FBI slams own 9/11 document; New report discounts Sarasota Saudis ties to hijackers

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

From left to right, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, FBI Director James D. Comey and former Congressman Tim Roemer at a Wednesday press conference

From left to right, Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, FBI Director James D. Comey and former Congressman Tim Roemer at a Wednesday press conference

A report that lauds the FBI for making “great strides” in protecting the nation from terrorists in the past decade also says the Bureau produced and made public bad information linking Saudis in Sarasota to 9/11 terrorists.

The 9/11 Review Commission, a congressionally authorized body that relied heavily on the FBI for support and some staff, produced the 128-page report released Wednesday, “The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century.” Among its conclusions: an April 16, 2002 FBI report that ties the Saudis to 9/11 hijackers was “not substantiated.”

The FBI provided the heavily censored document to Broward Bulldog Inc., parent company of FloridaBulldog.org, in 2013 amid an ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit that seeks access to the FBI’s files on the matter.

The FBI document says flatly that the Saudis, who abruptly moved out of their home in the upscale community of Prestancia in south Sarasota, about two weeks before the 2001 attacks – leaving behind their cars, furniture, clothes and other items – had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

FloridaBulldog.org first reported about the document on April 16, 2013.

FBI DOCUMENT ‘UNSUBSTANTIATED?’

“The FBI told the Review Commission that the (FBI document) on which the news article was based was ‘poorly written’ and wholly unsubstantiated, the commission’s report says. “When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did.” The agent was not identified and no further explanation was offered.

The document’s information, however, is corroborated by a counterterrorism officer’s detailed account regarding what the FBI found during its investigation of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, in a story published by FloridaBulldog.org in September 2011.

911debrisIrish journalist and FloridaBulldog.org contributor Anthony Summers first interviewed the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Summers and Robbyn Swan are co-authors of The Eleventh Day, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2012.

“The report raises more questions about Sarasota than it answers,” said Thomas Julin, the news organization’s Miami attorney. “The report provides no plausible explanation for the contradiction between the FBI’s current claim that it found nothing and its 2002 memo finding ‘many connections’ between the Sarasota family and the 9/11 terrorists.”

The FBI kept its inquiry a secret from both the 9/11 Commission and Congress’s prior Joint Inquiry into the attacks, yet the 9/11 Review Commission’s report did not inquire as to why.

The FBI document not only contradicted the FBI’s prior public statements about the matter, it re-fueled concerns raised by official investigations that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has yet to be told.

“The report raises new concerns that the FBI is concealing Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks,” said attorney Julin. “The report should have explained why the Sarasota investigation was not disclosed to Congress.”

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry, said Wednesday that he had been unaware of the existence of the 9/11 Review Commission until its release.

“I was surprised by it, as were most Americans, and therefore I was not able to contribute to its deliberations,” said Graham, adding he wished he’d had that opportunity.

The Review Commission’s findings, as well as its lack of supporting documentation for its conclusions, failed to persuade Graham to alter his public skepticism about the FBI regarding 9/11.

AN FBI COVER UP?

“The FBI has served America through most of its history. There were stumbles by the agency before 9/11 and since the tragedy there has been a consistent effort to cover up the extent of Saudi Arabia’s involvement,” Graham said. “Let’s let the American people know what happened and have…a serious discussion of what happened, why it happened, where it was adverse to U.S. interests and how to avoid its repetition.”

The 9/11 Review Committee was established in January 2014 when Congress directed the FBI to create a commission to conduct a “comprehensive external review” of the implementation of recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission in 2004. Part of the job was to assess “any evidence now known to the FBI that was not considered by the 9/11 Commission,” the report says.

FBI Director James B. Comey appointed three commissioners: former Reagan Administration Attorney General Edwin Meese, former Congressman and Ambassador Tim Roemer and Bruce Hoffman, a professor and terrorism expert at Georgetown University. The commissioners and executive director John Gannon, a former CIA deputy director for intelligence, were apparently paid for their service. The report says each worked under a personal services contract, although how much they were paid and who paid them was not disclosed.

The report says commission staff traveled to eight FBI field offices to interview key personnel including members of counterterrorism squads, but none in Florida. More than 30 officials with the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community were interviewed, including ex-FBI director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA boss John Brennan. Their statements were not made public.

“I am shocked that this commission failed to talk to Bob Graham,” said attorney Julin.

While the report urged the FBI to do more about the threat of terrorism, Director Comey saw it as vindication for the FBI.

“I am pleased the Review Commission recognized the significant progress we have made to build a threat-based, intelligence-driven law enforcement and national security organization,” Comey said.

The report says commissioners obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file, interview reports and copies of a handful of documents previously released to FloridaBulldog.org via the Freedom of Information Act. FBI officials also briefed commission members more than 60 times on a variety of topics. One of those briefings was about Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, whose father Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to a member of the Saudi Royal family, the report shows.

Still, the 9/11 Review Commission’s report omits a number of seemingly relevant facts. For example, it neglects to mention that the April 2002 document the FBI discounts also cited national security to withhold other information from the public.

The report, while saying “the FBI found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the family,” also does not mention other information linking al-Hijji to terrorist figures, including Prestancia gatehouse security logs and license plate photos the counterterrorism officer said showed that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 figures had gone to al-Hijji’s home. Also, statements made in 2004 to the FBI by now imprisoned terrorist associate Wissam Hammoud that described al-Hijji as an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who had once introduced him to al Qaeda figure Adnan El Shukrijumah.

Likewise, the report omits any reference to the ongoing Freedom of Information case in Fort Lauderdale where U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing 80,000 classified pages of 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa field office. The judge will decide what documents should be made public.

A Broward tale: Property taxes, politics and conflicting interests

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Martin Kiar being sworn in as Broward Vice Mayor last year by his father Monroe Kiar. Photo: Mark O’Loughlin, TheWoodlandsTamarac.com

Martin Kiar being sworn in as Broward Vice Mayor last year by his father Monroe Kiar. Photo: Mark O’Loughlin, TheWoodlandsTamarac.com

Broward Vice Mayor Martin Kiar is beginning to look a lot like the county’s next property appraiser, but his political ambition already has created an apparent conflict of interest at the board that decides property tax appeals by homeowners and businesses.

