Jack Nicklaus, partners pay $400K to settle charges they filled wetlands at golf club

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Bear's Club golf course in Jupiter.

The Bear’s Club golf course in Jupiter.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus has given up a legal battle over federal accusations that his companies violated the Clean Water Act by disturbing environmentally protected wetlands in The Bear’s Club, a private golf course community he built 17 years ago.

Last month, U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas signed off on a consent decree between the federal government and The Bear’s Club Founding Partners Ltd, four related companies and three of Nicklaus’ development partners to settle a lawsuit filed last October by the Department of Justice. The defendants are required to pay a $400,000 civil penalty and offset the environmental impact done to two patches of wetlands in The Bear’s Club 369-acre property that were filled.

Eugene Stearns, a Miami-based lawyer representing The Bear’s Club Founding Partners, told Florida Bulldog that his client did not admit to any wrongdoing. “The $400,000 is a fraction of what it would cost to litigate this case to its conclusion,” Stearns said. “It was a business decision, and The Bear’s Club believes it didn’t violate any federal law.”

South Florida U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a statement that the $400,000 penalty “sends a message to anyone who fails to abide by our nation’s environmental laws that they will be held accountable for their non-compliance.”

He added: “When wetlands are filled in violation of the Clean Water Act, the loss is felt not only today, but by all generations to come.”

In 1999, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued Nicklaus and his business partners Ivan Charles Frederickson and Robert Whitley a permit allowing them to fill certain wetlands in their massive Jupiter property for the purpose of building a residential golf community. However, the Corps also required The Bear’s Club to preserve certain wetlands in their natural state.

According to its web site, the 270-acre The Bear’s Club was founded in 1999 by Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara. Nicklaus is chairman of the board. Membership is by invitation only.

In the complaint, government attorneys accused The Bear’s Club and its developers of filling close to an acre of wetlands in 2010 without permission from the Corps. The prosecutors alleged it was done to relocate a tee box, improve golfing conditions on the club’s 15th hole and make room for the development of five residential lots. Nicklaus and company ignored the Corps’ denial to modify the original building permit, which included an easement agreement to set aside several acres as protected wetlands, the lawsuit alleged.

Stearns disputed the government’s interpretation of what the original 1999 permit allowed The Bear’s Club to do on the property. He said his client was allowed to make changes to conservation easements as long as he received approval from the South Florida Water Management District. Stearns said The Bear’s Club did not have to go back to the Corps.

“The Bear’s Club got state approval and paid state mitigation fees,” Stearns said. “Then the feds came along and were like, ‘Oh no, we didn’t approve it.’ ”

Stearns also criticized the Corps for going after The Bear’s Club for what he called “minor infractions” when the federal agency should be focused on minimizing the impact of the contaminated runoff water from Lake Okeechobee.

“Who is pumping waste into the Indian River every day?” Stearns said. “Yet, here we are talking about two tiny areas of a golf course that is the perfect marriage between the environment and private development. The Bear’s Club has preserved more wildlife and nature than it has taken away.”

9/11 terrorists, submersibles and an untold Fort Lauderdale story

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

A submersible diver propulsion vehicle like those purchased by a 9/11 hijacker.

On September 12, 2001, Fort Lauderdale businessman Bill Brown’s morning routine began like most others. After dropping his young daughter off at day care, the widower drove to work at his marine accessories store, The Nautical Niche.

What Brown says happened next was anything but ordinary. The parking lot of his store at 2301 S. Federal Highway was filled with federal agents and police.

“As soon as I arrived, they asked if we could go inside and talk,” said Brown. “They gave me a name and asked me who the person was. I wasn’t familiar with the name and I said, ‘Why do you ask?’ An agent said that he and several other men were the ones who flew into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” the day before.

Confused, Brown replied that he knew nothing about the attacks. “Well, your phone number was the most prominent on his call list and it looks like you had a substantial relationship together,” an agent said. “We want to know his association with you.”

Agents from the FBI, CIA, U.S. Customs and Immigration were present that morning, but it was the FBI that took the lead, Brown said. They copied his sales records and later had Brown take a lie detector test in which he was asked only a couple of questions about his patriotism.

“I gave them complete access to our computer and anything I had,” Brown said. “We come to find out…they were customers of mine.”

Bill Brown

Bill Brown

Brown said it was determined that one or more hijackers had purchased between four and eight K-10 hydrospeeder submersibles in multiple transactions at a cost of $20,000 apiece. The now-retired Brown, 60, recalled that one or two of those high performance diver propulsion vehicles was shipped to Singapore, while another was sent to a location in the Northeast U.S. He recollects that shell companies were used in some transactions.

“They were sent all over,” said Brown, who told the South Florida Business Journal in 2002 that his store, which catered to the desires of super-rich yacht owners, had gross revenues of more than $6 million in 2000.

Brown, who Florida corporate records show sold his business in 2007, does not recall the shipping addresses, or the names of the recipients for those pre-9/11 transactions. Nor does he remember the name of the hijacker(s) who purchased them, either in person or via the internet.

A ‘significant cell’ broken

Brown does remember, however, that an FBI agent later told him the Singapore sale was traced back to its recipient and that “a significant cell” of terrorists was broken up as a result.

The FBI in Miami declined a detailed request for comment. Instead, a spokesman suggested that a reporter file a Freedom of Information request, a process that can take years.

The matter remained out of public view for 15 years until Brown came forward after seeing an advance newspaper article about Thursday’s 9/11 panel discussion at Nova Southeastern University hosted by the Florida Bulldog. He said investigators from the 9/11 Commission, or its predecessor, Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11, never contacted him.

