Lawsuit: Rescind variance for ex-U.S. Rep.’s Hollywood charter school

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org

Rooftop "vegetation" atop Hollywood's Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

Rooftop “vegetation” atop Hollywood’s Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

The city of Hollywood violated municipal law when it approved a request by the controversial Ben Gamla middle-high school to stop maintaining a rooftop vegetation area that was a key consideration for a zoning exception allowing the school in a residential neighborhood.

This and other allegations made in a lawsuit filed by the Citizens For Responsible Development Inc. ask the Broward Circuit Court to rescind a Hollywood Planning and Development Board-approved variance for the school to operate without the rooftop green space at the facility headed by former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL).

The school, which has drawn neighborhood opposition since it was proposed and opened during the past three years, was able to build a larger complex on its property at 2648 Van Buren St. by pledging to provide green area on the school’s roof rather than creating an open space recreational area elsewhere on its property, according to the complaint.

The school “should stick to” maintaining the rooftop green space, said Mark Schubert, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives near the school. The concern in the neighborhood, he added, is that Ben Gamla will abandon the rooftop green space and consider enclosing it for possible expansion, adding to existing traffic problems in the area just west of I-95 and south of Hollywood Boulevard.

“We believe it was clear the application [for the school] failed to meet the requirements of the city code” for the variance, said Michael Dutko, attorney for Citizens.

The planning board decision, the lawsuit said, has created “a concrete jungle to which Ben Gamla is contributing with its lack of open space and additional traffic which a larger school will create.”

Deutsch defended the planning board decision. “The planning board didn’t see it that way,” said Deutsch. “The board listened to testimony and rejected the pleas to deny.”

A zoning exception

In late 2013, the same city Planning and Development Board approved a zoning exception for Ben Gamla to build a middle-senior high school on 1.52 acres, with numerous conditions, including a commitment to provide and maintain a green space vegetation area on the roof.

The rooftop green space, the lawsuit said, provided about 10,000 square feet to meet the open space requirements under the city code. This also allowed the school to have a larger building footprint on the property, the complaint stated.

Deutsch said the grassy space on the roof was not self-imposed by the school, but was required by the city. The lawsuit, however, said that nothing in the city code required the school to have a green vegetation area.

But after the school opened in the fall of 2015, Ben Gamla officials “decided to abandon the green roof because it proved impractical and difficult to maintain,” the lawsuit stated.

Because the school was already constructed and it could not provide the needed open space on the property, the lawsuit stated, it sought a “hardship variance” to relieve it of some of the open space requirement.

The lawsuit says that at the June 9, 2016 hearing before the Planning and Development Board, city planners told board members that because the rooftop vegetation space was “self-imposed” by the school, city code does not permit the issuance of a variance. City staff urged denial.

City attorney Jeffrey Sheffel, according to the lawsuit, reiterated that the board could not issue the variance if the grassy rooftop was self-imposed. Sheffel did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Board issues variance

Nevertheless, the planning board voted 6-3 to issue the variance, leading the citizens group to file the lawsuit in July.

If the variance withstands the legal challenge, Deutsch said, the school plans to clean up the rooftop and create a play field for students. Currently, he said, they are playing on a parking lot area at the rear of the property.

If the variance is blocked the school would have to look at some other solution or stay with a limited physical activity program in the parking lot area. 

In its petition for a variance, the school stated, that it was entitled to a variance because the proposed change does not materially alter aspects of the already-built facility — height and setbacks remain the same and the facility will continue to provide educational services. Shifting the play area to the rooftop will lessen noise in the neighborhood, the application stated.

Deutsch said the city commission, in effect, supported the planning board variance when it later rejected pleas for the commission to review the decision. In Hollywood, planning board decisions are not automatically reviewed by the city commission unless a majority of the commission wants to do so.

Deutsch also called neighbors’ fears that Ben Gamla plans to expand the middle-high school “absurd.” Residents, however, have expressed suspicions because – after winning approval for a two-story school – Ben Gamla representatives met with city officials about enclosing the rooftop area to add a third floor. The matter did not advance, but representatives linked to the school also have been connected to property acquisitions near Ben Gamla.

The former congressman was also critical of city commissioner Peter Hernandez, saying he had a part in the legal action challenging the city approved variance. “Commissioner Fernandez is trying to hurt Ben Gamla,” Deutsch said.

