Coconut Creek officers kill man with Tasers; Police clam up about Wynmoor shooting

 By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org coconutcreekbadge

Coconut Creek Police officers firing Tasers killed a man early Sunday morning inside the sprawling Wynmoor condominium complex, a usually tranquil gated retirement community, FloridaBulldog.org has learned.

The dead man, described by witnesses as a black man about 40 years old, died after being struck a least twice in the chest by wires tethered to the high-voltage stun guns. The Taser can deliver a painful and immobilizing electroshock from as far as 35 feet away.

Eyewitnesses said as many as four police officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys.

After the first volley, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who yelled out, “Baby! They are going to kill me” and “I can’t breathe,” the witnesses said.

Police threw an immediate veil of secrecy over the in-custody death that continued through Friday. The department has issued no press release or public statement about the incident at 1701 Andros Isle, although that’s typically standard procedure in officer-involved shootings.

Through a spokeswoman, Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann declined Thursday to discuss what happened or even acknowledge that an in-custody death had occurred.

“He will not be giving any comments on this,” said the chief’s assistant, CarolAnn Bown.

The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office was also close-mouthed about the police takedown on a small strip of grass between the parking lot and unit E1.

“It’s under investigation and we can’t talk about it,” said an office spokeswoman. “It’s a police hold and we can’t speak about anything at all about a police hold…the hold has been put on by the agency, which is Coconut Creek.”

The grassy area next to the red car is where witnesses say a man shot by police Tasers stopped breathing

The grassy area next to the red car is where witnesses say a man shot by police Tasers stopped breathing

Witnesses John Arendale and his fiancé, Bonnie Eshleman, said it appeared the man was dead at the scene. A police source, however, said the man expired later at an unidentified hospital.

The source said the dead man had a lengthy criminal rap sheet, but provided no details. The source also said four Coconut Creek officers fired their Tasers, including Sgt. David Freeman. Freeman could not be reached for comment.

Arendale and Eshleman were sleeping about 1:30 a.m. Sunday when they were awakened by a violent commotion outside their front door.

“I ran to the window and just before I got there I heard two shots, a loud popping sound, like a firecracker, said Eshleman, who hand-wrote a three-page account of what she experienced. “I looked out the window and there was about five policemen around and on top of the man.”

Arendale heard the same two shots as he made his way to a vantage point at a nearby bedroom window that, like the kitchen window, faced the well-lit parking area and grass strip where the altercation was unfolding. He later saw a spent Taser wire from one of the initial shots lying on the sidewalk right outside his door. Small blood stains could be seen Thursday on floor tiles and in grouting.

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

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

“The man kept shouting, ‘Baby! Baby! They’re gonna kill me,’” Arendale said. “Sure enough they did.” Arendale said he believes the man was calling out to someone he knew at the complex, but has no idea who that might be.

Police haven’t heard their eyewitness statements. Neither Arendale nor Eshleman were contacted or interviewed by detectives.

Eshleman heard an officer ask the man his name. “Riley,” she thought she heard him reply.

Eshleman said the same policeman asked the man if he was visiting someone in the apartments, but she didn’t hear the man’s reply.

“That policeman spoke to Riley directly, but not aggressively. A different policeman said, ‘Stop moving or I will break your fucking arm,’” she said.

Another officer “came around to where his head was and hit him with something about a foot long. Riley continued to struggle and call out, ‘baby,’” says Eshleman’s narrative. The police source said Eshleman described an Asp, an expandable baton carried by city officers.

What happened next is recounted in Eshleman’s narrative: “After a few minutes they were getting him to his feet. He pulled away and started to run. Two shots were fired (same popping sound) and he fell to the ground. The bush blocked my view of him except his feet. He had clean white sneakers and socks.

Both Eshleman and Arendale saw two officers fire, nearly simultaneously.

“As he was lying there, there were cops all around him. I couldn’t see well because of the bushes. Riley stopped struggling. A few minutes later I heard a cop say, “Is he breathing?”

Arendale described the man as about six feet tall with a goatee and “a belly on him.” When he was rolled over Arendale could see Taser wires still attached to his chest. He also said the man’s legs were shackled.

An emergency medical technician began chest compressions. Arendale said that Riley was also hooked up to an EKG. Soon, they lifted him onto a stretcher, put him in an ambulance and drove away, “but not in any particular hurry,” said Arendale.

Arendale said the emergency medical techs were present at the scene before the first shots were fired.

At one point, Arendale opened his front door and the police yelled at him to go back inside because they were taking pictures. He said if he’d stepped out he would have stepped into the roped-off crime scene.

Afterward, Arendale overheard a police officer say that the Coconut Creek police were summoned to the scene by Wynmoor security who reported lots of shouting at a nearby building. What the shouting was about or why the location changed was not known.

Also unknown is why Riley was at Wynmoor and how he entered the security conscious development.

“That’s the $64 question. How did he get in here?” said Arendale.

Wynmoor security director ONeil Elliott did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Sexual affair between Miami judge, witness alleged amid tainted U.S. court proceedings

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

A dozen years ago, Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sentenced Martin Chambers to 15 years in prison after a two-week trial at which a jury found him guilty in a scheme to launder millions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel. Chambers, a Canadian, remains imprisoned today.

For years, hushed allegations have swirled that Judge Ungaro slept with the government’s key witness in the case – a dashing Royal Canadian Mounted Police undercover agent

Ungaro’s ex-husband, who claims the affair ruined his marriage, first made the scandalous allegations along with related assertions about alleged misconduct by an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor.

Later, the alleged affair was cited as evidence of judicial bias in Canadian court proceedings that sought to win Chambers’ release. The allegations also were briefly a focus of the FBI in Miami, which appears to have done little to investigate them despite a referral from then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta.

The allegations, too, were the subject of tainted U.S. court proceedings before Judge Ungaro herself.

Records show that Chambers, acting as his own lawyer, sought a hearing in March 2012 after learning of Ungaro’s alleged “sexual affair” with William “Bill” Majcher, an important investigator in the case against him.

Judge Ungaro, however, dismissed the case without a hearing less than a month later. She did so even though Chambers’ petition was all about her alleged misconduct, and how her actions may have corrupted the trial or sentencing.

Further, Ungaro ruled after having twice before disqualified herself from hearing matters involving Chambers. Five months later, she would recuse herself a third time after Chambers raised the matter again.

JUDGE  UNGARO ISN’T TALKING

Ungaro’s orders do not say why she recused herself, and she did not respond to detailed requests for comment by FloridaBulldog.org. Federal judicial canons, however, require judges to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Asked about the matter, Chief Judge K. Michael Moore declined to comment.

Martin Chambers  Photo: CBCNews

Martin Chambers
Photo: CBCNews

The story of the relationship between the federal judge and the Royal Canadian Mountie, and its possible impact on justice in the case of Martin Chambers, got limited media attention in Canada in 2012, but has remained largely under wraps in South Florida where Chambers was convicted in a high-profile FBI-led sting operation, “Bermuda Short,” that targeted money laundering and securities fraud.

