Auditor rips Ft. Lauderdale CRA as taxpayers face $1 million loss

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sixth Street Plaza

Sixth Street Plaza

A new Fort Lauderdale auditor’s report castigates the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for its poor oversight of a taxpayer-financed office and retail plaza that was to be the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

Sixth Street Plaza, a 23,000-square foot building at 900 NW Sixth Street, filed for bankruptcy this month, further jeopardizing the repayment of almost $1 million in taxpayer loans.

“The project lacked fundamental project management discipline, from risk assessment and establishing proper governance to detailed accounting of funds disbursement,” City Auditor John Herbst wrote in a cover memo to the city commission. “Accordingly, there is no way to be certain that all of the funds put into this project were spent appropriately.”

The city commission, sitting as the CRA board, requested the report after FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that taxpayer loans were in jeopardy due to the forced sale of the plaza.

FLAWED FROM THE START

The report found the Sixth Street Plaza project flawed from the start by a shoddy business plan. Still, it was pushed by cheerleading CRA staff.

“The CRA staff failed to maintain their objectivity,” the report adds. “As observed in emails…in 2008 and 2009, they appeared to view their role as project advocates rather than as stewards of the CRA’s funds.”

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale's Department of Sustainable Development

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale’s Department of Sustainable Development

Alfred Battle, who headed the CRA for the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights area during part of Sixth Street Plaza’s construction, did not respond to requests for comment. Battle is currently a deputy director at the city’s Department of Sustainable Development.

The report, released last week, to be discussed during Tuesday’s city commission conference meeting.

The Fort Lauderdale CRA is one of nine municipal CRAs in Broward County that direct tax dollars to areas to clean up slum and blight.

In November, Broward County Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the public sale of Sixth Street Plaza at the request of Regent Bank, which from 2005 to 2007 had loaned the developer nearly $2.3 million.

The developer is Sixth Street Plaza Inc., whose corporate president is Maria J. Freeman.

Freeman is well known to city hall and Broward political circles. She is vice chair of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority and has served on the CRA’s Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights Redevelopment Board, the city Marine Advisory Board, the city Planning and Zoning Board and the city Planned Unit Development Zoning District Advisory Committee.

Freeman’s business telephone has been disconnected. She did not respond to a request to comment made through her attorney, Susan D. Lasky.

LOANS AND GRANTS

The Fort Lauderdale CRA gave Sixth Street Plaza another $1.2 million in loans and grants between 2005 and 2009, according to the report. The South Florida Regional Planning Council, a quasi-governmental agency, also loaned Sixth Street Plaza $300,000.

Regent Bank hoped to recoup some of its loan in the public sale of the plaza. The sale, however, was put on hold when Freeman’s Sixth Street Plaza Inc. filed for bankruptcy in federal court. Sixth Street Plaza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 4, the day before the plaza was to be sold at a public auction.

Freeman personally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, claiming she “has experienced difficulties caused by the significant downturn in the real estate market.” That action is pending.

Regent Bank’s attorney Steve Moody said in an interview that the latest bankruptcy filing shifts the state court foreclosure case to federal court and stops the public sale.

Even if the public sale eventually occurs the odds remain long that the city will recoup the money it loaned to build Sixth Street Plaza. The taxpayer loans are “subordinate,” meaning that if the public auction does not raise enough money to pay off Regent, no monies will be left over to repay the taxpayers.

Zillow, an online real estate database, placed the value of Sixth Street Plaza this month at $743,512, down from a February estimate of $905,275.

The Sixth Street Plaza opened in 2010, but has never been successful in attracting more than a handful of long-term tenants despite rosy CRA estimates. A 2002 CRA staff analysis of the plaza’s vacancy rate “was unsupported” and lacked “market studies or comparative rents,” the auditor’s report states.

“…Even under aggressive assumptions regarding vacancy rates, and using an extremely low budget for construction, the development was projected to generate barely enough cash flow after operations to service its debt,” the report concludes.

One long-term plaza tenant is the CRA itself, which is paying $96,000 a year through 2016 for 6,000-feet of office space, rent the auditor’s report criticizes as an “above-market rate.” The CRA will pay “as much as $481,947” in excess rent” during the term of its lease, the report points out.

NO JUSTIFICATION

The report says “the CRA director at the time” said that “paying higher (rental) rates would jumpstart the office market in the area, but there was no rationale provided to justify that statement.”

The report goes on describe the plaza’s business plan as “meager, lacking a detailed market demand analysis, marketing plan, construction budget and cash flow projections.” Auditors found no “documentation of the developer’s capacity to undertake the work.”

That disorganization was reflected in the project’s construction budget that jumped from $735,000 in 2001 to $1.6 million in 2002. “There is no explanation of what increased and why,” the report states.

CRA files likewise contained “no payroll reports, subcontractor labor invoices, material invoices, etc…It is unclear whether the information regarding the cost overruns, change orders and additional loans from Regent Bank was shared with the CRA in a timely manner,” the audit said.

Sixth Street Plaza failed even though Freeman raised a total of $3.75 million through loans and grants. “The project should have had more than adequate capital,” the report adds.

According to Sixth Street Plaza’s bankruptcy petition, the company also owes more than $52,000 to subcontractors and other businesses.

One reason the auditor had difficulty tracing expenditures is because the original agreement between the CRA and developer did not allow for the CRA to audit Sixth Street Plaza’s records.

“Accordingly, the (auditor’s office) was unable to review key elements that may have yielded a better understanding of the cost increases and flow of funds,” Herbst said in his cover memo.

The report also blasts the CRA for failing to monitor adequately the distribution of taxpayer monies to the project. As a result, “the city is unable to determine how $916,344…of CRA funds were spent,” the report says.

Herbst recommended the “CRA needs to integrate a culture of fiscal discipline and accountability into its core mission of eliminating slum and blight.” To accomplish that, the report suggests the city commission separate project management and advocacy within the CRA as “these functions have goals which may be at odds with each other…”

Coconut Creek police Taser shooting a homicide; Death by electrocution, lawyer says

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Calvon "Andre" Reid

Calvon “Andre” Reid

The death of a black man shot multiple times by Coconut Creek police firing Taser stun guns has been ruled a homicide by the Broward Medical Examiner’s Office, FloridaBulldog.org has learned.