Hernandez declined to comment on the issue, including his membership (as stated in the complaint) in the group that filed the lawsuit. Hernandez represents the neighborhood that includes the Ben Gamla school. He has said that he has no objection to the students, just that the school was overwhelming for the residential neighborhood.

The lawsuit also complained that the city failed to provide adequate advance notice of the planning board’s hearing and backup information to the community. Residents received as little as a day or two notice before the hearing, giving them little time to prepare a response. Also, residents were limited to a few minutes each to speak.

The city of Hollywood, which has hired an outside law firm in the matter, is expected to respond to the complaint by Dec 31. Ben Gamla has formally intervened in the lawsuit, Deutsch said.

Legal cases challenging planning and zoning decisions by municipal agencies are heard by a three-member panel of judges that may rule based on documents filed or it may hear arguments by the parties.

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Keys Gate Charter School in Homestead. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

Florida Department of Education general counsel Matthew Mears.

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

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

Opinon sought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI coughs up new 9/11 records about Sarasota; Documents, evidence missing

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

New York’s World Trade Center before September 11, 2001

Newly released FBI documents say agents investigating 9/11 connections did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that 9/11 hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family.

The FBI’s surprising assertion that agents chose not to collect basic evidence during its once-secret Sarasota investigation is contained in a previously classified “Memorandum for the Record” about an FBI briefing given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 30, 2014.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, called the FBI’s statement “stunning.”

The memorandum also fails to explain, as the commission’s final report suggested it would, the basis for FBI statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission that sought to discredit an April 2002 FBI report that – contrary to the FBI’s public comments – said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

A heavily censored copy of the four-page Memorandum for the Record is among more than 200 pages of declassified 9/11 Review Commission records released to FloridaBulldog.org this month by the FBI amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.

The Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, but was largely controlled by the FBI. Its three members, all of whom were paid by the FBI, included former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.

New questions about Review Commission

The Review Commission operated in secret for about a year and went out of business when it issued its final report in March 2015. The memo, cited in the report’s footnotes, raises new questions about whether the commission made an actual, thorough review of what happened in Sarasota or simply accepted the FBI’s assertions.

“It’s somewhere between just blind acceptance of whatever the FBI put before them and the failure of the FBI to disclose other information not in this memo,” said Graham.

Florida driver's license photo of Mohamed Atta

Florida driver’s license photo of Mohamed Atta

The FBI’s Sarasota investigation began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when neighbors in the upscale Prestancia development alerted law enforcement to the abrupt departure of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home at 4224 Escondito Circle about two weeks before 9/11. The couple left numerous personal belongings, including their cars, clothes, furniture and a refrigerator full of food.

The home was owned by al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to the late Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, a nephew of former King Fahd, and eldest son of Saudi Arabia’s current monarch, King Salman. The prince died in July 2001 at age 46.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. The story included statements by Prestancia’s security chief and a counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as to how the FBI had used the gatehouse’s sign-in logs and photographs of license plates to discover that cars used by 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited al-Hijji’s home. Atta and two other hijack pilots took flight lessons at nearby Venice Municipal Airport.

No disclosure to Congress, 9/11 Commission

The story also noted the FBI had not disclosed its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 or the subsequent 9/11 Commission. The FBI has said it did notify Congress and the 9/11 Commission, but a number of persons affiliated with those probes, including former Sen. Graham, have said they were not told about the Sarasota Saudis.

The newly released Memorandum for the Record does not address the significant question of whether the FBI notified Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, and if not, why. It does, however, dispute the accounts of both Prestancia’s then-security chief, Larry Berberich, and the counterterrorism officer who said FBI agents collected and analyzed the gatehouse records that documented who entered Prestancia prior to 9/11 and where they went.

“The FBI did not obtain the gate records from the community because there was not a justified reason to believe there was a connection with the hijackers. There was no investigative belief or reason to obtain the records,” the memo says.

“It’s unbelievable that they would make the statement that they didn’t collect the records because they didn’t have a belief that there was a connection,” Graham said. “It was the records that would have given them that connection.”

Nevertheless, the memo says elsewhere that the FBI concluded there was “no evidence the hijackers visited the family’s residence.” The memo does not explain how, if the gate records were not obtained, the FBI could reach that conclusion.

The FBI has said in public comments, and to the 9/11 Review Commission, that it found “no evidence” connecting the Sarasota Saudis to any of the 9/11 hijackers, “nor was there any connection found between the family and the 9/11 plot.”

