‘Concern’ about Ben Gamla curriculum sparks inquiry by Broward Schools

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hollywood's Ben Gamla charter school

Hollywood’s Ben Gamla charter school

Broward County School officials have expressed concern that taxpayer-funded Ben Gamla Charter Schools may be violating a state law that requires charter schools to be nonsectarian in their programs and operations.

The issue arose after a local civic activist complained last month about recent comments made by Ben Gamla’s founder, former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch, to an Israeli news service regarding the Hebrew curriculum at the Ben Gamla schools. Charlotte Greenbarg urged the School Board to re-examine whether the schools breached the Constitutional separation between government and religion.

Last week, in an email to Greenbarg, the director of the School Board’s Charter Schools Management/Support Department said an inquiry had begun.

“The district shares your concern,” said Jody Perry. “ To that end, we have requested a full explanation of the comments attributed to Mr. Deutsch.”

“Of the facts stated within the body of the article,” Perry wrote, “the reporter notes that the program at Ben Gamla schools focus on Hebrew curriculum, which includes the history of Israel, Jewish history and Hebrew as a language.

School officials later broadened their inquiry by asking Ben Gamla’s governing board to provide “a breakdown of public funds…the property and inventory, capital outlay” and other public grants received “to access the appropriate use of public funds” by the group’s two charter schools in Broward.

NONSECTARIAN STATUTE

“The state statute that governs charter schools in Florida specifically addresses the nonsectarian nature of public education in the country. Pursuant to Section 1002.33(9)(a), Florida Statutes, ‘A charter school shall be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and operations.’”

Perry could not be reached for additional comment. The district’s public information office, in response to a request for additional information, stated past reviews of Ben Gamla schools “found the curriculum to be nonsectarian.”

“I’m very happy to see that the district is following up,” Greenbarg said. “I eagerly anticipate Mr. Deutsch’s reply.”

The article was written by JTA, a Jewish wire service, and appeared in The Times of Israel newspaper in mid-July.

Deutsch could not be reached for comment on the school district’s concern and request for explanation.

But when the controversy arose last month, Deutsch stated the Ben Gamla schools do not violate the separation of church and state mandate. “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”

Asked then about the JTA story in the Israeli newspaper, Deutsch told Browardbulldog.org his quotes were accurate but that he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added, however, that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.

In her request for a review of the Ben Gamla schools, Greenbarg referred to the JTA story stating: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”

The article said of Deutsch, “He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identity.”

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez

Hollywood Commissioner Peter Hernandez

The review by the Broward school district would involve two Ben Gamla schools, one on Hollywood Boulevard across from Hollywood city hall and the other in Sunrise. There are two other Ben Gamla schools, in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

The controversy flared as Ben Gamla teamed with Miami-Dade’s highly-regarded Doral Preparatory Academy to seek Hollywood’s approval of a special exemption to build a four-story 1,050-student middle-senior high school on Van Buren Street, behind the existing K-8 school. It will also seek school board approval for a charter for the facility.

BIG TURNOUT AT CITY HALL

Four neighborhood associations representing area homeowners are fighting the proposal for another school, citing the likelihood of increased traffic congestion.

The matter was discussed informally at a community meeting last Wednesday night at city hall. Commissioner Peter Hernandez, who represents the district where the school is to be built, sponsored the gathering. The meeting was moved outside after more than 250 people unexpectedly showed up.

Most of those in attendance were the parents and children who attend Ben Gamla schools.

“We want to give our kids a better future,” said Mike Gerson, who has a fourth grader and a seventh grader at Ben Gamla. Chantale Ragnauth, 31, whose son is in the third grade, said, “It feels like family; it’s an amazing school.”

“People drive through my yard,” yelled a neighborhood resident.

Commissioner Hernandez cited the concerns of his constituents.

“We are not against the school…but there is a traffic nightmare…there are traffic issues that need to be worked out,” Hernandez said. He added that he has tried to get school officials to help solve traffic congestion created by the existing K-8, but got no response.

Deutsch, who attended the meeting, said solutions now proposed by the school will improve traffic “dramatically.”

The meeting ended on a bitter note.

“I love the fact that you came out,” Hernandez told the Ben Gamla supporters, drawing jeers when he said “most of you don’t live here (in the immediate neighborhood).”

“The good thing is he (Hernandez) is only one of seven votes,” said Deutsch, drawing cheers from his backers.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

Aviation deal fallout: Broward commissioners want back some power over who gets contracts

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

From left to right, Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs and Commissioners Stacy Ritter and Lois Wexler

From left to right, Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs and Commissioners Stacy Ritter and Lois Wexler

Broward County Commission unhappiness with the Aviation Department’s concession bidding procedures has led to calls for breaking down the wall between commissioners and staff selection committees that recommend which companies get government contracts.

That dissatisfaction surfaced during last week’s commission meeting after a lawyer for MERABroward, which lost its bid for a concession contract, complained about an aviation staff recommendation to give the multi-million dollar contract to upgrade restaurants and stores at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to a competitor.

Following a number of scandals, the commission enacted in 2010 changes to the county’s code of ethics that prevents commissioners from sitting on any contract selection committee. The county’s Cone of Silence Ordinance prevents county staffers who serve on such committees from communicating with commissioners during competitive procurements.

Changes in the ethics code were championed by reformers seeking to prevent lobbyists from using campaign contributions to influence the votes of commissioners serving on selection committees.

MeraBroward attorney James Meyer claimed last week that the department’s selection process lacked due process and transparency and was “seemingly arbitrary…without any grading criteria.”

‘I THINK IT SUCKS’

The complaint triggered irritation by commissioners about the current process.

“I’m frustrated that I’m not part of the process,” said Mayor Kristin Jacobs.

“We are out of the loop,” said Commissioner Lois Wexler.

“I think it sucks,” said Commissioner Stacy Ritter.

Broward commissioners Martin David Kiar, left and Dale V.C. Holness

Broward commissioners Martin David Kiar, left and Dale V.C. Holness

Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness said the public expects the county commission to make such decisions. “In this case, it happened without us pretty much,” he said.

“That shows me that there needs to be some type of change to our code,” said Commissioner Martin David Kiar.

The Aviation Department’s Selection and Negotiation Committee chose in May to rank Host International, a large airport concession company headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, as its choice to upgrade concessions in terminals one and two.

BrowardBulldog.org reported last month that Host International was top-ranked even though MERABroward, which was ranked third, promised to pay the county the highest annual minimum fee, pay airport concession workers the highest hourly wages, invest more in capital improvements, and pay the county a higher percentage of retail proceeds.