The Joint Inquiry’s co-chairman, former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham, said in an interview that he was unaware of the FBI’s 15-year-old investigation of the submersibles purchase by a 9/11 hijacker.

“This is potentially significant. Why were we not made aware of this? You’ll need to ask the FBI why they didn’t feel, as they apparently felt with information about what happened in Sarasota, that this wasn’t worthy of sending up the line.”

Graham referred to an FBI investigation of a Saudi family in Sarasota who moved abruptly out of their upscale home about two weeks before the terrorist attacks, leaving behind their cars, clothes, furniture and other personal items.

Florida Bulldog, working with author Anthony Summers, disclosed the existence of that investigation in September 2011, and reported that agents found evidence – including gatehouse entry logs and photos of license plates – that Mohamed Atta and other hijackers had visited the residence of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji. Reports later released by the FBI said the family had “many connections” to persons associated with the terrorist attacks.

The FBI quickly identified the hijackers using flight manifests, information in recovered baggage and documents found where the hijacked jets crashed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Some names, like that of ringleader Mohamed Atta, appeared in news stories the next day.

What plans the al Qaeda hijackers or their leaders had for the submersibles is not known. However, in 2003 the Christian Science Monitor reported that “one of the biggest concerns” of U.S. officials at the time was that terrorists were targeting ports and ships. The newspaper cited a Department of Defense exercise “Impending Storm” that simulated several types of ship-borne attacks on U.S. cities.

al Qaeda and mini-subs

In 2013, CNN reported about a 17-page letter found at Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound that laid out a detailed al Qaeda strategy for attacking targets in the U.S. and Europe. The letter was written to bin Laden in March 2010 by senior al Qaeda planner Younis al-Mauretani, and among other things discussed using “mini-submarines” to plant explosives on undersea pipelines, CNN said.

Brown kept no business records after he sold The Nautical Niche, and his story is not documented in local public records. For example, Fort Lauderdale police have no record of a service call to The Nautical Niche on September 12, 2001. A department records official, however, said that back then calls to assist another agency were sometimes not documented.

Brown has talked privately about his experience over the years.

“He told me about the incident that happened to him back then,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly. “His dad worked in the Kennedy Administration.”

Donnelly was the prosecutor who tried and convicted Robert Stapf in September 2001 for the 1998 stabbing murder of Brown’s wife, Caron.

“I was on the witness stand in trial,” said Brown. “Someone came crashing in the courtroom’s back door screaming, ‘We’re under attack! Someone flew into the World Trade Center!”

Donnelly recalled that Judge Dan True Andrews quickly suspended court for the rest of the day. The next morning, the feds were waiting for Brown at The Nautical Niche.

Brown’s former bookkeeper and sales assistant, Adelle Savage of Delray Beach, said he told her what happened shortly after she began working at The Nautical Niche in 2002 or 2003.

‘I can attest to that’

“In the course of conversation…he told me about how when he arrived that morning all the cops and agents were there. They thought he was connected before they realized that he had no idea who he was selling to,” said Savage. “I can attest to that.”

Savage also said that on several occasions Miami FBI agents David Grazer and George Nau came to the store to see Brown. Brown identified the same agents in a separate interview, saying he “maintained a relationship with the FBI handlers who kept on eye on me.”

“Obviously, my life was at risk for cooperating with the feds. We didn’t know if some of these people were still down here or what,” Brown said.

Brown described The Nautical Niche, which displayed a yellow submarine in its front window, as a kind of Sharper Image for yacht owners. The Business Journal’s 2002 story reported The Travel Channel had “included The Nautical Niche on its list of places for a show called, ‘How to Spend a Million.’ ”

Brown said his clientele were often billionaires, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and included various Middle Eastern royalty, including members of Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud.

The Nautical Niche’s sale of the submersibles that interested federal agents, however, was different from the company’s other large transactions because the purchasers paid cash. “They would go to my bank and make counter deposits,” said Brown. The amounts deposited were about $5,000, low enough to avoid federal reporting requirements.

At the time of the sales, Brown didn’t question the transactions. “In the yachting business there’s a lot of anonymity. You don’t ask questions. People like their privacy.”

All Aboard Florida’s plan for passenger train service from Miami to Orlando in jeopardy

By Ann Henson Feltgen, FloridaBulldog.org all-aboard-florida

All Aboard Florida’s plan to operate regular passenger train service between Miami and Orlando is in jeopardy following a federal judge’s order questioning the company’s ability to borrow $1.75 billion in taxpayer-subsidized federal bonds to pay for the project.

At the same time, in a lawsuit filed by two Florida counties looking to block the project, the judge found that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) ignored federal law when it issued bonding authority for Phase II of the private rail project from Cocoa to Orlando.

Another hearing in the case is set for Sept. 13, the same day DOT and All Aboard Florida (AAF) must file their formal answers to the complaint.

Phase l of the ambitious project, creating a passenger route and terminals at three stops along the Florida East Coast railroad line between Miami and Cocoa, is well underway. It is Phase II that is now precarious.

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

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

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

Judge finds ‘legitimate questions’

On Aug. 16, after listening to both sides, U.S. District Court Judge Christopher R. Cooper said the evidence he saw raised “legitimate questions” about AAF’s commitment to Phase II without obtaining DOT’s private activity bonds.

Private activity bond-based “financing is not just the ‘current financing plan’ for the project – it appears to be the only financing plan,” the judge said.