A startling statement

The memo, however, includes a startling statement about the FBI’s record-keeping practices that indicates the bureau cannot back up its conclusions. “There is no actual documentation of searches and work done to rule out connections,” the memo says.

The memorandum goes on to dispute the counterterrorism officer’s account of how agents, using a subpoena, obtained phone company records about incoming and outgoing calls to the Escondito house. A link analysis – tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversation – found that calls dating back more than a year prior to 9/11 “lined up with the known suspects,” the counterterrorism officer said.

The links were not only to Atta and other hijack pilots, but to other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center, and al Qaeda terrorist Adnan Shukrijumah, the counterterrorism officer said. Shukrijumah, a Broward resident later added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist List, was reported killed in a military raid in Pakistan in December 2014.

The memorandum, however, says, “The FBI found there is no evidence and no grounds that the family, or 2 & 3 degrees of separation, had any telephonic connection,” with the hijackers.

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

FBI Director James Comey, second from right, is flanked by 9/11 Review Commissioners Tim Roemer, right, Ed Meese and Bruce Hoffman, far left. Photo: FBI

Neither the memo nor the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report indicate that the commission sought to verify any of the FBI’s assertions. The FBI has declined to make public records about its phone record analysis.

Similarly, the memo discusses statements made to the 9/11 Review Commission by the FBI regarding its own April 2002 “many connections” report linking the Sarasota Saudis and 9/11 figures.

80,000 pages

 The FBI released that redacted report, containing national security information and originally marked “declassify on 03-14-2038,” to Florida Bulldog in 2013 during a separate Freedom of Information lawsuit that sought access to records of the FBI’s Sarasota probe.

 

In that case, a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale ordered the FBI in April 2014 to produce for his inspection 80,000 pages of records from its Tampa area field office. The judge’s inspection is ongoing.

Before the 9/11 Review Commission, however, the FBI disavowed its report, saying it was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated,” according to the commission’s final report. The FBI went on to tell the commission that the special agent who wrote it, when questioned later, “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

Still, the Memorandum for the Record cited in the commission’s report says the unnamed special agent wrote the report to request opening a more urgent investigation of the Sarasota Saudis, but that didn’t happen.

“Tampa did the right thing by entering information into Rapid Start,” the memo says, referring to the tracking information management system used by the FBI prior to 9/11. “After 3 calls they opened a case. They interviewed the family members when they returned to the U.S. [several years later.] They obtained their contact information. However, Tampa did not have the derogatory needed to bump the investigation up to a [redacted].”

The memo does not explain why, if the 2002 report was “wholly unsubstantiated,” the agent who wrote it would have sought to draw attention to his own shoddy work by seeking further investigation. Likewise, the memo does not address why the FBI made public such a flawed report or why it redacted information from it due to reasons of national security.

The last section of the memo, “Gaps/Possible Issues/Recommendations” was redacted in full under an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act regarding “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.”

Mother of slain ex-Broward al Qaeda boss hopes for end to stigma

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan El Shukrijumah in 2003.

FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan El Shukrijumah in 2003.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Nearly two years have passed since Miramar’s Zuhrah A. Jumah got news that her eldest son, Adnan, had been killed during a military raid on an al Qaeda hideout in a mountainous corner of northwest Pakistan.

Lately, she wonders how long Adnan El Shukrijumah’s ugly reputation as a dangerous senior al Qaeda commander will continue to trail her and her family.

“I go to the airport. My name comes up on the computer and they stop me. They say, ‘You’ve been selected’,” says Jumah, a mild-mannered widow with 13 grandchildren who has lived in the same modest home off West Hallandale Beach Boulevard for 20 years. “I’m searched. Sometimes they question me.”

Those traveling with her are also met with extra suspicion by airport security – even her 2-year-old granddaughter.

“You want to take me. Take me,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. “Just leave my grandkids alone. You’re disturbing their lives.”

The family’s names can be confusing to Westerners. Jumah explains that El Shukri is the family name, and Jumah is her last name. Broward property records dating to 1996, including the deed to her home, identify her by that name. For reasons that are unclear, however, she has often been identified in news stories by the name Zuhrah Abdu Ahmed.

Zuhrah A. Jumah, top left, and her son Adnan El Shukrijumah, right and bottom.

Zuhrah A. Jumah, top left, and her son Adnan El Shukrijumah, right and bottom.