MERABroward, whose parent company is MERA Corporation which operates in Mexican and Ecuadorian airports, is located in Lake Worth.

Aviation concession contracts cover food and beverage sales, taxi service and retail and duty free stores. A concession selection, unlike recommendations for other types of large procurement contracts, does not need county commission approval.

HOST INTERNATIONAL GOT COMMITTEE’S NOD

Aviation regulations state that once the county administrator sends a memo to the commission listing how the concession bids are ranked, the bid ranked first will be accepted for contract negotiations unless a commissioner within five working days expresses a concern.

On May 30, County Administrator Bertha Henry sent the commission a memo ranking Host International as first. No commissioner objected to the rankings. The Aviation Department is now negotiating a contract with Host.

Once that’s done, the contract will face an up-or-down commission vote.

At last week’s meeting, Wexler said she was concerned that the Aviation Department’s bid ranking did not need commission approval and that the selection committee can be “completely subjective” in its decision-making.

Mayor Jacobs said in an interview that she was unaware of the five-day rule and does not remember seeing Henry’s memo. “I find it very problematic” that the Aviation Department’s ranking of bids does not need a commission vote,” she said.

Ritter said during the meeting that she wants commissioners back on selection committees as voting members, but the mayor doesn’t see that happening. During the interview Jacobs said a majority of commissioners will not vote to return commissioners to purchasing committees because the “public doesn’t like it.”

Still, Jacobs said, changes must be made to give elected commissioners more say in the awarding of concession and procurement contracts.

Jacobs told BrowardBulldog.org she wants to work with Broward Inspector General John Scott to determine what legally and ethically can be done to allow commissioners and selection committees to exchange information during the selection process. The mayor suggested commissioners might be allowed to ask questions during selection committee meetings although they would not be committee voting members.

At the meeting, Holness proposed a hybrid system, where the top few bidders who survive the selection committee present their proposals to the commission before rankings are determined.

RITTER ‘SURPRISED’ BY RANKING

Ritter said she attended the Aviation Department’s May meeting where the companies pitched their proposals and the selection committee ranked the bids. By law, however, the commissioner could not ask questions or talk to company representatives or committee members.

“I was kind of surprised (by) the ranking,” Ritter told the commission. “It continues to boggle my mind when people say we shouldn’t sit on selection committees when we are letting people who…are not accountable to the public…and do not subject themselves to election” to make contract decisions.

Ritter said the selection committee appeared unconcerned that Host International would take “months if not years” to begin the “build out” to improve the terminals stores and restaurants while MERABroward proposed to start the build out in 18 weeks.

When Ritter asked Broward Aviation Department Director Kent George if he had talked to the selection committee about the build out discrepancy, he said no, adding that he did not want to second-guess the committee.

MERABroward lawyer Meyer said that after he gave his presentation he continued to stand in case the commission wanted to question him. While standing, George turned to him and said, “You sit down.” Meyer thought George wanted to keep him from saying anything more to the commission.

None of the commissioners expressed support for overturning the Host International selection for MERABroward.

When the negotiated Host contract is brought before the commission for approval this fall, the mayor said she will study the contract to make sure that certain guarantees are included, such as airport workers being paid a living wage.

Reporter William Hladky can be reached at whladky@browardbulldog.org

 

ATI career school company implodes amid fraud claims; $3.7 million whistleblower settlement

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org oie_2941128RKljF32J (1)

A for-profit career school operator with once-bustling campuses in Broward and Miami-Dade counties agreed this month to pay $3.7 million to the government to settle whistleblower fraud claims.

ATI Enterprises, which operated as ATI Career Training Center, agreed to the payout while denying accusations it had recruited students at homeless shelters, strip clubs and among criminals, then forged paperwork to make them eligible for thousands of dollars in federal tuition grants and loans.

The settlement, announced by the Justice Department last week, comes as crisis managers liquidate the Texas-based company by selling off assets and transferring or referring students to other schools, according to interim CEO Michael F. Gries.

At its height a few years ago, privately held ATI boasted 24 campuses in five states with more than 3,000 employees and 16,000 students. It was valued at more than $400 million.

ATI’s South Florida training schools in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park, the Doral area west of Miami International Airport, and Miami Gardens closed at the end of last year, Gries said.

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

The settlement resolved a pair of federal whistleblower complaints, including one filed in federal court by Dulce Ramirez-Damon, ATI’s former assistant director of education in Fort Lauderdale.

Ramirez-Damon’s False Claims Act complaint was filed in secret in July 2011. It alleged that ATI had engaged in a “systematic and nationwide fraudulent practice of forging documents and records to create an appearance of student eligibility in order to receive federal funds.

A similar whistleblower action was filed in federal court in northern Texas in 2009. Both suits have now been made public.

Private individuals bring false claim lawsuits in the name of the United States. They share in any recovery, in this case up to 25 percent plus attorney fees.

After investigating, the government decided to intervene on Aug. 7 in Ramirez-Damon’s case for the purposes of settlement, court records say.

The Department of Justice’s press release said ATI’s payment would resolve allegations it “falsely certified compliance with federal student aid programs’ eligibility requirements and submitted claims for ineligible students.”

ATI also allegedly misrepresented its job placement statistics to authorities in Texas in order to maintain its licensing and accreditation, the press release said.

‘MISUSE OF FUNDS’

Federal prosecutors in Miami, Washington, and Texas investigated, along with the Department of Education’s Inspector General.

“Federal financial aid is there to help students attain their dreams and goals, and misuse of these funds to increase corporate profits is unacceptable,” Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a press release. “We are committed to ensuring that federal student aid is used for the benefit of students.”

Neither Ferrer’s office, nor Ramirez-Damon’s Miami lawyer, Bjorg Eikeland, responded to requests for comment.

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

ATI has changed hands a couple of times in recent years, with the current owner being Texas-based Ancora Holdings.

But according to Gries, “all of these allegations” engulfing ATI occurred under the leadership of former ATI Chief Executive and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin, a resident of Delray Beach.

Benjamin, who now runs Salt Lake City-based Stone Mountain Investments, did not return a phone message left with his office. Here’s a link to a You Tube video he made about ATI when he was CEO.

Benjamin worked at ATI from 2005 to 2011. While there, he contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a bipartisan array of Congressional candidates, according to federal election records.

