U.S. judge tosses lawsuit to block All Aboard Florida; Money for Phase 2 still in question

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org 

All Aboard Florida’s Brightline Express train

All Aboard Florida’s plan to operate regular passenger train service between Miami and Orlando survived a lawsuit filed by Indian River and Martin counties when a federal judge on May 10 dismissed the suit. But funding problems remain.

The counties, which opposed the train, sued the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2015, stating the agency ignored the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act when it agreed to issue $1.75 billion in non-taxable private activity bonds (PAB) for All Aboard Florida (AAF), which would mean up to $600 million in lost tax revenue over 10 years, according to court documents.

Phase 1 of the ambitious project, creating a passenger route and terminals at three stops along the Florida East Coast railroad line between Miami and West Palm Beach, is well under way. It is Phase 2 that is now precarious.

AAF, whose parent company – Florida East Coast Industries – is owned by the hedge fund Fortress Investment Group, approached the state nearly three years ago with a plan to build and operate a privately owned railroad that would allow passengers to travel from Miami to Cocoa and from there to Orlando. AAF claims that trains would shave at least an hour off the drive time by car.

Railroad depots are nearly complete in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach; a second set of tracks is being installed, and new engines and passenger cars have been shipped. AAF estimates that both phases now will cost more than $2.9 billion, excluding the cost of easements and land purchases it has already made.

But a lawsuit by Martin and Indian River counties, which challenged DOT’s bonding authority in federal court in Washington, D.C. in April 2015, gained traction last fall as their attorneys fended off DOT’s motion to dismiss the case while uncovering evidence that AAF has little or no money in hand to begin Phase 2 construction.

AAF withdrew its application for the bonds on Sept. 30, 2016 and requested another $600-million bond issue to complete Phase 1, possibly resolving the matter.

Attorneys for the counties argued that AAF will not limit the $600-million bond funding to Phase 1. As evidence, they stated in their earlier motion that AAF said the money would be used to pay for five train sets, which will service the entire route rather than just Phase 1.

Judge Cooper rules

After several hearing delays, Judge Christopher R. Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia now says because the train company pulled its request for the bonds, the issue is moot.

AAF continues work on Phase 1 that runs the trains from Miami to West Palm Beach and is expected to begin operating between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale in late summer. The extension to Miami will open after that, company officials said.

While Cooper previously agreed that the environmental study was necessary for AAF’s second phase from Cocoa to Orlando if PABs were used for funding, he stated in his judgment that requiring the study is a case-by-case matter.

“Whether a particular PAB allocation constitutes ‘major federal action’ requiring compliance with [the National Environmental Policy Act] depends on a host of factors relating to the amount and nature of the federal assistance provided and the degree of control that federal agencies exercise over the project,” the judge stated in his order.

Both sides have hailed the order a victory.

“The ruling includes a severe warning to U.S. DOT should it issue another PAB request for the AAF project without first complying with the nation’s environmental laws: ‘if DOT were to do so, Plaintiffs could readily call it to the carpet by renewing their lawsuits in this Court,’ ” stated Brent Hanlon of Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida, which also opposes the trains, in a written statement.

In the meantime, AAF’s Brightline took delivery of two new trains that will provide service in South Florida later this year. Named BrightGreen and BrightOrange after the signature color schemes of the train cars, the sets were delivered simultaneously from Siemens Rolling Stock manufacturing hub in Sacramento, CA, according to a company statement.

They joined BrightBlue and BrightPink Saturday, May 13. Brightline trains are approximately 1,000 feet long. They are Buy America compliant, manufactured with components from more than 40 U.S. suppliers in 20 states. The trains are being held at Brightline’s 12-acre railroad operations facility in West Palm Beach.

“All Aboard Florida believes Judge Cooper properly dismissed the case, and we appreciate his thoughtful review and articulation of the facts and the law,” AAF officials said in a prepared statement. “We look forward to working with the Treasure Coast in a cooperative and more productive fashion as we advance this important infrastructure project.”

Phase 2 funding murky

Still murky is funding for Phase 2. In his order, Judge Cooper pointed out that obtaining additional funding from the U.S. government might be difficult due to the differences between former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump.

“Any decision on a future application by AAF will be made by entirely different officials in the new administration. While the new administration has not publicly opined on the AAF project (as far as the Court is aware), its early actions with respect to publicly-funded rail transportation in general suggest that it might take a different track,” he wrote.

In his budget proposal to Congress, Trump would axe DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic (TIGER) grants, which this fiscal year amounted to $500 million in grants across the country. Broward and Palm Beach counties were denied grants in 2014 for crossing improvements necessary for the railway tracks.

AAF stated it is evaluating several options for funding Phase 2 to Orlando.

Another Fortress company, Florida East Coast Railway, over whose tracks AAF’s trains will run, has been sold to Grupo Mexico Transportes. The $2.1-billion deal hinges on regulatory officials’ approval. Grupo Mexico has for years dominated the railway freight sector in Mexico, according to Reuters News Service.

And, Fortress itself was sold to Softbank, a Japanese telecommunications and technology conglomerate, in February. The deal, which as of Thursday May 25 had not closed, brought $3.3 billion.

However, according to The Straits Time, a Singapore-based media outlet, that transaction has not gone smoothly. On March 1, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) froze assets of Maybank Kim Eng Securities, Singapore, and UK-based R.J. O’Brien Ltd.

The SEC is looking into charges of insider trading by customers of the two companies. Trades made just before Softbank announced the purchase produced $3.6 million in potentially illegal profits. Customers, who have been difficult to identify because they are masked in this type of trading, purchased the stock just prior to the Feb.14 offer, driving up stock prices by 28 percent. Buyers held the stock for just 24 hours before selling it for a profit.

AAF did not comment on whether or not the sale of the two companies would affect it. Instead, a spokesperson stated that it was “investing a significant amount on the extension to Orlando. We are in the process of finalizing the remaining permits and launching the South Florida segment in a few months.”

Trial looms as judge denies FBI request to keep 9/11 records secret for privacy reasons

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York World Trade Center’s North Tower ablaze on Sept. 11, 2001

In a ruling that could lead to the release of significant new information about 9/11, including details about who funded the al Qaeda terrorist attacks, a Miami federal judge has rejected FBI assertions that many records should be kept secret due to privacy considerations.

At the same time, U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga granted summary judgment in the FBI’s favor regarding more than 1,000 pages of classified records it withheld from public view citing national security and other exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Those records, about which little is known, will remain secret.

A trial could be needed to resolve outstanding issues in the case, the judge said.

Florida Bulldog’s parent, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI last June seeking records of the 9/11 Review Commission kept by the FBI. The commission, whose most prominent member was Reagan-era Attorney General Ed Meese, was authorized by Congress to take an “external” look at the FBI’s post-9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence. Instead, Meese and two other members were chosen, paid and spoon-fed information by the FBI.

Among other things, Judge Altonaga analyzed the legality of FBI redactions in 28 partially declassified documents that were disputed by the Bulldog’s attorneys. Again and again, she declared as “unconvincing” FBI arguments asserting a need to veil the names of agents, suspects and others for privacy reasons – specifically citing FOIA Exemptions 6 and 7(c).

“Release of this information could further the public interest in learning about the September 11 attacks and may outweigh any privacy interest individuals mentioned in the document may have,” she wrote. You can read her order here.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents Florida Bulldog. “The FBI must stop being so secretive about the events of 9/11,” he said. “Excessive assertion of privacy is harming national security. The next FBI director should put a stop to this.”