Jumah says the last time she spoke with Adnan was “12 to 15 years ago.” She said that a week after 9/11 he phoned her, “Did you see what happened?” he asked. She said he was “shocked and scared” because Muslims were being blamed and even then he was on the FBI’s radar as a suspect in plotting an attack in Florida. She said she believed her phone was tapped.

By then authorities had identified the 19 suicide hijackers who crashed passenger jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field as citizens of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon.

‘I gave him comfort’

“Did you see how they put out the claim that we did it?” Adnan Shukrijumah told his mother, who said: “I told him if you’re not involved you have nothing to fear. I gave him comfort.”

Jumah said she and her late husband, Gulshair M. El Shukri Jumah, a local imam with ties to imprisoned New York radical Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, were home when the FBI arrived the day after the terrorist attacks looking for Adnan. He’d apparently left the country months before, however.

“The FBI was here the next day looking for Adnan,” she said. “They searched everything and took a computer that Adnan used.” It was not returned, she said.

The FBI has said Adnan Shukrijumah was a hardened terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head and an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a variety of charges stemming from his 2010 federal indictment in New York playing an alleged leadership role in a plot to attack New York City’s subway system, as well as other targets in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

FBI agents have visited Jumah’s home many times since 9/11. “They come every time something happens,” she says. The last time was in December 2014, “to see if he was really killed.” She refused to talk to them.

“We believe, as Muslims, things happen to test your faith,” she said.

Jumah, 55, says talk about her son’s ties to al Qaeda “makes no sense to me. I avoid it.” Instead, she recalls Adnan as “a nice, kind person” who wanted to have a family and a life – perhaps in South Florida. “He told me, ‘Mother, you must think what I’ve accomplished” she said, referring to his studies in computer engineering at Broward College and a side business as a computer technician.

‘He liked to travel’

Asked why, if her son was not involved in terrorism, he’d turn up in a remote region of Pakistan at an alleged al Qaeda compound, she says, “He liked to travel. He liked to move around. He’d gone there after all of the news and media and the blame and the claims.”

Adnan, born in Saudi Arabia in 1975, went to Pakistan to do business.

“He was going to look, to buy stuff and then sell it wholesale… kids’ clothes, sunglasses, jewelry – things like that. It was a business trip,” she said. Still, she doesn’t know the names of anyone Adnan worked with who could verify that account.

Adnan Shukrijumah, 39 at the time of his reported death, was killed during a firefight with Pakistani soldiers and a helicopter gunship on Dec. 6, 2014. Though it is widely accepted that he died that day, the FBI has yet to confirm it and he remains on its Most Wanted Terrorists List. An FBI spokesman has described the confirmation process as “international in scope and quite involved.”

Jumah believes that the Pakistani army killed her son. Now, she’s hoping the FBI will confirm his death and allow her to move on with her life.

“I want it to end,” she says, wearily. “I want it to be closed and finished.”

FBI Director Comey’s credibility issues go beyond presidential politics to 9/11 panel

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey discusses the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings during a press conference at FBI headquarters on March 25, 2015. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (left), and former Congressman Tim Roemer (right), are also pictured.

FBI Director James Comey discusses the 9/11 Review Commission’s findings during a press conference at FBI headquarters on March 25, 2015. Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (left), and former Congressman Tim Roemer (right), are also pictured.

FBI Director James Comey’s credibility is under heavy fire due to his headline-making public statements about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton that have entangled the bureau in presidential politics.

Republicans howled in July when Comey publicly declared he wouldn’t recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Over the weekend, Democrat Clinton reportedly told supporters she blames her surprising loss to President-elect Donald Trump on Comey’s announcement 11 days before the election that he had restarted the email probe, as well as his announcement two days before the election that an examination of newly discovered emails had not changed his July findings.

But those aren’t the first credibility issues to be raised about Republican Comey since he became FBI chief in 2013. Others, largely unreported, arose from his handling of a secretive blue-ribbon panel authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence.

Under Comey’s direction, the 9/11 Review Commission became a captive of the FBI. He chose its three commissioners, authorized they be paid undisclosed sums and arranged for FBI personnel to spoon-feed them information. As the panel’s final report makes clear, the commissioners in turn were pliant to the very agency they were tasked to examine.

After the Review Commission was finished, Comey misled the public by promoting the fiction that it was an independent panel of experts.