“It is our understanding that there has been a finding that the cause of death was electrocution, which is consistent with having been over-Tased,” said Jack Scarola, a West Palm Beach attorney who represents the family of Calvon “Andre” Reid.

The medical examiner’s office released its findings to Broward prosecutors earlier this week. The report was not made public.

Reid, a 39-year-old meat salesman, died Feb. 24 – two days after being shot down in a parking lot in the largely white Wynmoor retirement community. His death has been shrouded in secrecy by local authorities amid ongoing national controversy over police, race and the use of deadly force following police-related deaths of black men in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and Baltimore.

Coconut Creek police did not disclose the shooting or the death until after FloridaBulldog.org published the eyewitness accounts on Feb. 27.

John Arendale and his wife, Bonnie Eshleman, live in a ground-floor apartment steps away from the scene of the confrontation and watched what happened through their windows. They told a reporter that as many as four police officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys. Between volleys, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who cried out, “Baby! They are going to kill me!” and “I can’t breathe!

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

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

Among other things, Arendale said he watched as police rolled Reid over on the ground following the second volley and he could see Taser wires still attached to Reid’s chest.

Detectives didn’t interview Arendale and Eshleman until hours after their account was published. Six days later, in response to a chorus of follow-up media reports, then-police Chief Michael Mann held a press conference at which he read a prepared statement that provided limited information.

Mann said that Margate Fire Department paramedics first responded to the gated community in answer to a 911 call. He said they found Reid in the well-lit parking lot shortly after 1 a.m. in an “agitated and combative and incoherent state” suffering from “numerous cuts on his hands, arms and chest and this clothing was torn and bloodstained.” He did not say why Reid was at the location.

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

Reid died two days later at Northwest Regional Medical Center.

Mann declined to provide further details, but told reporters “there was no cover-up” of what happened by his department. His boss, City Manager Mary Blasi, forced him out as chief less than a week later.

The new acting chief is Gregory B. Lees, who has declined to comment.

FloridaBulldog.org reported last week that Coconut Creek detectives returned to the scene weeks later and re-questioned Arendale and Eshleman. They took photographs through the windows the pair used to observe what happened and did what Arendale called “a kind of mini-reenactment.”

At one point, Detective Frank Fuentes asked Arendale if he saw Taser shots being fired at Reid.

“John said ‘yes’ and the detective said, ‘You didn’t say that before.’ But John said that all along,” Eshleman said in an interview.

Police sources, including Ken Harms, former Miami police chief and a police policy expert, said the re-interview of the witnesses was an apparent attempt to discredit their testimony.

Four city officers have been under investigation: Sgts. David Freeman and Darren Karp and Officers Thomas Eisenring and Daniel Rush. Freeman, Karp and Eisenring are white. Rush is African-American.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office is also investigating for likely presentation to the grand jury – standard procedure for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz’s office. Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet questioned Arendale and Eshleman under oath last week. The office has not commented publicly.

The indictment of police officers in Broward would be highly unusual. More than a generation has passed since 1980, the last time a Broward grand jury charged an officer as a result of a police shooting.

Still, the family of Calvon Reid hopes the grand jury considers the case soon.

“This case is a wound festering in the darkness,” said attorney Scarola. “The sooner the facts are exposed to sunlight, the faster the community can ultimately begin to heal.”

Broward school administrators look to bypass anti-corruption reforms

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Broward School Board building in downtown Fort Lauderdale

The Broward School Board building in downtown Fort Lauderdale

Purchasing reforms enacted five years ago by the Broward School Board in the wake of corruption scandals would be bypassed amid a dispute over public participation in the selection of companies to manage $800 million in voter-approved bond projects.

The clash pits the administration of Superintendent Robert Runcie and the Facilities Task Force, a citizens-advisory group that monitors planning, construction and maintenance of school buildings.

The Broward School Board soon will have to take a side. The Facilities Task Force voted Thursday 14 to 1 to urge the School Board to require the district’s Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC) evaluate and select the companies.

QSEC includes five voting members from the public. Runcie’s staff, however, wants to bypass QSEC and instead use a selection committee made up solely of school system administrators.

“I think the superintendent (Robert Runcie)…wants absolute control over what is going on,” task force chair Nathalie Lynch-Walsh told FloridaBulldog.org. “If you can’t control the public…you control the process…They are violating policy.”

BIRTH OF QSEC

Bidders are to be interviewed May 18 and whichever committee is used must make recommendations two days later. The School Board is set to award the contracts next month.

Broward Schools Superintendant Robert Runcie and Facilities Task Force Chair Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

Broward Schools Superintendant Robert Runcie and Facilities Task Force Chair Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

The School Board created QSEC in 2010 after Board Members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft were arrested for corruption. In creating QSEC, the board barred board members from serving on it to prevent them from steering contracts to favorite companies.

In a May 5 email to board members, Lynch-Walsh wrote, “A district preaching about the virtues of transparency shouldn’t ask taxpayers for $800 million dollars then turn around and look for semantic technicalities to remove said taxpayers from the selection of the companies that will be managing the $800 million.”

She was referring to the Runcie administration’s statements in bid documents that it is looking to hire companies to serve as “program managers” instead of “construction managers.” School Board policy requires the hiring of “construction managers” to go through QSEC, but the policy is unclear regarding “program managers”.

At Thursday’s meeting, Lynch-Walsh argued that program managers and construction managers are “the same thing…A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer, disagreed, saying program management is “not in the (QSEC) policy.” He also offered assurances that the public will be invited to attend the upcoming staff selection committee meetings.

An hour-long debate turned on tedious definitions. At times, it became testy.

Not going through QSEC to hire managers “looks really bad,” Lynch-Walsh said.

“It doesn’t look bad,” Messier replied. “You’re trying to make it look bad.”

“Nobody wants their money squandered,” Lynch-Walsh said.

“I’m not trying to squander anybody’s money,” Messier said. “I’ve been interrogated on this one topic…I feel like I’m going…to court to say, asked and answered…”

A ‘GOT TO WORK’ BOND ISSUE

Task force member Joe Piechura noted the significance of what was being discussed.

“This is a humongous, large, absolutely got to work bond issue. If they fall on their faces again, we are going to look so stupid to the world including the people that sponsored issuing this bond…If this gets screwed up…, it will slow any new construction, any repairs…,” Piechura said.

