New majority on Hallandale commission wants to know: Where did CRA millions go?

Update: Jan. 23 – Hallandale Beach city commissioners Monday night gave initial approval to hiring an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of the city’s long troubled Community Redevelopment Agency.

Sitting as directors of the CRA, the commission designated the firm of Stanley I. Foodman, CPA & Advisor, to work with newly appointed City Manager Roger Carlton to determine the audit’s scope and cost. Carlton will present their proposal to commissioners for approval at a meeting next month.

Vice Mayor Keith London, who presented the item that won unanimous approval, said the audit will determine the CPA fund balances dating back to 2012, when a CRA fund was first established. The audit will also review prior land purchases by the CRA that forced $7.4 million in cuts from the CRA budget.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org  

The Hallandale Beach City Commission. From left to right: Anthony Sanders, Anabelle Taub, Mayor Joy Cooper, Vice Mayor Keith London, Michele Lazarow

The new majority on the Hallandale Beach City Commission will seek the first-ever forensic audit of all expenditures by its troubled Community Redevelopment Agency for the past five years, including finding out why $7.4 million had to be cut to balance the agency’s budget this fiscal year.

Current Vice Mayor Keith London and Commissioner Michele Lazarow had been frustrated in seeking such an audit by the previous commission majority headed by Mayor Joy Cooper.

The November city commission election resulted in London and Lazarow gaining the backing of new City Commissioner Anabelle Taub. Cooper was reelected, but failed to gain another commissioner to back her and her ally, Commissioner Anthony Sanders. They’re expected to vote on the audit, aimed at determining whether any wrongdoing occured, later this month.

“Let’s see where the money went,” London said. “We are going to get to the bottom of this.”

The new commission trio already has flexed its power in a remake of city hall.

It was responsible for the ousters of City Manager Daniel Rosemond and City Attorney Lynn Whitfield, and replacing them with long-time South Florida government administrator, Roger Carlton, and a new city attorney, Jennifer Merino. Merino was general counsel for the Broward Inspector General’s Office, which investigated and severely criticized the spending practices of the city’s CRA four years ago.

“It’s time to clean house of the city manager and the city commission … the collusion,” Lazarow said.

Now the new commission majority will be seeking answers about the spending of the much-troubled CRA.

‘We need to find out’

“We need a full forensic audit [of the CRA],” London said. “We need to find out about the $7.4 million, and we need to know what we have left.”

London was referring to last August when city commissioners, who are also directors of the CRA, were forced to cut $7.4 million from the proposed $25.9-million CRA budget for this year after being told by the city administration that the agency had counted land purchases by the agency as cash.

At that meeting, then City Manager Rosemond said an “adjustment” had to be made — the city commission had no choice but to approve the budget cut.

Prior to that, London said the city manager had given commissioners assurances that cash was available to the CRA, only to learn that the value of the city-purchased land by the CRA cannot be counted as cash.

Both London and Lazarow lobbied for a forensic audit of expenditures at that time, but lacked a third vote. The commission instead voted to seek a forensic audit that delved only into CRA land purchases.

Making matters worse, London said, Rosemond later came back and told commissioners that he was unable to engage any firm willing to conduct the forensic audit of land purchases — and, therefore, no firm was hired.

That all changed, however, with the November city commission election. Lazarow was reelected, along with newcomer Taub. London was not up for reelection.

Now in the majority, London said he wants audit to cover CRA spending back to 2012, the first year city commissioners established a separate funding account for the agency.

“We need to know what we have,” he said.

“We have to inquire about the $7.4 million,” said Lazarow, adding she plans to back London’s request for a forensic audit when he brings it up for a commission vote. Taub, who was not available for comment, is also expected to back the request.

City co-mingled CRA funds

Prior to 2012, the city had co-mingled CRA funds with city funds. That practice started in 1996, when the CRA was established under state law. The agency has been funded through property tax increases in the CRA boundaries.

It was only when the Broward Inspector General’s Office began its probe and issued a scathing report that some changes were made, including separating CRA-collected funds from other city tax revenues. Florida Bulldog had reported about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases through the CRA nearly a year before IG investigators descended on city hall in April, 2012 seeking records and questioning officials as the probe became public.

After a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office in 2013 stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in funds between 2007 and 2012. It found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the CRA, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

Before and after that report, London asked for a forensic audit of agency funds, but was outvoted by his commission colleagues.

Mayor Cooper denied the city had done anything wrong. The city commission majority at that time then ousted the agency’s recently appointed CRA executive director, Alvin Jackson, who won praise by the Inspector General for efforts to improve the CRA.

The city commission, over the objections of London, placed the agency once again under the direct management of the city manager. Except for Jackson’s short tenure, city managers have had full control of the CRA since 1996, during which the agency failed to keep adequate records, including changing loan and grant policies in violation of existing rules.

Both London and Lazarow said they are pleased with the new appointees, in particular Merino, 36.

“She has knowledge of our city,” said London, referring to Merino’s work with the agency that investigated the city’s CRA.

“Merino has a history [with the city],” Lazarow said. “She has been watching our meetings.”

Carlton, 69, has held several key positions with public agencies, among them: Miami Beach city manager (1992-1995), executive assistant Miami-Dade county manager (1977-1981).

A curious search for justice amid Miami-Dade judges’ desire for new civil courthouse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The effort to build a new civil court building to replace the historic, but crumbling, Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami recently took a bizarre turn that prompted a local judge to remove herself from a high-profile case involving prominent developer Russell Galbut and another local landmark, the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey took herself off the case on Dec. 19 after disclosing she briefly attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property that’s partially owned by one of his companies.

Bailey transferred the case to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko, who like Bailey had actively campaigned to convince voters to approve a 2014 bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse.

Butchko quickly dismissed eight of 12 counts against the Shelborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association and five companies owned by Galbut, his brother Abraham and other relatives. The counts alleged civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing.

