLE employees described Breeden as a nightmare boss: a potty-mouthed micromanager who blew his stack over office minutiae and bullied subordinates, high-ranking peers and cops from other agencies.

Breeden, in his sworn statement last September, denied the allegations that were sustained against him.

“I categorically deny mistreating or abusing anybody,” Breeden said. “It certainly has never been my motive. I have no malice toward anybody.”

Former Miami Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden

Former Miami Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden

Breeden, 52, did not return a message sent to his Facebook account requesting comment. On December 29, he filed a whistleblower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, alleging he was unjustly fired for reporting “misfeasance, malfeasance and gross misconduct” by Villanueva.

The complaint alleges Breeden told then-FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey at a July 24, 2013 meeting that Villanueva, who was getting divorced at the time, had repeatedly asked him to use his state car to give rides to her boyfriend, a Miami-Dade cop. She also used FDLE funds to buy a printer for her home and was hardly in the office, Breeden alleged.

When Villanueva learned Breeden had ratted her out to Bailey, she gathered her troops in Miami for a witch-hunt aimed at destroying his 20-year-career with the state’s top law enforcement agency, the complaint says.

Breeden’s Tallahassee attorney, Tiffany Cruz, said no one at FDLE had a bad word to say about her client until he went against Villanueva. “No one ever complained Bob was a tyrant,” Cruz said. “It was convenient timing. A majority of the people who made statements against Bob are aligned with Addy.”

BAILEY HAS ENOUGH

Nevertheless, the 113-page investigative report prepared by Inspector Keith B. Riddick was enough for Bailey. In one of his final acts as FDLE commissioner before Gov. Rick Scott forced him out last month, Bailey shook up his management team in Miami by removing Villanueva as special-agent-in-charge and forcing Breeden to retire. He is using up accrued leave time until Feb. 3, his official retirement date.

FDLE spokesman Steve Arthur said Villanueva asked to be demoted to a supervisor position.

According to the report, special agents of the FDLE’s Miami Regional Operations Center – which covers Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties – had been having problems with Breeden since his days as a line supervisor seven years ago.

Special agent Leslie D’Ambrosia, who’s been with FDLE for 27 years, said her first encounter with Breeden’s unpleasant personality occurred during the Republican Governor’s Conference held in Tallahassee in November 2008.

She said Breeden screamed at her in front of a group of civilians because she did not want to answer his question in public about where they were taking one of the governors. “She feels that was the beginning of the end of their relationship,” the report states.

“TEFLON BOB”

D’Ambrosia claimed Breeden let people know he had friends in high places, especially James Madden, one of Bailey’s deputy commissioners who retired last year. “His favorite name to drop is that of Jim Madden,” she said. “There’s a perception of him being ‘Teflon Bob.”

Special agent Kristen Hoffacker recalled that Breeden aggressively poked her in the shoulder when he asked her where D’Ambrosia was during a training session for officer involved shootings last year.

“It may not have been abusive, but she felt that it was definitely inappropriate,” the report states. “She said the poke or shove was a little bit forceful and since it was during the instruction it caught her off guard.”

Special agent supervisor John Vecchio described the atmosphere in the Miami headquarters like “a family with an abusive father.”

“The father’s abuse is somewhat tolerable at first,” Vecchio said. “But when left unchecked becomes worse over the years and gets to the point where the whole family becomes dysfunctional.”

Vecchio claimed Breeden would often berate him, and that did the same with others, including D’Ambrosia.

“Is it me or is Leslie a complete bitch?” the report says Breeden once told Vecchio.

Susan Kopp, another special agent supervisor, said Breeden constantly critiqued her management style and the agents she assigned to her team. Special agent Donald Cannon, who reported to Kopp, told investigators Kopp looked like “Napoleon Bonaparte after Waterloo” following her meetings with Breeden.

Cannon said he was relieved that he worked in the FDLE Miami’s satellite office in West Palm Beach. “I go down there, it’s like ‘The Walking Dead,’” Cannon said, comparing the Miami operations center to the hit television series about a zombie apocalypse. “No one is happy. You can’t be productive when all you hear is bad things.”

Even outsiders took notice of Breeden’s mistreatment of subordinates.

Oscar Gelpi, an assistant statewide prosecutor based in Fort Lauderdale, told investigators that he was present at a residence where a search warrant was being executed on June 17, 2013. Breeden was throwing his weight around and “barking at someone about how he’s the boss,” Gelpi said.

Gelpi’s colleague, deputy statewide prosecutor Julie Hogan, was also present for the search warrant. “Everyone was on edge once Bob was there,” she said. “People find Bob very intimidating and walk around not knowing really where he stands. I get that impression all the time working with FDLE.”

BREEDEN’S SUPPORTERS

But Breeden also had supporters. Investigators interviewed 29 former and current special agents, four non-sworn FDLE employees, and two Miami-Dade prosecutors who described Breeden as a solid, no-nonsense administrator who did not mistreat co-workers.

“Typically the people that have a problems are the people who don’t produce,” said Special Agent William Saladrigas.

Villanueva, however, never caught wind of the dissension swirling around her until after Breeden complained, according to the report.

In her June 17 sworn statement, Villanueva revealed that she and Breeden expressed their distrust for each other during a meeting near the end of October 2013. Earlier that month, she had gone to Tallahassee to meet with Bailey, who told her someone in her command staff had accused her of misconduct.

Villanueva told the executive office investigators that Breeden didn’t want to accept responsibility for his mistreatment of rank-and-file officers. Breeden tried to turn it around on her by claiming that whatever was wrong was her fault, she said.

Breeden, however, told investigators “the whole thing started to unravel” after his 2013 meeting with Bailey about Villanueva.

“For 19 years I never had a problem,” Breeden said. “I’m terribly sorry that [Villanueva] has chosen to portray this the way she has.”

Amid probe, Broward Health’s top heart doctor takes pay cut; “Every bit about the money”

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org chizner

A prominent Fort Lauderdale cardiologist at the center of a federal investigation into alleged Medicare and Medicaid fraud at Broward Health has signed a new contract featuring a hefty pay cut and an unfamiliar requirement that he treat poor people.

Dr. Michael Chizner, chief medical director of tax-supported Broward Health’s Heart Center of Excellence, signed the deal in December – weeks ahead of his scheduled termination date on Jan. 2.

Broward Health previously announced Chizner would be dismissed on that date for refusing to accept changes to his 10-year contract “in light of changes in the application or interpretation of laws and regulations…which now render your employment agreement illegal or unenforceable.”

To adapt to those changes, Broward Health’s governing board in June approved a new “matrix of compensation” and other internal changes intended to make its physician compensation practices “commercially reasonable.”

LOOMING FEDERAL INVESTIGATION

The move was apparently in response to an ongoing anti-kickback inquiry by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Justice Department that’s focused on alleged wrongdoing in the business relationships between Broward Health and its physicians.

Asked about that, Broward Health general counsel Sam Goren said, “I am not able to comment.”

Chizner’s new five-year contract calls for Broward Health, whose legal name is the North Broward Hospital District, to pay him a maximum salary of $867,200 in 2015, down from $1.2 million last year. His actual pay is not guaranteed and will depend on his volume of work.

Chizner’s total salary since 2009 was $6.9 million, according to district records.

Chizner’s earnings were more than double the national average for “invasive-interventional” cardiologists. His new, lower salary will nevertheless continue to keep him among the nation’s most highly paid heart doctors.

