Hollywood neighbors beset by traffic fear further expansion by Ben Gamla school

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Work on the new Ben Gamla school in Hollywood nears completion. Photo: William Gjebre

Work on the new Ben Gamla school in Hollywood nears completion. Photo: William Gjebre

Representatives of a traffic-congested Hollywood neighborhood are expressing new fears regarding the Ben Gamla middle-high public charter school complex, now under construction, after discovering that ex-congressman Peter Deutsch, a top school official, is linked to the acquisition of additional nearby properties which they say could be for future expansion.

The residents say they have also learned that while the city and the Broward School Board have limited the school’s opening to about 600 students, the school board previously approved a plan that would have more than tripled enrollment.

“They have bought other properties,” said Nancy Fowler, secretary of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association. “They are planning to bring in more kids,” she added. “There is a huge discrepancy between 600 students and 2,150 students.”

“It’s going to happen,” said Helen Chervin, President of the United Neighbors of South/Central Hollywood, who accused the city and the school from doing little to protect the neighborhood. “We are damaged; this is a forgotten neighborhood.”

DEUTSCH ISN’T TALKING

Deutsch, the driving force behind the Ben Gamla public charter schools, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Alan Koslow, attorney for Ben Gamla.

Expected to open next month, the new school complex is one block south of Hollywood Boulevard, with limited access onto two-lane Van Buren Street from 26th and 28th avenues. During the school year, nearby streets are choked with morning and afternoon traffic as area workers and residents jockey with parents dropping off students at the existing 600-student Ben Gamla elementary school that fronts Hollywood Boulevard at the City Hall circle.

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the neighborhood and has opposed Ben Gamla’s expansion plans from the start two years ago, remains concerned.

“It looks like they are amassing property for future expansion,” he said. An expansion to more than 2,000 students would bring “too much traffic. “It’s going to be overwhelming for the neighborhood….It will ruin the quality of life.”

Fowler’s civic association is part of a coalition of local homeowner groups and beleaguered residents opposed to Ben Gamla’s new three-story, 34,000 square foot school on property it acquired at 2648 Van Buren Street. The property, according to county records, lists title under “Van Buren Facility III LLC,” with Deutsch with the contact person.

Fowler said the various neighborhood and civic groups have heightened concerns after discovering that Ben Gamla has acquired or may be linked to other nearby properties along Van Buren Street.

The Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office website shows that three contiguous properties at 2718, 2726 and 2734 Van Buren Street, totaling 56,000 square feet, were acquired by various limited liability companies – Jackson Street Facility and 28th Ave Facility — all listing Deutsch as the contact person. The properties sold for a total of $975,000, nearly double their assigned “just market value,” in April, June and November of 2014.

The only property separating the Ben Gamla school construction site and the Deutsch-linked Van Buren Street properties is a 20,500 square-foot parcel at 2710 Van Buren Street that currently houses the Discovery Kids learning center. It was sold two months ago to DY&Z Investments LLC for $1.2 million, or double the parcel’s just market value. The registered agent for DY&Z, Yoram Ben Amram, could not be reached for comment.

There has been speculation that Ben Gamla may also be eyeing acquisition of a 29,013 square-foot property at 2750 Van Buren Street that’s owned by and housing the Unity Church of Hollywood. The property, with a just market value of about $1 million, is next to the three contiguous Van Buren Street properties that list Deutsch as a contact person.

‘OPEN’ TO A SALE

“We would be open to it [sale]…if they came in with a fair assessment value,” said Michael Rhodes, president of the board of Hollywood Unity, a non-denominational church, operating at its current location since 1965.

If Ben Gamla sought to purchase the church it would not be a surprise. “Before the school built, they approached us about sale of the church,” Rhodes said. “But they never came back, never approached us since then.”

The property transactions listing Deutsch as the contact occurred after December 2013, when the Hollywood Planning and Development Board approved Ben Gamla’s request for a zoning exception that allowed the school to build in the residential neighborhood. The city board limited the complex to 600 students, based on the size of the property and the proposed structure.

Public records show the land purchases also happened after the Broward School Board, in November 2013, approved Ben Gamla’s charter school applications for a maximum of 1050 middle school students (grades 6-8) and a maximum 1,100 high school students (grades 9-12) at the 2648 Van Buren Street location. The middle school was to open with 600 students and the high school with up to 550, according to the approved applications.

The school board authorized the Ben Gamla complex to open for the 2014-2015 school year. But at Ben Gamla’s request, the board later approved delaying the opening for one year until the upcoming 2015-2016 school year. Ben Gamla obtained a building permit last November, city officials said.

Last April, the School Board approved operating contracts with Ben Gamla stating that enrollment had to match the 600 students – 200 in the middle school and 400 in the high school – previously approved by the city of Hollywood. The contracts specify those numbers are the “minimum enrollment that will support the school’s operations at an adequate level under its approved budget.”

Broward Schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew said that should Ben Gamla want to expand beyond that it would have to seek fresh approval because the original application the board approved for as many as 2,150 students no longer applies. She said the school can come back to the board to seek an enrollment increases if it obtains more space.

Fowler, however, contends the earlier approvals have not been rescinded and that it appears as if Ben Gamla has plans to increase enrollment. She also accused the district of not being transparent regarding Ben Gamla’s Van Buren school project, noting difficulty in obtaining information regarding Ben Gamla’s applications for the new complex.

“You can’t trust that they will not go over the maximum; there is nothing binding them to 600,” Fowler said. “They have other property; they can come back at anytime. They are planning to bring in more kids.”

Trump money too hot to handle, but tainted donors back Miami-Dade mayor, opponent

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and School Board Member Raquel Regalado

As Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez gears up for a tough 2016 re-election battle against Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, the political organizations supporting the two candidates are taking money from donors with scandalous histories.

Miami-Dade Residents First, the political action committee backing Gimenez, received $20,000 from a New York company owned by two brothers convicted in the 1980s of ripping off and terrorizing low-income renters. The PAC also took in $10,000 from a Miami Beach real estate developer who presided over a local nursing home chain that allegedly submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare.

Not to be outdone, Serving Miamians — the electioneering communications organization supporting Regalado — collected $20,000 from family members of two fugitives from Ecuador accused of stealing nearly half-a-billion dollars from that country’s government.

Contributions from questionable sources show how the campaign finance system has become corrupted as candidates race to out raise opponents, according to government watchdogs interviewed by the Florida Bulldog.

The pro-Gimenez group Miami Dade Residents First has raised $1.2 million since it was formed in January. Serving Miamians has raised $710,185 since it was established in 2013 to further the political careers of Regaldo and her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado.

‘WHAT YOU CAN GET AWAY WITH’

“Andy Warhol once said, ‘art is what you can get away with,’” noted Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center in Washington D.C. “Political contributions are the same.”

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Integrity Florida, said committees end up doing the dirty work on behalf of the candidates.

“What we want is accountability for how candidates raise and spend money,” Wilcox said. “In this case, the candidates can use the committees to distance themselves from questionable contributions.”

According to its most recent monthly report, pro-Gimenez Miami-Dade First received $20,000 on June 29 from Amsterdam Hospitality, a Manhattan-based real estate firm owned by Jay and Stuart Podolsky. In 1986, the siblings, along with their father Zenek, pleaded guilty to 37 felonies, including grand larceny and coercion, in connection to dilapidated flophouses they operated in New York City.

