Broward Schools whistleblower alleges bid rigging

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

A political committee's mailer asking voters to approve last November's $800 million bond measure.

A political committee’s mailer asking voters to approve last November’s $800 million bond measure.

Administrators at the Broward County School District “rigged” bidding procedures to ensure that Jacobs Project Management Company would receive a multi-million dollar contract to manage $800 million in capital projects that voters agreed to finance, according to a district whistleblower.

Michael Marchetti, former special assistant to School Superintendent Robert Runcie, made the allegations to the superintendent in two January emails and to Broward County Schools Police Detective Edward Costello in an 18-page sworn statement on Feb. 10.

Voters approved the sale of $800 million in bonds in November to finance the projects. Much of the money is to be used to renovate and repair the district’s aging schools.

Marchetti identified the administrator mainly responsible for the bid rigging as Derek Messier, the school district’s chief facilities officer. The superintendent transferred Marchetti from being his assistant to being Messier’s subordinate in November.

Neither Superintendent Runcie nor Messier would comment directly. Both referred a reporter to the school district’s public information office, who did not respond.

Runcie was hired as superintendent in 2011 after working for Chicago’s Board of Education. He hired Messier, who also worked for Chicago’s public school system, in June.

Michael Marchetti

Michael Marchetti

Marchetti also told Runcie, and the detective under oath, that executives from Jacobs may have violated the school district’s “Cone of Silence” policy last January in a telephone call to Marchetti and during a subsequent meeting they had with him.

Marchetti provided FloridaBulldog.org with the sworn statement and his emails to Runcie.

The call and the meeting were held after a school district selection committee voted to recommend Jacobs for the contract, which is pending approval by the School Board.

NO RESPONSES

A reporter asked school district spokeswoman Nadine Drew on Monday when the School Board would vote on the Jacobs contract. As of Wednesday night, she had not responded to that question or others submitted via email. Likewise, Broward Schools also did not provide requested documents on the pending contract.

The school district’s Cone of Silence policy prohibits a bidder from talking to “any School Board member, the Superintendent, any Evaluation Committee Member or any other School District employee…until the contract is awarded by the School Board.”

Jacobs Project Management Company is a subsidiary of Jacobs Engineering Group, which is an international engineering, architecture, and construction firm. The main company is headquartered in Pasadena, California.

Marchetti told FloridaBulldog.org that he heard the capital projects contract might be worth $20 million and span five or six years.

Jacobs has an existing $1.2 million professional services contract with the school district to help assess facilities needing repair. Marchetti claims Jacobs has underperformed on that contract and he wondered in an email to Runcie if the company would be “qualified and capable to perform on (the new) contract that will surely end up being in the tens of millions of dollars.”

Superintendent Runcie previously complained about the company missing deadlines in a November letter to Jacobs Vice President Douglas Hyde.

Marchetti, who worked for the school district for 17 years, retired last month after the superintendent dismissed his concerns and told him “he didn’t feel that there was any issues…He thought everything was fine and that they were gonna go forward,” according to his sworn statement. The superintendent “didn’t even mention that he was concerned about the cone of silence,” Marchetti said.

MARCHETTI INFO TOPPLED GALLAGHER, KRAFT

Marchetti has blown the whistle before on wrongdoing at Broward Schools. Information he provided led to the 2010 arrests of School Board members Beverly Gallagher and Stephanie Kraft on corruption charges. Both were later convicted.

The School Board in 2013 paid Marchetti $190,000 to settle a lawsuit he filed after the school district laid off his wife as a research assistant for his alleged whistleblowing.

Messier allegedly began to grease the way for Jacobs after he met with Jacobs’ executives in August. According to one of Marchetti’s emails to Runcie, Messier told Marchetti after the meeting “he liked Jacobs very much…”

Messier also told Marchetti that “he was going to write his own RFP” to manage the district’s capital program. A RFP, or request for proposal, is a notice government puts out asking companies to bid for a contract. Marchetti worked for Messier at the time of the discussion.

Messier and Marchetti had lunch at Fort Lauderdale’s New River Grill and Pizza with Jacobs executives several weeks after the August meeting. One of those executives, identified only as “Mike,” knew Messier and they “rehashed some old times…when (both) worked together in Chicago,” Marchetti wrote to Runcie. “After the lunch, Mike made it a point to…tell me what a great guy (Messier) was…”

Marchetti told Runcie that Messier’s RFP “had not gone to the (school) board for approval to advertise and that (the) selection committee had been assembled…outside of the normal…process.”

“That’s another part of the alleged conspiracy,” Marchetti told FloridaBulldog.org.

In his sworn statement to Detective Costello, Marchetti said the selection committee that voted last December to recommend Jacobs for the management contract was composed of school district administrators handpicked by Messier.

Aecom Technology Services, headquartered in Los Angeles, and Skanska USA Building Inc., headquartered in Dania Beach, also bid on the contract.

By assembling his own seven-person selection committee Messier bypassed a sitting committee, Marchetti told the detective. The committee that normally ranks bidders is the School Board’s Qualifications, Selection and Evaluation Committee.

“WHOLE THING WAS RIGGED”

“This whole thing was rigged,” Marchetti said in the sworn statement, adding that Messier appointed “people he could count on…and would “make sure that (Messier) is happy with them.”

Two committee members chosen by Messier should have disqualified themselves from the selection process because they were working with Jacobs and Skanaska on other current contracts, Marchetti said. “They should have recused themselves. They had way too much familiarity with the proposers.”

Marchetti added, “For (Messier) to let that happen and then for him and the superintendent to…continue to negotiate with Jacobs and say that there’s nothing wrong or nothing tainted with this process, when they violated policy by not going to (the qualifications committee) to start with. Those are…the big flags to me.”

While Messier’s selection committee recommended that Jacobs be awarded the management contract, Jacobs and the school officials must negotiate details of the contract before it is presented to the School Board for approval.

Marchetti told Runcie in an email that Jim McDaniell, a Jacobs’ vice president, telephoned him on Jan. 10 to ask if Marchetti’s criticism of Jacobs’ performance on the existing service contract “was going to spill over and affect…negotiations” over the new contract. “He actually asked me to please be careful to see that it doesn’t.”

McDaniell, who heads Jacobs negotiating team, told Marchetti during the phone call “he knew he was walking a fine line in calling me because the contract has not been awarded and they are still in the Cone of Silence.”

McDaniell, reach by phone, declined to comment. “I can’t speak to the press on anything,” he said.

In 2013, school district staff disqualified Jacobs for competing for an earlier contract because the company violated the Cone of Silence policy.

CONE OF SILENCE VIOLATION?

Marchetti told the superintendent, “I believe this phone call and request alone violates the Cone of Silence and falls somewhat far below the bar for moral integrity we should have as a standard for anyone connected to the bond program.”

Marchetti said McDaniell also told him during the phone call that Jacobs “had a special in with Derek (Messier)…because Jacobs had an employee named Mike…whom Derek worked with before in Chicago for about ten years whom…Derek trusts and likes very much.”

“This conflict with Derek was not going to go well for me and that at best I could end up in a closet somewhere counting paper until I became so tired of it I would just leave,” Marchetti told Runcie.

In an interview with a reporter, Marchetti said McDaniell also violated the Cone of Silence policy by calling him several times between Jan. 22 and Jan. 26 to discuss the possibility of Marchetti working for Jacobs. Marchetti recently had decided to retire from the school district.

At McDaniell’s request, Marchetti said he emailed McDaniell his resume on Jan. 25.

On Jan. 26, three Jacobs executives met with Marchetti to talk about the advantages Marchetti would bring to Jacobs. Marchetti’s sworn statement says the executives told him his knowledge of the school district’s software and programs would help Jacobs “get a leg up” and “make them look good” on the pending project.

Marchetti told Detective Costello that he considered that meeting a “pretty blatant” violation of the Cone of Silence policy.

The day after he talked to Detective Costello, Marchetti emailed the school board about the potential bid rigging. Marchetti said in an interview that none of the board members have responded to his email.

Detective Costello did not return several calls for comment.