“This is so shocking, you can’t believe it’s happening,” said David Kraus, a plaintiff in the Shelborne case.

Miami attorney Kevin Malek represents four-dozen Shelborne Hotel room owners who claim that Galbut’s companies and the condo association illegally tried to force them out. Malek told Florida Bulldog that his clients would appeal Butchko’s rulings, which he said severely weakened their case a week before the beginning of the Jan. 9 trial period. The trial on the remaining counts had not begun as of Thursday.

“This case is not over,” Malek said. “We will be back.”

A fair shake?

His clients, however, have little faith that they will get a fair shake as long as the case remains in Miami-Dade. Several of the unit owners, including Kraus, told Florida Bulldog they don’t believe any Miami-Dade judge can rule impartially on their case while Galbut is talking about building them a new home.

“Pretty much every judge wants a new courthouse,” said plaintiff Mark Shemel.

The Shelborne was converted into a condo hotel about a decade ago, allowing individual investors to buy rooms that are rented to tourists. In 2012, 40 of those investors sued alleging that the five Galbut entities – three of which own units in the hotel and two others that run the hotel’s operations – and the condo association broke Florida law by authorizing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments, or roughly $107,142 per room, for renovations at the Shelborne.

In court documents, the unit owners accuse Galbut of stacking the association’s board with flunkies and trying to force them out by foreclosing on their rooms because they refuse to pay the assessments. They also allege their rooms were demolished without their consent during the renovations, resulting in the City of Miami Beach revoking their certificates of occupancy until they fixed their units.

Their lawyer, Malek, sought unsuccessfully last week to remove Butchko from the case due to her advocacy for the 2014 bond referendum. She declined to recuse, while also rejecting a motion that sought to move the case outside of Miami-Dade County.

Nevertheless, Judge Butchko’s dismissal of the eight counts against the Galbut entities and the condo association was a jolt to plaintiffs in the long-running case.

“This lawsuit has been going on for years and Butchko dismissed our entire case within days,” said Kraus, who owns two rooms at the Shelborne. “How could she have reviewed so much evidence in such a short amount of time?”

Judges Bailey and Butchko declined comment through court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler, who said state law bars judges from publicly commenting on their rulings. Still, Sigler said Butchko had not been influenced by Galbut’s interest in developing a new courthouse.

“Judges rule based on the facts presented and applicable law,” Sigler said. “And their rulings can always be appealed to a higher court.”

‘A far-fetched theory’

Ron Lowy, Galbut’s personal attorney, said the 40 Shelborne owners are pursuing a “far-fetched” theory as to why Butchko dismissed the eight counts.

“I don’t believe any judge in Miami-Dade is going to give up their view of justice and doing what’s right simply because [Galbut] may in the future submit a formal proposal which may result in the construction of a new courthouse,” Lowy said. “The plaintiffs were simply unable to prove their case.”

Both Lowy and Sigler also noted that Miami-Dade County government, not the 11th judicial circuit, is the actual owner of the current courthouse and it is that body which would negotiate with Galbut for any deal for a new building.

Still, it was Bailey’s concern about a perception of possible impropriety and conflict of interest that caused her to remove herself from the Shelborne case, according to a transcript of the Dec. 14 hearing.

Bailey explained that two weeks before the court hearing, she was invited “out of the blue” to participate in a meeting with Galbut and Chief Judge Soto because she is the only local judge who is familiar with national courthouse standards and guidelines.

Three years ago, Soto, Bailey and Butchko were among a group of judges and high profile lawyers who led a public awareness campaign to tell voters that the downtown courthouse, built in 1926, had fallen into a state of disrepair and was no longer safe for the people who work there. Their goal: to convince Miami-Dade voters to approve a bond referendum to pay the nearly $400 million cost to build a new courthouse, plus repair the existing building, which was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Voters, however, rejected the referendum.

“I was very involved in public appearances with all that,” Bailey said during the Dec. 14 hearing. “Suffice it to say I am very involved in the campaign to get a new courthouse for my judges and the people I work with.”

Bailey relayed that when she showed up for the meeting with Soto, Galbut was also there. She said the plans Gabut presented were very preliminary and that she did not believe his proposal would go anywhere. However, she soon realized that his plan is gaining steam and that she needed to address it with the lawyers involved in the Shelborne litigation.

A judicial ‘epiphany’

“I had the epiphany that it might be a potential issue in this case,” Bailey said according to the transcript. “If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case.”

Five days later, Bailey transferred the case to Butchko. However, the plaintiffs’ don’t believe they got a fair shot in court.

“I don’t think there is a conspiracy between Galbut and Butchko,” said owner Mark Shemel said. “But she is very sympathetic about getting a new courthouse. So it’s certainly possible she is sympathetic to the defendants.”

Shemel noted that Galbut has been involved in new courthouse talks for quite some time. He cited statements made by Greenberg Traurig attorney Ron Rosengarten, who represents two of the Galbut entities.

In a Jan. 3 motion, Rosengarten admitted that Galbut has been communicating with Soto, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, members of the Dade Heritage Trust and retired judge Scott Silverman for more than a year about getting involved in a possible deal to develop an “expanded courthouse project.”

Silverman, who declined comment, was the court appointed mediator in the Shelborne case. Galbut’s lawyer, Lowy, said his client only met once with Silverman and that the encounter took place after the mediation had ended with an impasse.

“That bothers me,” said plaintiff Shemel. “Silverman made the plaintiffs feel doomed. The whole thing stinks.”

No discipline for FBI agent accused of writing 9/11 report FBI now calls bogus

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Tampa Field Office

The FBI agent who wrote a powerful investigative report about 9/11 that the bureau later publicly repudiated faced no apparent discipline even though the FBI subsequently deemed his report to be “poorly written” and “wholly unsubstantiated.”