The new contract also omits prior elitist language that allowed Chizner to limit his patients to “existing, new and referred non-indigent patients,” a restriction at odds with publicly-funded Broward Health’s role as a medical safety net for local residents. Last year, Broward Health levied and collected $146.1 million in property tax revenues.

The new contract requires Chizner, former chairman of the Florida Board of Medicine, to provide services to all patients, “without regard to a patient’s ability to pay for such services.”

More than a dozen other Broward Health physicians previously signed similar agreements in accord with the approved changes.

A PUBLIC CAMPAIGN

Chizner’s resistance, however, was high profile. Within days of receiving a Nov. 4 letter from then Broward Health CEO Frank Nask notifying him of the Jan. 2 termination date, a group of local business leaders began a public campaign to pressure Broward Health’s board of commissioner’s to keep Chizner.

“Dr. Chizner has saved the lives of many of our friends and colleagues throughout the years,” said an email by Charles Caulkins, a labor lawyer and partner in the Fort Lauderdale office of the Fisher & Phillips.

Federal authorities have been investigating Broward Health since at least May 2011 when agents subpoenaed records relating to the public health care system’s business dealings with 27 doctors since January 2000, including Chizner. Most of those physicians belong to the Broward Health Physician Goup, meaning they are district employees and not in private practice.

The subpoena demanded records about the district’s contracts, negotiations and various agreements. Broward Health has since turned over millions of pages of documents.

Broward Health Commission Chairman David Di Pietro said publicly in 2012 that the district faced $100 million in potential civil liability in the probe.

Broward Health officials have said the investigation appears to have begun with a whistleblower’s confidential complaint. Under the False Claims Act, private citizens with knowledge of fraud against the government can sue on its behalf. If successful, they reap a reward.

Broward Health has hired at least two law firms to represent it in the matter. Arent Fox has been on the job since 2011. Last year, the district retained Holland & Knight to advise it regarding compliance with a pair of federal laws – the Anti-Kickback statute and the Stark Law – that are the focus of the federal ongoing investigation.

Former Florida Sen. George Lemieux, attorney for Dr. Michael Chizner

Former Florida Sen. George Lemieux, attorney for Dr. Michael Chizner

The Anti-Kickback statute is a criminal law that prohibits the exchange of anything of value to induce referrals of federal healthcare program business. The Stark Law prohibits physicians from referring Medicare and Medicaid patients to a hospital when the doctor has a financial relationship with the hospital.

At the regular meeting of Broward Health’s board on Nov. 19, more than three-dozen people turned out to speak on Chizner’s behalf, including well-known business leaders Terry Stiles, Alan Levy and Tom Tworoger.

‘NOT ABOUT THE MONEY,” SAYS SENATOR

Former Republican Florida Senator George Lemieux represented Chizner. According to the meeting’s minutes, he argued that Chizner’s then-existing agreement was fair, and supported by various market opinions.

Lemieux “again reiterated that this is not about the money – it is about negotiating in good faith.”

But Broward Health CEO Nask said a good faith effort was made. He said Chizner had rejected the results.

“It is every bit about the money because that is the issue at hand from the subpoena,” the minutes say, summarizing Nask’s remarks.

In the end, chairman Di Pietro, a Republican appointee of Gov. Rick Scott, arranged to hire a mediator to see if an agreement could be reached. The negotiator was Ed Pozzuoli, a Republican strategist and president of Fort Lauderdale’s Tripp Scott law firm.

Chizner signed his new contract, accepting a $335,000 pay cut and the requirement that he treat indigent patients, on Dec. 9th.

Top two FDLE agents in Miami are out; Turmoil amid takeover of police shooting probes

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Addy Villanueva, former special agent-in-charge of the FDLE's Miami regional office Photo: CBSMiami

Addy Villanueva, former special agent-in-charge of the FDLE’s Miami regional office Photo: CBSMiami

The abrupt replacement of Gerald Bailey as Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner wasn’t the only major shake-up at the state’s top law enforcement agency in December.

Also out amid reports of internal intrigue: the first woman to lead FDLE’s Miami Regional Operations Center, Addy Villanueva, and her number two, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden.

The upheaval couldn’t have come at a worse time, say critics of FDLE’s high-profile takeover of sensitive police shooting investigations from the Miami-Dade County Police and Miami Police.

“The FDLE Miami office is in complete disarray,” said John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file Miami-Dade County cops. “I am not sure this is the proper time to switch over, even if they want to.”

John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association

John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association

The PBA opposes handing over the investigation of shootings by local police officers to the state, as does the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents Miami police officers.

FDLE officially took control of police shooting investigations from Miami-Dade on January 5 under an agreement championed last year by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The move followed a pair of controversial police shootings that occurred in 2011 and 2013:

  • June 30, 2011 – Police informant Rosendo Betancourt and three home invaders were killed in a fusillade by a Miami-Dade special robbery detail. A police video shows officers shooting Betancourt 70 seconds after he surrendered, put his hands up, and dropped to the ground. State prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence.
  • December 10, 2013 – More than two-dozen Miami police officers fired at least 377 shots at two men in a blue Volvo who led them on a high-speed chase through Hialeah into Liberty City. Driver Adrian Montesano, wanted for robbing a Walgreens and shooting a Miami-Dade officer earlier that evening, and his passenger, Corsini Valdes, died. Valdes had committed no crime. The shooting, in which two Miami-Dade officers were also wounded, remains under investigation by state prosecutors.

In a parallel action the same week, Miami city commissioners also agreed to turn over police shooting investigations to FDLE, despite objections from FOP President, Miami Police Sgt. Javier Ortiz.

In a January 7 letter to city commissioners, Ortiz accused Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa of “passing the buck” to FDLE and noted Miami officers killed no one in 2014.

“Some politicians or chiefs want to jump on what they deem as being a trendy topic to some of their constituents,” Ortiz wrote. “I believe our priorities are all wrong.”

REMOVING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Proponents say allowing FDLE to investigate police shootings involving county and Miami cops removes inherent conflicts of interest when departments investigate their own officers for using deadly force.

“The goal is to have an objective, outside party investigate police shootings,” said Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson. “This will add more transparency and build public confidence in what we are trying to accomplish.”

The PBA’s Rivera has been an outspoken opponent of the move since Miami-Dade Commissioners ratified the accord between FDLE and county police in October. The union head says FDLE’s Miami office lacks experience investigating complex cases involving county officers who shoot people.

“The FDLE Miami office is not prepared,” Rivera said. “They are going from zero to 100. They have not worked side-by-side with Miami-Dade homicide investigators.”

Furthermore, Rivera noted that Miami-Dade would continue to control the lab and crime scene work when officers are investigated for firing their weapons.

“The most important part of an investigation is the scientific side,” Rivera said. “Yet, Miami-Dade police will still be gathering that evidence. It doesn’t make sense. Giving them partial control seems like an oxymoron.”

The practical problems Rivera cited appear to be compounded by the recent turmoil in the FDLE’s Miami office.

A law enforcement source close to FDLE told

Former Miami FDLE Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden with   ex-FBI director Robert Mueller.

Former Miami FDLE Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden with ex-FBI director Robert Mueller.

FloridaBulldog.org that Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Breeden, who spent 20 years with the agency, opted to retire rather than accept a demotion after an internal investigation found he violated numerous policies, including creating a hostile work environment and allowing an unauthorized civilian to enter a room where investigators were counting money seized in a raid.

According to a December 3 letter he sent to Bailey, Breeden retired effective February 3. However, he took accrued leave time and has not been at work since submitting his retirement letter.

A 2 1/2 HOUR COMPLAINT

The source said Breeden took Villanueva down with him by informing Bailey of alleged misdeeds by Villanueva. Breeden made a 2½-hour oral complaint about Villanueva in September, FDLE records show. Details were not immediately available.