The school district seeks outsiders to manage construction projects because in 2013 the school board laid off half of its 28 construction project managers. The downsizing occurred after a statewide grand jury in 2011 sharply criticized the Broward School District and its facilities division for lack of oversight and handling of bids.

Coconut Creek police chief forced out amid Taser death investigation; Acting chief named

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann

Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael J. Mann, who less than a week ago publicly declared that there was “no cover up” in his department’s ongoing investigation of city officers who shot and killed a man with Tasers, was forced to resign on Wednesday.

Mann’s unexpected departure happened after he was summoned to City Manager Mary Blasi’s office and told he “must resign” immediately, according to police sources.

Blasi did not respond to requests for comment. No one answered the phone at Mann’s office.

However, in a farewell email to his troops on Wednesday afternoon, Mann made no mention of being forced out.

“All good things must come to an end. I have made a decision that, after 38 years in law enforcement, I will be retiring. It’s been an awesome ride but, for the good of the department I think it is time for a change in leadership.”

He added that “after a discussion with the city manager, Captain Justin N. DiCintio will be acting chief until the return of Deputy Chief (Greg) Lees.” Lees is away for the month for training.

A press release put out later by the city identified Lees as the new acting chief. The city said Mann’s retirement is effective March 26, though police sources said he was told to vacate his office by the end of the day.

Calvon "Andre" Reid

Calvon “Andre” Reid

Mann, a veteran of 21 years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, was sworn in as Coconut Creek’s chief in October 2009.

The Feb. 24 death of Calvon “Andre” Reid, 39, is the latest in a series of controversies under Mann’s leadership.

The shooting in the Andros Isle section of the Wynmoor retirement community off Florida’s Turnpike occurred about 1 a.m. on Feb. 22. Police did not publicly disclose the incident, or that a death had occurred, before FloridaBulldog.org published the first account of what happened on Feb. 27.

Eyewitnesses John Arendale and his fiancé, Bonnie Eshleman, told a reporter that as many as four police officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys. And that after the first volley, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who yelled out, “Baby! They are going to kill me” and “I can’t breathe.”

Arendale and Eshleman’s apartment is steps away from where Reid was shot with the Tasers and where he went down. Police detectives did not interview them until the day after their account appeared on this news site.

The dead man’s father, Calvin Reid of Simpsonville, South Carolina, is skeptical about the version of events he’s heard from police.

“I really don’t buy any of this,” said Reid, a building contractor. “We don’t the the cause of death. We don’t know why he was there…We couldn’t talk to the doctors at the hospital. There are so many unanswered questions.”

The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office has refused to release its autopsy report citing a “hold” on it by the Coconut Creek police.

The Reid family has retained Fort Lauderdale attorney Jarrett Blakeley to represent them.

The police, under Mann’s leadership, threw an immediate veil of secrecy over the matter that didn’t end until Mann held a press conference to make a limited statement about what happened on March 5.

Mann read from a prepared statement, noting that Margate Fire Department paramedics first responded to the scene in response to a 911 call. They found Reid in the parking lot in an “agitated combative and incoherent state” suffering from “numerous cuts on his hands, arms and chest and his clothing was torn and bloodstained,” the chief said.

“Mr. Reid became more aggressive on the scene which caused safety concerns for the paramedics who were attempting to help him,” the chief said.

The paramedics summoned police. Mann said Reid was so agitated that officers didn’t know if they were dealing with a victim, suspect or crazy person. 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,” Mann said.

Reid died two days later at Northwest Regional Medical Center.

Mann declined to discuss in detail what police sources said was his department’s failure to have its officers re-certified in the use of Tasers, including the officers who opened fire on Reid. Annual recertification is required by state law.

Mann, who carried his own Taser, told reporters he was re-certified, but said the question of whether other officers were properly re-certified was “part of the investigation.”

A police source, however, said the Taser certifications expired in 2007.

In January, FloridaBulldog.org reported how between 2010 and 2012 the Coconut Creek Police botched 82 criminal cases involving disturbing reports about children who were raped and abused and seniors who were neglected or exploited.

As with Reid’s death, the police department did not inform the public about what had happened. Police Detective Tammy Alois was fired, but no one was held criminally responsible for the resulting lack of charged and failed prosecutions that resulted.

In 2013, the department became the unwanted focus of attention due to another incident in which Patrolman James Yacobellis pulled and activated his Taser while interrogating a frightened, 19-year-old theft suspect in a bathtub. Yacobellis was fired last month after he was caught last  year on a police video getting a massage at a Boca Raton spa that police said was a front for prostitution.

An investigation by FloridaBulldog.org found that investigations of the bathtub taser incident by both the Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Coconut Creek Police were seriously deficient.

Broward prosecutors who declined to charge Yacobellis never ask him under oath why he hadn’t mentioned the incident in his police report. The Coconut Creek’s own investigation omitted relevant facts and did not follow department policy.

The person that Chief Mann chose to lead that investigation was a police captain who had never worked as a detective: Capt. John Di Cintio.

Embattled Broward Health paid law firm $10.2 million; Tab included a lawyer’s M&Ms

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Seven orthopedic surgeons are among 27 Broward Health physicians under scrutiny in a federal Medicare fraud probe

Seven orthopedic surgeons are among 27 Broward Health physicians under scrutiny in a federal Medicare fraud probe

Taxpayer-supported Broward Health has paid $10.2 million so far for legal advice about how to deal with an ongoing federal investigation into allegations that it colluded with doctors to submit tens of millions of dollars in bogus claims to Medicare and Medicaid.

Broward Health, also known as the North Broward Hospital District, quietly spent those millions even though federal authorities have yet to level a single public accusation of wrongdoing against it.

The money went to the Washington, D.C. law firm Arent Fox, which was retained shortly after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) subpoenaed documents relating to Broward Health’s contracts with 27 prominent doctors and one physicians’ group practice on May 16, 2011. Since then, the district has turned over millions of pages of business records to federal authorities.

Broward Health records obtained by FloridaBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law show that from mid-2011 through 2014 a total of 19 Arent Fox lawyers billed the district at rates ranging from $420 to $550 an hour. More than a dozen of the firm’s paralegals and support staff also billed at rates as high as $275 an hour.

Likewise, Broward Health picked up the tab for tens of thousands of dollars of the law firm’s costs, including scanning and copying charges, airline tickets and seat upgrades, hotels, meals and taxis in South Florida and Washington. One big cost: $16,700 to scan 155,000 pages of documents.

BROWARD HEALTH PAYS FOR BAG OF M&Ms

No item was small enough to escape inclusion on Arent Fox’s multi-page invoices: a charge for a tenth of an hour to read an email; $3.35 for a Starbucks latte; $1.99 for a bag of M&M candy peanuts picked up at Palm Beach International Airport.

Click the chart for the complete list of names

Click the chart for the complete list of names

Here are the yearly payouts to Arent Fox regarding what Broward Health refers to as the “the OIG matter.” OIG stands for the HHS’s Office of Inspector General, which issued the subpoena nearly four years ago:

2011: $2,395,060

2012: $3,406,294

2013: $1,758,061

2014: $2,636,194

The payments, and many others, were approved by then-Broward Health Chief Executive Officer Frank Nask. Nask retired late last year and now has a one-year consulting contract with Broward Health at his old annual salary, $625,000.

Leading Broward Health’s defense team are Arent Fox partners Linda Baumann and D. Jacques Smith, who specialize in matters involving the False Claim Act. Baumann also counsels clients about the requirements of two other laws that figure prominently in the Broward Health probe: the federal Stark Law and the Anti-kickback Statute.

The Stark law generally prohibits physicians from referring Medicare or Medicaid patients to hospitals with which they have a financial relationship as well as hospitals from submitting claims for prohibited referrals. Violators face civil penalties of up to three times the amount claimed.

The Anti-Kickback Statute prohibits offering, paying or soliciting or receiving anything of value to induce or reward referrals or generate federal health care program business. Criminal violators face prison for five years and a $25,000 fine for each violation, plus hefty civil assessments.

