Broward Health commissioner upgrades unpaid post to well-paid lobbyist for hospital district

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Clarence McKee, center, with  Gov. Rick Scott and former U.S. Rep. Allen West. Photo: McKee Communications

Clarence McKee, center, with Gov. Rick Scott and former U.S. Rep. Allen West. Photo: McKee Communications

When Clarence V. McKee quit his commissioner’s seat on the governing board of Broward Health in January, records show he urged his colleagues to keep an eye on consulting contracts doled out by the tax supported public health care system.

But less than a month later and without any public discussion by his former colleagues, McKee upgraded his unpaid position to a lobbying contract worth $65,000 courtesy of Broward Health Chief Executive Frank Nask, whose performance the board oversees.

McKee’s one-year contract with the North Broward Hospital District, Broward Health’s legal name, commenced March 1 – 29 days after he informed the board he was resigning.

Broward Health’s board never approved McKee’s 13-page contract to lobby in Tallahassee on the district’s behalf. They didn’t have to. Previously, Nask had been given the authority to sign contracts of up to $250,000.

McKee is the only former district board member to be employed as a lobbyist “during the time I have worked with Broward Health,” according to Charlotte Mather-Taylor-Taylor, a Broward Health executive in charge of government affairs and public relations. She has worked for Broward Health since June 1995, according to her resume on Linked In.

Mather-Taylor and McKee both said the idea of Broward Health employing McKee came up after his resignation and because of his experience and familiarity with the issues.

“I was approached by the administration, Charlotte and Frank, to be on the lobby team,” said McKee, whose reputation while on the board was something of a maverick. “I’m paranoid as hell and if I’d been approached before I left that board, or if somebody had suggested it, I wouldn’t have done it because given my voting pattern someone would have said I’d been bought off.”

FLORIDA’S ‘REVOLVING DOOR’ LAW

Florida’s narrowly drawn “revolving door” law prohibits legislators, elected officials and appointees from returning to lobby their government body for two years after leaving office. It does not speak to a situation like McKee’s.

“What this shows is that there are a lot of different issues that are not addressed in the statutes and rules, and in those situations everyone is supposed to use common sense and do what’s in the public interest and should avoid any appearance of impropriety. That isn’t what happened in this instance,” said Nova Southeastern University legal ethics professor Robert Jarvis.

Parkland-based McKee became the 11th member of the district’s formidable team of registered lobbyists. Senate records identify them as Ron Book, Jorge Chamizo, Charles Dudley, David and Candice Ericks, Jim Scott, Jason Unger, Brian Ballard and William Turbeville and Mather-Taylor. Nevertheless, Mather-Taylor said Ballard and Turbeville “were not on contract with us in 2013.”

McKee, a conservative Republican appointed to Broward Health’s board by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, also lobbies in Tallahassee for the Broward School Board. During the legislative session he operated under a one-year, $40,000-a-year contract. On Dec. 3, he signed a new, seven-month deal for $23,331.

What did McKee do for the money?

McKee told the School Board he focused on two issues in Tallahassee: securing legislation to obtain recurring funding for the board’s Broward Education Communications Network, or BECON, and passage of a bill that would let boards install cameras on school buses to help police identify drivers who fail to stop when a bus is displaying a stop signal. Neither became law.

In memos and email sent to Broward Health, and made public under the state’s Public Records Act, McKee described contacts with an aide to the governor and nearly a dozen South Florida state senators and representatives mostly during the session regarding issues involving Medicaid expansion and reimbursement, and the regulation of trauma centers.

“In all of the above, either directly in person or through staff, by phone or email, the Broward Health position was emphasized,” McKee said in a four-page report about his lobbying activities written days after the Legislature adjourned May 3.

LOBBYING ROLE NOT DISCLOSED

But McKee did other things, too.

He authored opinion articles for both the Sun-Sentinel and West Palm Beach-based Newsmax that pushed Broward Health’s agenda and buttered up allied legislators without disclosing to readers that he is a paid Broward Health lobbyist.

McKee reported back to his employers at Broward Health about the columns he’d written.

Here’s what McKee told Nask and Mather-Taylor about a March 27 article that ran in his Newsmax column, “The Silent Minority.” It was about a proposal by State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, touted as an alternative to Medicaid expansion.

“Here is my article on Negron and the bill. My editors gave it a great headline “Dignified Alternative” and hopefully it can get legs and give House GOP an ‘out’ and ‘cover’ to support it or similar…Was done in such a way as NOT to anger any GOP or Dems…need all of their votes,” McKee wrote the day after the article appeared in an email released to BrowardBulldog.org.

The Newsmax article identifies McKee as “president of McKee Communications, Inc., a government, political and media relations consulting firm in Florida” and said he who once worked for President Reagan. A separate on-site biography erroneously stated that he was then a commissioner on the North Broward Hospital District.

The Sun-Sentinel article was written on June 22, more than a month after the legislative session had ended. In it, McKee strokes Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood “for keeping the debate of expanding health-care alive and well” by staging a “Town Hall on Healthcare” public meeting.

Two months earlier, McKee had lobbied Sobel and others to support Negron’s alternative health care plan, which he reported to Nask and Mather-Taylor they did.  The bill passed the Senate, but not the House.

“It was particularly important that Eleanor Sobel, who had been vice chair of the Select Committee on Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and was also a member of the Appropriations Committee, agreed to the Negron plan,” McKee wrote in his lobbying activity report.

The Sun-Sentinel article identifies McKee only as “president and CEO (of) McKee Communications Inc. and a former commissioner of Broward Health.

In an interview on Tuesday, McKee said he should have identified himself as a paid lobbyist in those articles.

“I’d never thought about it,” he said.

In addition to informing Nask and Mather-Taylor about his Sun-Sentinel piece, McKee also reported to them on the activities of John DeGroot, a former Sun-Sentinel reporter and columnist and outspoken critic of Broward Health and other local healthcare systems. DeGroot’s blog is http://john-degroot.com/

In a July 1 memo recounting Sobel’s standing room only Town Hall meeting, McKee reported that after passing out “literature on inequality of hospital care for minorities/ethnic groups” and criticizing Sobel, DeGroot and Sobel got into a “heated shouting match.”

“He, because of his tactics and demeanor, of course, was discounted by the audience,” McKee opined.

Leisure parks chain looks to buy Miami Seaquarium, South Florida’s iconic attraction

By John Dorschner,BrowardBulldog.org seaquarium

The owner of South Florida’s iconic tourist attraction, the Miami Seaquarium, has had “discussions” about selling to a California-based subsidiary of a Spanish parks operator, but said no final deal has been struck.

Arthur Hertz, chief executive of Wometco Enterprises, which owns the 58-year old attraction, confirmed the talks were with Palace Entertainment, which owns a string of amusement parks and facilities, including Boomers in Dania Beach and Boca Raton.

“We have discussions,” said Hertz, 80, noting that Wometco is in no rush to sell. “We’ve had many discussions over the years” with different companies.

A source who wished to remain anonymous told BrowardBulldog.org Editor Dan Christensen last week that Hertz had negotiated a deal to sell the Seaquarium to Palace for about $30 million. The source said a nondisclosure agreement was signed while due diligence steps by the purchaser were being completed. Christensen characterized the source as “knowledgeable.”

The deal reportedly includes a provision that would allow Hertz’s son, Andrew, to remain on to manage the Seaquarium.

Arthur Hertz refused to comment about details of the discussions.

A Palace spokeswoman in Newport Beach did not respond to two requests for comment.  Palace Entertainment is a subsidiary of Madrid-based park operator Parques Reunidos.

For decades, the Seaquarium has been a venerable mainstay of the South Florida tourism industry. Its greatest fame came in the mid-1960s, when the attraction was used to make 88 television episodes and two movies of the dolphin Flipper. Starting in 1971, when Walt Disney World opened in Orlando, attendance fell for many years.

TENANT OF MIAMI-DADE COUNTY

Still, the Seaquarium remains a major tenant of Miami-Dade County, which leases 33 waterfront acres to the attraction on the Rickenbacker Causeway. The facility, which has a lease running to 2031, pays the county $2.7 million a year, according to a county spokeswoman. Payments are based on a percentage of revenue, indicating that the Seaquarium has gross receipts of about $25 million a year.

Wometco Chief Executive Arthur Hertz

Wometco Chief Executive Arthur Hertz

Wometco was founded in 1925 by two brothers in law, Mitchell Wolfson and Sidney Meyer. Wolfson – often known as “the colonel” in Miami – became chief executive. For the first two decades Wometco was a movie theater chain. In 1955, the company opened the Seaquarium and kept expanding until it owned six television stations, 100 movie theaters, cable television systems and bottling plants.

