Hallandale freezes payments for city development, jobs programs citing waste & fraud

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton has ordered what could be a multi-million dollar freeze on all payments under two city jobs and business development programs, saying they “have lost their way.”

Carlton acted about what he said was “waste” and possible fraud weeks before a report by county investigators became public last week that accused City Commissioner Anthony Sanders of failing to disclose payments he received from a local community group awarded city funds, including money under the two programs, with his backing.

In a June 5 memorandum obtained by Florida Bulldog, Carlton, who was appointed city manager by a new reform-minded city commission majority, expressed outrage about the flawed city programs and public apathy about them.

“I am angry about this situation,” Carlton wrote. “… It is extremely disappointing that there is no outrage in the community about these programs. No demands for reform have been publicly made to date. No complaints regarding the fact that public funds, which should have been utilized effectively to build capacity of local contractors, or help individuals find work can be found.”

In a preliminary July 7 report, the Broward Inspector General’s office said Commissioner Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him, other family members and his church, Higher Vision Ministries, by a jobs development group, Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) during a three-year period. Sanders voted to give PCAC three grants and backed seven funding agreements under the Community Benefit Program (CBP), resulting in the PCAC receiving a total of $893,320 from 2013 through 2015, according to the report.

Carlton’s directive was aimed at the CBP and the Hallandale Opportunity Project (HOP), the city’s administrative arm created to monitor job development, including placement and training, and the purchase and use of local subcontractors and residents, by firms that won contracts. Those gaining contracts under the program pledged a percentage of the contract to hire residents and subcontractors and/or earmark funds to train and create jobs for residents.

“It’s not a pretty outcome,” Carlton said in a brief interview with the Florida Bulldog, adding “millions of dollars” are at stake. The city manager also said the city will “recover as much as possible” of any misused funds.

“I have directed the Finance Department and the Capital Improvement Division to cease making any payments to consultants, contractors, design/engineering firms and/or individuals under the CBP/HOP program until a complete review … can be completed,” Carlton said in his memo.

Exception to freeze for a handful

“The only exception to this payment freeze,” he wrote, “will be to those individuals and firms who are doing actual physical work or are in a verifiable training program at a job site, and who are qualified participants due to their employment and residency status.”

Jeremy Earle, assistant city manager, has been placed in control of the troubled programs and was directed to reform them. The city’s review of the programs, Carlton’s memo said, “will include an analysis of waste, fraud and abuse.” It added, “Without equivocation, there has been waste. Fraud and abuse will be determined.”

“If necessary,” Carlton stated, “the results of our review will be brought to the appropriate authorities for their determination.”

In his memo, Carlton said the city must retool the programs – not terminate them — and make them effective by using “best practices across the country… We must also eliminate providers that are not contributing to program goals.”

The new controversy surrounding the Hallandale’s CBP is similar in some aspects to that involving the city’s troubled Community Redevelopment Agency, which came under investigation by the Broward Inspector General Office five years ago. The findings: The city’s CRA lacked effective city oversight, agency funds were mixed with city funds, a good deal of spending lacked documentation, and policies changed frequently or were not adhered to. The IG found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures from 2007 to 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and nonprofits.

The IG’s new probe – as reported by Florida Bulldog in June 2016 – was already underway when Carlton took over as city manager on Feb. 6, 2017.  He didn’t like what he found surrounding the CBP and HOP.

“During the past six years, the CBP and the HOP programs have lost their way for a complex variety of reason,” Carlton said in the memo. Successful bidders for city contracts “have contributed to the CBP and HOP at a rate which has grown so rapidly since the recovery of the Great Recession, that there are not enough small contractors of unemployed/underemployed workers in the city of Hallandale Beach to feed into the program.”

The programs ran afoul, he stated, because:

  • Program personnel for both the city and companies awarded contracts were hired often without a competitive process or without demonstrating the ability met the goals of the programs.
  • City monitoring staffers were not given “uniform standards or criteria… to follow” and were not included in negotiations to understand CBP provisions of each contract; and sanctions for failing to comply were less severe than the cost of complying.
  • “City administrators did not demand the excellence and fair-dealing required for the effective use of public funds. That is our fault, and the city administration will resolve these issues going forward.”
  • “The city commission also needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the difficulties in this program. The rumors, confrontations, accusations and innuendos regarding abuses in the CBP/HOP are not new. When my predecessor brought a series of reforms on October 19, 2016, these reforms were approved by the city commission in a 3/2 vote…, but were not made a priority. The turmoil that swirled around city hall at the time, in part, allowed the need to implement the reforms as a priority of the organization to go unmet.”

In its July 7 report, the Broward IG also stated that Commissioner Sanders solicited and received contributions from developments seeking to do business with the city under the CBP program during the period of the investigation.

The IG report revealed some possible payment discrepancies that could receive closer review by the city:

  • PCAC had an agreement to pay $1,000 a month to Higher Vision to transport job trainees to Sheridan Technical College in Hollywood, with payments totaling $31,000. But the report said no services were provided after May 16, 2015. It also said the city provided free bus passes to the trainees to get to the school.
  • The city provided $17,000 from October 2014 to September 2015 for PCAC to send 10 women to Sheridan Technical to receive training as nurse aides. But six of them dropped out.

Report: Hallandale commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in pattern of misconduct”

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anthony Sanders and Jessica Sanders

A preliminary report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office says Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him and other family members by a community group which Sanders voted to give thousands of dollars in city grants and other funding.

The July 7 report obtained by Florida Bulldog also said that Palms Community Action Coalition Inc. (PCAC) made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries, where Sanders is the pastor and the only paid full-time employee. The report adds that Sanders solicited and received contributions for the church from developers seeking to do business with the city.

PCAC is a Hallandale Beach-based nonprofit organization that provides job training and community development services to local residents.

The various payments occurred during a three-year period in which Sanders voted in favor of PCAC, according to the report.  “Commissioner Sanders continued taking a salary from his employer, continued accepting significant payments from PCAC on behalf of his employer, failed to abstain from voting, failed to disclose the voting conflicts to the voting body either verbally or in writing, directly and indirectly solicited developers to give contributions to his employer, and accepted those contributions on behalf of his employer,” the IG report stated.

The report said the Inspector General plans to refer the office’s findings about Sanders to the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Hallandale Beach city commission “for whatever action those entities deem appropriate.”

“We are filing against Commissioner Sanders an ethics complaint charging a violation of the Broward code of ethics to be tried by an administrative hearing officer,” the report said.

If sustained, the allegations would violate provisions of state, county and municipal codes that prohibit elected officials from receiving anything of value to influence their vote, take any action that provides undue benefit to family members and require refraining from voting to avoid conflict and disclosures in such cases.

The report apparently stems from an investigation opened by the IG’s office, as reported by the Florida Bulldog in June 2016, involving the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program requires contributions from private developers vying for city projects over $1 million to help fund recruitment, training and hiring of city residents and purchasing from local vendors.

PCAC partnerships

According to the IG documents, it was Sanders who “initially promoted the idea that local workers should be included in city development.” The city requirements made it difficult for developers to win a city contract without a program partner, which had to be named in bidding documents. The IG said PCAC was frequently designated as “partner” in bid documents.

The Bulldog story said investigators were looking for voting conflicts in their review of city commission and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) minutes. The inquiry came three years after the IG found the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. Sanders was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in the IG probe four years ago, but did not escape criticism in the latest probe.

Sanders did not return calls seeking comment on the Inspector General’s latest assertions.

The new investigation of Hallandale Beach covered a period from January 2013 through December 2015. During that time city commissioners, including Sanders, approved direct grants to PCAC three times and development contracts that included the group as a “benefit plan partner” seven times, according to the report.

The city requires companies seeking contracts above $1 million to set aside funds for things like job training programs.

The 10 grants and development contracts ultimately “benefited PCAC a total of approximately $893,320,” the report said. Funds collected from successful bidders were later transferred to PCAC, amounting to $695,870; the balance came from city grants.

The report outlined the connection between the commissioner and the community group. “The OIG [Office of Inspector General] substantiated that PCAC made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries…, that PCAC employed his [Sanders’] son; and that PCAC also made other consulting and employment payments to the commissioner’s wife and another son.”

Payments to Sanders’s wife

According to the report, PCAC paid Sanders’ wife, Jessica, for consulting and grant writing and paid two of Sanders’ adult sons for part-time employment. Jessica Sanders had been involved with PCAC in 2011. “We found that PCAC directly paid the commissioner’s immediate family a total of approximately $7,588 between January 2013 and December 2015,” the report stated.