While Ungaro would not comment, Majcher, who lives in Hong Kong and states on his Linkedin profile that he retired from the RCMP in 2007, denied any impropriety.

“I will be very clear…there was zero relationship between myself and Judge Ungaro during trial, or before sentencing,” Majcher said in an email. “For the record, I became friends with Judge Ungaro the year after the Chambers trial when I was in Miami for trial preparation on an unrelated accused in front of a different judge.”

FBI agents twice interviewed Judge Ungaro’s ex-husband, former Miami lobbyist Michael Benages, in July 2008. Among those agents was then Miami Special Agent-in-Charge Jonathan I. Solomon.

FBI 302 reports of those interviews, with some redactions, were released later to Benages in response to his Freedom of Information request. Benages provided copies to FloridaBulldog.org and other news organizations.

In an interview, former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said Benages first came to him. “He did bring this to my attention and I referred him to the FBI to make sure it got seriously vetted,” said Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.

The trial of Martin Chambers on five counts of money laundering began on Aug. 21, 2003 and a jury found him guilty on all counts two weeks later. Judge Ungaro sentenced Chambers to 188 months in jail on December 5, 2003.

In an interview, Benages said he does not know precisely when the affair occurred, but believes it happened after the trial, but before sentencing. “But the courting started before,” he said.

BENAGES TALKS TO FBI

Benages told the FBI agents that around Christmas 2003, shortly before she moved out of their home, Ungaro admitted to an affair with a Mountie, who was a witness in a money laundering trial, calling it a “mistake.” Ungaro later told Benages the Mountie had informed her that an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and an FBI agent said Benages “was about to be indicted,” the report says.

Benages did not recall the Mountie’s last name. But he said Ungaro soon filed for divorce even though the story about his impending indictment proved to be untrue.

Michael Benages

Michael Benages

“Approximately three or four months later, [Name Redacted] told Benages that the [Redacted] admitted to her that the FBI and the AUSA had told him that it was all a joke and Benages was not really going to be indicted. [Redacted] stated that she knew who the FBI agent was, however, did not provide Benages with the name,” according to a July 30, 2008 FBI report.

Benages filled in the blanks in a recent interview. He said he told the FBI that it was Ungaro who told him that Mountie Majcher had informed her that talk of an indictment was a “joke.”

At the time, Benages didn’t know the names of either Majcher or Chambers and he wanted the FBI to investigate. The reports make clear, however, that the FBI was more interested in asking Benages about any corruption he might have witnessed during his work as a lobbyist.

“Why wasn’t this investigated more seriously?” asked Benages’ attorney Joseph Carballo.

Miami FBI spokesman Jim Marshall said, “We have no further comment/information on this matter.”

The FBI reports say Benages offered the “theory” that he was specifically targeted by the false story of his imminent indictment. Benages speculated to agents that it was Marcos Jimenez, Miami U.S. Attorney from 2002-2005, who was responsible.

Benages explained to the FBI that Jimenez had had trouble getting confirmed as U.S. Attorney because of an incident between Jimenez and his wife, and Jimenez knew that Benages was privy to an FBI background report about that incident.

“Benages stated that [Redacted] lied twice on his FBI report. Benages explained that the FBI report had been provided to his wife and that she had told him about the report in bed. Benages stated that he had not seen the FBI report, however, that Ursula told him that [Redacted] had denied in the report that he had beat his wife with a hammer, which had caused her to admit herself into the hospital under a false name,” the report says.

AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE?

“The FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney knew about the inappropriate relationship and exploited it to cause a rift between my wife and myself and intimidate me into staying quiet about what I knew about their boss, Marcos Jimenez,” Benages said in related paperwork filed later with the Department of Justice.

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Ungaro and Benages divorced in 2004. In August of that year, after Chambers appealed his conviction, Ungaro signed an “order of recusal as to Martin G. Chambers.” The case was reassigned to Miami U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.

Court records show that Ungaro’s recusal didn’t keep her from ruling against Chambers three years later, on Aug. 27, 2007, after his Miami attorney, Gerald Houlihan, asked the court to vacate Chambers’ sentence.

Ungaro disqualified herself again six months later, Feb. 4, 2008, a few days after Houlihan asked the court for “compassion” and support for Chambers’ application to be transferred to a Canadian prison so he could “serve the remainder of his sentence close to his family.”

Ungaro again gave no reason for her recusal, but it caused the clerk’s office to reassign the case again, this time to Judge Cecilia Altonaga.

The twin recusals meant that two federal judges, Altonaga and Martinez, were now assigned to Chambers’ case. The unusual result: two separate judicial rulings on the same motion. Martinez denied the motion seeking support for a mercy transfer on Feb. 5, 2008. Altonaga denied it again on March 28, court records show.

Four years later, on March 26, 2012, Chambers went back to court as his own attorney after learning of Benages’ accusation that Judge Ungaro had had a “sexual affair” with Majcher “during the pendency of my criminal case.”

“The validity of the entire investigation was based on the credibility of RCMP Officer William Majcher, the individual who had this alleged relationship with the judge,” wrote Chambers. “It is absolutely essential that the petitioner be given a hearing to be able to establish the nature of the relationship between the trial court and the chief RCMP investigator, and the time-frame within which that relationship occurred.”

Like the prior motion to vacate sentence, Chamber’s motion citing newly discovered evidence was immediately given a new case number by the clerk’s office and assigned to Judge Ungaro.

Two days later Magistrate Patrick White recommended the motion be denied on technical grounds. On April 19, 2012, Ungaro adopted White’s recommendation and signed an order closing the case without a hearing. It was the second time she ruled against Chambers after disqualifying herself.

UNGARO UPHELD ON APPEAL

Ungaro’s ruling was upheld a week later by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that even if true “the newly discovered evidence” of a sexual affair between the trial judge and a government witness “has no bearing on Chambers’ actual guilt or innocence in the money-laundering offenses.”

The court did not address whether it was proper, or legal, for Judge Ungaro to rule in the case after having disqualified herself.

On May 29, 2012, again from his prison cell, Chambers petitioned the district court for what’s known as a writ of error coram nobis, claiming Ungaro was biased against him, the government failed to disclose its knowledge of the alleged affair and that he was denied due process.The clerk’s office again assigned the case to Ungaro despite her prior recusals.

Ungaro dated her third unexplained recusal order on Aug. 1, 2012, though it was not docketed until two days later. In between, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales filed court papers opposing a hearing and calling the matter “a delayed regurgitation of gossip”.

Chambers’ “claim only rises to the level of hearsay that, even if true, would merely establish an appearance of bias or impropriety,” Morales wrote.

Magistrate White again recommended the case be dismissed. Judge Martinez adopted the recommendation and closed the case on Sept. 28, 2012.