Jay and Stuart Podolsky, who received probation for their alleged crimes, did not return two phone messages from the Florida Bulldog.

According to reports in multiple New York media outlets, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office accused the Podolskys of engaging “in a routine of terror to drive tenants out of a single-room-occupancy hotel” by moving “in thieves, drug addicts and prostitutes, who would then rob tenants, start floods and fires, and do drug and sex deals in the hallway.”

By 2010, the Podolskys began converting many of their flophouses into homeless shelters subsidized by New York City taxpayers, according to a 2013 investigative story by New York Magazine.

Housing Solutions USA, a non-profit company the Podolskys control, leases 40 facilities in New York City that are owned by family members and business associates through various holding companies. Those shelters generated rents in the range of $90 million between 2010 and 2013, according to city records analyzed by New York Magazine.

The Podolskys are not the only land barons with baggage giving to help Gimenez via Miami-Dade Residents First.

Russell Galbut, managing principal of Crescent Heights, a national real estate company that owns several prominent Miami Beach hotels, and six corporations he controls gave a combined $10,000 to Miami-Dade Residents First between January and April. From the mid-Nineties until last November Galbut was chairman of the board of directors for Plaza Health Network, a chain of nursing homes founded by his family in 1950 formerly known as Hebrew Homes for the Aged.

PLAZA HEALTH NETWORK’S BIG SETTLEMENT

A 2012 federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by Plaza’s ex-chief financial officer, Steven Beaujon alleged the non-profit scammed Medicaid and Medicare for $130 million during a 10-year period through the submission of false claims for physical therapy provided to patients referred by dozens of doctors who were paid kickbacks. Beaujon’s complaint, which alleges Galbut encouraged staff to implement the kickback scheme and ignored attempts to stop the illegal practice, spawned an investigation into Plaza by the FBI, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office and attorneys with the civil division the Department of Justice.

Last month, seven months after Galbut resigned from the board, Plaza agreed to pay the U.S. government $17 million and Beaujon $4.5 million to settle the lawsuit and the civil investigation. According to the settlement agreement, the feds could still bring criminal charges against current and former Plaza Health officials allegedly involved in the scam.

In an emailed response to questions, Galbut denied any wrongdoing during his time on Plaza’s board. He said the nonprofit’s executive staff kept the board of directors in the dark about the Medicaid and Medicare issues.

“I absolutely would not approve or participate in any improper behavior,” Galbut said. “As voluntary chairman of the unpaid board of directors, I did the best I could do.”

Galbut said he gave money to Miami-Dade Residents First to promote good government. “I expect Mayor Gimenez to give his 100 percent effort and commitment to promoting a better quality of life for all of Miami-Dade County’s residents,” he added.

A Gimenez spokesman forwarded requests for comment to Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Residents First, which returned $15,000 from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump following his recent controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants.

Manzano-Plaza said there is nothing illegal or improper about the donations given by the Podolskys and Galbut. “We have received over 300 contributions from groups that believe in and support the good government policies and experienced leadership of Mayor Carlos Gimenez,” Manzano-Plaza said.

Likewise, Regalado told Florida Bulldog that there was nothing wrong with Serving Miamians accepting a combined $20,000 from relatives of Roberto and William Isaias, who have showered hundreds of thousands of dollars on Barack Obama and other national Democratic candidates as part of their efforts to fight the brothers’ extradition to Ecuador.

In 2012, the two were sentenced in Ecuador in absentia to eight years in prison. The Ecuadorian government accuses the Isaias brothers of running a bank into the ground by making loans to businesses they controlled and then presenting false balance sheets to get bailout funds. Ecuador claims it lost more than $400 million, and Interpol issued a “red notice,” or international alert, for the Isaias brothers.

Amid their legal troubles, Roberto’s wife, children, daughter-in-law, nephews and employees have donated at least $320,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, according to a New York Times analysis of campaign finance records.

“There are a lot of people who have had issues with the law,” Regalado said. “It is what it is. But what is going on with them is not something that would be an issue for the county mayor.”

Regalado also claimed that only $5,000 of the $20,000 from the Isaias family is helping her mayoral campaign. The remaining $15,000 was given to Serving Miamians when her father, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, was running for reelection in 2013.

The National Legal Center’s Boehm said political committees should decline or return contributions from donors whose funds may come from tainted sources like the Isaias case.

“In our view, the ethical thing to do is not to keep the money if it was stolen or swindled,” Boehm said. “We can sit here all day and exchange notes on people involved in outright fraud who give to political campaigns.”

Better late than never: Online access to court files arrives in South Florida

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org clerkpage

Nearly two decades after the federal courts did it, state courts in South Florida and across the Sunshine State have begun to allow the public online access to documents contained in case files.

Unlike the federal courts, however, local court clerks in South Florida and other areas aren’t charging any fees to view, print or download millions of available pages of public records.

The Broward Court Clerk’s office was among the first to go fully online last month with free public access to electronic felony, misdemeanor, traffic, and civil court records not sealed, expunged or otherwise deemed confidential by law or court order.

“They’re available for free except for dependency, juvenile, adoptions – you know, family cases,” said Clerk Howard Forman. There is also no remote access to document images in cases governed by Florida probate rules.

For now, all users must register and log in to view the docket and document images during a 90-day pilot project. Once the state courts sign off on Broward’s system users won’t have to register and may view court records anonymously.

Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin put civil cases only online last month. He did not respond to requests for comment.

In Miami-Dade, the county commission, not the clerk, runs the criminal record system and criminal cases are not online. “The county commission is supposed to finance their felony operation and they haven’t done it yet,” said Forman.

Palm Beach County Court Clerk Sharon Bock announced last week that a $2.6 million budget shortfall would indefinitely delay the implementation of online remote access to court records there.

What’s happening is the culmination of an effort that began in 2004 to develop technology and policies the Florida Supreme Court determined were necessary to shield sensitive personal information – like Social Security and charge card numbers – from anonymous, yet prying online eyes.

Court dockets have appeared online for more than a decade. More recently, attorneys have been required to file court documents electronically instead of on paper. New rules were adopted to require lawyers and pro se filers to identify and protect confidential information in their pleadings. A list of 20 exemptions subject to automatic redaction by the court clerk was also adopted.

A TIERED ACCESS SYSTEM

Years of study also led to the establishment of a tiered system of access to court records “to facilitate appropriate, differentiated levels” for judges, court and clerks’ office staff, “user groups with specialized credentials” like law enforcement and attorneys and the general public.

In March 2014, the Supreme Court opened the door to posting court pleadings online in an administrative order that adopted the new “access security matrix” and established the pilot program that allows clerks in Florida’s 20 judicial circuits to apply for approval of their local access systems.

Court documents in Broward undergo a thorough redaction process before they’re put online, officials said. It begins with an automatic redaction done by a special software filtering that locates, and blacks out, forbidden information like Social Security numbers. There’s also a manual review by clerks and submission to an audit that looks for statistical anomalies that might signal that exempt information wasn’t caught.

“It’s working very well,” said Ernie Nardo, the Broward clerk’s chief information officer.