In addition, the report said that PCAC made monthly $1,000 payments to Higher Vision Ministries to transport job trainees to classes. But, it added, neither the church nor PCAC documented any rides. The IG said it determined PCAC paid Higher Vision approximately $27,000 for 613 miles of transportation service – or about $44 for “each accountable mile” under the agreement.

“In all,” the report said, “PCAC paid Commissioner Sanders’s employer and immediate family a total of approximately $38,688 during this three-year period.”

“Following one of Commissioner Sanders’s votes in November 2013 for a Hallandale Beach multi-million public workers project that included PCAC as a community benefit plan partner, PCAC paid an extra (that is, over and above $1,000 per month) $2,000 to Higher Vision Ministries with a memo notation of Donation/Pastor’s Appreciation,” the report stated.

In another instance, the report said, “…following city commission approval for direct city funding to PCAC between October and November of the following year [2014], it [PCAC] made extra payments totaling another $2,100 to Higher Vision Ministries.”

“As described in this report,” the IG report stated, “the commissioner was well aware of the nature of these conflicting relationships and their bearing on the propriety of his voting. Yet, Commissioner Sanders admitted that he did not disclose these relationships or payments to the public at any time during the period he voted to benefit PCAC.”

The IG report said investigators “also established that, while they were at city hall for a commission meeting involving one of the development votes, Commissioner Sanders solicited one of the project awardees to make a direct contribution to the Higher Vision Ministries church, who then asked a second developer to do the same. Their companies’ two donations to the church totaled $1,100.”

 

New York boots Armor Correctional; In Florida, Armor boss named to powerful commission

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Dr. Jose Armas, owner and president of Armor Correctional Health Services, right, and Gov. Rick Scott

The company that provides health-care services to thousands of jail inmates across Florida, including Broward and Palm Beach counties, has been kicked out of New York for allegedly “placing inmates’ health in jeopardy.”

Armor Correctional Health Services paid $350,000 in penalties and agreed not to bid on or enter into any contract to provide jail health services in New York state for three years, settling formal charges brought in July 2016 by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The lawsuit was filed after a dozen inmates died since Armor was hired, including five found to have received inadequate medical care, Schneiderman’s office said.

“For-profit jail providers must ensure that appropriate medical care is provided in jails, where many inmates suffer from complex medical needs,” Schneiderman said when the settlement was announced in October. “This settlement sends a clear message that companies who fail to provide the required health services to inmates won’t be tolerated in New York State.” Armor Correctional provided comprehensive medical services to the Nassau County Correctional Center.

Five months later, however, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Armor Correctional founder and president Dr. Jose “Pepe” Armas to a coveted seat on the powerful Constitution Revision Commission that will recommend changes next year to the Florida Constitution.

Armas and companies he controls have contributed nearly $300,000 to Scott’s election campaigns, his Let’s Get to Work political committees and to the Republican Party of Florida.

“Armas is a distinguished physician and healthcare executive whose focus on patient-centered care has defined his career,” Gov. Scott’s office said in announcing his appointment to the commission in March.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

A spokeswoman for Armas at Miami’s EvClay Public Relations sought to downplay Armor Correctional’s New York troubles, saying the company had made a “business decision” to pull out of New York three years before the settlement. Similarly, she described Armas as “solely” an investor in Armor and “not involved in its daily operations.”

Florida corporate records, however, have for years listed Armas as Armor’s president. And the company’s federal income tax returns from 2009 through 2013 state that Armas owned 100 percent of Armor. They also show that in 2012-2013 Armor paid Armas $9.6 million in dividends.

What happened in New York wasn’t the first time an Armas-led company has been in trouble.

In 2013, Armas’s MCCI Group Holdings LLC paid $1.6 million to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act alleging that MCCI had violated the federal Anti-Kickback Statute and the Anti-Inducement Act. MCCI denied the allegations, but also paid another $300,000 in attorney fees to the whistleblower’s attorney.

“MCCI reached a settlement to avoid the delay, inconveniences and expense of litigation,” said Armas spokeswoman Melisa Chantres.

At the time, MCCI owned and operated medical clinics in Miami-Dade and contracted with Humana, which was also named in the qui tam suit, to provide care, including prescription drugs, to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Miami, did not allege any wrongdoing by Armas himself, but contended that MCCI broke the law “by providing to its current and potential Medicare beneficiaries free services and gifts, such as transportation, meals, beauty and salon services, massages and entertainment,” according to the settlement agreement. The illegal activities allegedly took place between 2000 and 2012.

Scott’s Medicare fraud case

Long before Scott became governor in 2011, he was the founder and CEO of health-care titan Columbia/HCA and at the center of a much larger Medicare fraud case. Scott quit Columbia/HCA amid an FBI probe in 1997, and the company he built later paid a record $1.7 billion in criminal and civil fines.

MCCI was named in another South Florida whistleblower case filed by Dr. Mario M. Baez in 2012 and made public last year. Baez accused MCCI, Humana and several Palm Beach County physicians of “upcoding,” a fraudulent billing scheme in which health-care providers charge Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance payers for more expensive services than were performed.

Last month, the U.S. formally intervened in the case to recover damages against only one of those defendants, Dr. Isaac Kojo Anakwah Thompson, and not against MCCI. Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lavine did not explain in court papers why the government declined to intervene against MCCI or Humana. Thompson, Baez’s former partner, was sentenced to 46 months’ imprisonment in July 2016 after pleading guilty to health-care fraud.

Baez could have filed an amended False Claims Act complaint to proceed against MCCI in the name of the United States, but did not do so. MCCI spokeswoman Chantres said the company was never served legal notice of the lawsuit and called Baez “a complete stranger to MCCI.”

Fort Lauderdale attorneys Christina Currie and Greg Lauer

In Broward, Armas’ Armor Correctional, its doctors and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel are defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit in the death of William Herring Jr., 22, a mentally ill inmate who starved to death in December 2012 while allegedly being deprived of treatment.

The lawsuit filed last December by Fort Lauderdale attorneys Greg Lauer and Christina Currie notes that Armor was being paid $25 million a year by the sheriff’s office to provide comprehensive health care to county inmates.

“However instead of holding true to its promise Armor chose to maximize profits. Armor knew that the result of putting profits before patients would be that some inmates with serious medical conditions would not get the care that they were entitled to,” the lawsuit says.

The complaint goes on to identify five other Broward inmates who it says died “slow, horrible and preventable deaths in the same jail” from 2011-2012 because of Armor’s decision to maximize profits. The five are identified as: William Campbell, arrested for DUI; Gary Joseph Smith, arrested for possession of cocaine; Calvin Goldsmith, arrested for trespassing; Raleigh Priester, arrested for throwing a rock at a city employee; Arthur Sacco, arrested for an unspecified misdemeanor.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein’s office represents many inmates under Armor’s care. He said what he’s observed about Armor is disturbing.

“If you have a family member who is in jail and their life depends on Armor for medical treatment, you’re in trouble,” Finkelstein said. “The name of the game with Armor is to withhold treatment until the inmate is released, sent to prison and it becomes someone else’s treatment, or dies.”

Chantres said Armor does not comment on pending legal matters, but noted the company “strives to deliver excellent patient care daily.”

Miami judge rules out FOIA trial, says FBI document on 9/11 funding to remain secret

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga. Photo: Federal Bar Association, South Florida Chapter

Secret FBI information about who funded the 9/11 attacks will remain hidden indefinitely after a Miami federal judge reversed herself last week and decided that the FBI was not improperly withholding it from the public.

At the same time, Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled out holding a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) trial to evaluate the need for such continued secrecy nearly 16 years after the 9/11 attacks. A trial would likely have included testimony from government witnesses in support of continued secrecy as well as others like Bob Graham, the former Florida senator who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11 and believes the FBI documents should be made public.

“The court sees no need for further facts to be elicited at trial,” Altonaga wrote in her seven-page order granting the FBI’s request to keep secret large portions of an FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI had argued the information was exempt from public disclosure because it “would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions.”

Altonaga’s decision reversed her May 16 order that the 60-page document – referred to in court papers as “Document 22” – that was shown to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014, should be largely opened for public inspection. The commission is also known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, Reagan-era attorney general Ed Meese.

Florida Bulldog attorney Thomas Julin said the judge “should have ordered the FBI to stand trial for its decision to withhold information about its investigation.” He added that an appeal is being considered.

“The order requires the FBI to release information that was illegally redacted. That information will shed light on 9/11, but we did not get everything we wanted,” said Julin. “Much of what we did get confirmed the Bulldog’s reporting about Sarasota has been 100 percent correct and the FBI lied to the public about that. This case may be headed to the Supreme Court.”