Here’s what the judge had to say about numerous privacy deletions made to an Oct. 5, 2012 FBI memo about an active but previously unknown investigation by New York authorities, who were actively looking to indict an unidentified suspect with providing material support for the 9/11 hijackers:

‘Significant public interest’

“Plaintiffs have identified the significant public interest in information about who may have been involved in the September 11 attacks…Given the significant public interest in learning about possible suspects involved in the attacks, the FBI has not met its burden of showing Exemptions 6 and 7(c) apply to the selectively redacted names.”

The October 2012 document was also censored for national security and other reasons. Those redactions were upheld by Altonaga and will not be made public. Also not to be released: draft copies of the 9/11 Review Commission’s final report, which was released in March 2015.

The title page of the 9/11 Review Commission’s 2015 report.

Other partially-declassified FBI documents similarly appear to be chock full of deleted information about September 11th that Judge Altonaga determined is being improperly withheld from the public.

Among the most compelling is a PowerPoint presentation given to the 9/11 Review Commission on April 25, 2014 in a closed meeting. The title of the PowerPoint was “Overview of 9/11 Investigation,” and court papers say it “covers the hijackers, where they attended flight school, how they adapted to Western life and blended in, and known co-conspirators.”

The PowerPoint pages that Judge Altonaga now has identified as being improperly blanked out include these topics:

  • “Funding of the 9/11 Attacks” and “Early to Mid-2001 Additional Funding.” Two pages.
  • “KSM Non-Immigrant Visa Application.” KSM is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Guantanamo detainee identified by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks.”
  • “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”
  • “Al-Hawsawi Credit Card Statement Supplemental Card Activity.” Like KSM, Mustafa al-Hawsawi is one of 17 “high-value” Guantanamo detainees. The Department of Defense says he was a “senior” al Qaeda member who helped facilitate “the movement and funding of 9/11 hijackers to the U.S.”
  • “Standard Chartered Bank KSM Supplemental Visa Application.”
  • “Ongoing Investigation.” Four pages.

Questions about who bankrolled the 9/11 attacks are at the heart of massive litigation in New York against principal defendants, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The consolidated lawsuits were brought by relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died in the attacks, survivors and businesses that suffered property damage.

A future king’s involvement

Before he was crowned in 2015, King Salman “actively directed” the Saudi High Commission, an official charity whose funding was “especially important to al Qaeda acquiring the strike capabilities used to launch attacks in the U.S.,” according to court papers filed last year by lawyers for the 9/11victims and their families.

The Freedom of Information Act requires the FBI to conduct an adequate search for records that is “reasonably calculated to uncover all relevant (requested) documents.” Florida Bulldog attorney Julin argued, however, that the FBI’s search of 9/11 Review Commission records was inadequate and had intentionally concealed records that appear to remain missing. But Altonaga decided the government had met its burden of showing the search was “adequate and reasonable.”

Saudi King Salman presenting President Trump the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal on Saturday at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh. Photo: Al Arabiya English

Likewise, the judge ruled in the government’s favor regarding a dispute over whether the FBI should be required to produce documents in the case file of “the Sarasota family.” The FBI previously included those records among 80,000 pages of 9/11 records submitted in a parallel FOIA case pending before Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch, who since 2014 has been evaluating those records for possible public release. The FBI will not be required to produce those records in the Miami FOIA case.

The “Sarasota family” refers to Saudi citizens Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji and her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. The al-Hijjis lived in an upscale home owned by the Ghazzawis in a gated community named Prestancia.

Neighbors called the police after 9/11 to report that the al-Hijjis had abruptly moved out of their home about two weeks before 9/11, leaving behind their cars, furniture and other personal belongings. The FBI opened an investigation that fall that an April 2002 FBI report says found “many connections” between the Sarasota Saudis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.”

For reasons that remain unclear, however, the FBI never notified Congress or the 9/11 Commission about what happened in Sarasota, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the terrorist attacks.

Smoke rising after the crash of United 93 in Shanksville, Pa. on Sept. 11, 2001. Photo: Val McClatchey

Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, first reported about what happened in Sarasota a decade later in September 2011. A counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity said agents found phone and gatehouse records that linked the al-Hijjis’ home on Escondito Circle to Mohamed Atta and Ziad Jarrah, who between June 2000 and January 2001 took flight training just 10 miles away at Venice Municipal Airport’s Huffman Aviation.

Atta was at the controls of the American Airlines passenger jet that crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Jarrah was the pilot who wrested control of United Airlines Flight 93, the jetliner that crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers rebelled against their hijackers.

After the Florida Bulldog story broke, the FBI confirmed that it had investigated, but said it found no ties to the 9/11 plot. It also said Congress had been told about its Sarasota investigation.

FBI tries to discredit own report

In April 2014, the FBI sought to discredit its April 2002 report during a private meeting with the 9/11 Review Commission. The FBI said then that the agent who wrote the report had no basis for doing so, but it did not elaborate or identify the agent. The assertion prompted Florida Bulldog to file a FOIA request for the commission’s files. After a year passed without a response from the bureau, the second FOIA lawsuit was filed.

Documents about that briefing include numerous sections withheld for privacy reasons that the judge said were improper. Several additional documents, including interviews with Florida witnesses who knew Atta and other hijackers, contain similar deletions about what went on in Sarasota prior to 9/11 that could be restored based on the judge’s findings.

One of those documents, titled “Alleged Sarasota Links to 9/11 Hijackers” has been released three times by the FBI, each time looking differently. The first release, in March 2013, was on stationery of the “Counterterrorism Division of the Guantanamo Detainee Prosecution Section, 9/11 Prosecution Unit.” The two-page memo, containing numerous privacy redactions, was written in response to the Bulldog’s initial story in September 2011 and says that “the FBI found no evidence that connected the family members” to the hijackers.

The FBI released the document again on Dec. 30, 2016. This time all mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 Prosecution Unit as the source of the memo was removed and more information that had been previously released was now deleted. In April, after the Bulldog’s attorney’s protested, the FBI released a third copy that restored some of the deleted information, but still removed mention of the Guantanamo 9/11 unit.

In her ruling last week, Judge Altonaga denied the FBI’s request for summary judgment “as to all redactions in this document.” Altonaga wrote “the court cannot fathom why the FBI would redact and claim a statutory exemption for information it has already released and which plaintiffs already possess.”

The FBI must now decide whether to make public the information for which summary judgment was denied or continue to oppose release.

Judge Altonaga’s order gives both sides until Thursday, May 25, to file a joint status report “advising how they wish to proceed to conclude the case, and if a trial is to be held, to propose a trial period.”

On Monday afternoon, the FBI requested an extension until June 2.

“The FBI is currently working to determine how to proceed with the information as to which the Court denied summary judgment, i.e., whether the information will be released to Plaintiffs or whether the agency must persist in defense of its claimed FOIA exemptions,” says the motion filed by Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell. “This process, which is already under way, requires not only the FBI’s own internal analysis, but also consultation with the Justice Department’s Civil Appellate Division and with at least one other government agency.”

Hialeah’s mayor, a former crony, an off-the-books city gig and an ethics investigation

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, left, and retired Hialeah police officer Glenn Rice Photo: NBC6

Being a political operative for Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez comes with city perks.

Glenn Rice — a former city cop who worked on the mayor’s 2011 and 2013 campaigns — collected roughly $12,000 during a three-year period acting as an off-the-books employee monitoring the company Hialeah hired to collect trash from private homes, as well as investigating potential hires and vendors, according to an April 25 Miami-Dade ethics commission close-out memo.

Ethics commission officials began probing Rice’s work for the city between 2013 and 2016 while investigating separate criminal allegations that Hernandez was shaking down local businesses, and that Rice was collecting bribes on the mayor’s behalf. At the time, Rice was also working as a $2,000-a-month consultant for three city vendors, including two garbage-collection firms.