The Broward clerk’s case management system, Odyssey, is provided by Texas-based Tyler Technologies. It cost more than $1 million to implement and another $435,000 in annual licensing fees, Nardo said. Another $230,000 a year goes to license redaction software from Apoka-based Computing System Innovations.

The court’s sensitive case files are not on the cloud, but remain stored locally on servers owned by the Broward clerk’s office, Nardo said.

While all new filings are coming in electronically, Broward clerks are today “back-scanning” older paper felony case files. “Those cases linger longer so we are going back to convert entire cases to electronic,” Nardo said. He said 2012 felony cases are in the process of being scanned, meaning that every case from 2013 going forward is now electronic.

There are no plans to go back and scan in other old, closed cases because the cost is prohibitive. However, the Broward clerk is thinking about providing on-demand back-scanning of cases for those willing to pay for it. Any files scanned that way would also be added to the online record.

Another project under consideration would allow individuals, for a fee, to track activity in cases by registering to receive alerts.

In Broward, the clerk’s office is also working on making its website mobile friendly.

“We are developing our website to be compliant with any phone out there. So it won’t matter what our phone is when you hit our site it would resize itself to that device,” Nardo said

Sex offender convinces appeal court to reverse Broward judge

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach

Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach

Every day, state prisoners flood Florida’s courts with appeals and pleadings about their cases that they’ve written themselves. Those pro se filings – Latin for “on his own behalf” – rarely get far.

This spring, however, an inmate sex offender serving a life sentence convinced the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that a Broward judge erred when she failed to order prosecutors to explain potentially serious discrepancies about his Miranda rights warning form.

The state introduced the Miranda form as evidence at Charles D. Williams’ 1998 trial, but Williams contends the document was a fraud and that police forged his signature. For years, Williams and his family filed public records requests seeking to obtain a copy.

“After serving multiple requests to the Broward County Clerk and the State Attorney’s Office over a course of years, his brother finally obtained a copy of a Miranda waiver form,” says the unanimous order by a three-judge appeal panel. “The date on the form produced differed from the date on the form introduced at trial, and the signature on the form produced varied from the petitioner’s signature.”

The panel ordered Broward Circuit Judge Lisa Porter to require prosecutors and the clerk’s office to respond to the “factual issue of whether the form produced is the same as the form introduced at trial.” If the response doesn’t resolve the matter, Porter was instructed to “hold an evidentiary hearing.”

Imprisoned sex offender Charles D. Williams

Imprisoned sex offender Charles D. Williams

The court issued its mandate to Judge Porter on June 12 after denying a request for reconsideration by Florida Assistant Attorney General Richard Valtunas, who in previous court papers called Williams’ assertions “outlandish allegations of fraud and skullduggery.” The judge had not taken action as of Monday.

Williams, who next week turns 76, was a longtime Pompano Beach resident when Broward Sheriff’s detectives arrested him in 1996 on multiple counts of sexually battering or molesting his teenage stepdaughter. He was convicted after a three-day trial in March 1998. His conviction was upheld on appeal.

Starting in 2006, Williams and his family began filing public records requests for a copy of the Miranda waiver form presented by the state as evidence at his trial. After repeated visits and phone calls, Clerk Howard Forman’s office advised that it didn’t have the form in their file. Meanwhile, the State Attorney’s Office provided a copy, but Williams claims it wasn’t the same form the state used at trial and that the signature on it isn’t his signature.

Williams, housed at the Department of Correction’s South Florida Reception Center in Doral,  petitioned Broward Circuit civil Judge John Bowman in 2011 to compel the state to produce a “true” copy of his Miranda waiver form. He based his claim on the signature discrepancy and “trial testimony from a police officer in which the officer referred to the document as an ‘Affidavit of Conform’ and described the rights on the form differently than as written on the ‘Waiver of Counsel’ form provided by the State Attorney’s Office to his brother,” according to the appellate decision.

Bowman found Williams’ petition legally sufficient and transferred the matter to Porter in the criminal division, where it sat for three years until Porter denied it and entered an order prohibiting Williams from further pro se filings.

“Because the petition established a legally sufficient basis for relief, as determined by the civil court judge, the criminal court judge erred in denying the petition,” the appeal court’s decision says.

More controversy as Broward looks to begin $800 million school construction program

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Pictures of water build up under a leaky roof in an outside hallway at Fort Lauderdale's Northeast High School that were used to push for passage of last year's bond issue. Photo:  NBC6

Pictures of water build up under a leaky roof in an outside hallway at Fort Lauderdale’s Northeast High School that were used to push for passage of last year’s bond issue. Photo: NBC6

The controversy surrounding the Broward School District’s $800-million bond construction program continues with an allegation of another Sunshine Law violation, and a question as to why the same company was ranked first for two offsetting contracts designed to check and balance each other.

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s civilian-advisory Facilities Task Force, accused the district of the Sunshine Law violation in a June 6 email to the school board. Her complaint later prompted school officials to hold another meeting in an attempt to “cure” the apparent violation.

Lynch-Walsh claimed the district violated the sunshine law on June 2 after two selection committees specially created to choose who will oversee bond-issue spending announced they’d “shortlisted” companies for three lucrative contracts to manage the district-wide construction projects.

“Nothing was said during the committee meetings,” Lynch-Walsh said in an interview. “They didn’t discuss how they got their scores. There was no discussion. No firms were identified. They silently wrote scores down (ranking the companies)…No vote was taken.”

The Facilities Task Force, whose chair in the past has frequently participated in the vetting of contractors for the district, unanimously voted during its June 4 meeting to have Lynch-Walsh send its concerns to the school board.

Although the committee meetings were open to the public and were broadcast on the school district’s Internet TV channel, only staff participated. Lynch-Walsh has maintained that members of the public, such as herself, should be on the selection committees.

The Florida Constitution says all formal government actions shall be discussed and transacted during public meetings.

BOND ISSUE OVERWHELMINGLY APPROVED

Broward voters overwhelmingly approved the $800 million bond referendum last November in large part to repair aging schools with leaky roofs, failing air conditioning systems and other problems. Funds will also be used for a variety of other purposes like replacing portable classrooms with permanent structures. To finance the bonds, the average homeowner will pay another $50 a year in property taxes.

The companies are competing to get one of three multi-million dollar contracts. Two companies will be selected to be “owner’s representatives,” who will manage the construction projects for the district. A third company will be chosen to oversee cost and program control services.

Five companies submitted bids to be owner’s representatives and three companies submitted bids to handle the cost and program controls contract.

The two selection committees met again June 16 where they again scored and ranked the bidders. The scores that time were made public, although nothing was said on whether the top scoring companies would be recommended for the contracts.

But a June 18 document found online revealed the selection committee recommended that Skanska USA Building and second choice Heery International, headquartered in Atlanta, be awarded the contracts to be the owner’s representatives.

Skanska, a New York-based subsidiary of the Swedish multinational construction and development firm Skanska AB, was also the top choice to get the contract to oversee cost and program controls.

Lynch-Walsh, in a June 17 email to task force members, called the previous day’s selection committee meetings as “a bad sequel to an equally bad movie.” She said district purchasing agent Phil Kaufold, who headed the meetings, “read primarily from a prewritten script, with (school board) attorney Bob Vignola sitting right next to him, correcting every deviation from the script.” The purpose, she said, was an attempt “at curing the apparent sunshine law violations.”