The task force, the Minority Builders Coalition and a local building association each appoint a public member to QSEC. The school administration appoints two.

School Board policy states that QSEC will evaluate and recommend for approval “architects, engineers, design-builders, construction managers and total program managers.” Runcie’s administration, however, argues that “total program managers” are not the same as “program managers.”

In an interview, Lynch-Walsh complained that the administration also bypasses QSEC if only one company bids for a contract. The School Board already has awarded contracts to two design companies who were sole bidders. Lynch-Walsh said nothing in School Board policy allows for this to happen. Since QSEC did not evaluate the sole bidders, the proposals were not evaluated or were evaluated by the staff, she added.

Nick Sakhnovsky has been on the task force for more than ten years. “What they have done…is bizarre,” he said. “We have never done it that way in Broward County.”

Sakhnovsky, the task force vice chair, pointed out that QSEC was created “to make the process more transparent and less controllable by deals made outside the room…We have long memories.”

He was referring to critical grand jury reports going back two decades. In 2011, a statewide grand jury described the School Board as inept and corrupted by “contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.” County grand juries in 1997 and 2002 likewise criticized how the school district conducted business.

Runcie was hired in 2011 following the statewide grand jury’s damning report.

School Board member Nora Rupert, Runcie’s biggest critic on the board, wants QSEC involved in selecting construction program professionals.

“There is no public representation on the (staff) committee,” she said. “To this day I have not heard any sound explanation…that makes sense not to go through QSEC.”

SCHOOL BOARD GENERAL COUNSEL DOESN’T RESPOND

Lynch-Walsh also took aim at School Board general counsel J. Paul Carland, alleging he failed to respond to an April 16 task force request for a legal opinion on whether the selection of “program managers” falls under QSEC’s jurisdiction.

Previously, Carland told the board that bypassing QSEC “doesn’t appear to be a…violation,” but acknowledged his opinion was based on Superintendent Runcie’s interpretation of policy, not his own. He said he would need to research the issue, but has yet to provide the board with his own opinion.

Carland would not be interviewed about the matter.

When asked about the lack of a legal opinion, Messier told the task force he got a legal opinion but he would not share it with the group. “The legal department has to send it out to you,” Messier said.

The administration’s search for program managers, posted April 13, is the second time it has sought bids. In March, the School Board rejected the selection of Jacobs Project Management Company after whistleblower Michael Marchetti, a former special assistant to the superintendent, went public with claims the company had violated the district’s “Cone of Silence” policy.

The Cone of Silence policy prohibits bidders from talking to any School Board member or district employee except “designated staff…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”

The school administration took no action on Marchetti’s claims until FloridaBulldog.org sought comment about them. The district then posted a notice reversing its recommendation to give the contract to Jacobs, citing the company’s violation of the Cone of Silence policy.

Marchetti also alleged that Messier bypassed QSEC and handpicked amenable administrators to sit on an ad hoc committee that selected Jacobs for the contract.

Jacobs Project Management is a subsidiary of the international engineering, architecture and construction firm Jacobs Engineering Group, headquartered in Pasadena, California.

Marchetti claimed the selection of Jacobs was done behind closed doors and violated Florida’s open meetings laws.

When the district asked for rebids last month, the administration split the contract into two. The program management contracts are estimated to be worth as much as $20 million.

Marco Rubio’s refunds of excessive campaign contributions continue

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio

Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign continues to trickle out refunds to donors who made excessive contributions last year.

On May 5, Lisa Lisker, assistant treasurer to the recently renamed Marco Rubio for President committee, notified the Federal Election Commission that the campaign had returned $10,000 to Anthony Trey Traviesa, a former Florida state representative from the Tampa area.

Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Conant did not respond to questions sent via email or a request for comment via his Twitter account.

The FEC has sent violation notices to Rubio’s campaign after each of its quarterly report filings in 2014. Until last year, the FEC capped an individual’s contributions at $2,600 per election. In February, the commission raised the limit by $100. The senator’s presidential campaign has raised $917,946 and the Rubio Victory political action committee has raised $1.8 million so far.

The first-term senator has also secured a $10 million pledge from billionaire Miami car dealer Norman Braman and, according to a recent Politico story, is the frontrunner among Republican presidential contenders to win the financial support of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

Lisker reported Traviesa’s refund a month after she notified the FEC that Rubio’s campaign had returned $23,000 in over-the-limit contributions, reclassified another $27,000 for use in the 2016 general election, or applied the excessive contributions to the spouses of donors, federal election records show.

Last week, Lisker said the excessive $10,000 donation from Traviesa had appeared in the campaign’s 2014 end of year report. She also said the refund is noted in Rubio’s most recent quarterly report filed April 15.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Lisker wrote. “The Committee has reviewed its procedures to ensure that all duplicate donors are identified and that all excessive contributions are reattributed or refunded within the 60-day time limit.”

In four April 11 response letters to the FEC, Lisker explained that the campaign — formerly known as Marco Rubio for Senate — and the separate Rubio Victory PAC had not tracked excessive contributions or duplicate entries. She did not explain why that happened, but assured FEC regulators that the campaign had straightened out the problem.

“The committee now performs reviews of the data weekly to identify any excessive contributions that may have been missed during the initial processing,” Lisker wrote. “Once the excessive contributions are identified, the committee takes steps to either reattribute, re-designate or refund if necessary.”

According to its April 15 report, Rubio’s campaign does appear to be taking better care of keeping tabs on excessive contributions. For instance, Cesar Alvarez, co-chairman of Miami law firm Greenberg Traurig, donated $5,200 for the primary, but the report notes half will either be re-designated for the general election or be attributed to his spouse.

Another donor, Ronald Gidwitz, a principal in the Chicago corporate event management company GCG Partners, also gave $5,200 for the primary, but the report notes $2,700 is being re-designated for the general election.

Tallahassee jackpot: Politicians send millions to charity of lobbyist’s daughter

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren's Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera at an April 22 rally in Tallahassee for Lauren’s Kids with Lauren and Ron Book

Over the last four years, Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by the daughter of top Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book has become one the legislature’s favorite charities, raking in nearly $7 million in taxpayer funds. If and when legislators reconvene to pass a budget, that total is slated to rise to $10.8 million.