In 1983, after Wolfson’s death, Wometco was sold to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., a New York investment firm, for slightly more than $1 billion. In 1985, two longtime Wometco employees, Hertz and Michael Brown, bought back part of the business – including the Seaquarium, movie theaters and food services.

Hertz, who had started with Wometco as an accountant in 1956 and had risen to chief operating officer, became chief executive of the new Wometco. The company eventually sold off the movie theaters. Its operations today are the Seaquarium and 50 Baskin-Robbins ice cream shops in the Caribbean.

In the 1990s, the Seaquarium pushed hard to get zoning approval for a $70 million expansion to create a full-fledged water park with slides and pools and other attractions on the Rickenbacker site. Miami Herald stories talked then about how attendance had hit a high of 1.1 million in 1971 – the year Walt Disney World opened, and collapsed to less than half that by 1985, before starting to slowly rise again.

“Seaquarium is tired,” Hertz told the Herald in 1991. “It’s an old facility with no modernization for the last 20 years. If we’re going to retain it, we’ve got to rebuild.”

The village of Key Biscayne battled the expansion plans for years, and the war carried over to the courts. “We’d win in the lower courts, but lose in the higher courts,” Hertz said. Finally, he gave up the fight.

KILLER WHALE CONTROVERSY

In recent years, animal rights activists have objected to the Seaquarium’s keeping dolphins and killer whales in captivity, even filing a federal lawsuit in 2012 objecting to the living condition of Lolita, the killer whale. The lawsuit is pending.

Last April, The Herald reported, the federal government agreed to consider whether Lolita should be declared part of an endangered species.

“Lolita has been part of the Miami Seaquarium family for more than 42 years, and is as active and healthy as ever,” Andrew Hertz told The Herald in 2012. “Lolita will continue to be an ambassador for her species from her home at Miami Seaquarium.”

Andrew Hertz did not respond to phone call seeking comment.

Arthur Hertz said Tuesday the activists’ objections “are still going on,” but their demands that visitors boycott the Seaquarium had no effect. “The public doesn’t care.”

Revenue in recent years has been on a steadily upward trend, as measured by lease payments to the county that rose from $1.4 million in fiscal 2001 to $2.7 million in 2013. The exception was 2005, when Hurricane Wilma and other storms damaged the facility. Payments to the county that year were $627,000.

Palace Entertainment’s web site boasts that it is “one of the leading leisure park operators in the United States,” with parks located in 11 states, hosting 13 million visitors a year.

Palace has recently been in an expansive mode. Last year, it purchased Noah’s Ark, a 70-acre water park in Wisconsin Dells that the company described as “America’s largest water park.” Terms of that deal were not disclosed.

The Hertz family has long been civic leaders in South Florida. Arthur has been chair of the prestigious Orange Bowl Comittee, a senior trustee at the University of Miami, a longtime leader of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and a onetime board member of the Jackson Health System.

His son, Andrew, whose title is president and general manager of the Seaquarium, has been following in his father’s footsteps and is the current chair of the Orange Bowl Committee.

 

Two senators short-circuit Legislature’s plan to audit troubled Hallandale Beach CRA

By Willliam Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens

A Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is dropping its inquiry of Hallandale Beach’s questionable use of local redevelopment funds at the urging of two area state senators, one a long-time acquaintance of Mayor Joy Cooper.

Democratic Senators Eleanor Sobel and Oscar Braynon II, representing portions of Hallandale Beach, could not be reached for comment, despite repeated calls, to elaborate on a letter they signed recommending against a state audit or any action related to the controversial city spending of Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds.

In addition, the committee will not ask the Florida Attorney General for an updated opinion on how CRA funds can be used. This was a contentious issue between the city and the Broward Inspector General’s Office which found that Hallandale Beach had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds while ignoring a 2010 opinion that limited CRA spending to “bricks and mortar” redevelopment projects.

‘NO ONE STEPPED TO THE PLATE’

“Broward has a huge (legislative) delegation and no one stepped to the plate and said let’s take a look at what happened to the $80 million” received by the city’s CRA from property tax dollars since 1996 to battle slum and blight, said Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee “depends on local input and two delegation members said don’t…look back.” Schnidman said.

With the Broward County Commission recently having conceded it has no authority to order an audit of the Hallandale Beach CRA under an existing operating agreement, the Legislature’s audit committee was an opportunity for an analysis of the city’s CRA spending, said Schnidman, who worked as a consultant to Hallandale’s CRA for about a month earlier this year.

“State law has to [be amended] to establish clear criteria so cities, counties and CRAs can be held accountable,” said Schnidman.

Hallandale Beach’s CRA is funded by a portion of property taxes collected with its boundaries, roughly three-fourths of the city west of the Intracoastal Waterway. By law, the funds are to be used to revitalize the area.

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Palm Beach, chaired the Legislature’s auditing committee in June when he and vice chairman Rep. Lake Ray, R-Duval, sent a certified letter to Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper city citing the Inspector General’s report and seeking further information about questionable spending. The letter warned that if expenditures were found to be improper the city might have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.

In an interview, Abruzzo, now the committee’s vice chairman, said not a single Broward legislator “came forward to ask that we take it up. We can’t do anything until we have a request [from a legislator].”

Instead, the committee has only the joint letter from Sobel and Braynon.

“Out of respect for the two, the committee will not go forward with an audit,” said committee staff coordinator Kathy Dubose.

INSPECTOR GENERAL’S REPORT

The committee had waded into the thorny issue of Hallandale Beach’s CRA spending after receiving the Broward Inspector General’s 56-page report that found city officials had co-mingled CRA redevelopment funds with city funds for many years and misused CRA funds for grants to nonprofit groups and for such expenditures as fireworks displays. The committee asked the city to explain the allegation of misuse of funds.

At the same time, the committee urged the city commission to ask the Florida Attorney General for an updated opinion to clarify how CRA funds can be spent, and to abide by the decision. The city rejected that request in a 3-2 vote in July supported by Mayor Joy Cooper and commissioners Alexander Lewy and Anthony Sanders.

Neither Sobel nor Braynon responded to multiple requests for comment about their letter recommending against a state audit.

Their letter, however, Sobel and Braynon’s letter urged the committee to “abandon” any plans to audit the city or its CRA as “unnecessary and duplicative.”

While not mentioning the county’s inquiry found “gross mismanagement” of tax dollars by top city leaders, including questionable loans and grants to businesses and nonprofits, the two senators embraced arguments that paralleled the city’s arguments. They noted the city cooperated by providing requested documents and that city personnel gave interviews even though it was the city’s position that the Inspector General did not have jurisdiction. The city also implemented many of Inspector General’s recommendations, including a reorganized CRA staff and procedures, the letter said.

“It is our opinion that the city and the Hallandale Beach CRA are being punished because they asserted their right to express a difference of opinion with the OIG,” the letter said. “Finally, we are concerned that the state legislature is being used to further political agendas at the local level.”

Former city commissioner Keith London said he was disappointed the committee has backed off its probe. “It has egg on its face and its tail between its legs,” he said.

London, who lost a bitter race for mayor against Cooper last year, also said he was not surprised Sobel made a recommendation against a state audit because she and Cooper have been friends for years.

Cooper acknowledges her 14-year friendship with Sobel, but says it had nothing to do with the senator’s opposition to the Legislative audit. Sobel’s stand was based on her review of the situation, nothing more, the mayor said.

“I think she responded knowing Hallandale Beach and what we have done and how much we have accomplished,” Cooper said. “Why go any further?”

Cooper blamed London for attempting to keep the issue in the public eye. “We have a sour grapes person who lost an election,” said Cooper. “I think the city is doing wonderfully.”

While the committee’s plans for a Hallandale audit appear over, Abruzzo said the matter could resurface if a member of Broward’s legislative delegation steps forward to ask for one.

Star of Oscar-winning film about dolphin hunting cast in long-running Broward civil action

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

Ric O'Barry

Ric O’Barry

Six years after it began, a sprawling civil action targeting the Miami-based star of an Academy Award-winning documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan drags on in Broward Circuit Court with no end in sight.

Ocean World Adventure Park, Marina and Casino, located in the Dominican Republic, says its $700 million “racketeering” suit against Ric O’Barry is about damages it suffered after O’Barry “orchestrated a campaign” that ultimately prevented Ocean World from importing in 2007 a dozen dolphins from a Japanese cove where fisherman slaughter and sometimes capture the ocean mammals.