Cooper’s finding allowed the two counties to continue to pursue their lawsuit alleging DOT violated the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) as well as federal law by approving $1.75 billion in tax-free bonds.

AAF, contacted several times by Florida Bulldog with requests for comment, did not respond. A U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.

Any project that qualifies as a major federal action, which this project does according to the judge’s ruling, must comply with NEPA. The act provides for project reviews in this case by the Federal Railroad Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

An Environmental Impact Statement analyzes “a wide range of potential environmental and other consequences of the project and identified and evaluated measures that would avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts that would result from the project,” according to court documents.

A draft of that document was made public and comments taken, but then it was basically shelved, according to Indian River County Attorney Dylan Reingold.

“The evaluations were completed, but no record of decision was ever published,” said Reingold.

That action took place after AAF applied for a $1.6-billion loan through the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program in early 2014. Such loans are for the development and improvement of railroad tracks, equipment and facilities. The loan wasn’t approved, and AAF court filings say the company is no longer seeking that loan.

All Aboard Florida’s plan

In August 2014, AAF made another attempt at financing. It asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for $1.75 billion in tax-exempt bonds, which would mean up to $600 million in lost tax revenue over 10 years, according to court documents.

Four months later, DOT provisionally agreed to finance the $1.75 billion using tax-exempt private activity bonds (PABs). But the agency added several conditions, including a requirement that the bonds be sold by July 1, 2016, a deadline later extended to Jan. 1, 2017. The project must also complete the NEPA environmental review and prohibited from using the bond proceeds until 45 days following the issuance of the final environmental impact statement.

According to attorney Reingold, however, “they did this backwards. You have to go through a full NEPA analysis and Historic Preservation evaluation before authorizing allocation of funds.”

While DOT took the position that NEPA review was not required because the project is not a major federal action, Judge Cooper disagreed.

“The Court finds that the project does constitute major federal action,” he wrote in his ruling.

Without waiting for the NEPA findings, All Aboard Florida attempted three times last year to sell the bonds, each time with different terms, according to the judge’s findings. There were no takers, according to court records.

“NEPA is far more important than people realize,” said Steven Ryan, an attorney representing Martin County in this case. “This is a major procedural violation of environmental law.”

AAF initially told the court that it had $405 million in private debt funding held in escrow to begin construction of Phase II. In later court filings, however, AAF officials said that the $405 million is not for Phase II along with an apparent explanation of what the money is to be used for. The explanation was redacted from the public record.

That change was troubling for the court.

“Contrary to the court’s earlier understanding, [documents] do not show that AAF had already arranged financing for a significant portion of Phase II’s cost,” the judge wrote.

The need for taxpayer-subsidized bonds

AAF has said it can finance the project without government funding, yet also that it would be difficult if not impossible without the taxpayer-subsidized bonds.

AAF president Michael Reininger stated in a deposition that not approving the sale of the tax-exempt PABs “would certainly disrupt the current financing plan, make the project more expensive to complete and may delay its progress.”

In a letter to Paul Baumer of DOT’s Office of Infrastructure Finance and Innovation that emerged during discovery, Reininger went further, calling the funding a “linchpin for completing our project” and “a crucial factor in ensuring our project is financed and completed.”

According to The Bond Buyer.com, there is little interest in the market for high-risk, high-return bonds for a variety of reasons.

The owner of AAF’s parent company apparently cannot help. Court documents state that Fortress’ market capitalization has shrunk by nearly half in the past 14 months.

Likewise, Florida East Coast Investments, AAF’s parent company, has significant debt obligations coming due in three to four years, according to court documents.

While AAF appears to have no funding for Phase II, it does have equity in train stations, which it could sell, according to Ryan.

“You know, all along AAF has claimed that this is a private entity, but it is totally dependent on subsidies,” he said. “They should knock off this fiction. They have their hands in every government pocket they can find.”

Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office accused again of spying; A ‘mole’ in the defense camp?

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Defense lawyers Marc Nurik, left, and J. David Bogenschutz

Defense lawyers Marc Nurik, left, and J. David Bogenschutz

For the second time this summer, Miami federal prosecutors stand accused of spying on the defense – this time in the case of an alleged $28-million, international sweepstakes fraud.

As described in court papers, the “invasion of the defense camp” appears to have begun in February when one of four defendants in the case cut a secret plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and began working undercover.

The informant, John Leon of Wilton Manors, participated in defense team strategy sessions for three months as a government “mole,” obtaining documents and listening to privileged discussions about witnesses and other sensitive defense matters and reporting back to the government, the documents say.

The fallout: defense accusations that the case has been irretrievably “tainted” due to constitutional violations of the attorney-client privilege.

“For a period exceeding two months, Leon, acting as a government informant with the government’s acquiescence, invaded the defense camp where he learned critical defense strategies by actively participating in numerous meetings, after already accepting a government plea and agreeing to cooperate,” say court papers filed by attorneys Marc Nurik of West Palm Beach, J. David Bogenschutz of Fort Lauderdale and Marshall Dore Louis of Miami.

Assistant U.S. Attorney H. Ron Davidson, while acknowledging that defendant Leon became a covert “government cooperator,” told U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles in a July 8 pleading that Leon “never shared privileged information with the United States, the United States never asked for privileged information and the defendant’s motion lacks any merit.”

The judge, however, has sided so far with the defense. On Aug. 3, after an initial hearing, he ordered the government to turn over to the defense all “rough notes” of interviews of Leon by Internal Revenue Service agents who helped build the government’s fraud case. The defense had sought the agents’ notes, contending the government had “carefully sanitized” memos of interviews with Leon produced to the defense.