While ethics investigator Karl Ross didn’t find enough evidence to recommend the filing of ethics or criminal charges against Hernandez, his findings suggest the mayor attempted to conceal his involvement in the city retaining Rice’s services. Hernandez did not return a message left with his secretary Thursday afternoon and his defense lawyer, Tom Cobitz, declined comment.

Ross began looking into the relationship between Hernandez and Rice on Aug.13, 2015, according to ethics commission records. The ethics investigator, along with a detective and a prosecutor with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, interviewed Hialeah Police Lt. Rick Fernandez and Hialeah firefighters union representative Eric Johnson. Both men accused Hernandez of “extorting” two local businessmen and claimed that Rice was the mayor’s bagman.

When Hernandez, who was a high-ranking Hialeah police officer before becoming a councilman, ran for mayor in 2011 and re-election two years later, Rice often engaged his political godfather’s opponents in public confrontations. Among the Hernandez detractors Rice accosted include former Mayor Raul Martinez and blogger ex-Miami Herald reporter Elaine de Valle, who first wrote about the ethics investigation on her blog, Political Cortadito.

Hernandez and Rice have since apparently had a falling out. “Lt. Fernandez stated Rice is no longer on good terms with Mayor Hernandez,” a March 30 ethics investigative report said. “[Fernandez] stated he knows Rice well, and that [Rice] might be willing to cooperate if issued immunity via subpoena.”

In a sworn statement last fall, Hernandez said Rice volunteered to be his campaign’s “ally,” “political informant” and “snitch.” But the mayor — despite being Hialeah’s top bureaucrat — said he did not know how Rice ended up overseeing the rollout of trash-collection services by Progressive Waste Solutions. “I think he volunteered,” Hernandez told investigators on Sept. 26. He then referred them to Armando Vidal, the city’s public works director, for more specifics. “I think he can better answer the question,” Hernandez said.

Mayor denies wrongdoing

The mayor also vehemently denied directing any vendors or local business owners to make payments to him via Rice. “He said he felt Rice ‘took a lot of liberties’ and ‘used the perception of influence’ to make money,” the close-out memo states.

On Feb. 3, Vidal gave a sworn statement contradicting the mayor. “Mr. Vidal advised that several of the jobs originated with Mayor Hernandez and that Rice’s involvement was expressly requested,” the close-out memo states. “He said the mayor wanted Rice to assist the public works department in monitoring issues relating to solid waste, and also to assist the city attorney in vetting a consulting firm.”

Additionally, Vidal said he believed Hernandez was aware that Rice was being paid through a legal services contract the city had with the law firm of Miami Lakes Councilman Ceasar Mestre, who told ethics investigators he has been friends with the Hialeah mayor since 1983. Rice was subcontracted to handle “relevant investigative duties.”

“[Vidal] said the mayor trusted Rice to provide an independent look at matters relating to City of Hialeah affairs,” the close-out memo said. The public works director also showed ethics investigator Ross invoices totaling $18,056 the city paid Mestre’s law practice. Two-thirds of the money was paid to Rice, according to ethics investigators. Vidal could not be reached for comment because he is on vacation this week.

On April 4, Mestre met with Ross and told him it was either Vidal or Rice who approached him about providing legal services and that the arrangement would include the former Hialeah police officer. (Mestre was also a city cop from 1983 to 1987.) “Mestre said he never considered that his law firm was being used as a way to conceal payments to Rice from public view,” the close- out memo states. “He said, ‘that was never discussed… Mayor Hernandez and I never talked about this until after the fact.’”

Mestre did not return a message left with his secretary or an email requesting comment.

When Ross contacted Rice, the ex-cop said Hernandez “was aware of these payments” through Mestre’s law firm. In an email response to Florida Bulldog, Rice did not comment on what is written about him in the close-out memo and other investigative reports. But he said Vidal told the truth.

“Armando Vidal may be considered to be brash and an a-hole by many,” Rice said. “But he is one of the most honorable men I’ve ever come to know and he DOES NOT and will not lie for anyone.”

Gov. Scott doesn’t let politics get in way of investing in firm that believes in climate change

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott Photo: CNN

When Rick Scott ran for governor in 2010, he told a reporter he wasn’t convinced that global warming was real. In 2015, the Scott Administration was reported to have told state employees to lay off using “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications.

Today, the governor’s office dodges questions about Scott’s position on the use of those terms, saying instead, “Governor Scott is focused on real solutions to protect our environment.”

Still, the ultra-wealthy Scott hasn’t let his politics get in the way of making money. Through First Lady Ann Scott, the governor has a substantial financial stake in a sizable mosquito control company that recently declared on its Facebook page that “mosquitos will only get worse thanks to #climatechange” and “#globalwarming.”

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC, and it had a banner year in 2016.

The Scotts’ big bet on the Zika fighter MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, a Connecticut investment firm in which Ann Scott is a major investor. The firm is run by Gregory Scott, no relation to the governor, and two other men who worked for the governor’s old Naples-based private equity firm Richard L. Scott Investments (RLSI) – and obscured that connection by omitting it from their online biographies until after Florida Bulldog disclosed it three years ago.

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

Mosquito Control Services’ Facebook page from April 27, 2017

Florida Bulldog first reported on Gov. Scott’s indirect and undisclosed ownership interest in MCS last August. Scott’s office would not comment on Ann Scott’s ownership interest in MCS.

Scott Capital, as it’s known online, manages several private funds and “family accounts” for a handful of extremely wealthy clients. The firm thoroughly vets potential company investments before negotiating a purchase. Likewise, the firm monitors the performance of the companies it acquires. Its investment program “aims to generate high financial returns by making direct control investments in established, U.S.-headquartered lower middle market companies” like MCS.

Taking control

As of January 2017, Scott Capital was holding approximately $102 million of its client assets.

GSCP MCS LLC was formed in Delaware in August 2014 to recapitalize and take control of MCS, according to reports filed by Scott Capital with the Securities and Exchange Commission. In March 2016, the fund was valued at just under $10 million. Twelve months later, the fund’s reported value had risen nearly 28 percent to $12,715,853.

Mosquito Control Services is an insecticide spraying company that’s based in Louisiana but does business across the Gulf Coast, including Florida, according to its website. It boasts a spraying “fleet of Beechcraft King Air turbine-powered twin-engine aircraft” and says the company’s primary customers are municipalities. MCS does not do business with the State of Florida.

MCS manager Steven Pavlovich did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The scientific consensus is that global warming and climate change will bring damaging sea-level rise that will create new mosquito breeding grounds and likely hike infection rates for mosquito-borne diseases like Zika, malaria and West Nile virus.

Like the Scotts and their advisors, stock market analysts see investor opportunity in the pest control services market, particularly the mosquito control segment. One recent report by Future Market Insights forecast solid industry growth over the next decade citing a variety of reasons including “prevalent weather conditions supporting insect growth.”

MCS, through its Facebook post, made clear its belief that global warming and climate change are very real concerns. It also shared an April 20 New York Times Magazine article with the ominous title, “Why the Menace of Mosquitoes Will Only Get Worse – Climate change is altering the environment in ways that increase the potential for viruses like Zika.”

Mysterious Saudi businessman in 9/11 puzzle surfaces – online

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

New York City, September 11, 2001

A mysterious figure at the center of the puzzle about an apparent Sarasota-area support network for 9/11 hijackers is a rich Saudi Arabian businessman with ties to the kingdom’s ruling House of Saud and international and American political leaders.

Esam Abbas Ghazzawi, son of a former Saudi ambassador, stepped from the shadows recently when he posted a website publicizing his extravagant design work for Saudi royalty and details about his background. He did not, however, respond to Florida Bulldog emailed requests for comment.

