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

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DO STUDENTS BENEFIT?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DORAL COLLEGE HIRES SEN. FLORES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DORAL COLLEGE NOT ACCREDITED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francisco Alvarado can be reached at falvarado@browardbulldog.org

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

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org shukposter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When questioned later by others in the FBI, the special agent who wrote (it) was unable to provide any basis for the contents of the document or explain why he wrote it as he did,” the 9/11 Commission’s report says.

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

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

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

 

 

Eyewitness: Hollywood cops tasered man in handcuffs and leg shackles

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Daniel Tyson

Daniel Tyson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTOPSY WITHHELD FROM FAMILY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A WITNESS’S ACCOUNT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lurid sex claims against Ft. Lauderdale police major and the difficulty of coming forward

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna

Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna

One evening in mid-summer 2010, the 13-year-old niece of Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna fell asleep in the bedroom of his six-year-old daughter, whom she was babysitting.

Around 2:30 a.m., male hands pressing on her breasts jolted the adolescent girl awake. She quickly shifted her body and saw the silhouette of a tall man. “I turned on the TV because I was like freaked out,” the girl recalled three years later during a police interview. “So then I just stayed up the rest of the night.”

She identified Brogna, who was the only male in the house that night, as her attacker, according to an Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement the teen gave to Detective Jeff Payne of the Coral Springs Police special victims unit.

“He touched me inappropriately,” she said.

Even though Detective Payne believed the teenager was telling the truth, the Broward State Attorney’s Office declined in October 2013 to prosecute Brogna for lewd and lascivious behavior, citing a lack of physical evidence.

Last year, Fort Lauderdale police internal affairs investigators probed Brogna for alleged conduct unbecoming a police officer. But after Brogna denied under oath any wrongdoing and accused his ex-wife, the girl’s aunt, of lying to get back at him, the charge was not sustained.

The city’s Citizens Police Review Board, whose members included several current and former police officers, later accepted that finding despite hearing from the girl’s aunt that the family had “text messages, emails and photographs that contradicted the officer’s statements” and had not been given “an opportunity to provide this evidence,” according to the board’s April 2014 meeting minutes.

Brogna, who heads the department’s administrative support division, did not return two phone messages and emails seeking comment. His boss, Police Chief Frank Adderley declined to comment, as did Brogna’s ex-wife Lynn Michelle Brogna and her two sisters, including the victim’s mother.

DIFFICULT FOR VICTIMS TO COME FORWARD

The criminal and internal affairs investigative files in Brogna’s case illustrate how uncomfortable it is for victims of sex crimes to come forward.

Consider the case of Fort Lauderdale Detective Tim Shields, who is still with the department. On July 7, 2004, two women accused him of exposing himself and demanding sex from one of them, according to the minutes of a 2005 meeting of the Citizens Police Review Board and a 2006 Sun-Sentinel article.

Shields denied the allegations even though a tracking device in his cruiser revealed he was at their house that day for 28 minutes. He claimed he was reading a magazine while conducting surveillance of a stolen car, but investigators turned up evidence that Shields wasn’t part of the surveillance detail.

Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley

Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley

Broward prosecutors nevertheless cited insufficient evidence in declining to file criminal charges against him. Internal affairs investigators also cleared Shields in January 2005 of a conduct-becoming charge, recommending a one-day suspension for not telling dispatchers he’d gone back on duty at the time of the alleged incident.

The review board, however, was troubled by the case and issued an opinion that the unbecoming conduct charge against Shields should have been sustained. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said then-board member Ted Fling, questioning Shields’ story. “It’s just insane.”

Further, the board found that Internal Affairs detectives had violated the city disciplinary code by withholding the Shields case from it, the city manager and the public for nearly a year – long enough that its outcome, and Shields’ light punishment, could not be changed.

The case against Brogna traveled along a similar path. His family troubles began shortly before the alleged groping incident in 2010.

Lynne Brogna was married to Maj. Brogna at the time. Her twin sister, Dana Calvo, her other sister Jodi Hansen and their mother Linda Robinson later provided sworn statements that they caught Brogna masturbating at the dining room table after Thanksgiving dinner in 2009.

According to her Aug. 30, 2013 sworn statement to Detective Payne, Robinson said: “I looked under the table, and he was masturbating and you could see the top of his penis.”

On Oct. 10, 2013, Calvo relayed a similar account to Detective Payne: “I could see right under the table and he had his penis out. And I could see he had it in his hands.”

When contacted by FloridaBulldog.org, Calvo and her twin Dana did not want to comment, stating they wished to move on from the ugliest chapter in their lives. They said Robinson and Hansen also did not want to talk about it.

WIFE CONFRONTS HUSBAND

 Lynne Brogna told Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale police she confronted her then-husband after being informed of the incident. She said in her Aug. 29, 2013 statement to Detective Payne that Brogna blamed his behavior on a combination of medications he was taking and beer he consumed during and after the holiday dinner. Lynne Brogna also retold her account to Internal Affairs investigators on Jan. 17, 2014.