‘The ends of justice’

The same day, Judge Gayles also granted a continuance in the case and reset the trial date for Nov. 28, saying “the ends of justice outweigh the interests” of a speedy trial.

What’s expected to follow this fall is a full-blown hearing on whether felony charges of mail fraud, money laundering and conspiracy should be dismissed against the remaining defendants – Matthew Pisoni, Marcus Pradel and Victor Ramirez – due to government misconduct.

“An evidentiary hearing is exactly what is required to determine how to resolve these blatant [constitutional] violations, and the appropriate sanction for these pervasive violations,” attorneys Nurik and Bogenschutz said in court papers.

U.S. Attorney Wifredo A. Ferrer’s office declined Florida Bulldog’s request for comment.

In June, prominent Miami defense lawyer Howard Srebnick accused both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of spying on the defense in a $55- million Medicare fraud case by illegally and obtaining copies of confidential defense documents. More specifically, it was alleged a government-approved copying service had surreptitiously provided agents with duplicates of documents culled by the defense team from 220 boxes of evidentiary records in preparation for trial.

The Florida Bulldog reported last month that those allegations of government misconduct dissipated weeks later when the U.S. Attorney’s Office abruptly gave all three defendants generous plea deals involving no prison time. The defendants had each faced lengthy jail terms if convicted.

The copying service, Imaging Universe, was fired. The U.S. Attorney’s Office conducted an internal inquiry, but declined to make public its findings. Srebnick withdrew his motion with the accusations after securing a deal for his client. Consequently, the judge never ruled on the merits.

The alleged scam

Pisoni was president of the now-defunct Mail Tree, Michael McKay, Spin Mail and other Florida companies that the government contends were used in the fraud. Pradel, Ramirez and Leon worked with him in the alleged scam.

The four were indicted together on May 7, 2015 for participating in a sweepstakes scheme that began in 2006. The indictment says victims were falsely notified by mail that they’d won a substantial prize, but needed to pay a fee of up to $50 to redeem their winnings.

Authorities have said the defendants collected more than $25 million from hundreds of thousands of victims in the U.S. and abroad, using shell companies and international bank accounts to lauder their loot.

Even before they were indicted, the four had learned they were under investigation “and circled the wagons in a Joint Defense Agreement,” the government said. A JDA is a contract in which defendants extend the attorney-client relationship among them to facilitate the sharing of privileged information.

But last winter, unknown to his fellow defendants, Leon and his Fort Lauderdale attorney, Omar F. Guerra Johansson, began plea negotiations that resulted in his Feb. 17 plea agreement with the government.

“His cooperation was kept covert because Leon was cooperating with the government against a non-charged defendant,” prosecutor Davidson wrote. “Moreover, the government specifically instructed Leon not to share privileged information.”

Leon’s plea deal became public on April 20 when the indictment against him was dropped and a single new conspiracy charge was filed. He’s now facing a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. Before, like the others, he faced a maximum of 80 years in prison.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s son rose to the top skirting lobbying rules, critics say

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, and his son, Carlos Gimenez Jr.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, right, and his son, Carlos Gimenez Jr.

As his father rose to power from county commissioner to strong mayor, Carlos Gimenez Jr. has climbed his way to the upper echelon of South Florida’s lobbying corps representing prominent clients like Donald Trump, the PGA Tour and American Traffic Solutions, the nation’s largest red-light camera operator.

Along the way, junior has been investigated three times for violating county ethics rules by concealing his lobbying activities involving Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez as well as other county and municipal elected officials. While the probes ultimately found no wrongdoing by junior, critics insist he exploits his family name on behalf of his clients.

Alfred Santamaria, one of six candidates running against Gimenez in the Aug. 30 primary, told FloridaBulldog.org that the mayor’s son provides a clear-cut reason why Miami-Dade should adopt a rule that bans companies and individuals doing business with county hall from hiring the relatives of elected officials.

“Carlos Gimenez Jr. has worked at firms that represented companies getting contracts worth tens of millions of dollars for airport work, roads and red-light cameras,” Santamaria said. “I think it is unethical, not moral and clearly a conflict of interest.”

Gimenez Jr. did not return two messages on his cell phone seeking comment. Michael Hernandez, the mayor’s spokesman, said his boss is not concerned about allegations made against his son because Gimenez “prides himself on operating in a very transparent manner.”

Hernandez added: “Mayor Gimenez is very proud of his son’s professional success which has come due to his hard work, education, dedication and talent and is in no way related to his father being elected as the county commissioner representing District 7, or as Miami-Dade County mayor.”

According to his LinkedIn page, Gimenez Jr.’s career began in 2000 as an associate for the now-defunct law firm Steel Hector & Davis, where his father also briefly worked. When Gimenez was elected county commissioner in 2004, his son went to work for Bilzin Sumberg, a Miami law firm specializing in government relations, land use and zoning. Four years later, Gimenez Jr. moved to his third law firm, Becker & Poliakoff, where he was a senior attorney until February 2013. Since then, he’s been vice president and general counsel for Balsera Communications, a Hispanic-focused public relations firm founded by Alfredo Balsera, a prominent Democratic fundraiser for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Balsera Communications President David Duckenfield did not address the allegations against Gimenez Jr., but told Florida Bulldog in an email statement that the mayor’ s son was hired based on his qualifications.