Broward Health is the county’s largest provider of healthcare services, a nonprofit medical safety net providing services regardless of the ability to pay for the northern two-thirds of Broward County. The flagship of its 30 healthcare facilities is Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Health Medical Center, formerly known as Broward General.

A PAUCITY OF DETAIL

Little information has been released publicly about the government’s investigation of Broward Health since the HHS subpoena sought information about more than two dozen physicians, including medical directors at Broward Health’s lucrative orthopedic, sports medicine and cardiology practices.

The probe, however, is rooted in a secret whistleblower lawsuit filed against Broward Health by someone alleging violations of the federal False Claims Act. The Justice Department, in this case the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office, is obliged by law to investigate.

Broward Heath Board chairman David Di Pietro has said publicly that the district has a potential liability of $100 million in civil penalties.

As a result, the district’s governing board has changed the way it does business. For example, the board of directors in June approved a new “matrix of compensation” that seeks to make its physician compensation practices “commercially reasonable.”

More than a dozen Broward Health doctors have signed new agreements under the matrix rules intended to assure compensation based on “fair market value.”

One of those doctors was Michael A. Chizner, chief medical director of Broward Health’s Heart Center of Excellence.

Chizner has been paid $6.9 million since 2009, including $1.2 million last year. His earnings were more than double the national average for “invasive-interventional cardiologists. But in December, after hiring former U.S. Sen. George Lemieux in an effort to resist, Chizner signed a new five-year deal that reduced his pay this year to a maximum of $867,000.

Neither Broward Health nor the government has commented on the status of the federal investigation. When the probe is complete, however, the government must decide whether to intervene to prosecute the case, decline to prosecute or move to dismiss the case. The case is also unsealed.

The person who filed the lawsuit, known as the relator, stands to collect a reward of up to 25 percent of whatever the government recovers.

The pace of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Broward Health’s board of directors has quickened in recent months, suggesting the federal investigation may be nearing an end.

At least four times since June, Broward Health’s board has held private “shade” meetings to discuss a possible settlement. Shade sessions are by law exempted from the state’s open government Sunshine law, and are closed to the public.

Weston teacher faces discipline for alleged slur to Muslim student

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo: Local10.com

Photo: Local10.com

A Cypress Bay High School French teacher could lose her job after allegedly calling a Muslim student a “rag-head Taliban.”

The Broward School Board will hear from the student’s father on Tuesday, March 3. The board is expected to take disciplinary action during its March 17 meeting.

Youssef Wardani, father of 14-year old Deyab-Houssein Wardani, is pressing for the firing or suspension of Cypress Bay High School teacher Maria Valdes for her remark.

Wardani, a software engineer, said his son came to him in early February to ask about the word Taliban, saying Valdes called him that when he entered the classroom.

“He said he knew we are Muslim, but asked what is Taliban?” said Wardani, who added that his son had worn a hooded sweatshirt to school that day with the hood pulled up around his head.

“I shield my son from every hate I can. I am very careful and pay attention to that sort of thing, so I sat him down and explained” about the ultraconservative political and religious faction that emerged in Afghanistan in the mid 1990s.

Wardani’s son told him Valdes frequently used nicknames for students and had called him the name at least twice in front of the entire class.

Youssef Wardani

Youssef Wardani

Wardani, an immigrant from Lebanon, whose wife is from Morocco, said he went to the school the following day and explained the situation to Assistant Principal Marianela Estripeaut, who told him she would discuss the matter with principal Scott Neely.

Neely and Valdes did not respond to interview requests. Valdes, 64, has been a Broward teacher for 11 years and has no prior disciplinary record, according to a school district spokeswoman.

Later that day, Wardani said Neely called and expressed concern about the comments and said he would take action. A meeting was set for 8 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 10 with teacher Valdes.

Wardani said the meeting was less than productive.

“Her apology was robotic and empty and rehearsed,” he said. “She said it was an innocent joke and then started rolling her eyes and was huffing and puffing when I asked her questions.

“She, as a teacher, has a responsibility. Look, as a Middle-Eastern man, I have treaded lightly ever since 9/11.”

Following the meeting Wardani was asked what outcome he wanted. He told school administrators he wanted the teacher fired or suspended for a year without pay. And, he wanted a public apology.

“They told me that the best I could hope for was a letter in her personnel file” due to teacher’s union rules, he said.

Wardani said he is not a man to give up, especially when an issue affects his family. He is worried because school administrators seemed more concerned about the teacher and the union than any damage done to his son.

“If my son was to make a derogatory remark against the teacher, would he have been punished?” he asked. “Of course he would. So, why is the teacher not? Why is she allowed to stay in class?”

Wardani said Assistant Principal Estripeaut gave him three choices – pull his son out of the class and put him in another French class, learn outside of class or remain in the same class. So far, the ninth grader remains in Valdes’ class.

Wardani said his son, an honor roll student and Boy Scout, now hates going to school.

“My son was not the one who needed to change,” he said. “The teacher is the one who needs to be let go.”

Feeling like he was getting nowhere with the school, Wardani on Feb. 12 started making calls. He phoned Broward Superintendent of Schools Robert Runcie and school board member Laurie Rich-Levinson. He also filed complaints with the FBI and at the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Weston, where the high school is located.

Wardani said BSO reluctantly opened a case file, but told him no hate crime occurred because his son wasn’t hurt. He said he hasn’t heard back yet from the FBI.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie Photo: Milken Family Foundation

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie Photo: Milken Family Foundation

According to the FBI, a hate crime involves threats, harassment, or physical harm and is motivated by prejudice against someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability.

Wardani said Runcie called him back and told him the matter would come before the school board on March 17. The agenda for that meeting has not been published, but school board staff said they are looking into the matter.

“The issue was brought to the attention of the superintendent who ordered staff to investigate what happened,” said Tracy Clark, chief public information officer for the Broward school district.

An investigation has been completed and “disciplinary action will be brought forth in March,” she said adding that action can vary, with termination as the ultimate sanction. Any action must be approved by the school board and within the guidelines of the bargaining agreement between the unions and the school board.

While Valdes could be terminated, School Board staff is recommending a five-day suspension without pay as well as successful completion of diversity training.

Clark added that the normal route for parental concerns begins at the school level. If the issue cannot be resolved there, parents are referred to the district’s Office of Parent Engagement or the Office of Service Quality.

Wardani said he wants justice.

“I am looking to be treated as fairly as any human being would.”

This is not Wardani’s first go round with Broward schools.

The family moved to Weston in July, 2013. When Wardani registered his son for school, he discovered his son’s first name was too long to fit into the school system’s computer system, which limits first names to 12 characters. His son’s name was two characters too long. The system shortened it to Deyab-Housse.

“Deyab, which is my grandfather’s first name and is Lebanese means wolf. Houssein is my wife’s grandfather’s name, which is Moroccan and means good. My son loves his name,” said Wardani.

“For cultural and ethnicity reasons, and many family reasons, it is a very important name.”

Wardani said he suggested that the school use DH, which is what his family and friends called him. However, the school said that wasn’t possible because it wasn’t his son’s legal name. He also was told it would cost too much change the software program to include the entire name.

As a result, his records and yearbook continued to use the truncated name.

“That chopping off his name is legal, that is disgusting,” he said, adding that other students had the same problem.

After going back and forth for nearly 18 months, school Principal Neely told Wardani on Feb.10 that the school could use DH as the teen’s first name.

Coconut Creek officers kill man with Tasers; Police clam up about Wynmoor shooting

 By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org coconutcreekbadge

Coconut Creek Police officers firing Tasers killed a man early Sunday morning inside the sprawling Wynmoor condominium complex, a usually tranquil gated retirement community, FloridaBulldog.org has learned.

The dead man, described by witnesses as a black man about 40 years old, died after being struck at least twice in the chest by wires tethered to the high-voltage stun guns. The Taser can deliver a painful and immobilizing electroshock from as far as 35 feet away.

Eyewitnesses said as many as four police officers fired four Taser shots in two volleys.

After the first volley, about five policemen “were around and on top of the man” who yelled out, “Baby! They are going to kill me” and “I can’t breathe,” the witnesses said.