O’Barry and his employer and co-defendant, the nonprofit Earth Island Institute, counter that Ocean World’s legal action is a SLAPP suit intended to silence O’Barry and other environmentalists. SLAPP is an acronym for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”

“It is not going to intimidate me and shut me up,” O’Barry said in an interview.

O’Barry became a dolphin activist after training dolphins for the 1960s Miami-based television show “Flipper.” He became a star in “The Cove,’ which took home the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2010.

the-cove-movieThe film follows O’Barry and a group of dolphin activists in Taiji, Japan, as they sneak past fences and “keep out” signs to covertly film Japanese fishermen inside the cove as they herd, trap and slaughter dolphins not selected for captivity.

Virginia Sherlock, a Stuart-based attorney experienced in defending against SLAPP suits, said real estate developers often file SLAPP suits to silence critics. Those who file SLAPP suits have no intention of winning, she said. “The purpose is to shut up” critics and make sure “everybody else knows about it” so the suit will have a chilling effect.

Thirty states, including Florida, have anti-SLAPP laws. Florida’s law is weak because it only restricts government agencies and homeowner associations from filing such suits. It does not apply to businesses.

Sherlock said that while SLAPP suits are “almost never successful,’’ they average about 3 ½ years to resolve. Ocean World’s six-year-old suit is unusual, she said.

In its original 16-page complaint, Ocean World sought to halt criticism by asking the court to order O’Barry and the Earth Island Institute, an environmental organization based in Berkeley, California, from showing any videos that mention the “Taiji Twelve” dolphins that Ocean World was attempting to import.

Such videos, the complaint alleged, would “recruit others to commit animal enterprise terror (that)…will cause economic harm…, incite blockages, violence and vandalism towards the…12 dolphins.”

The court, however, declined to approve a restraining order.

Today, the court file fills more than 28 boxes.

Ocean World brought two more suits against O’Barry and the Earth Island Institute in Miami-Dade County in 2007 and 2011 alleging slander, defamation, negligence and fraud. Both were later dismissed.

A fourth suit, filed in Broward last May, is pending. It alleges defamation, slander and libel against O’Barry and Earth Island Institute for remarks made by O’Barry on Mike Huckabee’s television show on March 14, 2010.

O’Barry was asked by Huckabee about how much money dealers earn from selling captured dolphins. He mentioned Ocean World once.

“We know that Ocean World Casino in the Dominican Republic paid $154,000 for each dolphin…and when we started speaking out against this, myself and Earth Island Institute, we were hit with a $700 million lawsuit which we are still dealing with,” O’Barry responded.

Deanna Shullman, a Lake Worth attorney who represents O’Barry, said she requested a trial date for the 2007 case more than a year ago, but has yet to receive one.

O’Barry says Ocean World doesn’t want a trial. The suit “just goes on and on,” he said.

Shullman has complained in a pleading that Ocean World’s lawyer, Alexander Penalta, has delayed proceedings by filing more than 30 notices that he would be unavailable for depositions and hearings.

Penalta, of Boca Raton, declined to be interviewed. He has, however, been busy in court.

In recent weeks, he filed papers asserting a variety of new, unsubstantiated charges against O’Barry, including one that he bilked a couple of money by claiming his dolphins could make spiritual contact with their dead son. Peralta also asked Broward Circuit Judge Marc Gold to order O’Barry to submit to a mental examination because of alleged “memory problems.”

Said Shullman, “The filings by the plaintiff are getting farther and farther afield from the true issues in this case.”

Yet the piling on of allegations is characteristic of a SLAPP suit, creating a “moving target” that is harder to defend against, according to attorney Sherlock.oeanworld

“The purpose of this tactic is to keep litigation going, even when there is a clear lack of factual or legal support, by simply changing the ‘facts’ as set out by the plaintiff,” Sherlock said.

Ocean World had wanted the 12 Japanese dolphins for a second park it planned to build in the Dominican Republic. But the dolphins were not allowed to enter the Dominican Republic after the government refused to issue a required permit.

Without the dolphins, the park could not be built, Ocean World Vice President Stefan Meister said during a deposition.

“Because of the actions of your clients, I couldn’t get that import permit,” Meister said.

The original lawsuit, however, was filed by Ocean World three months before the Dominican Republic made its decision to deny the permit that prevented the dolphins from entering the country.

Attorney Sherlock said SLAPP suits frequently are filed before governmental decisions are finalized and typically accuse defendants of “defamation” and “tortious interference.” Ocean World’s original case against O’Barry includes those same counts.

While O’Barry and the Earth Island Institute are the focus of Ocean World’s litigation, there is evidence to indicate that diplomatic pressure from Germany and Great Britain played a big role in the Dominican Republic’s decision to block Ocean World’s purchase of the 12 Taiji dolphins.

Meister discussed it in an Aug. 9, 2007 email he sent to two dolphin dealers.

Meister wrote how he had met with then-Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez and his environmental minister to discuss importing the Japanese dolphins.

“The meeting was going our way,” Meister wrote, noting that the President had dismissed” complaints from “tour operators, animal rights groups, (and) zoological associations” opposed to importing the dolphins.

But the “atmosphere of the meeting’’ changed when the environmental minister gave Fernandez letters from the German and British ambassadors that said “importing dolphins from the Japanese…would tarnish the image of the Dominican Republic and could very well result in a negative backlash in tourism,” the email said.

“The President said in the national interest of the DR, he cannot allow this import under the international pressure,” Meister wrote.

Meister went on to say that he doubted anyone in the “Western Hemisphere” would “touch” the 12 Taiji dolphins. He suggested dolphin dealers should find a buyer “not politically sensitive to the (Japanese) issue,” possibly in China.

Rulings on the recent legal motions and notices are pending. The next hearings in the litigation are set for January in Broward Circuit Court.

A Miami police informant, a prophetic racist and fresh questions about JFK’s death

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963

President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963

At 94, former Miami Beach mayor and still active Miami-Dade Senior Judge Seymour Gelber is among the few who remember Miami police informant No. 88, Willie Augustus Somersett.

“Willie was just a garrulous guy,” said Gelber, who worked with Somersett while serving as a top assistant to Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein in the 1960s. “He’d come in and joke, and (Assistant State Attorney) Arthur Huttoe and I would take his testimony.”

Somersett has been dead 43 years. But in the half-century of assassination lore that’s grown up around the murder of President John F. Kennedy, Somersett has attained a kind of immortality as the man who heard about it first.

You won’t find Somersett’s name in the 26 volumes published by the Warren Commission, the official government investigation that concluded Lee Harvey Oswald was Kennedy’s lone assassin. 

Yet 13 days before that dark day in Dallas, Somersett elicited a chilling, police tape-recorded threat from a right-wing racist who talked of how the President would soon be shot “from an office building with a high-powered rifle” and how “they’ll pick up somebody within hours after…just to throw the public off.”

Miami police informant Willie Somersett, left, and right wing extremist Joseph Milteer

Miami police informant Willie Somersett, left, and right wing extremist Joseph Milteer

Extremist Joseph A. Milteer, of Quitman, Ga., made the threat against Kennedy in the kitchen of Somersett’s small apartment in downtown Miami. Was it dumb luck or advance knowledge? Milteer’s uncanny prediction remains unexplained to this day.

In the late 1970s, the House Assassinations Committee had experts analyze a photograph taken in Dealey Plaza moments before the first shot of an unidentified motorcade spectator “who bears a strong resemblance” to Milteer. The experts, however, concluded the man was not Milteer, who died in 1974.

But now, a retired FBI agent who says that within hours of the assassination he was assigned to locate Milteer has told BrowardBulldog.org the man in the photograph is indeed Milteer.

“I stood next to the man. I interviewed him and spent hours with him,” said Don Adams, who spent 20 years with the FBI before working as a police chief in Ohio. “There is no question in my mind. As soon as I saw that picture I almost fell off of my feet.”

Is the man in the photo Joseph Milteer? Former FBI Agent Donald Adams says yes.

Is the man in the photo Joseph Milteer? Former FBI Agent Donald Adams says yes.

Congressional investigators never contacted Adams, even though he was identified in several FBI reports as having interviewed Milteer. Instead, the record indicates they relied on a probability study rather than live witnesses who actually knew Milteer to determine what the photograph showed.