Kiar’s father is Monroe Kiar, the $225,000-a-year lawyer for the Broward Value Adjustment Board (VAB) – the independent, quasi-judicial authority that reviews taxpayer appeals of exemptions, classifications and valuations set by the office of Property Appraiser Lori Parrish.

The VAB attorney advises the board on all aspects of its review process and the law. His job is to “ensure that the proceedings are fair and consistent with the law,” according to rules established by the Florida Department of Revenue.

But the elder Kiar’s independence is in question with Parrish’s decision to boost the younger Kiar’s campaign to succeed her by hosting a major backyard fundraiser and picnic at her Davie home on April 12.

“Contributions are limited to $1,000 per person or corporate entity,” says the invitation. “Please make checks payable to: Martin David Kiar Campaign.”

SPECIAL-INTEREST SUPPORTERS

Kiar filed paperwork to run for Broward Property Appraiser with the county’s Supervisor of Elections on March 2. So far, no one has challenged him.

2012 victory party for Property Appraiser Lori Parrish and Broward County Commissioner Martin Kiar. Also pictured, left, is Sunrise Commissioner Joseph Scuotto. Photo: TamaracTalk.com

2012 victory party for Property Appraiser Lori Parrish and Broward County Commissioner Martin Kiar. Also pictured, left, is Sunrise Commissioner Joseph Scuotto. Photo: TamaracTalk.com

The invitation identifies 170 Broward special-interest movers and shakers – lobbyists, politicians, attorneys and business owners – as the “Committee to Elect Martin David Kiar Broward County Property Appraiser.” Should they all show up and give the max, Kiar’s campaign would reap $170,000.

Three big names supporting Kiar are Broward Sheriff Scott Israel, former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and lobbyist Bill Rubin, longtime friend and advisor to Gov. Rick Scott.

Also invited: VAB chair and vice chair Stacy Ritter and Barbara Sharief, who are also Martin Kiar’s colleagues on the county commission, and VAB board alternates, Commissioners Dale V.C. Holness and Mark Bogen.

Click here to see the invitation with the full list of names.

State law prohibits government employees from having conflicting employment or contractual relationships, saying they should refrain from relationships “that will create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his or her public duties.”

Monroe Kiar told FloridaBulldog.org he’d resign his high-paying job as VAB counsel if his son is elected next year. “I would not serve in the capacity as the attorney for the VAB if Martin is property appraiser,” he said.

But asked if Property Appraiser Parrish’s upcoming fundraiser for his son creates a more immediate conflict, or the appearance of a conflict, requiring his action now to negate, Monroe Kiar responded, “All of my legal decisions are based on the facts of the case and Florida law.”

“AN UNCOMFORTABLE SITUATION”

Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Phipps, who has long specialized in property tax appeals, said Parrish’s endorsement of Martin Kiar creates “an uncomfortable situation” for Broward taxpayers with appeals before the VAB.

“The problem is that the person being asked to rule (on legal and procedural questions) has got a political connection to one of the parties in the contest,” said Phipps. “If I were a taxpayer appearing before the Broward VAB and there was a legal issue that could tilt either toward the board or the taxpayer, I would be very uncomfortable about a decision” by Monroe Kiar. “That decision is final. It is not appealable.”

Parrish took issue with Phipp’s assessment.

“You tell Mr. Phipps that I’m surprised that any attorney would talk like that. First of all, I didn’t give up my civil rights for Mr. Phipps or anybody else,” said Parrish. “As far as legal opinions, sometimes Monroe Kiar has agreed with us and sometimes he does not agree with us.”

The political connections between Parrish and the Kiars, longtime personal friends, aren’t limited to the upcoming fundraiser.

In 2012, while serving as VAB counsel, Monroe Kiar was a member of a committee backing the re-election of Parrish’s husband, Broward Circuit Judge Geoff Cohen. The Kiars also sponsored a fundraiser at Cohen and Parrish’s home.

Later that year, Parrish and Kiar held a joint victory party after she was re-elected without opposition and he was elected to the county commission without opposition. In her Facebook announcement, Parrish referred to Martin Kiar as her “close friend.”

HIGH-PAYING JOB

Monroe Kiar, a veteran Democratic activist and former Davie mayor whose current annual pay exceeds the yearly salaries of Florida’s attorney general and the judges and justices of Florida’s courts, won a no-bid extension of his contract for up to five years last June with the help of other politicians now supporting his son for property appraiser.

VAB members Ritter and Sharief, Martin Kiar’s county commission colleagues, were part of a 4-0 vote in favor of favor of re-hiring Kiar’s dad. Monroe Kiar won a competitive process to serve as VAB counsel in 2009, while his son was a state legislator.

BrowardBeat.com reported in December that Martin Kiar announced his run for Property Appraiser at a fundraiser for Sharief’s husband, Miramar commission candidate Maxwell Barrington Chambers. Chambers won his election this month.

Broward’s VAB has long been troubled by a public perception that fairness for taxpayers takes a back seat at a venue controlled by local politicians.

That perception was validated last year when a state performance audit reported that property tax appeals at VABs across the state appear to have been rigged by local government officials more interested in safeguarding tax revenues than fairly valuing real estate.

In Broward, the audit found the VAB had compiled “tracking reports” on special magistrates who recommended large assessment reductions and used them to get rid of six magistrates who had given the highest reductions to taxpayers.

“Independence in the appeal process at the local level may have been compromised due to local officials involved in the process who may not have been impartial and whose operations are funded with the same property tax revenue at stake in the appeal process,” said the audit by Florida Auditor General David W. Martin.

Property tax dollars provide about 50 percent of public education funding and 30 percent of local government revenues in Florida, the audit said.