The April 16, 2002 report, approved by superiors in the FBI’s Tampa field office, said agents had determined that Saudis living in Sarasota had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” and requested a more urgent investigation be opened. The heavily redacted report, made public in 2013 after Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI for access to records of its once-secret Sarasota investigation, flatly contradicted earlier FBI public statements that the Sarasota Saudis had no involvement in the 9/11 plot.

The 2002 FBI report became a hot potato in 2015 when the 9/11 Review Commission, also known as the Meese Commission, recounted FBI criticism of the unidentified agent in its final report. It says that when the agent was questioned he “was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.”

The report does not explain how the agent could have made such a serious error, why its conclusions are cited in other released FBI documents or why the FBI made such flawed documents public.

Last June, Bulldog filed a parallel Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking Meese Commission records and any related disciplinary action taken by the FBI against the agent it accused of filing a bogus report in the biggest criminal investigation in FBI history.

The government moved on Dec. 30 to dismiss a part of the suit. Essentially, it contends that it has released, or will soon release, all the records about the Meese Commission that it legally can.

The government also informed Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga that an extensive search of its records had turned up no disciplinary records about the unidentified agent. The lack of disciplinary action calls into question the Meese Commission’s criticism of the agent’s 2002 report.

The FBI has declined requests to interview the agent, believed to be former Fort Myers-based Special Agent Gregory Sheffield.

Censored on the CIA’s orders

The government’s motion for summary judgment also disclosed the reason that the FBI heavily redacted a “Memorandum for the Record” (MFR), released in November, that recounts a briefing on “9/11 Additional Evidence” given to the Meese Commission on Oct. 24, 2014. The two-page memo, containing “materials from the Abbottabad raid” on May 2, 2011 in which U.S. Navy Seals killed al Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden, was censored on orders of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“The CIA subsequently determined that four paragraphs of the MFR contain information that is both classified and protected by statute and advised the FBI to withhold that information,” said CIA official Mary E. Wilson in a declaration filed by the government.

The motion for summary judgment filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell also offers an explanation for the government’s decision to withhold from public release information about how much the FBI paid the three members of the 9/11 panel, including former Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese.

Congress authorized the 9/11 Review Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. But copies of personal services contracts signed by all three in January 2014 at the outset of their duties make clear the Meese Commission was not independent. Instead, the commission and its FBI paid staff were under the FBI’s direction and control.

To redact from the contracts the terms of the commissioners’ financial compensation, the FBI invoked an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act that protects the release of trade secrets or confidential commercial and financial information obtained from persons by the government.

“Disclosure of these salaries would cause substantial harm to the competitive negotiation process in the future,” the motion says. “Specifically … release of this information would enable potential government contractors the opportunity to judge how they might underbid their [sic] those that served on the 9/11 Reports [sic] Commission board when bidding for similar contracts in the future.”

FBI Director James Comey chose the three commissioners in “consultation with Congress,” the Meese Commission’s report says.

The motion does not address the same redactions of salary information in the FBI’s personal services contracts of Meese Commission staff.

The lawsuit the government wants dismissed was filed in June to challenge the FBI’s failure to produce any records, or to conduct a good faith search for records, since the Bulldog filed its initial Freedom of Information Act request in April 2015. The government has not explained why a lawsuit was necessary to gain access to Meese Commission records the government’s motion acknowledges were stored in director Comey’s office.

Claim of privacy hides names of FBI agents

The government’s motion also seeks to justify, on privacy grounds, the redaction of the names of both FBI agents and support personnel from about 300 pages of documents released since the lawsuit was filed.

“Publicity (adverse or otherwise) regarding any particular investigation to which they have been assigned may seriously prejudice their effectiveness in conducting other investigations,” the motion says, without further explanation. “The privacy consideration is also to protect FBI SAs [special agents], as individuals, from unnecessary, unofficial questioning as to the conduct of this or other investigations, whether or not they are currently employed by the FBI.”

The motion goes on to assert “the release of an agent’s identity in connection with a particular investigation could trigger hostility toward a particular agent … In contrast, there is no public interest to be served by disclosing the identities of the SAs to the public because their identities would not, themselves, significantly increase the public’s understanding of the FBI’s operations and activities.”

The motion does not note, however, that the names of FBI agents and employees typically are not secret. For example, FBI personnel are routinely identified in public court documents filed in both criminal and civil proceedings. The reason: accountability.

Trial in the case is scheduled for early March. Judge Altonaga is expected to rule next month on the government’s motion to dismiss.

Miami-Dade union leaders fear more outsourcing of members’ work at district schools

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org   

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho Photo: NBC6 South Florida

The Miami-Dade School Board has agreed to spend up to $1.8 million to outsource lawn service maintenance long done by unionized workers, and union leaders now say they fear Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is eyeing more privatization that could lead to additional work cuts for its members.

The two, five-year outsourcing contracts stand to eliminate tasks generally assigned to maintenance workers and custodians represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1184.

“It’s work the employees are supposed to be doing,” said AFSCME local president Vicki Hall. AFSCME workers are generally the lowest-paid union members working for the school district; they include custodians, maintenance employees, bus drivers and food service personnel.

“It weakens the union when they outsource and take away jobs from the employees who should be doing the work,” said Terry Haynes, the AFSCME local’s senior vice president. He estimated the two contracts cost 10 to 15 school district jobs.

Both pointed the finger at Superintendent Carvalho for the outsourcing. “He’s aware of it; all falls under him,” Haynes said, adding the superintendent “backed the first two” contracts.

“I believe this is the start of outsourcing of all of lawn service,” Haynes said.

“He’s trying to outsource lawn service. He’s trying to privatize,” said Hall.

District officials did not respond to calls for comment on the issue, so reasons for the outsourcing were unknown, including whether they claim it was for cost reasons. Carvalho also would not discuss the matter when a reporter attempted to talk with him at the Dec. 14 board meeting.

A day after the meeting, however, district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego released this statement: “Recently, there was misunderstanding regarding the District’s procedures for contracting out. In an effort to provide clarity, the District and the Union are working on an agreement to ensure that all parties understand the process and protocols to be followed.”