“It is not in fact cured,” Lynch-Walsh later told the school board at its June 23 meeting. “There was no full re-examination of the issues, but appeared to be committee members just copying their scores from whatever they did in private…”

Tracy Clark, the school district’s public information officer, confirmed in an email to FloridaBulldog.org that the follow-up meeting was intended to repair any potential illegality.

“The allegation of a sunshine violation was taken very seriously; additional meetings were held to cure any potential sunshine law concerns,” said Clark, noting the meetings were public and broadcast on the district’s website.

BOARD EXPECTED TO APPROVE CONTRACTS THIS MONTH

Whoever Superintendent Robert Runcie decides should get the three contracts, school officials must negotiate details and costs of the contracts before they are presented to the school board for approval. School Board member Nora Rupert said during an interview that the board expects to approve the contracts on July 28.

A district selection committee recommended last December that the entire job of managing the capital projects go to one company – Jacobs Project Management. The school board threw out the selection after FloridaBulldog.org reported last March that Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to the superintendent who recently retired, claimed that Derek Messier, the district’s chief facilities officer, had rigged the bidding behind closed doors to give the work to Jacobs. Marchetti also claimed Jacobs executives violated the district’s Cone of Silence policy regarding improper contact with school officials.

Jacobs did not rebid for the three contracts. Jacobs is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group of Pasadena, California.

After rejecting Jacobs’ selection for violating the Cone of Silence policy, the school board decided on March 17 to use three companies instead of one to mitigate risk and to add additional controls.

With Skanska being ranked number one to be both an owners representative and to handle cost and control services, Lynch-Walsh asked Messier in an email, “Would you please clarify how having the same firm for both owners rep and cost and program controls fulfills the checks and balances…”

Messier replied in a June 18 email, saying he could not discuss the issue citing the district’s Cone of Silence policy that prevents active bidders or their representatives from contacting certain school officials.

Lynch-Walsh shot back in an email claiming the Cone of Silence does not apply to her since she is neither a bidder nor a lobbyist. “You appear to be using the cone of silence as the 5th Amendment.” Messier did not reply to that email.

“If the intent of splitting (the work)…is to provide for better oversight, I don’t see having two (of the contracts) be awarded to one company,” Board member Rupert said during an interview. “The end result is the same as having one (contract).”

But after Lynch-Walsh raised questions at a school board meeting about awarding both of those contracts to Skanska, school officials posted another document online that said the committee’s recommendation to award that third contract was postponed until July 15.

The controversy over who will be hired to oversee the massive bond issue construction program led to testy words at last week’s school board hearing.

Lynch-Walsh accused the board of failing to follow policy governing the selection of companies. “What we expect from the board is very simple,” she said. “You don’t have to storm a beach in Normandy. You simply need to be aware of state statutes and your own board policies.”

Retired public middle school principal Rebecca Dahl echoed Lynch-Walsh. “When it goes to (a future) grand jury, there is plenty of evidence to show we are not following the rules,” she said, adding that the bond construction projects were behind schedule.

The school board and Superintendent Robert Runcie sat in stony silence after Lynch-Walsh spoke. But after Dahl’s comment about a grand jury drew some applause from the audience, Runcie defended his administration.

“There is a process you have to go through to…secure the funds for the bond,” he said. “The election doesn’t happen and the next day you have funding for the bond. That’s not how it works, that’s not how it’s ever been communicated.”

Runcie said he expected bond-financed construction to begin sometime this summer or this fall.

Florida gives $3.8 million to Lauren’s Kids charity after questionable poll on sex abuse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and Lauren Book at an April rally in Tallahassee  for Lauren's Kids charity

Gov. Rick Scott and Lauren Book at an April rally in Tallahassee for Lauren’s Kids charity

On June 4, Lauren’s Kids, released the results of an Internet poll it commissioned that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children.

The survey’s results came in just as legislators reconvened for a special session to decide the 2015-2016 budget, which included a $3.8 million grant for the Aventura-based charity that specializes in child sex abuse prevention education.

Founded by Lauren Book, the daughter of prominent Tallahassee lobbyist Ronald Book, Lauren’s Kids got the funding, even escaping Gov. Rick Scott’s dreaded veto axe. But the trustworthiness of the online survey – a method national polling experts warn often results in unreliable, inaccurate public opinion data – can’t be verified.

Sachs Media Group, the Tallahassee public relations firm that was paid an undisclosed sum by Lauren’s Kids to conduct the poll, declined to provide detailed information about how individuals were selected to participate in the invitation-only survey. A Sachs senior executive also would not say how many people received invitations, and cited privacy considerations in declining to provide a list of the 1,033 participating Florida adults and their responses.

“We use industry standard balancing and targeting techniques to ensure randomness [of the participants],” said Karen Cyphers, Sachs Media Vice-President for Research and Policy. “The survey was fully online, no person-to-person interviews were conducted. Of those who clicked on the initial invitation to participate, the completion rate was just over 75 percent.”

Cyphers did provide FloridaBulldog.org with the list of poll questions that led to some of the alarming conclusions in the Lauren’s Kids survey.

For instance, the first question asked, “Were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” According to the document provided by Cyphers, 21 percent responded “yes.”

The participants who answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” were then shown a list of acts that constitute child sexual abuse that included being forced to expose themselves to grown-ups and being forced to watch adults have sex, Cyphers explained.

They were then asked, “After seeing a list of what constitutes child sexual abuse, were you sexually abused prior to age 18?” Nine percent of those who had answered “no,” “not sure,” or “don’t want to say” changed their answer to “yes,” according to the poll questions document.

QUESTIONS ABOUT SURVEY ACCURACY

Russell Renka, a retired political science professor at Southeastern Missouri University who wrote a 2010 research paper on what makes a good and bad poll, told FloridaBulldog.org the Lauren’s Kids survey is an advocacy poll being used to promote a specific viewpoint, which raises questions about accuracy.

Renka said professional pollsters, like the Pew Research Center, regularly publish backup data with survey results so that observers can independently evaluate the information. He noted Lauren’s Kids has only posted on its website selected highlights of the poll instead of the entire survey with the full set of questions and a full explanation of the methodology.

“You are counting on them to assure that the results are accurate,” Renka said. “That is a slippery slope.”

Click here to see the Research Methodology sheet provided by Sachs Media and its unit, Breakthrough Research, for the Lauren’s Kids survey.

Heather Gray, executive director of Lauren’s Kids, defended the nonprofit’s poll, saying Internet surveys have overtaken telephone methods in reaching a diverse, representative sample of respondents while producing reliably comparable results.

“Internet surveys reduce interviewer bias, enabling respondents to share personal or undesirable opinions without fear of judgment by another person,” Gray said. “This is important, particularly for a topic as sensitive as this one.”

However, even some of the nation’s most respected numbers crunchers caution about the use of Internet-based surveys.

In an early June post on his blog FiveThirtyEight, stats wunderkind Nate Silver said web polls are a big part of gauging public opinion, but that some pollsters are abandoning scientific principles when conducting them.

“It’s fundamentally challenging to ‘ping’ a random voter on the Internet in the same way that you might by giving her an unsolicited call on her phone,” Silver writes. “Many pollsters that do Internet surveys eschew the concept of the random sample, instead recruiting panels that they claim are representative of the population.”