Arrests near in Coconut Creek Taser case? PBA chief suggests death from natural causes

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak

Citing a public records exemption requiring a good faith belief that an arrest will be made soon, Broward’s Medical Examiner is withholding autopsy records about a black man who was repeatedly shot with Tasers by Coconut Creek Police officers.

City police officials have released few details about the events preceding the Feb. 22 shooting of Calvon “Andre” Reid in the Andros Isle section of the Wynmoor retirement community. Eyewitnesses, however, have said that police fired at Reid four times, striking him at least twice in the chest with wires tethered to the high-voltage stun guns. Reid died two days later.

Four Coconut Creek officers are under scrutiny amid what police have said are parallel criminal and internal investigations. An attorney for the Broward Police Benevolent Association represents those officers –Sgt. David Freeman, Sgt. Darren Karp and officers Thomas Eisenring and Daniel Rush. No one else has been implicated publicly in Reid’s death.

Freeman, Eisenring and Rush were temporarily taken off street duty and given other assignments, city officials said. Karp, however, has not been reassigned.

Broward Medical Examiner Dr. Craig Mallak asserted the public records exemption in Florida Statute 119.071(2) in denying a request for access to the Reid autopsy records by FloridaBulldog.org. Mallak did not elaborate.

Broward County PBA President Jeff Marano was skeptical of the idea that any of the Coconut Creek officers are in jeopardy of arrest, saying he does not believe their Taser shots contributed to Reid’s death.

Broward PBA President Jeff Marano

Broward PBA President Jeff Marano

“I strongly doubt that they are looking at the officers involved in the Tasering as being related to the cause of death,” Marano said. “I don’t think (Reid) was the healthiest individual.”

The medical examiner’s refusal to make public autopsy records about an apparent homicide at the hands of police further clouds an investigation already tainted by extreme secrecy. For example, Coconut Creek did not disclose that city officers had discharged their Tasers, or that an in-custody death had occurred, until after Floridabulldog.org reported the story on Feb. 27.

Eyewitnesses John Arendale and his fiancé, Bonnie Eshleman, contacted the nonprofit news organization to inquire why a story about the shooting and death had not appeared on television or in newspapers. The pair, with a unique view of events from their apartment, was disturbed about what they had seen.

In interviews, they described hearing or seeing officers fire four Taser shots at Reid in two volleys. After the first volley, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who yelled out “Baby! They are going to kill me” and “I can’t breathe,” they said.

Police did not interview Arendale or Eshelman until the day FloridaBulldog.org published their account of what happened – five days after the shooting.

Coconut Creek’s only public statement about the matter was March 5 at a press conference by then-Police Chief Michael Mann scheduled as a result of intense media interest in the case. It featured an unusual public denial of a police whitewash.

“There is no cover-up,” Mann told reporters, as his boss, the city manager, stood by. Mann was forced out as chief less than a week later.

At the press conference, Mann said Margate paramedics summoned police after finding Reid in a parking lot suffering from “numerous cuts on his hands, arms and chest” and wearing torn and bloodstained clothing about 1:08 a.m. on Feb. 22. The paramedics had arrived following a 911 call.

Chief Mann described Reid, a 39-year-old meat salesman, as aggressive toward both paramedics and police. His statements appeared to back his officers’ actions.

“The officers attempted to detain Mr. Reid to determine what happened. As the officers approached Mr. Reid, he exhibited threatening behavior and appeared to be hallucinating,” Mann said. “Taser use became necessary for the officers’ safety as well as for Mr. Reid’s own safety.”

Mann declined to release any additional information. Coconut Creek Police since have provided no further details about what happened.

CBSMiami, however, reported last week that it obtained Coconut Creek police training records showing that three of the four officers now under investigation were not properly certified and should not have been carrying Tasers on the day of the incident.

City training records also show that about 80 other Coconut Creek officers, including Mann, were not properly certified to use Tasers that day. Two days after Reid’s death, the police department began catch-up training sessions to bring its officers, and Mann, into compliance with a state law requiring annual recertification in the use of dart-firing stun guns, the records show.

Broward School Board’s budding bid rigging scandal takes a twist

Update: March 17 –  In a public vote of confidence for Superintendent Robert Runcie and his staff amid allegations of bid rigging, the Broward School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to temporarily scrap plans to award a multi-million dollar management contract.

Instead, the board gave a thumbs-up to staff plans to split the contract and rebid it soon as two contracts – possibly by the end of the month.

The board acted after the school system verified statements made under oath by whistleblower Michael Marchetti that executives from Jacobs Project Management Company appeared to have violated a school policy that prohibits bidders from talking to all but designated school staff until a contract is awarded.

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward School Board headquarters in Fort Lauderdale

Broward School Board headquarters in Fort Lauderdale

In an about face, Broward School administrators will ask the School Board Tuesday to reject all bids for a controversial multi-million dollar contract to manage $800 million in capital projects. The board also will be asked to split the contract into two parts when the work is rebid.

FloridaBulldog.org obtained a document outlining the requests as it investigated a district whistleblower’s claims that Broward school administrators “rigged” bidding procedures to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive the contract. Click here to read last week’s exclusive story detailing the whistleblower’s claims.

The document reverses an earlier recommendation that Jacobs be awarded the entire contract. The document is dated March 9 – the same day a reporter sought comment about the allegations and asked to see public bid documents. School officials did not respond to either request.

Voters approved the $800 million bond sale in November to finance the capital projects, mostly to repair run down district schools.

Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to the superintendent, informed Runcie of his suspicions about bid rigging in two January emails. On Feb. 10, he outlined his allegations in a sworn statement to Broward County Schools Police Detective Edward Costello.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie

Marchetti also told Runcie, and the detective under oath, that executives from Jacobs may have violated the school district’s “Cone of Silence” last January in a telephone call to Marchetti and during a subsequent meeting they had with him.

The Cone of Silence policy prohibits bidders from talking to “any School Board member, the Superintendent, any Evaluation Committee Member or any other School District employee”…except “designated staff”…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”

Marchetti, who worked for the school district for 17 years, retired last month after the superintendent dismissed his concerns.