The mission of Lauren’s Kids is to raise awareness about child sexual abuse. At the same time, however, Lauren’s Kids has cultivated a symbiotic relationship with important political figures in the Capitol, led by Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

The politicians get feel-good publicity with photo ops. Lauren’s Kids gets state dollars, and plenty of them.

Legislative appropriation records show that of the 27 special interest groups to be allocated funds from a $19 million pot earmarked this year for “school and instructional enhancements,” Lauren’s Kids will get the most, $3.8 million. More than two dozens youth organizations, including the Girl Scouts of Florida and the YMCA, are to receive less than $300,000 each.

Critics say Book’s political clout gives Lauren’s Kids an unfair advantage over hundreds of applicants vying for state discretionary funds.

“There are so many things this money could be used for,” said Vicky Henry, a national advocate against sexual offender registration laws. “Take some of that $3.8 million and give more to school districts or church and scout organizations.”

Lauren Book, chief executive of Lauren’s Kids, said her non-profit is on the same playing field as others seeking state funds.

“I believe the process is highly competitive,” Book said in an email. “Projects receive intense scrutiny; first in budget subcommittees, then in full committees, on the floors of the chambers, and in joint budget conference committees. Following all of that, an appropriation is vetted by the governor’s staff, and must withstand the gubernatorial veto process.”

Book, who was sexually and physically abused by her nanny for six years starting at age 11, founded Lauren’s Kids in 2007. Her father Ron Book — an attorney who counts the Miami Dolphins, the GEO Group prison company and dozens of cities and counties as clients — is the organization’s chairman. Last year, his firm collected $5 million in lobbying fees, state records show.

SPECIAL TREATMENT FOR LAUREN’S KIDS

Grants aren’t the only way government helps fund Lauren’s Kids. Miami-Dade and Broward counties facilitate individual $1 donations by including a box for people to check on their car registration renewal forms. Lauren’s Kids also has its own state-approved specialty Florida license plate, from which it collects $25 from each sale, according to its web site.

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida's Historic Capitol

Gov. Scott hugs Lauren Book at the April 22 rally on the steps of Florida’s Historic Capitol

Lauren’s Kids tax returns show that from 2011-2013 those $1 car registration renewal donations brought in more than $700,000. How much revenue has been generated by the specialty license tags, approved by the legislature in 2013, was not available.

Ron Book did not respond to Henry’s criticisms or to questions about how Lauren’s Kids got earmarks inserted into the budget.

Lauren Book’s most publicized annual event is “Walk In My Shoes,” a 1,500-mile trek across Florida from Key West to the steps of the old state Capitol building. It’s also a favorite of elected officials.

Book completed her sixth walk on April 22. Joining her at the Capitol were dozens of child sex abuse victims and their families, her father and a line-up of powerful Republicans and Democrats. They included Scott, Lopez-Cantera, Senate President Andy Gardiner, Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and vice chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

Vicky Henry, president of Missouri-based Women Against Registry, organized a protest against Book’s walk by having registered offenders and their family’s picket near the state capitol. Henry said state leaders overzealously shower Lauren’s Kids with attention to stay in her dad’s good graces.

As the top lobbyist for many major corporations in Florida, Book serves as a faucet for campaign cash. For example, Book and clients Steve Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, and George Zoley, president of the GEO Group, served together last October on the host committee for a $25,000-a-plate fundraising dinner for Gov. Rick Scott at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

A PAC ALL HER OWN

Lauren Book, who has hinted at a run for office, formed a political action committee last September called Leadership For Broward that has collected $525,257, mostly from her father’s clients including $100,000 from the Miami Dolphins.

“Do other people involved in child abuse prevention get the same amount of hoopla Lauren’s Kids gets?” said Henry. “No. And they definitely do not get the kind of money awarded to [Book’s] organization.”

Lauren’s Kids most recent tax returns show it received government grants of $486,116 in 2011, $1.6 million in 2012, and $1.1 million in 2013. Most of the combined $2.8 million was from the state.

The organization has yet to file its tax return for 2014, but Book confirmed previous media reports that Lauren’s Kids received $3.8 million from the legislature last year.

 The 29-year-old Book’s annual salary is on a similar upward trajectory, rising from nearly $68,000 in 2011 to $95,000 in 2013.

From 2011-2013, Lauren’s Kids collected $1.4 million in private contributions, more than half coming from the $1 donations via car registration renewals. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in other revenue has come through special events and the sale from books, including Lauren Book’s self-published memoir, It’s Ok to Tell.

Book says the bulk of Lauren’s Kids revenue has been used to create and maintain an educational program called “Safer, Smarter Kids” that trains public school teachers and child caretakers throughout the state on how to identify signs of sexual child abuse and how to report cases to authorities.

Originally targeted to children in pre-kindergarten to third grade, the program has expanded to educate kids in fourth and fifth grades, as well as adolescents in middle and high school. To implement the program, Lauren’s Kids hired Tallahassee advertising firm Sachs Media Group, which was paid a total of $1.6 million between 2011 and 2013. Sachs produces 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.

Lauren’s Kids also paid $219,000 to the Monique Burr Foundation in Jacksonville for acting as a go-between with schools participating in the Safer, Smarter Kids program. It paid another $142,000 to the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence for staffing a crisis hotline and developing training materials and conducting training sessions for 15 school districts.

As a result of her organization’s educational program, tens of thousands of Florida children now know to report incidents of sexual abuse, Book said.

Actions of Coconut Creek detectives investigating Taser death questioned

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

In early March, Bonnie Eshleman demonstrated how she watched Coconut Creek officers shoot Calvon Reid with Taser stun guns. Photo: CBS4Miami

In early March, Bonnie Eshleman demonstrated how she watched Coconut Creek officers shoot Calvon Reid with Taser stun guns. Photo: CBS4Miami

Coconut Creek detectives investigating the death of a black man shot multiple times by police Tasers in the Wynmoor condo complex have re-questioned two eyewitnesses in what outside police sources say was an apparent attempt to discredit their testimony.

John Arendale and Bonnie Eshleman saw the police takedown of 39-year-old meat salesman Calvon “Andre” Reid in a floodlit parking lot just steps from their apartment in the largely white retirement community at about 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 22.