Florida recipients of Benjamin’s largess include: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; ex-Reps. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; and Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican and ex-governor and presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The whistleblower lawsuit alleges that within a month of Ramirez-Damon’s hiring in October 2009 it became apparent to her that ATI was engaged in active Pell Grant fraud. She said she notified her superiors, but that company management chose “to look the other way.”

Ramirez-Damon claimed she was abruptly demoted in April 2011 and transferred off the Fort Lauderdale campus at 2890 NW 62nd Street to a job as an instructor in Miami. The reason: “to keep her silent” and deny her access to school records, the lawsuit said.

She is no longer employed by ATI.

Pell Grants provide government aid to students from low-income families. At ATI, students could take courses to train them for jobs in automotive, health care, business, information technology and other fields.

According to the whistleblower suit, ATI falsified documents to enroll “as many students as possible” in programs with tuitions ranging from $13,741 to $46,744 per program. One former ATI employee is quoted as saying “the ATI culture…was to recruit anyone with a pulse.”

The numbers could add up quickly.

‘A LUCRATIVE SCAM’

“With a student mass of over 750 (in Fort Lauderdale) alone, and 18,000 country wide, federal subsidy of tuition is a very lucrative scam for ATI,” the suit said.

To find students, the suit said, ATI admission representatives targeted “the ‘down and out’ at homeless shelters, strip clubs and poor neighborhoods.” The “bait” to entice them to sign up was the promise of financial aid and low-interest loans. ATI distributed flyers promising lucrative salaries and guarantees of job placement.

The alleged fraud by ATI was sweeping: forged admission exams, forged proof of education, the acceptance of students without screening for criminal history, forged attendance records and falsified grades – all done to make it appear that federal standards were being met so the money would continue to flow.

In the lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon contended, “of a student body of 750 enrolled students” in Fort Lauderdale “at least 150-200 students have a violent or drug-related background.” She provided the names of more than a dozen such students in her complaint.

“It is common practice at ATI when a student is missing attendance, that employees check (the) Florida Department of Corrections website to see if the student has become incarcerated,” said the lawsuit.

ATI would also “re-circulate” poorly achieving students who faced dismissal, letting them know that they could transfer into another career training program. “This way the old grades no longer count and the student is again eligible to receive financial aid,” the suit says.

Some students who failed would fail again because they did not have the academic ability or background to take the courses they were in, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result, the students incurred more debt without graduating. ATI, on the other hand, has made more money,” the suit said.

The government’s press release noted that $2 million of ATI’s settlement payout would be used to refund student loans involving lawsuits brought by individual students against ATI.

The press release did not say how much taxpayers lost on government loans to ATI students.

Controversial “Wizard of Claws” dog seller back in business; target of federal lawsuit

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

James Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store at 4001 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

James Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store at 4001 N Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale

“Wizard of Claws” dog seller James Anderson, who shut his business four years ago amid numerous allegations of wrongdoing and a lawsuit by Florida Attorney General’s Office, is back in business in Fort Lauderdale under a new name and again is involved in legal controversy.

Anderson’s new businesses, the Puppy Collection and the Teacup Puppies Store, are the target of a federal lawsuit alleging that he has engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices.

Also, a former customer of Anderson’s claimed in an interview that Anderson stocks sick dogs.

Competitor Eleonora Bonfini sued Anderson last month alleging he violated a permanent state injunction when he infringed on Bonfini’s federal trademarks, causing unfair competition.

In 2010, Anderson and his wife Gilda consented to a judgment and permanent Injunction after the late Broward Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Aleman found that they and Wizard of Claws had violated state law by misrepresenting to customers the source, pedigree and adult size of their dogs. Many had bought puppies believing that they would stay “teacup-size” into adulthood.

ALLEGATIONS OF MASS-PRODUCED DOGS

The Wizard of Claws case, highlighted by allegations that the pet store sold unhealthy dogs that were mass-produced at puppy mills, made headlines across South Florida.

The injunction was the end result of about 17 lawsuits filed against the Andersons, including suits brought by the Attorney General and the Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society’s suit was the first of its kind in its history.

A year before the injunction was finalized, the Andersons filed for bankruptcy and the national Humane Society removed more than 30 puppies from their store.

The injunction ordered the Andersons not to use the words “teacup puppies” and “puppy boutique,” or several variations of those names in any future businesses or web sites.

Bonfini’s business, TeaCups, Puppies and Boutique, is located at 9003 Taft Street, Pembroke Pines. Her website is www.TeaCupsPuppies.com. She has registered the store’s name and a picture of a puppy sitting in a teacup as trademarks.

Anderson’s Teacup Puppies Store is located at 4001 N Federal Highway. His many web sites include www.TeacupPuppiesBoutique.com, www.TeacupPuppiesStore.com, and www.PuppyBoutiqueStore.com. Anderson also shows photographs of puppies sitting in teacups on one of his web sites.

Anderson’s wife’ Gilda, is not connected with Anderson’s new business and is not being sued.

‘SOUR APPLES’ BY A COMPETITOR?

Roberto Stanziale, Anderson’s attorney, said in an interview that the words and picture that Bonfini claims are hers couldn’t be trademarked because they are generic.  The Fort Lauderdale attorney labeled the suit “sour apples” because Anderson “is very competitive in the market”

“Each one of those words is so pervasive in the industry that to say that they have exclusive use of those words is silly,” Stanziale said, adding that Anderson is in compliance with the injunction.

In addition to the trademark infringements, Anderson is misleading customers into believing that are dealing with Bonfini’s company when they order dogs from him, Bonfini’s attorney Miriam Richter said in an interview. Between 20 and 30 customers have complained recently to Bonfini about Anderson’s misrepresentation.

Richter said Bonfini noticed something was amiss during last Christmas’ shopping season when her business dropped by $50,000. Bonfini also heard reports about how Anderson was allegedly misrepresenting his store as her business.

Richter said several customers have given her client statements about the misrepresentation. Two women said they each deposited $2,000 with Anderson’s business to buy puppies after Anderson’s employees told them that were at Bonfini’s store. After they realized that they had been misled, one woman stopped payment through her credit card company and the other woman demanded a refund from Anderson, Richter said.

AN UNHAPPY CUSTOMER

Morgan Rohrhofer purchased a Boston Terrier puppy for more than $1,700 from Anderson’s store in May. Within days of the purchase the puppy got sick. A veterinarian diagnosed the puppy as having giardia, an intestinal parasite.  Dogs become infected by coming in contact with contaminated food, soil, or water.

Rohrhofer sent Anderson an email to complain. “According to the vet he contracted the parasite from where he was picked up given the short amount of time between departure from Teacup Puppies and showing of symptoms,” she wrote.