Graham disappointed by ruling

Sen. Graham was disappointed by the judge’s ruling. He said the FBI’s 9/11 overview likely contains “important information relating to the funding of 9/11 and presumably the role of Saudi Arabia in doing so. Knowledge of these facts could change public opinion and governmental actions as to the liability of the Saudis as allies and the wisdom of us supplying them with hundreds of billions of dollars of military armaments.”

Bob Graham

Graham said, “The court essentially accepted without detailed substantiation the FBI’s assertions that techniques and procedures would potentially be compromised. I believe a trial was needed at which those unsubstantiated statements would be challenged with questions such as, ‘Over the 16 years since the events of 9/11 occurred have these techniques and procedures which proved to be so ineffective in preventing 9/11 been continued?’”

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported in September 2011 about a secret FBI investigation into a Saudi family living in Sarasota who abruptly departed their home in an upscale, gated community about two weeks before the 9/11 attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and food in the refrigerator. A senior counterterrorism agent said authorities later found phone records and gatehouse security records that linked the home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji to 9/11 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta.

The FBI kept its Sarasota investigation secret for a decade. Former Sen. Graham has said the FBI did not disclose it to either the Joint Inquiry or the original 9/11 Commission.

An April 2002 FBI report released by the FBI during the litigation confirmed that account, saying agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI has since sought to discredit that report, saying the unnamed agent who wrote it had no basis for doing so.

The lawsuit forced the FBI to review 1,858 pages of records and to release parts of 713 pages. The FBI withheld 1,145 pages.

“The FBI violated FOIA by failing to respond to the Bulldog’s request for the Meese Commission records,” said Julin. “The Bulldog would not have gotten any of the records if it had not filed the lawsuit.”

The FBI PowerPoint pages Judge Altonaga has now ruled should remain under wraps include:

  • Two pages titled “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding”
  • Pages titled: “Early to Mid-2000: Pilots/Intended Pilots Arrive U.S.”; “Investigative Findings” regarding hijacker “Identification” and “Financial. Ample Financing was provided”; “Early to Mid-2001: Non-pilots arrive U.S.”; “July-August 2001: Knife Purchases”; “August 2001: Reserving 9/11 Tickets”
  • Four pages titled “Ongoing Investigation”

Who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks is the central question at issue in complex civil litigation in New York in which 9/11 victims – survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 dead and businesses that suffered property damage – are seeking enormous damages from the oil-rich monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The country has denied any role in funding the September 11 attacks.

Seeking 9/11 Review Commission files

Florida Bulldog, through its corporate parent Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016, seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission, a congressionally authorized body whose duties included reviewing new evidence not considered by Congress or the original 9/11 Commission. The Review Commission, whose members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI, issued its report in March 2015.

The FBI released a heavily redacted copy of its 9/11 Overview in February. The FBI cited national security, privacy and other reasons to withhold much information, including Exemption 7(E) of the Freedom of Information Act, which protects law enforcement “techniques and procedures.”

On May 16, Judge Altonaga ruled that the FBI had “failed to meet its burden in establishing Exemption 7(E) applies to the redacted information” in the 9/11 Overview because “much of it does not discuss any FBI investigative techniques and procedures; instead the material often encompasses facts and information gathered FBI suspects.”

In early June, the FBI asked Altonaga to reconsider her ruling, arguing that while the overview doesn’t “discuss techniques and procedures, the information contained in the document could still reveal” them. For example, the FBI said it had withheld a photograph taken by a security camera because its release “would disclose the location of the security camera,” possibly enabling future terrorists to circumvent detection.

Attorneys for Florida Bulldog countered that security measures have changed “immensely” since 9/11 and the government had not shown that security measures “that supposedly would be revealed would be of any utility to future terrorists.”

Altonaga’s new order doesn’t address that argument, but nevertheless sided with the FBI, saying the redactions are “necessary to prevent disclosure of FBI techniques or procedures.”

Former Sen. Graham said what’s happened, including the FBI’s resistance to disclosing classified information about 9/11 and who was behind it, is evidence that the Freedom of Information Act needs significant reform.

“The most fundamental question now is whether the Freedom of Information Act as currently written and administered is a barrier to Americans’ fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” Graham said.

Judge Altonaga’s order requires the government to draft a proposed final summary judgment order for the court’s consideration by July 11.

 

Lauren’s Kids funnels $3.1 million to politically connected public relations firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Tallahassee’s Sachs Media Group produced this billboard in 2014.

A nonprofit run by Broward State Sen. Lauren Book and lavished with millions of dollars in state handouts by lawmakers paid a Tallahassee public relations firm with considerable political clout $3.1 million between 2012 and 2015.

The payments by Lauren’s Kids to Sachs Media Group accounted for 28 percent of the charity’s $10.8 million in expenses, according to Lauren’s Kids most recent available tax returns. In the same period, the Florida Legislature awarded Lauren’s Kids – which employs Sen. Book as its $135,000-a-year chief executive and counts powerful lobbyist Ron Book, her father, as its chairman – $9.6 million in grants.

The nonprofit’s payouts to Sachs Media for 2016 are not publicly available. A spokeswoman for Lauren’s Kids did not respond to requests to view that information.

Florida Bulldog reported last week that Sen. Book, using a loophole in state conflict-of-interest rules, voted last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids.

Millions of taxpayer dollars flowed through the nonprofit to Sachs Media as it both promoted Lauren’s Kids and cultivated Sen. Book’s public persona as a survivor of child sex abuse. Critics say the domination of Lauren’s Kids by the senator and her lobbyist-father raises concerns that the work Sachs Media does is more about making her look good, not raising awareness about unreported cases of child sex abuse.

“There is nothing wrong with an individual promoting that they have done good work,” said Daniel Borochoff, founder of Chicago-based CharityWatch. “However, it would appear the father can pull some weight to push the organization in a direction that would be beneficial for the daughter. It is more likely for that to happen more so than helping kids.”

If that’s the case, then the Books and Sachs Media are abusing the public’s trust, Borochoff added. “Nonprofit money is supposed to be used for a public benefit and not to enhance the aspirations of the charity’s officers,” Borochoff said. “But sometimes there is an overlap and it can become a side effect for someone running a charity.”

‘Proud of our work’

Sachs Media founder and chief executive Ron Sachs did not return two phone messages seeking response to a list of detailed questions emailed to him on June 12. Instead, Sachs Media president Michelle Ubben provided Florida Bulldog with a written statement noting that the firm is “not currently engaged by Lauren’s Kids.”

“We are particularly proud of our work to help the Lauren’s Kids foundation develop sexual abuse prevention curricula for grades K-12, and to raise awareness of the signs of child abuse and public reporting requirements,” Ubben’s statement read. She referred specific questions about the firm’s work with Lauren’s Kids to the nonprofit’s spokeswoman and former Sachs Media account executive Claire VanSusteren.

Ron Sachs

“We have worked with Sachs in the past to raise awareness about child sexual abuse,” VanSusteren said in an emailed statement. “[Sachs] has, over the course of several years, completed communications work and engaged a variety of subcontractors related to deliverables for state contracts.”

A former news reporter and editor who did stints as spokesman for Florida governors Reubin Askew and Lawton Chiles, Ron Sachs founded his company in 1996, specializing in corporate branding, marketing and crisis management. His early victories included a 1998 campaign to inform voters on amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission and helping repeal an automatic 20 percent phone rate hike tacked onto a bill in 2003.

Six years later, Sachs landed more than $130,000 worth of work from the Associated Industries of Florida, according to a 2011 Florida Trend article. The same year, Sachs Media was retained by an anonymous group of oil and gas producers called Florida Energy Associates to do a campaign promoting the removal of the prohibition on drilling in the state’s offshore waters.

Sachs Media has also counted the Florida Chamber of Commerce among its clients, producing a web-based public affairs program called “The Bottom Line.”  Another program, “Florida Newsmakers,” features one-on-one interviews with top state bureaucrats answering softball questions. According to an online database of state contracts, Sachs Media has also been awarded small and large media jobs by various state agencies.

For instance, the Florida Lottery paid Sachs Media $150,000 in February 2013 for an educational multimedia campaign. A year later, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs paid Sachs Media $3,720 for table throws stamped with the department’s emblem. The Department of Environmental Protection awarded the firm a $316,250 contract in 2014 to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida’s Panhandle.

Sachs media faced criticism

Sachs Media has faced criticism over its business practices in recent years. In 2014, the firm dropped a lawsuit it had filed against the family of a paralyzed Broward County man after a public outcry over Sachs Media’s heavy-handed tactics against its former client, who was left brain damaged by the car of a speeding Broward County sheriff’s deputy. Sachs had claimed Eric Brody’s relatives owed the firm $375,000 for four years of public relations and media outreach services.