Villanueva accepted a demotion rather than retire, the source said.

But Steve Arthur, an FDLE spokesman, said Villanueva asked for the reassignment to a lesser post in the same office.

“She is not and has not been under investigation,” Arthur said, without elaboration.

Villanueva affirmed Arthur’s statement, but declined further comment. Breeden did not return a message sent to his Facebook account seeking comment about the complaint against him and his complaint against Villanueva.

Former Commissioner Bailey replaced Villanueva with Troy Walker, a 22-year-veteran who was promoted from his position as assistant special agent-in-charge of FDLE’s Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center.

Chris Woehr, a supervisor in FDLE’s Orlando office, replaced Breeden.

On December 16, Gov. Rick Scott shocked Tallahassee insiders when he replaced Bailey, who’d led the agency for eight years.

Scott, who picked Tallahassee Police director Richard Swearingen as interim FDLE commissioner, refused to say if he pushed Bailey out the door. But Bailey recently told the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times that Scott’s chief of staff and general counsel ordered him to “retire or resign.”

Bailey could not be reached for comment about Villanueva and Breeden.

FDLE ‘CONFIDENT’ 

FDLE spokesman Arthur dismissed the idea that his agency is not prepared to investigate police shootings. He noted that Walker has investigated police shootings in the Tampa Bay area, and that Woehr was in charge of an investigative squad that handled public integrity cases and officer involved shootings in Orlando.

“We are confident in our ability to conduct independent and thorough investigations,” Arthur said.

Miami-Dade’s Patterson agreed. “I’ve already met with Troy Walker,” Patterson said. “He assured me they will not have any problems with the transition.”

Miami-Dade homicide detectives will continue to conduct investigations of police shootings in other jurisdictions where it has contracts, including Coral Gables and Miami Gardens, Patterson said.

The police director also downplayed Rivera’s claims that FDLE is not prepared.

“The crime lab has more to do with the fact FDLE doesn’t have one in Miami,” he said. “With all due respect to Mr. Rivera, he keeps repeating that this move is a knee-jerk reaction, but that does not make it correct or factual.”

Dan Christensen contributed to this report.

Coconut Creek police botched 82 child rape and other cases; Dashed hopes for justice

 

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org coconutcreekbadge

The Coconut Creek police botched dozens of criminal cases involving disturbing reports about children who were raped or abused and seniors who were neglected or exploited.

The 82 “special victims” cases from 2010-2012 were the focus of a trio of internal police investigations and part of another, more wide-ranging investigation by the Broward State Attorney’s Office of Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann. The probe ended in October without charges.

Despite that attention, however, what happened in Coconut Creek has remained largely hidden from public view and no one has been held criminally responsible for the resulting lack of charges, failed prosecutions and dashed hopes for justice of victims and their families.

The detective assigned to each of those 82 cases was Tammy Kilgore Alois (pronounced a – loy- is) According to city and state documents obtained by FloridaBulldog.org, Alois’ failings included not interviewing victims and witnesses, mishandling evidence and neglecting to write reports or present cases to Broward prosecutors.

Former Coconut Creek Police Detective Tammy Alois. Photo: Jose Padron

Former Coconut Creek Police Detective Tammy Alois. Photo: Jose Padron

“The cases that Detective Alois was primarily assigned to were ‘high liability cases that typically involved juvenile victims,” says one internal police report. “Failure to follow up or complete these types of cases in a timely manner can greatly affect the level of solvability, successful prosecution and, most importantly, put other members of the community at risk.”

Alois was fired in August 2013, but not for neglecting her cases.

A LAST CHANCE

Rather, she was dismissed for violating a “Last Chance Agreement” the city gave her five months earlier in lieu of termination after she admitted to mishandling “numerous” investigations, and to prescription drug abuse. The violation was for failing to write a report about a burglary after she’d been transferred to road patrol.

Alois’ discipline for bungling 82 “high liability” cases: a four-week suspension without pay – the most allowed under restrictions agreed to by the city in its contract with the Broward County Police Benevolent Association.

Then-City Manager David Rivera signed the last chance agreement after Chief Mann decided not to recommend Alois’ dismissal. In an interview Monday, Mann said he made no recommendation because the city manager told him beforehand that he wouldn’t terminate Alois.

“The city manager had the ultimate decision. When he tells you he is not going to terminate, it makes no difference what my recommendation was,” Mann said. “He didn’t say why.”

The Broward State Attorney’s Office did not investigate Alois for possible criminal misconduct in the matter.

Police records contain no indication that department officials who failed to notice or take action about what was happening during the three years that Alois seriously neglected her cases were disciplined, or even investigated.

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Mann, however, said Alois’ boss in the detective bureau, Lt. Scott Tabel, was “basically let go” by the city in part because of what had occurred.

Tabel is today a police officer with the Palm Beach School district. He said in an interview Tuesday that he retired from the Coconut Police after 21 years of service and that the Alois’ affair had nothing to do with it.

He said that Chief Mann was apprised early on that Alois “was falling behind in her caseload.”

“I’d gone to him as to how far she had fallen behind – 15 to 20 cases behind when I left in March 2012,” he said “There was even discussion about taking her out of the detective bureau, but he didn’t want to do it.”

Police internal records say that Alois’ “supervisors sent emails to the entire division, and at times, directly to her regarding this matter. This issue was also mentioned in her semi-annual evaluation dated March 6, 2012.”

ALOIS LOSES APPEAL, JOB

Alois was hired in 1995 and promoted to detective in 2010. She appealed her termination, but lost in a decision handed down by arbitrator James L. Reynolds on Dec. 26.

Alois’ PBA attorney Michael Braverman did not respond to a request for comment.

Police records document case after sordid case of neglected crimes, including capital felonies against children under 12 that are punishable by death or life in prison.

Here’s a sampling:

*Jan. 26, 2012 – A 39-year-old man is alleged to have committed sexual battery on a girl, 15, in Coconut Creek and in other jurisdictions. Alois took a video statement from the victim, but did not complete a report indicating that, and also failed to book the DVD into the Property and Evidence Unit. After Detective Alois was reassigned to road patrol in May 2012, another detective got a message “from the victim’s mother stating that she did not want to follow through with setting up a SATC (Sexual Assault Treatment Center) appointment for her daughter because Det. Alois had allegedly told her that no new information would come from it…The victim’s mother also indicated that her daughter was doing much better and did not want to pursue the case any further.”

*March 15, 2011 – City patrol officers respond to an allegation that an adult male, a former neighbor, had sexually battered a 10-year-old boy on three separate occasions. Alois interviewed the victim on video, but the DVD was not entered into evidence. She filed no report to indicate she’d obtained the statement, nor did she send the case for further review. After Alois’ reassignment, another Coconut Creek detective contacted the boy’s father who became “extremely upset and has refused to answer any more calls.”

*Nov. 2, 2010 – Patrol officers take a report that a 16-year-old male sexually assaulted a four-year-old boy and also showed pornographic movies and exposed himself to other juveniles ranging in age from two to 12. Alois was assigned the case for 554 days, until her transfer out of the detective bureau in May 2012. During that time she never interviewed the child victim. Another detective later reported the boy had completed therapy, and that “The family did not want the child to have to rehash the incident, since he was no longer talking about it.”