Police threw an immediate veil of secrecy over the in-custody death that continued through Friday. The department has issued no press release or public statement about the incident at 1701 Andros Isle, although that’s typically standard procedure in officer-involved shootings.

Through a spokeswoman, Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann declined Thursday to discuss what happened or even acknowledge that an in-custody death had occurred.

“He will not be giving any comments on this,” said the chief’s assistant, CarolAnn Bown.

The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office was also close-mouthed about the police takedown on a small strip of grass between the parking lot and unit E1.

“It’s under investigation and we can’t talk about it,” said an office spokeswoman. “It’s a police hold and we can’t speak about anything at all about a police hold…the hold has been put on by the agency, which is Coconut Creek.”

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

Witnesses John Arendale and his fiancé, Bonnie Eshleman, said it appeared the man was dead at the scene. A police source, however, said the man expired later at an unidentified hospital.

The source said the dead man had a lengthy criminal rap sheet, but provided no details. The source also said four Coconut Creek officers fired their Tasers, including Sgt. David Freeman. Freeman could not be reached for comment.

Arendale and Eshleman were sleeping about 1:30 a.m. Sunday when they were awakened by a violent commotion outside their front door.

“I ran to the window and just before I got there I heard two shots, a loud popping sound, like a firecracker, said Eshleman, who hand-wrote a three-page account of what she experienced. “I looked out the window and there was about five policemen around and on top of the man.”

Arendale heard the same two shots as he made his way to a vantage point at a nearby bedroom window that, like the kitchen window, faced the well-lit parking area and grass strip where the altercation was unfolding. He later saw a spent Taser wire from one of the initial shots lying on the sidewalk right outside his door. Small blood stains could be seen Thursday on floor tiles and in grouting.

The walkway where the first Taser shots were fired. Small bloodstains remained in the tile grouting on Thursday.

The walkway where the first Taser shots were fired. Small bloodstains remained in the tile grouting on Thursday.

“The man kept shouting, ‘Baby! Baby! They’re gonna kill me,’” Arendale said. “Sure enough they did.” Arendale said he believes the man was calling out to someone he knew at the complex, but has no idea who that might be.

Police haven’t heard their eyewitness statements. Neither Arendale nor Eshleman were contacted or interviewed by detectives.

Eshleman heard an officer ask the man his name. “Riley,” she thought she heard him reply.

Eshleman said the same policeman asked the man if he was visiting someone in the apartments, but she didn’t hear the man’s reply.

“That policeman spoke to Riley directly, but not aggressively. A different policeman said, ‘Stop moving or I will break your fucking arm,’” she said.

Another officer “came around to where his head was and hit him with something about a foot long. Riley continued to struggle and call out, ‘baby,’” says Eshleman’s narrative. The police source said Eshleman described an Asp, an expandable baton carried by city officers.

What happened next is recounted in Eshleman’s narrative: “After a few minutes they were getting him to his feet. He pulled away and started to run. Two shots were fired (same popping sound) and he fell to the ground. The bush blocked my view of him except his feet. He had clean white sneakers and socks.

Both Eshleman and Arendale saw two officers fire, nearly simultaneously.

“As he was lying there, there were cops all around him. I couldn’t see well because of the bushes. Riley stopped struggling. A few minutes later I heard a cop say, “Is he breathing?”

Arendale described the man as about six feet tall with a goatee and “a belly on him.” When he was rolled over Arendale could see Taser wires still attached to his chest. He also said the man’s legs were shackled.

An emergency medical technician began chest compressions. Arendale said that Riley was also hooked up to an EKG. Soon, they lifted him onto a stretcher, put him in an ambulance and drove away, “but not in any particular hurry,” said Arendale.

Arendale said the emergency medical techs were present at the scene before the first shots were fired.

At one point, Arendale opened his front door and the police yelled at him to go back inside because they were taking pictures. He said if he’d stepped out he would have stepped into the roped-off crime scene.

Afterward, Arendale overheard a police officer say that the Coconut Creek police were summoned to the scene by Wynmoor security who reported lots of shouting at a nearby building. What the shouting was about or why the location changed was not known.

Also unknown is why Riley was at Wynmoor and how he entered the security conscious development.

“That’s the $64 question. How did he get in here?” said Arendale.

Wynmoor security director ONeil Elliott did not respond to a phone message seeking comment.

Sexual affair between Miami judge, witness alleged amid tainted U.S. court proceedings

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

Former Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigator William Majcher and Miami federal judge Ursula Ungaro

A dozen years ago, Miami U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro sentenced Martin Chambers to 15 years in prison after a two-week trial at which a jury found him guilty in a scheme to launder millions of dollars for a Colombian drug cartel. Chambers, a Canadian, remains imprisoned today.

For years, hushed allegations have swirled that Judge Ungaro slept with the government’s key witness in the case – a dashing Royal Canadian Mounted Police undercover agent

Ungaro’s ex-husband, who claims the affair ruined his marriage, first made the scandalous allegations along with related assertions about alleged misconduct by an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor.

Later, the alleged affair was cited as evidence of judicial bias in Canadian court proceedings that sought to win Chambers’ release. The allegations also were briefly a focus of the FBI in Miami, which appears to have done little to investigate them despite a referral from then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta.

The allegations, too, were the subject of tainted U.S. court proceedings before Judge Ungaro herself.

Records show that Chambers, acting as his own lawyer, sought a hearing in March 2012 after learning of Ungaro’s alleged “sexual affair” with William “Bill” Majcher, an important investigator in the case against him.

Judge Ungaro, however, dismissed the case without a hearing less than a month later. She did so even though Chambers’ petition was all about her alleged misconduct, and how her actions may have corrupted the trial or sentencing.

Further, Ungaro ruled after having twice before disqualified herself from hearing matters involving Chambers. Five months later, she would recuse herself a third time after Chambers raised the matter again.

JUDGE  UNGARO ISN’T TALKING

Ungaro’s orders do not say why she recused herself, and she did not respond to detailed requests for comment by FloridaBulldog.org. Federal judicial canons, however, require judges to disqualify themselves in any proceeding in which their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Asked about the matter, Chief Judge K. Michael Moore declined to comment.

Martin Chambers  Photo: CBCNews

Martin Chambers
Photo: CBCNews

The story of the relationship between the federal judge and the Royal Canadian Mountie, and its possible impact on justice in the case of Martin Chambers, got limited media attention in Canada in 2012, but has remained largely under wraps in South Florida where Chambers was convicted in a high-profile FBI-led sting operation, “Bermuda Short,” that targeted money laundering and securities fraud.

While Ungaro would not comment, Majcher, who lives in Hong Kong and states on his Linkedin profile that he retired from the RCMP in 2007, denied any impropriety.

“I will be very clear…there was zero relationship between myself and Judge Ungaro during trial, or before sentencing,” Majcher said in an email. “For the record, I became friends with Judge Ungaro the year after the Chambers trial when I was in Miami for trial preparation on an unrelated accused in front of a different judge.”

FBI agents twice interviewed Judge Ungaro’s ex-husband, former Miami lobbyist Michael Benages, in July 2008. Among those agents was then Miami Special Agent-in-Charge Jonathan I. Solomon.

FBI 302 reports of those interviews, with some redactions, were released later to Benages in response to his Freedom of Information request. Benages provided copies to FloridaBulldog.org and other news organizations.

In an interview, former Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said Benages first came to him. “He did bring this to my attention and I referred him to the FBI to make sure it got seriously vetted,” said Acosta, who served from 2006 to 2009.

The trial of Martin Chambers on five counts of money laundering began on Aug. 21, 2003 and a jury found him guilty on all counts two weeks later. Judge Ungaro sentenced Chambers to 188 months in jail on December 5, 2003.

In an interview, Benages said he does not know precisely when the affair occurred, but believes it happened after the trial, but before sentencing. “But the courting started before,” he said.

BENAGES TALKS TO FBI

Benages told the FBI agents that around Christmas 2003, shortly before she moved out of their home, Ungaro admitted to an affair with a Mountie, who was a witness in a money laundering trial, calling it a “mistake.” Ungaro later told Benages the Mountie had informed her that an Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) and an FBI agent said Benages “was about to be indicted,” the report says.