Adams, now 82, says he saw the Dealey Plaza photograph for the first time a decade after his 1982 retirement from the FBI. The photograph renewed his interest in the case and ultimately led him to write the book, From an Office Building with a High-Powered Rifle, published last year by TrineDay. His insider’s account raises disturbing questions about the FBI’s investigation of Kennedy’s death.

Events leading to Willie Somersett’s Nov. 9, 1963 recorded talk with Milteer began 21 months earlier after a bomb exploded outside the home of Miami Herald Editor Don Shoemaker. The city’s entire detective force was assigned to the case, according to news accounts at the time.

Somersett, a part-time union organizer with right-wing ties and a track record as a paid FBI snitch, came forward to point the finger. Gelber credits the information he provided with leading authorities to identify and convict the bomber – a Nazi sympathizer who worked as a meter reader for the city of Miami.

Records show the FBI had dropped Somersett for a while as an informant in 1961 “for indiscretions…which threatened to expose a reliable Bureau informant.” By 1963, however, the FBI had given him the code name “T-2” and reports described him as “a source who has furnished reliable information in in the past.”

In the months following the Shoemaker bomb case, Somersett remained on the Miami PD’s payroll as part of a broader investigation into extremist and racist groups suspected of engaging in violence that authorities feared might spill into Miami.

It was at an April 1963 meeting in New Orleans of the Congress of Freedom Party, a confederation of right-wing political groups, where Somersett hooked up with Milteer, an old friend and a representative of the notoriously violent Dixie Klan faction of the Ku Klux Klan.

Miami-Dade Judge Seymour Gelber

Miami-Dade Judge Seymour Gelber

Somersett saw Milteer again in Indianapolis in October at the convention of the far-right Constitution Party. As a member of that group’s board of directors, Milteer helped formulate “plans to put an end to the Kennedy, (Martin Luther) King, Khrushchev dictatorship over our nation.”

Gelber, the father of former State Sen. Dan Gelber, kept a diary back then about his work as a prosecutor.  He wrote, “Somersett frequently uses the expression ‘the most violent man I know’” to describe Milteer. “I am beginning to suspect he is intuitively separating the talkers from the doers.”

Following the meeting in Indianapolis, Gelber suggested police tape-record Milteer during an upcoming trip to Miami.

Detective Everett Kay, Somersett’s police contact, set up a tape-recorder in a broom closet in Somersett’s residence in a building in the 1300 block of North Miami Avenue. Today, the former apartment building is a giant billboard.

What follows is a partial transcript. You can listen to the tape and read the entire transcript by clicking here.

Somersett: Kennedy’s coming here, I think, on the 18th or something like that to make some kind of speech…

Milteer: You can bet your bottom dollar he is going to have a lot to say about the Cubans because there are so many of them here.

Somersett: Yeah, well, he will have a thousand bodyguards. Don’t worry about that.

Milteer: The more bodyguards he has, the more easier it is to get him.

Somersett: What?

Milteer: The more bodyguards he has the more easier it is to get him.

Somersett: Well, how in the hell do you figure would be the best way to get him?

Milteer: From an office building with a high-powered rifle…

Somersett: They are really going to try to kill him?

Milteer: “Oh, yeah. It’s in the working…

Milteer mentions the name of a Klansman who might do the job, someone he claimed had stalked Dr. King, “but couldn’t get close enough to him.” Shortly, the conversation returned to the President.

Somersett: Hitting this Kennedy I’ll tell you is going to be a hard proposition, I believe. Now you may have it figured out how to get him…an office building and all that, but I don’t know how them Secret Service…they’d never cover all them office buildings and anywhere he’s going. Do you know whether they do that or not?

Milteer: If they have any suspicion they will, of course. But without suspicion the chances are they wouldn’t….You wouldn’t have to take a gun up there…take it up in pieces. All those guns come knock down and you can take them apart.”

Before the end of the tape, the conversation returned to Kennedy.

Somersett: Boy, if that Kennedy gets shot we’ve got to know where we’re at because you know that would be a real shake if they do that.

Milteer: They wouldn’t leave any stone unturned there, no. No way.

Somersett: Oh, hell no.

Milteer: Hell, they’ll pick up somebody within hours after, if anything like that would happen, just to throw the public off.

Somersett: Well, somebody is going to have to go to jail if he gets killed.

Milteer: Just like Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh case, you know.

President Kennedy came to Miami on Nov. 18 without incident and attended the Inter-American Press Association dinner at the Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour. In his diary, Gelber wrote that police assured him the Secret Service knew Milteer’s whereabouts.

The 1979 report by the House Assassinations Committee says Miami police intelligence officers met with Secret Service agents on Nov. 12 and provided a transcript of the Somersett recording. The Miami Secret Service case agent forwarded the report and a copy of the recording to headquarters in Washington.

On Nov. 18, Miami Secret Service Agent Robert Jamison of Miami had Somersett call Milteer to verify that he was home in Georgia. He was.

Joseph Milteer's former home in Quitman, Ga. Photo: Dan Christensen

Joseph Milteer’s former home in Quitman, Ga. Photo: Dan Christensen

But Milteer’s threat “was ignored by Secret Service personnel in planning the trip to Dallas,” according to the House report. Detective Kay and other former police officials said a planned motorcade in Miami was abandoned because of Milteer’s threat, but the House committee later found that was not the case.

Gelber, a senior judge in Miami-Dade’s child support enforcement division, said the FBI, too, was notified.

While it was Gelber’s belief the FBI didn’t immediately follow up, they did. FBI Agent Adams, based in Thomasville, Ga., said Atlanta Special Agent In Charge James McMahon told him about a threat to the president and on Nov. 13 ordered to him to do a “top priority” background investigation on Milteer. Adams says he submitted his report on November 18.

Word of Milteer’s threat may even have reached President Kennedy himself.

In testimony before the Warren Commission in May 1964, former presidential aide Kenneth O’Donnell said the President talked of such an assassination scenario in his Fort Worth hotel room 30 minutes before leaving for Carswell Air Force Base and the short flight to Dallas.

O’Donnell: Well, as near as I can recollect he was commenting to his wife on the function of the Secret Service and his interpretation of their role once the trip had commenced, in that their main function was to protect him from crowds, and to see that an unruly or sometimes an overexcited crowd did not generate into a riot, at which the President of the United States could be injured. But he said that if anybody really wanted to shoot the President of the United States, it was not a very difficult job–all one had to do was get a high building some day with a telescopic rifle, and there was nothing anybody could do to defend against such an attempt on the President’s life.

Five hours after the assassination Atlanta Agent-in-Charge McMahon sent an “urgent” FBI teletype to his counterparts in Dallas and Miami and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover citing a “threat to kill Pres. Kennedy by J.A. Milteer at Miami, Fla., Nov. nine last” and reporting, without attribution, that” Milteer’s whereabouts at Quitman, Ga. this date ascertained.”

Former FBI agent Donald Adams

Former FBI agent Donald Adams

Adams, however, says that’s not true. He says he knows because within hours of the assassination McMahon assigned him to locate Milteer for the Secret Service, and by about 4 p.m. he was knocking on Milteer’s door in Quitman. Milteer was nowhere to be found.

Adams spent the next four days canvassing Milteer’s “known haunts” in southern Georgia before locating him in nearby Valdosta, Ga. on Nov. 27. Adams called Agent Kenneth Williams for backup and later that evening the two men stopped and questioned Milteer.

A Dec. 1, 1963 report filed by Adams and Williams says Milteer “emphatically” denied ever making any threat against President Kennedy and denied knowing Oswald or Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer.

The report, and documentation about it, shows the agents never confronted Milteer with his words from the tape-recorded threat. Adams says that’s because his FBI superiors never informed him that a tape of the threat had been made, and limited the scope of the questioning.

Instead of charging Milteer with making a death threat against the president the FBI’s McMahon told Adams to release Milteer “since there was no indication he was involved in the assassination.”

Meanwhile, police in Miami learned that Somersett rendezvoused with Milteer in Jacksonville the day after the assassination before traveling together to Columbia, S.C. for a KKK meeting.

Milteer was jubilant about Kennedy’s death, Somersett told the Miami Police.

“He said, ‘Well, I told you so. It happened like I told you, didn’t it?’” Somersett said, according to one report. “I said, ‘That’s right. I don’t know whether you were guessing or not, but you hit it on the head pretty good.’ He said, ‘Well, that is the way it was supposed to be done, and that is the way it was done.’”

An FBI memorandum sent Nov. 27, 1963 to Assistant Director Alan H. Belmont, the agency’s No. three official, “Milteer reportedly told Somersett he had been in Fort Worth and Dallas as well as other southern cities. He did not indicate the dates of his visits to these cities.”