Their dramatic accounts – including a handwritten statement by Eshleman – described hearing two popping sounds of officers firing Taser shots, then watching as officers fired twice more with Taser into Reid’s chest. They heard Reid cry out several times, “Baby! They’re going to kill me” and as officers were on top of him on the ground, “I can’t breathe.”

Creek police disclosed neither the shooting nor the death before FloridaBulldog.org published the couple’s story five days after the incident, and detectives did not interview them until shortly after the story appeared.

Four officers, Sgts. David Freeman and Darren Karp and Officers Thomas Eisenring and Daniel Rush, were under investigation.

DETECTIVES RETURN TO APARTMENT

About a month ago, detectives Frank Fuentes, James Dingus and a crime scene technician returned to Arendale and Eshleman’s ground floor apartment. They took photographs looking out the windows through which the pair observed the deadly confrontation.

“They wanted the view,” said Arendale. “Then they went outside and took more pictures and asked us to talk about and go over the places where cops were standing and Calvon was standing – a kind of mini-reenactment.”

Calvon "Andre" Reid

Calvon “Andre” Reid

Both Arendale and Eshleman, who married earlier this month, said Detective Fuentes asked Arendale during the re-enactment if he saw Taser shots fired at Reid.

“John said ‘yes’ and the detective said, ‘You didn’t say that before.’ But John said that all along,” said Eshleman.

Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, a police policy expert and trial consultant, said in an interview that it is apparent from the detectives’ actions that they had an agenda.

“It gives the impression to me that the police were trying to protect the officers’ interest as opposed to getting down to the issues at hand, which ought to be was the use of force justified under the circumstances and if so what amount of force,” said Harms.

“The issue I have is with the department. Asking or permitting them to go back and interview witnesses whose statements might be on the other side of the officers’ interest is problematic. It should be more of a neutral process,” said Harms.

MUDDYING THE WATERS?

A former top police commander at a municipal police department in Broward, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was more blunt.

“What they are trying to do is muddy the waters,” he said, “generate documents that say on one day the witness said one thing, and on another day the witness said something else. It is done in order to discredit.”

Coconut Creek police released a statement in which Acting Police Chief Gregory Lees declined to comment.

“As you are aware, this is an ongoing investigation and pursuant to [Florida law] the information you are requesting is confidential and exempt,” the statement said. “As much as Chief Lees would like to discuss the facts of this case, [Florida Statute] 838.21 clearly states that, ‘…it is a felony of the 3rd degree for any public servant to willfully disclose active criminal investigation information as defined in chapter 119.’ However, our agency looks forward to a time when all the facts of this case can be released.”

The investigation by Coconut Creek police, who have scant experience in probing police-involved deaths, proceeds under a blanket of secrecy amid a national debate over police use of force, particularly against black men. In the city’s only public comments, the-Police Chief Michael Mann declared at a March 5 press conference that there was “no cover-up.”

Mann was forced to resign less than a week later by City Manager Mary Blasi.

Meanwhile, Broward prosecutors are also doing an investigation of Reid’s in-custody death.

Prosecutor Deborah Zimet questioned Arendale on Monday and Eshleman on Tuesday in advance of presenting the case to a grand jury – long the practice of State Attorney Mike Satz in police-involved death cases. The last time a Broward grand jury charged an officer as a result of a police shooting was in 1980, according to Satz’s spokesman Ron Ishoy.

Arendale declined to comment after his appearance at the courthouse, saying he was instructed not to discuss his testimony.

Another Broward Schools whistleblower alleges misconduct, this time in land sale

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Schools administrators want to sell this nearly 12 acre site at Broward Boulevard and Hiatus Road

Broward Schools administrators want to sell this nearly 12 acre site at Broward Boulevard and Hiatus Road

A senior property coordinator for Broward County Schools who resigned last month claims district administrators appear to have violated state law by not telling the school board about a bidder that offered to pay a higher price for surplus school land.

Barry Lazarus’s allegations, contained in an email sent to School Board members on Tuesday, mark the second time in three months that a whistleblower has come forward to allege potentially costly misconduct in Superintendent Robert Runcie’s administration.

“If what Mr. Lazarus said is true and it is a violation of the law, it needs to be looked into,” School Board member Nora Rupert said in an interview. “The superintendent needs to (assure)…that his staff is following the law and giving us the tools to govern appropriately.”

The latest allegations involve a multimillion-dollar parcel of vacant land, 11.84 acres, on the southeast corner of Broward Boulevard and Hiatus Road that school administrators wanted to sell to JLB Realty, a development company headquartered in Dallas, Texas.

Lazarus told the School Board that administrators wanted to sell it to JLB for less than another company, Boca Raton-based Altman Companies, had offered. How much less was not disclosed, but Altman’s offer was made in December, after negotiations had begun with JLB.

Hours before receiving Lazarus’s email, the School Board voted to reject an administration proposal to extend negotiations. JLB had sought the extension because Plantation had not yet determined how many rental apartments it would allow to be built on the property. JLB offered to pay the school district $38,500 for each unit built, which depending on the number of units worked out to between $8.2 and $11.4 million.

BID PROCESS TO START OVER

Superintendent Runcie told the board that by not extending negotiations, the district would start the bidding process over.

Lazarus was unaware when he sent the email that the school board had just voted to cease negotiations.

Dennis Palumbo, a realtor who represents Altman, refused to tell FloridaBulldog.org what Altman had offered the school district for the land.

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

Broward School Board member Nora Rupert

The school district’s public information office did not respond to a request for information about Altman’s offer or to say how each board member voted.

Steven Sockrider, vice-president of JLB, did not respond to requests for comment.

In his email to the Board, Lazarus cited Florida law that requires a real estate licensee to present all offers, counteroffers and “known facts that materially affect the value of…real estate property…in a timely manner” to the client. Specifically, he was critical of his former boss, Christopher Akagbosu, Broward Schools’ director of Facility Planning and Real Estate Department, which handles sales of surplus lands.

“If…Mr. Akagbosu did not present the Altman offer to you, this appears to be a violation of the…statute,” Lazarus wrote the board. “Mr. Akagbosu…had a staff member present at the Altman offer who is purportedly a licensed Florida broker, who should know the law, and should have advised Mr. Akagbosu.”

“I’m not a lawyer, but that is my understanding of the law,” Lazarus said in an interview. “I don’t know if (Akagbosu) is exempt” from the law which governs real estate brokers.