Silver points out that online surveys grossly miscalculated the results in last year’s mid-term elections, Israel’s general election in March, and the Parliament elections in the United Kingdom last month.

“The foundation of opinion research has historically been the ability to draw a random sample of the population,” Silver writes. “That’s become much harder to do.”

Cliff Zukin, a former president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, wrote in the June 20 New York Times Sunday Review that there are major problems with Internet polls.

PROBLEMS WITH INTERNET POLLS

“First is what pollsters call ‘coverage error,’” Zukin wrote. “Not everybody is reachable online.”

A professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Zukin asserts that statisticians have not figured out how to draw a representative sample of Internet users.

“Almost all online election polling is done with nonprobability samples,” Zukin opines. “These are largely unproven methodologically…It is impossible to calculate a margin of error on such surveys.”

Also problematic are the conflicting interests involved when a company that conducts the survey, in this case Sachs Media, is paid to do so by another company with an interest in the outcome.

Cyphers insisted Sach’s Internet polls are scientifically sound. For the Lauren’s Kids poll, she said invitations were randomly sent to people who were identified as living in Florida. Those who responded that they resided out-of-state were dropped from the results.

Between 2011 and 2013, Lauren’s Kids paid Sachs a total of $1.6 million for producing webinars, program materials such as brochures, palm cards and a mobile app, and a 30-minute TV program that was aired on network affiliate television stations throughout Florida, among other media services.

The poll results came out at a crucial time for Lauren’s Kids, which has received nearly $7 million in state appropriations in previous years used to fund the non-profit’s programs that train kids, teachers, and child caretakers at the Pre-K to third grade level to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and report it to authorities.

With the $3.8 million Lauren’s Kids will receive this year, it plans to expand its curriculum at the fourth grade to high school level. During the teleconference with reporters on June 4, Lauren Book, who was sexually abused when she was a teen, said the Internet poll proved the reasons why her programs must continue.

“Clearly sexual abuse can happen in any family,” Book said, adding the poll “shines a light on how much work we have to do to report sexual abuse and to recognize the signs of sexual abuse.”

The appropriation for Lauren’s Kids was tucked in a $23.8 million pot for “school and instructional enhancements” that emerged unscathed when the governor finalized the budget earlier this week. Scott obliterated funding for 24 other special interest projects on the list, including $100,000 for youth summer job programs and $30,000 for a financial literacy pilot program in Broward County.

Gray said Lauren’s Kids was not given preferential treatment.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sits on the appropriations committee, sponsored funding for Lauren’s Kids. Fresen did not respond to a request for comment, but Gray said he was required to submit the non-profit’s request before the entire committee for evaluation.

Gray said Lauren’s Kids was also vetted before the state senate appropriations committee.

“Chairman Don Gaetz [a Republican] and Vice Chairman Bill Montford [a Democrat] sent a joint letter to all organizations in the state budget who received funding in fiscal year 2014-15 and asked them to submit information for evaluation for fiscal year 2015-16,” Gray said. “We complied with the request and are pleased to have received bipartisan support from the committee upon completion of the submission and evaluation process.”

South Florida winning war against saltwater intrusion, but it’s not cheap

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org 

An illustration of saltwater intrusion. Courtesy: floridaswater.com

An illustration of saltwater intrusion. Courtesy: floridaswater.com

Saltwater intrusion leading to contaminated drinking water wells has long been feared in South Florida. But, billions spent on measures to protect our water supply — mostly paid for by utilities and their customers — have paid off so far.

The invisible underground barrier separating salt and fresh water is holding saltwater back to the 1995 boundary or even farther east, scientists say.

“This is a success,” said U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) hydrologist Scott Prinos, who helps monitor saltwater intrusion in Miami-Dade County. “The question is: As we move into the future and with population increases, will these measures continue to be effective?”

The barrier between fresh and saltwater — called the saltwater interface — preserves the pristine water in the 3,000-square mile Biscayne Aquifer that supplies potable water to about 5.8 million residents in South Florida and the Florida Keys.

The struggle to forestall saltwater intrusion began in the 1930s when canals were dredged to drain the Everglades, Prions said. As water levels declined in the spongy aquifer, saltwater that is heavier than fresh water, began to flow inland. Population pressure drought, and higher sea levels all play a part in interface movement. Although the interface is stable, it imperceptibly ebbs and flows seasonally.

Florida receives an average of 54 inches of rainfall per year, much of which seeps into the ground and refills the aquifers. This year’s rainy season officially began May 10 and is expected to be above normal in May and June, then below normal through the remainder of the season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But those predictions can be trashed by a tropical system hitting South Florida, an agency official noted.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), which governs potable water for South Florida, has for years been nudging municipalities to control their water usage by adopting conservation measures, installing reverse osmosis plants that can convert the brackish water from the deep Floridan Aquifer into drinking water and storing water during the rainy season for use in dry periods. Last year, these conservation measures were mandated by state law.

Previously, the carrot at the end of the water district’s stick was a water use permit that allows specific withdrawal amounts from the Biscayne Aquifer for up to 20 years. Now South Florida communities and counties are spending billions of dollars to adopt the latest technology and build new facilities, passing along the cost to residents and businesses in increased fees. For its part, the water district has been upgrading and monitoring water control structures that also retard saltwater intrusion, said Pete Kwiatkowski, a SFWMD hydrologist and manager of the resource evaluation section.

The agency also provides substantial grants to cities, special districts and utilities for these projects. The agency issues a request for proposals, then reviews the projects based on a list of criteria and available funding. The projects must be considered nontraditional such as aquifer storage and recovery, reverse osmosis plants and reclaimed wastewater used for irrigation. Since 1997, the agency has approved $1.4 billion in funding for 488 projects.

Broward County offers cities within its borders grants through its Integrated Water Resource Plan.

PROBLEM AREAS WELL KNOWN

Saltwater intrusion hot spots include wells in Lake Worth, Dania Beach, Lantana, Hallandale Beach and Miami-Dade County, which is much more susceptible to intrusion because of its low elevation. Miami-Dade serves as the water utility for the entire county.

“The cities with saltwater intrusion are pretty well known,” Kwiatkowski said. “Saltwater intrusion is not creeping up on us and there are no big surprises.”

One area of concern has been Lake Worth where the saltwater interface moved west because the city was pulling more and more water from the Biscayne Aquifer.

“As part of our 20-year permit with South Florida Water Management District, we had to build three additional wells farther west and abandon five older wells east of I-95,” said Larry Johnson, director of the Lake Worth water utility.

The city also agreed to build a reverse osmosis plant and draw water from the Floridan Aquifer to reduce its reliance on the Biscayne Aquifer.

“We now take half of our water from the Floridan Aquifer,” he said. “Having two sources of water gives us a long-term, sustainable solution. Recent reports indicate that we are controlling the saltwater and the boundary is stable.”

The Floridan Aquifer covers much of the southeast U.S., including Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and is one of the most productive aquifers in the world, according to the U.S. Geological Service. In South Florida, however, the aquifer lies 3,000 feet below the surface and is filled with brackish water.

The Biscayne Aquifer sits above the Floridan Aquifer, just below the surface in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Its water is much purer and needs less treatment that water in the Floridan Aquifer.