“This is a moment of pride for the FBI,” Comey told reporters when the Review Commission’s final report was released, according to the New York Times. “An outside group of some of our most important leaders and thinkers has stared hard at us and said, ‘You have done a great job at transforming yourself.’ They’ve also said what I’ve said around the country: ‘It’s not good enough.’ ”

But the 9/11 Review Commission members – Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman – were not outsiders. Each signed personal services contracts with the FBI at the outset that under federal regulations made them de facto FBI employees. The FBI has declined to say how much they were paid.

The Review Commission issued its final 127-page report, “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” on March 25, 2015. It was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the bureau needed to speed up reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.

An embarrassing 2002 FBI report

The Review Commission’s most controversial finding: a section that curiously sought to discredit an April 16, 2002 FBI report that had become an embarrassment to the bureau.

The 2002 report discussed the findings of the FBI’s investigation of a Saudi family who it said had “fled” their Sarasota area home shortly before the 9/11 attacks and were later determined to have had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” Florida Bulldog obtained a heavily censored copy of the document during ongoing Freedom of Information litigation.

The FBI report corroborated earlier source-based reporting by Bulldog and Irish journalist Anthony Summers that in 2011 disclosed the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation. Among other things, the story reported how law-enforcement agents had obtained community security records – including photos of license tags – showing that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had visited the home in the gated Prestancia neighborhood.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11

The FBI did not inform Congress or the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota investigation, according to former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham (D-FL), who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks. The FBI has said Congress and the 9/11 Commission were told.

The 2002 report, however, conflicted with the FBI’s prior public statements that said it had found no connection to terrorism during its once-secret investigation into the apparently hasty departure from Sarasota of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family. The couple moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.

The Review Commission, while silent about whether the FBI informed Congress and the 9/11 Commission of its Sarasota probe, cited unidentified FBI officials who called the April 2002 FBI report “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote the [report] was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” said the report, which does not identify the allegedly inept agent or provide further explanation.

Embracing the FBI

The Review Commission’s report, however, recounted the FBI’s assertions without challenge or reservation, adopting them as its own findings. Its recommendation: that the bureau “continue its thorough investigation into the 9/11 attacks.”

As originally conceived in legislation proposed in 2012, the 9/11 Review Commission was to be much tougher: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would take testimony and receive evidence in public. Its chairman and vice chairman would be appointed by the leaders of the House and Senate, staff would be hired without outside interference, and the General Services Administration would provide support services.

That proposal failed, but the idea of a 9/11 Review Commission was repurposed. Instead of being under congressional control, it was to be put under the administration and control of the FBI. All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control was stripped out.

The proposed FBI 9/11 Review Commission was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.

Following delays attributed to sequestration, the Review Commission was established in January 2014. It relied heavily on the FBI for information, and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. intelligence community. About 30 individuals were interviewed, including CIA Director John Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met with Comey several times, the report said.

Commissioners got more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics like the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code name for its 9/11 investigation.

Commissioners also traveled to eight FBI field offices and six legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, according to the report.

The FBI declined to release any transcripts, memorandums or other back-up records generated by the Review Commission. In June 2016, Florida Bulldog sued the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act for access to those records. Trial is set for March in U.S. District Court in Miami.

Broward Health data breach released patient information to tax fraud ring

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBullog.org bhmcentrance

For the second time in three years, a data breach at Broward Health has caused the release of personal patient information in what one district executive called “a ring of thugs.”

Broward Health disclosed the breach on its website last month, saying it was advised by “law enforcement authorities” on May 12 that “patient information was discovered at an individual’s home during a routine investigation.”

Broward Health’s internal investigation later determined the sensitive patient information “was taken from Broward Health Imperial Point” in Fort Lauderdale by “an unidentified individual.”

The stolen information were hospital Facesheets that contain a patient’s full name, date of birth, address, phone numbers, Social Security number, primary insurance provider, insurance guarantor, reason for visit, emergency contact/next of kin information.

“The data removal is believed to have occurred between November 2011 and March 2012. We have notified 126 former patients or their listed next of kin of the privacy breach by mailing a letter to their last known address on September 23, 2016,” Broward Health’s disclosure said. “We also offered them an identity theft protection service at no cost.”

No explanation was given for the gap in time between the breach and the date it was discovered. Broward Health, however, said it has completed its internal probe and is “reviewing and enhancing safeguards to better ensure the security of patient information.”