Outsourcing a management right?

Union officials Hall and Haynes complained that in recent years district officials have taken the position that outsourcing is a management right that can be invoked unilaterally and they do not have to confer with the union.

But Haynes said the district is overlooking a ruling in a case years ago in which the union prevailed in arbitration. The ruling in that matter stated the district had to notify the union if it sought to outsource work that could be performed by union employees and the parties had to negotiate the impact of the proposed work. If the parties did not come to an agreement, the union could move ahead with arbitration.

After that case, the district generally followed that ruling, until recently, Haynes said, adding the two contracts are indicative of the district’s changing policy.

The first of the two contracts was approved by the School Board on Nov. 18, 2015 for up to five years for 11 companies to provide lawn service totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a grievance and the request for arbitration. The union had filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, approximately $273,000 has been paid to the companies as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved, according to Haynes.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of Nov. 21, 2016.

Haynes said the union filed a grievance related to the Thomas Maintenance contract in April regarding work done at the district’s North Dade maintenance facility. Two more grievances were filed in September after the union learned about other outsourced lawn work at a high school and an elementary school, both in the northwest section, Haynes added. All three grievances remain pending.

Critics: Miami-Dade wants to make it harder for land owners to fight assessment hikes

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.com 

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia

Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Pedro J. Garcia

Miami-Dade property owners will find it much more difficult to contest their annual property assessments under a new guideline being considered by the Value Adjustment Board, a semi-governmental agency that mediates disputes between landowners and Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia, critics of the proposal claim.

Opponents argue the change, submitted to the board by Garcia’s office, violates both state law and rules set down by the Florida Department. Their reason: The appraiser’s office would no longer have to present evidence to back up how it arrived at a particular property’s assessed value. The higher the assessment the more taxes an individual or company has to pay even when the tax rate remains flat.

“It’s very important for taxpayers to have a process that protects their rights,” said Sheila Anderson, a Realtor who also specializes in property-tax appeals across the state. “If the property appraiser is allowed to write the rules, it tilts the scale in its favor. And it doesn’t comply with state law.”

Rafael Millares, the recently appointed general counsel for the Value Adjustment Board, or VAB, told Florida Bulldog that he is evaluating Garcia’s proposed rule change, as well as opinions submitted by attorneys who represent property owners before the board. Millares said he will likely issue his opinion on the matter after the New Year.

“I am new here so I have been doing a lot of research and going over what was left over from the previous VAB counsel,” he said. “So it is going to take a while. My plan is to produce a memo that conforms to the law.”

Lazaro Solis, Miami-Dade’s deputy property appraiser, dismissed critics’ concerns. “We are not doing anything that we believe is legally incorrect, unfair or unjust to a property owner,” Solis told the Bulldog. “Our attorneys say we are within our rights [to propose the change]. We don’t believe that this negatively impacts property owners in any way.”

In order to figure out each property owner’s annual tax bill, the property appraisers in every Florida county are bound by law to assess the market value of every parcel. An owner who believes a property has been given a higher value than it is worth can appeal directly to appraiser or skip right to the VAB.

Over the last two months, Anderson and real estate tax attorneys have been lobbying Millares to reject the property appraiser’s assertion that it only has to submit a property record card, which contains general information about a parcel such as sales history and appraisal values, and provide general comments about its assessment techniques.

State law violation?

In a Nov. 22 letter to Millares, Miami lawyer Jeffrey Mandler argued the property appraiser’s conclusion violates state law and administrative rules as well as Florida Department of Revenue guidelines and the statewide uniform 2016 VAB training manual. “Since 2009, the property appraiser had to provide written evidence demonstrating how it utilized and relied on income and sales and how it arrived at its value conclusion for the specific property,” Mandler wrote. “This would include the actual income analysis for the property and the sales it relied upon to assess the subject property.”

Mandler, who did not return two phone messages and an email seeking comment, claimed the property appraiser’s office now wants authorization to submit only “cursory” evidence to establish a “presumption of correctness” in arriving at a property’s market value. “This change is both detrimental to taxpayers and fundamentally unfair,” Mandler wrote.

In a Dec. 6 response to Mandler’s letter, Jorge Martinez-Esteve, a Miami-Dade County assistant attorney representing the property appraiser, disputed the real estate tax lawyer’s assertions. Martinez-Esteve said Garcia is only asking that Millares follow a guideline that his two previous predecessors accepted as sufficient for defending against owners appealing assessments.

“At any VAB hearing, the property appraiser’s office is only required to introduce evidence regarding the mass appraisal techniques used by the property appraiser’s office to arrive at the assessment,” Martinez-Esteve wrote. “The property appraiser is not required to introduce any evidence regarding the single appraisal of the subject property.”

Since Miami-Dade has more than a million properties, conducting single appraisals for every parcel would be impractical, Solis told the Bullldog. So the property appraiser’s office conducts mass appraisals, a process of valuing a group of properties through a mathematical analysis of market data, to determine a specific parcel’s fair market value, Solis said.

He added the property appraiser is not looking to make property owners pay more in property taxes. “If a reduction is warranted when we are reviewing a case, we offer it,” he said. “We are always looking out for the property owner. We don’t have a reason to go against them unless we believe the assessment is correct.”

Nevertheless, Anderson said the property appraiser is making it harder for owners to appeal assessments by pushing Millares to adopt its request. “Miami-Dade is a big place so they will make mistakes,” she said. “Now they want to come into a VAB hearing, wave a piece of paper in the air and claim they did everything correctly. That’s not showing evidence. It is empty rhetoric.”

Miami federal judge denies FBI motion to postpone trial on secret 9-11 records

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami's Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse

Miami’s Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse

A Miami federal judge Thursday denied the FBI’s request to delay for 90 days a trial to decide whether certain secret records about 9/11 should be made public.

The trial before U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga remains on schedule for the week of March 6.

“The FBI had 21 months to produce the records.  There was no reason to allow further delay,” said attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the Florida Bulldog.