Reports list dozens of other victims who were further victimized by shoddy police work. They include an 11-year-old girl lured into sending over the Internet nude videos of herself masturbating by a Kentucky man who posed as a teenage girl; a 19-year-old female with Fetal Alcohol Down Syndrome allegedly raped by a man in a school bathroom; an 89-year-old woman exploited by her caregiver and a 90-year-old woman reportedly abused by her daughter.

MISSING POLICE REPORTS

Police records supervisor Linda Tropepe first noticed a problem with Alois’s cases in late 2011 or early 2012, notifying Alois’s supervisor, Lt. Tabel, that reports were missing in about 25 of her cases, according to one internal report prepared by Lt. Robert Wehmeyer.

At the time, Alois was a high-profile detective. On April 25, 2012, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Biondi gave Alois and another Coconut Creek detective an award for aiding an elderly crime victim.

No city action is indicated in the internal police reports until Tropepe contacted then-Deputy Chief Robert Biondolillo in early May 2012. Biondolillo discussed what happened with a Broward prosecutor on Jan. 24, 2014 in response to a subpoena.

“The records supervisor indicated that there were somewhere between 80 and 100, I don’t remember exactly, cases that there were no investigative supplements, (or) police reports by Detective Alois, and some of the cases had been closed, actually closed without any report written by the detective,” Biondolillo told a Broward prosecutor in a sworn statement last Jan. 24.

Biondolillo, who the city clerk’s office says retired in December 2012, testified he immediately ordered internal affairs to do a preliminary review that quickly confirmed a serious problem.

“Some of the cases had evidence that wasn’t sent to the lab, some of the cases had CDs, DVDs, I think, as well that weren’t put into evidence, some of the cases had statements that weren’t into evidence,” said Biondolillo. “It was bad.”

Biondolillo testified that he ordered a full IA investigation, but said it was “countermanded” by Chief Mann. Instead, Mann asked the city’s Human Resources department to handle it administratively, he said.

Biondolillo testified that wasn’t the first time Mann had countermanded him regarding the need to investigate Alois. He said that on two previous occasions Drug Enforcement Administration agents had visited him and Mann to inform them of evidence they’d found that Alois was a patient at pain clinics under surveillance as suspected pill mills.

Both times, Mann countermanded his orders that Internal Affairs to investigate Alois. Instead, Mann gave the matter to Human Resources, said Biondolillo.

“It just didn’t make any, any sense to me,” Biondolillo told then-Assistant Broward State Attorney Nickolaus Hunter Davis. “I mean there was never any long, drawn-out conversations, screaming matches; that didn’t happen. It was ‘You’re the boss, that’s what you want to do, okay.’”

CASES KICKED BACK 

Human Resources, however, didn’t agree with the chief’s plan for review when it came to handling the 82 botched cases.

“Approximately two months later the HR director said, ‘No, there needs to be an Internal Affairs investigation on this, this has to be investigated,” Biondolillo said under oath. He added he quit the department not long after that “because of the fact that Mike Mann and I were 180 degrees…different on these administrative decisions.”

On Monday, Mann denied countermanding Biondolillo’s orders to investigate Alois’ suspected drug abuse or her failures to investigate cases. “That’s absolutely incorrect,” he said.

Still, police records about Alois’ mishandling of cases show Internal Affairs did not begin investigating until July 2012, two months after Biondolillo says Mann countermanded his order and sent the matter to the city’s personnel department.

When Internal Affairs finally did investigate the probe was split into three groups because there were so many cases.

Lt. Dominic Coppola, then head of Internal Affairs, was assigned to investigate evidence found in Alois’ marked police car when it was serviced. The evidence included fingerprint cards and cassette tapes and DVDs of forensic interviews of child rape victims, witnesses and suspects, Coppola stated during Alois’ arbitration hearing in August.

“The troubling part of it was actually there was a video there (regarding a case) that the state was trying to proceed with,” said Coppola. “A 16-year-old suspect had raped a six-year-old child, I believe, and we actually had (the forensic interview of the child) in Tammy’s car, and I guess it had been there for quite some time, the case was approximately two years old.”

The city’s lawyer then asked Coppola, “Did this, in your view…did Ms. Alois’ handling of these cases jeopardize the city’s ability to have these cases prosecuted?”

“That is not even an opinion, that is a fact…We would have to go through every single case file, but I can tell you the case file recommendation (by prosecutors) time and time again was, quote, unquote, no reasonable likelihood of conviction,” said Coppola.

Why?

“To quickly state it, the parents and children no longer wanted to peel off the bandage and relive the nightmare,” Coppola said.

Chief Mann said Monday that all the 82 cases were “reinvestigated” by other detectives and presented to prosecutors. “They accepted some that hadn’t been brought to their attention and others they declined prosecution,” he said. No tally about the outcome of cases was available.

STATE ATTORNEY’S LOOK

Broward prosecutors looked at Alois’ mishandling of cases as part of its review of a dozen allegations against Chief Mann that were contained in anonymous letters sent to several agencies, including the Attorney General and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where Mann served as chief of investigations in Miami before becoming the chief of police in Coconut Creek in 2009.

The allegations ranged from Mann’s handling of an incident in which Coconut Creek Sgt. Robert Markland purchased a Glock handgun for $1 from an 85-year-old suspect at a crime scene, to complaints that Mann had improperly used city police officers to perform work at his home and at a family event.

Mann gave no statement under oath. But in a 16-page close-out memo in October Broward’s chief public corruption prosecutor Timothy Donnelly cleared Mann of any wrongdoing, including an accusation he’d covered up for Alois by failing to order an internal affairs investigation of her misconduct.

The close-out memo devotes just three paragraphs to the Alois matter.

“Detective Alois suffered from a substance-abuse problem and neglected her cases to an extremely troubling degree…these failures had a negative impact on Detective Alois’ investigations and subsequent prosecutions. When Chief Mann became aware of this, he directed other detectives to take over (her) caseload and removed her from the detectives’ bureau,” Donnelly wrote.

The memo contains no indication that prosecutors ever conducted a criminal investigation of Alois.

Chief Mann said criminal charges were not appropriate against Alois or anyone else in the matter. “I don’t know what the charge would have been,” he said.

Florida congressman denied access to censored pages from Congress’ 9/11 report

UPDATE: JAN 10Click here to watch video of former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Congressmen Walter Jones, R-N.C. and Stephen Lynch, D-Ma. and others talk about the need to declassify the 28 censored pages from Congress’s Joint Inquiry report on 9/11. Remarks by Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry, begin at 10:25 into Wednesday’s Capitol Hill press conference.
One of 28 redacted pages from a congressional report regarding "specific sources of foreign support" for the 9/11 hijackers

One of 28 redacted pages from a congressional report regarding “specific sources of foreign support” for the 9/11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

The U.S. House Intelligence Committee has denied a Florida congressman’s request for access to 28 classified pages from the 2002 report of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, told BrowardBulldog.org he made his request at the suggestion of House colleagues who have read them as they consider whether to support a proposed resolution urging President Obama to open those long-censored pages to the public.

“Why was I denied? I have been instrumental in publicizing the Snowden revelations regarding pervasive domestic spying by the government and this is a petty means for the spying industrial complex to lash back,” Grayson said last week, referring to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Redacted on orders from then-President George W. Bush, the report says the 28 pages concern “specific sources of foreign support” for the 9/11 hijackers while they were in the U.S. Specifically, that is “the role of Saudi Arabia in funding 9/11,” according to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and helped write the 28 pages.

Graham has long called for declassifying those pages in order to help 9/11 victims and their families find justice, and to better serve national security. In July, 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean and Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton also came out in support of declassification.

“I’m embarrassed that they’re not declassified,” said Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman. “We emphasized transparency. I assumed incorrectly that our records would be public, all of them, everything.”

