Gov. Scott’s undisclosed interest – via First Lady – in Zika mosquito control company

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has an undisclosed financial interest in a Zika mosquito control company in which his wife, Florida First Lady Ann Scott, owns a multi-million dollar stake through a private investment firm she co-owns.

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC of Metairie, LA. According to its web site, MCS “is a fully-certified team of mosquito control experts – licensed throughout the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”

On June 23, Gov. Scott signed an executive order allocating $26.2 million in state emergency funds for Zika preparedness, including “mosquito surveillance and abatement, training for mosquito control technicians and enhanced laboratory capacity.”

It is not known whether MCS, whose services include monitoring and aerial spraying, stands to benefit from Florida government funds. Company manager Steven Pavlovich holds an active Florida “public health applicator” license with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services through April 2019, but MCS is not a registered state vendor. The Department of Health contracts with two other two mosquito control vendors.

MCS did not respond to two requests for comment.

Ann Scott’s large stake in MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, an investment firm that boasts $291 million of client assets. The firm manages several private equity funds and various “family accounts primarily comprised of trusts and family entities,” according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records.

The Florida Bulldog reported in 2014 that Scott Capital, as it is known online, is operated by a trio of men who once worked at Richard L. Scott Investments, the private equity firm where Gov. Scott made millions for himself and his family putting together big-money investment deals when he was in the private sector.

Scott Capital posts its portfolio online. All nine listed companies are current and former investments of the governor and/or Mrs. Scott, including Mosquito Control Services, described as providing “mosquito abatement services primarily to municipalities.”

The SEC requires investment companies like G. Scott Capital Partners to file periodic disclosure reports. The firm’s most recent report, filed in March, shows that the three-employee, Connecticut-based firm caters to a handful of high net worth individuals – less than 25 – who invest directly and through various pooled investment funds.

A mosquito control investment

The firm’s latest fund is GS MCS, LLC, a Delaware company formed two years ago this month to recapitalize and take control of Mosquito Control Services. The current value of the fund is just under $10 million and the fund has nine beneficial owners, SEC records say. The owners’ names were not disclosed.

The managing director of G. Scott Capital Partners is Gregory D. Scott – no relation to Gov. Scott. He directs the firm’s investments, as he did when he led the private equity group at Richard L. Scott Investments from 2000 to 2012.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

Gregory Scott owns 50 to 75 percent of the Delaware holding company that owns 100 percent of G. Scott Capital, according to the SEC. The First Lady owns the rest through the Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust, which owns Tally 1, a Delaware company that in turn owns 25 to 50 percent of G. Scott Holdings LLC.

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

Gov. Scott has not disclosed his ownership interest in his wife’s investments. Florida law, unlike federal law, does not require state public officers to disclose the assets or income of a spouse or minor child.

The governor’s office on Tuesday declined to discuss the matter or make Gov. Scott or the First Lady available for an interview.

The Republican governor, a multimillionaire, puts his personal investments in a “qualified blind trust” that his office has described as being overseen by “an independent financial professional.” Florida public officers who use such a trust to “blind” themselves to the nature of their holdings get in exchange immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest under a law that Gov. Scott signed in 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, that the person overseeing Gov. Scott’s trust is yet another former employee at Richard L. Scott Investments and that the trust has been ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret.

When Gov. Scott opened his current blind trust in 2014 – the second of his administration – he was required to disclose the assets he put into it. His current mix of assets is not known, but the Florida Bulldog reported last year that the blind trust has in the past coordinated stock transactions with the First Lady’s trust a family partnership.

The Solantic transfer

When Gov. Scott took office in 2011, he transferred tens of millions of dollars in assets to his wife, including a $62-million investment in the walk-in clinic chain Solantic. Mrs. Scott reportedly sold the family’s stake in Solantic that same year.

Gov. Scott’s transfer of his Solantic shares came amid an uproar about perceived conflicts of interest. Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from having an ownership interest in companies that do business with the state or are subject to state regulation.

In 2013, Gov. Scott had an undisclosed ownership stake in Houston-based Spectra Energy when Florida’s Public Service Commission – five members appointed by Gov. Scott – unanimously approved construction of the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline by a joint venture of Spectra and NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light.

The governor’s investment in Spectra became known about a year later when he filed a lengthy list of his assets as of Dec. 31, 2013 when he closed his original blind trust and opened a new one while qualifying to run for re-election.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott’s list included a $53,000 stake in Spectra Energy and a $55,000 stake in DCP Midstream Partners, a natural-gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy.

The governor’s investments included numerous other oil and gas assets, including a $712,000 stake in Texas-based Energy Transfer and its affiliates and subsidiaries. Through other subsidiaries, giant Energy Transfer owns a 50 percent interest in the Florida Gas Transmission pipeline, which delivers nearly 65 percent of the natural gas consumed in Florida.

Gov. Scott has had other conflicting investments.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that in 2012 Scott owned a $210,000 stake in the private equity firm that owned 21st Century Oncology when the all-Republican governing board of taxpayer-supported Broward Health awarded the company an unprecedented 25-year, no-bid contract to supply radiation oncology services. The governor appoints Broward Health’s board members.

A Scott spokeswoman has said the governor wasn’t aware that 21st Century had sought the Broward Health contract prior to its award in January 2012 and that no one at the private equity firm, Vestar Capital Partners, or 21st Century had asked him to try to influence the hospital district’s selection process.

Accusations of spying by FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office dissolve amid generous plea deals

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick, left, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick, left, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes

Weeks after being accused of spying on the defense in a $55-million Medicare fraud case, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office gave all three defendants generous plea deals that closed the case and made the misconduct accusations go away.

At the same time, the government quietly fired the Fort Lauderdale-based copying service at the center of the scandal. Imaging Universe had improperly supplied the government with duplicates of documents that defense lawyers cherry-picked out of 220 boxes of seized records while searching for evidence helpful to their clients.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the matter, but declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org to make public its findings.

Dr. Salo Schapiro, the 71-year-old former medical director of Biscayne Milieu Health Center, faced up to 100 years in prison and $55 million in liability when he was indicted for conspiracy and health care fraud in September 2014. But last June 20 – less than three weeks after the Florida Bulldog reported the story – prosecutors who once had trumpeted the case allowed psychiatrist Schapiro to plead guilty to a single count of making a false statement.

Schapiro’s punishment: a $10,000 fine. He continues his medical practice in Boca Raton, but no longer takes Medicare patients. His online biography does not mention his felony conviction.

Dr. Salo Schapiro

Dr. Salo Schapiro

Schapiro’s two co-defendants, indicted on similar charges, got similarly light treatment.

Nurse practitioner Marlene Cesar, 64, of Allentown, PA, pleaded guilty July 1 to stealing less than $1,000 in Medicare benefits and was fined $150. On July 28, 74-year-old mental health counselor Sonia Gallimore, who like Schapiro was from Broward, was placed on pretrial diversion for six months.

“The story is in the results,” said Schapiro’s Miami attorney, Howard Srebnick.

Srebnick and his associate, Rossana Arteaga-Gomez, raised the matter in court filings in late May. Their motion argued that the government had a practice of secretly obtaining copies of documents the defense had flagged as important and asserted it was not the action of “just one rogue [FBI] agent or prosecutor.” Rather, the motion said, it appeared to be “an office-wide policy” of both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI that has gone on for “at least 10 years.”

Several days of hearings, open and closed, were held before Miami U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. They culminated with Schapiro’s combined guilty plea and sentencing hearing June 20 on the reduced felony charge.

Credibility in question

After negotiating the plea deal for his client, attorney Srebnick withdrew his motion at the hearing. He said its allegations “were based solely on the statements and emails of the owner of the copy service, whose credibility, at a minimum, has come into question during this litigation.”