State records show that Ghazzawi, 66, and his American-born wife, Deborah, owned the home at 4224 Escondito Circle in Sarasota that became the focus of an FBI investigation after neighbors reported that its occupants — Ghazzawi’s daughter Anoud and his son-in-law Abdulaziz al-Hijji — had abruptly moved out and returned with Ghazzawi to Saudi Arabia about two weeks before the terrorist attacks – leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal belongings.

Authorities later obtained security records from the gated community and determined that cars driven by 9/11 hijack leader Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the al-Hijjis’ residence. A heavily-censored April 2002 FBI report released to Florida Bulldog in 2013 amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation says FBI agents found “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001.” The FBI, however, kept those findings secret from both Congress and the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks.

(The FBI disavowed its 2002 report in 2014, telling the 9/11 Review Commission that the agent who wrote it had no basis to do so. The FBI did not identify the agent or further explain the bizarre turn of events. FBI Director James Comey, fired Tuesday by President Trump, publicly mischaracterized the Review Commission as an independent body when in fact he chose its three members and the FBI paid them.)

A decade passed before the FBI’s Sarasota investigation became public when Florida Bulldog, working with Irish author Anthony Summers, reported it in September 2011. The FBI soon confirmed the existence of the investigation, but said it found no connection between the Saudi family and the 9/11 plot. Agents also said the Sarasota probe was reported to Congress.

The newly posted information shows that Ghazzawi is a commercial landscape and interior designer whose companies have handled multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia. Until July 2001 he was also an advisor to Prince Fahd Bin Salman Abdul Aziz al-Saud (Prince Fahd), an ex-classmate and eldest son of King Salman, who died that month of heart failure.

Bush, Bhutto and John Major

His website, esamghazzawidesigns.com, features photographs of Ghazzawi’s luxurious designs that have “transformed homes into palaces.” Magazine articles from the early 2000s show him meeting world leaders, including former United Kingdom Prime Minister John Major, the late Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and ex-President George H.W. Bush. Bush signed his picture, “To Esam A. Ghazzawi Best Wishes, George Bush.”

Esam Ghazzawi shaking hands with George H.W. Bush in an undated photo signed by the former president. The photo was taken during one of Bush’s visits to Saudi Arabia, according to the Arab language magazine “The House”

An English-language article describes Ghazzawi as a father of five who graduated high school in Saudi Arabia and attended college in the U.S., obtaining a bachelor’s degree in 1975 from Chapman College in Orange, CA. “Mr. Ghazzawi maintains residences all over the world – the family’s primary residence (which is a sprawling beach house) is in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Gulf. (He) also has a large city penthouse in Riyadh and other secondary residences” in London, Sarasota and Arlington, VA, says the article in On Design magazine. 

Ghazzawi was described as providing turnkey design services “primarily for grand scale residential interiors within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” His clients were said to be “well educated, well-traveled and very affluent. To date, most have been high-ranking government hierarchy in his home country.”

Ghazzawi, through his Esam Arabia Projects Est. and the Luxury Home Collection Ltd., boasted a “full-time staff” of architects, draftsmen, artists and CADD (computer-aided design and drafting) operators. “It is not unusual for Mr. Ghazzawi to have hundreds of workers on site at one time,” the article in On Design says.

An example is Esam Arabia’s 1998-2001work as the principal contractor on a $28-million landscape and lighting project to create a “paradise-setting” at Yamama Palace in Riyadh, the residence of Prince Abdul Azziz bin Fahd, son of then King Fahd. California-based Lee-Wolfe and Associates provided project management. Company co-owner Paul L. Wolfe said he knew Ghazzawi, but declined to be interviewed.

Former British Prime Minister John Major with Prince Fahd bin Salman, center, and Esam Ghazzawi in an undated photograph.

The FBI closely guards its files on Ghazzawi and has steadfastly refused to release even his name – except once in an apparent oversight while processing documents for release to Florida Bulldog.

The documents were a copy of a letter and a list of phone numbers received by the FBI on July 23, 2002. Details about the letter and the list were blanked out, but the “title” of the file into which they were placed – Esam Ghazzawi – was not.

The FBI’s interest in Ghazzawi, while cryptic, is longstanding. In 2003, according to Sarasota attorney Scott McKay, an FBI agent sought to enlist McKay’s help in convincing Ghazzawi to return to Florida to sign legal documents regarding his Sarasota property. The ploy failed.

Ghazzawi on FBI watch list

In 2011, a counter-terrorism agent told author Summers, who with Robbyn Swan wrote the 9/11 history The Eleventh Day, that Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on an FBI watch list and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

The government’s pre-9/11 interest in Ghazzawi likely included his ties to the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce (BCCI), or as it came to be known by law enforcement, the “Bank of Crooks and Criminals.”  Ghazzawi had three accounts at BCCI’s London branch worth about $400,000, according to a 1996 appeals court ruling published in The Times of London.

Bank liquidators contended Ghazzawi was a nominee owner of the funds and that the true owner was his employer at the time, Prince Fahd. The liquidators had claimed the funds pursuant to a guarantee the prince had given regarding an overdrawn account.

Esam Ghazzawi posing in an undated advertisement for his Saudi company, Luxury Home Collection, in the Arab language magazine, The House.

Ghazzawi is today a member of the board of directors of the London subsidiary of EIRAD, a Saudi company that sponsors multinational companies in Saudi Arabia, including United Parcel Service (UPS).

The investigative website Who.What.Why. has reported that Ghazzawi’s brother, Mamdouh, is the executive managing director the parent firm, EIRAD Holding Co. Ltd.

According to The House of Saud in Commerce, a detailed study of Saudi royal entrepreneurship published in 2001 prior to 9/11, EIRAD was headed by Prince Fahd until his death later that year.

EIRAD had ties to the U.S. intelligence community. “In June 1995, the U.S. government approved a business venture between Orbital Imaging Corp. of the USA and EIRAD International for the supply of satellite images to the government and commercial customers in the Middle East,” the book says.

Orbital Imaging, later known as GeoEye, had contracts to provide reconnaissance for the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The company is now owned by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.

Business ties to Bin Laden family

The book says Prince Fahd’s other business interests included Saudi Ceramics Co., whose “prominent Saudi partners” included the Bin Laden family. Today, EIRAD’s chairman is another son of King Salman, Prince Sultan bin Salman Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the former pilot in the Royal Saudi Air Force who in 1985 was an astronaut payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Court papers filed last month by attorneys representing Florida Bulldog in its FOIA litigation argue that it “is now clear that substantial evidence exists that Esam Ghazzawi was not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill Saudi citizen, but rather was (and is) an uber-wealthy Saudi whose father, Abbas Ghazzawi, had been a Saudi ambassador and close associate of at least three Saudi kings.” Photographs of Abbas Ghazzawi in an article posted on his son’s website reportedly depict him with Saudi Kings Saud, Faisal and Fahd.

Abbas Ghazzawi in undated photos with Saudi King Faisal, left and King Fahd.

Abbas Faiq Ghazzawi, 84, is a Saudi diplomat who served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, as recently as a decade ago, was ambassador to Germany, according to Who’s Who in the Arab World. Declassified diplomatic cables posted by the State Department show that in 1979 Ghazzawi, was political counsel for the Ministry for Eastern Affairs, represented Saudi Arabia in sensitive discussions with U.S. diplomats regarding Soviet military units in Afghanistan, the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and terrorist incidents inside Saudi Arabia.

Esam Ghazzawi’s son, Adel Ghazzawi, 46, is also prominent. He is a prior board member at the East-West Institute, the New York think tank whose board members include ex-Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. Adel Ghazzawi is the founder of Conektas, a company based in the United Arab Emirates that helps foreign companies establish businesses in the Middle East.