A year later, a state audit of a $296,105 Sachs Media contract with the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs found that the agreement did not clearly establish the tasks to be performed by the firm, did not contain documentation requirements, did not sufficiently identify the activities or services to be provided and included three amendments for an additional $135,421.

“In general, the agreement had no scope of work or deliverable issues,” the audit states. “The amendments did not fall within the original scope of work and did not clearly establish the tasks the provider was required to perform.” (Ubben did not comment on the dropping of the lawsuit and on the audit’s findings.)

According to Sachs Media’s website, the firm was retained by Lauren’s Kids in 2007, the year the nonprofit was founded. “Lauren’s Kids engaged our firm to conceptualize and bring to life a breakthrough strategy that would get people aware, educated, and mobilized to prevent this dark, societal secret – child sexual abuse,” a statement on the website reads. “We branded the Lauren’s Kids Foundation and generated extensive, multi-year media coverage – including the cover of Newsweek – around an annual 1,500-mile walk for awareness throughout Florida.”

In addition, Sen. Book and her cause have been featured by Nancy Grace, USA Today, Lisa Ling, Jane Velez-Mitchell and various local media outlets due to Sachs Media’s public relations work, the website states.

Sachs Media was also involved in helping Sen. Book market and promote her autobiography “It’s OK to Tell” and her annual walk from Key West to Tallahassee, as well as producing billboards, public service announcements and a curriculum for grades K-12 about child sex abuse prevention. The curriculum features web-based video lessons starring Sen. Book and reading materials that recount how she was sexually abused by her nanny during her teen years.

In 2015, Sachs Media conducted an online survey for Lauren’s Kids that found more than one-third of female respondents and one-fifth of male respondents had admitted to being sexually abused as children. However, the accuracy of the online survey, which national polling experts dismiss as being unreliable and inaccurate, could not be verified because Sachs Media declined to provide its methodology and backup data to Florida Bulldog.

The payments

Here’s the breakdown of Lauren’s Kids payments to Sachs Media as detailed in the nonprofits tax returns:

  • $670,032 for “public relations.” That accounted or 33 percent of Lauren’s Kids’ $2 million in expenses that year.
  • $957,977 for “program support,” or 63 percent of Lauren’s Kids $1.5 million in expenses.
  • $579,772, or 20 percent of expenses.
  • $966,100 for programming support. Sachs subcontractor, The POD Advertising, was paid $349,800, with both accounting for 28 percent of Lauren’s Kids expenses that year.

The owner of a Miami-based public relations firm who requested anonymity said the amount of money Lauren’s Kids has paid Sachs Media is shocking. “It’s pretty outrageous that a PR firm is billing that much to a nonprofit,” the owner said. “Usually, you are taking on charities on a pro-bono basis or providing them with a significant discount.”

Claire VanSusteren

Sen. Book, a Plantation Democrat, and Ron Book did not respond to requests for comment. However, Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman VanSusteren defended the work performed by Sachs Media, noting the campaigns have taught Floridians the importance of openly discussing child sex crimes.

“We have received countless calls and messages from parents, educators and law enforcement officers sharing stories of children coming forward and disclosing abuse thanks to our curriculum program,” she said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important than protecting childhood. That’s what it’s all about.”

For example, she said, Sachs managed content production and communications related to a Lauren’s Kids public awareness campaign called “Don’t Miss the Signs” developed in partnership with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

She claimed that reports of abuse to the DCF hotline rose by 30 percent during the campaign and that Lauren’s Kids has received positive feedback from numerous teachers and police officers about the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum Sachs Media produced. In her statement to Florida Bulldog, VanSusteren included testimonials from unidentified teachers and guidance counselors.

One was from a self-described educator at James M. Marlowe Elementary School in New Port Richey who said, “I love the fact that it’s simple and easy to implement. I love the fact that there isn’t a lot of prep time needed for the lessons.”

Yet, the testimonial said nothing about the curriculum’s effectiveness in preventing child sex abuse.

Miami-Dade Schools gives fat, multi-year lobbying contract to Trump-connected lobbyist

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Lobbyist Brian Ballard

Seeking an edge in Republican-dominated Washington politics, Miami-Dade public school officials awarded a federal lobbying contract to an influential Florida firm whose chief officer played a significant role in the election of President Donald Trump last fall.

On the recommendation of Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, the Miami-Dade School Board on Wednesday awarded a contract that could pay Ballard Partners up to $540,000 over five years beginning July 1. The initial three-year contract pays up to $324,000 and can be extended for two years and pay up to an additional $216,000.

The firm, which earlier this year opened an office in Washington D.C., will “provide federal legislative consulting services to assist in advocating the Board’s interest before the South Florida Congressional Delegation, federal legislative committees, and the Executive Branch, including the Secretaries of Education, Commerce, Health and Human Services and Justice,” according to the school board’s agenda item on the matter.

Brian D. Ballard, president of the firm, was a key factor in the awarding of the contract, especially with his link to Trump. He has represented Trump on business matters in the state – on and off – for at least 10 years.

Ballard declined to discuss business matters in which he represented Trump. “I don’t talk about my clients’ ” business, he said.

“I think his relationship with the administration is value added,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, MDCPS associate superintendent, Intergovernmental Affairs, Grants Administration and Community Engagement. Her office requested the issuance of proposals for firms interested in representing the school district in Washington.

“You know it’s about relations and who can open doors … and this specific firm outlined expertise,” Mendez-Cartaya said.

Asked about the role his relationship with Trump played in the selection, Ballard said in an earlier interview that he’d leave speculation for others to address. But he added, “I think it can prove to be value added. I think I can work with this administration.”

The Trump connection

Ballard Partners’ website spells out the connection, especially its most recent involvement leading to Trump’s election. “Brian’s political portfolio includes significant roles in presidential campaigns including the historic election of President Donald J. Trump. He was an integral player in the President’s successful Florida campaign serving as Chairman of the Trump Victory and leading the campaign’s finance efforts in Florida.

Brian Ballard is listed as Trump’s Florida Finance Chairman in this campaign fundraiser announcement

“Brian also had the honor of serving as a member of the Electoral College casting his vote for President Trump. The President-elect appointed Brian to serve as Vice Chairman of the Inaugural Committee and as a member of the Presidential Transition Finance Committee.”

Ballard’s other presidential campaigns involved John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 when he chaired the Florida Finance Committee for those two Republican Party nominees.

The selection of Ballard by the Miami-Dade school district marks its reentry into the national political scene with a lobbying firm to represent it. The district has been without a federal lobbying firm for nearly 10 years, having cut the expenditure due past fiscal hardships; district staffers took on the work during that time.

Ballard Partners beat out four other firms for the contract. Ballard Partners has offices around the state, including Tallahassee, Coral Gables, Tampa, Jacksonville, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Speaking of representing the Miami-Dade and its new Washington offices, Ballard said, “It’s exciting for us.” Representing Miami-Dade schools, he said, “can be an important public service.”

“We have a track record of success and expect to be successful,” Ballard said. Aside from ties to Trump, Ballard said many of the Washington legislators served in Tallahassee, adding, “We have a relationship [with them].”

While the company will be a new player, Ballard’s Washington staffers are veterans of Florida and Washington politics. They include Sylvester Lukis, with more than 40 years of experience in representing clients in Florida and Washington; Otto Reich, former ambassador to Venezuela; Susie Wiles, who was a key player in Trump Florida campaign; Dan McFaul, who has been involved in Washington politics for 20 years, including serving as a staffer on Trump’s transition team; and Robert Wexler, who served as a Democratic member of Congress from 1997-2010 and in the Florida Senate for six years.

Using ethics loophole, Sen. Lauren Book votes to give her nonprofit $1.5 million

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Lauren Book’s page on Florida Senate web site.

Broward State Sen. Lauren Book voted “yes” last month to approve a state appropriations bill that included $1.5 million for Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit she founded and leads as its $135,000-a-year chief executive officer.

A gaping loophole in Florida Senate ethics rules allowed Book to cast her vote despite her apparent conflict of interest. The same loophole also meant she didn’t have to disclose her conflict publicly.

Senators are forbidden by ethics rules from voting “on any matter” in which they or an immediate family member would privately gain – except when it comes to votes on the annual General Appropriations Act. Abstaining senators must also disclose the nature of their interest in the matter, according to the 335-page Florida Senate Rules and Manual.

“Legislators are allowed to vote on issues that may benefit their profession,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan watchdog Integrity Florida. “But it becomes questionable when it is a direct appropriation to an entity that a legislator controls and that would directly benefit that legislator.”