Somersett last heard from Milteer on Dec. 4 when Milteer called to say the FBI had questioned him and some of his extremist pals about Kennedy. Somersett became fearful, thinking Milteer suspected him of being an informer, and apparently never saw Milteer again.

The governor and the felon: the profitable, private partnership of Rick Scott and Ken Jenne

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Before he was governor, Rick Scott, left, funneled stock options worth $375,000 to then Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne

Before he was governor, Rick Scott, left, funneled stock options worth $375,000 to then Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne

Kimberly Kisslan’s sudden resignation from Broward Health’s governing board two weeks ago followed news of her immunized testimony in the 2007 corruption case that brought down Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne.

Since then, Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed Kisslan in July, has refused to answer questions about the matter or explain why a state background check failed to uncover Kisslan’s involvement in Jenne’s criminal scheme. Kisslan was BSO legal counsel under Sheriff Jenne.

Scott, however, has a little-known reason for not wanting to talk about Jenne. The governor and the convicted felon are old friends and business associates.

“I’ve just known (Scott) for years and years and years,” Jenne told this reporter in 2005.

Scott was a wealthy private investor in April 2003 when he funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars Sheriff Jenne’s way by recommending him for a lucrative seat on the board of directors of CyberGuard, a Deerfield Beach computer security company. At the time, Scott owned nearly 40 percent of CyberGuard’s stock.

cyberguardlogoLess than three years later, California-based Secure Computing bought CyberGuard for $295 million in stock and cash. Cyberguard’s annual report made public a few weeks after the announcement listed Jenne as the beneficial owner of 42,555 CyberGuard shares valued at $375,000 under the terms of the deal.

Jenne acquired most, if not all of those shares via stock options he received for serving on CyberGuard’s board.

CyberGuard’s core business was building and selling digital firewalls to shield computer networks from intruders. Its “target customers,” according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records, were “companies, major financial institutions and government entities.” Cyberguard did not identify specific clients.

Why Scott wanted Jenne on CyberGuard’s board is not known, and neither the governor nor Jenne would comment for this story. Jenne, who went to prison for mail fraud and not disclosing benefits he received from BSO vendors on his income tax returns, previously said CyberGuard was not a BSO vendor.

SCOTT BUYS A STAKE 

Richard L. Scott, as the governor was known before he ran for office, made his initial investment in Cyberguard in August 1999 via Fernwood Partners II, which acquired $3.7 million in company debt, according to SEC and other records. Fernwood was a Delaware firm that bought, sold and invested in the stock and debt of other companies. Scott and his wife, Annette, were major equity shareholders in Fernwood.

As part of the deal, CyberGuard added Scott’s brother, William Scott, and former Columbia/HCA Healthcare executive David Manning to its board of directors. Gov. Scott was Columbia/HCA’s chief executive until 1997 when he resigned amid a federal Medicare fraud investigation.

Fernwood went on to acquire nearly 50 percent of CyberGuard before it was dissolved and its holdings distributed to its members in March 2003, SEC records say.

With that, Scott became CyberGuard’s largest individual shareholder. By August 2005, when Secure Computing announced it would acquire all of Cyberguard’s shares, Scott owned 8,249,597 shares worth $72,356,000 in cash and Secure Computing shares, according to SEC records.

Scott’s total investment in Cyberguard: about $10 million, the records indicate.

“When I initially made my investments in Cyberguard, I felt Cyberguard had superior products in the firewall industry,” Scott said in the press release that announced approval of the takeover by Cyberguard’s shareholders. “What was accomplished over the last five years is a testament to the management team we put in place and their commitment and focus.”

Scott kept nearly 4 million Secure shares when he joined Secure’s board after the transaction was completed in January 2006. He was briefly chairman before computer giant McAfee bought Secure in a $462 million cash deal in 2008. Scott walked away with $23 million.

INVESTMENT PARTNER RUNS SCOTT’S ‘BLIND TRUST’

SEC records identify Scott crony Alan L. Bazaar as another member of Fernwood Partners in the CyberGuard investment.

For a decade before Scott was elected governor, Bazaar helped manage his portfolio at the better-known Richard L. Scott Investments LLC. Today, as co-CEO of New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management, Bazaar oversees the “blind trust” established by the governor in 2011 to avoid conflicts of interest and manage much of his large personal investment portfolio.

Lobbyist William Rubin with Gov. Rick Scott Photo: Tampa Bay Times

Lobbyist William Rubin with Gov. Rick Scott Photo: Tampa Bay Times

Serving with Scott and Jenne on Cyberguard’s board was Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William D. Rubin, a longtime friend and political supporter of both men. Rubin was listed in SEC records as having 58,000 CyberGuard shares worth $510,000 in cash and stock.

In 2003, while together on CyberGuard’s board, Sheriff Jenne made Rubin an “honorary deputy sheriff.” He also bestowed a BSO “Friend of Children Award” on a lobbyist in Rubin’s firm, Noreen Reboso.

The Tampa Bay Times quoted Rubin about his friendship with Scott on the day of Scott’s election in November 2010.

“I got to know Rick in 1991 when he started his hospital company, and we’ve stayed close ever since. I love him,” said Rubin, who in 2009 lobbied in Tallahassee on behalf of Solantic, Scott’s walk-in clinic company. “He’s a very good friend. We’ve stayed in touch ever since.”

Rubin added that he would not benefit from Scott being in the Governor’s office. “I won’t be. I’ll quickly dispel that perception.”

Nevertheless, Rubin is today registered to lobby Scott and the Executive Branch on behalf of nearly 60 corporate and government clients, including Scott’s old firm, now called HCA Healthcare, and BSO under Sheriff Scott Israel.

Rubin did not respond to a request for comment.

Knowledgeable sources have said privately that they believe Rubin and/or Jenne prevailed upon Scott to appoint Sunrise City Attorney Kimberly Kisslan to the board of the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health, but there is no evidence to support it.

KISSLAN RESIGNATION TRIGGERS QUESTIONS

Kisslan resigned Oct. 18 – three months into her four-year term and two days after BrowardBulldog.org reported about her grand jury appearance under a grant of immunity.

Kisslan got into trouble with federal prosecutors due to personal legal work she did for Jenne while he was sheriff. Specifically, she and a BSO vendor coordinated the demolition of an old house with code compliance issues that Jenne owned in Lake Worth.

At the same time, Kisslan was negotiating a BSO lease extension with the vendor – quickly signed by Jenne – that called for the police agency to lease additional office space from him at a cost of $348,000.

The vendor, developer Philip Procacci, later paid the $8,130 demolition cost for Jenne and the matter became part of the corruption charges to which the sheriff pleaded guilty in September 2007.

Kisslan’s role in Jenne’s scheme is spelled out in public court documents filed at the time of his plea. Yet despite a background check, Gov. Scott was unaware of that damaging information when he installed Kisslan on Broward Health’s board, said spokesman John Tupps.

The governor’s office declined to discuss the vetting process for gubernatorial appointees.

There is, however, an intriguing Broward connection inside Scott’s Executive Appointments Office that dovetails back to both Jenne and Rubin.

Former Fort Lauderdale resident Carrie O’Rourke is the governor’s $116,000-a-year Director of External Affairs. Her duties include oversight of gubernatorial appointments.

From 2007-2009, O’Rourke was director of organizational development in Fort Lauderdale for Edify, LLC. That’s the health benefits consulting firm whose owners included convicted Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.

Jenne worked at Rothstein’s law firm after his release from prison in 2008. And in September 2009, New Times reported that Edify paid Jenne’s son, former State Rep. Evan Jenne, $30,000 as a consultant.

As finance director for Scott’s inaugural committee, O’Rourke worked with Rubin and his lobbying firm, The Rubin Group, to select candidates for the governor’s transition healthcare team.

In December 2011, as the governor’s deputy chief of staff, O’Rourke traveled to Israel with Rubin and his wife Lys as part of a 48-member trade mission delegation led by Gov. Scott, according to Sunshine State News.

Cooper City shrinks official minutes: “Details you really don’t want the public to know about”

By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org 

A Broward Sheriff's captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

A Broward Sheriff’s captain intervenes to calm overheated Cooper City politicians last year.

Emotions boiled as the Cooper City commissioners talked angrily over each other.

“You do this crap all the time,” Commissioner John Sims shouted at then-Mayor Debby Eisinger, accusing her of trying to ram through a commission vote to spend money to send flyers to residents about an upcoming city vote to change the town charter. “I’ve had it up to here.”