Rohrhofer said in an interview that she spent nearly $400 in vet bills, but Anderson’s business reimbursed her more than $200. She said her now five-month-old pup, Blake, is still ill and on medication.  

Puppies at Anderson’s store were kept in cramped glass cages, about 1½ foot by two feet, with three to six dogs per cage, she said,” she said. She saw the puppies “crapping on each other,” she said. “That’s how (Blake) got giardia…I’m so glad that I got him out of that situation. It’s so terrible.”

Rohrhofer said her Boston Terrier came from RCW Kennels located in Elk City, Kan.

The Humane Society of the United States in a 2007 video report listed RCW Kennels as a puppy mill. The puppies lived in “worn out wire cages exposing dogs to sharp edges,” the report stated, adding that a Kansas state inspector in 2006 reported that “urine ammonia smell was so strong in an unventilated building that it burned her nose and eyes.”

The Florida injunction states that James and Gilda Anderson may not acquire animals from breeding facilities that they know “or has reason to know” that the animals were kept “in substandard conditions…”

Attorney Stanziale said his client does not buy puppies from suppliers who raise animals in substandard conditions.

“Mr. Anderson is under scrutiny every month about where he purchased the puppies,” he said. The injunction requires Anderson to report his business activities monthly to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Stanziale questioned the Humane Society’s objectivity in labeling RCW Kennels a puppy mill, claiming that the society “has its own interest.” He said the Humane Society wants to steer people to shelters and away from retail stores that sell “beautiful” dogs.

“There is no way in a million years you can sell thousands of puppies that one won’t be sick,” Stanziale argued. “Where would you want to buy a puppy? I would want to buy a puppy from a guy who is being monitored by the State of Florida.”

Molly McFarland, deputy press secretary for the Florida Attorney General, said in an email that her office is not investigating Anderson for any alleged injunction violations.

“Should consumers believe that this company and its owners are in violation of the injunction filed…under the previous administration, we encourage them to contact our office…,” she said.

 

State records about Broward Sheriff altered; Israel to amend his financial disclosure

 By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Scott Israel at his swearing in ceremony in January Photo: CBS4

Scott Israel at his swearing in ceremony in January Photo: CBS4

Online state records that listed Broward Sheriff Scott Israel as a “principal” in a Weston private investigations firm, Talon/G6 Services, were altered last week to delete the sheriff’s name.

This week, the sheriff’s lawyer announced that Israel would amend his recently filed financial disclosure form after it was disclosed the sheriff had underreported how much money he was paid last year by a Fort Lauderdale private security company, Cambridge Security Services.

The changes follow inquiries about Israel’s business affairs by BrowardBulldog.org.

The Florida Division of Licensing removed Israel’s name from its records about Talon/G6 after deciding to accept a signed resignation letter from Israel that it had rejected only months before as inadequate, according to Division spokeswoman Erin Gillespie.

In the letter, dated April 20, 2011, Israel resigned as Talon/G6’s president and relinquished all ownership in corporate stock. The letter, however, was not received at the Division until last October, just a few weeks before Israel was elected.

The Division replied to Israel that proof – a notarized letter or corporate minutes reflecting the change – was required before Israel’s name would be dropped from its records, but no response was ever received, said Gillespie.

Israel remained listed as a principal of Talon/G6 until last week when the Division’s new chief of its Bureau of License Issuance, Stuart Scott, informed staff that Israel’s letter was now considered sufficient because a check of the state’s Division of Corporations website showed that Israel was no longer listed as company officer there.

Gillespie said the situation had not arisen before. She said Scott, who has been reviewing policies and procedures, made the change because he thought the Division’s old notification rule was “too bureaucratic.”

ISRAEL DISCLOSES HIS TAX RETURNS

The outside business ties of Broward’s elected officials, particularly the sheriff, have been a matter of keen public interest since 2005 when news of then-Sheriff Ken Jenne’s private business dealings touched off a federal investigation that landed Jenne in prison.

Sensitive to that, Sheriff Israel provided BrowardBulldog.org with copies of his federal income tax returns for 2011 and 2012. They show that in 2011 he claimed a passive loss of $8,200 on his investment in Talon/G6, an indication he indeed sold his stake that year.

But the sheriff’s 2012 tax return also revealed that Israel underreported his income on his signed and notarized Full and Public Disclosure of Financial Interest form filed with Florida’s Commission on Ethics on June 27.

Israel reported on the form that “Cambridge Securities,” 5100 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale, paid him $13,350 last year. The company, however, does not deal in stocks and bonds. Its actual name is Cambridge Security Services and it provides security guards and intelligence consulting.

Israel’s 1040 form states that Cambridge Security Services really paid him $27,000 in 2012 for his services as a “security executive.”

BSO general counsel Ron Gunzburger, the sheriff’s lawyer, called those discrepancies a “scrivener’s error” and said “the sheriff will be filing an amended (disclosure) form.”

Still, Israel’s public resume and his Facebook page recount his professional experience, including Talon/G6, but do not mention Cambridge Security.

At Talon/G6, Israel’s partner was James Scarberry, a former Hollywood police chief. Scarberry gained notoriety in 2007 after federal prosecutors said they were forced prematurely to shut down a two-year FBI undercover investigation of police corruption in Hollywood after Scarberry leaked word of the probe to the mayor, city manager and at least a half-dozen others.

“We were betrayed by the police chief,” retired FBI agent Jack Garcia told Miami Herald columnist Fred Grimm in 2008.

NEW STOCKHOLDER TIED TO JENNE SCANDAL

Who bought Israel’s Talon/G6 shares?

According to Scarberry, it was a former BSO vendor with unsavory ties to ex-sheriff Ken Jenne.

“He sold his interest to Lewis Nadel,” said Scarberry, who remains with Talon/G6. Asked how much Nadel paid, Scarberry said, “I don’t want to discuss it with you.”

Nadel, vice president of Talon/G6, was a central player in the corruption case that led to Sheriff Jenne’s downfall six years ago.

Nadel was then president of Innovative Surveillance Technology, a company that had sold over $250,000 worth of equipment to BSO between 2003 and 2005. He also owned an eponymous consulting and training company for law enforcement agencies.

According to the charges to which Jenne pleaded guilty, Jenne provided Nadel with access to off-duty sheriffs deputies that Nadel would hire to do work for his companies. In exchange for that access, Nadel paid a total of $5,500 to Jenne’s executive assistant – money that ended up in Jenne’s bank account, prosecutors said.