In an interview, Marchetti said Detective Costello told him the management contract Jacobs is seeking is worth about $20 million over six years.

Jacobs Project Management Company is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group, which is an international engineering, architecture, and construction firm. The main company is headquartered in Pasadena, California.

CONE OF SILENCE VIOLATION

The document says Jacobs’ bid should be rejected because company executives “violated the Cone of Silence” policy. The signature on the document is illegible. The district’s public information office did not respond to a question asking who decided to reject the proposals and rebid the contract.

Although Jacobs violated the Cone of Silence policy, the company can rebid for the new contracts when they are put out on the street again around March 25.

Derek Messier, Broward Schools chief facilities officer Photo: Local10.com

Derek Messier, Broward Schools chief facilities officer Photo: Local10.com

“It is my understanding that a cone of silence violation does not preclude a vendor from future solicitations,” Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer, said in an email to Broward School Board member Nora Rupert.

In his emails to the superintendent and in his sworn police statement, Marchetti identified Messier as the administrator mainly responsible for the alleged bid rigging. Messier declined to comment.

Marchetti told Detective Costello that the selection committee that voted last December to recommend Jacobs for the management contract was composed of district administrators handpicked by Messier. The school board committee that normally ranks bidders, and was bypassed by Messier, is the Qualifications, Selection and Evaluation Committee (QSEC).

Board member Rupert asked Messier if the Qualifications Committee will evaluate responses when the two contracts are put out for bid. Messier, who declined to discuss the matter with a reporter, indicated the Qualification Committee would not be used in a reply email that is both bureaucratic and unclear.

“The RFP for the PMO utilized a standard evaluation committee structure that is used by the district for solicitations that are not applicable to QSEC policy 7003,” Messier wrote. RFP stands for request for proposal; PMO is program manager office.

In an interview, Rupert said it would be a mistake not to use the Qualifications Committee to evaluate the bids. “I totally disagree” with Messier, she said.

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

Charlotte Greenbarg who served on the school district’s Audit Committee and Facilities Task Force between 1999 and 2014, agreed with Rupert.

“I don’t think he’s right,” Greenbarg said. “If it is going to manage projects, how can they not go through QSEC? They are trying to manipulate the process so they can put the people they want on the selection committee…He is bound and determined to give Jacobs that contract.”

‘A STAR CHAMBER’

Nick Sakhnovsky, vice chairman of the district’s Facilities Task Force, described Messier’s handpicked selection committee as “a special star chamber.” “It is pretty shocking to me, it’s pretty outrageous,” he said in an interview.

The company ranked second behind Jacobs by Messier’s committee was Los Angeles-based AECOM.

But the bid-rejection document also says all bidders – not just Jacobs – should be rejected because the school district’s initial request for bids does not allow for awarding the contract to “other (firms) than the one selected by the evaluation committee.”

That’s not the way the school board’s procurement system is supposed to operate.

Normally, school administrators negotiate a contract with the second ranked bidder if the top bidder becomes ineligible. A proposed contract is then presented to the School Board for approval.

Tuesday’s School Board agenda states that four companies bid on the contract.

Rupert, representing the Seventh District in North Broward, said the school district could open itself up to a lawsuit if it doesn’t attempt to negotiate a contract with AECOM.

“I don’t like to put the school district at risk,” Rupert said.

Marchetti agreed. “They should try to negotiate with the second proposer,” he said in an interview. “The RFP does not preclude them from negotiating with them.”

By rejecting all of the bids “prior to negotiating with the other finalist, the school district continues to reinforce the bid rigging allegations,” Marchetti added in a follow-up email. “As I outlined to Mr. Runcie, they wanted Jacobs all along.”

Greenbarg agreed the district could be liable for not negotiating with AECOM.

But “companies (not selected) rarely protest because they’ll get something later,” she said. The school district usually awards a losing company a contract in the future “as a consolation prize.”

Greenbarg suspects the school administration may be creating a consolation prize when the administration announced in the bid-rejection document that the contract would be split into two. One company will be hired to manage design and construction and another company will be hired to deal with cost and program control services.

‘A CONSOLATION PRIZE’

The administration is splitting the contract “to give somebody a consolation prize so nobody causes a commotion,” Greenbarg said.

“They are trying to break it up so Jacobs can still get a piece…so it doesn’t look like something they screwed up on,” Marchetti said in an interview. He described the district’s reasons for rejecting the bids and for dividing the contract into two as “mumble jumble…They are making this up as they go…Transparency is a joke.”

In a Friday email, school district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said that splitting the contract into two would help in the “implementation of improvements in district school facilities. These will address indoor air quality and operational life safety systems…”

Marchetti was unpopular among school administrators who remembered how his prior whistleblowing led to the corruption convictions of School Board members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft, and how, in 2013, the School Board paid Marchetti and his wife $190,000 to settle their lawsuit claiming she was laid off as a research assistant in retaliation for his whistleblowing.

Marchetti talked about his unpopularity in a March 2014 email to Superintendent Runcie. “Within days of (you) starting here, people told you I was crazy, a cancer and a pariah…and the first thing you needed to do was fire me.”

The superintendent transferred Marchetti from being his assistant to being Messier’s subordinate in November.

The relationship between Messier and Marchetti went south quickly.

In a Jan. 9 email, Messier accused Marchetti of “dragging…feet.” Six days later, Marchetti notified Runcie via email that Messier wanted him to attend “a pre-disciplinary meeting regarding my performance…”

Sakhnovsky, the vice chairman of the district’s Facilities Task Force, said Marchetti started to get bad work reviews about six months ago.

“Mike (Marchetti) has a history of being honest and forthcoming,” Sakhnovsky said. “That doesn’t make it comfortable for some people.”

Greenbarg called Marchetti “totally credible.” “Everything he has told me has been spot on,” she said.

Rupert, Runcie’s biggest critic on the nine-woman school board, says she’s a “huge fan of Mike Marchetti…I certainly believe everything he has brought forward.”