“You are extremely disruptive,” Eisinger fired back during that Aug. 12, 2012 commission meeting.

“No, you are extremely dumb…,” Sims replied.

A video of the meeting shows that at one point Sims stood and leaned toward the mayor. Another commissioner, sitting between them, rose to separate them. A woman shouted, “Stop it! Stop it!” The sheriff’s captain, responsible for Cooper City law enforcement, approached the dais to calm the politicians.

Yet Cooper City’s official minutes of that meeting make no mention of the 12-minute donnybrook.

Why? City Clerk Susan Poling offered an answer at a commission meeting one month later.

“Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing to put in details you really don’t want the public to know about,” Poling said.

INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MINUTES

The record does not establish the basis for change, but since the latter half of 2008 the minutes of Cooper City commission meetings have been shrinking. Or as local political activist Skip Klauber puts it, “scrubbed.”

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Cooper City Commissioner John Sims and former Mayor Debby Eisinger

Sims complained to Poling at the Sept. 12, 2012 meeting after seeing no mention of the angry encounter the month before in the official minutes.

“You really got to be kidding me, Ms. Poling,” said Sims. “Who is telling you to manipulate the minutes, Ms. Poling?”

Poling denied manipulating the minutes and explained that commission minutes had been reduced to “action minutes” which only record official actions or commission votes and do not summarize discussions.

Commissioner Lisa Mallozzi said action minutes were instituted to save staff time and resources. “Nothing is being hidden, nothing is being thrown under a carpet. This is a more effective way to use our staff time,” she said.

Cooper City commission minutes were not always brief. Based on information Sims provided the Florida Attorney General, the minutes in 2007 averaged more than 18 pages and in the first half of 2008 averaged more than 13 pages.

CHANGE IN POLITICAL WINDS

But the political winds in Cooper City shifted in 2008. Bruce D. Loucks replaced long-time City Manager Christopher Farrell after the commission voted Farrell out. Thirty-year City Clerk Susan Bernard retired. City Attorney Alan F. Ruf was fired and replaced by David Wolphin.

During the second half of 2008 commission meeting minutes averaged about 8 pages. In 2012, the average had dipped to fewer than 6 pages.

In an interview, Greg Ross, who took over as mayor last November, noted that video recordings of commission meetings supplement the minutes. The videos are available on demand on the city’s web site and because of the videos, there was no reason for lengthening minutes, he said.

Carla Miller, founder of City Ethics, a non-profit organization that provides local governments with ethics training and programs, agreed with Ross that supplementing minutes with videos is good practice.

“If you have a video tape of it, to have 10 pages (of minutes) and not 16 pages is sufficient,” Miller said, adding that state law does not require “verbatim notes”.

But Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida a non-profit that promotes integrity in government, was critical of Cooper City’s practice. He said recording thorough accounts of commission deliberations in the minutes “would save Cooper City residents the hassle of going through hours of videos.”

“It is important for the public to be able to understand their officials…and their decision making,”
Krassner added. “More detailed minutes offer greater public understanding of how decisions are debated and decided.”

Commissioner Sims made a similar argument in lengthy complaints to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2012 and to Broward Inspector General John Scott in 2013 where he argued that Cooper City was violating the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Trying to find what you want to watch on a three-plus hour video is a frustrating and highly imperfect process,” Sims wrote. “Unless someone tells you where to look, the Internet (video of commission meetings) in no way makes up for the bare, unlawfully taken minutes.”

NO INVESTIGATION

Neither Bondi nor Scott, however, would investigate Sims’ allegations.

Florida Assistant Attorney General Lagran Saunders’s two-page response to Sims noted that the Sunshine Law does not define “minutes.” He added that his office could not investigate unless a majority of the Cooper City Commission requested an inquiry.

Broward Inspector General Scott did not reply to him in writing, Sims said. Instead, a staffer telephoned him to report that his request for an inquiry had been rejected.

Nevertheless, Sims continues to accuse “the commission, the city manager and the city attorney” of “washing the minutes” because they “do not want the public to know what is going on.”

That includes the scrubbing of other official minutes, Sims said.

In his complaint to Bondi, Sims noted that the minutes of Cooper City’s Charter Review Board meetings also have fallen. Charter Review Boards meet every five years to consider changes in the city charter. In 2006, the average length of the boards minutes was eight pages; last year, about 3 ½ pages.

Klauber, a member of the 2012 Charter Review Board, said the board’s minutes were “dumbed down…to the point of uselessness.”

Klauber said minutes of the Planning and Zoning Board are now “garbage.” Under Ro Woodward, a city administrative coordinator who prepared them, the minutes were detailed. But after she retired this year, he said, quality departed with her.

A records review revealed that the four 2012 Planning and Zoning Board meetings Woodward attended produced minutes that averaged 16 pages. The four 2013 meeting minutes posted thus far on line average less five pages.

Michelle Alvarez is the administrative assistant to Cooper City manager Loucks, who was unavailable for comment.

Alvarez said in an email that the city’s advisory boards have the “option” of audio recording their meetings to help prepare minutes. She said the city’s Planning and Zoning and Pension boards do audio record their meetings. Audio recordings are retained for two years but are not posted online.

Official minutes are permanent, she added.

Governor’s office clams up about Kisslan resignation, breakdown in appointment process

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott’s office says it vetted Sunrise City Attorney Kimberly Kisslan before her recent appointment to the governing board of Broward Health, yet failed to uncover damaging information that led to her abrupt resignation last Friday amid an inquiry.

The governor’s office, however, has refused to explain that breakdown in the appointment process or say what steps, if any, were taken to ensure that such a lapse would not reoccur.

“In this case, either the vetting process was inadequate in design and execution or the appointee deliberately failed to disclose relevant information, or both,” said Anthony V. Alfieri, director of the University of Miami School of Law’s Center for Ethics and Public Service.

Said John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Scott, “Our office conducts appropriate back-grounding on all applicants.”

Kisslan was the sheriff’s legal counsel under Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne. Jenne went to prison in late 2007 after pleading guilty to federal corruption-related charges of mail fraud and filing false income tax returns.

While working for BSO, Kisslan did personal legal work for Jenne that later became a focus of the criminal investigation. On May 1, 2007, she testified under a grant of immunity before a grand jury after apparently invoking her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

While Kisslan’s testimony is secret, her role in Jenne’s scheme is a matter of public record in court papers that explain the factual basis for Jenne’s guilty plea.

Kimberly Kisslan as BSO general counsel in 2007. Photo: BSO

Kimberly Kisslan as BSO general counsel in 2007. Photo: BSO

One document signed by Jenne, his lawyers and prosecutors says Kisslan helped Jenne to coordinate with a BSO vendor to obtain the demolition of a house with code compliance issues that Jenne owned in Lake Worth. Philip Procacci, a developer who leased office space to BSO, later paid $8,130 to have the house demolished. Jenne never reported the payment on his income tax return.

Kisslan and Procacci appeared on Jenne’s behalf before the Lake Worth Code Enforcement Board on June 28, 2001. Kisslan later wrote the sheriff a memo about it, but “deliberately” didn’t use BSO letterhead because she knew it was personal work for Jenne, the document says

As Kisslan and Procacci were arranging for the demolition, Procacci and Kisslan also were negotiating an amendment to a BSO lease with Procacci for space in a Plantation building.

Sheriff Jenne signed the deal committing BSO to lease an additional 5,000 square feet of space for five years – at an added cost of $348,000 – two days after Kisslan and Procacci appeared on his behalf before the code enforcement board.

In addition to negotiating the lease deal, Kisslan witnessed Jenne’s signature, the document says.

Kisslan did not respond to requests for comment on the matter.

An important duty of the governor is to appoint leaders to an array of government jobs – from a vacant judgeship or seat on a county commission to board members who serve on housing authorities, planning and service councils and hospital and water districts.

The governor’s appointments office supports Scott in his “major obligation to appoint qualified, representative and appropriate people.”

Requests to speak with Scott and Carrie O’Rouke, who oversees appointments as the Director of External Affairs, were declined by the governor’s office.

Individuals who have applied for and obtained appointments under Scott describe a process that is not necessarily uniform.

Gov. Scott interviews some applicants personally. Others he does not. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducts background checks if requested.

Applicants for a gubernatorial appointment are asked to complete under oath an eight-page questionnaire. Among the 30 questions: Have you ever been “arrested, charged or indicted” or “has probable cause ever been found that you were in violation of the Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees?”