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer issued this statement:

“When we learned of the copy service issue, our prosecutors immediately notified the defense lawyers.  Unintended circumstances can arise — the test is what you do when faced with such circumstances.  Here, rather than resolve the matter privately, we were completely open and transparent.  We urged the defense to air it in public.  Ultimately, the defense counsel acknowledged that they had no information the prosecutors had looked at any of the materials in question and that the prosecutors in the case acted appropriately and ethically.”

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer

The owner of Imaging Universe is Ignacio E. Montero. He did not return several phone messages seeking comment.

The motion said Montero told attorney Arteaga-Gomez that he’d provided the U.S. Attorney’s Office “duplicate copies of the discovery documents selected by defense counsel in other cases” for the past 10 years.

Court papers alleged that Imaging Universe and Montero gave the government CDs containing duplicates of documents Schapiro’s defense team had culled from the 220 boxes of records agents had seized from Biscayne Milieu. The records were stored at an FBI warehouse in Miramar, where defense lawyers who wanted copies of such records were required to use Imaging Universe.

The government later acknowledged that Imaging Universe did supply the FBI with duplicate CDs of what it had copied for Schapiro’s defense team, but said the discs “were never requested by any agent, prosecutor or anyone else on the government’s behalf.”

No ‘pervasive’ spying

Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes was the lead prosecutor on the case. He has said in court papers that he was unaware of the duplicate CDs until an FBI agent disclosed their existence in April. He and co-counsel Lisa H. Miller, a Justice Department fraud attorney, said they immediately told “Montero to stop and began an internal inquiry.” They also said “no pervasive practice of receiving or recording defense discovery” was found.

Still, the government sent out notifications about what happened to lawyers for a number of unidentified defendants. Officials declined to say how many attorneys were notified.

Defense lawyers recently raised a similar issue “of government invasion of the defense camp” in at least one unrelated case involving an allegedly fraudulent sweepstakes scheme.

Prosecutor Hayes informed Srebnick on April 22 that FBI Agent Deanne Lindsey “had been surreptitiously receiving the CDs,” according to the defense motion. “Hayes proposed to immediately destroy the CDs,” but the lawyers instead asked that he give them to the defense, “which he did.”

“Covertly cloning defense counsel’s work-product to obtain a tactical advantage is nothing short of ‘shocking to the universal sense of justice,’ ” Srebnick and Arteaga-Gomez wrote.

Court records show that between June 8 and 16 U.S. District Judge Cooke held a series of open and closed hearings about the matter. Early on, the judge indicated she would make a ruling on the motion and even asked both sides what possible remedies were available should she find “pervasive” misconduct by the government.

But the judge never ruled on the merits of the defense motion. The matter became moot when Srebnick withdrew it after prosecutors offered Schapiro the plea deal and he accepted.

Owners at South Beach’s Shelborne fight $30 million assessments, foreclosure

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach

The Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach

For the past four years, about 40 investors and snowbirds who own 42 rooms in a landmark oceanfront art deco hotel have been locked in a pitched court battle with one of Miami Beach’s most politically connected families to keep their units.

An ongoing civil lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleges that Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut, along with relatives and business associates, broke Florida condo association laws by passing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments for renovations at what is now the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach. That works out to roughly $107,142 per room.

The group, 10 of whom spoke with a reporter but asked that their names not be used, claim Galbut stacked the condo association’s board with flunkies and is trying to take control of the entire building by initiating foreclosure proceedings against them for refusing to pay what they believe are outrageous assessments. They also alleged that 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.

“They are using the old game of charging us exorbitant assessments to push us out,” said one New Yorker who purchased two rooms in the late 1990s as an investment. “There is a conspiracy to take our deeds for peanuts. Their end game is to own all the units.”

Galbut is not a defendant in the case, but a Galbut company that owns 100 rooms and 57 commercial spaces at the Shelborne is a defendant. Other defendants with Sherborne Property Associates are four shell companies Galbut controls, his cousins Keith Menin and Joan Brent and the Sherborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association.

Ronald M. Rosengarten of the Greenberg Traurig law firm represents Sherborne Property Associates. 

“While it is true that friends and supporters of the Galbut family projects may sit on the board, the Galbut family does not ‘control’ their votes,” Rosengarten said. “Currently, Galbut family related entities only have a minority interest in the Shelborne, owning less than one sixth of the units and certainly do not control the units.”

Rosengarten said court records also show the Galbuts’ renovation of the Shelborne “has been a financial boon for the unit-owners and not a fraud.”

Built in 1940, the iconic hotel at 1801 Collins Avenue was entirely owned by Galbut and his relatives in the 1980s. A decade later, the Galbuts began selling some of their units to outside investors when the property was converted to a condo-hotel, according to the 10 owners and Rosegarten. The new owners were allowed to rent their rooms to tourists through a Galbut entity that managed the hotel or other companies that provided booking services.

Galbut family big political contributors

Galbut family members and companies they control have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to political committees supporting Miami Beach city commission candidates. Through six companies he controls, Russell Galbut also has raised $10,000 for a PAC supporting Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s re-election. Three Galbut family members have contributed a combined $15,100 this year to Republican congressional candidates including Sen. Marco Rubio, and Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Things began going awry in 2010, a year after management of the Shelborne was handed over to Menin Hotels, a company controlled by Galbut and his cousin, Keith Menin, the lawsuit states. From 2006 through the beginning of 2015, Menin also served on the condo association board. The lawsuit alleges Menin and the board voted in favor of a $15 million renovation in 2011 to redo the Shelborne’s common areas, from the hotel hallways to the lobby to the pool deck without obtaining approval from at least 75 percent of the unit owners as required by state law.

Yet the non-Galbut owners still got a bill for the $15 million through a series of special assessments between 2011 and 2012.

“Keith Menin knows the Menin Alterations are unlawful,” the lawsuit states. “But he caused or allowed the partnership to make them anyway.”

The lawsuit also claims that Joan Brent, the other Galbut cousin who served on the condo association’s board from November 2011 and June 2013, knew the Menin Hotels renovation was unlawful.

Barely a year later, Galbut and his alleged surrogates signed an agreement with Wyndham Hotel Management allowing them to market 125 rooms and the common areas of the hotel under the Wyndham brand, the lawsuit states. The non-Galbut owned-rooms were not part of the deal.

Despite just finishing the $15 million update to the building, the condo board initiated another renovation project in the summer of 2014 in order to meet Wyndham standards, the lawsuit states. This time, the non-Galbut owners were assessed a combined $28.7 million, according to the complaint.

Again, the condo board did not obtain consent from 75 percent of the owners, the lawsuit alleges. It also says Galbut, Brent, Menin and their allies on the board devised a plan to lie to the non-Galbut owners about the extent of the renovations – saying only that they were replacing the Shelborne’s windows and making repairs required by the City of Miami Beach.

In the ensuing months, the lawsuit say, the non-Galbut owners learned that the scope of the work was much bigger than they were told and that the developer and his cohorts barred them from entering the hotel, preventing them from seeing what was actually happening in the building.

“While the property was closed, the conspirators caused or allowed the structure to be completely gutted,” the lawsuit states. “By closing the property, the unit owners were simultaneously deprived of the use and income generated by their residential units.

Many Shelborne owners “forced to sell”

Predictably, many members could not afford this wave of special assessments with or without the building being closed so they were forced to sell their units.”

The lawsuit also notes that Shelborne Property Associates obtained a $125 million loan around the same time the deal with Wyndham was signed. The proceeds were used to buy rooms from non-Galbut owners who wanted out, the lawsuit alleges. Court and property records confirm that Galbut-owned shell companies purchased 120 units at the Shelborne since 2012, the complaint alleges.