Lazarus, who resigned in March after being on the job for less than 90 days, did not get along with Akagbosu.

Lazarus informed the board in March that Akagbosu’s management style was “unprofessional, dysfunctional and bullying,” adding that neither Akagbosu nor anyone in his department holds any real estate licenses.

“Numerous brokers had called the department and threatened to sue, complaining of bad faith negotiations by stating that Mr. Akagbosu had failed to present all offers to the board on the recent sale of the Broward and Hiatus surplus property,” Lazarus said.

Akagbosu declined comment on Lazarus’s charges and referred questions to the district’s public information office, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Lazarus is a licensed state real estate salesman and a state certified general real estate appraiser whose prior job as real estate administrator for West Palm Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Akagbosu’s LinkedIn page says he has worked for the school district since 1994. He has a Master Degree of Environmental Planning, Land Use and Urban Design and a Bachelor Degree of Science in Design, Urban Planning, both from Arizona State University.

BID RIGGING ALLEGATIONS

Lazarus’s accusations come on the heels of bid rigging allegations leveled by whistleblower Michael Marchetti. Marchetti, who retired in February, has said under oath that Broward school administrators sought to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive a multi-million dollar contract to manage $800 million in capital projects.

After FloridaBulldog.org began to investigate Marchetti’s allegations, the district administration canceled the proposed contract with Jacobs, announced they would rebid the project.

The school district bought the 11.84 acres that it now wants to sell in 1997 for almost $2 million. The property was to be the site of a new elementary school, but in 2010 the school board decided it was no longer needed and listed the land as surplus. The property has been appraised at $7.2 million, although school documents do not say when the valuation was done and the administration isn’t answering questions

School Board Chairwoman Donna Korn, a commercial real estate leasing agent, raised doubts about continuing the negotiations after Akagbosu and Leslie Brown, the district’s chief portfolio services officer, failed to explain to her satisfaction during Tuesday’s board meeting why they had not considered the “higher per unit price” from the other company and at what point were new bids not accepted.

Although Korn never named Altman as the other company, both Lazarus and Palumbo verified Altman was that company.

“I feel like I am going in a circle and not getting what I am looking for,” Korn told the board. “At this moment some of the information I have doesn’t align with the recommendation in front of us…I know there is a higher per unit price…I just want to make sure we are getting the greatest value for the property…”

Korn did not respond to requests for comment.

Brown told the board that she considers more than price when analyzing an offer. A bidder “may come forward with a slightly higher cost per unit and then maybe the rest (of the offer) may not be equal” to a competing bid, she said.

U.S. judge asked to okay deposition of FBI agent in Sarasota Saudi probe

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

The FBI should be ordered to publicly identify and make available for questioning under oath the special agent it says authored a “wholly unsubstantiated” 2002 report that connected a Sarasota Saudi family to 9/11 terrorists, newly filed court papers say.

The 9/11 Review Commission cited without explanation the FBI’s controversial assertion in a report last month that sought to discredit the 2002 document and damage the credibility of the unnamed agent. The commission members were paid by the FBI and chosen by FBI Director James Comey.

The document, parts of which were redacted citing national security, was released to FloridaBulldog.org in March 2013 amid the news organization’s ongoing Freedom of Information lawsuit against the FBI. The document said the FBI’s investigation of the Saudi family “revealed many connections” between the family “and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

On Wednesday, the Bulldog’s attorneys asked Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Court Judge William J. Zloch to allow them to depose the FBI agent and to inspect documents cited in the 9/11 Review Commission’s report concerning the FBI’s once-secret investigation of the Sarasota Saudis.

“In light of the central importance of this agent and the lack of any independent, direct examination of the agent about the findings,” wrote attorneys Thomas Julin and Paulo Lima, “a deposition of the author of the (2002 FBI report) and access to the relevant records of the 9/11 Review Commission will shed significant light.”

Judge Zloch was asked to intervene after Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Dexter Lee informed the attorneys that the government opposed their request to depose the agent. Lee likewise rejected a request for access to the Review Commission’s supporting documents.

The 9/11 Review Commission was authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to assess new evidence in the case. It held no public hearings and relied heavily on the FBI for information, staffing and administration.

One subchapter of the commission’s report addressed FloridaBulldog.org’s story about the Sarasota Saudis, who sources and documents say abruptly moved out of their home in the gated community of Prestancia about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture, a refrigerator full of food, clothes and other goods.

While ignoring a variety of new information reported by the Bulldog – like interview-based stories about how gatehouse security records showed the home was visited by vehicles used by hijackers and another about a 2004 law enforcement report tying the home’s occupant, Abdulaziz al-Hijji, to al Qaeda figure Adnan Shukrijumah – the commission’s report focused on the credibility of the 2002 report, saying the FBI called it “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 report says.

AGENT INSTRUCTED NOT TO TALK?

According to attorneys Julin and Lima, however, the failure of the Review Commission’s report to identify either the agent or the FBI personnel who questioned him or to explain the FBI’s conclusion that the 2002 report is fatally flawed, is problematic.

“These omissions leave open the possibility that the author 0f (the report) had been instructed by the FBI or by other agencies not to explain why he wrote the document as he did, as well as the possibility the agent simply forgot why he wrote it as he did. The latter possibility seems implausible, however, in light of the startling substance of the document,” they told Judge Zloch.

A year ago, noting that previous records searches were inadequate, Zloch ordered the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records responsive to FloridaBulldog.org’s FOIA request. Ultimately, the FBI turned over more than 80,000 pages housed in its Tampa field office. Zloch is reviewing those records in order to decide what may be publicly released.

The government provided the judge with three CD-ROMs containing scanned copies of all 80,000 pages. In response to the judge’s specific instructions, the FBI also compiled 27 boxes of paper documents and planned to provide them in sets of four boxes – the maximum capacity of a high-security safe the FBI had installed in the judge’s chambers.

According to prosecutor Lee, the government delivered the first four boxes on May 1, 2014. “I have not received further directions from the court to deliver additional boxes,” Lee wrote in an email.

Thus, it’s unclear how far along Judge Zloch is in evaluating the crush of documents, all of which have been labeled “classified” by the FBI.

Attorneys Julin and Lima requested a status conference with the judge and suggested Zloch consider appointing a special master, or them, to assist in completing the document review.