According to Relationship Science, which bills itself as the world’s “most powerful database of decision makers,” Adel Ghazzawi is on the board of directors of Arabtec Saudi Arabia LLC. Arabtec Construction, one of the world’s largest construction companies, set up its Saudi subsidiary in 2009 as a joint venture with CPC Services (Construction Products Holding Company), a member of the Saudi Bin Laden Group, and Prime International Group Services.

At the time, Emirates Business quoted an Adel Ghazzawi, whom it identified as Prime International’s chief executive officer. Ghazzawi told the news service that he began discussions with Arabtec. “We initiated discussions two months ago and have been working very closely with Arabtec Holdings on moving their business into Saudi along with the Bin Laden Group.”

Adel Ghazzawi could not be located for comment.

Panama Papers

Curiously, Prime International surfaced last year in the Panama Papers case, the trove of 11.5 million leaked documents detailing private financial information about hundreds of thousands of offshore entities. Such entities are legal, but have been used to commit fraud, tax evasion and other crimes.

The website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists identifies Prime International Group Services Ltd. as having been established in 2004 in the British Virgin Islands, and as being beneficially owned by Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, the former astronaut. Its intermediary is listed as the Fahad Al-Nabet law office in Riyadh, and its overseas agent as the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That firm’s founders, Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonesca, were arrested in February on money-laundering charges.

About two years after the al-Hijjis moved out their Sarasota home, Adel Ghazzawi tried to get a homeowner’s association lien removed so the house could be sold. The discussions proved to be contentious, according to then-property manager Jone Weist.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

The Sarasota Herald Tribune has reported that while the al-Hijjis lived in the Prestancia development, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi were frequent visitors to the home they shared with their small children. Florida Bulldog recently has learned that in the summer of 2001 Anoud al-Hijji’s 18-year-old brother, Salman Ghazzawi, also lived at the home.

In 2013, the newspaper interviewed Carla DiBello, who knew the al-Hijjis and met Esam Ghazzawi several times. “I remember him being very eccentric. He loved going to big dinners and always had a lot of security,” DiBello said.

Florida Bulldog’s court papers contend that evidence of contacts between Ghazzawi’s family and 9/11 hijackers provide “additional evidence…of possible Saudi support for the 9/11 attacks…and should have triggered a full-scale and thorough investigation by the FBI.” Instead, the FBI “deliberately concealed” those contacts from congressional investigators to protect the Ghazzawis or “negligently failed to conduct a proper investigation of the possibility of complicity of Ghazzawi family members in the 9/11 attacks,” the court papers say.

FBI records that have been released indicate that as of 2004, the FBI apparently had not interviewed Ghazzawi about what happened in Sarasota.

Florida Bulldog’s attorneys Thomas Julin, Raymond Miller, Kyle Teal and Anaili Cure of the Gunster law firm argued the FBI is today “improperly” withholding records “not because those records would harm national security” or otherwise cause harm, but “rather because disclosure…would result in valid, important public criticism of the actions that the FBI took in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.”

The lawyers asked Miami U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga to set the case for trial “to determine whether the FBI has conducted an adequate search and whether it has properly withheld and redacted responsive records.”

The government, however, has asked the judge to rule on those issues without a public trial, which would likely include testimony by former Sen. Graham, who has accused the FBI of covering up for the Saudis.

Lauren’s Kids racks up six-figure donations via auto tag registration renewals

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Sen. Lauren Book

In January, Broward County car owners who received their auto tag renewal notices also got a special message from Lauren’s Kids, the nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing child sex abuse and founded by freshman State Sen. Lauren Book.

Inside the envelopes, colorful flyers bearing Lauren’s Kids logo wished vehicle registrants a happy birthday while segueing into an ominous stat: “Yet shockingly, 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.”

That bit of data was followed by a sales pitch. “But there is hope — 95 percent of abuse is preventable through awareness and education. Celebrate your birthday by donating to the Lauren’s Kids foundation and honor the kids in your life.”

Of course, the advertisement includes a disclaimer in small italicized words that the Broward County tax collector’s office, which sends out the notices, is not endorsing Lauren’s Kids.

Drivers with February birthdates weren’t the only ones to find the Lauren’s Kids flyer in their motor vehicle registration renewal envelopes. Broward residents who received renewal notices in March and April also got the insert. Those automobile registrants whose notices are mailed this month are going to get the flyer too, says Paul Rowe, operations manager for the Broward tax collector’s office.

In fact, more than 6 million vehicle owners across Florida likely will have received the flyer stuffed in their auto tag renewal notices by year’s end. For the past seven years, Lauren’s Kids has been part of an exclusive club of charitable organizations approved by the Legislature that are allowed to hit up Florida drivers and vehicle owners for donations via auto tag and driver’s license renewal notices. But none of the other 43 nonprofits on the list has come close to Lauren’s Kids’ haul during a four-year period from 2013 through 2016 — $572,850, according to figures provided by the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles.

The department also contributes to Lauren’s Kids via the sale of specialty license plates approved by the Legislature in 2013. According to its most recent tax records, Lauren’s Kids received $294,653 from the DMV in 2015.

Lauren’s Kids’ success has been made possible by the organization’s aggressive marketing strategy to stuff as many auto tag renewal and driver’s license renewal envelopes with flyers requesting contributions and urging people to buy its specialty tag. The practice raises concerns among ethics watchdogs that government resources are being used to help a private organization raise funds without a public benefit. While the motor vehicle department administers annual auto tag renewals, individual county tax collector offices are responsible for mailing out the notices to vehicle owners.

Conflict of interest?

And now that Book is a state legislator, her nonprofit’s participation in the auto tag renewal raises the possibility of a conflict of interest. “In a perfect world, she would not do it,” said Beth Rosenson, a University of Florida political science professor who teaches government ethics. “It’s an accountability issue that raises questions in constituents’ minds. It leads people not to trust government.”

Ben Wilcox, research director for the government watchdog organization Integrity Florida, echoed Rosenson. “It may be technically correct,” Wilcox said. “But I don’t think it will look good to the public.”

A Lauren’s Kids insert in a Florida Department of Motor Vehicles registration renewal.

In an email response to questions about the inserts, Book dismissed the criticisms. “First of all, none of what we do markets the foundation and you seem to miss the purpose of our messaging,” Book said. “Awareness and education is our focus. Redundancy of message is a part of that.”

She also sees no conflict, Book added. “I have been advised that the work of the foundation may continue as it has for years educating the public and raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse,” she said. “Furthermore, the program is approved by Florida law.”

The Plantation Democrat, whose father Ronald Book is a powerful lobbyist and president of Lauren’s Kids, said she resigned from the board of directors of her nonprofit’s fundraising arm to “add an additional (but entirely unnecessary) layer between myself and the foundation.”

“I derive no personal benefit from public tax dollars except knowing that these monies are being used to save lives, raise awareness and prevent childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

In 2010, the Florida Legislature approved a bill adding Lauren’s Kids to a list of charitable organizations eligible for donations through auto tag registration applications and renewals, as well as driver’s license applications and renewals. The charities are listed on a form with a box next to each organization that the recipient can check off to receive a voluntary contribution. The legislation also allows Lauren’s Kids and the 43 other authorized nonprofits to include inserts promoting their cause in the renewal notices.

According to a 2010 legislative bill analysis and fiscal impact statement, the legislation authorizing Lauren’s Kids placement on the list was sponsored by then-state Rep. Marcelo Llorente from Miami and current Senate President Joe Negron. In order to qualify, Lauren’s Kids was required to submit an application to the motor vehicles department, along with a $20,000 check to “defray the costs of reviewing the application and developing the check-off.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids had to submit a financial analysis and a marketing strategy outlining the anticipated revenues and planned expenditures to be derived from the voluntary contributions.