Doris Peek, Broward Health’s senior vice president and chief information officer, said the breach is the latest in a series of data thefts at Florida hospitals, including Fort Lauderdale’s Holy Cross, Hollywood’s Memorial Regional and the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

‘Busted last year’

“This ring of thugs got busted last year,” said Peek. “They send in tax information to the IRS about persons to get their tax refund. They targeted the older and sick population.

Peek said the identity theft ring has paid hospital registrars, among the lowest paid of hospital workers, to provide them with printed copies of the Facesheets.

Police in Coral Springs, responding to a domestic violence report, found the Broward Health Facesheets, and turned them over to Broward Health’s security department, said Peek.

Broward Health disclosed a larger data breach in 2013 at Broward Health Medical Center, the hospital district’s flagship in downtown Fort Lauderdale. That time Broward Health sent letters to approximately 960 former patients notifying them of the breach involving their personal information.

Again the breach involved misappropriated Facesheets. However, Broward Health managed to identify the culprit as “an employee who no longer works at the hospital.” The ex-employee was not named. The breach was said to have occurred between October and December 2012.

In September 2013, Holy Cross notified 9,900 former patients that a former employee had wrongly accessed their personal information. CBS Miami reported then that an investigation by the hospital found “the employee may have wanted the information to file fraudulent tax returns.”
Holy Cross suffered another breach in 2010 when an identity theft ring obtained emergency room files to steal Social Security numbers and other information of about 1,500 patients, according to a report in the Sun-Sentinel. Four people were arrested, including an emergency room employee.

In 2012, Memorial Healthcare System notified about 9,500 patients of an investigation into two ex-employees who improperly accessed patient records. The former employees were apparently using the private information in those records to file false tax returns, according to a story at the time by Modern Healthcare.

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org solar-panels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funding sources not disclosed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broward grand jury to review death of black man tasered by Coconut Creek police

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Calvon "Andre" Reid

Calvon “Andre” Reid

Broward’s grand jury will convene next week to consider whether four Coconut Creek police officers should face criminal charges in the death of a black man who was shot multiple times by police firing Taser stun guns.

Calvon “Andre” Reid, a 39-year-old meat salesman, died on Feb. 4, 2015 – two days after being shot down in a parking lot of the large, and largely white, Wynmoor retirement community.

“At long last,” said West Palm Beach attorney Jack Scarola, who represents Reid’s family. “We are all very anxious to see what happens in the course of this proceeding and even more anxious to get past this so we can conduct our own investigation.”

Details about the death of Calvon Reid have been shrouded in secrecy from the moment the first Taser was fired about 1:30 a.m. outside 1701 Andros Isle, awakening residents to a sound like a firecracker going off. Coconut Creek police did not disclose the police-involved shooting, or announce that someone had died in police custody until after the Florida Bulldog published eyewitness accounts on Feb. 27, 2015.

The shooting, and the resulting heavy media scrutiny, cost city police chief Michael Mann his job. He was forced to resign in early March, days after publicly declaring at a press conference that there had been “no cover-up” by police.

In addition to questions about possible police use of excessive force, the grand jury must sort through several mysteries when it meets on Nov. 9.

Police have said Reid was wearing torn and bloodstained clothes, had cuts on his hands and body, and was in an “agitated, combative and incoherent state” when they encountered him inside the gated community. But why was Reid there? How did he get there? And was he visiting someone? Witnesses heard Reid repeatedly cry out, “Baby! Baby! They’re gonna kill me!”

Broward Assistant State Attorney Yael Gamm will present the case to the grand jury on behalf of longtime State Attorney Michael Satz. The proceedings are closed to the public by law.

State Attorney’s track record

Satz’s track record in such cases: since 1980, just one police officer in Broward – BSO Deputy Peter Peraza in 2015 – has been indicted for killing someone while on duty. A judge dismissed the manslaughter charge against Peraza in July. Satz’s office is appealing.

The four Coconut Creek officers being investigated by the grand jury are Sgts. David Freeman and Darren Karp and Officers Thomas Eisenring and Daniel Rush. Freeman, Karp and Eisenring are white. Rush is African-American.

In April, Rush was arrested by Broward Sheriff’s deputies and accused of molesting four young boys. He was later released on bond and is awaiting trial.

The walkway where the first Taser shots were fired. Small bloodstains remained in the tile grouting.