“There were not $125 million worth of units for sale when Shelborne Property Associates obtained this financing,” the lawsuit alleges. “But SPA knew that the association was about to levy tens of millions of dollars of additional special assessments against its members, and close the condominium property for over a year.”

The purchases gave Galbut controlled entities 75 percent ownership of the Shelborne, and the board the necessary majority to approve the Wyndham renovation after the construction had already begun.

A non-Galbut owner who identified himself as “Jackie” said Galbut and his accomplices are squeezing them out because they don’t want to pay them fair market value for their rooms. “They saw that Miami Beach real estate in general was skyrocketing, especially beachfront hotels,” Jackie said. “Rooms have been going for $700,000 to $800,000 a room. That was the case with Raleigh Hotel, the SLS South Beach and the Shore Club.”

According to a review of some of the Shelborne units purchased by Galbut-related entities in the last four years shows rooms have sold for an average between $150,000 and $250,000. Rosengarten countered that non-Galbut owners who sold rooms to his client got good deals.

“Property records evidence that the overwhelming majority of transfers occurred in sales whereby the owners received vastly greater prices for the units they sold compared to what they paid for them,” Rosengarten said. “In other words, the condo owners were not victims but were beneficiaries of the increasing valuation which resulted from maintaining and improving the building.”

Adding insult to injury, construction workers entered their units without their consent and destroyed their rooms, the non-Galbut owners allege. “When we finally gained access to our units, we found our rooms completely wrecked,” said the New Yorker who owns two rooms. “They demolished my kitchen, my bathroom and my living room. They never repaired the damages.”

The owner said city inspectors flagged his units for 20 life safety violations and told him he couldn’t use the rooms until he fixed it. He spent close to $25,000 per room after paying nearly $40,000 in special assessments, he said.

Another owner, a retiree who lives in Atlanta, said she had to dip into her 401K to finance her repairs. She had plans to live out her retirement in her Shelborne unit.

“In anticipation of losing my unit, I tried to buy a house,” she said. “But I was denied a mortgage when the bank saw I was shelling out these huge sums of money and that my income had dropped to $50,000 a year. All because of the Galbuts.”

Lawsuit: Broward Sheriff Scott Israel has tolerated and covered-up the illegal use of force

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The late Steven Jerold Thompson, left, and suspended BSO Deputy Gerald Wengert

The late Steven Jerold Thompson, left, and suspended BSO Deputy Gerald Wengert

The family of a 26-year-old black man shot and killed by a Broward Sheriff’s deputy has sued the deputy and Sheriff Scott Israel, alleging wrongful death, serious and repeated failures of police oversight, and cover-up.

Steven Jerold Thompson died shortly after midnight on June 6, 2014 – less than two hours after being shot nine times at a Lauderhill apartment building by Deputy Gerald Wengert, a one-time police reality TV star with a history of violent encounters.

“There existed…a de facto policy by defendant Israel of covering up police misconduct by failing to properly investigate alleged misconduct, and/or by conducting investigations that were intentionally deficient,” says the 32-page complaint filed by veteran Fort Lauderdale civil rights lawyer Barbara Heyer.

Further, the complaint says, BSO covered up misconduct “by listing the problem investigations as ‘ongoing’ long after any investigation had ceased, thereby attempting to insulate” BSO from public scrutiny. Florida’s public records law allows police to keep secret information about cases under active investigation.

“This de facto policy enabled some deputy sheriffs to falsify reports, give false testimony, and create and/or destroy evidence, including but not limited to throw down firearms, in order to justify their misconduct,’’ the complaint says.

The lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court in Miami, comes amid a grueling national debate about killings involving the police and racial unrest. It includes the allegation that Broward’s elected sheriff has “tolerated and caused a pattern and practice of unjustified, unreasonable and illegal use of force” at BSO and that offending deputies were not prosecuted, disciplined or retrained. Some incidents were “covered up with official claims that their acts were justified and proper,” the lawsuit says.

The sheriff’s attorney, Daniel Losey, filed court papers last week that denied any wrongdoing, asserted that BSO’s use of force was necessary and that Thompson’s own conduct was the sole cause of his injuries.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman said BSO makes “it a practice not to comment on pending litigation.”

Wengert has been on suspension with pay since June 12, 2015 regarding an active investigation into the beating of a suspect. BSO declined to facilitate an interview, and Wengert could not be reached for comment.

An awkward time for Israel

The complaint arrives at an awkward time for Sheriff Israel. He is seeking re-election to a second term and his campaign has portrayed him as a sensitive, reform-minded sheriff working “to bring transparency and accountability” to BSO.

Wengert, who turns 38 on July 26, was hired in 2004 when BSO merged with the Cooper City Police Department. He did not, however, undergo a background investigation, psychological evaluation, drug testing or a polygraph examination as required by BSO policy, the lawsuit says.

Gerald Wengert in a publicity photo for "Unleashed: K-9 Broward County"

Gerald Wengert in a publicity photo for “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County”

From the day he was hired until the day he shot Thompson dead, Deputy Wengert had “73 documented use of force incidents, and ten documented complaints, including three shootings,” the lawsuit says, while noting Wengert was never disciplined for any of those incidents. (Wengert, who starred in TLC/ Discovery Channel’s “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County” in 2011, was criminally charged in 2012 with battery, official misconduct and falsifying records involving the beating of Mark Visconti, but was found not guilty in April 2013.)

Local news accounts at the time, relying on information supplied by BSO, described Thompson as a convicted felon and a robbery suspect when he was killed in a “gunfight” with police.

The complaint paints a much different picture of what happened.

The sequence of events that led to Thompson’s death began after K-9 deputies Wengert, Todd Yoder and Emanuel Koutsofios were dispatched to a suspected armed robbery at a Lauderhill condominium. Two cell phones had been stolen, and tracking located one of them four miles away at the Cypress Grove apartments in the 4300 block of NW 18th Ave. The suspects were described as two black men, one heavyset and dressed all in black and the other tall, thin and carrying a gun. Neither was said to have distinguishing features like scars or facial hair, the complaint says.

Lauderhill officers established a perimeter before the deputies arrived. After searching without their dogs, a tracking system “ping” revealed the phone had moved to the center of a parking lot on the south side of the complex, the complaint says.

Walking toward the parking lot at about 11:16 p.m., Wengert, a white man, spotted Thompson walking out of a building and toward the parking lot. Thompson, who had a beard, moustache and tattoos, was leaving a friend’s apartment, but when he saw the deputies he turned to go back to the building, the complaint says.

“Despite the fact that Thompson did not fit the description of the assailant provided by dispatch, and the fact that [he] was exiting the building when the iPhone was already in the parking lot where other people were standing,” Wengert began pursuing Thompson and “immediately drew his firearm and began shooting,” according to the complaint.

The BSO version is that Wengert fired after a fleeing Thompson shot first at him.

“He’s shooting at me”

Thompson, whose back was turned from Wengert, was hit by a bullet traveling from back to front that fractured his thigh bone and caused him to fall forward. Residents reported hearing Thompson scream, “Help…help, he’s shooting at me! I’m shot!”

“Although Thompson posed no risk of harm to defendant Wengert or anyone else, defendant Wengert continued firing at Thompson’s fallen body, hitting him eight more times,” the complaint says. In all, Wengert “discharged 25 rounds, which required that he reload his gun.”

Deputy Yoder called fire rescue at 11:18 p.m. Paramedics arrived in five minutes, but didn’t see Thompson for another 10 minutes because Wengert had instructed other deputies not to let them in right away until they made “sure it was safe in case a second suspect was there.”