While Chambers attempted to litigate in court, Benages pursued an unsuccessful $5.5 million damages claim at the Justice Department starting in 2009. The alleged damages included the cost of his divorce, the loss of marital assets and related health ills that led to “the demise of my lucrative lobbying business and consulting law practice.”

The complaints contain additional details, including Benages’ assertion that “in the second half of 2003” he and his wife dined with Majcher and another Mountie at a local restaurant. Before the dinner, he said, “Ursula received a gift of an authentic Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat.”

In other interviews, Benages narrowed the time of the dinner as in September or October of that year.

FBI “BLACK BAG OPERATIONS”?

Benages also accused the FBI in a July 2012 complaint of twice conducting “black bag operations” against him during the previous year “in preparation for what they expected would be litigation on my part.”

Benages claimed to have spotted an FBI car parked near his home in Coral Gables, then discovered that supporting documentation for his claim “had disappeared.” He said a similar incident occurred after he moved to Wilton Manors.

Benages’ lawyer said in a recent interview that about the same time documents relating to Benages that he kept stored on his computer also went missing.

“It could have been that they were wiped clean by mistake, but I doubt it,” said Joseph Carballo, who at the time had an office at 717 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. “I didn’t realize it had happened until months later when Michael Benages asked me for a copy of the file and I went to look for it and it wasn’t there.”

“I recall seeing emails from his ex-wife where they were smoking gun type emails…that suggested, that kind of corroborated that she was having an affair with someone in the time frame that he’s talking about,” said Carballo.

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Martin Chambers remains at a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas. His scheduled release date is Sept. 7, 2016.

Chambers’ attorney is John W. Conroy of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Conroy said recent efforts on Chambers’ behalf have focused on getting him transferred back to Canada rather than building a case for judicial bias.

“We were trying to find out what happened from the RCMP. We believe Majcher was disciplined in some way, but we were unable to get to the truth,” said Conroy.

Conroy said that both the U.S. and Canada have now agreed to transfer Chambers to Canada, where he would be eligible for immediate release under Canadian law. Chambers could be returned to Canada as soon as next month.

Embattled nonprofit Plaza Health Network sells property, insider pockets millions

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The original facility of the Plaza Health Network, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, was sold last year for $13.6 million

The original facility of the Plaza Health Network, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, was sold last year for $13.6 million

When nonprofit Miami-Dade nursing home operator Plaza Health Network sold a prime slice of Miami Beach real estate for $13.6 million last spring, its board chairman, Russell Galbut, collected more than $3 million for himself and his real estate company, Crescent Heights, according to company documents reviewed by FloridaBulldog.org.

Plaza’s sale of its shuttered 104-bed facility at 320 Collins Ave and two neighboring parcels comes amid a federal investigation into a whistleblower’s allegations that Plaza Health submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare via an illegal kickback scheme that billed the government for services that were not performed.

Plaza Health is also suspected of fraudulently obtaining low interest rate mortgages from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Miami Beach property sale occurred about a year after FBI agents raided Plaza Health’s North Miami Beach corporate office and two of its facilities.

Critics of Plaza Health, the business name of Hebrew Homes Health Network Inc., point to the property sale to illustrate how its board of directors has put big money into the pockets of Galbut, his relatives and business partners.

“It seems Plaza’s mission is being abandoned for the economic interests of the folks who control the board,” said Dale Ewart, vice-president of the Service Employees International Union local chapter 1199, which represents 600 healthcare workers employed by Plaza. “If all they are doing is turning nursing homes into real estate development deals, then they are doing the wrong thing.”

PLAZA HEALTH’S FORMER CFO BLEW WHISTLE

Galbut’s family co-founded the nursing home network in 1954. His role is central to whistleblower Steven Beaujon’s lawsuit, which spawned the federal investigation. Beaujon was the former chief financial officer for the non-profit nursing home chain.

FloridaBulldog.org learned about the deal’s specifics and Galbut’s involvement by reading internal emails, sales contracts, and board meeting minutes provided by administrative employees of Plaza Health who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Russell Galbut

Russell Galbut

The complaint was initially filed under seal in February 2012.

The lawsuit claims Plaza Health board members and executives took their marching orders from Galbut, a major player in Miami Beach who has contributed large sums to Republican campaigns in Florida. Election records show Galbut and his companies have donated $113,750 to various Republican congressional candidates since 2008. Last year, he hosted a Coral Gables fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott that included his $3,000 personal contribution plus $5,000 in bundled money from five of his corporations.

Galbut relinquished his post as Plaza Health’s chairman in November after serving 20 years on the board. Taking over as chair was Ron Lowy, a criminal defense and corporate lawyer who represented some of Galbut’s companies and entities.

Lowy has acknowledged the federal probe and said he is trying to negotiate a non-criminal settlement with the Department of Justice. He denied that Galbut controls Plaza Health’s board and said Galbut has done nothing improper. He declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations.

“Russell and his family deserve accolades and recognition for starting and maintaining this nursing home group,” Lowy said. “They are the largest contributors to the Plaza Health Network.”

Galbut declined comment, referring questions to Lowy.

Still, the deal for the sale of the Collins Avenue property that was the location of Plaza Health’s original facility, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, ultimately worked out in Galbut’s favor.

Six months after shutting down that nursing home location and laying off 159 employees, Plaza Health received dozens of sealed bids on the main property and two contiguous parcels, 302 and 336 Collins Ave., located in Miami Beach’s hottest real estate sector.

PROPERTY BIDS

A year ago, February 24, 2014, Plaza Health’s board met by conference call to evaluate the two top bids. A three-person subcommittee of non-board members that included former State Rep. Elaine Bloom recommended the property be sold to Brooklyn-based JMH Development, which offered $12.5 million, according to meeting minutes reviewed by FloridaBulldog.org.

The second bid, for $500,000 less, was from a partnership whose members included Bal Harbour resident Robert Finvarb and Jared Galbut and Keith Menin, who are both cousins and partners of Russell Galbut in two Miami Beach hotels, The Bentley and The Shelbourne.

JMH ultimately bought the property, but for a higher price and after threatening legal action for alleged “self-dealing” by Plaza Health’s board.

Each of the Plaza Health board members who participated in the conference call had close ties to Russell Galbut. In addition to Lowy, Joan Brent is his cousin, Plaza Health president William Zubkoff was hired by Galbut and Ben Rozansky is a former vice-president of Galbut’s real estate firm, Crescent Heights.

“Lowy started his presentation by stating that Russell Galbut has disclosed that he is a potential party in interest in one of the potential buyer’s groups,” the minutes of that meeting say. Lowy then said that because of that Galbut would abstain from the vote, but could still participate in the discussion.

The board agreed to let Lowy negotiate final terms with JMH Development. However, Russell Galbut suggested the board also authorize Lowy to negotiate with Finvarb’s group should the JMH deal fell apart.