Lauren’s Kids, whose chairman is prominent lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father, has in a just few years become one of the Florida Legislature’s most favored private charities. Since 2012, Lauren’s Kids has bagged more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded handouts.

Gov. Rick Scott went along with the latest $1.5 million appropriation for Lauren’s Kids while approving Florida’s $83 billion 2017-18 budget earlier this month.

How that appropriation came to be is a story itself. Lauren’s Kids only asked for $1 million.

Where did extra $500,000 come from?

But more than six weeks after the Florida legislative session ended, nobody is answering questions about how Lauren’s Kids snagged that additional $500,000. Not Sen. Book. Not Ron Book. Not Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who sits on the education appropriations subcommittee and sponsored a funding request for $1 million on the nonprofit’s behalf on Feb. 22. And not Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Kendall, who sponsored the bill in the House. Each did not respond to detailed requests for comment.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee and Rep. Jeannette Nunez sponsored funding requests for Lauren’s Kids in the state Senate and House

Lauren’s Kids spokeswoman Claire VanSusteren, however, provided a written statement on June 12 summarizing how Lauren’s Kids intends to use the funds and defending the organization’s mission to increase reporting of child sexabuse incidents.

“There is no investment greater than in our children’s safety, and research shows that school-based education is an extremely effective vehicle for prevention and early intervention,” the statement read. “Lauren’s Kids is proud to partner with Florida educators to help arm students with knowledge about personal safety and accessing help.”

VanSusteren did not respond to a follow-up list of questions emailed on June 15 that again requested an explanation of how Lauren’s Kids’ funding request got bumped up from $1 million to $1.5 million between April 27 and May 8. That’s when House and Senate members went into conference committees to hash out the final budget bill. Sen. Book was a conferee for the appropriations conference committee on health care and human services. Montford was a conferee on the committee for education.

Wilcox said Sen. Book should be forthcoming about the additional $500,000 Lauren’s Kids received. “At the very least, she should be as transparent as possible on how that funding was decided,” he said. “It already doesn’t look good to the public given it is a dicey relationship for her in the first place as a sitting legislator who is also a recipient of taxpayer dollars.”

Lauren Book, 32, is a freshman legislator from Plantation. She assumed office just seven months ago after running unopposed and has quickly ascended the state’s political ranks. She is the Democratic Leader Pro Tempore and chairwoman of the Senate environmental preservation and conservation committee. She also sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees. Her father’s clients contributed significantly to her campaign and political action committee.

In March, Sen. Book told Florida Bulldog she was advised by Senate counsel “that it is proper that I do not abstain on these matters unless the funding directly inures to my benefit, which it will not.” Sen. Book, who was sexually abused by her nanny in her early teens, said she resigned from the board of directors of the foundation that raises money for Lauren’s Kids and that her salary was restructured to “ensure that no public dollars were used to compensate me for my work.”

At the time, Sen. Book said the Florida Department of Education requested that the Legislature provide $1 million in funding for Lauren’s Kids to continue its “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, a program that teaches students, teachers and parents how to spot signs of child sex abuse and the importance of reporting sex crimes against children.

Lobbyist Ron Book, the senator’s father. Photo from the documentary “Untouchable” by David Feige

The curriculum is made available to children at all grade levels in public and charter schools in all 67 Florida counties, but school districts are not required to teach it. For instance, Indian River County Public Schools and Orange County Public Schools do not use the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum, according to spokespersons for both districts. Miami-Dade Public Schools, the largest school district in the state, uses “Safer, Smarter” at only 80 out of 392 schools, said spokesman John Schuster.

“The curriculum is implemented as classroom guidance lessons facilitated by the school counselor or school social worker,” Schuster said. “The counseling professionals choose the classes where the students will receive the curriculum.”

Data lacking on curriculum results

Schuster said Miami-Dade Public Schools does not track or have any data confirming that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum has resulted in the reporting of child sex-abuse incidents that would otherwise go undetected. “These reports are made directly to the Department of Children and Families and are anonymous,” he said. “We have no access to this reporting information.”

In VanSusteren’s June 12 statement, she defended Lauren’s Kids work by citing an unverified and questionable  2015 poll the organization commissioned that concluded one in three girls and one in five boys will be victims of sexual abuse by the time they graduate 12th grade. By applying those statistics to the overall public schools student population in Florida, there are “at least 540,000 child victims currently enrolled Florida’s K-12 schools,” the statement read.

VanSusteren insisted 95 percent of child sex abuse is preventable through education and awareness, and that the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum works. “Students who receive education about personal safety and accessing help in unsafe situations are three times more likely to speak up if they are being harmed,” VanSusteren said. “The funds allocated to Lauren’s Kids during fiscal year 2017-2018 will be used to continue our work to bring life-saving resources to Florida classrooms – as recommended in the Department of Education budget, as well as the Governor’s budget.”

However, the Florida Department of Education did not make the funding request for the curriculum, said department press secretary Audrey Walden. She explained the Legislature and the governor must first approve the funding and the department then disperses the funds to Lauren’s Kids and other nonprofit groups that get state money. Organizations must apply to the department and provide a breakdown on how the funds will be spent.

In its March 31 application, Lauren’s Kids stated it would spend $800,000 to print and distribute educational materials and maintain two websites associated with the “Safer, Smarter” curriculum; $100,000 to produce a digital conference; and two separate $50,000 expenditures for an evaluation survey, online training modules for teachers and principals and an educational fair.

“Please note that the department does not require schools to use the curriculum referenced,” Walden said. “It is implemented in schools at the discretion of each school district.”

According to an online legislative database used to track the Lauren’s Kids appropriation, Sen. Montford sponsored a $1 million funding request the same day that Kelly Mallette, governmental affairs director for Ronald L. Book P.A., lobbied the subcommittee on behalf of Lauren’s Kids and three other nonprofits the firm represents.

Montford, who is also the chief executive of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has sponsored previous funding requests for Lauren’s Kids. He sits on the appropriations, health policy and rules committees alongside Sen. Book.

According to Montford’s 2016 campaign finance reports, Ron Book, his wife Patricia and his law firm each gave $1,000 to the senator’s re-election effort. Ronald L. Book P.A. also contributed $2,500 in 2014 to a now-defunct political action committee chaired by Montford.

On the House side, the re-election campaign of Rep. Nunez, who sponsored a $1 million funding bill on behalf of Lauren’s Kids, also got $1,000 contributions from Ron Book, his wife and his law firm. Montford and Nunez did not respond to four messages left with their legislative assistants the week of the June 5-9 special session.

FBI asks Miami judge to reconsider, keep secret ‘sensitive details’ about 9/11

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The 9/11 hijackers

The FBI is pushing back against a federal judge’s findings that certain classified details about the funding of the 9/11 attacks and the 19 al Qaeda suicide hijackers should be made public.

Specifically, the government is asking Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to reconsider her May 16 ruling that would largely open for public inspection a 60-page FBI slide show titled “Overview of the 9/11 Investigation.” The FBI showed the overview to the 9/11 Review Commission in secret on April 25, 2014.

The FBI released some of the overview’s pages in full earlier this year, but many more were either partially blanked out or withheld completely for privacy or other reasons. The overview and numerous other FBI records are the focus of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit brought by Florida Bulldog one year ago.

Here’s what an FBI official told the court last week about four blanked-out PowerPoint slides regarding “the transfer of money prior to and funding of the attacks”:

“The release of this information would reveal sensitive details about how much money was being moved around, when it was being moved, how it was being moved, the mode of transfer and locations the FBI had detected movements in. Disclosure of this information would provide a playbook to future subjects on how much money one can move around in certain forms without attracting attention,” FBI record chief David M. Hardy said in his sixth declaration in the case.

Questions about who financed the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of sprawling civil litigation brought against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and others by survivors and relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day. The plaintiffs and their lawyers contend that the kingdom, its official charities and others were responsible. Saudi Arabia has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.

Florida Bulldog’s Miami FOIA case seeks records of the 9/11 Review Commission. The Bulldog also sued the FBI in 2012 in federal court in Fort Lauderdale seeking records about its 2001-2002 Sarasota investigation of a Saudi family who moved abruptly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind cars, clothes, furniture and other personal possessions. The probe was triggered by neighbors’ calls to authorities, but the FBI never disclosed its existence to Congress or the original 9/11 Commission.

Six months after that initial FOIA case was filed, the FBI released a small batch of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and the hijackers. In 2014, the FBI told the 9/11 Review Commission in closed session that the agent who wrote the 2002 report had no basis for doing so, but did not further explain or identify the agent.

Also in 2014, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch ordered the FBI to produce its records about the matter. The FBI turned over all classified records about 9/11 maintained in its Tampa field office — 80,000 pages. The judge continues to review those documents for possible public release.