The nonprofit news site’s corporate parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the Justice Department and the FBI in June after three of its Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests seeking records generated by the 9/11 Review Commission received no response from the FBI. The Meese Commission, as it also is known, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s response to the attacks and to evaluate new evidence. It issued its final report in March 2015.

The FBI had requested and obtained a 30-day extension to file various pretrial paperwork in the case on Nov. 29. But at Thursday’s hearing, the FBI’s lawyer, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell, asked Judge Altonaga to postpone the case again – this time for 90 days.

Raurell explained the FBI has located more than 1,100 records “potentially responsive” to the Bulldog’s FOIA request, but that 60 percent of them contain information from 27 other government agencies. The FBI, he said, needed the extra time because less than half those agencies with “equities” in those records had responded to the FBI’s requests for comments needed to justify to the court their claims for secrecy.

Raurell did not identify those 27 government agencies.

“The FBI’s reasons for trying to slow the case were utterly unbelievable.  It made no sense that 27 other agencies had to be consulted,” Julin said in an interview.

Records of ‘paramount’ importance

In a motion filed Wednesday opposing further delay, Julin wrote, “The Bulldog contends the records at issue are of paramount national and international importance because they are expected to shed light on whether the FBI found evidence in 2001 and 2002 that Saudi Arabia supported the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, but withheld that evidence from Congressional and other investigators.”

The judge directed the government to file by Dec. 30 its motion for summary judgment on whatever issues it could. That would likely include providing an explanation for redactions it made in 220 pages of Meese Commission records provided to the Bulldog in November. The motion would ask the court to dismiss the case. Julin said the Bulldog would have two weeks to respond in opposition.

Julin told the judge that if a trial is held, one of the witnesses he likely would call is former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who co-chaired Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11. Graham has been a leading advocate of more government transparency regarding 9/11.

Altonaga also told the government she might consider another summary judgment motion shortly before trial on other matters.

The release of the 220 pages resulted in three stories. The first reported FBI claims that its agents investigating 9/11 did not obtain security records from a Sarasota gated community that contained alleged evidence that 9/11 hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family. Another story reported that the FBI censored records to hide how much it paid the 9/11 Commission members, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese.

Another document described a 2012 investigation of an apparent U.S. support network that aided two of the 9/11 hijackers – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who with three other terrorists crashed an American Airlines passenger jet into the Pentagon.

The lawsuit is the second pending matter filed by Florida Bulldog that seeks access to 9/11 records. In 2012, the news organization sued after the FBI denied a FOIA request for records about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta and other terrorists.

Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the FBI released a handful of documents that included an April 2002 FBI report that said the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The Meese Commission later sought to discredit that report as “unsubstantiated,” but provided no explanation for that conclusion. It also refused to identify the agent who wrote the report or say whether he was disciplined for his possibly shoddy work.

In April 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch ordered the FBI to produce 80,000 pages from its Tampa field office for his inspection. The judge’s review of those records continues.

New FBI document shows active probe of support network for 9/11 hijackers in 2012

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Pentagon after 9/11

The Pentagon after 9/11

As late as October 2012, federal prosecutors and FBI agents in New York City were actively exploring filing charges against a suspect for providing material support to the 9/11 hijackers and other crimes.

The suspect’s identity and many details of the New York investigation are blanked out of a FBI summary report that discusses “Updates and Initiatives (as of 5 October 2012)” about 9/11. The document was released to Florida Bulldog amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation that seeks access to records of the 9/11 Review Commission.

The report was heavily redacted for national security, privacy and other reasons. But the report’s declassified portions indicate the New York investigation targeted an apparent U.S. support network for two of the 9/11 suicide hijackers – Saudis Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar – who with three other terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon.

“This has never been disclosed before and it’s to the contrary of everything the FBI has produced so far that has indicated that 9/11 is history,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-FL, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks. “It’s interesting that it took them 11 years to get there, and a FOIA to get this information to the public.”

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 report, originally classified secret, is marked “declassify on 12-31-2037.”

Sean Carter, a Philadelphia attorney who represents numerous victims of 9/11 in a massive lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, called the release of the 2012 FBI report “a powerful and important disclosure.”

“We’ve been repeatedly told by U.S. officials that all questions of Saudi involvement were resolved by the 9/11 Commission and now you have confirmation that there was an active investigation happening years after the 9/11 Commission shut its doors” in August 2004.

Said Graham: “What we don’t know now is what’s happened since 2012. If the decision was not to proceed, why? And if it was to proceed, what’s the status?”

The FBI declined to comment about its New York investigation or its October 2012 report. “We do not have anything to add to the 9/11 Review Commission report,” the FBI’s National Press Office said last week. Click here to view the 2012 FBI Summary report.

Representatives of Saudi Arabia have long maintained the kingdom had no involvement in 9/11. Over the summer, Congress overwhelmingly overrode President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), allowing 9/11 victims and their kin to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts.

So sensitive even report’s title is a secret

The newly released 2012 FBI report, emblazoned with a logo that depicts the Twin Towers inside a pentagon against a backdrop of an American flag, is mentioned fleetingly in a footnote in the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report. It is so sensitive that even its title is classified “in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.” Similarly, the FBI censored from a synopsis the investigation’s code-name citing the same national security exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

“[Redacted] is an investigation into individuals known to have provided substantial assistance to 9/11 hijackers Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar during their time in California,” the synopsis says.

The report lists three of the “main subjects” of the probe – the name of one, however, was censored for national security. Fahad-al-Thumairy was a Saudi diplomat and imam at Los Angeles’ King Fahd Mosque when the two future hijackers, who spoke little or no English, first arrived in the U.S. in January 2000. The report says Thumairy “immediately assigned an individual to take care of them during their time in Los Angeles.”

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar, right, and Nawaf al-Hazmi.