House Resolution 428, sponsored by Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-NC, asks President Obama to release the 28 pages of the Joint Inquiry’s report, saying they are “necessary for a full public understanding of the events and circumstances” surrounding the 9/11 attacks.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., is one of 21 co-sponsors including Florida Reps. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, and Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville. Massie has challenged all members of Congress to read the report, which he said poses no threat to national security.

In 2003, 46 senators – including Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry – wrote to President Bush asking him to declassify the pages.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando

In a party line vote, the House Intelligence Committee voted 8-4 on Dec. 1 to deny Democrat Grayson access to the 28 pages. The same day, the committee unanimously approved requests to access classified committee documents – not necessarily the 28 pages – by 11 other House members.

Grayson, an outspoken liberal and a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said his denial was engineered by outgoing Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich. Rogers is a former FBI agent who did not seek re-election in November.

“Congressman Rogers made serious misrepresentations to other committee members when he brought this up,” Grayson in a telephone interview. “When the Guardian reported on the fact that there was universal domestic surveillance regarding every single phone call, including this one, I went to the floor of the House and gave a lengthy speech decrying it.”

“Chairman Rogers told the committee that I had discussed classified information on the floor. He left out the most important part that I was discussing what was reported in the newspaper,” said Grayson. “He clearly misled the committee for an improper purpose: to deny a sitting member of Congress important classified information necessary for me to do my job.”

Rogers did not respond to a request for comment. An aide in his Lansing, Michigan office referred callers to a spokeswoman for the House Intelligence Committee who could not be reached for comment.

Customers accuse Broward flying machine maker of fraud; Attorney General investigating

By: Ann Henson Feltgen, Browardbulldog.org 

A marketing photo for JetLev's Acquaflyer

A marketing photo for JetLev’s Acquaflyer

A Dania Beach firm that sells James Bond-style jetpacks is being sued for fraud by a California watersports company that alleges it lost more than $1 million because equipment it paid for was never delivered and contracts it was counting on were not honored.

Dean O’Malley, president of Newport Beach-based Jetpack America, filed the eight-count complaint against JetLev, a designer and manufacturer of water recreational systems. O’Malley’s firm distributed JetLev products.

O’Malley is not alone in his complaints. The Florida Attorney General’s office is investigating four complaints brought by unhappy customers against JetLev and Matt Rosenblatt, an Aventura resident described in the lawsuit as the company’s chief executive officer.

In addition, BrowardBulldog.org has identified nine other customers – individuals and companies – who accuse JetLev of bilking them. Those customers are from Arizona, California, New York, Texas, Washington, Australia, Canada and the Bahamas.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Ca., alleges fraud, breach of contract, misrepresentation, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, conversion and negligence.

The defendants are JetLev, several affiliated companies, Rosenblatt and Seth Gerszberg, a New York-based financier who took control of JetLev in 2013.

While JetLev’s website is still up and the company remains listed as active in Florida’s corporate records, JetLev’s phone numbers no longer work.

JetLev Chief Executive Matt Rosenblatt, interviewed by CNBC in August 2013.

JetLev Chief Executive Matt Rosenblatt, interviewed by CNBC in August 2013.

In an interview, Rosenblatt denied any wrongdoing, noting he never even got a paycheck from JetLev.

“I have never taken a penny out of JetLev,” said Rosenblatt, adding that he is no longer with the company, but believed it would soon file for bankruptcy. Customers, however, said he remains involved.

Neither Gerszberg or his New York City attorney, Gregg Donnenfeld, responded to numerous requests for comment by phone and email.

JetLev customers, including Jetpack America, say problems began last year after they made down payments on products but never received the equipment or a refund. Victims and former company insiders interviewed for this story say total losses by all customers range from $600,000 to more than $3 million.

THE COMPANY’S BEGINNINGS

Raymond Li, a Canadian inventor, founded JetLev. In 2011, the company introduced its first product – a water-propelled jetpack that allows thrill-seekers to soar up to 30 feet above the water. The devices use a floating pump that forces water up a hose to an apparatus worn by the user. The apparatus expels the water at high velocity, generating lift, according to the lawsuit.

The initial price tag was $100,000, a drawback to all but the wealthy, according to watersports publications and an Associated Press story.

Li went on to develop and patent two lower priced jetpacks – the Aquaflyer and Aquaboard – that retailed for about $10,000 each. The price drop led to an increase in demand.

But by late 2011, Li faced financial problems and Gerszberg became an investor, the lawsuit says.

Gerszberg became co-owner with Li and incorporated JetLev, LLC in Delaware in December 2011, according to corporate records. JetLev replaced Li’s company, JetLev Technologies Inc. In exchange, Gerszberg provided financial backing for the company.

In July 2013, Li assigned his patents to one of Gerszberg’s companies, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Within a year, Li left the company and returned to Canada. Around the same time, Gerszberg brought in his friend Rosenblatt to run the company.

Li could not be reached for comment. However, former JetLev employees said Li was forced out and the company owed him money.

Rosenblatt blames Li for JetLev’s financial troubles.

“The former owner left the company in disarray. I came in and cut costs and provided new products,” Rosenblatt said.

JetLev’s corporate papers mention Gerszberg’s affiliation with well-known fashion designer Marc Ecko.

Gerszberg co-owns several companies affiliated with Ecko, a designer of urban hip-hop clothing popular in the 1990s, according to the lawsuit. One of those companies, a chain of retail stores across the United States that exclusively sell Marc Ecko clothing, recently filed for bankruptcy. The chain was later sold to another Gerszberg company, according to the lawsuit

Rosenblatt said Gerszberg pumped close to $5 million total into JetLev, adding that he invested money, too.

In August 2013, Rosenblatt fired many of the 20-some people who worked at JetLev, said Keith Paul, a former employee. Paul said Rosenblatt cut costs to the bone and told employees who threatened to sue for back pay that JetLev might file for bankruptcy.

The lawsuit alleges that Rosenblatt and Gerszberg created another Florida company, Aquaflier LLC, as part of a corporate shuffle intended to dodge Jetlev’s legitimate debts and shield its existing assets “so that Aquaflier could hit the ground running once it had a viable commercial product.’’

VICTIMS TELL SIMILAR STORIES

In interviews, JetLev’s customers identified Rosenblatt as the man who cheated them.

Jeff Gerlitz, a watersports enthusiast from Seattle, said he got caught up with Rosenblatt a year ago when he said he learned that JetLev was going to introduce two new and affordable jetpack products.

“I really wanted one,” said Gerlitz. “Matt said he’d cut me a deal for $8,000 if I’d wire him a $5,000 down payment.”  Gerlitz said he sent the payment in December 2013, but not his item.

In May in flew to Florida, rented a car and went to the address listed for JetLev where he met a few workers. He said he later received an email from Rosenblatt threatening him with arrest if he ever returned to the office.

Persons who complained to the Florida Attorney General’s Office, like those spoke with BrowardBulldog.org, told similar stories: that Rosenblatt wanted money up front, then didn’t deliver. Later, they said, he cut off all communication with them.

As of two months ago, Rosenblatt was still asking clients for money, according to Frazier Grandison, a Fort Lauderdale resident and ex-JetLev employee who said he originally had shares in JetLev and helped the company get on its feet with its initial product. He said he is considering a class action lawsuit against Rosenblatt as he too lost money.

“Rosenblatt is still taking money; a guy from the Bahamas sent in $50,000 a year ago and Matt told him a month ago that if he’d send in another $7,000 he would get the machines in a couple of weeks,” Grandison said in an interview last month.