The cost of the new wells, plants and infrastructure came to more than $30 million. Several million dollars was financed through a state low-interest revolving fund and some of that will be forgiven, Johnson said. Otherwise, the city self-funded the capital project and increased rates to users.

“We raised our [water] rates beginning in 2010 in phases over a period of years,” he said. “Residents are pretty accepting of the rate increases and we worked to keep them at reasonable levels, as compared to surrounding communities.”

Miami-Dade County, which provides potable water to 2.6 million residents, businesses and visitors, launched a capital improvement program for water and wastewater projects two years ago.

The $4.1 billion potable water plan includes replacing a 100-year-old reverse osmosis plant in Hialeah that the county co-owns with the city of Hialeah, building another reverse osmosis plant in the southern part of the county that will draw water from the Floridan Aquifer and shutting down five small well fields, according to Doug Yoder, deputy director of operations for the Miami-Dade County Sewer and Water Utility.

“Those well fields were built in the 1920s, 1950s and 1960s,” he said.

The projects were mandated by the county’s water use permit, approved in 2012.

“We are funding these projects through the state revolving loan fund that we pay back,” he said. “That’s our only source of revenue outside of our own funding.”

The county as well as other counties and cities do receive grants from the South Florida Water Management District for water conservation activities that encourage people to use less water and gives rebates for fixtures that are low flow, such as toilets and shower heads, he added. Miami-Dade County receives about $25,000 per year for these efforts.

Customers are covering the project costs through a 6 percent rate increase put into effect last year and another 6 percent increase recommended for this year’s budget. “We have had few if any complaints about the increase,” Yoder said.

Yoder said the county might apply for a grant from the SFWMD for its reverse osmosis plant when it is to be built.

Sometimes changes made by a water utility can come at little or no cost as was the case with Lantana, said Jerry Darr, director of the city’s water utility.

“South Florida Water Management District noticed that our salinity was increasing and suggested we shift our water draws to wells farther west,” he said. “The eastern wells are still operating, but we just use them less so we don’t lose them.”

The cost to the city and customers was negligible, he said.

WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?

Much has been said about the effects of climate change and what it may mean for South Florida’s potable water supply.

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

Eric Draper, executive director Audubon of Florida

“It’s too early to declare a victory over saltwater intrusion,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, which supports and stresses conservation of natural resources including water. “Saltwater intrusion is also a matter of sea level rise and we don’t know what will happen.”

He said water use projections are fairly flat and water managers have done a good job in instituting conservation measures, especially Cooper City, which won the Audubon’s water conservation award last year.

“As sea levels rise, it puts more pressure to move the saltwater that’s underground. I don’t know if we have studied that yet,” he added.

Barry Heimlich, a retired engineer for the petroleum and pharmacology industries who now devotes time to warning of the impact of saltwater intrusion, is concerned about the Biscayne Aquifer. While he acknowledges that much has been done, more actions could be taken, he said.

“As the sea level rises, saltwater pushes inland like a parabolic curve – the deeper you go the more saltwater there is and it moves inland,” he said. “Some wells have become contaminated and were moved inland and that will probably continue. Even a small amount of sea rise can have a very large effect.”

He worries that rising sea levels will not only submerge coastal cities in saltwater, it could “flow north and contaminate the headwaters of the Biscayne Aquifer,” Lake Okeechobee.

Scientists agree that climate change is a factor, but say efforts are taking place to save the aquifer and, as technology continues to advance, more strategies will come into play.

USGS’s Prinos said South Florida governments are working together to identify areas of concern and come up with proactive solutions.

“We maintain salinity control structures, relocate wells that are very close to the coast farther west and we are using [best] practices with water conservation and some cities are using reclaimed water for irrigation,” he said.

Dorothy Sifuentes, also a hydrologist with the USGS, said some municipalities in South Florida are looking at aquifer storage and recovery as another means to stabilize the aquifer. “Some are considering, discussing and planning the idea of storing water from the rainy season for later use,” she said.

She added that the four South Florida counties have banded together in a coalition that is concerned about water resources as well as climate change.

The Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact was formalized following the 2009 Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit. Elected officials came together to discuss challenges and strategies for responding to the impacts of climate change, according to the agency’s website. The compact outlines ongoing collaborative efforts among the compact counties (Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe) to foster sustainability and climate resilience.

“They are developing a regional approach to this resource,” Sifuentes said.

Prinos added that technology now allows pinpointing where the saltwater interface is and if it is moving east or west. During mapping in 2011, the agency deployed helicopters equipped with electromagnetic technology that can precisely determine where the interface is located. Formerly, the salinity in sentinel wells along either side of the interface was used to determine if saltwater was moving.

“In some cases, we had the front farther west than it really was,” he said.

“As we move into the future, we will continue to be vigilant, watching and considering ways to hold it back.”

Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at ahenson@browardbulldog.org

Connections, conflicts and $600K in deal criticized by Miami-Dade schools auditor

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Doral College executives, State Sen. Anitere Flores, left and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Doral College executives, State Sen. Anitere Flores, left and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Since 2013, a non-accredited college employing two Miami-Dade state legislators as its top executives has collected $600,000 in state charter school funds for offering high school students virtually worthless two-year degrees.

The arrangement has drawn criticism from Miami-Dade Public Schools Chief Auditor Jose Montes de Oca, who questioned charter school spending for Doral College’s dual enrollment program, according to a report presented to members of the school board’s audit committee in mid-March.

“The agreements as approved and executed do not contractually guarantee that the high school will receive any benefit from the college in exchange for its payments of public funds,” Montes de Oca wrote. “We are also concerned about what will be the benefit that…students will receive by attending classes at the college.”

The chief auditor cited possible conflicts of interest involving members of the non-profit boards that run Doral College and oversee two participating charter high schools, Doral Academy and Sommerset Academy in Pembroke Pines.

The college and the two high schools have one thing in common. Each is affiliated with South Miami-based Academica, one of the largest charter school management companies in the nation. Academica runs 49 schools in Miami-Dade County, and dozens more in south Florida, California, Nevada, Texas, Utah and Washington D.C.

DO STUDENTS BENEFIT?

“We continue to be concerned that Doral Academy Charter High School’s governing board lacks independence from Academica, its for-profit management company,” Montes de Oca wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to school representatives and an Academica executive. “We also remain concerned as to whether these expenditures of the high school are driven more for the benefit of the college, rather than to maximize the best interests of the high school students.”

The auditor noted that Luis Fusté, vice-chairman of Doral Academy, and Andreina Figueroa, chairwoman of Sommerset Academy, served on the board of Doral College when agreements with the charter schools were approved for this school year and last year.

The principals for Sommerset and another Academica operated charter school also sit on the board of Doral Academy.

Academica representatives declined to comment, instead referring questions to administrators with the college and the charter school.

doralcollegelogoDoral College’s president is State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who served as ex-Gov. Jeb Bush’s education czar. She did not return two phone messages and two emails requesting comment.

However, State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, Doral College’s chief operations officer, defended the deals.

“The auditor is picking at something they don’t like that is perfectly legal,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican. “We strongly feel we are not only preparing [honor] students to get into Ivy League schools, but also providing access to students who may not be interested in going to college.”

Doral Academy Principal Douglas Rodriguez also dismissed the auditor’s conclusions.

“There is nothing inappropriate going on here,” Rodriguez said. “I’m surprised more people aren’t doing what we’re doing.”