During another board conference call later that afternoon, Lowy relayed that Finvarb had increased his offer to $12,510,000, or slightly higher than JMH’s bid. He said Finvarb would pay $7 million in cash at closing and the remaining $5.51 million over two years at a six percent interest rate, according to the meeting minutes.

The board, with Russell Galbut abstaining, then changed its mind and voted unanimously to approve Lowy’s motion to award the contract to Finvarb and Galbut’s cousins. A sales contract between Finvarb and Plaza was signed the following day, according to emails seen by FloridaBulldog.org.

But JMH protested, and its lawyer William Fried emailed Lowy and Russell Galbut on February 26, 2014 claiming that Plaza Health’s board had misled his client.

“Based on information we have now we believe their actions involve self-dealing and a breach of their fiduciary obligations,” said the letter, which added that JMH was prepared to sue Plaza Health.

BOARD REVERSES COURSE

Plaza Health’s board soon reversed course again, and on March 20 sold the Collins Avenue properties to JMH for $13.6 million – $1.1 million more than JMH’s original offer.

Plaza Health used the proceeds to pay off a $6 million loan on the property from TD Bank. After also paying lawyer fees and broker commissioners, the non-profit netted roughly $4 million.

Most of that money went to Galbut and Crescent Heights. That included paying off a $2.5 million loan that Russell Galbut made to Plaza Heights three years ago in the form of an unsecured mortgage for another nursing home at 335 SW 12th Ave. Another $1 million went to pay the security deposit on another nursing home facility at 42 Collins Ave. that Plaza Health rents from Crescent.

“All liabilities of the related nursing homes are ultimately the responsibility of the parent company, Plaza Health Network,” Lowy said. He added that the board’s actions were proper. “There’s no conflict of interest as proper disclosure was made to the board regarding Galbut’s family involvement,” he said.

The Galbuts and Plaza Health’s board have a symbiotic business relationship that goes back decades. For example, Russell Galbut’s brother Abraham purchased three shuttered nursing homes in 1998 for a combined $8.1 million. He subsequently leased the properties to the non-profit network before selling those nursing homes to Plaza for a combined $47.6 million between 2007 and 2010.

Lowy said Abraham Galbut invested millions of dollars renovating the properties and suffered a financial loss on two of the nursing homes sold to the non-profit.

“The network was in a stronger financial position to acquire properties in 2007 and 2010 versus 1998,” Lowy added. “Purchasing the properties reduced the overall costs of the facilities and was a prudent business decision.”

Service Employees union official Ewart said Plaza Health’s board continues to push for real estate deals that could benefit Russell Galbut at the expense of Plaza Health and its employees. He pointed to a Nov. 26 conference call in which the board, in its first action since Galbut stepped down, authorized Lowy to explore terminating Plaza’s lease with Crescent Heights for the nursing home facility at 42 Collins Ave.

Crescent Heights had plans to develop a hotel at 42 Collins Ave. and had offered to pay non-profit Plaza Health the value of unused years from the long-term lease to move out. The proceeds could then be used to a pay any fines that arise from the proposed settlement with the Department of Justice, according to meeting minutes.

Crescent Heights has a pending application with Miami Beach’s planning department for a partial demolition and full renovation of the existing three story building. The new hotel would have 103 rooms on the top two floors and a lobby, restaurant and meeting space on the ground floor. It will also feature a large pool deck and bar on the roof.

Lowy said Plaza Health is no longer pursuing a lease termination and that he reassured employees at an all-staff meeting on January 30 that the South Beach nursing home is not closing.

Ewart doesn’t buy it. “We have already seen them close one facility with minimum notice to residents and workers,” Ewart said. “Just look at the location and it is not hard to figure out there is an ulterior motive at play.”

Going from bad to worse: the new southbound exit at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood airport

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org SouthboundUS1exit ramp600

The new southbound exit ramp out of the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport funnels vehicles to an intersection so congested it is rated near the bottom for traffic flow, according to a study commissioned by state transportation officials.

The intersection is at U.S. Highway 1 and Griffin Road.

The conclusion is from an exit ramp assessment prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation by Kimley-Horn Associates at a cost of almost $87,000. Kimley-Horn is a national firm headquartered in North Carolina with offices in South Florida.

Shortly after the assessment was released, the Broward County Aviation Department emphasized in a September slide presentation to county commissioners that Kimley-Horn supported its position that the new exit ramp was the best of four options considered by the county.

What the aviation department didn’t include in its presentation was Kimley-Horn’s finding that the intersection at U.S. 1 and Griffin Road would operate at a poor “level of service” on opening day, with projected growth later causing it to get permanently worse.

The Highway Capacity Manual, published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, grades highway levels of service from A to F, said Adam Kerr, the report’s co-author.

A service level of “E” is next to the bottom of the scale. It is characterized by unstable, irregular and slow traffic flow with no usable gaps to maneuver in traffic. Traffic incidents create serious delays and leave drivers with a poor level of comfort.

An “F” service level means motorists will move in lockstep, with frequent slowing, unpredictable travel time and constant traffic jams.

THE WAY SOUTH

Traffic leaving the airport today enters a three-lane bridge that veers left and north toward Interstate 595 and to northbound U.S. 1. To go south, a vehicle must make a hard right onto a one-lane exit ramp as the bridge curves left.

The exit ramp, which opened last month, funnels traffic southbound onto an improved NE 7 Ave, with a single lane that eventually curves westbound onto Northeast 10th Street to U.S. 1 where a traffic light controls when vehicles can turn south or cross to Griffin Road.

Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan will hold public meeting about the airport expansion project at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, 1950 Eisenhower Blvd. The meeting will address the southbound ramp and other concerns of residents.

Ryan has experienced airport area slow downs first hand, especially during rush hours, when he takes U.S. 1 south to go home. He said he has to wait through several traffic light cycles, or between six to eight minutes, before he can make it through the congested intersection.

FDOT did not design or build the exit ramp. County contractors built it as part of the Broward Aviation Department’s ongoing $800-million airport expansion program.

FDOT District Director James Wolfe said in a July 2014 email to then state Rep. Joseph Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, that his department “did not review and approve the design…since the ramp is located outside the department’s right-of-way.”

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked FDOT to conduct an independent study into whether the ramp was the safest and best option. Sobel made the request amid public protests last year over the elimination of the old more direct southbound ramp that was torn down to make way for the extended runway.

She could not be reached for comment.

Former Rep. Gibbons, a critic of the new southbound exit ramp, told FloridaBulldog.org, “How do you start out with a brand new road which is a failure from the start…There could be a more direct route.”

SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE

The Kimley-Horn report made several suggestions to improve traffic flow for vehicles heading south. They include increasing the number of exit ramp lanes to two, reducing the exit ramp’s “departure angle” from the bridge, diverting ramp traffic away from NE 7 Ave. to its own roadway, increasing the number of southbound turn lanes at the U.S. 1-Griffin Road intersection from two to three, and building a flyover at or near Griffin Road to allow airport traffic to bypass the intersection.