Trial date sought

Judge Altonaga’s order last month granted in part and denied in part an FBI motion for summary judgment, notably on the lawfulness of the FBI’s redactions of certain information from several records that it has produced. The FBI, however, has not restored any of those redactions, and attorneys for the Bulldog have asked the judge to set a date for trial this summer.

“At trial, the FBI will be required to offer admissible evidence through witnesses – not through inadmissible hearsay by declaration – to attempt to sustain the redactions,” wrote attorney Thomas Julin in a June 2 “Joint Status Report” to the court. “The Bulldog will have the opportunity, in accordance with due process, to cross-examine any FBI witnesses presented.”

The government asked Judge Altonaga to reconsider her prior ruling the same day. The judge has not yet decided whether an FOIA trial is needed, but if one does happen it would be highly unusual.

Hardy, who heads the FBI’s Records/Information Dissemination Section (RIDS), went on in his most recent declaration to discuss other redacted pages in the 9/11 Overview. He said they were withheld to protect FBI “techniques and procedures not well-known to the public as well as non-public details about the use of well-known techniques and procedures.” Hardy’s descriptions shed some light on what’s in those records.

One page, withheld in full, “is a photo taken by a security camera.” The FBI does not identify the photo’s subject, the date it was taken or its general location.

“This was withheld because the release of this picture would disclose the location of the security camera at the site where the photo was taken. The disclosure would allow future subjects to know where to find the security camera so as to avoid the area in which the camera points, thereby circumventing detection or the ability for the FBI and law enforcement to try to obtain an image of the subject.”

Two more pages from the overview section about the FBI’s “ongoing investigation,” also completely withheld, contain “information about a conspirator and his actions taken in preparation for the attacks. This is sensitive information, which if revealed, would put at risk the collection techniques used to obtain such information. It also reveals sensitivities that future subjects could exploit in the future while planning and performing an attack.”

‘Under the radar’

Another page the FBI wants to remain hidden “contains specific factors deemed pertinent in the analysis of the actions of the hijackers’ concerning financial transactions before September 11, 2001. Disclosure of this information would reveal what the FBI already knows about the hijacker’s [sic] financial actions and how they were able to stay ‘under the radar.’”

The FBI’s Hardy similarly advocates for secrecy regarding:

  • The kinds of weapons and identification the conspirators carried.
  • Information about the arrival of the pilots, intended pilots and conspirators in the U.S.
  • Information about when the conspirators moved to their respective departure cities and the timing of their plane ticket purchases.
  • “A timeline of telephone records and money transfers between conspirators.”
  • Information about “previous flights the conspirators took before the attacks to include the collection and timing and locations of flights.”

Finally, Hardy said that information about “investigative leads derived from forensic analysis” and “leads and the sources of data the FBI finds useful to or significant in its analysis” should also remain veiled.

“The places the FBI does not look for information can be just as telling as the places it does look for information,” Hardy wrote.

In responding to Hardy’s assertions in court papers filed Monday, attorneys for Florida Bulldog noted that the “referenced techniques apparently are those techniques that the 9/11 hijackers evaded on September 11, 2001. One would hope that different techniques are in place today.”

“If anything, the PowerPoint slides might reveal outdated, failed law enforcement acts or omissions,” wrote attorney Julin. “The 9/11 attacks on the United States are a consequence, at least in part, of the failure of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to detect and halt them.”

The government has until Monday, June 19 to file a reply. The judge will then decide whether the case will go to trial.

Red light ticket? Enforcement depends on where you got it and how you try to resolve it

By Susannah Nesmith, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin played a series of dramatic videos of crashes caught on tape by red-light cameras. The people in the audience gasped each time someone t-boned a car, flipped over a railing, struck a motorcyclist or nearly plowed through a line of kids crossing the street.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise,” Benjamin told the audience after playing the videos. And then he surprised everyone. “Be safe out there. Case dismissed. Thank you.”

Three times that recent afternoon, groups of 20 or more filed into the courtroom, only to learn one of the quirks in the uneven enforcement of the state’s red-light camera tickets. Hundreds of tickets issued by Florida City for running red lights have been dismissed in recent months after drivers failed to pay them. That’s because the small town at the southern reaches of the county simply wasn’t sending an officer the 50 miles to court in Miami.

The way the state’s red-light camera statute is enforced varies depending on which city or county someone is ticketed in, and how the ticketed person tries to resolve the ticket. Different cities have different definitions of what constitutes a violation, and the hearing officers hired by cities are, at least in one case, interpreting the statute differently from the traffic magistrates hired by the court system.

Broward cities aren’t currently using red-light cameras pending the outcome of high-profile litigation.

While the differing enforcement may turn out to be a key issue for the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed in mid-May to take a case challenging the cameras, two things remain constant across the state. Like modern-day small town speed traps, the cameras raise significant revenues for cities and the state, and the tickets cause thousands of car owners statewide to have their licenses suspended every year. Approximately 40 percent of those suspensions happen to Miami-Dade drivers, according to records compiled by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

On a recent afternoon in traffic court, Magistrate Alex Labora suspended the licenses of 12 drivers who didn’t pay $158 when they initially received a notice of violation from the city of Miami, didn’t request an administrative hearing at Miami City Hall and then didn’t show up in court once the violation was converted into what’s called a Uniform Traffic Citation. The magistrates routinely do the same thing day after day for citations issued by Miami Gardens, Homestead and a dozen other cities in Miami-Dade that issue the tickets.

Many people say they learn of the tickets only when they discover that their licenses have been suspended.

A security guard’s story

Thaddeus Hughes, a 26-year-old security guard from Florida City, said he had unwittingly driven around for several months with a suspended license before he bought a new car and tried to register it. His original $158 ticket ballooned to $410 with fees, by that point.

But because his ticket was issued by Florida City, it was tossed that day in court.

“I would have paid the $158 if I had known about it,” he said. He paid $60 to get his license reinstated.

Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin

Magistrate Benjamin says he often sees people in his courtroom who say they didn’t know they had been ticketed until they learned their license was suspended. Benjamin said he became concerned that cities were not sending out the notices properly.

“I started really inquiring of people and there was always a reason why they didn’t get the notice,” he said.

What he found was that many drivers hadn’t changed the address on their car registration when they moved, even if they changed the address on their driver’s license. The violation notice goes to the address where the car is registered, whereas the suspension notice goes to the address on file for the owner’s driver’s license.

“Red-light cameras are the number one problem for my clients,” said Jackie Woodward, a ticket attorney in Miami. “I got one myself. I ran my name in the system, that’s how I found out. And I’m a ticket attorney.”

Statewide, 1.2 million people were issued red-light camera violation notices last year, according to a report by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. By the end of the year, 383,000 of them were listed as unpaid. If the violation notices go unpaid, they become traffic citations, which don’t carry any points but do show up on a driver’s record. In Miami-Dade, 200,000 violation notices went unpaid last year and were converted to citations, according to court records.

‘Cutting into my rent money’

Prince Fields, a 33-year-old unemployed driver, tried to resolve his violation before it turned into a citation. He requested a hearing in Miami Gardens to plead poverty because he was having trouble finding the money to pay the $158. Dawn Grace-Jones, an attorney hired by the city as a special master to conduct the hearings at city hall, said that poverty wasn’t a defense for running a red light and levied an additional $150 as an administrative fine for a total of $308.

Traffic Magistrate Dawn Grace-Jones

“I can’t afford this,” he said after the hearing. “It’s cutting into my rent money. They’re just raping the residents of this city.”

What he didn’t know was that the total fine he would have paid had he simply ignored the ticket until it became a traffic citation was only $277, and a traffic magistrate at the courthouse could have given him 90 days to pay, instead of the 30 days Miami Gardens gives. The county clerk’s office also offers an extended payment plan, something Miami Gardens doesn’t.

Plus, the magistrates in county traffic court often try to work with people who say they’re going to have trouble paying the fine.

“All day, I’m trying not to suspend licenses here,” said Magistrate Tom Cobitz. “Because I have to drive on these streets too.”

He noted that drivers with suspended licenses can have insurance problems. While insurance companies don’t generally cancel coverage, they can refuse to cover an accident involving someone driving on a suspended license.

Fields also didn’t know that Miami Gardens is considered one of the strictest cities in the county for red- light camera enforcement. It’s the only city that still issues violations for making a right turn on red at camera intersections, according to traffic magistrates and court personnel. A traffic magistrate might have treated his ticket very differently than the special master hired by Miami Gardens.