No follow up questions seek to explore the subject further.

Kisslan answered “no” to both questions on her questionnaire.

Ex-U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch lives half-a-world away as millions flow to his Ben Gamla schools

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Former Congressman Peter Deutsch, founder of Ben Gamla schools

Former Congressman Peter Deutsch, founder of Ben Gamla schools

Peter Deutsch, the driving force behind South Florida’s controversial Ben Gamla charter schools, is a six-term former Democratic congressman with a unique status: he lives more than 6,000 miles away in Israel as an expatriate.

Even so, Deutsch’s Ben Gamla schools have racked up hefty public funding: more than $10 million for nearly 1,800 students last school year alone.

In Broward, where the English-Hebrew charter schools have stirred the most controversy, Ben Gamla raked in $7.2 million from the state for five charter schools that operate at two sites in Hollywood and Plantation. Those schools served more than 1,200 students.

A Ben Gamla school in the Kendall area of Miami-Dade received approximately $1.4 million from the state for 241 students last school year. Another Ben Gamla charter school in Palm Beach County received $1.7 million in state funds for 280 students.

Broward School officials, who approve and review the operations of charter schools, said Ben Gamla has garnered additional funding support.

On the state level, that includes $92,000 in prior capital funds for construction and maintenance, plus another $560,000 in similar funds expected this school year.  Ben Gamla has also received six grants from the federal Charter Schools program totaling $800,000 over the last four years.

Deutsch, who county records show still maintains a homestead on the Hollywood home that he and his wife, Lori, purchased in 1997, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has said previously that he is not paid for his professional work on behalf of Ben Gamla.

BEN GAMLA CONTROVERSY

Deutsch’s plans for Ben Gamla stirred controversy over issues involving separation of church and state when he sought to establish its first charter school in Hollywood in 2007. The School Board, however, found no conflict and approved the school.

bengamlasignA few years later, Deutsch’s plans to build another school in Hallandale Beach hit a wall when neighborhood residents successfully opposed his push to get the city commission to approve the deal.

The latest flare up again involves neighbors. Ben Gamla wants a zoning exception from Hollywood to build a 600-student high school on Van Buren Street near City Hall that upset residents say is already choked with traffic from Ben Gamla’s existing, adjacent K-8 school.

Under the state’s current allocation of $6,800 per Broward student, those 600 new students would net an additional $4 million-a-year for Ben Gamla, which is partnering on the project with Miami-Dade’s Doral Academy.

Deutsch unintentionally fanned the flames this summer in comments to a reporter with the Israeli wire service JTA about Ben Gamla’s Hebrew language and Jewish culture studies. The news service reported that Deutsch said 80 percent of Ben Gamla’s $10 million collective budget serves Jewish communal purposes.

“To me, it is literally the best leverage that I’m aware of in Jewish communal stuff in the history of the Jewish people,” Deutsch said. “Jews need to be supportive of this endeavor.”

Broward activist Charlotte Greenbarg spotted the story and complained to the School Board about possible constitutional violations. School officials who reviewed the matter earlier this month found no violations of law, but Greenbarg remains unhappy.

“He’s running things from afar,” said Greenbarg. “He’s not here most of the time.”

Deutsch, who resides in a condo in a Tel Aviv suburb with a view of the Mediterranean Sea, is apparently the only former member of Congress now living abroad. Sharon Witiw, services manager for the 600-member, Washington-based U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, said the group’s database lists no members as living overseas. Deutsch is a member of the group, but he’s listed as living in Hollywood.

STILL AN AMERICAN CITIZEN

Deutsch previously told BrowardBulldog.org that he is still an American citizen and votes in U.S. elections.

Deutsch’s eight-year residency in Israel does not surprise a man who counted Deutsch as his friend for 25 years.

Broward lawyer and Democratic Party boss Mitchell Ceasar said that during two successful decades as a South Florida politician, Deutsch displayed a keener interest in Israel than any of his colleague.

“It is only mildly surprising (that Deutsch) lives the overwhelming majority (of time) in Israel,” said Ceasar. “I think he always had in the back of his mind to bring up his family” there. He added that Deutsch’s failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 “accelerated that process.”

Deutsch represented Broward in the House from 1993-2005. Before that he was in the State House for a decade.

Deutsch didn’t run for public office again after losing a primary election in his bid to succeed Bob Graham in the Senate. In 2008, he tried to unseat Ceasar as Broward’s top Democrat, but lost by a 2-1 vote margin.

“He was sold a bill of goods by a political consultant,” said Ceasar. After the election, Ceasar said “he did comment to me that it was not the best thing to have done.” Ceasar added, “He is still my friend. We talk when I bump into him. But I don’t see him [often] because he’s primarily in Israel.”

Others asked about Deutsch, including his former protégé and successor Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, declined comment.

While Ceasar characterized Deutsch as “very tenacious and very smart,” he could offer no insight beyond his interest in Israel as to why Deutsch created Ben Gamla charter schools.

Deutsch supported public funding for charter schools in literature put out by his Senate campaign in 2004, saying it would “provide parents and students with important educational options.”

ISRAELI NEWS STORY

The Israeli wire service story gives some additional background. Deutsch told JTA’s reporter that he moved to Israel to be a part of the historic journey of Jewish people back to the Holy Land.

Deutsch, who attended the elite Horace Mann School in New York and graduated from Swarthmore College and Yale Law School, predicted a flourishing environment for Judaism in Israel, but a bleak one for American Jewry, according to the JTA story.

Deutsch believes “most American Jews today 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 their ancestral origins, as little more than a footnote to their ancestry,” the story said.

“The Ben Gamla charter schools are Deutsch’s effort to change that. 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,” the story said.

“As public schools, the Ben Gamlas cannot teach religion, but the schools have a Jewish flavor. The Hebrew curriculum includes Israel education and Jewish history…Some 85 percent of the students are Jewish. Supplementary after-school religious programs take place onsite or nearby.”

The JTA story reported that Deutsch has declined Israeli citizenship, lives on investment income, and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Corporation, based in Illinois.

Deutsch earned more than $132,000 in total compensation from Great Lakes in 2011, according to Forbes. He also reported owning 79,300 shares in the company, Forbes said.

Legal battles blaze in Broward, elsewhere six decades after “safe” cigarette filter

By Myron Levin, FairWarning kent

It’s hard to think of anything more reckless than adding a deadly carcinogen to a product that already causes cancer—and then bragging about the health benefits.

That’s what Lorillard Tobacco did 60 years ago when it introduced Kent cigarettes, whose patented “Micronite” filter contained a particularly virulent form of asbestos. Smokers puffed their way through 13 billion Kents from March, 1952 until May, 1956, when Lorillard changed the filter design.

Six decades later, the legal fallout continues—including last month when a Broward jury awarded record damages against Lorillard and filter manufacturer Hollingsworth & Vose of more than $3.5 million.

Lorillard and Hollingsworth & Vose face numerous lawsuits by victims of mesothelioma, an extremely rare and deadly asbestos-related cancer that typically shows up decades after initial exposure. Plaintiffs have included factory workers who produced the cigarettes or filter material, and former smokers who say they inhaled microscopic asbestos fibers through the filters. Lorillard says hardly any fibers escaped.

While there is no official count, records and interviews suggest that the number of mesothelioma claims filed against the companies since the 1980s is at least in the low hundreds. Lorillard filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show the company settled 90 cases in a recent two year period, and that 60 more cases are pending.

Time is on the companies’ side. Since factory workers and smokers with potential claims all are at least in their 70s and 80s, the strange saga of the asbestos filter should soon be coming to an end.

Lorrillard's cigarette manufacturing plant in Greensboro, N.C. Photo: Rob Brown/Greensboro News & Record

Lorrillard’s cigarette manufacturing plant in Greensboro, N.C. Photo: Rob Brown/Greensboro News & Record

Surprisingly, however, there has been a burst of new cases in the last few years, according to filings with the SEC. Growing awareness of the asbestos episode is probably the cause. These days, a mesothelioma patient is almost certain to be asked by his doctor or lawyer: Did you happen to smoke Kents in the 1950s?

Lorillard officials did not reply to emails and calls seeking comment. H&V also declined interview requests, though company lawyer Andrew McElaney noted that the companies have won most cases that have gone to trial.