During the delay, Wengert went to his car. The complaint indicates he retrieved a 9mm Luger Diamondback DB 9 pistol, planted it in the corridor about 50 feet from Thompson’s body and then “falsely claimed that Thompson had fired twice at him.”

Thompson was pronounced dead at Broward Health Medical Center at 12:57 a.m. During the confusion, the complaint says, the “actual suspect” with the stolen iPhone walked out of the front gate at the apartment complex.

What followed was an “incompetent” BSO investigation that if done correctly, would have shown that “Thompson had no involvement in the armed burglary, that he did not have a firearm, and that he did not shoot” at Wenger, the lawsuit says.

The complaint contends BSO allegedly relied “wholly” on Wengert’s version of events before deciding it was “justifiable homicide.” Evidence that didn’t support Wenger’s story “was either not addressed and/or ignored by defendant Israel.”

According to the complaint, Wengert’s sworn statement wasn’t taken until a week after the shooting. “It was contradicted by the physical evidence and the inconsistent statements of the other deputy sheriffs at the scene,” the complaint says. “Israel’s investigation accepted Wengert’s lies as fact, and then tailored the findings of the investigation to comport with Wengert’s false statements.”

Basic tests not done?

The complaint accuses BSO of failing to conduct “the most rudimentary and obvious evidentiary tests such as gunshot residue tests, fingerprint and DNA analysis which would have determined that Wengert gunned down an unarmed man.

Specifically, the complaint notes that while the dead man’s “hands had allegedly been bagged and swabbed” by the crimescene detective, the test kit for gunshot residue was never actually tested. Such a test would have shown whether Thompson recently had fired a weapon.

Likewise, no blood or Thompson’s fingerprints were found on the recovered pistol. The dead man’s epithelial DNA was found on the weapon, but the complaint says it was in a way “consistent with the Luger Diamondback being swiped across his hand or body as he lay dying.”

No DNA or fingerprint comparison was made to determine whether Wengert or anyone else had handled the gun, the complaint says.

At the time of the shooting, the complaint says, Wengert was “unfit” to be a deputy due to his “known history of violence.” Sheriff Israel knew or should have known that, yet despite Wengert’s conduct – and his “large physique” – he was never tested for steroid use.

“It is common knowledge that steroid use increases a person’s aggressiveness and can lead to violence,” the complaint says.

Even so, BSO does not test its deputies for steroid use, the lawsuit says.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright confirmed that BSO does not test its deputies for steroids.

“Random drug tests are currently conducted once every quarter,” she said. “A 10-panel drug test is administered in accordance with our policy for pre-employment and random drug tests. Steroids are not included in the 10-panel drug test. However, upon reasonable suspicion, supervisors can order testing for steroids.”

The complaint also contends that BSO has had an “ongoing” investigation of steroid abuses by some deputies since 2008.

Asked about that probe, which involved as many as 26 deputies, BSO released a May 2011 memo by Internal Affairs Lt. Gregory S. Gordon that says IA merely “monitored” two separate federal investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that ended with no criminal charges against any deputies.

The memo says that instead of investigating to determine whether any BSO policies were violated by the deputies, all of Internal Affairs’ steroid cases were “reclassified to preliminary investigative inquiries…closed and marked ‘confidential.'”

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke.

Secret U.S. Marshals’ report ID’d security weaknesses at Broward courthouse before escape

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward County Courthouse

Broward County Courthouse

A confidential U.S. Marshals’ security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse exposed numerous weaknesses in the building’s security system four years before last week’s scandalous escape of a 21-year-old murder suspect.

The assessment included several recommendations that, if implemented, may well have prevented Dayonte Resiles’ desperate dash out of Judge Raag Singhal’s courtroom, down four flights of stairs and out a fire emergency door to short-lived freedom.

Resiles, who escaped one week ago, was captured Wednesday without incident at a West Palm Beach motel and returned to Broward. Seven people have been charged with aiding in the escape of Resiles, who is accused of stabbing to death Jill Halliburton Su in her Davie home in 2014.

Resiles’ arrest, however, did little to ease anxiety about courthouse security.

“Here’s the bottom line, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for years and clearly predates Sheriff [Scott] Israel. We do not have sufficient staffing from the sheriff’s department in this courthouse,” Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said Thursday.

“We constantly hear from the county, ‘We give the sheriff sufficient funding to run the department.’ The sheriff says, ‘I don’t have enough manpower.’ And we’re the people in the middle,” said Weinstein.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The U.S. Marshals’ assessment, a copy of which was obtained by the Florida Bulldog,  similarly noted the need for more law enforcement personnel in both the lobby screening station and courtrooms.

“There is not an armed security officer assigned to each courtroom, instead, there are civilian court deputies. Very few of the courtrooms have armed security officers,” says the assessment. “On an average day, the central courthouse has approximately 14 law enforcement officers working in the building. This building has 54 judges and 11 magistrates. In-custody defendants are ‘dropped-off’ in courtrooms with no law enforcement personnel present.”

The recommendation: “one court deputy for every judge. Court deputies should be armed and trained by BSO and should have access to a duress alarm. Two law enforcement officers for in-custody defendants,” with an additional officer for each additional defendant.

Israel tweaks courthouse security

On Monday, Sheriff Israel moved the Broward Sheriff’s Office part-way toward the Marshals’ recommendations. From now on, he said, maximum-security inmates appearing in court would have a sworn deputy with them at all times, not just a civilian bailiff. A detention deputy who escorts the prisoner to court “will only release custody once an armed deputy is present,” the sheriff said in a statement.

Israel did not address the report’s call for shielding judges with bulletproof glass or improving the knee wall and gate that now partially separates the courtroom gallery areas from public seating area and does not extend the width of the courtroom.

WPLG Local 10 reported Monday that Israel did not accept $2.6 million offered by the county last year to beef up courthouse security. The offer, said to be in writing, would have doubled the number of armed courthouse deputies from 29 to 58 and also allowed the sheriff to “guarantee that every high-risk inmate like Resiles could be accompanied by at least one armed deputy in addition to a bailiff,” the television station reported.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright responded Thursday: “We support having an armed deputy (plus additional BSO personnel) in every critical courtroom in the courthouse, but the county has not approved additional staffing or funding to provide this level of coverage.”

Coleman-Wright also provided a Wednesday memo written to the County Commission by BSO General Counsel Ron Gunzburger. It accuses county administrators of holding the $2.6 million “hostage until the sheriff signs a global memo of understanding (MOU)” for the entire judicial complex that would build on existing staffing levels that are “woefully inadequate,” locking in future personnel shortfalls.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

“If the sheriff would sign the proffered MOU, he would be agreeing to continue inadequate and unsafe staffing for the greatly expanded size of the entire complex…The sheriff is unwilling to sign this deeply flawed agreement,” the memo says.

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson disputed that account. He said the MOU would ensure that dollars allocated by the county specifically for courthouse security would actually be spent by the sheriff on courthouse security, and not be diverted to the sheriff’s other priorities.

“Essentially, we want to make sure the money is earmarked for courthouse security,” said Jefferson. “You don’t want to be back with the same issue down the road.”

BSO and Broward’s judiciary asked the Marshals’ Office to evaluate security because of their expertise in arranging security for federal courthouses. The evaluation, completed in July 2012, was done after several fleeing defendants had highlighted courthouse security deficiencies.

“What report?”

According to Jefferson, however, the security assessment was done without the county’s knowledge. He said county officials didn’t learn about it until November 2013. “It was at a meeting with BSO and the judiciary when we heard about the report. We said, ‘What report?’”