‘Well known and respected’

“Carlos brings to our firm top notch experience in real estate development and crisis communications, having worked for the some of the best law firms in Miami,” Duckenfield said. “He is well known and respected among his professional peers.”

Recently, however, Gimenez Jr. stirred up controversy when he and a Balsera colleague tried to convince three candidates running in a Miami-Dade School Board race against his aunt, Maria Theresa Rojas, to drop out.

Documents from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust show that Mayor Gimenez has sought several legal opinions about how he should conduct county business involving firms employing junior, 39, and his other son Julio, 37, who has worked for two construction firms that are frequent county vendors.

Gimenez Jr. is currently registered as a lobbyist In Doral, where he represents Trump and the PGA Tour, and in Miami, where he represents more than a dozen firms. He is not a registered lobbyist with county government.

For instance, on March 27, 2007, then-Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Meyers advised Gimenez, at the time a county commissioner, to abstain from voting on a rezoning application because junior was part of the team representing the developer.

Four years later, shortly after Gimenez was elected mayor, he asked for another ethics opinion. This time, Meyers advised him to delegate the power to award contracts involving Munilla Construction Management to one of his deputies or get a county commissioner to sponsor an item awarding those contracts because the firm employed Julio Gimenez. Meyers also advised the mayor to recuse himself from making any recommendations or decisions when Gimenez Jr. lobbied any arm of county government.

During the five years Gimenez has been mayor, the ethics commission has delved into allegations Gimenez Jr. cloaks his lobbying work by not filing required paperwork identifying him as a representative for vendors and developers seeking to influence the decisions of government officials, including his father.

According to a 2012 ethics commission report, investigators received a confidential tip in October of the previous year that Gimenez and his son held discussions about initiating a red-light camera program in Miami-Dade with executives from Horsepower Electric, a subcontractor to Gimenez Jr.’s client American Traffic Solutions. The report states Gimenez and Horsepower Vice President Humberto Ortiz were interviewed, but not Gimenez Jr.

The mayor and Ortiz vehemently denied they discussed red-light cameras during their meeting, which took place at Horsepower’s main office in Hialeah. They said the mayor was there to collect a campaign check for his political action committee.

Gimenez could not recall if his son, who represents American Traffic in the City of Miami, attended the meeting, but the mayor was adamant that he was not involved in implementing a red-light program in unincorporated Miami-Dade, according to the report.

“He said that, dating back to his tenure as a county commissioner, he has recused himself from any deliberations on the matter as a result of his son’s representation of ATS,” the report states.

In 2014, Joe Centorino, the ethics commission’s current executive director, sent an investigator in mid-May to meet with Susan Fried and Armando Gutierrez, two well-known lobbyists who had pulled him aside during a county commission meeting to complain that Gimenez Jr. and four other individuals who worked on his dad’s campaign “were lobbying on the big Water and Sewer bond issue and had not registered as lobbyists,” according to another investigative report.

Fried alleged that Gimenez Jr. and the four others told potential clients, “I’ll charge you $150,000, and avoid the lobbying registration, but they lobby anyway under the name of public relations,” wrote ethics investigator and former Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback. Fried could not provide specific details, but said Gimenez Jr. and crew “have infiltrated everywhere, including the mayor’s office,” Steinback wrote.

No ‘hard evidence’

Gutierrez was unable to provide names or any firsthand knowledge, Steinback added. Steinback closed the probe shortly after checking the sign-in logs for the 13 county commissioners and finding none of the names of the alleged shadow lobbyists, including Gimenez Jr. “Given the lack of specificity of the original complaint, this investigator could not turn up hard evidence of lobbying on the part of the subjects,” Steinback wrote.

When contacted by Florida Bulldog, Fried and Gutierrez declined comment.

Steinback opened another investigation into Gimenez Jr. on Aug. 27 2014 after an anonymous female called in a tip that the county mayor’s son had bragged to her that he had lobbied six of seven council members in North Miami Beach about a proposal to build luxury floating homes off the city’s coastline by his client, Dutch Docklands. Steinback reviewed the city’s lobbyist log the following day and determined Gimenez Jr. was not registered to represent Dutch Docklands.

In late September, Steinback interviewed three council members, who denied meeting with Gimenez Jr., as well as Frank Behrens, Dutch Dockland’s vice president, who claimed junior’s role was to “address residents of Eastern Shore,” a residential neighborhood in North Miami Beach.

“[Behrens] said that the company has endeavored to be very careful about lobbyist registration,” Steinback wrote in his report, adding that he subsequently spoke to Gimenez Jr.

“It turns out Gimenez Jr. registered with the city as a lobbyist on September 15, 2014,” Steinback wrote. “He stated that he then sent letters to two city commissioners, which he acknowledged would qualify as lobbying contacts, on Sept. 17.”

Nevertheless, Steinback concluded there was no evidence suggesting Gimenez was improperly lobbying city officials.

Gimenez Jr.’s name would pop up again in a fourth ethics investigation that was completed in June of last year. This time, it was junior’s most famous client, Donald Trump, and his dad who were being accused of breaking the county’s lobbying rules when the Republican presidential nominee made an unsolicited offer to take over management of the Crandon Park Golf Course in early 2014. Gimenez told ethics investigators he stopped being involved once Trump submitted a formal proposal because junior represents the billionaire developer in Doral, an independently run city not under the county’s control.

“Gimenez said he immediately recused himself from involvement in the Trump proposal out of an abundance of caution,” the investigative report states. “But not because he is required to since his son does no lobbying work for Trump in the county.”