Rupert was one of two board members in interim evaluations to rank Runcie as “needs improvement.” Rupert noted Runcie “refused to hold staff accountable for missteps (and) blatant overspending…”

Runcie’s written reply: “We have successfully reduced expenses and increased operational efficiencies…Moreover, I have delivered on my promise to work to improve public trust and confidence in our school system.”

School Board Chairwoman Donna P. Korn, who rated Runcie mainly “effective”, and Heather P. Brinkworth, who rated Runcie mostly “needs improvement”, did not respond to requests for comment left with their assistants.

Broward Schools whistleblower alleges bid rigging

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

A political committee's mailer asking voters to approve last November's $800 million bond measure.

A political committee’s mailer asking voters to approve last November’s $800 million bond measure.

Administrators at the Broward County School District “rigged” bidding procedures to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive a multi-million dollar contract to manage $800 million in capital projects that voters agreed to finance, according to a district whistleblower.

Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to School Superintendent Robert Runcie, made the allegations to the superintendent in two January emails and to Broward County Schools Police Detective Edward Costello in an 18-page sworn statement on Feb. 10.

Voters approved the sale of $800 million in bonds in November to finance the projects. Much of the money is to be used to renovate and repair the district’s aging schools.

Marchetti identified the administrator mainly responsible for the bid rigging as Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer. The superintendent transferred Marchetti from being his assistant to being Messier’s subordinate in November.

Neither Superintendent Runcie nor Messier would comment directly. Both referred a reporter to the school district’s public information office, who did not respond.

Runcie was hired as superintendent in 2011 after working for Chicago’s Board of Education. He hired Messier, who also worked for Chicago’s public school system, in June.

Michael Marchetti

Michael Marchetti

Marchetti also told Runcie, and the detective under oath, that executives from Jacobs may have violated the school district’s “Cone of Silence” policy last January in a telephone call to Marchetti and during a subsequent meeting they had with him.

Marchetti provided FloridaBulldog.org with the sworn statement and his emails to Runcie.

The call and the meeting were held after a school district selection committee voted to recommend Jacobs for the contract, which is pending approval by the School Board.

NO RESPONSES

A reporter asked school district spokeswoman Nadine Drew on Monday when the School Board would vote on the Jacobs contract. As of Wednesday night, she had not responded to that question or others submitted via email. Likewise, Broward Schools also did not provide requested documents on the pending contract.

The school district’s Cone of Silence policy prohibits a bidder from talking to “any School Board member, the Superintendent, any Evaluation Committee Member or any other School District employee…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”

Jacobs Project Management Company is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group, which is an international engineering, architecture, and construction firm. The main company is headquartered in Pasadena, California.

Marchetti told FloridaBulldog.org that he heard the capital projects contract might be worth $20 million and span five or six years.

Jacobs has an existing $1.2 million professional services contract with the school district to help assess facilities needing repair. Marchetti claims Jacobs has underperformed on that contract and he wondered in an email to Runcie if the company would be “qualified and capable to perform on (the new) contract that will surely end up being in the tens of millions of dollars.”

Superintendent Runcie previously complained about the company missing deadlines in a November letter to Jacobs Vice President Douglas Hyde.

Marchetti, who worked for the school district for 17 years, retired last month after the superintendent dismissed his concerns and told him “he didn’t feel that there was any issues…He thought everything was fine and that they were gonna go forward,” according to his sworn statement. The superintendent “didn’t even mention that he was concerned about the cone of silence,” Marchetti said.

MARCHETTI INFO TOPPLED GALLAGHER, KRAFT

Marchetti has blown the whistle before on wrongdoing at Broward Schools. Information he provided led to the 2010 arrests of School Board members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft on corruption charges. Both were later convicted.

The School Board in 2013 paid Marchetti $190,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed after the school district laid off his wife as a research assistant for his alleged whistleblowing.

Messier allegedly began to grease the way for Jacobs after he met with Jacobs’ executives in August. According to one of Marchetti’s emails to Runcie, Messier told Marchetti after the meeting “he liked Jacobs very much…”

Messier also told Marchetti that “he was going to write his own RFP” to manage the district’s capital program. A RFP, or request for proposal, is a notice government puts out asking companies to bid for a contract. Marchetti worked for Messier at the time of the discussion.

Messier and Marchetti had lunch at Fort Lauderdale’s New River Grill and Pizza with Jacobs executives several weeks after the August meeting. One of those executives, identified only as “Mike,” knew Messier and they “rehashed some old times…when (both) worked together in Chicago,” Marchetti wrote to Runcie. “After the lunch, Mike made it a point to…tell me what a great guy (Messier) was…”

Marchetti told Runcie that Messier’s RFP “had not gone to the (school) board for approval to advertise and that (the) selection committee had been assembled…outside of the normal…process.”

“That’s another part of the alleged conspiracy,” Marchetti told FloridaBulldog.org.

In his sworn statement to Detective Costello, Marchetti said the selection committee that voted last December to recommend Jacobs for the management contract was composed of school district administrators handpicked by Messier.

Aecom Technology Services, headquartered in Los Angeles, and Skanska USA Building Inc., headquartered in Dania Beach, also bid on the contract.

By assembling his own seven-person selection committee Messier bypassed a sitting committee, Marchetti told the detective. The committee that normally ranks bidders is the School Board’s Qualifications, Selection and Evaluation Committee.

“WHOLE THING WAS RIGGED”

“This whole thing was rigged,” Marchetti said in the sworn statement, adding that Messier appointed “people he could count on…and would “make sure that (Messier) is happy with them.”

Two committee members chosen by Messier should have disqualified themselves from the selection process because they were working with Jacobs and Skanaska on other current contracts, Marchetti said. “They should have recused themselves. They had way too much familiarity with the proposers.”

Marchetti added, “For (Messier) to let that happen and then for him and the superintendent to…continue to negotiate with Jacobs and say that there’s nothing wrong or nothing tainted with this process, when they violated policy by not going to (the qualifications committee) to start with. Those are…the big flags to me.”

While Messier’s selection committee recommended that Jacobs be awarded the management contract, Jacobs and the school officials must negotiate details of the contract before it is presented to the School Board for approval.