DMV passes the buck

However, after nearly four weeks of repeatedly requesting documentation about Lauren’s Kids participation in the program, motor vehicles spokesperson Alexis Bakofsky told Florida Bulldog there was none. “The department does not place Lauren’s Kids educational materials in driver license renewal mailings or have information regarding Lauren’s Kids educational materials being placed in auto tag renewal mailings from tax collector offices,” Bakofsky said. “You may want to contact a Tax Collector office for any additional information.”

Bakofsky did provide Florida Bulldog with a spreadsheet detailing how much money each of the 44 organizations received in fiscal years 2013-2014, 2015 and 2016. In those years, Lauren’s Kids received $161,936, $213,517 and $197,397, respectively. Only one other group has been able to raise a six-figure sum. Support Our Troops collected $108,791 in fiscal year 2013-2014.

The money raised through the renewal notice program is in addition to other funding Lauren’s Kids receives, including $8.5 million in state grants since 2012.

Sen. Book referred specific questions about the program to Lauren’s Kids communications director Claire VanSusteren, who did not respond to a list of 11 questions about the inserts despite four requests for comment via email and voicemail during a two-week period in March.

VanSusteren provided Florida Bulldog only with a copy of Lauren’s Kids 2015 tax return, which states Lauren’s Kids spent $449,785 to “develop an educational piece regarding protecting children against sex abuse that is included with all vehicle registration renewals… the goal is to reach as many individuals with direct messaging as possible.”

The tax return also states “that over 6 million individuals will read the material this year.”

In addition, Lauren’s Kids reaches another 50,000 individuals in December of each year through a “targeted program [that] occurs in driver’s license renewal offices” that provides “educational materials on how to better protect our children from predators and pedophiles.”

Broward County’s Rowe told Florida Bulldog that Lauren’s Kids was added administratively in 2011. “We don’t advertise it to participating charities,” Rowe said. “It’s up to the organizations to submit a request for the inserts to be included.” Only two other nonprofit organizations have asked to include inserts in renewal notices besides Lauren’s Kids, he added.

“Outside of those three, no one else has done it,” Rowe said.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney mum about fat fees paid to White House Counsel’s ex-law firm

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples

From last July to March, the campaign committee for freshman Florida Congressman Francis Rooney paid roughly $117,000 to the former law firm of White House Counsel Donald McGahn II. However, neither Rooney nor McGahn are answering questions about the payments to Jones Day, a global firm based in Cleveland where McGahn was a partner for nearly three years before joining President Donald Trump’s administration in January.

So far, the only information McGahn, a former commissioner for the Federal Election  Commission, has released is that he provided “legal services” exceeding $5,000 to the Rooney for Congress campaign committee, according to his public financial disclosure report. Campaign finance reports filed by Rooney for Congress show nine disbursements to Jones Day between last July and March. Jones Day received five of those payments totaling $72,328 after the Nov. 8 election, including $17,505 on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 19

Efforts by Florida Bulldog to get answers about the type of “legal services” McGahn and Jones Day provided Rooney for Congress were unsuccessful. Over the course of four days, White House media affairs director and former Miami political television host Helen Ferre did not respond to three email requests to interview McGahn. Likewise, Rooney press secretary Chris Berardi did not respond to three emails and three voicemails requesting comment from the Naples-area U.S. representative, a rising star in the Capitol’s GOP power circle. A spokesman for Jones Day declined comment.

McGahn and Rooney may not want to talk, but a government watchdog group and two campaign finance lawyers who spoke to Florida Bulldog believe the costly legal services may be for defending the congressman or his committee in a civil investigation for either ethics or campaign violations.

“You can never really know without them telling you,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But that pattern of spending is consistent with people who are under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.”

He added: “It certainly raised a flag when we started looking at Donald McGahn’s financial disclosure statement.”

The attorneys, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred that the expenditures seem to indicate that a probe by the commission, also known as the FEC, is taking place. “There could be a civil investigation by the FEC inquiring about donations and expenditures within the campaign,” said one lawyer, who has represented clients accused of federal civil and criminal campaign violations. “Once the FEC starts an inquiry, you got to get a lawyer.”

The other lawyer, who primarily represents city, county and state candidates, said it could also be that Rooney is under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. “That would entitle him to the use of his campaign funds to defend against a complaint,” the attorney said. “I can’t see anything else these payments are for but an investigation.”

Riding the Trump train

Rooney, one of the first prominent Florida Republicans to climb aboard the Trump train, has become a leading conservative voice. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Rooney owns a construction company that built the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium and the presidential libraries honoring the two Bush presidents. Before jumping into the race to represent Florida’s 19th Congressional District, Rooney was one of the top Republican rainmakers in the country.

In February, Rooney participated in two panels about national security and political correctness at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. In a press statement at the time, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp hailed Rooney as a “much needed and welcomed” addition to Congress. “He will stand up for you and for conservative policies,” Schlapp said. “We are proud to welcome him to our stage next week.”

While filings for Rooney for Congress don’t show any warning letters from the FEC regarding impermissible donations and expenditures, McGahn seems to be the ideal counselor to hire when campaigns run into trouble with the commission.

A January Jones Day press release touted McGahn’s commission credentials from 2008 to 2013 when Trump selected him as White House Counsel. “He led what has been called a ‘revolution’ in campaign finance,” the statement says. “He rewrote virtually all of the FEC’s procedures for audits, enforcement matters, and advisory opinions, which provide for an unprecedented amount of due process.”

However, press reports paint a much more controversial tenure. Campaign finance reform groups clashed with McGahn over his efforts to deregulate the FEC. He voted to loosen restrictions that prohibited parties from using campaign money for recounts and litigation. In 2013 before he resigned, he unsuccessfully pushed a rule that would have barred FEC lawyers from sharing information with federal prosecutors without commission approval. But McGahn was instrumental in passing a new rule allowing campaigns and party committees to present their cases in open session instead of behind closed doors.

McGahn joined the Trump team early on in the billionaire developer’s astonishing run to win the White House. He served as the campaign’s general counsel and lists several Trump political committees as clients on his financial disclosure form. When Trump appointed him as the commander-in-chief’s top lawyer, 13 attorneys from Jones Day joined McGahn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since Trump took office, McGahn has been at the center of some of the biggest controversies to hit the new administration. For instance, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned McGahn’s office in January that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as National Security Adviser, had misled officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

When Flynn was subsequently forced to resign after his compromised position was leaked to national media outlets, questions arose about McGahn’s handling of the information he received. During a February press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended McGahn, saying he “informed the President immediately” and that he concluded Flynn did not violate any laws after conducting “exhaustive and extensive questioning of Flynn.”

Miami-Dade Schools, union push costly private loan program for lowest paid workers

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Terry Haynes, senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade Public Schools employees has endorsed a proposed private loan program for its members that would charge 24 percent interest with the school district collecting loan repayments by deducting them from employee paychecks.

The proposal, which did not go before the Miami-Dade School Board for public discussion and approval or review, has drawn criticism from an outspoken union official who will seek to become president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, in a May election.

“The interest rate is high” for the union employees and “puts them in harm’s way,” said controversial Local 1184 Senior Vice President Terry Haynes. Haynes was suspended by the loca’s executive board last month but reinstated March 28 by AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. following an investigation.

Critical of the union and the school district for backing a contract change that allows for a private company to set up the loan program, Haynes said, “If they want to do something, why not something more manageable” than 24 percent interest? “If we have people going out for those loans,” he said, “it means they are not being paid enough.”

The loan program proposal arises from a modification to the labor contract that was agreed to by the school district and the union Jan. 31. The change allows for the union to have another payroll deduction slot for “other economic services” to be used by “entities or businesses” as designated, with the school district being held harmless under the plan.

Vicki Hall, Local 1184 president who signed the agreement on behalf of the union, Hall did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about what benefits the union might receive for backing the BMG loan program. Union draft documents about the program, however, state that BMG would provide financial literacy training to union workers; support union membership drives and make an unspecified contribution to the union.