O’Malley, the president of Jetpack America, said his company was the largest seller and supplier of JetLev products. A year ago, “Matt came in and promised different equipment and models,” O’Malley said, adding that he sent in the required deposits.

“He said he would deliver the products to us in November 2013. But then it was December, March, April and May. I had a number of clients waiting.”

O’Malley said that when he confronted Rosenblatt the JetLev CEO told him he planned to file for bankruptcy and walk away from the company.

But according to O’Malley’s lawsuit, the company has not filed for bankruptcy. A search of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court Website shows no record of a bankruptcy filing for JetLev.

“In fact, JetLev continues to offer jetpack equipment for sale, taking deposits on equipment that has yet to be delivered,’’ the lawsuit states. “Plaintiffs did not discover that JetLev had not gone bankrupt until just recently.”

The Florida Attorney General’s Office has urged victims to file a complaint by phone or online. They can call 1-866-9NO-SCAM or 1-850-414-3990.  To file a complaint online, go to www.myflorida.legal.com

Pay for play? Curbelo campaign boosted by School Board vendors he voted to help

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo visits Dr. Gilbert L. Porter Elementary School in southwest Miami-Dade.

Miami Congressman-Elect Carlos Curbelo visits Dr. Gilbert L. Porter Elementary School in southwest Miami-Dade.

During his campaign for Florida’s 26th congressional district, Rep.-Elect Carlos Curbelo wasn’t shy about collecting thousands of dollars of campaign contributions from individuals directly tied to corporations that benefited from his vote on the Miami-Dade School Board.

Curbelo’s campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission show that two-dozen people who either own or work for companies doing business with Miami-Dade Public Schools gave generously to the Miami Republican’s successful run against incumbent Democrat Joe Garcia.

The companies included charter schools, utility companies, food suppliers, and lobbying firms.

In all, Curbelo’s campaign received $60,700 from School Board vendor interests.

Owners and executives of six firms that had contracts renewed by the school board over the past two years contributed much of that money, $24,300. Curbelo cast a yes vote in support of each of those firms, records show.

In addition, owners and employees of eight other school board vendors with no business pending at that time gave $36,400 to Curbelo’s campaign.

Curbelo’s reliance on political contributions from School Board vendors creates the appearance of undue influence that government watchdogs say underscores the need to enact laws at the local, state, and federal level to prohibit such donations.

“There are pay-to-play laws where this type of scenario is limited or banned,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics based in Washington D.C. “It’s something that certainly merits scrutiny.”

CURBELO’S NOT TALKING

Curbelo, who relinquished his school board seat this month in advance of next month’s swearing in, did not return requests for comment left on his cellphone’s voicemail. Campaign spokeswoman Nicole Rapanos did not respond to emails with a list of questions for the congressman-elect.

Some jurisdictions already have laws in place aimed at curtailing “pay-to-play” political contributions.

In 2006, New Jersey enacted a law prohibiting city and county government agencies (school districts are not included) from awarding no-bid contracts to companies whose owners or employees have made political contributions to a candidate or a political committee. The law does not apply to contracts that are awarded in a “fair and open” bidding process

Locally, Miami Beach enacted a tough vendor ban on political contributions in 2003. City candidates cannot accept donations from developers, lobbyists, company executives or their employees if they have business pending with Miami Beach government. They remain free, however, to contribute money to political action committees and electioneering communications organizations.

Krumholz says laws that eliminate “pay-to-play” political contributions are the kind of campaign finance reform that restores public trust in the electoral process. In Curbelo’s case, she said, it would eliminate the perception that he’s beholden to companies conducting business with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

“While he’s still a sitting school board member, there is a clear opportunity for conflicts of interest to arise,” she said. “He may be inclined to vote based on the money and not the merits of the policy.”

Vendors such as charter schools could also benefit at the federal level now that Curbelo is a congressman, she added.

“It’s never a bad idea to court a sitting member of Congress,” Krumholz said. “Presumably, he can be useful to them in his new position since they already have a cordial relationship based on the contributions they have given.”

Curbelo won a bitter, close race against Garcia that was marked by attacks on both candidates’ character and integrity. On the campaign trail, Garcia often accused Curbelo with being more concerned about lining his own pockets than serving the people. Garcia, who served the last two years in Congress, cited Curbelo’s unwillingness to disclose the client list for his lobbying and public relations firm Capitol Gains, as well as the political contributions he got from companies doing business with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Curbelo’s campaign has run afoul of campaign finance reporting requirements. Last month, the Federal Elections Commission sent Curbelo’s campaign a warning letter asking it to explain numerous mistakes and inaccuracies with its October filing, including why it had misidentified or omitted $93,000 in contributions from political action committees.

In a response to the FEC, the campaign blamed the mistakes on a software glitch.

Curbelo’s campaign finance reports, school board meeting minutes and contracts show he collected contributions from people who own or manage firms with matters before the school board. The contributions were made a few weeks before or a few weeks after Curbelo cast his vote in favor.

CAMPAIGN MONEY FROM CHARTER SCHOOLS

For instance, four executives from Academica, which operates more than a dozen charter schools in Florida, each gave $2,600 – the maximum an individual can give a candidate per election – to Curbelo’s campaign. Those executives were President Fernando Zulueta, Vice-President Ignacio Zulueta, Senior Vice-President Magdalena Fresen, and Marketing Director Victor Barroso. The Zuluetas and Fresen gave the same day, Sept. 30, 2013. Barroso gave on August 1, 2013.

Six months earlier, Curbelo was among school board members who voted unanimously to approve contracts for five new charter schools operated by Academica, including elementary and middle schools at 9500 SW 97th Ave opposed by the East Kendall Homeowners Federation. The federation is a coalition of condo and town home associations in southwestern Miami-Dade.

According to a May 9, 2013 story in the Miami Herald, neighbors contacted board members before the vote to ask them to reject the schools or at least hold off the vote until the county decided whether or not to approve a re-zoning application submitted by Academica.

“We believe that by the School Board approving these applications you will be putting the cart before the horse, keeping in mind that the approval process from Miami-Dade County has a long way to go,” wrote Jose Suarez, president of the East Kendall Homeowners Federation.

Curbelo told the Herald state law prevented the school board from denying the contract based simply on neighborhood opposition. “We have a ministerial function here,” Curbelo said. “If the entity complies by the law we must approve the charter.”

Two months later, on June 19, 2013, the board, including Curbelo, approved more contracts with Academica regarding a new charter school and renewals for eight existing charter schools.

The Zuluetas referred comment to Fresen, who said the contributions to Curbelo’s campaign were unrelated to Academica’s business relationship with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

“Academica respects the rights of individuals to participate in and support the electoral process and believes that is essential to our democratic system,” Fresen said. “I personally believe that [Curbelo’s] support of parent choice during his tenure on the Miami-Dade County School Board has helped thousands of families in our community. I also believe that he will be a tireless advocate for those families in the U.S. Congress.”

Curbelo also received $2,600 each from Demetrio Perez and Jonathan Hage, owners of two other charter school companies with Miami-Dade schools contracts.

On March 12, Curbelo and seven other school board members voted to extend from five to 15 years the contract for an elementary school in downtown Miami operated by Hage’s Charter Schools USA. Two months later, the board, including Curbelo, voted to approve adding five years to a 10-year-contract with Perez’s Lincoln-Marti Schools.

School board vendors that supply vending machines, children’s lunches, tutoring and electrical services also gave to Curbelo’s campaign.