Omar al-Bayoumi, the second subject, was a suspected Saudi agent who befriended Hazmi and Mihdhar in Southern California. The report says Bayoumi “was living in San Diego on a student visa, despite not attending classes, and receiving a salary from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for job duties he never performed.” Bayoumi has told authorities he accidentally met the two hijackers at a Los Angeles restaurant shortly after their arrival.

Like in the case of the identity of the third subject, a sentence or two mentioning Thumairy and Bayoumi were also redacted. Still, the final sentence of the synopsis offers a teaser that indicates the third individual was highly placed: “There is evidence that [redacted] and tasked al-Thumairy and al-Bayoumi with assisting the hijackers.”

The four-page report goes on to say that the trio “provided (or directed others to provide) the hijackers with assistance in daily activities, including procuring living quarters, financial assistance, and assistance in obtaining flight lessons and driver’s licenses. [Redacted] seeks to prove these subjects provided such assistance with the knowledge that al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar were here to commit an act of terrorism.”

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

Suspected Saudi agent and friend to 9/11 hijackers Omar al-Bayoumi, right, and former Saudi diplomat and Los Angeles Imam Fahad-al-Thumairy

The 9/11 Review Commission, which disclosed the existence of the 2012 FBI summary report, was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external” review of the FBI’s response to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and to evaluate new evidence. Its final report, in March 2015, said its work included a review of the FBI’s ongoing effort to probe “lingering allegations that the circle of 9/11 conspirators may be wider.” The Review Commission ultimately concluded, however, that it saw nothing “to change the 9/11 Commission’s original findings regarding the presence of witting assistance” to Hazmi and Mihdhar.

The 9/11 Review Commission’s public report, however, does not mention the existence of the federal criminal investigation in New York, its status at the time, or a variety of related matters cited in the 2012 FBI report.

According to the partially declassified report the New York investigation was discussed at a Sept. 24, 2012 meeting at the FBI’s New York City office. Present were FBI agents, an unidentified a Manhattan Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and a Department of Justice attorney.

The report says that at the request of an unnamed official, the New York prosecutor “will explore potential charges for [redacted], including providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers, as well as lesser crimes, which investigators could present at a future interview with [redacted].”

Copenhagen connection

The report then discusses assistance provided two weeks earlier of the FBI’s legal attaché in Copenhagen. Much of the discussion was excised, again for national security considerations, but the missing information appears to be about a U.S. request to the Danish government for cooperation and/or extradition.

“Legat Copenhagen advised that [redacted]. Upon resolution of the claim and its likely rejection [redacted] will coordinate with SDNY [the Southern District of New York.]”

scotlandyardThe action that month followed a June 2012 visit to London by a team that included New York FBI agents, analysts from FBI headquarters in Washington and the assistant U.S. attorney. The trip’s purpose: “to exploit evidence seized in 2001 in New Scotland Yard’s searches of Omar al Bayoumi’s residences and offices” in England, the 2012 report says.

British authorities arrested Bayoumi on an immigration charge for a few days shortly after 9/11. The FBI has said agents found nothing then to connect Bayoumi to terrorism and no evidence that his assistance to Hazmi and Mihdhar “was witting.” The 9/11 Commission reached a similar conclusion in 2004.

Other statements about the London trip are mostly censored, once again for reasons including national security. One short segment, however, says the Bayoumi evidence included documents that officials were having translated “to determine relevancy.” Apparently, those records went untranslated by law enforcement for more than a decade.

The report contains several bullet points about individuals with ties to Hazmi and/or Mihdhar. All of the names are redacted, but one name is discernable from the available information: former Tampa resident Osama “Sam” Mustafa.

Prior to 9/11 Mustafa owned a gas station in a suburb of San Diego where future hijacker Hazmi worked for about a month in the fall of 2000. Mustafa previously had been the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation that yielded no evidence of criminal conduct, according to the 9/11 Commission’s final report.

The 2012 FBI report recounts Mustafa’s May 15, 2012 arrest in Tampa for Treasury check fraud filed by a U.S. Attorney in Virginia. Court records say the case involved a $17 million tax-refund fraud scheme, and that Mustafa was found guilty in April 2013. Four months later, while out on bond, Mustafa removed a monitoring bracelet and vanished. In June 2014, Mustafa was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison. He remains a fugitive.

Tampa man denied knowledge of terrorism

According to the report, federal authorities in Tampa had offered Mustafa a deal on Sept. 17, 2012. “During the proffer [Mustafa] echoed [a] previous statement he had made, denying any knowledge of the hijackers’ terrorist affiliation and providing no additional details of use to investigators. [Mustafa] seemed optimistic about the charges he was facing. [Redacted] investigators anticipate future proffer sessions with [Mustafa] on the [Redacted] national security issues.”

One bullet item in the FBI report is entirely censored. Others with declassified information:

  • On Sept. 24, 2012, two or more individuals were sentenced in federal court in the Southern District of California to five years’ probation and a $2,500 fine each. All information identifying those individuals, explaining what their case was about and how they are tied to 9/11 was blanked out, mostly for privacy considerations.
  • In August 2012, Los Angeles’ Joint Terrorism Task Force confirmed the address of an unidentified individual “who was known to have extremist views, and was identified as having met with Omar al-Bayoumi in private on the same day as Bayoumi’s alleged ‘chance’ first meeting with 9/11 hijackers” Hazmi and Mihdhar. “[Redacted] planning to approach [redacted] for an interview of his role aiding Bayoumi in facilitating the hijacker’s arrival and settlement in California, for which [redacted] has never provided an adequate explanation.”
  • The FBI wanted to interview another subject who helped facilitate “the day-to-day life” of Hazmi and Mihdhar in San Diego. The subject “is reported to be very concerned about his presence on U.S. no-fly lists.”

The 2012 FBI report takes a longer look at Mohdar Abdullah, who “played a key role facilitating the daily lives and assisting future Flight 77 hijackers.” His story is recounted in a section of the report titled “Details on Mohdar Abdullah and his connection [redacted].” National security is cited for that redaction, and for much of the first couple of sentences in the section.