Benages did not recall the Mountie’s last name. But he said Ungaro soon filed for divorce even though the story about his impending indictment proved to be untrue.

Michael Benages

Michael Benages

“Approximately three or four months later, [Name Redacted] told Benages that the [Redacted] admitted to her that the FBI and the AUSA had told him that it was all a joke and Benages was not really going to be indicted. [Redacted] stated that she knew who the FBI agent was, however, did not provide Benages with the name,” according to a July 30, 2008 FBI report.

Benages filled in the blanks in a recent interview. He said he told the FBI that it was Ungaro who told him that Mountie Majcher had informed her that talk of an indictment was a “joke.”

At the time, Benages didn’t know the names of either Majcher or Chambers and he wanted the FBI to investigate. The reports make clear, however, that the FBI was more interested in asking Benages about any corruption he might have witnessed during his work as a lobbyist.

“Why wasn’t this investigated more seriously?” asked Benages’ attorney Joseph Carballo.

Miami FBI spokesman Jim Marshall said, “We have no further comment/information on this matter.”

The FBI reports say Benages offered the “theory” that he was specifically targeted by the false story of his imminent indictment. Benages speculated to agents that it was Marcos Jimenez, Miami U.S. Attorney from 2002-2005, who was responsible.

Benages explained to the FBI that Jimenez had had trouble getting confirmed as U.S. Attorney because of an incident between Jimenez and his wife, and Jimenez knew that Benages was privy to an FBI background report about that incident.

“Benages stated that [Redacted] lied twice on his FBI report. Benages explained that the FBI report had been provided to his wife and that she had told him about the report in bed. Benages stated that he had not seen the FBI report, however, that Ursula told him that [Redacted] had denied in the report that he had beat his wife with a hammer, which had caused her to admit herself into the hospital under a false name,” the report says.

AN ATTEMPT TO INTIMIDATE?

“The FBI agent and assistant U.S. attorney knew about the inappropriate relationship and exploited it to cause a rift between my wife and myself and intimidate me into staying quiet about what I knew about their boss, Marcos Jimenez,” Benages said in related paperwork filed later with the Department of Justice.

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez

Ungaro and Benages divorced in 2004. In August of that year, after Chambers appealed his conviction, Ungaro signed an “order of recusal as to Martin G. Chambers.” The case was reassigned to Miami U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.

Court records show that Ungaro’s recusal didn’t keep her from ruling against Chambers three years later, on Aug. 27, 2007, after his Miami attorney, Gerald Houlihan, asked the court to vacate Chambers’ sentence.

Ungaro disqualified herself again six months later, Feb. 4, 2008, a few days after Houlihan asked the court for “compassion” and support for Chambers’ application to be transferred to a Canadian prison so he could “serve the remainder of his sentence close to his family.”

Ungaro again gave no reason for her recusal, but it caused the clerk’s office to reassign the case again, this time to Judge Cecilia Altonaga.

The twin recusals meant that two federal judges, Altonaga and Martinez, were now assigned to Chambers’ case. The unusual result: two separate judicial rulings on the same motion. Martinez denied the motion seeking support for a mercy transfer on Feb. 5, 2008. Altonaga denied it again on March 28, court records show.

Four years later, on March 26, 2012, Chambers went back to court as his own attorney after learning of Benages’ accusation that Judge Ungaro had had a “sexual affair” with Majcher “during the pendency of my criminal case.”

“The validity of the entire investigation was based on the credibility of RCMP Officer William Majcher, the individual who had this alleged relationship with the judge,” wrote Chambers. “It is absolutely essential that the petitioner be given a hearing to be able to establish the nature of the relationship between the trial court and the chief RCMP investigator, and the time-frame within which that relationship occurred.”

Like the prior motion to vacate sentence, Chamber’s motion citing newly discovered evidence was immediately given a new case number by the clerk’s office and assigned to Judge Ungaro.

Two days later Magistrate Patrick White recommended the motion be denied on technical grounds. On April 19, 2012, Ungaro adopted White’s recommendation and signed an order closing the case without a hearing. It was the second time she ruled against Chambers after disqualifying herself.

UNGARO UPHELD ON APPEAL

Ungaro’s ruling was upheld a week later by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel held that even if true “the newly discovered evidence” of a sexual affair between the trial judge and a government witness “has no bearing on Chambers’ actual guilt or innocence in the money-laundering offenses.”

The court did not address whether it was proper, or legal, for Judge Ungaro to rule in the case after having disqualified herself.

On May 29, 2012, again from his prison cell, Chambers petitioned the district court for what’s known as a writ of error coram nobis, claiming Ungaro was biased against him, the government failed to disclose its knowledge of the alleged affair and that he was denied due process.The clerk’s office again assigned the case to Ungaro despite her prior recusals.

Ungaro dated her third unexplained recusal order on Aug. 1, 2012, though it was not docketed until two days later. In between, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Morales filed court papers opposing a hearing and calling the matter “a delayed regurgitation of gossip”.

Chambers’ “claim only rises to the level of hearsay that, even if true, would merely establish an appearance of bias or impropriety,” Morales wrote.

Magistrate White again recommended the case be dismissed. Judge Martinez adopted the recommendation and closed the case on Sept. 28, 2012.

While Chambers attempted to litigate in court, Benages pursued an unsuccessful $5.5 million damages claim at the Justice Department starting in 2009. The alleged damages included the cost of his divorce, the loss of marital assets and related health ills that led to “the demise of my lucrative lobbying business and consulting law practice.”

The complaints contain additional details, including Benages’ assertion that “in the second half of 2003” he and his wife dined with Majcher and another Mountie at a local restaurant. Before the dinner, he said, “Ursula received a gift of an authentic Royal Canadian Mounted Police hat.”

In other interviews, Benages narrowed the time of the dinner as in September or October of that year.

FBI “BLACK BAG OPERATIONS”?

Benages also accused the FBI in a July 2012 complaint of twice conducting “black bag operations” against him during the previous year “in preparation for what they expected would be litigation on my part.”

Benages claimed to have spotted an FBI car parked near his home in Coral Gables, then discovered that supporting documentation for his claim “had disappeared.” He said a similar incident occurred after he moved to Wilton Manors.

Benages’ lawyer said in a recent interview that about the same time documents relating to Benages that he kept stored on his computer also went missing.

“It could have been that they were wiped clean by mistake, but I doubt it,” said Joseph Carballo, who at the time had an office at 717 Ponce de Leon Boulevard in Coral Gables. “I didn’t realize it had happened until months later when Michael Benages asked me for a copy of the file and I went to look for it and it wasn’t there.”

“I recall seeing emails from his ex-wife where they were smoking gun type emails…that suggested, that kind of corroborated that she was having an affair with someone in the time frame that he’s talking about,” said Carballo.

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Martin Chambers remains at a low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas. His scheduled release date is Sept. 7, 2016.

Chambers’ attorney is John W. Conroy of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Conroy said recent efforts on Chambers’ behalf have focused on getting him transferred back to Canada rather than building a case for judicial bias.

“We were trying to find out what happened from the RCMP. We believe Majcher was disciplined in some way, but we were unable to get to the truth,” said Conroy.

Conroy said that both the U.S. and Canada have now agreed to transfer Chambers to Canada, where he would be eligible for immediate release under Canadian law. Chambers could be returned to Canada as soon as next month.

Embattled nonprofit Plaza Health Network sells property, insider pockets millions

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The original facility of the Plaza Health Network, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, was sold last year for $13.6 million

The original facility of the Plaza Health Network, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, was sold last year for $13.6 million

When nonprofit Miami-Dade nursing home operator Plaza Health Network sold a prime slice of Miami Beach real estate for $13.6 million last spring, its board chairman, Russell Galbut, collected more than $3 million for himself and his real estate company, Crescent Heights, according to company documents reviewed by FloridaBulldog.org.

Plaza’s sale of its shuttered 104-bed facility at 320 Collins Ave and two neighboring parcels comes amid a federal investigation into a whistleblower’s allegations that Plaza Health submitted $130 million in false claims to Medicaid and Medicare via an illegal kickback scheme that billed the government for services that were not performed.