The county soon put together a task force of all the players, including the court administrator’s office. He said that as a result, the county has been spending $1.8 million to address a number of recommendations – for example, installing security cameras and improving security at entry screening areas in the East Wing and the North Tower that houses felony courtrooms

The Marshal’s security review looked at a wide variety of areas from outside perimeter security to courtrooms and chambers, public area and access control and law enforcement staffing and technology.

“Security is of fundamental importance to every court because the impartial and independent application of the law may be threatened by intrusion, disruption, intimidation, force, theft, malicious and environmental disaster,” says the assessment. “If a court cannot operate with a high degree of security, its legitimacy has the potential to be undermined.”

Other recommendations included the installation of numerous closed circuit television cameras inside and outside the courthouse, door and window alarms, additional barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, better external lighting and better monitoring of nighttime cleaning crews.

The marshals’ assessment team, while acknowledging that implementing its recommendations would be costly, emphasized “that an acceptable level of security will only be reached when all of the measures at the best practice level are incorporated… Care should be taken to prioritize and implement as many of the recommendations as quickly as possible.”

The review did not estimate costs, but some were simple and relatively inexpensive. For example, report notes that in many courtrooms the door leading to a judge’s chambers had the lock on the courtroom side of the door.

“This means that if someone was chasing the judge and the judge runs into chambers, the judge has no way of locking the door. This also means that prior to court commencing, anyone could turn the lock and have access to chambers,” says the report, which recommended reversing the locks, with the deadbolt on the chambers’ side.

Many of the reports’ recommendations have not been adopted. Chief Judge Weinstein said, however, that many would be incorporated into the new, $250-million high-rise courthouse building that remains unfinished. The new courthouse was supposed to open last year, but is now expected to open in October, said Weinstein.

After the new courthouse opens, the old 10-story courthouse will be demolished and a plaza and new parking facility will be installed. The more modern felony wing on the east side of the courthouse will remain, and be connected by walkways to the new 20-story courthouse.

28 pages connect Saudi prince to al Qaeda leader, supporters of 9/11 hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

From left to right: Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, Condoleezza Rice, and George W. Bush, on the Truman Balcony of the White House on September 13, 2001. [Source: White House via HistoryCommons.org]

The Saudi ambassador who met with President George W. Bush at the White House two days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 had connections to a major al-Qaeda figure and other Saudis suspected of helping two of the suicide hijackers while they were in the United States.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s contacts are contained in FBI and CIA reports cited in the 28 pages from Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 that were ordered declassified by President Obama after 13 years and made public Friday.

The “28 pages,” which are actually 29 pages, assert that 9/11 hijackers were helped by individuals “who may be connected with the Saudi government.’’ They do not, however, address the apparent ties of Mohamed Atta and other hijackers to Saudis living in Sarasota prior to 9/11.

FBI reports say agents found “many connections” between the September 11 plotters and the Sarasota Saudis, but neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission were informed. The matter did not become public until 2011 when the Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported it.

The 28 pages, however, do contain a new Florida angle.

“FBI documents also indicate that several Saudi Naval officers were in contact with the September 11 hijackers,” the 28 pages say. One of those officers, Saleh Ahmed Bedaiwi, was posted to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola.

The FBI’s Jacksonville Field Office investigated Bedaiwi at the time, but what else the 28 pages had to say about the matter was blacked out by the government before their public release.

Government officials, including House Intelligence Committee members Devin Nunes, R-CA, and Adam Schiff, D-CA, said the 9/11 Commission and the nation’s intelligence community investigated, but could not substantiate the 28 pages’ leads about possible Saudi involvement. However, there is little information in the public record to back up those assertions.

For example, while the names of Bedaiwi and fellow Saudi Naval officers Osama Nooh and Lafi al-Harbi are included in a declassified June 2003 9/11 Commission work plan as “interview candidates,” none is identified on a list of 1,200 persons interviewed by commission investigators.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who coordinated the declassification review of the 28 pages, said in a statement Friday that the final chapter of the Joint Inquiry’s 2002 report was kept secret so long because it “contained still-sensitive national security and law enforcement information.”

Secrecy ‘outweighed by the public interest’ in transparency

The declassification review, however, “determined that the harm to national security” by releasing the 28 pages “is outweighed by the public interest in additional transparency… Some information has been redacted because the document includes discussion of properly classified matters the disclosure of which would still cause significant harm to national security.”

Clapper’s statement was accompanied by the less-noticed release of a one-page “executive summary” of a September 2005 “joint FBI-CIA intelligence report assessing the nature and extent of Saudi government support of terrorism.”

Congress required the previously unknown joint assessment in a classified annex of the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal year 2004. Several sentences of the report’s transmittal letter to Congress by FBI Director Robert Mueller and CIA Director Porter Goss were blanked out, as were several sentences in the summary. The full report remains classified.

The assessment’s key finding marked the latest government statements in defense of the Saudis: “There is no evidence that either the Saudi government or members of the Saudi royal family knowingly provided support for the attacks of 11 September 2001 or that they had foreknowledge of terrorist operations in the Kingdom or elsewhere.”

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

President George W. Bush meets with Saudi Arabian Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan at the Bush Ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The assessment, however, also noted, “There is evidence that official Saudi entities, [redacted] and associated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provide financial and logistical support to individuals in the United States and around the world, some of whom are associated with terrorism-related activity.” Further, the assessment said, “The Saudi government and many of its agencies have been infiltrated and exploited by individuals associated with or sympathetic to Al-Qa’ida.”

While the 28 pages reference the sometimes bitter testimony of FBI agents and CIA officers who complained “about a lack of Saudi cooperation on terrorism investigations both before and after the September 11 attacks,’’ the 2005 joint FBI-CIA report observed that the Saudis began cooperating with the U.S. following several bombings inside Saudi Arabia starting in May 2003.

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

Imprisoned al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah

The 28 pages include a variety of new information about figures in the 9/11 drama. Among the most intriguing is a previously unreported connection between Prince Bandar, Saudi Arabia’s longtime ambassador to the U.S. whose nickname was Bandar-Bush because of his close ties to President George W. Bush, and Abu Zubaydah, the “high-value” Guantanamo detainee who before his March 2002 capture in Pakistan was among al Qaeda’s highest ranking members and a confidant of Osama bin Laden.

U.S. and coalition forces recovered Zubaydah’s phone book. “According to an FBI document, ‘a review of toll records has linked several of the numbers found in Zubaida’s [sic] phonebook with U.S. phone numbers.’ One of the numbers is unlisted and subscribed to by ASPCOL Corporation in Aspen, Colorado,” the 28 pages say.

An FBI investigation stayed pending ‘guidance’ from headquarters

In July 2002, FBI headquarters asked its Denver office to investigate “this connection.”

Two months later, the 28 pages say, agents in Denver reported that ASPCOL “is the umbrella corporation that manages the affairs of the Colorado residence of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. The facility is protected by Scimitar Security. Agents of the Denver Field Office noted that neither ASPCOL nor Scimitar Security is listed in the phone book or is easily locatable. In addition, the Colorado Secretary of State’s office has no record of ASPCOL.”

The 28 pages say the FBI reported that “CIA traces have revealed no direct (emphasis added) links between numbers found in Zubayadah’s phone book and numbers in the U.S.”

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

Hala Ranch, the former Aspen, Co. home of Saudi Prince Bandar and his wife, Princess Haifa. The home was sold in 2012 for $49 million to hedge-fund billionaire John Paulson, according to The Aspen Times.

“The Denver office did not attempt to make any local inquiries about ASPCOL as they believed that any inquiries regarding ASPCOL would be quickly known by Prince Bandar’s employees,” the 28 pages say. “Due to the sensitivity of this matter, they decided to hold their investigation of ASPCOL in abeyance until they received additional guidance from FBI headquarters.”