Doral College was incorporated in January 2010, featuring a three-person non-profit board of directors that included Academica executive Victor Barroso, Doral Academy chairwoman Angela Ramos, and Sommerset principal Kim Guilarte-Gil. By September 2010, Barroso was no longer on the board. Ramos and Guilarte-Gil stepped down two years later.

Montes de Oca began raising concerns about Doral College’s reliance on charter school funds in December 2013 after reviewing Doral Academy’s annual financial statement.

Auditors flagged $400,000 in state funds the charter school provided to Doral College for start-up costs in 2012. Montes de Oca claimed Doral Academy’s board did not vote to approve the arrangement until four months after auditors started asking questions about the deal. Montes de Oca also told the School Board the deal “lacked transparency.”

In addition, the auditor questioned a lease agreement between Doral Academy and its landlord, School Development LLC, a company owned by Ignacio Zulueta, who along with his brother Fernando, also owns Academica. Their sister is Academica vice president Magdalena Fresen, wife of State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The lease agreement had a provision to allow School Development to terminate Doral Academy’s lease early without requiring the landlord to repay $4.5 million in charter school funds that were used to construct new facilities on the nearly three acre campus, including the building that houses Doral College. After the auditor called attention to it, School Development eliminated the early termination clause.

The Zulueta siblings are major contributors to Republican candidates. Last year, the two brothers and their sister each gave the maximum $2,600 donation to the successful congressional campaign of Carlos Curbelo, then a Miami-Dade School Board member.

In 2010, the Zuluetas bundled $2,000 for Flores’ senate campaign and this year have given another $1,500 in support of her reelection.

DORAL COLLEGE HIRES SEN. FLORES

Doral College’s board hired Sen. Flores as president on April 15, 2011 while she was championing a successful bill to create online virtual charter schools. Since that law went into effect, Academica has launched a virtual education division that includes 19 of its charter schools.

In 2012, Flores also supported a failed bill that would have allowed school districts to convert underperforming schools into charter ones.

Flores is currently paid $150,000 a year by Doral College, according to her 2014 public financial disclosure form.

In 2013, Doral College hired Rep. Diaz as chief operations officer post at a salary of $76,250 a year. He has also been a vociferous charter school advocate. Last year, Diaz sponsored a bill that would have severely limited school districts’ control over privately managed charter schools. The bill died on May 2, 2014.

Diaz, a former Miami-Dade Public Schools teacher, coach, and school site administrator for 20 years, denied that his job at Doral College is tied to his support of charter school legislation that would ultimately benefit Academica.

“I don’t see any conflicts,” he said. “All these pieces of legislation are broad and affects everyone in the charter school industry.”

This session, Rep. Fresen, whose wife is an Academica executive, has pushed a controversial proposal that could force school districts to share millions of dollars in construction funds with competing charter schools.

During a tour of Doral College’s building at the Doral Academy campus with this reporter, Principal Rodriguez insisted his high school students in the dual enrollment program are getting a bona fide college experience.

“For instance, there’s a bioethics team that has participated in a national ethics bowl against schools like Florida State University and Clemson University,” Rodriguez said. “In the last three years, the team has only lost one match.”

Two Doral Academy seniors, Juan Infante and Miranda Murrillo, praised the dual enrollment program. “Even though I can’t use Doral College’s credits, I believe the courses gave me a big advantage with college admissions officers,” said Infante, who has been accepted to Harvard University. “It put me ahead of the curve.”

DORAL COLLEGE NOT ACCREDITED

Doral College’s current enrollment is 793 students, all hailing from 11 charter schools in Miami-Dade that are managed by Academica. Last year, 18 graduating high school seniors obtained associate liberal arts degrees from Doral College, Rodriguez said.

The problem is that those associate degrees don’t mean much because Doral College is not an accredited institution of higher learning.

The college is currently seeking accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Rodriguez said. He called auditor Montes de Oca’s concerns “a non-issue.”

Rodriguez also downplayed questions of conflict of interest. He said Academica’s owners exert no control over the boards of the 49 charter schools that rely on the management company.

But higher education and ethics experts called the relationship between the charter schools and Doral College highly unusual.

“I have not seen anything like this around the country,” said Adam Lowe, executive director for the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships. “I’ve never seen a college created for the exclusive purpose of crafting courses for high school students.”

Lowe said the inability of students to transfer credits from Doral College is a problem. “You have to wonder if the students will receive a valuable collegiate education,” Lowe said.

Robert Jarvis, an ethics law professor at Nova Southeastern University, questioned why the charter schools would need Doral College when there are accredited universities and colleges in the tri-county area.

“It certainly raises eyebrows,” Jarvis said. “It’s not like the Doral area is hurting for institutions of higher learning.”

Francisco Alvarado can be reached at falvarado@browardbulldog.org

Is Broward terrorist figure Adnan Shukrijumah dead? FBI can’t confirm it

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org shukposter

Six months after former Broward resident and suspected al Qaeda leader Adnan El Shukrijumah was reported killed by the Pakistan army, the FBI has not confirmed his death and continues to include him on its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Pakistani authorities have said the Saudi-born Shukrijumah was killed Dec. 6 during a helicopter gunship assault on a military compound in a mountainous region of northwest Pakistan near Afghanistan. His wife and four children were taken into custody, intelligence officials told Reuters.

“The United States government has not yet confirmed the death of El Shukrijumah. He will remain on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists List until the time a confirmation is made,” the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs said in an email statement.

Asked to explain what problems the FBI has encountered in making a positive identification via DNA or other methods, the FBI replied, “The confirmation process is ongoing and, therefore, the FBI will not comment on it.”

Given the right conditions, the U.S. has the capability to make a rapid DNA identification.

A remote border town pinpointed on this map is where the Pakistani Army said it killed Adnan Shukrijumah six months ago.

A remote border town pinpointed on this map is where the Pakistani Army said it killed Adnan Shukrijumah six months ago.

The Washington Post, citing “black budget” documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, reported in August 2013 that within eight hours of Osama bin Laden’s death in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals the Defense Intelligence Agency had analyzed DNA from bin Laden’s corpse and “provided a conclusive match” confirming his identity.

In April, CNN and other news outlets reported the FBI’s announcement that it had used DNA testing to confirm the death of another of its most wanted terrorists, Zulkifli bin Hir, a Malaysian bomb maker known as Marwan. Marwan, believed to be a senior member of the southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, was killed Jan. 25 in a disastrous raid and 11-hour shootout with Philippines National Police that left 44 officers dead.

DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid, carries a person’s unique genetic information. Since, 1998, the FBI has operated the National DNA Index System, said to be the largest repository of known offender DNA records in the world.

DNA profiles are built from blood samples or skin cells found on items such as drinking glasses, chewing gum, envelopes and guns. The FBI uses its Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) software program to manage its database.

Authorities have described Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident who grew up in the U.S. and attended Broward College, as al Qaeda’s chief of global operations. At the time of his reported death, he was a fugitive from a 2010 indictment in New York for his alleged role in plots to attack New York’s subway system and London’s Underground. The charges included conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

Shukrijumah, 39, had a $5 million bounty on his head at the time of his reported death. On April 19, the Voice of America posted a U.S. government “international public service announcement” reiterating the reward for information leading to Shukrijumah’s arrest.