“I tell Miami Gardens all the time, ‘y’all are lucky I’m on the bench because if I weren’t, I would represent a ton of people against you,” said Magistrate Benjamin, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law and a resident of Miami Gardens. “I remember one time, we were dismissing so many of their right hand turn tickets their assistant city attorney came in to see what was going on.”

Miami Gardens still right turn trap?

The camera statute says a ticket “may not” be issued if the driver made a right turn on red that was “careful and prudent.” When the Legislature added that language to the statute in 2013, most cities stopped issuing red light camera tickets for right turns. The city of Aventura responded to the law change by putting up no right turn on red signs at the intersections that have red-light cameras, making the turns illegal and the tickets enforceable.

Miami Gardens City Hall

Miami Gardens took a different view of the statute, which also says drivers must come to a full stop.

“The city’s argument is you did not come to a complete stop,” Grace-Jones repeatedly told drivers during the hearing in Miami Gardens City Hall. “The statute must all be read together.”

City officials in Miami Gardens stood by that interpretation of the law, even after being told that the magistrates in county traffic court don’t agree and no other city in the county is using that interpretation.

“The City of Miami Gardens follows the state statute as it relates to right turns on red,” city spokeswoman Petula Burks said in an email. “Motorists must come to a complete stop before making the right turn on red.”

In fact, Miami Gardens has a stricter interpretation of the statute when it comes to other scenarios. On the day when Fields attended the hearing at city hall, another man came in with proof that his tag was not on the vehicle he owned, a trailer, when it went through the light. The video clearly showed the tag on a car. Grace-Jones ruled that was not a valid defense and levied a fine. In traffic court in front of Magistrate Alex Labora, Miami police moved to dismiss an almost identical case the week before.

Grace-Jones also upheld a ticket when a woman came to City Hall with her very young infant and said she received the ticket because she had gone into labor at McDonalds and was rushing to the hospital. Magistrate Benjamin said he probably would have tossed a ticket like that.

The Gardens’ strict enforcement is costly for drivers – and it’s profitable for the city.

Miami Gardens raised $3.2 million in revenue from the cameras last year, Burks said. The city’s budget for this year noted that revenues had improved over the previous year because of the hearings conducted by the special master.

‘Safety not profit’

Burks said the city’s red light cameras are strictly enforced out of a concern for safety, not profit.

“One of the main purposes for the use of cameras is safety,” she said in an emailed statement. “There is a general belief that if motorists are aware of the cameras that they will change their driving behavior, i.e. stopping at red lights, yielding for pedestrians, etc.”

One of the issues the Florida Supreme Court will hear about when it tests the legality of the cameras is whether the law is being enforced in a uniform manner.

Attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal

Miami attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal, who will argue before the Supreme Court that the tickets are not legal, said the whole point of having a uniform traffic code is to make sure the rules of the road don’t change from one intersection to the next.

“The Legislature enacted this law to get rid of the different rules across the state,” he said, referring to the red-light camera law. “If the cities are going to do it and charge people very significant fines, they darn well better do it according to the law.”

The private companies that operate the cameras have the cities fill out business rules questionnaires, which include options for what type of behavior they want the contractor to flag in videos: Should drivers who stopped after they crossed the white line but before they entered the intersection be flagged for review by an officer, for example? The questionnaires also ask how the cities want to handle right turns. Each tweak can change what cities are actually enforcing, and how much money they’re making.

For the moment, Broward cities aren’t using the cameras because an appellate court ruled the tickets aren’t legal because the cities outsource the initial review of the tapes to a private company instead of having certified law enforcement separate the potential violations from videos of lawful driving. The appellate court that covers Miami-Dade, on the other hand, ruled that the contractor, who gets a cut of the ticket revenues, is only performing an administrative function and the tickets are legal because a certified law enforcement agency reviews the tapes to determine if an actual ticket should be issued. A Supreme Court decision might resolve the conflict between the two jurisdictions.

The city of Miami’s red-light camera program made the most of any city in the state last year, bringing in $5.1 million, city records show. Over the past two years, the city has issued more than 350,000 tickets. Miami also sent another $9.6 million to the state from the camera revenues, according to records from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Overall, the state collected $60 million last year from the camera tickets.

Even Florida City made significant money on the cameras last year, $850,000, according to Finance Director Mark Ben-Asher. That’s because, even though traffic magistrates were tossing the city’s tickets if they made it all the way to traffic court, many people paid them as soon as they got the notice of violation, or after going to an administrative hearing at city hall.

Meanwhile, Florida City police say drivers should not expect their tickets to be thrown out in the future because an officer doesn’t show up in court. Corporal Ken Armenteros said officers stopped attending the hearings more than a year ago to wait for a ruling from the Third District Court of Appeals on whether the tickets were legal. That ruling came down in July 2016. After that, the city had a problem with the way subpoenas were being issued to officers.

“We got them to fix that. We will resume regular operations next week,” he said in late May.

On May 31, an officer from Florida City did not show up in court for the morning hearings and all the cases were dismissed. An officer was on hand for the afternoon hearings, but he requested all the cases be dismissed.

 

 

‘Invisible’ crime: Immigrant scams are big business in South Florida, but few crooks caught

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

Latin American agricultural workers in South Florida are among the victims of scammers who promise to obtain visa for them, charge large fees and fail to deliver. Photo: WeCount!

Infamous as the setting for many cases of high-profile financial fraud and chicanery, South Florida is also home to a relatively unknown scam that targets the region’s large immigrant population, bilking many of them for thousands of dollars for “expert” immigration services that are never delivered, a Florida Bulldog investigation has found.

The victims are mostly legal and undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Haiti, typically people with limited skills and little or no knowledge of English. Some immigrants from other parts of the world arriving in South Florida are also lured into these schemes. Moreover, even for highly educated immigrants, U.S. immigration laws and regulations are extremely complex and difficult to navigate.

The perpetrators, often people from the home country of their targets, are almost never arrested and punished since victims – especially those without legal documents – are worried about deportation and do not call the police.

“Immigration services scams are a serious national problem,” said Ana E. Santiago, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) in Miami. “They exploit the vulnerability of immigrants, refugees, foreign students and others, including U.S. citizens.” USCIS oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. and processes requests from immigrants once they are here.

This virtually invisible crime affects thousands of people in South Florida each year, according to those working with immigrants. But there are no hard figures available either from government agencies or from non-profit groups working with immigrants.

“These scams are not new, but it’s very hard to get your arms around them,” said Ed Griffith, public information officer for the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. There are a lot of instances where immigrants are scammed, “but if they’re here illegally, they’ll never go to the police to file a complaint,” said Griffith, who has worked at the State Attorney’s office in Miami-Dade since 1982.

The general estimate from those who work in legal services assisting immigrants is that the total loss from these specific immigrant scams is several million dollars a year.

How the schemes work

Victims may pay a few hundred dollars to individuals claiming expertise in complex immigration law and regulations for filling out paper or digital forms that must be filed with USCIS. The applications and petitions are later rejected for addressing the wrong issues or providing inaccurate information.

Some immigrants pay many thousands of dollars for more complex help in changing the client’s own status or that of family members.

The Pew Institute, using 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated that there are more than 450,000 undocumented immigrants alone in the areas encompassing Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the most vulnerable target group for immigration fraud.

Jose Luis (not his real name), a Mexican immigrant living in Pompano Beach without a visa, became a victim of one of these scams. He came to South Florida early last year with a tourist visa and decided to stay here and work after his visa expired.

“I knew this was risky, especially after Trump became president,” said Jose Luis, speaking to the Florida Bulldog in Spanish. “Some friends told me that lots of people have done the same thing, and one gave me the name of a Mexican-American legal expert who could help me.”

Jose Luis, who speaks very little English, met with the “expert,” who promised he would arrange for a work visa. The desperate immigrant paid him $2,000 three months ago, and has heard nothing. The man did not return phone calls and has disappeared.

“I’m now an ‘indocumentado’ [undocumented alien],” Jose Luis said. “I still have a job, but the pay is not great and if the police raid the place, I’ll be in real trouble.”

Liz-Marie Alvarado, a community organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Miami, told Florida Bulldog about another case:

A woman from El Salvador living in South Florida under a temporary visa that expired wanted to renew her visa and bring her children here to escape the gang violence and deteriorating economic conditions in her home country. She went to a Spanish-speaking notary public who said he would get her visa renewed and arrange for her children to come here. She paid him $8,000, but what he did instead was to create a false story that the woman had been the victim of a gang rape in El Salvador, and used this to apply for asylum. The notary assured her he had used the false sexual assault story in other cases, and that it would work better than the woman’s real story.