One of those companies is Hialeah-based AGC Electric. On September 3, 2013, the board, including Curbelo, approved a $4 million contract for electrical services that was split among nine firms, including Hialeah-based AGC.

AGC owner Tomas Curbelo gave Carlos Curbelo’s campaign a total of $5,200 for the primary and general elections in 2013. Tomas Curbelo did not return a phone message left with one of his employees. It is not known if the two men are related.

Marcel Monnar owns the tutoring company One-on-One Learning. On Sept. 20, 2013, he gave Curbelo’s campaign $1,000. Sixteen days later, Curbelo voted with other the board members to award a $3.4 million tutoring services contract among five firms, including One-on-One Learning.

Monnar did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Curbelos’ campaign also received $3,000 from the International Pizza Hut Franchisee Holders Association’s political action committee.

Koning Restaurants International, one of the largest Pizza Hut franchisees in the country, is one of eight pizza makers under contract with Miami-Dade Public Schools.

Koning’s owner, Al Salas, did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Pizza Hut had no apparent school board contracts at stake in the last two years.

Florida’s chief justice and the hunt for goof-off judges

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

Florida’s chief justice has ordered the state’s 20 chief judges to monitor the work of each judge in their circuit looking for goof-offs – a move that’s unnerved judges in South Florida and elsewhere.

In the same Dec. 1 administrative order, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga directed each chief judge to “separately communicate” with each trial court judge in their circuit “the importance of a professional work ethic and accountability to the judiciary as a full-time commitment.”

“Neglect of duty” offenses “shall be reported by the chief judge to the chief justice of this court,” Labarga’s order says.

Labarga declined an interview request to discuss what prompted the order.

But Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said, “The Chief Justice simply wants to make sure that the chief judges and the judges they supervise understand that there are consequences for violations of the public trust. We certainly realize that most of our judges honor their duties, but we feel it is a healthy thing to remind everyone of their ethical obligations.”

Broward, where judicial misbehavior has made national headlines and County Court Judge Gisele Pollack and Circuit Judge Laura Marie Watson are defending ethics charges brought against them by the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), is among a number of circuits thought to have motivated Labarga’s order.

“The Supreme Court has to have a statewide perspective,” said Waters. “The people in the 18th Circuit (Brevard and Seminole counties) are convinced that the order is aimed at them.” Three judges from the 18th Circuit have disciplinary cases pending before the JQC.

Still, over the years Broward has had its fair share of concern about judges allegedly shirking their duty.

Larry Seidlin, the weepy probate judge who gained notoriety presiding over the high-profile Anna Nicole Smith case, had a reputation for paying more attention to his backhand than his caseload before his 2007 retirement. And this fall’s election included allegations that defeated incumbent Judge Stephen Feren was frequently absent from the courthouse.

Chief judges are elected to two-year terms by their fellow judges and serve as the administrative officer in their circuit, with supervisory authority over all judges and court personnel.

ENSURING ACCOUNTABILITY

The new administrative order obliges chiefs to ensure accountability by the judges they oversee.

“Until this order came out, the chief judge, at least in Broward, was largely a ceremonial title where you went to rubber chicken lunches and you cut ribbons at the courthouse,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “I was told by at least four chief judges that whether a judge was intoxicated on the bench or was violating people’s rights by not following the law they had no authority to do anything…This order, as I read it, puts it clearly on the chief judges.”

Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein has the new, laborious chore of monitoring his colleagues’ work in the 17th Judicial Circuit. How will he do it?

“That’s an excellent question when you have 90 judges,” he said. “It’s hard to quantify a judge’s work.”

Weinstein said he hoped to get more specific direction from Labarga at the quarterly chief judges’ meeting at the Supreme Court today, Dec. 12.

“This will be discussed, and if it isn’t I will talk with Chief Justice Labarga personally to ask him, ‘What is it you actually want us to do?’” said Weinstein.

JAABBLOG, a courthouse blog written by attorney William Gelin, reported Tuesday that the chief justice’s administrative order may have been a response to a potential investigation of Broward’s judiciary by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The blog said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, confirmed that public hearings had been considered, but were obviated by Labarga’s order.

Simmons did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Waters, the high court’s spokesman, was asked whether Labarga was aware of the Senate’s concerns, and whether that prompted his order.

“We of course always have a dialogue going on with the Legislature and of course are open to whatever concerns they have,” said Waters, who declined further comment.

Slain al Qaeda chief tied to 9/11; Key figure in FBI’s once secret probe of Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

Adnan Shukrijumah, left, and Abdulazziz al-Hijji

A top al Qaeda operative reportedly shot dead in a weekend raid by the Pakistan army was a key figure in the FBI’s Sarasota investigation of a Saudi couple that declassified FBI documents say had “many connections” to the 9/11 hijackers.

Adnan G. El Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who attended Broward College in the late 1990s, was killed early Saturday morning in a helicopter gunship assault on a hideout in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.

Described by authorities as al Qaeda’s chief of global operations, Saudi-born Shukrijumah was a fugitive from a 2010 federal indictment in New York for his alleged role in plots to attack New York’s subway system and London’s Underground. The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

At the time of his death, the U.S. was offering a $5 million reward for information leading to Shukrijumah’s capture. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

BrowardBulldog.org, working with Irish journalists and authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, first reported in September 2011 that Shukrijumah was among a number of terrorist figures that a law enforcement source has said were identified by the FBI as having visited the Sarasota area home of Abdulazziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, prior to September 11, 2001.

They included 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, who were at the controls of the passenger jets that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, and Ziad Jarrrah, who crashed another jetliner into a Pennsylvania field. Also allegedly at the residence was Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta and three other hijackers aboard American Airlines Flight 11.

TIE TO SAUDI ROYAL FAMILY

The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they’d abruptly moved out of their home under suspicious circumstances about two weeks before the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The owner of the home at 4224 Escondito Circle was Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a member of the Saudi royal family.

The existence of the FBI’s investigation of the al-Hijjis was never disclosed to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks.

When the matter finally became public in 2011, FBI officials in Tampa and Miami acknowledged the investigation, but said it had turned up no connection to 9/11 – statements later contradicted by a handful of FBI records made public in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org.

A Fort Lauderdale federal judge is currently reviewing for possible public release more than 80,000 additional pages of classified 9/11 records he ordered the FBI to produce for his inspection last spring.

Sen. Graham said Monday that Shukrijumah’s death forecloses one avenue for learning more about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

“This is another price we’re paying by delaying full disclosure of what happened before and after 9/11,” said Graham. “Had information about what happened in Sarasota been made available a decade ago it might have resulted in our aggressive attempts to interrogate Shukrijumah.”

While the 9/11 Commission found nothing to firmly connect Shukrijumah to the September 11 plot, it did note he was a “well-connected al Qaeda operative” known as “Jafar the Pilot” and that he apparently accompanied Atta on a May 2, 2001 visit to the Miami District Immigration Office. Also present that day was a third man that the commission concluded was United 93 hijack pilot Jarrah, for whom Atta was seeking a visa extension.

“75 PERCENT SURE”

An immigration inspector who dealt with the trio readily remembered Atta when interviewed later. And after looking at Shukrijumah’s Most Wanted photo, she told authorities “she was ‘75 percent sure’ that she could identify the man who was with Atta as Shukrijumah.”

A report by commission staff titled “9/11 and Terrorist Travel,” also noted that “Shukrijumah’s father is a well-known imam in south Florida, having testified on behalf of Sheikh Rahman during his trial for the conspiracy to destroy New York landmarks” in 1995. Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, is serving a life sentence.