Also removed from the report are several sentences detailing “the immediate goal of” investigating Abdullah, whom the 9/11 Commission Report previously said worked at the gas station where Hazmi was employed.

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002 Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

Mohdar Abdullah, 2002
Photo: San Diego Union Tribune

According to the 9/11 Commission, Abdullah was a Yemeni student in his early 20s who was “fluent in both Arabic and English,” sympathetic to extremist views “and was perfectly suited to assist the hijackers in pursuing their mission.” When FBI agents searched his possessions after the attacks, they found a notebook “belonging to someone else with references to planes falling from the sky, mass killing and hijacking,’’ the 9/11 Commission report says. Abdullah was detained as a material witness and later “he expressed hatred for the U.S. government and ‘stated that the U.S. brought ‘this’ on themselves.’ ”

Newly declassified information in the 2012 FBI report says that shortly after Feb. 4, 2000, Abdullah was one of two individuals tasked by Bayoumi to assist the two future hijackers. A partially censored sentence then says, “Anwar Aulaqi and they may have spent time together with the hijackers.”

Aulaqi, also known as Anwar al-Awlaki, was an American who was imam of the Masjid Ar-Ribat al-Islami mosque in San Diego, where Hazmi and Mihdhar worshipped. U.S. officials later identified him an al Qaeda recruiter who helped plan terrorist operations. Aulaqi was killed in Yemen in September 2011 by a U.S. Hellfire missile drone strike.

Man allegedly bragged about helping hijackers

The 2012 FBI report says, “After September 11, 2001 Mohdar (Abdullah) was investigated by the FBI for assisting the hijackers. On September 19, 2001 he was arrested by FBI San Diego on charges of immigration fraud for his claim of being a Somali asylee (Mohdar is Yemeni.) Mohdar pled guilty to the immigration charges and was deported to Yemen in 2004.

“While Mohdar was detained in an immigration facility he bragged to two fellow inmates that he assisted the hijackers. The FBI and the SDNY have debriefed these individuals. Both are cooperative, but there is some prosecutorial concern about their value as witnesses,” the report says.

Much of the rest of the section about Mohdar Abdullah is blanked out citing a FOIA exemption that protects confidential sources and personal privacy.

The 2012 FBI report was among about 200 pages of 9/11 Review Commission records recently released to Florida Bulldog. On Nov. 30, the Bulldog reported that records showed agents investigating 9/11 did not obtain security records from a Sarasota-area gated community containing alleged evidence that the hijackers had visited the residence of a Saudi family with ties to the royal family. A story last week reported how the FBI had censored its documents to remove information about how much it paid the Review Commission’s three members and staff.

The FBI’s information release included two other documents describing briefings given to the Review Commission. One involved a Feb. 25, 2014 Washington Times story that said the FBI had “placed a human source in direct contact” with Osama bin Laden in 1993 and learned bin Laden was looking to finance attacks against the U.S. The heavily censored document recounts statements by retired FBI agent Bassem Youseff, who explained the source did not have direct contact with bin Laden.

The second document recounts a briefing by FBI agents titled, “Overview of Additional Evidence Regarding the 9/11 Attacks.” “It was explained that in preparation for trials of individuals held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the FBI has gone back to review evidence/information already in hand to see if additional evidence can be found for the prosecutions of these individuals.”

Most of the two-page report was censored for national security and other reasons, except for this sentence, “None of this identifies new participants in the 9/11 attacks but hardens the existing known connections to the plot.”

New Miami-Dade School board member: Let’s focus on fixing failing schools

Update: The Miami-Dade School Board Wednesday unanimously approved a new plan to improve failing schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

The proposal, introduced by board member Steve Gallon, also gained the backing of residents and community leaders in the northwest section of the county. School Board Chair Larry Feldman said he hoped the strong showing of support by the board and the community will result in an initiative that will become “blue print” for the improvement of failing schools everywhere.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo:CBS4Miami

Photo:CBS4Miami

 

Newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon is proposing to focus the district’s attention on improving failing schools in some of the county’s poorest locations, often in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Gallon, who campaigned on a promise to throw a spotlight on failing schools, has an item on Wednesday’s School Board agenda to address schools that have received repeated “F” ratings as well as those that have received a “D” under the state’s rating system.

The new school improvement proposal for failing schools is reminiscent – on a much smaller scale – of an initiative undertaken while Rudy Crew was superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade more than a decade ago.

Crew’s effort, which began in the second half of the 2004-2005 school year, entailed a large number of schools, with substantial district funding, during a period of intensive state scrutiny of failing schools. Known as the School Improvement Zone, the plan was abandoned after several more years with questionable results.

Gallon’s proposal, which makes no mention of specific funding support, calls on the Miami-Dade School Board to actively monitor the progress of the undertaking through the review of plans and programs, and other actions to bring about improvement.

While acknowledging that “the district as a whole has done well,” Gallon said in an emailed response to questions about his proposal, “there remain pockets of persistent underperformance in certain sectors of the community.”

He said his item was not “to indict the District for past performance” but “seeks to serve as a renewed call for action” for improving “F” and “D” schools.

A number of those failing schools are in District 1, which Gallon represents, and District 2, represented by board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Gallon pointed to the following schools needing attention: Carol City Middle which has received five consecutive “F” grades; Brownsville Middle, which has received three “F” grades in a row, and North Dade Middle, which has received two consecutive “F” grades.

He listed four other schools with “F” grades: Skyway/Dr. Frederica S. Wilson Elementary; Poinciana Park Elementary, and Earlington Heights Elementary.

All seven schools are in School Board Districts 1 and 2.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency around addressing the needs of these schools in the areas that were enumerated and must include strategies that are inclusive of parents and stakeholders in the broader community,” Gallon said in his written response.