Rubio’s new campaign plagued by continuing election law violations

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sen. Marco Rubio's presidential campaign logo

Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign logo

Two days before he officially announced his run for the presidency last week, Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign disclosed that it had refunded more than $23,000 in excessive contributions it previously had accepted.

Another $27,000 in over-the-limit contributions originally raised to boost Republican Rubio for a Senate primary election fight was either reclassified for use in the 2016 general election, or applied to the spouses of donors who gave more than the $2,600 maximum per election allowed by federal law, federal election records show.

That $50,000 in refunds, reclassifications and reassignments were in response to violation notices sent by the Federal Election Commission to the campaign after each of its quarterly financial report filings in 2014.

In four April 11 response letters, Rubio campaign assistant treasurer Lisa Lisker said that Rubio’s campaign committee – recently renamed Marco Rubio for President – and the separate Rubio Victory PAC had not tracked excessive contributions or duplicate entries.

“The committee now performs reviews of the data weekly to identify any excessive contributions that may have been missed during the initial processing,” Lisker wrote. “Once the excessive contributions are identified, the committee takes steps to either reattribute, re-designate or refund if necessary.”

Lisker did not explain why the campaign had neglected to track for excessive contributions before being questioned by the FEC.

Rubio’s campaign spokesman Alex Contant did not respond to two emailed requests for comment.

The FEC issued its first warning to Rubio campaign treasurer Keith Davis nearly a year ago, May 28, 2014. The notice said the campaign had received $10,000 in excessive donations from four donors during the prior three-month period. One of the contributors, Ned Lautenbach, gave $10,200, exceeding the limit by $7,600.

Lisker told the FEC Lautenbach, a trustee on the Board of Governors for Florida’s State University System, was refunded $2,600. The remaining $5,000 was split into two $2,500 donations, one for Lautenbach and one for his wife, for the 2016 general election.

MORE FEC LETTERS LAST MONTH

FEC analysts sent Davis two more letters last month that said Rubio’s campaign had reported excessive donations of $18,830 and $6,500 in quarterly reports for July and October 2014.

Indian Creek resident Robert Diener, co-founder of hotels.com, donated $5,100, which was $2,500 above the maximum allowable contribution.

Another donor was Texas pharmaceutical company owner Dian Graves Stai, who exceeded the cap by $7,800.

Lisker told the FEC that one of Diener’s donations was inputted twice by mistake by the campaign. She also said another $800 donation was refunded to Diener three weeks ago, noting that the changes will be reflected in Rubio for President reports due at the end of this month.

Stai’s $7,800 excessive contribution was refunded on Dec. 29 and was noted in the campaign’s year-end report, Lisker wrote.

On April 8, the FEC cited $15,000 in excessive donations during the three months ending in October 2014. One donor, Sandra Reus, vice president of Miami’s Sunshine Gasoline Distributors, gave Rubio’s campaign $9,600 last Dec. 19, exceeding the maximum by $7,000.

Lisker wrote back that $2,600 was applied to the general election under Reus’ name and another $4,400 was applied in the name of Reus’ husband and split into contributions for the primary and the general election.

In an unusual twist, Lisker also told the FEC that the campaign had not received any of the commission’s correspondence.

“It was recently discovered while reviewing the committee’s filings on the FEC website,” Lisker wrote. Apparently, no one at the campaign bothered to check election filings on the FEC’s online database until after FloridaBulldog.org and the Washington Post reported about the excessive donations.

In 2012, Davis and the campaign settled with the FEC after the commission found they had accepted $210,173 in excessive donations for the 2010 primary and general election, the year Rubio was elected to the Senate. The FEC also admonished the campaign for not refunding or redistributing the illegal contributions within a designated timeframe. The campaign paid a $8,000 civil penalty and agreed to enact safeguards to avoid similar errors in the future.

9/11 Review Commission under the FBI’s thumb

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York's World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

New York’s World Trade Center. Photo: Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons

A secretive blue-ribbon panel formed by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance – and to assess new evidence – was largely under the sway of the very agency it was tasked to examine.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission originally was envisioned as something very different: an independent national commission with subpoena power that would hold public hearings, take testimony, receive evidence and compel government agencies to turn over information from their files.

Proposed legislation called for a chairman and vice chairman to be appointed by the House Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, respectively. Staff would be hired without outside interference. The General Services Administration would provide support services.

That’s not what happened.

The FBI 9/11 Review Commission, which issued its final report March 25, held no public hearings and had no subpoena power. It was largely spoon-fed information by the FBI, whose personnel was on the commission’s staff and helped edit the final report to improve its “accuracy and clarity,” the report says.

The commission’s interviews and proceedings, its “Memorandums for the Record” and other documents on which the report is based were not made public.

FBI CHIEF PICKS 9/11 REVIEW PANEL

FBI Director James Comey, not the Speaker or the Majority Leader, chose the 9/11 Review Commission’s three members. The report says Comey did so “in consultation with Congress.”

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

FBI Director James Comey, flanked by 9/11 panel members Ed Meese, left, and Tim Roemer with reporters at March 25 press conference

The FBI paid the trio – former Reagan Administration Attorney General Ed Meese, former congressman and ambassador Tim Roemer, and Georgetown University securities studies professor Bruce Hoffman –under personal services contracts that also were not made public.

The commissioners selected John C. Gannon as their executive director. Gannon is a former CIA Deputy Director for Intelligence and ex-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council. The commission and Gannon, “coordinating with the Bureau,” assembled a staff of 12. “All staff members reported administratively to the FBI,” the report says.

The commission’s 127-page report, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century,” was largely supportive of the FBI, while repeatedly noting the Bureau needed to accelerate its implementation of reforms to make it a more effective anti-terrorist force.

The day the report was released, FBI Director James Comey told reporters at a Washington press conference that he was pleased with the commission’s work.

“I think this is a moment of pride for the F.B.I.,” Comey said, according to The New York Times. “An outside group of some of our nation’s most important leaders and thinkers has stared hard at us and said, ‘You have done a great job at transforming yourself.’ They’ve also said what I’ve said around the country: ‘It’s not good enough.’”