But Tom McCormick, chief growth officer for BMG Money Inc., said in an email, “We do not plan on offering any incentives to AFSCME based on any milestones.”

Two school district officials — Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, assistant superintendent in charge of Labor Relations and Compensation, and Jose Dotres, Chief Human Resources Officer, who signed the “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of the district – also failed to return calls for comment.

A new payroll slot

But in a district email response, Santiesteban-Pardo said that in September the union had requested the payroll department to “add a payroll slot for Loans at Work, a program offered through BMG Money… The Union has not presented the District with the agreement in order to begin the program. The terms and conditions of the program are subject to the agreement between BMG and AFSCME. At this time, no other union in M-DCPS has requested a payroll slot for BMG Money.”

A draft letter from AFSCME Local 1184 backing the BMG loan program states: “Sometimes when savings aren’t available and neither banks nor credit unions can help, these expenses can create true financial hardships in our lives…

“Though the interest rate is somewhat higher than what our more fortunate members might pay, 23.99%, it is definitely reasonable in comparison to payday loans that charge anywhere from 200%-400% APR… The availability of the [BMG] LoansAtWork program is in the best interest of our members – another tool in times of need.”

Haynes, however, said there is something wrong when only the lowest-paid employees are being offered the loan program at what he considers a high rate. The union should not be a party to this, he said, adding he told Hall it was not good for union employees.

The school district will, in effect, become a “collection agency” because loan repayments will be made through the district’s payroll deduction system, said Haynes.

BMG’s McCormick declined to comment on any talks with the district and Local 1184, but did discuss his company’s program.

“BMG Money’s LoansAtWork program is a fixed-rate, fixed-payment employee emergency loan program,” McCormick stated. “When facing an expected expense, too many good people with good jobs are left with few options except predatory payday lenders… Payday lenders in Florida offer short-term loans with absurdly high interest rates of 265% and repayment terms that make the loans exceedingly burdensome on borrowers.”

But a Tallahassee-based consumer group that strongly opposes predatory payday lending says BMG’s 23.99 percent interest, while considerably lower, is no bargain, either.

“I would say it is a pretty high interest rate,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “I certainly would call it not very risky [for BMG] with an interest rate that high and guaranteed repayment through paycheck deduction…I advocate they lower the rate.”

BMG Money

BMG Money Inc., incorporated in September 2009 in Delaware, began operations in Florida in 2010 and has an office on Brickell Avenue. The company’s majority shareholder is an affiliate of Banco BMG S.A. of Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to bid documents it presented to Broward County government, where the company is under consideration for establishment of a loan program for county employees.

Banco BMG S.A., according to Bloomberg Private Business Information, “provides commercial and credit, financing, and investment products and services primarily in Brazil.” It also provides “salary account deductible loans … personal direct debit loan accounts for civil servants, retirees … and pensioners,” according to Bloomberg.

In its short time in Florida, BMG has been busy. In its documents to Broward County government, BMG stated it has 42 governmental or public entity clients, all in Florida, and has issued “over $107 million of loans to employees who otherwise would have fallen victim to predatory payday loans.”

Among the 42 clients are Broward County Public Schools and the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. The loan programs with these other government agencies were offered to all employees working for those agencies after being reviewed and or authorized by the governing bodies.

BMG’s bid documents to Broward County give a glimpse of how the loan program operates: Loans do not compound, do not require credit reports, do not require fees, will be “unsecured” (not require the backing of homes, cars or savings as collateral), will be in amounts from $500 to $5,000, will be repaid through payroll deductions over six to 24 months, and can be paid back early without penalty. BMG also provides financial literacy training for borrowers.

The controversy involving the loan program is another sharp difference between Haynes and Hall. Led by Hall, Local 1184’s executive board on March 7 suspended Haynes from his duties as Senior Vice President, but on March 28 he was reinstated by AFSCME’s headquarters after an investigation.

Haynes said he was told by Hall that he was suspended for talking to a reporter for the FloridaBulldog. In an article appearing one day before his March 7 suspension, Haynes questioned why Hall received a huge annual pay hike from the school district two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts totaling $1.8 million, over a five-year period, to outsource lawn service normally done by union employees. Haynes linked the pay boost to the two contracts that the union failed to challenge at the time of School Board approvals.

Hollywood targets hundreds arrested for domestic violence, public defender cries foul

APRIL 12 – UPDATE WITH RESPONSES FROM HOLLYWOOD POLICE CHIEF. SEE ITALICIZED PARAGRAPHS BELOW.

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez, right, presents an award to Sgt. Rhett Cady last October recognizing his work implementing the department’s anti-domestic violence program

Hollywood police have sent letters to hundreds of residents arrested for domestic violence threatening to target them for enhanced “scrutiny and/or penalties” and “unannounced police checks on your residence.”

The letter, signed by Sgt. Rhett Cady of Hollywood’s Domestic Violence Unit, explains that the city is “taking a new focused approach in preventing future acts of domestic violence” by adding names to a watch list for so-called “C list” offenders.

“Your status as a ‘C’ list offender brings you closer to a possible prison sentence,” Cady wrote. A copy of the watch list obtained by Florida Bulldog contains 574 names.

The letters, dated the day of a suspect’s arrest, began going out last year after Hollywood implemented its “Offender Focused Domestic Violence Initiative (OFDVI).” The city’s website says it is the first program of its kind in the state and is intended “to stop the repeat cycle of violence… This style of policing is often referred to as ‘Focused Deterrence.’

Today, however, the program is drawing fire from the Broward Public Defender’s Office, which says the police department’s letter to domestic violence arrestees is “an abuse of police power.”

“There is no legal authority for the letter, thus it is nothing more than an unlawful threat of retaliation directed at individuals who were merely accused of a crime and who are entitled to a presumption of innocence in a court of law,” says an April 6 letter by Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to Hollywood Police Chief Tomas Sanchez.

Howard Finkelstein

“The letter smacks of police intimidation and threatens the illegal and unconstitutional entry of the arrestee’s home. This overreaching is offensive to civil liberty and completely ignores the law with respect to law enforcement’s authority to enter a person’s home.”

A Sanchez spokeswoman said Monday evening the chief was formulating a response to Finkelstein. The response was not ready when this story was published.

[On Wednesday, April 12, Sanchez’s office released the chief’s response letter to Finkelstein dated April 10: “As for your concerns about the presumption of innocence of offenders, I am certain your office will protect that presumption in court. As for your concerns about offenders’ civil liberties, this Department safeguards all citizens’ civil liberties. This initiative does not allow for illegal or unconstitutional searches for police action in any way.”]

Public Defender Finkelstein’s letter notes that “it is very telling” that a Hollywood police officer arrested for domestic violence in December “was not placed on the watch list and not sent the target letter. This is either evidence of favoritism and a double standard, or it is a tacit acknowledgement that the letter threatens illegal police action that would be easily recognized by a trained law enforcement officer.’’

Lt. Michael McKinney, 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery on Dec. 28 after his wife told police he hit her twice on the head and kicked her in the rib after an argument turned physical. Officers observed swelling on the wife’s upper forehead and temple as well as redness and swelling on her upper right rib area.

Sgt. Cady arrested McKinney, a 23-year veteran, who spent a night in jail. A police report says McKinney’s wife did not “wish to pursue criminal charges.” Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Newman filed paperwork declining to prosecute on Jan. 24.

[Chief Sanchez’s letter thanks Public Defender Finkelstein “for your concern” for Lt. McKinney, who Sanchez says “was given notice of the Initiative face to face the night of the incident. He has also receive training on the Initiative in much greater depth than anyone else targeted by its focus. He has been held to a much higher standard than the average citizen even after the disposition of his case by the court system. Since the arrest the employee has been assigned to Administrative duties with no police powers as he still faces potential workplace discipline.”]