Asked about the sheriff’s Talon/G6 stock sale, Gunzburger put distance between the sheriff and Nadel.

“The sheriff sold his shares directly back to the corporation in April 2011” for $5,000, Gunzburger said. “The corporation subsequently sold at least some of those shares to Mr. Nadel. But there was not any direct transfer/sale of shares, nor any exchange of money between Mr. Nadel and the sheriff.

While Scarberry, Gunzburger and Nadel himself all said that Nadel owns a piece of Talon/G6, his status is not reflected in state records. The Division of Licensing only shows that Nadel currently holds a license as a private investigator intern. Gillespie said the company has been asked “to file the appropriate information.”

A stock purchase agreement filed with the state says that a Pompano company called Tecwatch paid $5,000 for 50 percent of Talon/G’s stock on the same day Israel signed his letter of resignation.

Tecwatch’s lone corporate officer, director Thomas Strok, signed that agreement. Strok and Nadel are longtime co-directors of the South Florida Crime Commission, a nonprofit that does good deeds for law enforcement agencies.

Strok did not return messages seeking comment.

Nadel confirmed that he owns part of Talon/G6, but not via Tecwatch. He added that his friend’s investment was intended to help Israel by taking the company off his hands.

“Tom owns Tecwatch. I have nothing to do with Tecwatch,” said Nadel. “Tecwatch assumed (Israel’s) points so he could run for sheriff.”

Fresh questions about use of public money for Deutsch’s Ben Gamla charter schools

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org bengamlasign

A Broward civic activist has urged the School Board to re-examine whether the publicly funded Ben Gamla charter schools are violating the Constitutional separation of church and state mandate.

In response, a top district official has asked for a review of the matter.

Charlotte Greenbarg, a Hollywood resident, contacted board members after reading a July 21 article in an Israeli newspaper about school founder and former Democratic Congressman Peter Deutsch and his endeavors to create Ben Gamla schools in South Florida.

In her Aug. 10 email, Greenbarg cited this line from the article: “Deutsch is unabashed about using public money to support what he describes as Jewish identity building. Out of Ben Gamla’s collective budget of $10 million a year, Deutsch says 80 percent serves Jewish communal purposes.”

“This needs to be re-examined quickly,” Greenbarg said.

“People can have any opinion they want,” said Deutsch, adding the School Board carefully vetted the issue in 2007 before approving Ben Gamla for a K-8 charter school on Hollywood Boulevard.  “We are careful not to teach religion. It’s illegal to teach religion.”

The controversy was renewed as the Ben Gamla charter school group faces new neighborhood and community opposition to its proposal to build a 1,050-student middle and senior high nearby on Van Buren Street, east of I-95 near City Hall.

SPECIAL EXEMPTION NEEDED

The school needs a special exemption from Hollywood to construct the four-story school building, a joint effort with the existing Doral Preparatory Academy in Miami-Dade. The School Board must also approve it.

Following Greenbarg’s complaint, the office of Broward School Board chair, Laurie Rich Levinson, responded saying her e-mail and the article about Deutsch were forwarded to the district’s Charter School Department “for review and response.” Levinson could not be reached for comment.

The story that appeared in The Times of Israel was written by JTA, a Jewish wire service. It describes Deutsch as an “expatriate” who has lived in Israel the last eight years. It describes Deutsch as an Orthodox Jew who believes that most American Jews “view their Jewish background much as he did when he was younger, and with the same dispassion as Americans of Greek or Polish or Italian extraction might view their ancestral origins; as little more than a footnote to their identity.

“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that,” the story says. “He wants to give Jewish kids who otherwise would attend public school an opportunity to be in a Jewish environment and develop a Jewish identify – at taxpayer expense.”

Asked about the story in the Israeli newspaper, Deutsch said his quotes were accurate but he could not attest to the complete accuracy of the story without reviewing it. He added that he had not made a complaint about any part of the story.

“The school complies with every aspect of separation of church and state,” said Deutsch. “The school is obsessive with compliance with separation of church and state. The process is 100 percent transparent.”

Ben Gamla schools provide some instructions in the Hebrew language and studies in Jewish history and the state of Israel, Deutsch said. The result, Deutsch said, is a “communal benefit.”

The JTA story in the Israeli newspaper stated that about 85 percent of Ben Gamla students are Jewish. Deutsch does not know the exact figure, but said the majority of students are Jewish.

Other ethnic groups also attend, Deutsch said. Many of the students are from the middle and lower income families, he added.

PUBLIC FUNDING

The School Board’s approval in 2007 of the K-8 school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard made Ben Gamla eligible to receive public funding from the state in an amount equal to that received for each student by a public school. Since then Ben Gamla has opened three other schools – one more in Broward and one each in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. A 40-student Ben Gamla School in Pinellas County closed in June.

Greenbarg, a well-known activist, is president of the Hollywood Council of Civic Associations, representing 15 associations throughout the city.  She told board members, “ When this school came before the Board…Peter Deutsch promised it would be focusing on the Hebrew language, not religion, which would be a violation of the Constitution. Apparently that’s not what has happened as the article…illustrates.”

In an interview, Greenbarg said Deutsch appears “unconcerned that he was using public funds for religious purposes. The problem is that’s unconstitutional. The Florida Supreme Court ruled you can’t do that.

If the “purpose of the charter school is to have a Jewish identity, then don’t use public funds,”
Greenbarg said.

Greenbarg said her group supports three homeowner groups in opposing the proposal for the Doral-Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy on Van Buren Street, adjacent to the existing Hollywood Ben Gamla K-8 school.

The group, she said, opposes the project because the traffic is already difficult in the area of the proposed school. “It’s a terribly congested place. It’s going to be bad for the community.”

Deutsch said Ben Gamla representatives have met with area residents and generally found backing for the school.

Opposition to the proposal, however, appears to be spreading.

In another development, a 10-unit condominium next to the proposed school, has joined opposition to the school.

In an August 8 letter to the city, Guy Chartier, president of the 10-unit Coronet Grove Condo Association that is next door to the proposed school, said it would increase traffic and parking woes in the area.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Push to extend ‘Doc’ Sistrunk’s name and legacy raises tensions in Fort Lauderdale

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

Dr. James F. "Doc" Sistrunk

Dr. James F. “Doc” Sistrunk

To honor Dr. James F. “Doc” Sistrunk’s legacy, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission may have to defy Flagler Village Civic Association opposition to extend the boulevard named for the black physician.