The report notes that even if a third left turn lane is added, “the overall intersection will still operate” at a level of service of “F.”

Aviation department spokesman Greg Meyer, noting that level of service ratings applies to the intersection and not the ramp, took issue with the report’s suggestion that adding another lane to the exit ramp lane would improve traffic flow. “We don’t have a need for two lanes at this time,” he added.

A 2011 aviation department study recommended the ramp be widened to two lanes when the number of passengers boarding aircraft at the airport reaches 17.3 million. The Federal Aviation Administration said the number of passengers boarding aircraft in 2014 was 12.3 million and won’t reach 17 million until 2029 or 2030.

Meyer pointed out the aviation department has installed 32 concrete light poles and is now upgrading signage along the southbound exit route. He said the opening of the southbound ramp was accelerated at the urging of local residents and towns.

Between the day the old ramp was torn down and the new ramp was opened, southbound drivers had to travel north on U.S. 1, make a U-turn and then head south on the highway and through the Griffin Road intersection. The U-turn option still exists.

Meyer said the aviation department has entered into an agreement with FDOT to study ways to improve the intersection. The two governmental entities are splitting the $250,000 cost of the study.

Mayor Ryan said many of the report’s suggestions to improve the intersection’s traffic flow would face obstacles to implement. “If there is anything I could criticize, (not having two lanes on the ramp) would be the most obvious,” he said, adding that the new southbound ramp “doesn’t look like the best way to go in the long term.”

Miami-Dade commissioners find $30 million to fix iconic courthouse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Dade County Courthouse

The Dade County Courthouse

Last year, local judges and prominent attorneys led an unsuccessful campaign to convince Miami-Dade voters to foot the bill for a new $368 million civil court building, plus $25 million more to fix the iconic Dade County Courthouse. The measure failed 2-to-1 in November.

Now it turns out Miami-Dade County already had a pot of taxpayer money available for the extensive repairs needed at the deteriorating, 87-year-old landmark.

Earlier this month, commissioners authorized $30 million to fix the old courthouse using funds from a $2.9 billion general obligation bond program approved by voters in 2004. The money was part of $78 million that had been set aside for “additional courtrooms and facilities,” according to a list of bond projects.

Critics of the failed campaign to raise the money via the ballot box weren’t happy to learn that there was no need to ask voters for more money to make needed repairs at the old courthouse built in 1928.

“All the county commission had to do was shift the money to fix the building,” said Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado. “But the folks who pushed for the referendum didn’t want to touch that money because it had been earmarked for a new criminal courthouse and a new jail.”

Regalado is a potential opponent of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016. Gimenez spokesman Mike Hernandez disputed Regalado’s comments.

“Spending the entire $78 million was always part of the project,” Hernandez said. “It is a good thing that the county has a source of funds available to address these critical issues.”

Still, the mayor’s office never advocated using the existing bond funds said County commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata, another critic of going to the voters seeking more money for courthouses.

Gimenez and Regalado are also on opposite sides on the need for a replacement courthouse.

BACKERS SAY NEW COURTHOUSE NEEDED

Proponents say a replacement is needed because the county’s civil judicial system has outgrown the old courthouse and that it is falling apart after decades of neglect. Among the physical problems: decaying structural columns and black mold from continual flooding in the basement and in water logged walls.

Regalado vociferously opposes using taxpayer funds to construct a new courthouse. Gimenez supports a new building, but did not actively campaign for it.

Looking for a politically acceptable way to make it happen, the mayor and the Commissioner Zapata are now backing a plan to solicit proposals from private developers to build a new courthouse.

Meanwhile, the county still has to fix the courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street because it cannot be razed due to its historic designation by the City of Miami. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“When this campaign came out of nowhere to hit up taxpayers for $400 million, I asked why aren’t we discussing the (general obligation) bond money?” Zapata said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m surprised the administration didn’t say, ‘until we come up with a better plan, we can use this money in the meantime.’”

In October, Zapata sponsored a resolution to allocate the entire $78 million for repairs at the old, downtown courthouse, but it was tabled until after the election. He slashed the request to $30 million after staffers from the internal services department, which manages county-owned properties, informed him the courthouse didn’t need all the funds for the repairs.

The county commission unanimously approved the funds transfer at its Feb. 4 regular meeting,

In a January memo to the commission, Mayor Gimenez said the county already has repaired 14 columns at the courthouse at a cost of $547,000. He said another $22 million must be spent to fix the remaining 114 columns and stop flooding in the basement. The remaining $7 million will be used to pay for an overhaul of the building’s electrical and plumbing systems.

In previous years, the county delayed or scrapped funding to address some of the problems that have been plaguing the Flagler Street courthouse. When voters approved the $2.9 billion bond program in 2004, $18 million was designated for a new heating and air conditioning system, new electrical wiring and panels, and ne plumbing pipes to replace originals dating to the 1920s when the building was new.

But in 2009, commissioners diverted those funds for the restoration of the courthouse facade after the original estimate of $15 million more than doubled. The facade project did not begin until 2013 and $35 million has been spent to date.

“The electorate approved all this money in 2004 and more than a decade passes before the county does anything with it,” Regalado said. “They should have been using it once they found out about the problems.”

Jeb Bush’s missing emails detail his lobbying support for Bacardi as contributions flowed

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A screen shot of the home page of jebemails.com

A screen shot of the home page of jebemails.com

The mass release this week of emails covering presidential aspirant Jeb Bush’s years as governor omitted at least a dozen emails documenting behind-the-scenes lobbying support he gave to liquor giant Bacardi.

Although some of the emails released by Bush discuss Bacardi’s request for help in its fight to use the Havana Club rum trademark, key emails that reflect the duration and vigor of the governor’s lobbying effort are missing.

The 2002 lobbying operation set in motion and birddogged by then-Gov. Bush sought to pressure political appointees of his brother, President George W. Bush, into favoring Bacardi in its bitter, long-running legal dispute with Cuba and competitor Pernod Ricard.

Bush’s lobbying at the departments of the Treasury, Commerce and State unfolded as Bacardi poured tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Republican Party of Florida and, to a lesser extent, Gov. Bush’s successful 2002 re-election campaign. Ultimately, however, Bush’s lobbying efforts failed.

Bush, the son and brother of U.S. presidents, appears poised to announce soon his own presidential campaign. On Tuesday, his proto-campaign released thousands of emails to and from the former governor beginning the day before he was sworn in on Jan. 4, 1999 and Dec. 31, 2006, two days before the end of his second term.

THE SPIRIT OF TRANSPARENCY

The emails, many of which were first released years ago, were put online at jebemails.com “in the spirit of transparency,” the website says.

“Some are funny; some are serious; some I wrote in frustration. But they’re all here so you can read them and make up your own mind,” Bush wrote.