Hollywood began its “domestic violence initiative” in May 2015.

Lt. Michael McKinney

“The Hollywood Police Department has recognized a large amount of calls for police service have involved domestic related incidents,” says the city’s website. The department’s anti-domestic violence program “works to focus on repeat offenders” by “identifying the most repetitive and violent offenders and hold them accountable, while continuing to pursue justice through all of the investigative stages, including bond court, trial, sentencing and probation.”

The program classifies “domestic incident offenders” based on their “predisposition for violence. The initial domestic-related incident, along with the totality of the offender’s criminal history sets the classification in which offenders are ranked” on a list from A to D. There are 92 active offenders on the “A” list of those deemed the most violent, the website says.

“A provision of the OFDVI program is to take action BEFORE the offender re-offends by providing services and resources to offenders who receive the Hollywood Police Department’s OFDVI deterrence message,” the website says. Those resources include anger management classes, job placement, life coaching and treatment programs “available through a multitude of organizations.”

“The OFDVI deterrence message sets clear standards of expectation for City of Hollywood residents who have engaged in acts of domestic violence and is delivered by uniformed officers daily.’’ When those messages are violated, “the offender progresses into a higher category of the program gaining additional attention from officers and detectives,” the website says.

The city claims that since the program began police have seen a “26 percent (on average)” reduction in domestic-related incidents each month. Police attribute that reduction “to our police officers’ motivation in following up with offenders not initially arrested at the domestic incident – preventing further victimization of individuals, stripping the offenders of their anonymity and by making offenders accountable.”

Public Defender Finkelstein was skeptical of Hollywood’s claims, noting that crime is down across the board.

“When they say the reduction is in part because of their efforts, well maybe in part but I doubt it is statistically significant,” he said. “Checking in on victims is a good idea.  Showing care and concern.  But using threats intimidation and physical force and or presence directed toward the presumed innocent arrestee is wrong and illegal…The road to constitutional hell is always paved with good intentions.”

FBI boss Comey and ‘inexplicable’ delays in case of ‘highest national importance’

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

FBI director James Comey
Photo: CNN

The FBI’s renewed push to dismiss a Miami Freedom of Information lawsuit seeking records of the enigmatic 9/11 Review Commission and FBI activities “of the highest national importance” should be denied, court papers contend.

The filings last week by attorneys for Florida Bulldog also say that facts obtained to date indicate that FBI Director James Comey personally played a role in the FBI’s drawn-out response to records requests filed two years ago. The 9/11 Review Commission also is known as the Meese Commission, after its most prominent member, ex-Attorney General Edwin Meese.

“The facts here create an appearance that the director of the FBI maintained the Meese Commission records in his office; that he did not provide those records to the FBI personnel responsible for processing FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests in a timely fashion; and that when he finally did start to produce them, he made numerous mistakes and omitted critical documents,” wrote Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin who represents Florida Bulldog. “Many records still appear to be missing.”

Julin, of South Florida’s Gunster law firm, also said the FBI has violated FOIA by “repeatedly” imposing “unreasonable and inexplicable delays” and censoring information in its records “without statutory or sensible basis for doing so.” He asked Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga to hold a hearing on the matter.

Besides the missing and censored records, the government has said in court filings that the FBI withheld in full another 1,100 pages about the Meese Commission for a variety of reasons ranging from privacy to national security. Among the records withheld: draft copies of the Meese Commission’s final report.

The result: Many questions about the Meese Commission’s work and an apparent Florida support network for the 9/11 hijackers remain hidden behind a veil of official government secrecy.

“The Bulldog’s central concern: Whether the FBI is concealing evidence of Saudi government support for the 9/11 attacks on the United States but failed to conduct a proper investigation of it – either in a misguided effort to allow the Saudi government to get away with murder or due to negligence,” Julin wrote.

In a reply filed Tuesday afternoon in support of the government’s motion for summary judgment, a Miami federal prosecutor countered that the FBI’s document searches were reasonable and fair and its redactions records were lawful.

“Plaintiffs chief complaint is about the amount of time that it took the FBI to search for and produce records. However, delays in processing a FOIA request do not amount to a showing of agency bad faith,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos Raurell.

Lawsuit filed in June

Florida Bulldog’s parent company, Broward Bulldog Inc., sued the FBI in June 2016 – 14 months after its initial FOIA request for Meese Commission records produced no records. The commission, authorized by Congress to conduct an “external review” of the FBI’s post 9/11 performance and to evaluate new evidence, was chosen, paid and controlled by the FBI. It issued its final report in March 2015.

In early November, the FBI started releasing some records. Among other things, one FBI report showed that as late as October 2012 agents and prosecutors in New York were actively investigating a support network for 9/11 hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon. Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter, who represents clients suing Saudi Arabia, said the disclosure was contrary to the FBI’s previous public statements about 9/11.

Since then, the bureau has continued trickling out records, the latest 20 partially redacted pages released last week. Another 282 pages of responsive documents were withheld in full. The release was made nearly a month after a trial scheduled to begin in early March was delayed at the FBI’s request.

Judge Altonaga has called the FBI’s delays in producing records “shocking.”

Some of the latest released records are about Saudis Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, former Sarasota-area residents who came under FBI scrutiny after neighbors reported they had moved suddenly out of their upscale home two weeks before 9/11. An April 2002 FBI report obtained by Florida Bulldog says the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to persons involved in 9/11. The FBI has said publicly that it found no such connections and has disavowed the 2002 report to the Meese Commission – albeit without explaining why.

One heavily redacted interview report showed that in April 2004 a source told the FBI that al-Hijji knew some of the 9/11 suicide hijackers who trained at an airport in nearby Venice, showed the source a website about Osama bin Laden and also spoke of going to fight in Afghanistan. Another document shows that as of Aug. 31, 2004 the FBI had not interviewed al-Hijji.

The FBI’s point in redacting so much of that interview report, including the name of its source Wissam Hammoud, is unclear. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement released to the Bulldog its own report on the matter – containing virtually identical language – without any redactions in 2011. Here are copies of the FBI report and the FDLE report for you to compare.

Hammoud, 51, is currently serving a 21-year prison term after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons has classified him as an “international terrorist associate.”

Red flags

Julin’s court papers cite a number of “red flags” regarding how FBI’s search and review of records suggest “that someone within the FBI or some other governmental agency had stepped in front of the orderly process being carried out by the FBI’s FOIA professionals” – notably that FBI Director Comey kept the Meese Commission records in his office and out of the FBI’s Central Records System.

The FBI’s Record/Information Dissemination Section, or RIDS, “apparently elected to defer to, and rely exclusively on the FBI Director’s Office to respond to the Bulldog’s request. This raised a red flag.”

When records turned up in late January that should have been made public earlier, the head of RIDS, David M. Hardy, filed court papers pointing the finger at Comey, saying they “were not initially identified because the Director’s Office had inadvertently mistaken these records as duplicates.”

“This gave every indication that the Director’s Office, not the FOIA bureaucratic professionals, had taken charge of this case,” Julin wrote in his response to the government.

The plot thickened in mid-March when the government announced that Comey’s office had identified for the first time “certain hard copy records held in storage” that might hold relevant information.

“This red flag suggested that FBI Director James Comey intentionally concealed responsive records,” Julin wrote.

“The director’s actions appear, in fact, to have been designed either to punish the Bulldog for shining a light on the FBI’s work through its initial FOIA action, which exposed the FBI’s public statements concerning its Sarasota investigation as outright falsehoods, or to interfere with its continuing investigation, or both,” Julin wrote.

In government paperwork filed Tuesday, the FBI called the allegations against Comey “baseless” and “outrageous.”

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