Asked about the matter via email, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Matthew Bertron said Tuesday, “The FBI has no comment on your specific questions.”

The 28 pages contain additional new information involving other individuals who worked at Saudi Arabia’s Washington embassy. One was an embassy bodyguard whose phone number was also in Zubaydah’s possession. The paragraph about the matter includes a number of redactions, including the name of the bodyguard, that make it difficult to understand what’s being said.

Bin Laden’s half-brother, Abdullah Bin Laden, also surfaces in the 28 pages under a section titled, “Connections between Saudi government officials in the U.S., and other possible terrorist operatives.”

“For example, according to FBI documents there is evidence that hijackers Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohammed Atta [who piloted the jets that struck the Twin Towers] were in contact with Mohammed Rafique Quadir Harunani, the subject of an FBI counterterrorism investigation since 1999 and a close associate of Abdullah Bin Laden… He claims to work for the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, D.C. as an administrative officer. Abdullah Bin Laden has financed Quadir’s company and is listed by Quadir as the emergency contact for Quadir’s children. They are in frequent email and phone contact as well.”

Osama Bin Laden half-brother’s terrorist connections

The chapter goes on to discuss Abdullah Bin Laden’s connections to “terrorist organizations.”

“He is the president and director of the World Arab Muslim Youth Association (WAMY) and the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in America. Both organizations are local branches of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. According to the FBI, there is reason to believe that WAMY is ‘closely associated with the funding and financing of international terrorist activities and in the past has provide logistical support to individuals wishing to fight in the Afghan war.’”

The 28 pages also provide new information about a known episode that raised questions about Prince Bandar’s possible ties to some of the hijackers more than a decade ago.

Back then, it was reported that Bandar’s wife, Princess Haifa, had for some time sent a monthly stipend to $2,000 the wife of Osama Bassnan, a suspected Saudi agent, alleged al Qaeda sympathizer and “close associate” of Omar al-Bayoumi, another apparent Saudi agent who provided financial and other support to two 9/11 hijackers in San Diego in 2000.

The 28 pages say “in a recent search of Bassnan’s residence the FBI located copies of 31 cashiers checks totaling $74,000 during the period February 22, 1999 to May 30, 2002. These checks were payable to Bassnan’s wife and were drawn on the Riggs Bank account of Prince Bandar’s wife.” The money was supposed to be for “ ‘nursing’ services, but according to the [blank] document, there is no evidence that Bassnan’s wife provided nursing services.”

The pages say Prince Bandar himself also sent checks directly to Bassnan and his wife. Those checks, cashed in 1998, were for $15,000 and $10,000.

On Oct. 9, 2002, FBI Executive Assistant Director Pasquale D’Amuro told the Joint Inquiry, “What the money was for is what we don’t know.”

One year later, on Oct. 7, 2003, investigators with the 9/11 Commission interviewed Bandar. What he was asked and his replies are not known. A “memorandum for the record” about his interview, and the interview itself, are classified. The reason, according to the National Archives, is national security.

Broward medical examiner’s evidence policy worries prosecutors, defense lawyers

 

By Eric Barton, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

The Broward County medical examiner has been destroying some tissue and blood samples after they are a year old, a policy defense attorneys and prosecutors say could affect untold numbers of criminal cases.

Dr. Craig Mallak told the Florida Bulldog he instituted the policy shortly after taking Broward’s chief medical examiner position in 2012. He says the rule helps ease his office’s overcrowded evidence storage and also conforms to the norms of his industry.

The change was never publicly announced. Instead, Fort Lauderdale defense attorney J. David Bogenschutz discovered it during depositions in a murder case. The Medical Examiner’s Office destroyed a year-old blood sample in that case, and now Bogenschutz believes charges against his client should be dropped.

Attorneys on both sides of criminal prosecutions say other cases could be affected by the destroyed-evidence policy. After learning of the change in 2013, Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh sent an email to fellow prosecutors warning that it “presents a significant destruction of evidence problem.”

So far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy. But Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said the change will likely lead to requests for dismissals and mistrials in criminal cases where the evidence has been destroyed. In others, the destroyed evidence might simply be something that defense attorneys use to cast a reasonable doubt.

“There are plenty of ways you can increase storage capacity, but you can’t reclaim evidence once it’s destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “There will be a cloud over this kind of evidence for as long as this policy continues.”

The medical examiner’s practice of destroying year-old toxicology samples came to light as Bogenschutz developed his defense for Ronald Melnik on a second-degree murder charge.

According to prosecutors, Melnik shot Reza Payan shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, 2011. Bogenschutz said Melnik claims that Payan, a heavily trained Brazilian ju-jitsu fighter, attacked him for no reason and that he shot his longtime friend five times to defend himself.

Bogenschutz was going over the evidence with his client about a year after the shooting when Melnik honed in on a crime scene photo. On the ground near Payan’s body was a small vial, attached to Payan’s keychain.

The vial contained ecstasy, or MDMA, a psychoactive drug, Bogenschutz said. That night, Payan had also been drinking and smoking pot heavily. Mixed with ecstasy, that could lead to inexplicable aggression.

Police had taken a sample of Payan’s blood, so Bogenschutz sought to have it tested for ecstasy by an independent lab.

Blood sample destroyed

In April 2015, Bogenschutz learned from Dr. Gary Kunsman, the chief toxicologist at the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office, that the sample had been destroyed under the new policy.

In response, Bogenschutz filed a 180-page motion to dismiss the charges against Melnik. At issue is a legal term called spoliation, which typically comes up when police or prosecutors have deliberately hidden evidence.

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

Fort Lauderdale defense lawyer J. David Bogenschutz

“The question for the judge is, can this destruction of evidence affect the outcome? And we believe that it clearly does,” Bogenschutz said.

The bigger issue, Bogenschutz said, is how this might affect other cases, especially those filed months after a crime. The defense in those cases may have no chance to conduct its own analysis of evidence that has been destroyed.

“I’ve had cases when eight, 10 or 12 months pass before charges are even filed. That would mean the defense has no chance to conduct its own examination of what might be key evidence,” said Bogenschutz, who has practiced in Florida since 1971.

During depositions in Melnik’s case, the medical examiner and his employees revealed that they had begun a new policy in late 2012 of destroying toxicology samples that were a year old.

Bogenschutz then filed a records request with the State Attorney’s Office and found a series of emails with Mallak, urging him to change the policy. The State Attorney’s Office offered compromises, including storing samples longer for ongoing criminal trials or notifying attorneys before samples are destroyed. In the end, Mallak agreed to one change: keeping blood samples in DUI cases for two years but destroying all others after a year.

Mallak said he was surprised that his policy caused “a shock to the system around here.” He said defense attorneys and prosecutors need to understand that the old policy was flawed, and that blood and tissue samples kept for months begin to deteriorate and cannot be accurately tested. Bacteria and mold can corrode the tissue, making samples meaningless.

‘I can’t change the laws of nature’

“I personally don’t keep things in my refrigerator for years, so you can’t expect me to keep evidence that way,” Mallak said. “I can’t change the laws of nature. I can’t stop these samples from breaking down.”

Mallak came to Broward after serving as the U.S. Armed Forces medical examiner. He oversaw 250 employees in a crime lab with a $50-million budget. He worked on high-profile cases that include the space shuttle Columbia explosion and identifying the body of Saddam Hussein after the Iraqis hanged him.