“GREATEST HEALTH PROTECTION IN CIGARETTE HISTORY”

Lorillard, based in Greensboro, N.C., is the third-leading U.S. cigarette maker with a nearly 15 percent market share, and net sales in 2012 of more than $6.6 billion. Established  in 1760 as the P. Lorillard Co., it is one of the oldest continuously operated companies in the U.S.  Lorillard also owns electronic cigarette-maker blu eCigs, which recently created a buzz with commercials by TV personality Jenny McCarthy and actor Stephen Dorff.

Kent was Lorillard’s response to the health scare of the early 1950s, when the link between smoking and lung cancer began drawing wide attention. Tobacco companies scurried to roll out filters to calm jittery smokers and keep them from quitting in droves. The health benefits would prove illusory, but the switch to filters averted the potential loss of millions of customers.

Lorillard named its first filter for Herbert A. Kent, briefly its president, and aggressively touted the superiority of the Kent “Micronite” filter. It was a blend of  cotton, acetate, crepe paper and crocidolite asbestos—sometimes called “African” or “Bolivian blue” asbestos because of its bluish tint.

At the time, the risk of deadly lung disease to heavily exposed asbestos miners and plant workers was already well-documented. But asbestos also was known to be an effective filter material, dense enough to stop minute particles and gases, as long as it stayed put. Lorillard had learned of the use of crocidolite in gas masks made for the Army Chemical Corps. In contracting with H&V to supply the  material, Lorillard agreed to be held solely responsible for any “harmful effects’’ of the cigarette filters.

Lorillard launched Kent at a press conference at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, touting the Micronite filter as offering “the greatest health protection in cigarette history.”

From the collection of Stanford University (tobacco.stanford.edu)

From the collection of Stanford University (tobacco.stanford.edu)

Playing on the public’s gee-whiz faith in science and technology, Kent ads told a glamorous, though vague, back story of how the quest for the new filter “ended in an atomic energy plant, where the makers of KENT found a material being used to filter air of microscopic impurities.”

“What is ‘Micronite’?” another ad asked. “It’s a pure, dust-free, completely harmless material that is so safe, so effective, it actually is used to help filter the air in operating rooms of leading hospitals.”

The marketing blitz included advertising in medical journals and mailing gift boxes of Kent to physicians, along with  “Dear Doctor” letters  talking up the advantages for “patients whom you have felt obliged to advise to cut down or cut out smoking.”

The filter material was produced at H&V plants in West Groton and Rochdale, Mass., and shipped to Lorillard cigarette plants in Louisville, Ky., and Jersey City, N.J. For H&V workers,  the results were catastrophic, with whole families destroyed by asbestos disease. A woman named Elizabeth Jacobs buried her husband and brother, both H&V workers, who died of mesothelioma and asbestosis, respectively.

Then Jacobs also died of mesothelioma in 1985 at the age of 54. Her only known exposure to asbestos came from laundering her husband’s dusty work clothes.

DUST-CREATING MONSTER

The plant was a “dust-creating monster,” said Dr. James A. Talcott, an oncologist who co-authored a study of H&V filter workers. Published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1989, it tracked the health status of 33 former employees of the West Groton plant. By then, 28 had died—more than three times the expected number, based on average life spans–including 18 from asbestos-related illnesses. Of the five surviving workers, four were suffering from asbestos diseases.

Dozens of Lorillard plant workers also died of mesothelioma. An exhibit in a court case in Louisville listed 34 victims by initials only, under the heading:  “Lorillard Workers With Mesothelioma At Louisville And Jersey City Plants.”

How much asbestos Kent smokers inhaled has been a more contentious and ambiguous subject. Internal documents produced in lawsuits highlight Lorillard’s deep anxieties that Kent smokers were breathing asbestos.

For example, an April, 1954 letter from Lorillard research director Harris B. Parmele to company president W.J. Halley stated that researchers had found “traces of mineral fiber” in the smoke. “We are embarked upon a program of attempting to work out a method for the elimination of the presence of such fibers in the smoke,” the letter said.

memo in September, 1954, H&V official Peter Breymeier discussed the need “to find a way of anchoring asbestos…All efforts are to be exerted to solve the asbestos-dust-in-Kent smoke problem.”

And H&V president A.K. Nicholson stated in a memo two months later: “It is Lorillard’s belief that asbestos must be eliminated from the Kent cigarette as soon as possible because of a whispering campaign started by their competitors of the harmful effects of asbestos.”

As a result, the memo said, H&V would “discontinue that part of our research program devoted to the fixing of asbestos fibres and direct the entire attention of the program toward the complete elimination of asbestos.”

Even so, Lorillard continued using asbestos in the filters for the next 16 months, and continued to sell existing stocks of Kents for several more months.

LITIGATING HARD

The filter litigation is hardly Lorillard’s biggest challenge.

The company depends for nearly 90 percent of sales on its popular Newport menthol brand. The Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to restrict the use of menthol in cigarettes—which would be a bigger blow to Lorillard than to its rivals.

The company also faces some 4,500 lawsuits by individual smokers in Florida, thanks to a Florida Supreme Court ruling that made it easier to sue tobacco companies for smoking-related harms.

Though the filter lawsuits are a fraction of that number, Lorillard fiercely defends the ones that go to trial.

“They litigate hard,” said Timothy F. Pearce, a lawyer with the Levin Simes firm in San Francisco who successfully tried a filter case in 2011. “It’s no small undertaking to be in a trial with them,” he said. “They had, like, 13 lawyers” working on the case.

Lorillard and H&V have won 17 of 23 trials of filter cases. One of their six losses came last month in Broward when jurors ordered them to pay more than $3.5 million in damages to former Kent smoker and mesothelioma victim Richard Delisle, of Leesburg. Three other companies were found liable for another $4.5 million.

A key contention of the companies is that little or no asbestos leaked from Kent filters, so plaintiffs contracted mesothelioma in some other way. Despite the nervous tone of internal letters and memos, they say that tests of Kent smoke in the early ‘50s never found more than three fibers per cigarette.

The smokers’ exposures were “very, very low,” Kevin H Reinert, Lorillard’s director of regulatory science policy, testified in a deposition in April “I don’t believe it increased the risk.” Plaintiffs have found this hard to challenge, since Lorillard failed to preserve most of the original test reports.

Plaintiff experts testing cigarettes from old packs of Kents have found abundant asbestos fibers in the smoke. Lorillard and H&V contend the tests were unreliable because the cigarettes had deteriorated with age.

However, the companies’ first line of defense has been to convince juries that plaintiffs didn’t smoke Kents in the first place, and only say they did because they have a bad memory or are shading the truth. To undermine their credibility, defense lawyers and investigators fan out around the country to track down and interview family members, school chums, Army buddies–anyone who might have known the plaintiff in the 1950s.

It’s hard to establish the brand of cigarette a person smoked decades ago, and the strategy has often proved successful. It failed in the case of Don Lenney, who not only won in court, but is still alive nearly four years after being diagnosed (Many mesothelioma victims die within a year).

Lenney, 76, a former insurance agent in Northern California, says he started smoking in high school, and soon switched from unfiltered brands to Kent. “The Kent Micronite filter was supposed to be the healthy alternative,” he told FairWarning, “so I started smoking Kents.”

Diagnosed with mesothelioma in November, 2009, Lenney had his left lung removed and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He also sued Lorillard and H&V.

“They attacked my credibility as far as whether I had actually smoked Kent cigarettes,” Lenney  recalled. Their investigators “were very pushy,” Lenney said. “They would knock on somebody’s door and just ask to interview them…without even calling first to set up an appointment,” he said. “A number of people were put out with that kind of treatment.”

In March, 2011, Lorillard and H&V were found liable by a state court jury in San Francisco. The judge later ordered them [link] to pay Lenney and his wife about $1.1 million in damages and costs. The companies appealed and the case was resolved in a confidential settlement.

Dimitris O. Couscouris, a Los Angeles-area resident with mesothelioma, did not fare as well.

Lorillard mounted a relentless attack on Couscouris’ credibility, suggesting that during his teenage years in Australia he had evaded the draft, and had once improperly received unemployment benefits.

Defense lawyers also seized on a statement by a plaintiff witness that Couscouris had become too sick to walk. They sent a private investigator to conduct surveillance at Couscouris’ home, and videotaped him and his wife getting into their car and making a few stops, including at a  restaurant and a shopping mall.

In October, 2012, a Los Angeles jury found that Couscouris had failed to prove he’d smoked Kents, handing a victory to the defense.

“The trial ended up being more of an attack on my client,” said Couscouris’ lawyer Trey Jones. “Almost like a ‘blame the victim’ type thing.”

FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues.

 

 

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