The proposal is to extend the name Sistrunk Boulevard east of Andrews Avenue through the Flagler Village neighborhood to Federal Highway.

Sistrunk Boulevard currently runs west from Andrews Avenue through City Commission District Three. The road, however, is named NE 6 Street east of Andrews Avenue, which is part of City Commission District Two.

Sistrunk Boulevard is four lanes wide until it meets Andrews Avenue, where the road narrows to two lanes as it continues east.

Economics and politics are the reasons given for opposing the Sistrunk Boulevard extension. Race is an unstated tension.

The Sistrunk district, just west of Flagler Village, is the largely black, historically segregated area of the city. Flagler Village is gentrifying into a predominantly white residential neighborhood.

Asked if racial bias is driving opposition to the Sistrunk Boulevard extension, City Commissioner Dean Trantalis – who represents Flagler Village – said, “I don’t know what prejudices are in the hearts of people.”

The Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights Community Redevelopment Advisory Board has voted twice – in 2009 and 2012 – to rename that part of NE 6 Street as Sistrunk Boulevard to encourage economic traffic into the Sistrunk neighborhood.

TO HONOR A BLACK PIONEER

Commissioner Bobby B. DuBose, who represents the predominately African-American District three, said in an interview that many of his constituents want Sistrunk Boulevard extended to honor the black pioneer’s memory.

Dr. Sistrunk, a historical hero to the black community, moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1922. In 1938, when hospitals were racially segregated, he helped established the city’s first medical facility for blacks, Provident Hospital. He died in 1966.

During a July 2 City Commission conference meeting, Mayor John “Jack” Seiler and three of the four commissioners indicated support for a compromise. They suggested using both names along its six-block stretch through Flagler Village. Street signs would read Sistrunk Boulevard underneath NE 6 Street.

Trantalis rejects that idea.

“The big problem that people have is not that they don’t like Dr. Sistrunk and the heritage he brings to the community,” Trantalis told the commission. “(The name Sistrunk Boulevard is associated) with urban decay and crime…The people who live in Flagler Village don’t want that association to be passed into Flagler Village.”

But just a few blocks west of Flagler Village, Sistrunk Boulevard has undergone a recent and dramatic transformation aimed at stimulating private investment in the area. The city, along with its local community redevelopment agency, spent $15 million on the installation of new decorative tile, wider sidewalks, streetlights, landscaping, bus shelters, on-street parking and lane reductions.

DuBose sees the area differently from Trantalis. “We have two different perceptions,” he told the commission. “I (do not) want to belabor this for another year…This is important to the city…At this point I’m ready to move…just vote on it.”

Mayor Seiler lamented that Sistrunk Boulevard retains a negative connotation to some. He called Dr. Sistrunk “a legendary individual who delivered 6,000 (babies) and had a huge impact on…those who did not have access to health care.”

Dr. Sistrunk’s legendary status has not swayed Charlie King, a local activist who is thinking about running against Seiler in the next mayoral race.

“The name Sistrunk Boulevard makes people immediately start thinking of crime, drugs and prostitution,” King said in an interview.

PREJUDICE NOT THE ISSUE?

King is a realtor who owns two townhomes in Flagler Village, and lives further east in Fort Lauderdale’s more upscale Victoria Park neighborhood.  He said prejudice is not the issue.

“It is economics,” he said, adding that renaming NE 6 Street would slow down the gentrification of Flagler Village. “The mayor is overstepping his bounds by forcing people to change the (street) name against their will.”

Street signs bearing the Sistrunk Boulevard name were installed in Flagler Village in 2012. They were  removed following complaints to City Hall. Photo: Matthew Pici, Flagler Village Civic Association

Street signs bearing the Sistrunk Boulevard name were installed in Flagler Village in 2012. They were removed following complaints to City Hall. Photo: Matthew Pici, Flagler Village Civic Association

Trantalis, who attended the last Flagler Village Civic Association meeting, said opposition to renaming the street is widespread. “Nobody in the room supported the renaming,” he said.

Matthew Pici, president of the Flagler Village Civic Association, said in an interview that his association complained to city hall in 2012 when new street signs were erected renaming NE 6 Street as Sistrunk Boulevard. The new signs subsequently were removed.

City spokesman Chaz Adams said a contractor prematurely installed the Sistrunk Boulevard signs in Flagler Village. Once discovered, the contractor removed them. The city commission had not approved the name change, Adams added.

The Flagler Village Civic Association passed a motion in 2012 requesting that any proposal to change street names in its neighborhood be submitted to the association for a vote before city approval.

The association may vote on the co-naming proposal at its Sept. 18 meeting. Commissioners DuBose and Trantalis both are expected to attend the meeting to be held at 6:30 pm at 408 NE 6 St.

“Commissioner DuBose may very well make his case (at the next Flagler Village Civic Association meeting),” Trantalis said in an interview. “I don’t want to predetermine the outcome of the meeting.”

Trantalis said the co-naming of the street in Flagler Village is not a “foregone conclusion,” even though the rest of the commission appears to support it. But if the commission votes to do it without Flagler Village support, it would set “a very bad precedent.”

To Dubose, the renaming proposal is a citywide issue. “We’re not taking, we’re adding, in co-naming, in co-branding,” he said.

FBI resists thorough search of vast 9/11 files in Tampa for records about Sarasota Saudis

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

Times Square on Sept. 11, 2001

A mass of documents detailing the Tampa area connection to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, many of which may have never been made public, are stored out of sight in the FBI’s Tampa field office.

“The FBI’s Tampa office alone has more than 15,352 documents (serials), which together contain, potentially, hundreds of thousands of pages of records related to the 9/11 investigation,” say new court papers filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

Precisely what information is contained in those records was not disclosed.

The Justice Department cited the Tampa records in an effort to convince U.S. District Judge William Zloch not to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search for records of its investigation into apparent ties between the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta, and Saudis living in Sarasota.

Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily left their upscale home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the gated community of Prestancia, and the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, leaving behind numerous personal items and a trail of suspicion and mystery.

The FBI said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot. But after BrowardBulldog.org sued last year under the Freedom of Information Act the FBI released a handful of records, including an April 2002 report that said agents had found “many connections” to persons associated with the 9/11 terrorists.

Those connections include a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” – the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where 9/11 hijacker pilots Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained, according to the report. The flight student’s name was censored.

The news organization alleges the FBI’s two prior searches were inadequate and that additional records of its Sarasota investigation have been improperly withheld.

Former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks, has told the court in a sworn declaration that he believes the FBI should have hundreds or even thousands of pages of additional records about the matter.