Screenshot of video offering U.S. reward for information leading to capture of Adnan El Shukrijumah, posted by the Voice of America on April 15.

Screenshot of video offering U.S. reward for information leading to capture of Adnan El Shukrijumah, posted by the Voice of America on April 15.

Shukrijumah was also a key figure in the FBI’s once-secret Sarasota investigation of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, a Saudi couple who moved abruptly out of their home about two weeks before the 9/11 attacks. Agents later found evidence that Shukrijumah and several 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, had visited the al-Hijji’s upscale home in the gated community of Prestancia.

Anoud al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a member of the Saudi royal family, owned the home.

The FBI never disclosed the existence of its Sarasota investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

FBI officials acknowledged the investigation in September 2011 after FloridaBulldog.org, working with Irish journalist Anthony Summers, reported it. They also denied finding any connection to 9/11, but declined to explain that assertion.

FBI records later made public amid a Freedom of Information lawsuit by Broward Bulldog, Inc., operator of FloridaBulldog.org, contradicted that denial. For example, an FBI report dated April 16, 2002, said investigators determined that the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections to individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

The FBI sought, without explanation, to disavow that report earlier this year, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the report was “poorly written and wholly unsubstantiated.”

“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 9/11 Commission’s report says.

The agent was not identified and the FBI has refused to name him.

Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is presiding over the FOIA lawsuit and is currently reviewing for possible public release more than 80,000 pages of classified 9/11 records from the FBI’s Tampa Field Office that he ordered produced for his inspection last spring.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents the news organization, has asked Zloch to require the FBI to identify the agent and allow him to be questioned about the document he authored.

 

 

Eyewitness: Hollywood cops tasered man in handcuffs and leg shackles

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Daniel Tyson

Daniel Tyson

A neighbor who watched Daniel Tyson die last October during a confrontation with Hollywood police says officers twice shocked Tyson with a Taser after he was restrained facedown on the ground in handcuffs and leg shackles.

Eyewitness Leonarda Moore provided her detailed account in a sworn statement provided to a lawyer for Tyson’s family. In an interview, Moore said she declined to speak with city detectives who sought to question her that day because she was upset and she didn’t trust them.

“I was angry. The guy (Tyson) had an issue, but the extent of what they did was uncalled for and unjustified,” Moore said in an interview. “I understand that police officers put their lives on the line every day, but in this instance he was hogtied and handcuffed. What more do you want?”

A Hollywood Fire Rescue incident report obtained by FloridaBulldog.org says arriving EMS crew members found Tyson “with two barbs in upper back from PD Taser.” A Taser fires two small barbs that when deployed properly transmit a painful, incapacitating electrical jolt.

The Taser shots Moore witnessed were apparently the second and third fired by police at Tyson, who according to his mother was a mentally disturbed man with no criminal history. Minutes earlier, the first officer to arrive on the scene stunned an out-of-control Tyson with his Taser as he charged the officer brandishing a black sundial he’d grabbed off a wall.

Police have said Tyson hit Officer Alex Ramirez on the head, sending him to Memorial Regional Hospital where doctors needed 13 staples to close the gash.

Hollywood Police would not comment for this story. Coral Gables attorney Gary Friedman, who represents Tyson’s estate, said police also have told the family nothing.

“Zero, a total lockout. Stonewall,” Friedman said.

Police had no right to shoot Tyson with a Taser after he had been restrained, Friedman said.

“Clearly, the officers didn’t need to do that. Why they did it will hopefully be part of the investigation unless it gets totally whitewashed,” Friedman said.

AUTOPSY WITHHELD FROM FAMILY

The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office completed an autopsy on Tyson months ago, but as in a similar case involving another Taser-related death by police in Coconut Creek, refused to make it public – or release it to the dead man’s family – citing a “hold” by the police.

“It’s been awful,” said Tyson’s mother, Jean Suarez. “The fact that I haven’t even been able to know the cause of death has been horrible.”

Suarez, of Miami, said the medical examiner’s office also refused to allow her to see her son’s body while it was at the morgue. “They said we don’t do that here,” she said.

Tyson, who stood 5’8” tall and weighed about 175 pounds, was a 2001 graduate of Miami’s New World School of the Arts. His mother said he was a vocalist voted most likely to succeed.

Instead, after obtaining an associate’s degree from Broward College, Tyson developed chronic mental problems. Attorney Friedman said the diagnosis was schizophrenic affective disorder with bipolar tendencies, plus an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Suarez said the condition left her son disabled.

Tyson only recently had moved into the small apartment complex at 1836 Jackson Street at the time of his death.

According to Moore’s statement, Tyson was agitated the afternoon of Oct. 27, arguing with and yelling at a woman who had come to see him at his apartment. A few minutes later, Tyson appeared on his balcony naked.

“He was talking to the wall and to the air. He wasn’t talking to the lady. Then he was talking to a tree by his balcony,” Moore wrote. She called the landlord who called a police nonemergency number.

A WITNESS’S ACCOUNT

Five or 10 minutes later Moore saw an officer in the backyard. She made contact and explained the situation. Tyson again came out onto his balcony, this time with a robe on, “but the front was wide open and he was still naked,” the statement says. Moore went back inside her home and watched from the window.

The officer warned Tyson that he couldn’t be outside like that. Tyson then took his robe off, grabbed the sundial and came quickly down the stairs.

“Stop or I’m going to tase you,” the officer said. Instead, Tyson charged, holding the sundial “raised to about his shoulder level,” the statement says.

The officer fired, striking Tyson, who screamed but kept coming. The officer “hip-flipped Danny to the ground. I never saw Danny hit the officer and I never saw the black sundial strike the officer,” Moore wrote.

About a minute later, a second officer arrived and both struggled with Tyson, who was on his stomach. More officers soon arrived and the first officer left the area with a bleeding head. “Danny was screaming and yelling,” the statement says.

“I noticed that Danny had handcuffs on and leg shackles on. There were about 5 or 6 officers and I could hear them saying, ‘Stop fucking moving or we’re gonna tase you.’ One officer had a Taser pressed against the area below Danny’s left calf. I saw another officer stomp on Danny’s right hamstring.”

“There was more yelling by the police officers and then I heard the sound of the Taser (clicking noise),” the statement says. “At that point, seeing that Danny was restrained and thinking that he was not a threat to himself or others, I attempted to talk to one of the police officers that was looking on that there was a friend at Danny’s house that could maybe tell him what medication he needs or what is happening. He yelled at me to get back inside.”

Moore continued to watch. “More officers arrived. More yelling was going on. I heard a Taser go off again. The officers were still struggling with him even though Danny was still facedown and restrained at the wrist and ankles with officers still on him.”

Moore could see the muscles contracting in Tyson’s outstretched legs. “About 2-3 minutes later I heard no more yelling or screaming. I saw them turn Danny’s body over. His body was limp and one of the officers removed the leg shackles.”

With 15 to 20 people now in the yard, a police officer tried to revive Tyson with cardiopulmonary resuscitation before paramedics arrived. Moore later watched as they put Tyson’s lifeless body on a gurney and took him away.

Attorney Friedman said a lawsuit would soon be filed with a bill of particulars seeking disclosure of the complete autopsy and reports about the homicide investigation.

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