Plaza Health is also suspected of fraudulently obtaining low interest rate mortgages from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Miami Beach property sale occurred about a year after FBI agents raided Plaza Health’s North Miami Beach corporate office and two of its facilities.

Critics of Plaza Health, the business name of Hebrew Homes Health Network Inc., point to the property sale to illustrate how its board of directors has put big money into the pockets of Galbut, his relatives and business partners.

“It seems Plaza’s mission is being abandoned for the economic interests of the folks who control the board,” said Dale Ewart, vice-president of the Service Employees International Union local chapter 1199, which represents 600 healthcare workers employed by Plaza. “If all they are doing is turning nursing homes into real estate development deals, then they are doing the wrong thing.”

PLAZA HEALTH’S FORMER CFO BLEW WHISTLE

Galbut’s family co-founded the nursing home network in 1954. His role is central to whistleblower Steven Beaujon’s lawsuit, which spawned the federal investigation. Beaujon was the former chief financial officer for the non-profit nursing home chain.

FloridaBulldog.org learned about the deal’s specifics and Galbut’s involvement by reading internal emails, sales contracts, and board meeting minutes provided by administrative employees of Plaza Health who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Russell Galbut

Russell Galbut

The complaint was initially filed under seal in February 2012.

The lawsuit claims Plaza Health board members and executives took their marching orders from Galbut, a major player in Miami Beach who has contributed large sums to Republican campaigns in Florida. Election records show Galbut and his companies have donated $113,750 to various Republican congressional candidates since 2008. Last year, he hosted a Coral Gables fundraiser for Gov. Rick Scott that included his $3,000 personal contribution plus $5,000 in bundled money from five of his corporations.

Galbut relinquished his post as Plaza Health’s chairman in November after serving 20 years on the board. Taking over as chair was Ron Lowy, a criminal defense and corporate lawyer who represented some of Galbut’s companies and entities.

Lowy has acknowledged the federal probe and said he is trying to negotiate a non-criminal settlement with the Department of Justice. He denied that Galbut controls Plaza Health’s board and said Galbut has done nothing improper. He declined to discuss specifics of the negotiations.

“Russell and his family deserve accolades and recognition for starting and maintaining this nursing home group,” Lowy said. “They are the largest contributors to the Plaza Health Network.”

Galbut declined comment, referring questions to Lowy.

Still, the deal for the sale of the Collins Avenue property that was the location of Plaza Health’s original facility, the Hebrew Home of South Beach, ultimately worked out in Galbut’s favor.

Six months after shutting down that nursing home location and laying off 159 employees, Plaza Health received dozens of sealed bids on the main property and two contiguous parcels, 302 and 336 Collins Ave., located in Miami Beach’s hottest real estate sector.

PROPERTY BIDS

A year ago, February 24, 2014, Plaza Health’s board met by conference call to evaluate the two top bids. A three-person subcommittee of non-board members that included former State Rep. Elaine Bloom recommended the property be sold to Brooklyn-based JMH Development, which offered $12.5 million, according to meeting minutes reviewed by FloridaBulldog.org.

The second bid, for $500,000 less, was from a partnership whose members included Bal Harbour resident Robert Finvarb and Jared Galbut and Keith Menin, who are both cousins and partners of Russell Galbut in two Miami Beach hotels, The Bentley and The Shelbourne.

JMH ultimately bought the property, but for a higher price and after threatening legal action for alleged “self-dealing” by Plaza Health’s board.

Each of the Plaza Health board members who participated in the conference call had close ties to Russell Galbut. In addition to Lowy, Joan Brent is his cousin, Plaza Health president William Zubkoff was hired by Galbut and Ben Rozansky is a former vice-president of Galbut’s real estate firm, Crescent Heights.

“Lowy started his presentation by stating that Russell Galbut has disclosed that he is a potential party in interest in one of the potential buyer’s groups,” the minutes of that meeting say. Lowy then said that because of that Galbut would abstain from the vote, but could still participate in the discussion.

The board agreed to let Lowy negotiate final terms with JMH Development. However, Russell Galbut suggested the board also authorize Lowy to negotiate with Finvarb’s group should the JMH deal fell apart.

During another board conference call later that afternoon, Lowy relayed that Finvarb had increased his offer to $12,510,000, or slightly higher than JMH’s bid. He said Finvarb would pay $7 million in cash at closing and the remaining $5.51 million over two years at a six percent interest rate, according to the meeting minutes.

The board, with Russell Galbut abstaining, then changed its mind and voted unanimously to approve Lowy’s motion to award the contract to Finvarb and Galbut’s cousins. A sales contract between Finvarb and Plaza was signed the following day, according to emails seen by FloridaBulldog.org.

But JMH protested, and its lawyer William Fried emailed Lowy and Russell Galbut on February 26, 2014 claiming that Plaza Health’s board had misled his client.

“Based on information we have now we believe their actions involve self-dealing and a breach of their fiduciary obligations,” said the letter, which added that JMH was prepared to sue Plaza Health.

BOARD REVERSES COURSE

Plaza Health’s board soon reversed course again, and on March 20 sold the Collins Avenue properties to JMH for $13.6 million – $1.1 million more than JMH’s original offer.

Plaza Health used the proceeds to pay off a $6 million loan on the property from TD Bank. After also paying lawyer fees and broker commissioners, the non-profit netted roughly $4 million.

Most of that money went to Galbut and Crescent Heights. That included paying off a $2.5 million loan that Russell Galbut made to Plaza Heights three years ago in the form of an unsecured mortgage for another nursing home at 335 SW 12th Ave. Another $1 million went to pay the security deposit on another nursing home facility at 42 Collins Ave. that Plaza Health rents from Crescent.

“All liabilities of the related nursing homes are ultimately the responsibility of the parent company, Plaza Health Network,” Lowy said. He added that the board’s actions were proper. “There’s no conflict of interest as proper disclosure was made to the board regarding Galbut’s family involvement,” he said.

The Galbuts and Plaza Health’s board have a symbiotic business relationship that goes back decades. For example, Russell Galbut’s brother Abraham purchased three shuttered nursing homes in 1998 for a combined $8.1 million. He subsequently leased the properties to the non-profit network before selling those nursing homes to Plaza for a combined $47.6 million between 2007 and 2010.

Lowy said Abraham Galbut invested millions of dollars renovating the properties and suffered a financial loss on two of the nursing homes sold to the non-profit.

“The network was in a stronger financial position to acquire properties in 2007 and 2010 versus 1998,” Lowy added. “Purchasing the properties reduced the overall costs of the facilities and was a prudent business decision.”

Service Employees union official Ewart said Plaza Health’s board continues to push for real estate deals that could benefit Russell Galbut at the expense of Plaza Health and its employees. He pointed to a Nov. 26 conference call in which the board, in its first action since Galbut stepped down, authorized Lowy to explore terminating Plaza’s lease with Crescent Heights for the nursing home facility at 42 Collins Ave.

Crescent Heights had plans to develop a hotel at 42 Collins Ave. and had offered to pay non-profit Plaza Health the value of unused years from the long-term lease to move out. The proceeds could then be used to a pay any fines that arise from the proposed settlement with the Department of Justice, according to meeting minutes.

Crescent Heights has a pending application with Miami Beach’s planning department for a partial demolition and full renovation of the existing three story building. The new hotel would have 103 rooms on the top two floors and a lobby, restaurant and meeting space on the ground floor. It will also feature a large pool deck and bar on the roof.

Lowy said Plaza Health is no longer pursuing a lease termination and that he reassured employees at an all-staff meeting on January 30 that the South Beach nursing home is not closing.

Ewart doesn’t buy it. “We have already seen them close one facility with minimum notice to residents and workers,” Ewart said. “Just look at the location and it is not hard to figure out there is an ulterior motive at play.”

Going from bad to worse: the new southbound exit at Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood airport

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org SouthboundUS1exit ramp600

The new southbound exit ramp out of the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport funnels vehicles to an intersection so congested it is rated near the bottom for traffic flow, according to a study commissioned by state transportation officials.