Miami attorney Thomas Julin, who represents BrowardBulldog.org, has proposed a new search method for the records, including requiring better word searches, and has asked the court to approve it.

The Justice Department is resisting. In court papers, Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez said the proposal “would require the FBI to conduct an exhaustive fishing expedition” for no good reason.

[Court documents filed in the case can be found here.]

The FBI’s investigation of the 9/11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 people died, was code-named PENTTBOMB, a compression of the words Pentagon, Twin Towers and Bombing. The FBI has said PENTTBOMB was its largest investigation ever, which at its peak involved more than half of its agents.

The FBI has a number of ways that it stores records about PENTTBOMB and its other cases, including its antiquated Central Records System (CRS).

The FBI searched CRS in response to BrowardBulldog.org’s original Freedom of Information Act request in the fall of 2011, but reported finding nothing. It wasn’t until earlier this year, well after the lawsuit was filed, that a further search of CRS turned up the approximately 30 pages that were made public.

The CRS has been replaced by the FBI’s new, $440 million “Sentinel” computer system that was deployed after the original search. Court papers say all FBI records prior to Sentinel’s start-up have been migrated into its system. Attorney Julin has requested the FBI be ordered to conduct a search of the more efficient Sentinel system.

Fernandez acknowledged that the FBI did not search several databases including a pair of surveillance databases and the FBI’s email system.

The surveillance databases were not searched because they were not “specifically requested” to be searched, Fernandez wrote. The email system was not searched, she said, because the FBI “had no reason to believe responsive records would be located on these systems.”

In a reply filed Wednesday, Julin accused the government of playing “cat and mouse” in its responses.

“The reason that the FBI has not located many additional records relating to this investigation has now been made clear. The FBI states in its response…that it ‘did not interpret plaintiffs’ request as seeking information as to any findings regarding family members who resided at the Sarasota address,’” Julin said.

“In essence, this seems to say that the FBI specifically structured its search to exclude the very documents that the FBI knew that the plaintiffs were attempting to obtain and that might either explain the FBI’s public contradiction of the plaintiffs’ published reports or show the FBI’s public statements to be false.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is co-author with Robbyn Swan of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.

 

Hollywood neighbors oppose ex-U.S. Rep. Deutsch’s plan for another Ben Gamla school

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  

Rendering of proposed Ben Gamla charter School in Hollywood

Rendering of proposed Ben Gamla charter School in Hollywood

Former Democratic U.S. Congressman Peter Deutsch is pushing to build another Ben Gamla charter school, this time in Hollywood over the opposition of residents in a working-class neighborhood congested by morning and afternoon traffic.

Deutsch’s plan is for a combined middle and high school on Van Buren Street across from an existing Ben Gamla K-8 school at 2620 Hollywood Boulevard.

It is reminiscent of Deutsch’s unsuccessful attempt two years ago to build an elementary and middle charter school facility in Hallandale Beach. Opposition by nearby residents scuttled that plan, forcing the sale of the property to the city for a park.

In Hollywood, officials with the English-Hebrew charter school are seeking a zoning exception from the city to build a $5 million four-story, 49,000-square-foot school for 1,050 students on Van Buren Street between 26th and 28th avenues.

While officials of three neighborhood organizations representing nearly 150 homeowners are speaking out in opposition to the school because of traffic and other concerns, Deutsch says it will be an asset to the city.

“I think this is going to be an incredible addition to the city and the neighborhood,” said Deutsch, the founder of the publicly funded Ben Gamla Charter School network. A majority of the students will come from Hollywood, and the school will reach out to the neighborhood for students, he said.

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

Ex-Congressman Peter Deutsch

Neighboring residents aren’t convinced.

“It does not fit here,” said Helen Chervin, secretary/treasurer of United Neighbors Civic Association of South Hollywood, comprised of more than 50 homeowners. “They want to build a big elephant by my house.”

“The traffic would be a serious setback for our community,” added Andre Brown, the group’s president. “We are talking about a huge safety issue.”

A decision by the city is expected in about three months.

Residents say their concerns are rooted in experience.

Chervin said the opening of the 600-student Ben Gamla K-8 school in 2007 created traffic problems for residents trying to drive out of the neighborhood to go to work. The area is just south of Hollywood Boulevard and west of City Hall.

A second Ben Gamla school next door would make traffic “impossible,” said Shirley Stealey, secretary/treasurer of the Highland Gardens Civic Association, which represents 35 to 40 nearby homeowners. Most of the students, she said, will come from outside the immediate neighborhood.

While Ben Gamla officials have hired a traffic consultant to come up with suggestions to ease congestion, Stealey said “no matter what they do traffic will be blocked” due to narrow neighborhood streets and the heavy traffic flow from the two schools.

Ken Crawford, president of the nearby Parkside Civic Association, expressed similar fears about too much neighborhood traffic.

“They say the school will benefit the neighborhood, but that never happens,” Crawford said.

The neighborhood is getting support from the area’s city commissioner, Peter Hernandez. “It’s very concerning to me. I can tell you people from the neighborhood are not happy with what they see and hear,’’ he said.

Hernandez will hold a community meeting to discuss the Ben Gamla proposal at City Hall on Aug. 28 at 7 p.m.

The proposed site for the school is on about 1.5 acres in the 2600 block of Van Buren St. that are now home to a 14-unit residential complex and two single-family houses The land is owned by 2648 Van Buren LLC and has an assessed value of approximately $840,000, according to state and county records.

Project site location is just south and west of Hollywood City Hall

Project site location is just south and west of Hollywood City Hall

A Van Buren LLC official, Richard D. Shan, confirmed his company has an agreement to sell the property contingent on the city’s approval of Deutsch’s plan to build the school. Shan, also an official with Shanco Construction, declined to disclose the sale price, but said, “They made us an offer and we accepted.”

Ben Gamla needs a zoning exception as well as a variance from land-use requirements that would allow the school to be built with less of a setback from the road than is usually required. This is necessary because the property is slightly undersized for the proposed plan.

Still, the fear of car-choked streets is the deal’s biggest roadblock. To remove it, Deutsch has hired traffic engineers to provide proposals to ease congestion, including an increase in the number of parent drop-off areas at both schools. He said the school would pay for police officers to direct traffic at key times.

“There are proposals to dramatically improve traffic flow for both schools,” he said.

Deutsch said the new school would be named the Doral-Ben Gamla Preparatory Academy and would reflect the teaching philosophies of the existing school as well as Miami-Dade’s well-regarded Doral Academy, which allows students to obtain college credits.