Marchetti told Runcie in an email that Jim McDaniell, a Jacobs’ vice president, telephoned him on Jan. 10 to ask if Marchetti’s criticism of Jacobs’ performance on the existing service contract “was going to spill over and affect…negotiations” over the new contract. “He actually asked me to please be careful to see that it doesn’t.”

McDaniell, who heads Jacobs negotiating team, told Marchetti during the phone call “he knew he was walking a fine line in calling me because the contract has not been awarded and they are still in the Cone of Silence.”

McDaniell, reach by phone, declined to comment. “I can’t speak to the press on anything,” he said.

In 2013, school district staff disqualified Jacobs for competing for an earlier contract because the company violated the Cone of Silence policy.

CONE OF SILENCE VIOLATION?

Marchetti told the superintendent, “I believe this phone call and request alone violates the Cone of Silence and falls somewhat far below the bar for moral integrity we should have as a standard for anyone connected to the bond program.”

Marchetti said McDaniell also told him during the phone call that Jacobs “had a special in with Derek (Messier)…because Jacobs had an employee named Mike…whom Derek worked with before in Chicago for about ten years whom…Derek trusts and likes very much.”

“This conflict with Derek was not going to go well for me and that at best I could end up in a closet somewhere counting paper until I became so tired of it I would just leave,” Marchetti told Runcie.

In an interview with a reporter, Marchetti said McDaniell also violated the Cone of Silence policy by calling him several times between Jan. 22 and Jan. 26 to discuss the possibility of Marchetti working for Jacobs. Marchetti recently had decided to retire from the school district.

At McDaniell’s request, Marchetti said he emailed McDaniell his resume on Jan. 25.

On Jan. 26, three Jacobs executives met with Marchetti to talk about the advantages Marchetti would bring to Jacobs. Marchetti’s sworn statement says the executives told him his knowledge of the school district’s software and programs would help Jacobs “get a leg up” and “make them look good” on the pending project.

Marchetti told Detective Costello that he considered that meeting a “pretty blatant” violation of the Cone of Silence policy.

The day after he talked to Detective Costello, Marchetti emailed the school board about the potential bid rigging. Marchetti said in an interview that none of the board members have responded to his email.

Detective Costello did not return several calls for comment.

The school district seeks outsiders to manage construction projects because in 2013 the school board laid off half of its 28 construction project managers. The downsizing occurred after a statewide grand jury in 2011 sharply criticized the Broward School District and its facilities division for lack of oversight and handling of bids.

Coconut Creek police chief forced out amid Taser death investigation; Acting chief named

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael J. Mann, who less than a week ago publicly declared that there was “no cover up” in his department’s ongoing investigation of city officers who shot and killed a man with Tasers, was forced to resign on Wednesday.

Mann’s unexpected departure happened after he was summoned to City Manager Mary Blasi’s office and told he “must resign” immediately, according to police sources.

Blasi did not respond to requests for comment. No one answered the phone at Mann’s office.

However, in a farewell email to his troops on Wednesday afternoon, Mann made no mention of being forced out.

“All good things must come to an end. I have made a decision that, after 38 years in law enforcement, I will be retiring. It’s been an awesome ride but, for the good of the department I think it is time for a change in leadership.”

He added that “after a discussion with the city manager, Captain Justin N. DiCintio will be acting chief until the return of Deputy Chief (Greg) Lees.” Lees is away for the month for training.

A press release put out later by the city identified Lees as the new acting chief. The city said Mann’s retirement is effective March 26, though police sources said he was told to vacate his office by the end of the day.

Calvon "Andre" Reid

Calvon “Andre” Reid

Mann, a veteran of 21 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was sworn in as Coconut Creek’s chief in October 2009.

The Feb. 24 death of Calvon “Andre” Reid, 39, is the latest in a series of controversies under Mann’s leadership.

The shooting in the Andros Isle section of the Wynmoor retirement community off Florida’s Turnpike occurred about 1 a.m. on Feb. 22. Police did not publicly disclose the incident, or that a death had occurred, before FloridaBulldog.org published the first account of what happened on Feb. 27.

Eyewitnesses John Arendale and his fiancé, Bonnie Eshleman, told a reporter that as many as four police officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys. And that after the first volley, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who yelled out, “Baby! They are going to kill me” and “I can’t breathe.”

Arendale and Eshleman’s apartment is steps away from where Reid was shot with the Tasers and where he went down. Police detectives did not interview them until the day after their account appeared on this news site.

The dead man’s father, Calvin Reid of Simpsonville, South Carolina, is skeptical about the version of events he’s heard from police.

“I really don’t buy any of this,” said Reid, a building contractor. “We don’t the the cause of death. We don’t know why he was there…We couldn’t talk to the doctors at the hospital. There are so many unanswered questions.”

The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office has refused to release its autopsy report citing a “hold” on it by the Coconut Creek police.

The Reid family has retained Fort Lauderdale attorney Jarrett Blakeley to represent them.

The police, under Mann’s leadership, threw an immediate veil of secrecy over the matter that didn’t end until Mann held a press conference to make a limited statement about what happened on March 5.

Mann read from a prepared statement, noting that Margate Fire Department paramedics first responded to the scene in response to a 911 call. They found Reid in the parking lot in an “agitated combative and incoherent state” suffering from “numerous cuts on his hands, arms and chest and his clothing was torn and bloodstained,” the chief said.

“Mr. Reid became more aggressive on the scene which caused safety concerns for the paramedics who were attempting to help him,” the chief said.

The paramedics summoned police. Mann said Reid was so agitated that officers didn’t know if they were dealing with a victim, suspect or crazy person. When Reid refused to comply with orders to stop resisting, “Taser use became necessary for the officers’ safety as well as for Mr. Reid’s own safety,” Mann said.

Reid died two days later at Northwest Regional Medical Center.

Mann declined to discuss in detail what police sources said was his department’s failure to have its officers re-certified in the use of Tasers, including the officers who opened fire on Reid. Annual recertification is required by state law.