The intersection is at U.S. Highway 1 and Griffin Road.

The conclusion is from an exit ramp assessment prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation by Kimley-Horn Associates at a cost of almost $87,000. Kimley-Horn is a national firm headquartered in North Carolina with offices in South Florida.

Shortly after the assessment was released, the Broward County Aviation Department emphasized in a September slide presentation to county commissioners that Kimley-Horn supported its position that the new exit ramp was the best of four options considered by the county.

What the aviation department didn’t include in its presentation was Kimley-Horn’s finding that the intersection at U.S. 1 and Griffin Road would operate at a poor “level of service” on opening day, with projected growth later causing it to get permanently worse.

The Highway Capacity Manual, published by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences, grades highway levels of service from A to F, said Adam Kerr, the report’s co-author.

A service level of “E” is next to the bottom of the scale. It is characterized by unstable, irregular and slow traffic flow with no usable gaps to maneuver in traffic. Traffic incidents create serious delays and leave drivers with a poor level of comfort.

An “F” service level means motorists will move in lockstep, with frequent slowing, unpredictable travel time and constant traffic jams.

THE WAY SOUTH

Traffic leaving the airport today enters a three-lane bridge that veers left and north toward Interstate 595 and to northbound U.S. 1. To go south, a vehicle must make a hard right onto a one-lane exit ramp as the bridge curves left.

The exit ramp, which opened last month, funnels traffic southbound onto an improved NE 7 Ave, with a single lane that eventually curves westbound onto Northeast 10th Street to U.S. 1 where a traffic light controls when vehicles can turn south or cross to Griffin Road.

Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan will hold public meeting about the airport expansion project at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 18, at the Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, 1950 Eisenhower Blvd. The meeting will address the southbound ramp and other concerns of residents.

Ryan has experienced airport area slow downs first hand, especially during rush hours, when he takes U.S. 1 south to go home. He said he has to wait through several traffic light cycles, or between six to eight minutes, before he can make it through the congested intersection.

FDOT did not design or build the exit ramp. County contractors built it as part of the Broward Aviation Department’s ongoing $800-million airport expansion program.

FDOT District Director James Wolfe said in a July 2014 email to then state Rep. Joseph Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, that his department “did not review and approve the design…since the ramp is located outside the department’s right-of-way.”

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked FDOT to conduct an independent study into whether the ramp was the safest and best option. Sobel made the request amid public protests last year over the elimination of the old more direct southbound ramp that was torn down to make way for the extended runway.

She could not be reached for comment.

Former Rep. Gibbons, a critic of the new southbound exit ramp, told FloridaBulldog.org, “How do you start out with a brand new road which is a failure from the start…There could be a more direct route.”

SUGGESTIONS TO IMPROVE

The Kimley-Horn report made several suggestions to improve traffic flow for vehicles heading south. They include increasing the number of exit ramp lanes to two, reducing the exit ramp’s “departure angle” from the bridge, diverting ramp traffic away from NE 7 Ave. to its own roadway, increasing the number of southbound turn lanes at the U.S. 1-Griffin Road intersection from two to three, and building a flyover at or near Griffin Road to allow airport traffic to bypass the intersection.

The report notes that even if a third left turn lane is added, “the overall intersection will still operate” at a level of service of “F.”

Aviation department spokesman Greg Meyer, noting that level of service ratings applies to the intersection and not the ramp, took issue with the report’s suggestion that adding another lane to the exit ramp lane would improve traffic flow. “We don’t have a need for two lanes at this time,” he added.

A 2011 aviation department study recommended the ramp be widened to two lanes when the number of passengers boarding aircraft at the airport reaches 17.3 million. The Federal Aviation Administration said the number of passengers boarding aircraft in 2014 was 12.3 million and won’t reach 17 million until 2029 or 2030.

Meyer pointed out the aviation department has installed 32 concrete light poles and is now upgrading signage along the southbound exit route. He said the opening of the southbound ramp was accelerated at the urging of local residents and towns.

Between the day the old ramp was torn down and the new ramp was opened, southbound drivers had to travel north on U.S. 1, make a U-turn and then head south on the highway and through the Griffin Road intersection. The U-turn option still exists.

Meyer said the aviation department has entered into an agreement with FDOT to study ways to improve the intersection. The two governmental entities are splitting the $250,000 cost of the study.

Mayor Ryan said many of the report’s suggestions to improve the intersection’s traffic flow would face obstacles to implement. “If there is anything I could criticize, (not having two lanes on the ramp) would be the most obvious,” he said, adding that the new southbound ramp “doesn’t look like the best way to go in the long term.”

Miami-Dade commissioners find $30 million to fix iconic courthouse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Dade County Courthouse

The Dade County Courthouse

Last year, local judges and prominent attorneys led an unsuccessful campaign to convince Miami-Dade voters to foot the bill for a new $368 million civil court building, plus $25 million more to fix the iconic Dade County Courthouse. The measure failed 2-to-1 in November.

Now it turns out Miami-Dade County already had a pot of taxpayer money available for the extensive repairs needed at the deteriorating, 87-year-old landmark.

Earlier this month, commissioners authorized $30 million to fix the old courthouse using funds from a $2.9 billion general obligation bond program approved by voters in 2004. The money was part of $78 million that had been set aside for “additional courtrooms and facilities,” according to a list of bond projects.

Critics of the failed campaign to raise the money via the ballot box weren’t happy to learn that there was no need to ask voters for more money to make needed repairs at the old courthouse built in 1928.

“All the county commission had to do was shift the money to fix the building,” said Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado. “But the folks who pushed for the referendum didn’t want to touch that money because it had been earmarked for a new criminal courthouse and a new jail.”

Regalado is a potential opponent of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2016. Gimenez spokesman Mike Hernandez disputed Regalado’s comments.

“Spending the entire $78 million was always part of the project,” Hernandez said. “It is a good thing that the county has a source of funds available to address these critical issues.”

Still, the mayor’s office never advocated using the existing bond funds said County commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata, another critic of going to the voters seeking more money for courthouses.

Gimenez and Regalado are also on opposite sides on the need for a replacement courthouse.

BACKERS SAY NEW COURTHOUSE NEEDED

Proponents say a replacement is needed because the county’s civil judicial system has outgrown the old courthouse and that it is falling apart after decades of neglect. Among the physical problems: decaying structural columns and black mold from continual flooding in the basement and in water logged walls.

Regalado vociferously opposes using taxpayer funds to construct a new courthouse. Gimenez supports a new building, but did not actively campaign for it.

Looking for a politically acceptable way to make it happen, the mayor and the Commissioner Zapata are now backing a plan to solicit proposals from private developers to build a new courthouse.

Meanwhile, the county still has to fix the courthouse at 73 West Flagler Street because it cannot be razed due to its historic designation by the City of Miami. The building is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“When this campaign came out of nowhere to hit up taxpayers for $400 million, I asked why aren’t we discussing the (general obligation) bond money?” Zapata said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m surprised the administration didn’t say, ‘until we come up with a better plan, we can use this money in the meantime.’”

In October, Zapata sponsored a resolution to allocate the entire $78 million for repairs at the old, downtown courthouse, but it was tabled until after the election. He slashed the request to $30 million after staffers from the internal services department, which manages county-owned properties, informed him the courthouse didn’t need all the funds for the repairs.

The county commission unanimously approved the funds transfer at its Feb. 4 regular meeting,

In a January memo to the commission, Mayor Gimenez said the county already has repaired 14 columns at the courthouse at a cost of $547,000. He said another $22 million must be spent to fix the remaining 114 columns and stop flooding in the basement. The remaining $7 million will be used to pay for an overhaul of the building’s electrical and plumbing systems.

In previous years, the county delayed or scrapped funding to address some of the problems that have been plaguing the Flagler Street courthouse. When voters approved the $2.9 billion bond program in 2004, $18 million was designated for a new heating and air conditioning system, new electrical wiring and panels, and ne plumbing pipes to replace originals dating to the 1920s when the building was new.