Doral Academy will partner with Ben Gamla at the proposed school in Hollywood; both have filed applications for approval by the Broward School Board.

Doral, which serves 2,800 students in grades six through 12, is managed by Academica, a large for profit charter school management company headquartered at 6340 Sunset Drive in South Miami.

Deutsch is the managing member for two similarly named limited liability corporations – Van Buren Facility 2 and Van Buren Facility – that use the same principal address.

Deutsch said he uses the Academica address because under state law, corporations must have a physical location to receive legal service, and he does not have a regular business office.

He added, however, that Ben Gamla pays Academica to manage its four schools. He said no decision has been made about the company providing management services for the new Doral-Ben Gamla school

According to city records, Deutsch and other Ben Gamla representatives, including former Hollywood City Attorney Alan Koslow, met with Mayor Peter Bober in City Hall on April 30 to discuss the school project.

“Mayor Bober is familiar with the issues…he’s supportive of the concept,” said Deutsch.

Bober did not return several phone messages seeking comment. Koslow could not be reached for comment.

The city’s Technical Advisory Committee reviewed Ben Gala’s preliminary plans in June. Ben Gamla was asked to provide more information, including how to ease traffic flow in the area.

Once the committee is satisfied it will forward the school’s plans to the Planning and Development Board. The planning board is expected to hold a hearing in November.

Under the city code, the planning board would render the final decision. There are several avenues of appeal, however.

The School Board must also approve the school.

Ben Gamla charter schools are free to students because of state funding directed through local school boards. They receive the same amount of funding per student as that received by regular public schools.

Ben Gamla stirred public debate about the separation of church and state before its opening. Ultimately, the School Board allowed the school to open after determining that its dual-language curriculum complied with state requirements.

Ben Gamla supporters have said the schools are nonreligious settings that offer an alternative to privately run Hebrew day schools where tuition can run well over $10,000 a year.

Broward homicide detective blows whistle on Sheriff Israel; alleges cover up and retaliation

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Sheriff's Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

Broward Sheriff’s Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

A Broward Sheriff’s homicide detective has filed a whistleblower suit alleging that Sheriff Scott Israel and members of his command staff sought to cover up misconduct by a Fort Lauderdale canine officer at an arrest scene.

Jeffrey Kogan, a featured detective on the A&E channel’s police reality show “The First 48,” contends he was ostracized and demoted to road patrol after reporting he saw the dog handler unnecessarily sic the animal on a murder suspect who was in custody and no longer a threat.

Sheriff Israel, a former Fort Lauderdale police officer, is the lone defendant in the nine-page complaint filed July 12 in Broward Circuit Court. He is accused of engaging in or allowing “unlawful retribution and retaliation,” including “verbal abuse, harassment and intimidation for reporting official misconduct and participating in its investigation.”

Kogan is a 12-year BSO veteran and, according to his A&E biography, a homicide detective since 2009. His complaint says his record until now was unblemished.

On April 3, Kogan was investigating the fatal stabbing of 20-year-old Keema Gooding at a home at 3024 NW Eighth Court, in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale. A resident of the home, Walter Hart III, 19, was quickly identified as the prime suspect.

Hours later detectives developed information that Hart was possibly hiding at another residence located within Fort Lauderdale’s city limits. In standard protocol, BSO asked for the assistance of city police, the lawsuit said.

Murder suspect Walter Hart III  Photo: BSO

Murder suspect Walter Hart III Photo: BSO

Early the next morning, police arrived and suspect Hart fled out the back door. City officers waiting in the back yard nabbed him.

When Kogan heard Hart was in custody he walked into the back yard accompanied by the unnamed Fort Lauderdale canine officer and another policeman.

The complaint filed by plaintiff’s lawyer Tonja Haddad Coleman says Kogan “observed the suspect sitting on the ground near the rear door with his hands behind his back. He was not resisting any officers or being combative in any way.”

Kogan “then witnessed the FLPD canine officer unnecessarily deploy his canine, who bit the suspect on his right arm,” the complaint says. Kogan immediately reported the incident to his direct supervisor, BSO Sgt. Dave Ellwood, another star of “The First 48”.

Attorney Coleman was not available for comment.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright said, “Without going into any details regarding the pending litigation, we believe the facts will show BSO acted correctly in this matter.”

A BSO press release at the time said Hart was captured with “the assistance of a Fort Lauderdale police dog.”

Hart’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Sidney Fleischman, declined to discuss the extent of his client’s injuries, but did say that Hart was hospitalized because of them.

Fleischman said he was not aware until Wednesday of either the state attorney’s investigation or Kogan’s lawsuit.

Three days after Hart’s arrest, an unidentified assistant state attorney assigned to prosecute Hart for murder contacted Kogan to ask about the charge of resisting arrest that was added to the case. Kogan told him what he’d seen, touching off a probe of the canine officer by the state attorney’s public corruption unit, the complaint says.

On May 7, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent working with prosecutors called Kogan seeking a sworn statement. Kogan told his supervisor about the agent’s inquiry.

The next day, Captain Rafael Perez, commander of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Division, asked Kogan about the matter and then told him he would notify Sheriff Israel via the chain of command. He told Kogan to contact his union officials.

On May 30, Kogan was removed from the homicide rotation. He continued to report to work in homicide, but “was prohibited from working cases,” the complaint says.

Kogan was subpoenaed a few days later to appear before prosecutors to give a sworn statement. After that, Perez suggested to Kogan that he might want to put in a request for transfer. Kogan refused.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

On June 10, Perez informed Kogan he was being transferred out of homicide. A few minutes later, BSO homicide Sgt. Steve Feeley called Kogan to get the names of the FDLE agent and the prosecutor who were investigating the dog bite incident.

Perez later advised Kogan “to let things blow over about the incident, and that if he did so, at some point in time he might be able to relocate.”

Kogan’s demotion was effective June 25th. The same day Kogan appeared in answer to the subpoena. The complaint says he “reiterated the incident involving the FLPD canine officer, and then told them all of the events regarding the adverse action taken against” him by BSO.

At the same time, the unnamed FDLE agent told Kogan “the sheriff did, in fact, call his superior at FDLE to inquire about this investigation,” the complaint says.

Kogan’s complaint suggests, but does not specifically allege, that Sheriff Israel’s coziness with his former department is behind what happened to him.

Israel “hired countless employees from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department,” the complaint says. It also notes that “several executives of Israel’s command staff” are former city officers.

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