In Broward he inherited a 38-person department that had been under scrutiny for poor case management and slow turnaround rates. Shortly after he arrived, Mallak shut down his lab after discovering that employees had improperly validated drug samples, which forced a review of toxicology results in pending criminal cases. He said he has since reduced his office’s turnaround from 90 days to 10 and overhauled testing methodology to conform with industry standards.

Mallak said he also discovered there was no policy governing when evidence was destroyed. Some blood and tissue samples stored by his office dated back decades. Mold and bacteria covered a few vials.

“These samples are not like a bullet that can just sit on a shelf indefinitely,” Mallak said. “They have no evidentiary value after a long time passes.”

The rule he established covers only those toxicology samples like blood and human tissue that can erode over time. DNA and other samples that can be stored without refrigeration are kept indefinitely, Mallak said.

The policy Mallak instituted follows minimum requirements set by Florida administrative rules. It also conforms to minimum industry standards, said Dr. David Fowler, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Blood and tissue samples can be kept for years if preserved in sodium fluoride. Medical examiners will often keep samples for years in ongoing cases, or when an attorney requests it, Fowler said. In Maryland, where Fowler is the state’s chief medical examiner, samples are typically kept for three years unless defense attorneys or prosecutors ask for them to be retained longer.

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

Broward Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh

In Miami-Dade, the medical examiner’s office keeps such samples for five years, according to a memo on the department’s policy.

The destroyed evidence in Broward has become an issue in several criminal cases since the change, Cavanaugh said. But so far, no cases have been thrown out or lost at trial because of the policy.

When Cavanaugh learned of the change, he did an accounting of which cases might be affected. Among the destroyed evidence was blood taken from the 2012 crime scene where an 8-week-old baby died in the trunk of a car in Coral Springs. Luckily, Cavanaugh said, that evidence wasn’t pertinent. A jury in October returned a guilty verdict for the boy’s father, Janus Saintil, who is now serving a life sentence.

While the destroyed evidence wasn’t relevant in that case, Finkelstein worries that it could be in other cases. “This is not supposed to happen. People aren’t supposed to be acquitted because evidence has been destroyed,” Finkelstein said. “Even as a defense attorney, this is not what we want. We want the system to work correctly.”

In most cases, the destroyed evidence shouldn’t lead to charges being dropped or dismissed, explained Cavanaugh. But it’s an issue that could become a problem for prosecutors as defense attorneys use it to cast doubt. “It’s significant only in that it allows the defense to create an issue,” Cavanaugh said. “The question is, ultimately, is it going to be insurmountable?”

In the Melnik case, Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel has scheduled oral arguments for Aug. 5 to consider Bogenschutz’s motion to dismiss. The judge’s decision could be an indication of how the medical examiner’s policy can affect other cases.

U.S. Rep. Graham asks Gov. Scott to call special session on Lake O crisis

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

Republican Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee

In a sharply worded rebuke of Rick Scott, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham (D-FL) urged the governor to call a special legislative session to deal with the toxic algae bloom discharges from Lake Okeechobee threatening the state’s ecosystem as well as the tourism and fishing industries.

In a July 13 letter to the state’s chief executive, Graham said a special session focusing on short-term and long-term solutions that prevent future algae blooms should be his top priority. She added Floridians are “hungry” for the Republican governor to show leadership on the issue.

“Your administration has ignored sea-level rise, weakened water-quality standards and dismantled environmental protections,” Graham wrote. “If you continue on your current course, your legacy will not be cutting taxes or creating jobs — it will be as the first governor in modern times, Republican or Democrat, who actively worked to harm Florida’s environment.”

Despite Graham’s criticisms, a Scott spokeswoman told Florida Bulldog there are no plans to call a special session. The North Florida congresswoman was responding to Scott’s written plea to Florida’s congressional delegation seeking support for a federal emergency declaration and funds to repair Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dike.

The Army Corps of Engineers has been opening the dike in recent weeks, releasing large amounts of harmful freshwater into nearby canals, lakes and rivers. The discharges are necessary to prevent the dike from rupturing and flooding populated areas in Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach counties.

In an email response to a reporter’s inquiry, Lauren Schenone, Scott’s press secretary, said the governor’s office is looking at all options at the state level to address the effects caused by the frequent discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee.

“Governor Scott’s number one priority is ensuring the safety of our families, visitors and Florida’s natural treasures,” Schenone said. “That is why he has called upon President Obama to declare a federal emergency… Although the President has failed to do what is needed to address this growing issue, the State of Florida will devote every available resource to find solutions for the families and businesses in this area.”

In a written statement, Graham told Florida Bulldog that Scott is wasting valuable time playing the blame game. “Republicans and Democrats across the state are heartbroken and angry seeing our waters covered in algae,” Graham said. “The time to act to solve this problem is now. We can’t afford to kick the can down the road until the next crisis hits.”

In her letter to Scott, Graham — who dropped her reelection bid and is considering a 2018 gubernatorial run — suggested he “use the bipartisan outrage over today’s crisis to work with the legislature, controlled by your own party, to pass real solutions to protect us from future environmental and economic disasters.”

Graham also called on the governor to fulfill the 2014 will of the voters to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee and restore the Everglades natural water flow; and replace his political appointees on the South Florida Water Management District with scientists, engineers and conservationists.

The release of the 28 pages isn’t the last word in the search for who was behind 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress's Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

The 28 pages originally were censored from the 2003 report of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

It took 13 1/2 years and enormous public and political pressure to force President Obama to order today’s release of the suppressed chapter from Congress’s Joint Inquiry report about apparent Saudi support for the 9/11 suicide hijackers.

The pages, however, were not released in full. Nearly every page is speckled with black marks where information was redacted. In some cases, those deletions are of entire paragraphs, almost certainly meaning that controversy about the 28 pages will continue.

Those 28 pages, however, aren’t nearly the last word about the people and events behind 9/11. Tens of thousands, likely hundreds of thousands, of additional U.S. government investigative documents about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks remain classified.

“I hope the 28 pages are the cork in the bottle and that all that other material will now be released,” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the Joint Inquiry and has long advocated for the public release of the chapter that was withheld from publication at the direction of President George W. Bush.

The declassification process that led to today’s release of the 28 pages was first sought three years ago by the Florida Bulldog and 9/11 authors Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, represented by Miami attorney Thomas Julin. The Joint Inquiry’s 838-page report described the hidden chapter as being about “specific sources of foreign sources of support” for the hijackers while they were in the U.S.

In September 2014, in response to criticism that President Obama had failed to keep his promise to 9/11 family members that he would release the 28 pages, the White House announced that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was “coordinating the required interagency review” of the 28 pages for possible declassification.

The declassification review, however, did not include a review of numerous other secret government documents about 9/11 generated by the FBI, CIA, Treasury and State departments and the National Security Agency – or even the 9/11 Commission itself.

The FBI alone has acknowledged that a single field office in Tampa holds 80,000 classified pages about 9/11. Those records are being reviewed for possible public release by the presiding federal judge in a Fort Lauderdale Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog’s corporate parent in 2012.

The suit seeks the release of FBI files about its investigation of a Sarasota Saudi family with apparent ties to the hijackers who abruptly moved out of their home and returned to Saudi Arabia two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other possessions.

Last month, 19 survivors and relatives of those who died on Sept. 11th sent a letter to President Obama asking him to designate for “prompt declassification” nine categories of documents “relevant to responsibility for the events of 9/11.”

“We hope and trust that you regard the release of the 28 pages as only a first step in responding to the public calls for transparency and accountability,” the letter says.