But those “outsiders” weren’t independent contractors. Rather, they were de facto FBI employees under the Bureau’s supervision and control, according to federal regulations governing the purchase of goods and services.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), section 37.104, says government personal services contracts create an “employer-employee relationship” in which contractors “are subject to the relatively continuous supervision and control of a government officer or employee.” Supervision can be direct or indirect, but is used to “adequately protect the government’s interest” or “retain control of the function involved,” the regulation says.

The FBI made no one available for an interview about the 9/11 Review Commission. When asked by email if the commission’s proceedings would be made accessible to the public, spokeswoman Kathryn D. Ballew said, “You will need to submit a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.”

A FOIA request seeking that information was filed Wednesday.

9/11 PANELISTS NOT TALKING

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: "I'm not interested in talking to you."

9/11 Review Commission member Bruce Hoffman: “I’m not interested in talking to you.”

Despite repeated requests, none of the commissioners would be interviewed about their report or the commission. Spokespersons for Meese and Roemer said they were not available. Hoffman, reached at his Georgetown office, said, “I’m not interested in talking to you” and hung up.

The Georgetown Security Studies Review interviewed Hoffman on March 27. Hoffman called the FBI “immensely supportive” of the commission.

“They didn’t make one change at all to the findings and recommendations,” said Hoffman. “They really changed very little in the report and in fact only classified slightly more than a dozen pages in a nearly 130 page document.”

However, it is not apparent from reading the report that any pages were classified and omitted from publication.

Commission Executive Director Gannon did not respond to phone or email messages.

Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chairman of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has accused the FBI of a coverup that has protected Saudi Arabia. He called the idea of an FBI performance review “meritorious,” but said the lack of access to supporting documentation prohibits a public examination of the commission’s work.

“This secret process, the composition of staff and the lack of public hearings to secure a broad range of evaluation of the FBI’s post-9/11 performance raises questions as to whether this report achieved its objective of a thorough and balanced examination of America’s domestic intelligence agency,” Graham said.

Transparency was on the mind of Rep. Peter King, R-NY, when in July 2011 he sponsored the 9/11 Review Commission Act (HR 2623) which sought to create an independent body under Congress with the authority to hold open hearings, compel needed testimony and retain experts and consultants.

The bill went nowhere and died at the end of 2012. Three months later, a provision for a watered-down 9/11 Review Commission under the auspices of the FBI was inserted into a large appropriations bill that President Obama signed into law in March 2013.

All mention of public hearings, subpoena power and legislative control had been stripped out.

House appropriations subcommittee member Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a co-sponsor of King’s bill, inserted the language that established the Review Commission. Wolf, who retired in January, did not respond to requests for comment.

But Kevin Fogarty, an aide to Rep. King, explained that King and Wolf “determined it was more feasible and expedient to move the FBI-focused review” via the appropriations bill. Fogarty did not explain why the new measure gave the FBI funding for and authority over the commission.

“Rep. King has the option of reintroducing HR 2623 should he feel it necessary in the future,” Fogarty said via email.

Following delays caused by sequestration, the 9/11 Review Commission was established in January 2014. While still not fully staffed, commissioners appeared before Wolf’s subcommittee the following March to explain how they planned to operate under their $1 million budget.

COMMISSION RELIED HEAVILY ON FBI

The commission’s report shows it relied heavily on the FBI for information and sought little input from sources outside the U.S. Intelligence Community. In addition to CIA boss John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the approximately 30 interviewees included former FBI Director Robert Mueller and four other ex-FBI officials. The commission also met several times with Director Comey.

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

FBI Director Robert Mueller, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and CIA Director John Brennan testify before the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in 2013

The commission’s work was also informed by travel to eight FBI field offices and six FBI legal attaché posts in Ottawa, Beijing, Manila, Singapore, London and Madrid, the report says.

At FBI headquarters, commissioners were given more than “60 extensive briefings” on topics ranging from the “Evolution of the National Security Branch” to PENTTBOM, the code-name for its 9/11 investigation, and the “Sarasota Family.”

The Sarasota family refers to Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji, Saudis who became the focus of an FBI investigation shortly after 9/11 when it was learned they’d moved abruptly out of their home in an upscale, gated community south of Sarasota two weeks before the attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other belongings.

FloridaBulldog.org, working with Irish author and journalist Anthony Summers, first reported about that investigation, and how the FBI had not disclosed it to either Congress’s Joint Inquiry or the 9/11 Commission, in September 2011.

The story cited a senior counterterrorism agent and a security administrator at the gated community, Larry Berberich, who said that sign-in logs and photos snapped of license tags of entering vehicles fit information on 9/11 hijack pilots Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, both of whom had attended a flight school about 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport.

The counterterrorism agent also said an analysis of phone records for calls to and from the al-Hijji’s home dating back more than a year found ties to Atta, Jarrah and other terrorist suspects, including former Miramar resident and alleged al Qaeda operative Adnan El Shukrijumah.

The FBI acknowledged the probe and said it had found no ties to terrorism, but declined to explain or release additional information.

The FBI’s denial was later contradicted by its own documents that were made public two years ago amid ongoing Freedom of Information litigation brought by Broward Bulldog, Inc., FloridaBulldog.org corporate parent. One 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.”

FBI DISAVOWS OWN SARASOTA DOCUMENT

The 9/11 Review Commission, tasked to examine new evidence, obtained a copy of the Sarasota case file and was briefed by the FBI, which disavowed its April 2002 report saying it 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 report says.

The report does not name the agent, but its language suggests the commission accepted the FBI’s statements without challenge. The report does not address why the FBI kept its Sarasota investigation a secret from two federal inquiries into 9/11.

Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter represents plaintiffs pursuing claims against Saudi Arabia and others for allegedly providing material support to al Qaeda in the years before 9/11. He said the Review Commission failed to seek out new evidence compiled in that civil case, including jailed former al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui’s highly publicized statement in which he accused Saudi Arabia’s royal family of bankrolling the terrorist group.

“To the extent that they were interested in looking at new evidence you would have expected them to reach out to us, and they never did,” Carter said.

Sen. Graham suggested two ways to alleviate concerns about the integrity of the 9/11 Review Commission’s work.

The FBI should “release all material relating to the commission except those that represent a legitimate national security concern.” And Congress, when it receives the commission’s report, should “do so in an open hearing with the opportunity for testimony by other Americans and a full examination of the commission’s procedures, structure and conclusions, Graham said.

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