Three lobbyists, who spoke to FloridaBulldog.org on the condition of anonymity because they fear being blacklisted, said the only way to catch Gimenez Jr. breaking the rules is with good old-fashioned surveillance and wiretaps. “It’s amazing that Carlos Jr. is able to get away with this scam of not being a lobbyist while trading on the name he shares with his dad to do exactly that,” one lobbyist said. “But since we’re in Miami, people just kind of shrug and accept it.”

“Of course, it’s still going on,” another lobbyist said. “Unless you are dishonest with him and his clique, you can’t beat them. It’s not endemic to the county. I believe it happens in most of the municipalities too.”

Santamaria, Gimenez’s opponent, agreed. “The mayor and his inner circle are very sophisticated,” Santamaria said. “”They know how to work the system very well.”

Gov. Scott’s undisclosed interest – via First Lady – in Zika mosquito control company

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has an undisclosed financial interest in a Zika mosquito control company in which his wife, Florida First Lady Ann Scott, owns a multi-million dollar stake through a private investment firm she co-owns.

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC of Metairie, LA. According to its web site, MCS “is a fully-certified team of mosquito control experts – licensed throughout the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”

On June 23, Gov. Scott signed an executive order allocating $26.2 million in state emergency funds for Zika preparedness, including “mosquito surveillance and abatement, training for mosquito control technicians and enhanced laboratory capacity.”

It is not known whether MCS, whose services include monitoring and aerial spraying, stands to benefit from Florida government funds. Company manager Steven Pavlovich holds an active Florida “public health applicator” license with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services through April 2019, but MCS is not a registered state vendor. The Department of Health contracts with two other two mosquito control vendors.

MCS did not respond to two requests for comment.

Ann Scott’s large stake in MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, an investment firm that boasts $291 million of client assets. The firm manages several private equity funds and various “family accounts primarily comprised of trusts and family entities,” according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records.

The Florida Bulldog reported in 2014 that Scott Capital, as it is known online, is operated by a trio of men who once worked at Richard L. Scott Investments, the private equity firm where Gov. Scott made millions for himself and his family putting together big-money investment deals when he was in the private sector.

Scott Capital posts its portfolio online. All nine listed companies are current and former investments of the governor and/or Mrs. Scott, including Mosquito Control Services, described as providing “mosquito abatement services primarily to municipalities.”

The SEC requires investment companies like G. Scott Capital Partners to file periodic disclosure reports. The firm’s most recent report, filed in March, shows that the three-employee, Connecticut-based firm caters to a handful of high net worth individuals – less than 25 – who invest directly and through various pooled investment funds.

A mosquito control investment

The firm’s latest fund is GS MCS, LLC, a Delaware company formed two years ago this month to recapitalize and take control of Mosquito Control Services. The current value of the fund is just under $10 million and the fund has nine beneficial owners, SEC records say. The owners’ names were not disclosed.

The managing director of G. Scott Capital Partners is Gregory D. Scott – no relation to Gov. Scott. He directs the firm’s investments, as he did when he led the private equity group at Richard L. Scott Investments from 2000 to 2012.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

Gregory Scott owns 50 to 75 percent of the Delaware holding company that owns 100 percent of G. Scott Capital, according to the SEC. The First Lady owns the rest through the Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust, which owns Tally 1, a Delaware company that in turn owns 25 to 50 percent of G. Scott Holdings LLC.

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

Gov. Scott has not disclosed his ownership interest in his wife’s investments. Florida law, unlike federal law, does not require state public officers to disclose the assets or income of a spouse or minor child.

The governor’s office on Tuesday declined to discuss the matter or make Gov. Scott or the First Lady available for an interview.

The Republican governor, a multimillionaire, puts his personal investments in a “qualified blind trust” that his office has described as being overseen by “an independent financial professional.” Florida public officers who use such a trust to “blind” themselves to the nature of their holdings get in exchange immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest under a law that Gov. Scott signed in 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, that the person overseeing Gov. Scott’s trust is yet another former employee at Richard L. Scott Investments and that the trust has been ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret.

When Gov. Scott opened his current blind trust in 2014 – the second of his administration – he was required to disclose the assets he put into it. His current mix of assets is not known, but the Florida Bulldog reported last year that the blind trust has in the past coordinated stock transactions with the First Lady’s trust a family partnership.

The Solantic transfer

When Gov. Scott took office in 2011, he transferred tens of millions of dollars in assets to his wife, including a $62-million investment in the walk-in clinic chain Solantic. Mrs. Scott reportedly sold the family’s stake in Solantic that same year.

Gov. Scott’s transfer of his Solantic shares came amid an uproar about perceived conflicts of interest. Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from having an ownership interest in companies that do business with the state or are subject to state regulation.

In 2013, Gov. Scott had an undisclosed ownership stake in Houston-based Spectra Energy when Florida’s Public Service Commission – five members appointed by Gov. Scott – unanimously approved construction of the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline by a joint venture of Spectra and NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light.

The governor’s investment in Spectra became known about a year later when he filed a lengthy list of his assets as of Dec. 31, 2013 when he closed his original blind trust and opened a new one while qualifying to run for re-election.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott’s list included a $53,000 stake in Spectra Energy and a $55,000 stake in DCP Midstream Partners, a natural-gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy.

The governor’s investments included numerous other oil and gas assets, including a $712,000 stake in Texas-based Energy Transfer and its affiliates and subsidiaries. Through other subsidiaries, giant Energy Transfer owns a 50 percent interest in the Florida Gas Transmission pipeline, which delivers nearly 65 percent of the natural gas consumed in Florida.