The records requested for declassification are:

  • Documents about the involvement of government-sponsored Saudi religious institutions in supporting al Qaeda. The letter identified 10 organizations that should be subject to declassification review, including the Muslim World League, Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Saudi Red Crescent Society and Al Haramain Islamic Foundation.
  • Documents concerning further investigations of the transactions, relationships and issues discussed in the 28 pages.
  • Unreleased records of the 9/11 Commission. In 2004, the Commission had urged that all of its records, to the greatest extent possible, be made publicly available by January 2009. “More than seven years after that target date, the bulk of the Commission’s records have not been processed for declassification at all, and the limited records that have been released are in many cases so heavily-redacted as to be of little use to the American public,” the letter says.
  • Documents relating to the activities, interactions, relationships, contacts and financial transactions of the 9/11 hijackers in Florida and other areas of the United States.
  • Documents about al Qaeda’s wealthy Gulf donors and support by Islamic banks and financial institutions. Those listed are: Al Rajhi Bank, National Commercial Banks, Saudi American Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, al Shamal Islamic Bank, Faisal Finance and al Baraka.
  • Records relating to Saudi Arabia’s “efforts to promote Wahhabi Islam” and the “relationship between those efforts and terrorist activity, fundraising and recruitment.” Those records are “especially pertinent” because employees of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in the Saudi Embassy and in consulates “were implicated as possibly having provided support to the 9/11 hijackers.” Also, records about “as many as 70” Saudi diplomats associated with Islamic Affairs whose credentials were revoked in the aftermath of 9/11.
  • Records about other investigations of al Qaeda attacks and operations. The letter seeks the “long overdue” release of records involving the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan, the attack on the USS Cole, the 1998 African embassy bombings, the Bojinka plot and numerous other incidents.

The victims and relatives, who for years have attempted to sue Saudi Arabia for damages, expressed concern in their letter that the Obama Administration’s public response to calls for transparency “have focused narrowly on the 28 pages alone.”

“Any meaningful effort to provide the American public with the truth concerning Saudi Arabia’s role in the emergence of al Qaeda and the events of 9/11 must encompass the full spectrum of evidence bearing on questions of Saudi culpability, not merely the 28 pages,” the letter says.

saudiarabiamap“By all public accounts, the 28 pages focus on a very discrete set of relationships and transactions relating to Saudi support for two of the 9/11 hijackers once they were already in the United States,” the letter goes on. “While this evidence is critically important, the broader issue, and the one principally raised by our lawsuit against the Kingdom, is the extent of Saudi Arabia’s funding and patronage of al Qaeda, and role in spreading the jihadist ideology that gave rise to bin Laden’s organization during the decade leading up to the attacks.”

Efforts to obtain access to other, still-secret 9/11 information are underway. For example, the Florida Bulldog has a number of outstanding Freedom of Information requests that seek FBI and terrorism task force records about the activities of the suicide hijackers in South Florida, northern Virginia and northern New Jersey.

More recent federal documents that may shed light on 9/11 are also being sought for public disclosure.

On June 16, Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI and the Department of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act seeking records by and about the FBI’s 9/11 Review Commission.

The Review Commission was established a decade after the 9/11 Commission to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s performance in implementing the original commission’s recommendations and to assess new evidence. It held no public hearings and released no transcripts or documents to explain the conclusions in its March 2015 report. The commission’s members and executive director were paid by the FBI in still-secret personal services contracts.

The lawsuit seeks to obtain those records to assess the basis for reliability of the Review Commission’s findings and recommendations, notably its conclusions about a remarkable April 16, 2002 FBI report. That report, released by the FBI after the initial lawsuit was filed, reported that agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The FBI report corroborated witness statements that were the basis for a Sept. 8, 2011 story in the Florida Bulldog that first reported the story of the Sarasota Saudis, including the existence of the FBI’s investigation and the fact that the FBI never disclosed it to Congress. It was also a major embarrassment for the Bureau, flatly contradicting the FBI’s public statements that agents had found no connections between the family and the 9/11 plot.

The Review Commission concluded that the FBI report was “unsubstantiated” based on statements by unidentified FBI officials calling the report “poorly written and inaccurate.” The Commission, however, interviewed none of the independent witnesses whose accounts were corroborated by the FBI report, and did not examine why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade.

The Miami fight over right to sue to block controversial development

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A proposed amendment to Miami’s charter that would help a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping controversial mega-projects on public waterfront land has drawn fierce opposition from City Attorney Victoria Mendez.

Amendment supporters, on the other hand, accuse Mendez of running interference because she fears the lawsuits — if allowed to move forward — would expose her office’s role in violating the city charter, breaking Florida’s public records law and feeding misinformation to city commissioners before they voted on the mega-projects.

“The city attorney has been conducting a vigorous campaign against this provision because if it passes, multiple cases will be brought back to court,” said Stephen Herbits, a Venetian Islands homeowner suing to stop a mega-project on Watson Island. “When the merits of these cases are finally heard by a neutral court with witnesses under oath, the city attorney will find it difficult to explain her own role in them.”

City Attorney Mendez did not return two phone messages from a reporter seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the Miami City Commission will decide whether to place on the November ballot 17 revisions to the charter, including the amendment that would grant residents legal standing to sue the city over the Watson Island mega-project, as well as others in Coconut Grove, Bayside Marketplace and Virginia Key.

Herbits, Miami-Dade School Board member and county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado and prominent Miami businessman Steven Kneapler are among a dozen city activists who have filed separate lawsuits in the past two years accusing Miami officials of misleading voters, concealing and withholding public records from citizens and city commissioners and ignoring the city’s own charter to help developers secure deals to build lucrative projects on public land.

However, none of the lawsuits have had the opportunity to be judged in court on the merits because the city’s lawyers have successfully argued the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue. Local judges and appeals courts have sided with the city in at least three complaints that sought to overturn the redevelopment of city-owned land at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, invalidate a referendum approving the SkyRise Miami observation tower behind Bayside and the Herbits lawsuit challenging the Watson Island project, where the first phase — a mega-yacht marina — opened for business in February.

Hoping for a vote authorization

The plaintiffs are hoping the city commission authorizes the “standing” charter amendment so voters can have the final say regarding who can sue the city. Kneapler, a charter review committee member and the plaintiff in the Dinner Key lawsuit, told FloridaBulldog.org he believes Mendez is fighting the amendment because it would force her to provide neutral advice to the city commission instead of yielding to political pressure.

“It is not the legal department’s position to play politics,” Kneapler said. “I hope it passes.”

If his complaint were heard on the merits, Kneapler said, he would be able to show how the city violated the charter by failing to obtain two separate property appraisals for the Dinner Key seven-acre site, where Grove Bay Investment Group LLC is proposing a new marina, public baywalk, restaurants and a parking garage.

“The city always hides behind the standing issue and no one gets an opportunity to get to hear their cases upon the merits,” Kneapler said. “It is very frustrating.”

According to a four-page memo Mendez prepared for the charter review committee’s May 2 meeting, the city attorney argues the “standing” charter amendment would be “opening the floodgates” to frivolous lawsuits filed out of “spite” by opponents of projects that are approved by a majority of Miami voters.

She noted the Florida Supreme Court last year voted not to review Kneapler’s lawsuit and Regalado’s complaint after an appeals court sided with the city.

“This committee should not allow the charter review process to be used by anyone to force the city to squander time and resources defending meritless claims by disgruntled citizens,” Mendez wrote.

Roger Craver, another Venetian Islands resident who is also a plaintiff in the Herbits lawsuit, claims the city attorney’s office hides behind the “standing’’ issue to mask what he says are their unlawful actions.

“Their defense strategy has prevented all the facts from being laid on the table, Craver said. “As a result, a stable of reputable citizens are getting blocked from publicly exposing the city’s misbehavior.”

Page 1 of 3912345»102030...Last »

Newsletter

Notify me by email when new stories are published.

Bulldog Archives