But in 2009, commissioners diverted those funds for the restoration of the courthouse facade after the original estimate of $15 million more than doubled. The facade project did not begin until 2013 and $35 million has been spent to date.

“The electorate approved all this money in 2004 and more than a decade passes before the county does anything with it,” Regalado said. “They should have been using it once they found out about the problems.”

Jeb Bush’s missing emails detail his lobbying support for Bacardi as contributions flowed

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A screen shot of the home page of jebemails.com

A screen shot of the home page of jebemails.com

The mass release this week of emails covering presidential aspirant Jeb Bush’s years as governor omitted at least a dozen emails documenting behind-the-scenes lobbying support he gave to liquor giant Bacardi.

Although some of the emails released by Bush discuss Bacardi’s request for help in its fight to use the Havana Club rum trademark, key emails that reflect the duration and vigor of the governor’s lobbying effort are missing.

The 2002 lobbying operation set in motion and birddogged by then-Gov. Bush sought to pressure political appointees of his brother, President George W. Bush, into favoring Bacardi in its bitter, long-running legal dispute with Cuba and competitor Pernod Ricard.

Bush’s lobbying at the departments of the Treasury, Commerce and State unfolded as Bacardi poured tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the Republican Party of Florida and, to a lesser extent, Gov. Bush’s successful 2002 re-election campaign. Ultimately, however, Bush’s lobbying efforts failed.

Bush, the son and brother of U.S. presidents, appears poised to announce soon his own presidential campaign. On Tuesday, his proto-campaign released thousands of emails to and from the former governor beginning the day before he was sworn in on Jan. 4, 1999 and Dec. 31, 2006, two days before the end of his second term.

THE SPIRIT OF TRANSPARENCY

The emails, many of which were first released years ago, were put online at jebemails.com “in the spirit of transparency,” the website says.

“Some are funny; some are serious; some I wrote in frustration. But they’re all here so you can read them and make up your own mind,” Bush wrote.

Also on the site is the first chapter of a book Bush is writing in which he is using his emails to illustrate his time in office. “Email kept me connected to Floridians and focused on the mission of being their governor,” Bush wrote.

Email also kept Bush connected to Jorge Rodriguez Marquez, then the president of Bacardi-Martini, the U.S. arm of Bermuda-based Bacardi Ltd.

Former Bacardi-Martini President Jorge Rodriguez Marquez Photo: PR Newsphoto

Former Bacardi-Martini President Jorge Rodriguez Marquez Photo: PR Newsphoto

On Jan. 8, 2002, Rodriguez Marquez wrote a “Dear Jeb” letter under the subject line “BACARDI NEEDS HELP.”

Rodriguez Marquez explained the backdrop of his company’s then six-year-old trademark fight with “Castro in partnership with Pernod” for the U.S. rights to the Havana Club brand. He explained he’d already contacted an aide to President Bush’s adviser and political strategist Karl Rove and Florida GOP chairman and Miami lawyer Al Cardenas.

Bacardi’s Rodriguez Marquez asked Jeb Bush for help with two matters: convincing the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control to deny a pending license application by Havana Club Holdings (the Cuba-Pernod group) and getting the Commerce Department’s Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) to “erase from their records Havana Club Holdings’ registration” of the Havana Club rum brand.

The next day, Gov. Bush forwarded Rodriguez Marquez’s email to his chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan, with the note, “for our discussion.” He also replied to Rodriguez Marquez, “Jorge, I will see what I can do.”

None of those emails, obtained 13 years ago by this reporter and later filed in trademark court, were included on jebemails.com.

The email traffic that followed reads like a lesson plan for how to turn up the heat on political appointees.

BUSH MONITORS

Follow-up emails from Bush to Shanahan on Jan. 27 and Feb. 17 asked, “any news?”

In reply to the first note, Shanahan said, “Sent note to treasury and USTR (U.S. Trade Representative) today. Will follow up midweek.” The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, then headed by George W. Bush Administration appointee Robert Zoellick, protects Americans’ intellectual property rights overseas.

None of those emails was on jebemails.com.

Adam Moniz, an assistant in the governor’s Washington office, sent another unreleased email to Bush and others on Feb. 20. It informed them that the U.S. commerce secretary was interested in holding a Washington press briefing on the economy. “Also the Bacardi issue is partly a commerce department issue – patents and trademarks – and Jorge Rodriguez [Marquez] will be sitting upstairs for the Florida House luncheon immediately after the press roundtable. He would be WOWed.”

Gov. Bush did release several emails about Bacardi that he sent or received later that day including one from the director of his Washington office, Nina Oviendo, about her contacts on Bacardi’s behalf with a Patent and Trademark Office lawyer and her “reminder” to Bush that Bacardi “contributed over $15,000” to Florida House the previous year. Florida House is the state’s “embassy” in Washington and is supported by private contributions.

In another email that night, Oviedo informed Bush that she’d told Rodriguez Marquez how she was trying “to arrange meetings with him at Commerce and Treasury.”

“Good work, Nina,” Bush replied at 11:06 p.m.

Six days later, on Feb. 26, Rodriguez Marquez wrote Gov. Bush again to thank the governor for his “invaluable support regarding our problems at Commerce and Treasury.”

“Thank you, Jorge. I hope it all works out,” Bush replied two hours later.

The next day, Bacardi-Martini donated $10,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. On Feb. 28, Rodriguez Marquez and his wife gave a total of $1,000 to Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign.

Neither the Bacardi chief’s thank-you email nor Bush’s reply was posted on jebemails.com.

Though lobbying efforts by the governor’s office continued in the weeks that followed, little happened in Washington and Rodriguez Marquez grew anxious and complained in a series of emails sent to the governor’s staff. An April 9 email to Bush from Oviedo that was released says “Mr. Rodriguez is requesting our help to put pressure on these two bureaucracies where possible.”

‘BACARDI NEEDS YOUR HELP’

On April 18, a frustrated Rodriguez Marquez wrote directly to Bush under the subject line “Bacardi Needs Your Help.” He said “Fidel and Pernod” were winning. “Please, someone needs to tell PTO to stop interfering,” he said.

That night, Bush sent an email to Shanahan, “This is ridiculous. Let us discuss.”

Rodriquez Marquez’s email was released on Jebemails.com, but Bush’s note to Shanahan was not.

Bush went on to release about a dozen emails regarding follow-up exchanges about the lobbying efforts over the next two months among Bush, his staff and Rodriguez Marquez.

Kathleen Shanahan, Gov. Bush's chief of staff

Kathleen Shanahan, Gov. Bush’s chief of staff

“My Washington office just briefed me on the status of this and we will push to get this resolved,” Bush told Rodriguez Marquez on April 24.

A few hours later, Oviedo emailed the governor to explain that one of her staffers was “setting up another set of meetings with the Patent Office and State Dept. After those meetings we may need you to personally chime in.”

Two days later, in an unreleased April 26 email, Chief of Staff Shanahan told Bush, “We may need to move up the food chain.”

Meanwhile, Rodriguez Marquez continued to agitate. On May 22, Bush’s office sent him a draft of a letter from Bush to James Rogan, an ex-congressman and President Bush’s appointee as undersecretary of commerce for Intellectual Property and PTO director. Rodriguez Marquez, who had helped write the letter, was given the opportunity to edit it.

Bush’s June 13 letter to Rogan sought “quick, decisive action” by the PTO to cancel the Havana Club trademark. It did not go out until two weeks after Bacardi-Martini contributed $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida on May 29. State records show that Rodriguez Marquez authorized the $50,000 gift as well as $37,000 in additional Bacardi-Martini contributions to the Republican Party between mid-2001 and June 2002.

At the time, Bush’s office denied that Bacardi’s campaign contributions influenced its lobbying actions on Bacardi’s behalf.

“There was no quid pro quo,” Bush spokeswoman Jill Bratina told this reporter in October 2002. “The governor strongly supports the position of Bacardi in this dispute and he is helping a company that has extensive offices and employees in the state.”

Ultimately, the lobbying by Gov. Bush and his staff backfired on Bacardi and the PTO ruled against it in January 2004.

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