The woman did not understand English well, signed the false asylum application and went by herself to a U.S. immigration center. After speaking with her, the immigration officials realized it was a false statement, denied her application and ordered her deportation. An applicant who gives the government false statements in an asylum application can never request asylum again in the U.S.

As far as anyone knows, the perpetrator is still in business. “I tell immigrants, if you go to a lawyer or other immigration expert and they make you a lot of promises and just want to talk about money, come see me first,” Alvarado said.

Widespread crime, sparse punishment

“The situation for many immigrants has become desperate, especially under the current administration,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a Miami immigration attorney who has worked for decades to defend individuals in immigration matters.

Juan Carlos Gomez

Gomez, a Florida International University law professor and director of FIU’s Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, said immigrants often turn to anyone they think can help them, sometimes to people practicing law without licenses who make extravagant promises. They end up paying for services they never receive, while the scammers often go undetected and carry on lucrative businesses for years, Gomez said.

Immigrants have become alarmed since President Trump took office because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has expanded detentions for visa overstays. “The government says nothing has changed under the Trump administration, but that’s BS,” Gomez said.

ICE did not respond to questions e-mailed by the Florida Bulldog.

Nabbing scammers

Scam artists are hard to catch. Victims are usually afraid to denounce them, and immigrants here illegally know they can be turned over to local police or ICE if they go public. Here are few cases that have been uncovered:

  • Two people running an accounting and translation office out of their home in Lakeland, Domenico Cingari and Rose Cingari, were charged with conspiracy, making false statements on immigration applications and mail fraud. They assisted undocumented aliens in obtaining Florida driver’s licenses by filing fraudulent applications for asylum, petitions for alien relatives and work authorization forms. The two charged clients between $500 and $1,300 for fraudulent immigration applications and collected over $740,000 while their scam lasted, according to the USCIS. The pair were found guilty last year and sentenced to federal prison.
  • Four people were charged with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud in a Miami federal court for running a school to train immigrants – mostly Mexicans – to be Cubans. Under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban immigrants who arrive here without a visa can apply for permanent residence (green card) after living here for at least one year, a much faster and easier process than immigrants from other countries face. Nelson Daniel Silvestri Soutto, Laura Maria Ponce Santos, Amelia Osorio and Fidel Morejon Vega reportedly made over $500,000 selling false Cuban birth certificates to undocumented immigrants, helping them fill out fraudulent immigration forms and teaching them how to pretend to be Cuban immigrants. “Clients” were told that they should tell immigration officials that they arrived here on a raft, avoid speaking to them whenever possible and to say that they picked up their Mexican accents (which are very different from Cuban accents) while working with Mexicans here. One of the group also posed as an immigration officer and threatened some immigrants with deportation.
  • Marriage fraud is a constant source of income for scammers. In 2015, federal authorities in Miami charged 27 people as part of a scheme to arrange marriages between residents of Miami-Dade County and immigrants from Latin America, the Ukraine and Israel, according to Law360. Last year, a Cuban-American woman was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida with allegedly marrying 10 foreign nationals between 2000 and 2012.

Many scams, many victims

The cases mentioned above represent only part of the immigration scam spectrum. The USCIS field office in Miami also sees different fraudulent schemes, according to Santiago. Some of the most common are:

  • Notaries – Immigrants often turn to notaries who improperly offer to solve their problems, but notaries in the U.S. are not authorized to provide any legal services to immigrants. They are individuals authorized by state governments specifically to witness the signing of documents and administer oaths. In Latin America, however, they perform some legal work.
  • Phone scams – People posing as officials from the USCIS or other government agencies call immigrants and ask for personal data, tell them there is “false” information on an individual’s immigration records and offer to correct the problem for a payment.
  • Business scams – Some individuals or community businesses guarantee that they can obtain benefits like an employment authorization or green card when they cannot. They sometimes file inaccurate forms with the USCIS, charging higher fees than the government agency’s normal fees and falsely promise to speed up processing times for a price.
  • Diversity lottery – Every year the State Department makes 50,000 diversity visas available to randomly selected applicants based on special criteria and related to countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Scammers send out emails and set up websites saying that, for a fee, they can make it easier for an immigrant to enter the lottery.
  • Phony websites – Some websites offer step-by-step information on filling out a USCIS application or petition, sometimes providing links to the government website. USCIS has only one official website: uscis.gov.

“USCIS combats scams and the unauthorized practice of immigration law, in part, by educating and warning applicants about immigration scams and ensuring that applicants know how to find legal advice and assistance in completing and submitting forms,” Santiago said. “The wrong help can hurt.” USCIS works closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to support investigation and prosecution efforts for fraudulent activities, she added.

A senior official at the USCIS office in Miami, who asked not to be identified, told Florida Bulldog in a telephone interview that scammers charge their victims between a few hundred dollars to fill out immigration forms and as much as $15,000 or more for other false services, like telling a legal visa holder that he or she can become a naturalized citizen.

“These scams cost immigrants a lot of hard-earned money,” the official said. “They are damaging to immigrants and to our national security.”

USCIS reaches out to local communities, libraries and offices like the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate immigrants about proper procedures and how to contact non-profit organizations that can help them solve immigration problems, he said.

Any immigrant who wants to deal with complex U.S. immigration laws and regulations without expert assistance or prior counseling is at a serious disadvantage. The rules governing most visa changes, renewals and the like require lengthy written or digital applications, substantial fees and strict adherence to complicated procedures and timelines. Fortunately, South Florida is home to many honest immigration lawyers, advisors and for-profit firms who help immigrants, as well as a host of non-profit and advocacy groups, pro-bono immigration attorneys and others who work to assist immigrants.

The USCIS offers assistance in multiple languages at its regional offices. It has five in South Florida.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and USCIS are part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is the agency that enforces border control, trade and immigration laws and is almost universally feared by legal and undocumented immigrants.

Who are the scammers?

There appear to be legions of scammers and exploiters who prey on the fears of immigrants: They include people pretending to be attorneys, individuals who paint themselves as “experts” in immigration law, irresponsible notaries public (who in Latin America have a more substantial legal role than in the U.S. and are sometimes confused with attorneys by immigrants), unscrupulous lawyers and even “friends” or acquaintances from an immigrant community looking to make a fast buck.

January, 2016
Randolph P. McGrorty is the executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Photo : Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic

The “experts” sometimes appear in an office space or work informally out of their homes. They buy advertising in community newspapers in Spanish or Creole and post ads on local buildings. In some cases, they have helped local people deal with simple immigration forms or applications and receive word-of-mouth referrals.

Badly handled immigration assistance is a serious, ongoing problem in South Florida, said Randolph P. McGrorty, an experienced immigration attorney and executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, an organization that works with about 3,000 immigrants every month. The bad advice may come from people innocently trying to help friends and family or from Latin Americans promoting schemes that prey on their own people.

“Sometimes, unqualified people do the immigration work with good intentions and really screw it up,” said McGrorty, whose organization has a staff of 45, including 22 attorneys. “We see the results after the damage is done.”

As for scams, “the most benign type involves improperly filling out forms or filing the wrong documents,” he said. The individual loses some money, but these problems often can be resolved.

“The real, critical problem involves scammers who fill out asylum claims. The applicant doesn’t speak English and just signs the document.”

People have a real story to tell, but scammers often make up information and immigrant officials don’t believe the story. “Any asylum application deemed to be ‘frivolous’ (containing false information) means that the immigrant is barred forever from access to the asylum program,” McGrorty said. “Some errors are correctable, but some can end up getting you deported. The consequences are dire.”

Victims fearful of police

The individuals returned to their native country must face the same problems – violent crime, discrimination, political oppression, etc. – that caused them to emigrate. “We are well aware of notary fraud that targets immigrant communities lacking the resources to seek legal help,” said Paola Calvo Florido, a representative of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “Especially at this time, when fear [among immigrants] is so high, we urge community members to take extra precautions so that they don’t become victims of fraud.” FLIC, as well as other similar groups, has an immigrant hotline and provides lists of attorneys offering free or low-cost legal services.

So why don’t these types of scams receive more attention in the media? Why do very few people go to jail for stealing many thousands of dollars and repeating the fraud again and again in South Florida neighborhoods?

Fear. Most victims, after waiting for weeks or months are typically too frightened or ashamed to tell any legal authorities about the problem. They complain to the “expert,” who invents a convenient excuse: “The gringos turned you down,” or “The rules have changed,” or today they can blame anything on Trump. Irate clients are warned that the “expert” has contacts in the police and that they will be deported if they raise a fuss.

In some cases, the victims find a pro-immigrant organization or pro-bono lawyer and tell their stories. In others, they remain quiet and try to survive as undocumented workers. In still others, they are bilked for more money or are eventually deported.

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