“This item is not simply about District 1 and 2,” said. “This item is about the collective responsibility and commitment of a united School Board that is charged with educational oversight of a unified school district. The approval of this item will further bolster the Board’s conversation and commitment to all schools and all children irrespective of voting districts or zip codes.”

Gallon called for a “review of the resource allocations in schools to ensure equity and the support structure to ensure effectiveness and impact.”

The School Board, he said, should “play a role” in monitoring the initiative “because what gets monitored gets done.”

Gallon’s item, which seeks board support for enactment, calls for the Superintendent to:

*Provide a status update, at the Feb. 15, 2017 School Board meeting, on the Districts’ F schools, including improvement planning, intervention and support, leadership, teacher quality and support, professional development, curriculum, resource allocation, technology and parental and community partnerships;

*Provide monthly status updates to the School Board on the progress of the F school improvement plan; and

*Initiate a framework and process to establish a District Advisory Board to provide input and support to the schools that earn two or more consecutive letter grades of F based on the annual state assessment.

FBI scrubs contracts to hide how much it paid 9/11 Review Commission members

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The award notice and signature page of the FBI's personal services contract with 9/11 Review Commission member Ed Meese.

The award notice and signature page of the FBI’s personal services contract with 9/11 Review Commission member Ed Meese.

The three men who served as members of the 9/11 Review Commission were on the FBI’s payroll, but the bureau is refusing to say how much they were paid.

Florida Bulldog obtained copies from the FBI of its personal services contracts with the commissioners and staff during ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation.

Scrubbed from the contracts, however, are all details about financial compensation terms – hourly rates of pay, contract maximums – for both the commissioners’ services and travel for as long as two years. The FBI did not make public invoices submitted by the commissioners or its own paymaster records.

Congress authorized the 9/11 Review Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence. The contracts, however, make clear that the Review Commission was instead under the FBI’s direction and control.

“The contractor [each commissioner and staffer signee] agrees that the performance of services … shall be subject to the supervision, inspection and acceptance of the FBI,” the contracts say.

The 9/11 Review Commission members were Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese, former ambassador and congressman Timothy Roemer and Georgetown professor Bruce Hoffman. In an apparent oversight, the FBI released only two pages of Meese’s contract, and in place of the rest of Meese’s contract enclosed a second copy of Hoffman’s contract.

Meese, Roemer and Hoffman signed their contracts with the FBI on Jan. 22, 2014. The contracts required them to submit their report to the FBI by Dec. 15, 2014 for “appropriate classification and legal review.”

Top Secret clearance

The three commissioners and staff were required to have Top Secret security clearance and what the FBI calls “Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI)’’ access. SCI clearance has been called “above Top Secret,” according to Wikipedia.

The 9/11 Review Commission staffers whose contracts were released are: Executive director John Gannon, a former deputy director of the CIA; L. Christine Healey, a senior counsel and team leader for the 9/11 Commission; Caryn A. Wagner, a former Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the Department of Homeland Security; Jamison Pirko, an ex-staff assistant at the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism; and William E. Richardson.

According to the Review Commission’s final report, the commissioners traveled to eight FBI field offices and six FBI legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid. Travel invoices submitted by commissioners and staff have not been made public.

9/11 suicide hijack pilots Mohamed Atta, right, and Ziad Jarrah. The two men apparently visited the home of Saudis living in the Sarasota area.

9/11 suicide hijack pilots Mohamed Atta, right, and Ziad Jarrah. The two men apparently visited the home of Saudis living in the Sarasota area.

As described in the contract, the Review Commission’s duties included assessing “any evidence now known to the FBI that was not considered by the 9/11 Commission related to any factors that contributed in any manner to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.”

One matter the Review Commission took a limited look at was the FBI’s investigation more than a decade earlier of Saudis living in Sarasota with apparent ties to the 9/11 hijackers.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, lived in the gated community of Prestancia 13 miles north of Venice Municipal Airport, where Mohamed Atta and two other 9/11 hijack pilots trained. The al-Hijjis came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors alerted authorities that they’d suddenly moved out of their upscale home about two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture, food in the refrigerator and other personal belongings.

The home at 4224 Escondito Circle was owned by Anoud’s father, 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.

According to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and others, the FBI did not disclose its Sarasota investigation to either Congress’ Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington or to the subsequent 9/11 Commission. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry. In its public statements, the FBI has disputed that – saying both 9/11 panels were informed of its Sarasota investigation.

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported the existence of the FBI’s Sarasota investigation in September 2011. Among other things, the story reported that investigators had found evidence in Prestancia’s gatehouse security records that showed Atta and other terrorist figures had visited the al-Hijjis’ home.

What 9/11 Review Commission didn’t do

The 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, made public in March 2015, did not seek to determine whether the FBI did or did not notify Congress and the 9/11 Commission about Sarasota. Likewise, it did not speak with witnesses in the case or examine evidence other than an April 2002 FBI report.

The report, released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid other FOIA litigation, said that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota hijackers and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001” – flatly contradicting FBI public statements that its once-secret Sarasota inquiry had found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission’s inquiry was confined to recounting the efforts of unidentified FBI officials to discredit the April 2002 report. They called it “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated” and said the unnamed agent who wrote it could not justify doing so.

The FBI has declined to explain its findings or make available the agent who wrote the report to request, unsuccessfully, that a more urgent investigation of the Sarasota Saudis be opened.

Florida Bulldog sued the FBI and the Justice Department in June under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) seeking records generated by the 9/11 Review Commission. Last month, the FBI released about 200 pages of material – including the personal services contracts and several highly redacted reports.

Meanwhile, the Bulldog’s 2012 FOIA lawsuit seeking the FBI’s files on its Sarasota investigation remains pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch.

In 2014, Zloch decided that the FBI had done an inadequate search of its records before declaring that it could find no records responsive to the Bulldog’s request. In response to Zloch’s order, the FBI produced 80,000 pages of records from its Tampa field office for his inspection and possible public release. The judge’s inspection is ongoing.

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.

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