The walkway where the first Taser shots were fired. Small bloodstains remained in the tile grouting.

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak declined to discuss his findings in the case, citing state law that exempts information about ongoing criminal investigations from public disclosure.

Last year, however, Florida Bulldog reported that Mallak’s office ruled Reid’s death a homicide and the cause electrocution. Attorney Scarola called that “consistent with having been over-Tased.”

Taser electroshock guns long have been promoted and sold to police departments as a non-lethal alternative to handguns. The company’s website says, “Taser products protect lives, prevent injuries, reduce litigation and save agencies money.”

In 2009, however, Taser International warned police agencies that use their stun guns to avoid chest shots, saying they posed a risk of injury. A 2012 study reported in the medical journal Circulation found that Taser shocks to the chest could cause cardiac arrest and sudden death.

Attorneys for the police officers, who by law are excluded from grand jury proceedings, have challenged the medical examiner’s findings in pre-grand jury discussions with prosecutors. They argued that toxicology reports prepared by a privately retained expert found something the medical examiner’s office missed: traces of flakka in Reid’s body. Flakka is the notorious and powerful synthetic stimulant that fueled a short-lived, yet frightening epidemic in Broward two years ago.

“He was on flakka”

“The issue here is more than just the Taser,” said attorney Michael Dutko, an ex-Fort Lauderdale policeman. “Why was he there? We don’t know. But he was on flakka and his somewhat out-of-control behavior was consistent with that.”

Dutko said the Coconut Creek officers committed no crime.

“Our position essentially is these officers were dispatched to a call for a citizen acting erratically and upon their arrival their observations as to his condition gave them cause for great concern and great alarm,” Dutko said. “They had reason to be alarmed for the safety of others, their safety, and his safety and had the absolute need for his compliance.”

Dutko declined to discuss the case in more detail. “Obviously this is an important story and one that will be reported about, but our office is really very concerned about maintaining a balance of responding appropriately, but not invading the province of the grand jury.”

Scarola, who represents Reid’s family, said he had not heard about the flakka finding, but said it wasn’t a revelation.

“It’s not a surprise because that would be a reasonable approach as a defense of these officers to try and break the causal connection between their excessive use of force and Andre’s death,” Scarola said. “But they are going to have a hard time defending based upon any contention that there was no excessive force. That’s pretty well established and corroborated by eyewitnesses.”

Two of those eyewitnesses are Wynmoor residents John Arendale and Bonnie Eshelman, who were jolted awake early that morning by a violent commotion outside the front door of their ground-floor apartment.

The couple observed the fatal encounter through their windows. In interviews, they said that as many as four officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys. They said Reid, a father of two sons, was struck at least twice in the chest by wires tethered to the high-voltage stun guns that can deliver a painful and immobilizing shock from as far as 35 feet away.

Among other things, they heard Reid cry out “I can’t breathe” while on the ground under several officers.

Nevertheless, city detectives didn’t interview Arendale and Eshelman until shortly after their accounts were published on Feb 27, 2015. A month later, they were re-interviewed by detectives Frank Fuentes and James Dingus, accompanied by a crime scene technician who took photographs of the view out their windows.

Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, a police policy expert and trial consultant, told Florida Bulldog last year that the detectives’ actions appear to have been an improper attempt to discredit their testimony.

“It gives the impression to me that the police were trying to protect the officers’ interest as opposed to getting down to the issues at hand, which ought to be was the use of force justified under the circumstances and if so what amount of force,” said Harms.

Arendale and Eshelman are among a number of witnesses expected to testify before the grand jury next week.

Race for job of Broward chief judge takes shape; Three hopefuls so far

By David Lyons, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right, Broward Circuit judges Alfred Horowitz, Jack Tuter and Carlos Rodriguez

From left to right, Broward Circuit judges Alfred Horowitz, Jack Tuter and Carlos Rodriguez

A three-way race is looming among prominent circuit judges to become the next chief judge of Broward County, a largely ceremonial post that has been used as a bully pulpit for better court services and a venue for third-rail policy disputes.

Veteran Circuit Judge Peter Weinstein, who has served six years as chief, is not standing for re-election by a vote of judges in February 2017.

The announced candidates to replace him as chief of the state’s second largest circuit are Circuit Judges Alfred F. Horowitz, Carlos A. Rodriguez and Jack Tuter.