Gov. Scott has had other conflicting investments.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that in 2012 Scott owned a $210,000 stake in the private equity firm that owned 21st Century Oncology when the all-Republican governing board of taxpayer-supported Broward Health awarded the company an unprecedented 25-year, no-bid contract to supply radiation oncology services. The governor appoints Broward Health’s board members.

A Scott spokeswoman has said the governor wasn’t aware that 21st Century had sought the Broward Health contract prior to its award in January 2012 and that no one at the private equity firm, Vestar Capital Partners, or 21st Century had asked him to try to influence the hospital district’s selection process.

Accusations of spying by FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office dissolve amid generous plea deals

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick, left, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes

Defense attorney Howard Srebnick, left, and Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes

Weeks after being accused of spying on the defense in a $55-million Medicare fraud case, the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office gave all three defendants generous plea deals that closed the case and made the misconduct accusations go away.

At the same time, the government quietly fired the Fort Lauderdale-based copying service at the center of the scandal. Imaging Universe had improperly supplied the government with duplicates of documents that defense lawyers cherry-picked out of 220 boxes of seized records while searching for evidence helpful to their clients.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office investigated the matter, but declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org to make public its findings.

Dr. Salo Schapiro, the 71-year-old former medical director of Biscayne Milieu Health Center, faced up to 100 years in prison and $55 million in liability when he was indicted for conspiracy and health care fraud in September 2014. But last June 20 – less than three weeks after the Florida Bulldog reported the story – prosecutors who once had trumpeted the case allowed psychiatrist Schapiro to plead guilty to a single count of making a false statement.

Schapiro’s punishment: a $10,000 fine. He continues his medical practice in Boca Raton, but no longer takes Medicare patients. His online biography does not mention his felony conviction.

Dr. Salo Schapiro

Dr. Salo Schapiro

Schapiro’s two co-defendants, indicted on similar charges, got similarly light treatment.

Nurse practitioner Marlene Cesar, 64, of Allentown, PA, pleaded guilty July 1 to stealing less than $1,000 in Medicare benefits and was fined $150. On July 28, 74-year-old mental health counselor Sonia Gallimore, who like Schapiro was from Broward, was placed on pretrial diversion for six months.

“The story is in the results,” said Schapiro’s Miami attorney, Howard Srebnick.

Srebnick and his associate, Rossana Arteaga-Gomez, raised the matter in court filings in late May. Their motion argued that the government had a practice of secretly obtaining copies of documents the defense had flagged as important and asserted it was not the action of “just one rogue [FBI] agent or prosecutor.” Rather, the motion said, it appeared to be “an office-wide policy” of both the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI that has gone on for “at least 10 years.”

Several days of hearings, open and closed, were held before Miami U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke. They culminated with Schapiro’s combined guilty plea and sentencing hearing June 20 on the reduced felony charge.

Credibility in question

After negotiating the plea deal for his client, attorney Srebnick withdrew his motion at the hearing. He said its allegations “were based solely on the statements and emails of the owner of the copy service, whose credibility, at a minimum, has come into question during this litigation.”

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer issued this statement:

“When we learned of the copy service issue, our prosecutors immediately notified the defense lawyers.  Unintended circumstances can arise — the test is what you do when faced with such circumstances.  Here, rather than resolve the matter privately, we were completely open and transparent.  We urged the defense to air it in public.  Ultimately, the defense counsel acknowledged that they had no information the prosecutors had looked at any of the materials in question and that the prosecutors in the case acted appropriately and ethically.”

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer

U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer

The owner of Imaging Universe is Ignacio E. Montero. He did not return several phone messages seeking comment.

The motion said Montero told attorney Arteaga-Gomez that he’d provided the U.S. Attorney’s Office “duplicate copies of the discovery documents selected by defense counsel in other cases” for the past 10 years.

Court papers alleged that Imaging Universe and Montero gave the government CDs containing duplicates of documents Schapiro’s defense team had culled from the 220 boxes of records agents had seized from Biscayne Milieu. The records were stored at an FBI warehouse in Miramar, where defense lawyers who wanted copies of such records were required to use Imaging Universe.

The government later acknowledged that Imaging Universe did supply the FBI with duplicate CDs of what it had copied for Schapiro’s defense team, but said the discs “were never requested by any agent, prosecutor or anyone else on the government’s behalf.”

No ‘pervasive’ spying

Assistant U.S. Attorney James V. Hayes was the lead prosecutor on the case. He has said in court papers that he was unaware of the duplicate CDs until an FBI agent disclosed their existence in April. He and co-counsel Lisa H. Miller, a Justice Department fraud attorney, said they immediately told “Montero to stop and began an internal inquiry.” They also said “no pervasive practice of receiving or recording defense discovery” was found.

Still, the government sent out notifications about what happened to lawyers for a number of unidentified defendants. Officials declined to say how many attorneys were notified.

Defense lawyers recently raised a similar issue “of government invasion of the defense camp” in at least one unrelated case involving an allegedly fraudulent sweepstakes scheme.

Prosecutor Hayes informed Srebnick on April 22 that FBI Agent Deanne Lindsey “had been surreptitiously receiving the CDs,” according to the defense motion. “Hayes proposed to immediately destroy the CDs,” but the lawyers instead asked that he give them to the defense, “which he did.”

“Covertly cloning defense counsel’s work-product to obtain a tactical advantage is nothing short of ‘shocking to the universal sense of justice,’ ” Srebnick and Arteaga-Gomez wrote.