Also on the site is the first chapter of a book Bush is writing in which he is using his emails to illustrate his time in office. “Email kept me connected to Floridians and focused on the mission of being their governor,” Bush wrote.

Email also kept Bush connected to Jorge Rodriguez Marquez, then the president of Bacardi-Martini, the U.S. arm of Bermuda-based Bacardi Ltd.

Former Bacardi-Martini President Jorge Rodriguez Marquez Photo: PR Newsphoto

Former Bacardi-Martini President Jorge Rodriguez Marquez Photo: PR Newsphoto

On Jan. 8, 2002, Rodriguez Marquez wrote a “Dear Jeb” letter under the subject line “BACARDI NEEDS HELP.”

Rodriguez Marquez explained the backdrop of his company’s then six-year-old trademark fight with “Castro in partnership with Pernod” for the U.S. rights to the Havana Club brand. He explained he’d already contacted an aide to President Bush’s adviser and political strategist Karl Rove and Florida GOP chairman and Miami lawyer Al Cardenas.

Bacardi’s Rodriguez Marquez asked Jeb Bush for help with two matters: convincing the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control to deny a pending license application by Havana Club Holdings (the Cuba-Pernod group) and getting the Commerce Department’s Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to “erase from their records Havana Club Holdings’ registration” of the Havana Club rum brand.

The next day, Gov. Bush forwarded Rodriguez Marquez’s email to his chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan, with the note, “for our discussion.” He also replied to Rodriguez Marquez, “Jorge, I will see what I can do.”

None of those emails, obtained 13 years ago by this reporter and later filed in trademark court, were included on jebemails.com.

The email traffic that followed reads like a lesson plan for how to turn up the heat on political appointees.

BUSH MONITORS

Follow-up emails from Bush to Shanahan on Jan. 27 and Feb. 17 asked, “any news?”

In reply to the first note, Shanahan said, “Sent note to treasury and USTR (U.S. Trade Representative) today. Will follow up midweek.” The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, then headed by George W. Bush Administration appointee Robert Zoellick, protects Americans’ intellectual property rights overseas.

None of those emails was on jebemails.com.

Adam Moniz, an assistant in the governor’s Washington office, sent another unreleased email to Bush and others on Feb. 20. It informed them that the U.S. commerce secretary was interested in holding a Washington press briefing on the economy. “Also the Bacardi issue is partly a commerce department issue – patents and trademarks – and Jorge Rodriguez [Marquez] will be sitting upstairs for the Florida House luncheon immediately after the press roundtable. He would be WOWed.”

Gov. Bush did release several emails about Bacardi that he sent or received later that day including one from the director of his Washington office, Nina Oviendo, about her contacts on Bacardi’s behalf with a Patent and Trademark Office lawyer and her “reminder” to Bush that Bacardi “contributed over $15,000” to Florida House the previous year. Florida House is the state’s “embassy” in Washington and is supported by private contributions.

In another email that night, Oviedo informed Bush that she’d told Rodriguez Marquez how she was trying “to arrange meetings with him at Commerce and Treasury.”

“Good work, Nina,” Bush replied at 11:06 p.m.

Six days later, on Feb. 26, Rodriguez Marquez wrote Gov. Bush again to thank the governor for his “invaluable support regarding our problems at Commerce and Treasury.”

“Thank you, Jorge. I hope it all works out,” Bush replied two hours later.

The next day, Bacardi-Martini donated $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. On Feb. 28, Rodriguez Marquez and his wife gave a total of $1,000 to Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign.

Neither the Bacardi chief’s thank-you email nor Bush’s reply was posted on jebemails.com.

Though lobbying efforts by the governor’s office continued in the weeks that followed, little happened in Washington and Rodriguez Marquez grew anxious and complained in a series of emails sent to the governor’s staff. An April 9 email to Bush from Oviedo that was released says “Mr. Rodriguez is requesting our help to put pressure on these two bureaucracies where possible.”

‘BACARDI NEEDS YOUR HELP’

On April 18, a frustrated Rodriguez Marquez wrote directly to Bush under the subject line “Bacardi Needs Your Help.” He said “Fidel and Pernod” were winning. “Please, someone needs to tell PTO to stop interfering,” he said.

That night, Bush sent an email to Shanahan, “This is ridiculous. Let us discuss.”

Rodriquez Marquez’s email was released on Jebemails.com, but Bush’s note to Shanahan was not.

Bush went on to release about a dozen emails regarding follow-up exchanges about the lobbying efforts over the next two months among Bush, his staff and Rodriguez Marquez.

Kathleen Shanahan, Gov. Bush's chief of staff

Kathleen Shanahan, Gov. Bush’s chief of staff

“My Washington office just briefed me on the status of this and we will push to get this resolved,” Bush told Rodriguez Marquez on April 24.

A few hours later, Oviedo emailed the governor to explain that one of her staffers was “setting up another set of meetings with the Patent Office and State Dept. After those meetings we may need you to personally chime in.”

Two days later, in an unreleased April 26 email, Chief of Staff Shanahan told Bush, “We may need to move up the food chain.”

Meanwhile, Rodriguez Marquez continued to agitate. On May 22, Bush’s office sent him a draft of a letter from Bush to James Rogan, an ex-congressman and President Bush’s appointee as undersecretary of commerce for Intellectual Property and PTO director. Rodriguez Marquez, who had helped write the letter, was given the opportunity to edit it.

Bush’s June 13 letter to Rogan sought “quick, decisive action” by the PTO to cancel the Havana Club trademark. It did not go out until two weeks after Bacardi-Martini contributed $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida on May 29. State records show that Rodriguez Marquez authorized the $50,000 gift as well as $37,000 in additional Bacardi-Martini contributions to the Republican Party between mid-2001 and June 2002.

At the time, Bush’s office denied that Bacardi’s campaign contributions influenced its lobbying actions on Bacardi’s behalf.

“There was no quid pro quo,” Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina told this reporter in October 2002. “The governor strongly supports the position of Bacardi in this dispute and he is helping a company that has extensive offices and employees in the state.”

Ultimately, the lobbying by Gov. Bush and his staff backfired on Bacardi and the PTO ruled against it in January 2004.

New Saudi king ran state charity that 9/11 victims say funded and armed al Qaeda

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Saudi King Salman with President Obama at Erga Palace during a January 27 trip to Saudi Arabia. Photo: Pete Souza, official White House photo

Saudi King Salman with President Obama at Erga Palace during a January 27 trip to Saudi Arabia. Photo: Pete Souza, official White House photo

Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, “actively directed” a Saudi charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” say court papers filed this week by lawyers representing 9/11 victims and their families.

The Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SHC), which Salman led from its founding in 1993 until it closed in 2011, helped fund “the very al Qaeda camps where the 9/11 hijackers received their training for the attacks, and the safe haven and facilities in Afghanistan where senior officials of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, planned and coordinated the attacks,” the court papers say.