Lynne Brogna told investigators their marriage quickly fell apart after her niece told her mom and her about what she said had happened in 2010. In both of her sworn statements, Lynne Brogna claimed her husband never denied groping the girl.

“Of course he cried and he begged,” Lynne Brogna said during her interview with Internal Affairs detectives last year. “I told him he needed to move out and told him he needed to get help.”

Lynne Brogna and her relatives said fear, shock and embarrassment prevented them from immediately reporting him to law enforcement. They also told investigators that Brogna agreed to seek counseling if they didn’t report him.

“There are a lot of reasons I didn’t,” Lynne told IA investigators. “I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t want my kids to be embarrassed.”

Hansen, the victim’s mother, said she initially wanted to turn Brogna in as soon as she found out, according to her Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement to Detective Payne. “Shame on me, I waited,” Hansen said. “I was thinking about my sister and my nieces. I didn’t want them to have to deal with any burdens.”

Part of her also wanted to protect Brogna, Hansen conceded. “I was also thinking of my brother-in-law,” she said. “He’s a police officer. I didn’t want him to have any consequences. Maybe I could just quiet things down and pretend it didn’t happen, but it did.”

By the time Brogna’s ex-wife and her family finally decided to file a police report, the divorce had been finalized and he had remarried. Brogna also told Payne and internal affairs investigators that her ex-husband lied to her about getting therapy and not drinking alcohol.

DELAYS IN REPORTING ABUSE

Delays in reporting sexual abuse are common due to embarrassment or fear.

“It can take decades for some people to come forward,” said Jeff Dion, deputy director with the Washington D.C.-based National Center for Victims of Crime. “Victims feel no one will believe them especially when the perpetrator is someone in the family.”

Still, while Detective Payne believed the now 18-year-old victim, he informed her mother that the delay was a problem.

“The biggest thing that’s gonna raise a flag for everyone is why a three-year delay in reporting,” Payne told Hansen, according to her Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement.

Indeed, Brogna’s Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Mitchell Polay called the timing of the allegations against his client “highly suspect,” according to Payne’s narrative report.

Polay provided Kristin Kanner, then the Broward assistant state prosecutor assigned to the case, with text messages and witnesses that purportedly supported Brogna’s claim that his ex-wife and her family were making up stories to get back at him.

However, in her Oct. 31, 2013 closeout memo, written as she was leaving to take a new job as director of the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, Kanner wrote that Brogna “had to walk around the bed to [the victim’s] side of the room, so it couldn’t have been an accidental brushing while he was checking on his daughter (which is the first defense).”

Still, Kanner identified several difficulties with the case, specifically noting that any admissions Brogna made to Lynne would be subject to marital privilege. The prosecutor also cited Polay’s argument that Brogna’s former wife was motivated by jealousy over his recent nuptials.

“Again, another hard to surmount defense hurdle,” Kanner opined. “There is no physical evidence and no admissible admissions of any kind,” she added. “As such, there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

BROGNA VEHEMENTLY DENIES WRONGDOING

The internal affairs probe, completed on March 31, 2014, was even more favorable to Brogna. Unlike the criminal case, he provided a sworn statement for IA investigators.

Brogna vehemently denied masturbating in the presence of his in-laws as well as fondling his then-niece’s breasts. Brogna claimed the allegations were part of his ex-wife’s “methodology and an attempt to control him.”

“It was a blackmail tool that she attempted to tell me how I was gonna live my life,” Brogna said. “And I lived like that for three years until I couldn’t live with it anymore.”

Lynne Brogna told IA investigators that she had proof Brogna was being untruthful. “It’s all in text messages,” she said in her sworn statement. “He can lie all he wants.”

Backing Brogna up were Chief Adderley and Thomas Harrington, an assistant chief under Adderley who joined the Broward Sheriff’s Office in 2013.

An Internal Affairs summary report says that on March 11, 2014, Harrington told investigators, “Brogna expressed his belief that his ex-wife was trying to make his life miserable by making some allegation about him touching his ex-wife’s niece.”

Adderley recalled the same day Brogna telling him that Lynne had sent him text messages threatening to file a “criminal allegation against him if he did not sever his relationship with Eric’s now wife.” The chief said he advised Brogna to file an incident report with the Coral Springs Police that Lynne was trying to extort him.

Adderley declined through a spokesman to talk about his statement or say why he gave Brogna personal advice about how to handle the situation.

Broward School Board backs Runcie on keeping public off selection committee

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie WSVN-Channel 7

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie WSVN-Channel 7

In the face of public suspicion, a majority of the Broward School Board last week allowed Superintendent Robert Runcie’s move to exclude the public from sitting on a committee that will select companies to manage $800 million in voter-approved construction projects.

The suspicion: that Runcie and Derek Messier, his chief facilities officer, want to get around contracting reforms imposed after a scandal in order to control who gets the lucrative management contracts.