Gulshair Shukrijumah, once a prayer leader at a Brooklyn mosque where Rahman preached, moved his family to Miramar in the mid-1990s and became a religious leader at the Masijid al Hijra. He died in 2004.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law also tie Shukrijumah to al-Hijji and pre-9/11 events in Sarasota.

Wissam Hammoud, identified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “international terrorist associate,” told an FBI agent and a Sarasota County Sheriff’s detective in April 2004 that al-Hijji introduced him to his “friend” Shukrijumah at a soccer game at a Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001.

Hammoud also told the agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the 9/11 hijackers, the records say.

Hammoud is currently serving 21 years in prison after his 2005 guilty plea in Tampa to federal weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. He reaffirmed his previous statements to the FBI in 2012 interviews. His wife and sister-in-law also corroborated Hammoud’s account.

Al-Hijji, who in 2012 lived in London where he worked for Aramco Overseas – the European subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company, told the Daily Telegraph then that Hammoud was his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said by email. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

SHUKRIJUMAH ‘DOESN’T RING A BELL’

In a brief interview outside his office, al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

The FDLE previously declined to release its file on Shukrijumah, a citizen of Guyana.

Shukrijumah’s movements around the time of 9/11 are unclear. The Miami Herald reported in 2011 that the FBI said he’d left the country in the weeks before 9/11. ABC News reported a decade ago that the FBI said Shukrijumah was in the U.S. until shortly after 9/11.

Whatever the truth, Shukrijumah appears to have quickly risen through the ranks of al Qaeda, eventually assuming a position that NBC News reported was once held by alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

Pakistani forces reportedly caught up with Shukrijumah early Saturday morning in an an area that until recently was a key Taliban stronghold in Pakistan, according to the London Daily Mirror.

“In an intelligence borne operation, top al-Qaeda leader Adnan el Shukrijumah was killed by (the) Pakistan Army in an early morning raid in Shinwarsak, South Waziristan today,” the military said in a statement, the Mirror said. The remote region borders Afghanistan.

“His accomplice and a local facilitator were also killed in the raid,” the statement said.

Reuters reported that in Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, all phone lines and mobile phone signals were shut down overnight and the roads were blocked in anticipation of the army’s strike.

A military official told the Mirror that security forces first heard that Chinese hostages were held at the location where the assault took place, learning only later about Shukrijumah’s presence and planning a larger operation.

The Mirror reported that two intelligence officers said militants opened fire on the Pakistani military and Shukrijumah was killed in the ensuing gun battle. Shukrijumah’s wife and four children were reportedly taken into custody.

One soldier was killed and another wounded, the paper reported.

“Serious concerns” about court orders altered by BSO prompt Broward judges’ meeting

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward County Court Judges Sharon Zeller, right, and Ginger Lerner-Wren

Broward County Court Judges Sharon Zeller, right, and Ginger Lerner-Wren

Concerned that the sheriff’s office has altered the terms of misdemeanor probation orders without informing judges, Broward’s top county court judge has called a meeting of judges for next week to assess what’s happening.

“It is apparent that there is a practice of modifying the terms of probation without the knowledge or input of the judiciary,” Administrative Judge Sharon Zeller said in a recent memo to all criminal division judges that announced the Dec. 10 meeting.

“This raises serious concerns: the legality of probation, with probation, instead of the court, determining the terms of probation; modifying terms of probation without knowledge of the court, and enforcement.”

No law or administrative order of the Broward court authorizes the Broward Sheriff’s Office to engage in the little-known practice of unilaterally changing court-ordered reporting requirements to reduce how often defendants must report in person to a probation officer.

Florida Statute 948.03 gives judges the sole authority to “determine the terms and conditions of probation.”

As BrowardBulldog.org reported last month, Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren discovered what BSO was doing in early October while questioning a defendant. She quickly found that dozens of her probation orders had been changed, and prohibited the practice in her courtroom, calling it “outside the law” and “not in the interest of public safety.”

A probation officer later told the judge in open court, “This is occurring in order to alleviate workforce shortages or pressures.”

In an interview, Judge Zeller said that an attorney for the circuit court, Alexandra Rieman, has researched the matter and “believes that Judge Lerner-Wren is correct.” Zeller said a new administrative order of the court might be needed to address the problem.

“It seems easily solvable,” Zeller said.

DOSAGE PROBATION

BSO Community Programs Director David Scharf, who oversees probation, said in an interview that BSO adopted the practice as policy about 2009, but he declined several requests over the past month to make public a copy of that policy.

The practice, known as “dosage probation,” is based on what Scharf said are “evidence-based” risk assessments of probationers to determine how many doses, or times, a probationer must report in person to an officer. He cited language in standard misdemeanor probation order forms that he said authorizes probation officers to modify conditions imposed by a judge. The form tells defendants that “each month you will make a full and truthful report in person to your probation officer, unless otherwise directed by your probation officer.”

Thousands of misdemeanor defendants are adjudicated guilty every year and many are sentenced to varying terms of probation. Asked how many times BSO changed court-ordered reporting requirements for misdemeanor defendants last year, Scharf declined to answer.

Judge Zeller said she does not plan to ask BSO to provide such an accounting, but said individual judges may do so.

Probationers instructed not to report are nevertheless required to pay BSO the full cost of supervision, a monthly fee of $75.

Take the case of Christopher Thurlow, a Fort Lauderdale man found guilty last April of battery and sentenced to “make a full and truthful report in person to your probation officer” once a month for 12 months. A standard special condition of probation required him to pay the full cost of his supervision, $900, at a rate of $75 a month.

Court and BSO records show BSO later deemed Thurlow a medium risk, placing him on what’s known as Level 2 supervision. Level 2 offenders are told to report in person every other month – or six times a year. In the months they aren’t required to show up for an in-person assessment, they mail in a form with several questions including, “Have you used alcohol excessively or any controlled substances this month?”

No matter how often he reports in person, however, BSO still requires Thurlow to pay the full $900 for 12 months of reporting supervision. “Probationers do pay monthly costs of supervision regardless of their report in status,” BSO spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion explained.

BIG MONEY IN SUPERVISION

Misdemeanor probation supervision fees represent a significant sum for BSO. During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, BSO supervised 12,500 misdemeanor probationers and collected $2.8 million in such fees, according to information provided by BSO.

BSO’s probation workload is crushing. Last year, BSO employed just 31 probation specialists to handle the onslaught of probationers.

The State Attorney’s Office has taken a wait-and-see approach, with a spokesman indicating sympathy for Judge Lerner-Wren’s concerns, but saying it’s “not directly our fight.”

In a Nov. 18 memo about the matter to her fellow judges, Judge Lerner-Wren mentioned receiving a call from Sheriff Scott Israel days after BrowardBulldog.org reported the story.

He “wanted to say he was 95 percent in agreement. He also stated he only wants to work with the judges and his office will gladly comply with whatever a judge wants for his or her division,” said Lerner-Wren.

Lerner-Wren, who declined to be interviewed about her conversation with the sheriff, also cited “pertinent” Florida law, including the Separation of Powers provision of the Florida Constitution.

“It seems logical to conclude that unless county criminal division judges transmit a directive to BSO to curtail the systemic practice of changing sentencing orders of probation without court notification or court approval, this practice will continue,” she wrote.

BSO’s practice of altering probation terms could also run afoul of another constitutional provision which expressly grants victims of crime “the right to be informed, to be present, and to be heard when relevant, at all stages of criminal proceedings.”

In Thurlow’s case, for example, the battery victim was not informed about a Nov. 13 hearing at which his terms of probation were discussed, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

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