King Salman bin Abdul Aziz al Saud assumed the throne on Jan. 23 after the death of King Abdullah, 90, who had ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005.

The lawyers filed approximately 4,000 pages of motions and supporting documents in federal court in Manhattan opposing Saudi Arabia’s renewed efforts to be dismissed as a defendant in the long-running civil lawsuit that arose from the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.

The Saudis and the Saudi High Commission had been dropped from the case years ago over claims of sovereign immunity, but they were reinstated as defendants in December 2013 after an appellate court reversed its earlier decision.

President George W. Bush with then-Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz in 2008.

President George W. Bush with then-Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz in 2008.

BOB GRAHAM WANTS NEW 9/11 INQUIRY

Among the new filings is a six-page affidavit by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11. Graham said he’s convinced there was a “direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia” and that “the American public deserves a more robust inquiry.”

One matter he said “deserves further attention and investigation is the relationship between three of the future hijackers and a Saudi family living in Sarasota” prior to 9/11.

FloridaBulldog.org, working with Irish journalist and author Anthony Summers, first reported in 2011 that the family of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, clothing, furniture and food in the kitchen. The departure triggered an FBI investigation that lasted for at least two years, but was never disclosed to either Graham’s committee or the 9/11 Commission.

While FBI officials said publicly that the investigation found no connection to 9/11, FBI documents released later in response to a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by Broward Bulldog Inc., the corporate name of the Florida Bulldog, stated there were “many connections” between the family “and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing 80,000 pages of records about 9/11 from the FBI’s Tampa office for possible release.

This week’s filings, and related news coverage by The New York Times and other national media, is turning up the heat on the Obama Administration to make public 28 pages of the Joint Inquiry’s report concerning “specific sources of foreign support” for the 9/11 hijackers.

Those pages were censored on orders from then-President George W. Bush. Graham has said they are about “the role of Saudi Arabia in funding 9/11.”

Imprisoned 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui

Imprisoned 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui

The new filings in New York present an information mosaic of the kingdom’s actions leading up to the attacks. They cite primary documentation including FBI reports, diplomatic cables and even a once-classified “threat matrix,” used to assess enemy combatants at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. Also included are statements from witnesses, including Zacarias Moussaoui who is serving a life sentence in a federal “supermax” prison in Colorado after pleading guilty in 2005 to charges that he helped plan the 9/11 attacks.

The Guantanamo threat matrix lists the Saudi High Commission among a number of “terrorist and terrorist support entities…identified in intelligence reports and U.S. government terrorism lists.”

A key figure in the plaintiff’s emerging mosaic is the new King of Saudi Arabia.

King Salman was a prince when he founded the SHC in 1993 with the support of then-King Fahd to aid Muslims in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. A 2004 affidavit by Saudi Minister of State Dr. Mutlib bin Abudllah al-Nafissa describes the commission “as an arm of the Saudi Arabian government” and says “decisions regarding causes to support” were within Salman’s discretion.

An affidavit the same year by the commission’s former executive director, Saud bin Mohammad al-Roshood, said the commission spent $448 million on aid between 1993 and 2000.

A RADICAL STRAIN OF ISLAM

The 9/11 victims contend the commission was not only a charity, but an Islamic da’awa organization “created by the government of the kingdom to propagate a radical strain of Islam throughout the world, commonly referred to as Wahhabism.”

The SHC “served as a primary conduit for the Kingdom’s massive sponsorship of al Qaeda’s jihad in the Balkans,” plaintiff’s court papers say.

To back it up, the pleadings cited both detailed investigative reports from the mid-1990s and interviews with witnesses like Ali Hamad who helped coordinate al Qaeda’s military operations in Bosnia and was later convicted and jailed for a 1997 car bombing in Herzegovina.

Among other things, Hamad testified that the SHC provided him and other al Qaeda members with false employment papers so they could travel freely in the Balkans, allowed them to use the SHC’s offices and rented houses to plan terrorist attacks and provided “extensive” financial support and food for mujahideen forces.

“Ali Hamad’s sworn testimony is independently corroborated by numerous U.S., U.N. and NATO investigations,” wrote attorneys Stephen A. Cozen, Sean P. Carter, Jodi W. Flowers and others in a pleading that describes the evidence.

A United Nations-sponsored investigation also determined Salman, the new king, “transferred in excess of $120 million from his personal accounts and SHC accounts under his control to the Third World Relief Agency (TWRA)” from July 1992 to July 1995, the pleading says.

A PIPELINE FOR ARMS

The 9/11 Commission identified Third World Relief as an al Qaeda front and pipeline for illegal arms shipments to al Qaeda fighters in the Balkans.

“The U.N. sponsored audit of the TWRA’s records suggested that the SHC’s lavish funding of TWRA commenced shortly after a personal meeting between Prince Salman and the head of the TWRA. As the SHC had a robust operational presence of its own in Bosnia, there was no legitimate ‘humanitarian’ reason for it to send any funds to the TWRA,” the pleading says.

Rescue crews work to clear debris from the site of the World Trade Center. Photo Michael Rieger/ FEMA News

Rescue crews work to clear debris from the site of the World Trade Center. Photo Michael Rieger/ FEMA News

In October 2001, the U.S. and NATO raided SHC’s office in Sarajevo. On computer hard drives, the pleading says, investigators discovered files on deploying chemical agents with crop dusters, information on how to make fake State Department badges, and photographs and maps of Washington, marking prominent government buildings.

Also found: before and after photographs of the World Trade Center and photographs of other terrorist targets, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the U.S.S. Cole.

Bosnian police soon arrested six al Qaeda members for plotting to conduct terrorist strikes on U.S. targets. Each was on SHC’s payroll and all six were later incarcerated at Guantanamo, the pleading says.

Government investigations also found evidence that the SHC played “a direct role” in arms trafficking for al Qaeda, the pleading says.

“Of particular note, a Defense Intelligence Agency report indicates that General Mohammad Farah Hassan Aideed, the al Qaeda-affiliated Somali warlord responsible for the Black Hawk Down massacre, received ‘weapons’ shipments” from the SHC.

King Salman’s ascension has begun to focus attention on his disturbing prior connections.

Last week, for example, Foreign Policy ran a story headlined, “King Salman’s Shady History: President Obama wants to work with the leader of the House of Saud, but the new king of Saudi Arabia has troubling ties to radical Islamists.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not comment to requests for comment via phone and email regarding the allegations regarding King Salman’s involvement with the SHC.

An embassy spokesman, did, however, reissue a statement made on Tuesday that denounced Moussaoui as “a deranged criminal” without credibility and quoted the 9/11 Commission as saying there is “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda.

Fort Lauderdale redevelopment project fails; $1 million in taxpayer funds at risk

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale's Sixth Street Plaza

Fort Lauderdale’s Sixth Street Plaza

Almost $1 million in taxpayer loans may never be repaid due to the forced sale of Sixth Street Plaza, centerpiece of Fort Lauderdale’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor, at a public auction on May 5.