The selection committee’s members will be school board employees only. School officials have said the public will be able to observe the process, but will not participate.

The Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC), created in 2010 as an anti-corruption measure after two School Board members were arrested for bribery, won’t be used. Five of QSEC’s 11 members are required by school policy to be civilians.

“Anybody doing the math can see they’re trying to control the outcome,” Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s Facilities Task Force, said during an interview. “Why would you not put it through QSEC if you are not up to something?”

SUSPICION BEGINS

The suspicion began following recent allegations by Michael Marchetti, a former special assistant to the superintendent who retired in February, that Messier had rigged the bidding by sidestepping QSEC to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive the management contract. Marchetti, who blew the whistle that led to the arrest of two board members in 2009 and 2010, claimed that Messier handpicked amenable school administrators to sit on an ad hoc committee that selected Jacobs for the contract.

Marchetti made the additional accusation that Jacobs had violated a district policy that prohibits bidders from talking to school officials before a contract is awarded. School administrators took no action on Marchett’s claims until FloridaBulldog.org asked about them, and then announced they were reversing their recommendation that Jacobs get the contract due to that policy violation.

Instead, the board decided to rebid the program manager work and split it into two contracts. Jacobs can rebid on the new contracts, which are estimated to be worth as much as $20 million.

Lynch-Walsh’s Facilities Task Force earlier this month voted 14 to 1 to urge the School Board use QSEC, instead of an all-staff committee, to select the management companies.

The task force is a citizens-advisory group that monitors planning, construction and maintenance of school buildings.

No one – Runcie, Messier or any School Board member – addressed the suspicion that Lynch-Walsh voiced at last week’s meeting. Instead the conversation about which committee to use sounded at times like Supreme Court justices debating the esoteric meaning of words and policies.

It is School Board policy to use QSEC to select companies hired to be “total program managers.” Messier has claimed the district is looking for “program managers,” not “total program managers.” Messier argues the two types of managers are different.

J. Paul Carland, the board’s general counsel, in a legal opinion dated May 12 backed Messier’s interpretation. Lynch-Walsh has argued that “program managers” and “total program managers” are the same thing.

Ultimately, a majority of the board agreed with Messier and Carland. Board members Nora Rupert, Heather Brinkworth and Robin Bartleman had doubts, with Bartleman saying, “There is a gray area…as to the definitions.”

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION DE-EMPHASIZED

Splitting policy hairs has resulted in a de-emphasis of public participation in the contract selection process, a principal reason for the reforms that were adopted five years ago.

What’s happening has fueled public suspicion.

“They are trying to manipulate the process so they can put the people they want on the selection committee,” Charlotte Greenbarg told FloridaBulldog.org. “(They are) bound and determined to give Jacobs that contract.” Greenbarg served on the district’s Audit Committee and Facilities Task Force between 1999 and 2014.

Messier acknowledged during the meeting that QSEC had evaluated bids for an earlier program management contract, but said QSEC’s evaluation “was fraught with problems.”

Lynch-Walsh said in an interview that the “problems” Messier mentioned occurred in 2013 when QSEC almost failed to select URS Corporation South for a $1.75 million construction management contract. Lynch-Walsh was a member of that QSEC.

Staff appeared to favor URS even before QSEC evaluated the bids. According to School Board minutes, Shelley Meloni, director of school construction, told the board on May 21, 2013, that although a company had yet to be selected, the “focus” was on URS.

When QSEC initially ranked AECOM Technology Corporation’s bid first and URS’s bid second, the staff adjourned the meeting to confer with legal counsel.

When QSEC reconvened a week later, staff announced AECOM was disqualified because it violated the Cone of Silence policy regarding contact with school officials while a bid is pending. The contract went to URS.

Messier was not involved in the selection of URS. He joined the Broward School District a year ago.

Some board members are feeling the heat.

“I’m kind of fed up going back and forth with the QSEC committee thing,” said Rosalind Osgood, taking aim at community activists like Lynch-Walsh. “It is almost like they are giving us a mandate, or they are trying to force us to do something.”

In March, Osgood also questioned the need for citizen advisory committees. “It’s not my intent for our advisory committees to replace our staff,” she said.

At last week’s meeting, board member Ann Murray seemed to share the same sentiment.

“I have nothing against bulldogs who keep gnawing away at our system,” she said, referring to the task force members. “(But) if you come into these meetings you will find out it is (only) the bulldogs and one or two other people (who attend)…Maybe QSEC is something of the past…I would just as soon as see it gone.”

Bartleman and Rupert, however, pushed to have QSEC involved to reassure the public.

If the public is not involved in the selection process, “it’s going to be an issue,” Bartleman said. “Stuff like this snowballs…Things like this gets out of control. I’ve seen it before.”

At the end of the meeting, the board decided to discuss during a future workshop if district policy needed to be clarified as to what type of bids will and will not go through QSEC. The discussion is expected to happen, however, along after the selection process has started to pick program managers for the capital bond projects.

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.

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