In the past, Broward chief judges have lobbied for specialty courts, for new and improved court facilities and for better file management service from the clerk of the court. Most recently, Weinstein exchanged written blows with Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who accused the court of entrapping low-income defendants in a cycle of debt and jail through the use of “convenience bail bonds.”

Replied Weinstein: “Howard can write what he wants, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.”

Tuter declined to discuss his candidacy. Horowitz and Rodriguez did not respond to voicemails left at their chambers.

Weinstein declined to discuss the election. Three years ago, however, he named Tuter to serve as acting chief judge in his absence.

The chief judge oversees the circuit court’s budget, supervises the senior administrative staff and court administrator, and decides where the court’s judges will be assigned. The chief also establishes local rules, sets court calendars and even decides who works on weekends.

When judicial vacancies occur, the governor and local judicial nominating commissions have been known to solicit the chief judge’s opinion on who should be appointed to fill off-election-year vacancies.

Weinstein served three terms as chief

Weinstein, who served as a Florida state senator for 14 years, has served more than 18 years on the bench of the 17th Judicial Circuit, the second largest circuit court in Florida. He became a judge by gubernatorial appointment in 1998.

In 2015, Weinstein won a third two-year term as chief judge in what he described at the time as a “very hotly contested race.” He edged Horowitz 46 to 42 in the balloting by Broward’s judges. After the victory, Weinstein made it clear that the third term would be his last.

Horowitz, who is making his second consecutive run for the post, currently presides in the court’s family division. He was appointed to the circuit bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush after serving five years as a county court judge. Between 1986 and 1995, he was in private practice at Horowitz & Rolnick. He earned his law degree from Samford University and a Masters in Taxation from New York University. His wife, Giuseppina Miranda, is a county court judge

Rodriguez presides in the civil division. He moved to Fort Lauderdale from Cuba in 1962 at the age of 5. His family sought political asylum in 1967, and he became an American citizen. Rodriguez earned his law degree from the University of Florida. Before taking the bench, he spent three years as a Broward Assistant Public Defender and two years as a Chief Assistant Public Defender. He spent 23 years in private practice with the Fazio, Dawson firm and later operated his own firm, handling both criminal and civil cases.

Tuter is the administrative judge in the circuit’s civil division. In 2013, he served as acting chief during a short-term absence by Weinstein. In 2014, The Federal Judicial Nominating Commission interviewed Tuter for a U.S. District Court vacancy in the Southern District of Florida.

Tuter ascended to the Broward bench in 2005 when he was appointed to fill a vacancy by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. He has been elected twice to full six-year terms. His current term expires in 2021. Before becoming a judge, he was in private practice with Conrad & Scherer, and with Stephens, Lynn, Klein, Lacava, Hoffman & Puya. Prior to that, he was a managing attorney with American International Group. Tutor earned his law degree from Memphis State University.

Few judges have occupied the chief judge post over the last two and a half decades.

Weinstein’s immediate predecessor, Circuit Judge Victor Tobin, left the bench in 2011 after a four-year stint as chief judge. During his term as chief, Tobin criticized Clerk of Courts Howard Forman over the management of courthouse paperwork.

Tobin was an early promoter of constructing a new main courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale to replace a building notorious for water leaks that saturated files, generated mold and fouled the air. A tower building eventually did rise, at cost of $262 million, and it recently received a certificate of occupancy from the city. But the county says it’s not ready to open.

After leaving the court, Tobin entered private practice with the foreclosure law firm of Marshall C. Watson to help it improve its “best practices.” The firm was among several from around Florida that drew scrutiny from the State Attorney General’s Office over its handling of foreclosure case paperwork.

Tobin was preceded by the longest tenured holder of the chief judge’s office, Dale Ross, who retired from the bench in early September after 35 years as a judge.

Ross held the chief judge’s post from 1990 until 2007, a stretch that saw him embroiled in a number of controversies. Defense lawyers – most notably the public defender Howard Finkelstein — called him insensitive to the indigent. An appellate court called him pro-prosecution. Many lawyers found him to be brusque. And for years, he refused to speak with reporters from the Daily Business Review, the 17th Judicial Circuit’s official court newspaper.

Still, Ross was credited with several innovations that occurred on his watch: the establishment of a Drug Court, a Mental Health Court and a court for domestic violence victims.

Ross left the bench with two years remaining on his judicial term. The 17th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission has sent a short list of candidates to Gov. Rick Scott to fill the vacancy by appointment.

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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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