Mann, who carried his own Taser, told reporters he was re-certified, but said the question of whether other officers were properly re-certified was “part of the investigation.”

A police source, however, said the Taser certifications expired in 2007.

In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported how between 2010 and 2012 the Coconut Creek Police botched 82 criminal cases involving disturbing reports about children who were raped and abused and seniors who were neglected or exploited.

As with Reid’s death, the police department did not inform the public about what had happened. Police Detective Tammy Alois was fired, but no one was held criminally responsible for the resulting lack of charged and failed prosecutions that resulted.

In 2013, the department became the unwanted focus of attention due to another incident in which Patrolman James Yacobellis pulled and activated his Taser while interrogating a frightened, 19-year-old theft suspect in a bathtub. Yacobellis was fired last month after he was caught last  year on a police video getting a massage at a Boca Raton spa that police said was a front for prostitution.

An investigation by FloridaBulldog.org found that investigations of the bathtub taser incident by both the Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Coconut Creek Police were seriously deficient.

Broward prosecutors who declined to charge Yacobellis never ask him under oath why he hadn’t mentioned the incident in his police report. The Coconut Creek’s own investigation omitted relevant facts and did not follow department policy.

The person that Chief Mann chose to lead that investigation was a police captain who had never worked as a detective: Capt. John Di Cintio.

Embattled Broward Health paid law firm $10.2 million; Tab included a lawyer’s M&Ms

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Seven orthopedic surgeons are among 27 Broward Health physicians under scrutiny in a federal Medicare fraud probe

Seven orthopedic surgeons are among 27 Broward Health physicians under scrutiny in a federal Medicare fraud probe

Taxpayer-supported Broward Health has paid $10.2 million so far for legal advice about how to deal with an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that it colluded with doctors to submit tens of millions of dollars in bogus claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

Broward Health, also known as the North Broward Hospital District, quietly spent those millions even though federal authorities have yet to level a single public accusation of wrongdoing against it.

The money went to the Washington, D.C. law firm Arent Fox, which was retained shortly after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) subpoenaed documents relating to Broward Health’s contracts with 27 prominent doctors and one physicians’ group practice on May 16, 2011. Since then, the district has turned over millions of pages of business records to federal authorities.

Broward Health records obtained by FloridaBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law show that from mid-2011 through 2014 a total of 19 Arent Fox lawyers billed the district at rates ranging from $420 to $550 an hour. More than a dozen of the firm’s paralegals and support staff also billed at rates as high as $275 an hour.

Likewise, Broward Health picked up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars of the law firm’s costs, including scanning and copying charges, airline tickets and seat upgrades, hotels, meals and taxis in South Florida and Washington. One big cost: $16,700 to scan 155,000 pages of documents.

BROWARD HEALTH PAYS FOR BAG OF M&Ms

No item was small enough to escape inclusion on Arent Fox’s multi-page invoices: a charge for a tenth of an hour to read an email; $3.35 for a Starbucks latte; $1.99 for a bag of M&M candy peanuts picked up at Palm Beach International Airport.

Click the chart for the complete list of names

Click the chart for the complete list of names

Here are the yearly payouts to Arent Fox regarding what Broward Health refers to as the “the OIG matter.” OIG stands for the HHS’s Office of Inspector General, which issued the subpoena nearly four years ago:

2011: $2,395,060

2012: $3,406,294

2013: $1,758,061

2014: $2,636,194

The payments, and many others, were approved by then-Broward Health Chief Executive Officer Frank Nask. Nask retired late last year and now has a one-year consulting contract with Broward Health at his old annual salary, $625,000.

Leading Broward Health’s defense team are Arent Fox partners Linda Baumann and D. Jacques Smith, who specialize in matters involving the False Claim Act. Baumann also counsels clients about the requirements of two other laws that figure prominently in the Broward Health probe: the federal Stark Law and the Anti-kickback Statute.

The Stark law generally prohibits physicians from referring Medicare or Medicaid patients to hospitals with which they have a financial relationship as well as hospitals from submitting claims for prohibited referrals. Violators face civil penalties of up to three times the amount claimed.

The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying or soliciting or receiving anything of value to induce or reward referrals or generate federal health care program business. Criminal violators face prison for five years and a $25,000 fine for each violation, plus hefty civil assessments.

Broward Health is the county’s largest provider of healthcare services, a nonprofit medical safety net providing services regardless of the ability to pay for the northern two-thirds of Broward County. The flagship of its 30 healthcare facilities is Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Health Medical Center, formerly known as Broward General.

A PAUCITY OF DETAIL

Little information has been released publicly about the government’s investigation of Broward Health since the HHS subpoena sought information about more than two dozen physicians, including medical directors at Broward Health’s lucrative orthopedic, sports medicine and cardiology practices.

The probe, however, is rooted in a secret whistleblower lawsuit filed against Broward Health by someone alleging violations of the federal False Claims Act. The Justice Department, in this case the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office, is obliged by law to investigate.

Broward Heath Board chairman David Di Pietro has said publicly that the district has a potential liability of $100 million in civil penalties.

As a result, the district’s governing board has changed the way it does business. For example, the board of directors in June approved a new “matrix of compensation” that seeks to make its physician compensation practices “commercially reasonable.”

More than a dozen Broward Health doctors have signed new agreements under the matrix rules intended to assure compensation based on “fair market value.”

One of those doctors was Michael A. Chizner, chief medical director of Broward Health’s Heart Center of Excellence.

Chizner has been paid $6.9 million since 2009, including $1.2 million last year. His earnings were more than double the national average for “invasive-interventional cardiologists. But in December, after hiring former U.S. Sen. George Lemieux in an effort to resist, Chizner signed a new five-year deal that reduced his pay this year to a maximum of $867,000.

Neither Broward Health nor the government has commented on the status of the federal investigation. When the probe is complete, however, the government must decide whether to intervene to prosecute the case, decline to prosecute or move to dismiss the case. The case is also unsealed.