Broward County Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the sale of the troubled 22,825-square foot office and retail plaza at 900 NW Sixth St. in November at the request of Davie-based Regent Bank.

Regent Bank gave Sixth Street Plaza Inc. and its president Maria J. Freeman a nearly $2.3 million mortgage in 2005 to construct a “flagship” project as part of Fort Lauderdale’s efforts to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor. The Sixth Street Plaza opened in 2010, but has never been successful in attracting more than a handful of long-term tenants.

Maria J. Freeman, president of the Sixth Street Plaza

Maria J. Freeman, president of the Sixth Street Plaza

Freeman, a general contractor, is vice chairman of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority.

At the same time in 2005, the South Florida Regional Planning Council loaned $300,000 to Sixth Street Plaza. In 2008, the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) loaned the project an additional $447,990 and made a second loan a year later worth $250,000.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, the loans by the planning council and the CRA are “subordinate,” meaning that if the public auction does not raise more than the $2.1 million owed the bank, no monies will be left over to repay them. Zillow, an online real estate database, places the value of the Sixth Street Plaza building at 900 NW 6 St. at $905,275.

The South Florida Regional Planning Council is a quasi-governmental agency set up to address regional problems in growth, land development and transportation. The Fort Lauderdale CRA is one of nine city CRAs in Broward County that direct tax dollars to areas to clean up slum and blight. The Sistrunk corridor is called the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights area. The city commission sits as the CRA board.

A WAY TO RECOUP?

The CRA may be able to recoup their investment if it buys the plaza at auction, said Frank Schnidman, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University.

Schnidman told FloridaBulldog.org that by owning the plaza, the CRA would both avoid the $9,513 a month in office rent it now pays to Sixth Street Plaza and control the balance of the property so it could find tenants to “put feet on the street.” Once the vacant tenant space was filled the CRA could sell the property to a private buyer, allowing the CRA to recover the purchase price and return the property to the roll, Schnidman said.

The CRA offices are located on the second floor of the Sixth Street Plaza.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said in an interview that the auction price of the Sixth Street Plaza will influence what the city does. He declined to say whether they city would consider bidding. The commission, sitting as the CRA board, will discuss the matter on Feb. 17.

Escalating costs plagued the Sixth Street Plaza project.

In November 2005, Regent initially loaned Sixth Street $1.45 million. Seven months later, the loan was modified and increased to $1.9 million. In December 2007, the loan was modified again and increased to almost $2.3 million.

The CRA made its first loan of nearly $450,000 to the project in June 2008. It had already had contributed $400,000 for infrastructure improvements. The $400,000 was a grant, not a loan.

According to the CRA minutes, then Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle noted that the project had encountered “various problems” and wanted Freeman to personally signed the loan, saying that without it the CRA would be “guilty of malfeasance.”

A PERSONAL GUARANTEE

Freeman personally guaranteed the loan. The minutes did not elaborate on the problems.

Thirteen months later, on July 7, 2009, Freeman was back before the city commission asking for another $250,000 in CRA tax funds.

Al Battle, Director of the  Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA

Al Battle, Director of the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA

The money was needed primarily to pay off mechanic liens, but this time Freeman faced a different commission. Jack Seiler had replaced Naugle as mayor and Romney Rogers had joined the commission.

An audiotape of the meeting reveals that Seiler and Rogers grilled Freeman and Alfred Battle, CRA director for the Sistrunk corridor, for 90 minutes.

Rogers pointed out that Freeman’s project was $3.2 million in debt and the Six Street Plaza was appraised at $2.4 million. “So you’re underwater $800,000 at least…Has anyone really crunched the numbers?” Rogers asked. Battle admitted such an analysis had not been done.

Seiler asked, “If we don’t give this money, you’re essentially going to lose the property?”

Freeman didn’t answer the mayor’s question, but said, “The project has done what it is supposed to have done as far as its ability to attract tenants.”

Bobby DeBose, who also had joined the city commission, came to Freeman’s defense. “We need to commend her for jumping in,” he said, calling Sixth Street Plaza a “flagship” project that was needed to revitalize the “blighted,” predominately black Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

“We know it is difficult,” he added.

Rogers said Battle and his staff “should be all over this thing and more involved…It shouldn’t have gotten this far…If it is a flagship you should treat it like a flagship.”

FREEMAN A ‘PIONEEER’

Turning to Freeman, Rogers said, “You’re a pioneer…I applaud you for that…but maybe you should have reached out (to the CRA)…quicker…I see a real problem coming down the pike…I’m sitting here looking at this package and I’m not feeling good about it because I don’t have enough information to make a prudent decision.”

Rogers nevertheless voted to approve the second CRA loan with the stipulation that Battle made sure Freeman settled the mechanic liens and paid any other outstanding bills. Only then Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom voted against the loan.

Seiler told FloridaBulldog.org he voted for the second CRA loan to salvage the Sixth Street Plaza project. “If we did not assist with the loan, the property would not be able to survive,” the mayor said, adding that the loan shored up the project in the middle of the recession.

Freeman is well known to city hall and Broward political circles. In addition to her service on the Housing Authority, she has served on the CRA’s Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights Redevelopment Board, the city Marine Advisory Board, the city Planning and Zoning Board and the city Planned Unit Development Zoning District Advisory Committee.

Freeman is also active politically. The Sun-Sentinel reported that in August 2012 Freeman hosted a fundraiser for Dale Holness who later was elected to the Broward County Commission.

BANKRUPTCY FILINGS

The second CRA loan did not stabilize Freeman’s finances. She filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in April 2012, but her petition was soon dismissed due to her failure to file additional paperwork. She filed again nine months later as a reorganization bankruptcy under Chapter 11, claiming she “has experienced difficulties caused by the significant downturn in the real estate market.” That action is pending

Since September 2009, city CRA minutes reflect no further discussion about the Sixth Street Plaza.

Nevertheless, Seiler said that city staff kept him informed about Sixth Street Plaza’s financial difficulties and its pending foreclosure, although he did not know Freeman had filed for bankruptcy protection.

Sixth Street Plaza’s financial troubles came about from the lack of tenants, Seiler added.

Even with the plaza’s foreclosure and the pending public sale, the mayor believes the Sistrunk corridor will prosper. The property has increased in value and the improving economy may make the plaza a good investment for whoever takes it over, he said.

Cheryl Cook, South Florida Regional Planning Agency’s loan program director, said Freeman has not repaid the planning agency’s loan. “You know we will be paid last,” she said.

When contacted, Freeman said, “I am working with my bank.” She declined further comment.

Battle would not be interviewed, but issued a statement via city public affairs officer Petula Burks.

“We will have an agenda item dedicated to this issue on Feb. 17 during the CRA meeting. Our conversation with the CRA board/city commission is expected to include a discussion about the status of the foreclosure and our lease,” the statement said.

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.

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