The person who filed the lawsuit, known as the relator, stands to collect a reward of up to 25 percent of whatever the government recovers.

The pace of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Broward Health’s board of directors has quickened in recent months, suggesting the federal investigation may be nearing an end.

At least four times since June, Broward Health’s board has held private “shade” meetings to discuss a possible settlement. Shade sessions are by law exempted from the state’s open government Sunshine law, and are closed to the public.

Weston teacher faces discipline for alleged slur to Muslim student

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo: Local10.com

Photo: Local10.com

A Cypress Bay High School French teacher could lose her job after allegedly calling a Muslim student a “rag-head Taliban.”

The Broward School Board will hear from the student’s father on Tuesday, March 3. The board is expected to take disciplinary action during its March 17 meeting.

Youssef Wardani, father of 14-year old Deyab-Houssein Wardani, is pressing for the firing or suspension of Cypress Bay High School teacher Maria Valdes for her remark.

Wardani, a software engineer, said his son came to him in early February to ask about the word Taliban, saying Valdes called him that when he entered the classroom.

“He said he knew we are Muslim, but asked what is Taliban?” said Wardani, who added that his son had worn a hooded sweatshirt to school that day with the hood pulled up around his head.

“I shield my son from every hate I can. I am very careful and pay attention to that sort of thing, so I sat him down and explained” about the ultraconservative political and religious faction that emerged in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s.

Wardani’s son told him Valdes frequently used nicknames for students and had called him the name at least twice in front of the entire class.

Youssef Wardani

Youssef Wardani

Wardani, an immigrant from Lebanon, whose wife is from Morocco, said he went to the school the following day and explained the situation to Assistant Principal Marianela Estripeaut, who told him she would discuss the matter with principal Scott Neely.

Neely and Valdes did not respond to interview requests. Valdes, 64, has been a Broward teacher for 11 years and has no prior disciplinary record, according to a school district spokeswoman.

Later that day, Wardani said Neely called and expressed concern about the comments and said he would take action. A meeting was set for 8 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10 with teacher Valdes.

Wardani said the meeting was less than productive.

“Her apology was robotic and empty and rehearsed,” he said. “She said it was an innocent joke and then started rolling her eyes and was huffing and puffing when I asked her questions.

“She, as a teacher, has a responsibility. Look, as a Middle-Eastern man, I have treaded lightly ever since 9/11.”

Following the meeting Wardani was asked what outcome he wanted. He told school administrators he wanted the teacher fired or suspended for a year without pay. And, he wanted a public apology.

“They told me that the best I could hope for was a letter in her personnel file” due to teacher’s union rules, he said.

Wardani said he is not a man to give up, especially when an issue affects his family. He is worried because school administrators seemed more concerned about the teacher and the union than any damage done to his son.

“If my son was to make a derogatory remark against the teacher, would he have been punished?” he asked. “Of course he would. So, why is the teacher not? Why is she allowed to stay in class?”

Wardani said Assistant Principal Estripeaut gave him three choices – pull his son out of the class and put him in another French class, learn outside of class or remain in the same class. So far, the ninth grader remains in Valdes’ class.

Wardani said his son, an honor roll student and Boy Scout, now hates going to school.

“My son was not the one who needed to change,” he said. “The teacher is the one who needs to be let go.”

Feeling like he was getting nowhere with the school, Wardani on Feb. 12 started making calls. He phoned Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie and school board member Laurie Rich-Levinson. He also filed complaints with the FBI and at the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Weston, where the high school is located.

Wardani said BSO reluctantly opened a case file, but told him no hate crime occurred because his son wasn’t hurt. He said he hasn’t heard back yet from the FBI.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie Photo: Milken Family Foundation

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie Photo: Milken Family Foundation

According to the FBI, a hate crime involves threats, harassment, or physical harm and is motivated by prejudice against someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability.

Wardani said Runcie called him back and told him the matter would come before the school board on March 17. The agenda for that meeting has not been published, but school board staff said they are looking into the matter.

“The issue was brought to the attention of the superintendent who ordered staff to investigate what happened,” said Tracy Clark, chief public information officer for the Broward school district.

An investigation has been completed and “disciplinary action will be brought forth in March,” she said adding that action can vary, with termination as the ultimate sanction. Any action must be approved by the school board and within the guidelines of the bargaining agreement between the unions and the school board.

While Valdes could be terminated, School Board staff is recommending a five-day suspension without pay as well as successful completion of diversity training.

Clark added that the normal route for parental concerns begins at the school level. If the issue cannot be resolved there, parents are referred to the district’s Office of Parent Engagement or the Office of Service Quality.

Wardani said he wants justice.

“I am looking to be treated as fairly as any human being would.”

This is not Wardani’s first go round with Broward schools.

The family moved to Weston in July, 2013. When Wardani registered his son for school, he discovered his son’s first name was too long to fit into the school system’s computer system, which limits first names to 12 characters. His son’s name was two characters too long. The system shortened it to Deyab-Housse.

“Deyab, which is my grandfather’s first name and is Lebanese means wolf. Houssein is my wife’s grandfather’s name, which is Moroccan and means good. My son loves his name,” said Wardani.

“For cultural and ethnicity reasons, and many family reasons, it is a very important name.”

Wardani said he suggested that the school use DH, which is what his family and friends called him. However, the school said that wasn’t possible because it wasn’t his son’s legal name. He also was told it would cost too much change the software program to include the entire name.

As a result, his records and yearbook continued to use the truncated name.

“That chopping off his name is legal, that is disgusting,” he said, adding that other students had the same problem.

After going back and forth for nearly 18 months, school Principal Neely told Wardani on Feb.10 that the school could use DH as the teen’s first name.

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

 By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org coconutcreekbadge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JUDGE  UNGARO ISN’T TALKING

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

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

Martin Chambers  Photo: CBCNews

Martin Chambers
Photo: CBCNews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BENAGES TALKS TO FBI

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

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

Michael Benages

Michael Benages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE?

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

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNGARO UPHELD ON APPEAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FBI “BLACK BAG OPERATIONS”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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