Court records show that between June 8 and 16 U.S. District Judge Cooke held a series of open and closed hearings about the matter. Early on, the judge indicated she would make a ruling on the motion and even asked both sides what possible remedies were available should she find “pervasive” misconduct by the government.

But the judge never ruled on the merits of the defense motion. The matter became moot when Srebnick withdrew it after prosecutors offered Schapiro the plea deal and he accepted.

Owners at South Beach’s Shelborne fight $30 million assessments, foreclosure

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

The Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach

The Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach

For the past four years, about 40 investors and snowbirds who own 42 rooms in a landmark oceanfront art deco hotel have been locked in a pitched court battle with one of Miami Beach’s most politically connected families to keep their units.

An ongoing civil lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleges that Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut, along with relatives and business associates, broke Florida condo association laws by passing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments for renovations at what is now the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach. That works out to roughly $107,142 per room.

The group, 10 of whom spoke with a reporter but asked that their names not be used, claim Galbut stacked the condo association’s board with flunkies and is trying to take control of the entire building by initiating foreclosure proceedings against them for refusing to pay what they believe are outrageous assessments. They also alleged that their rooms were demolished without their consent during the renovations, resulting in the City of Miami Beach revoking their certificates of occupancy until they fixed their units.

“They are using the old game of charging us exorbitant assessments to push us out,” said one New Yorker who purchased two rooms in the late 1990s as an investment. “There is a conspiracy to take our deeds for peanuts. Their end game is to own all the units.”

Galbut is not a defendant in the case, but a Galbut company that owns 100 rooms and 57 commercial spaces at the Shelborne is a defendant. Other defendants with Sherborne Property Associates are four shell companies Galbut controls, his cousins Keith Menin and Joan Brent and the Sherborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association.

Ronald M. Rosengarten of the Greenberg Traurig law firm represents Sherborne Property Associates. 

“While it is true that friends and supporters of the Galbut family projects may sit on the board, the Galbut family does not ‘control’ their votes,” Rosengarten said. “Currently, Galbut family related entities only have a minority interest in the Shelborne, owning less than one sixth of the units and certainly do not control the units.”

Rosengarten said court records also show the Galbuts’ renovation of the Shelborne “has been a financial boon for the unit-owners and not a fraud.”

Built in 1940, the iconic hotel at 1801 Collins Avenue was entirely owned by Galbut and his relatives in the 1980s. A decade later, the Galbuts began selling some of their units to outside investors when the property was converted to a condo-hotel, according to the 10 owners and Rosegarten. The new owners were allowed to rent their rooms to tourists through a Galbut entity that managed the hotel or other companies that provided booking services.

Galbut family big political contributors

Galbut family members and companies they control have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to political committees supporting Miami Beach city commission candidates. Through six companies he controls, Russell Galbut also has raised $10,000 for a PAC supporting Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s re-election. Three Galbut family members have contributed a combined $15,100 this year to Republican congressional candidates including Sen. Marco Rubio, and Republican U.S. Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Things began going awry in 2010, a year after management of the Shelborne was handed over to Menin Hotels, a company controlled by Galbut and his cousin, Keith Menin, the lawsuit states. From 2006 through the beginning of 2015, Menin also served on the condo association board. The lawsuit alleges Menin and the board voted in favor of a $15 million renovation in 2011 to redo the Shelborne’s common areas, from the hotel hallways to the lobby to the pool deck without obtaining approval from at least 75 percent of the unit owners as required by state law.

Yet the non-Galbut owners still got a bill for the $15 million through a series of special assessments between 2011 and 2012.

“Keith Menin knows the Menin Alterations are unlawful,” the lawsuit states. “But he caused or allowed the partnership to make them anyway.”

The lawsuit also claims that Joan Brent, the other Galbut cousin who served on the condo association’s board from November 2011 and June 2013, knew the Menin Hotels renovation was unlawful.

Barely a year later, Galbut and his alleged surrogates signed an agreement with Wyndham Hotel Management allowing them to market 125 rooms and the common areas of the hotel under the Wyndham brand, the lawsuit states. The non-Galbut owned-rooms were not part of the deal.

Despite just finishing the $15 million update to the building, the condo board initiated another renovation project in the summer of 2014 in order to meet Wyndham standards, the lawsuit states. This time, the non-Galbut owners were assessed a combined $28.7 million, according to the complaint.

Again, the condo board did not obtain consent from 75 percent of the owners, the lawsuit alleges. It also says Galbut, Brent, Menin and their allies on the board devised a plan to lie to the non-Galbut owners about the extent of the renovations – saying only that they were replacing the Shelborne’s windows and making repairs required by the City of Miami Beach.

In the ensuing months, the lawsuit say, the non-Galbut owners learned that the scope of the work was much bigger than they were told and that the developer and his cohorts barred them from entering the hotel, preventing them from seeing what was actually happening in the building.

“While the property was closed, the conspirators caused or allowed the structure to be completely gutted,” the lawsuit states. “By closing the property, the unit owners were simultaneously deprived of the use and income generated by their residential units.

Many Shelborne owners “forced to sell”

Predictably, many members could not afford this wave of special assessments with or without the building being closed so they were forced to sell their units.”

The lawsuit also notes that Shelborne Property Associates obtained a $125 million loan around the same time the deal with Wyndham was signed. The proceeds were used to buy rooms from non-Galbut owners who wanted out, the lawsuit alleges. Court and property records confirm that Galbut-owned shell companies purchased 120 units at the Shelborne since 2012, the complaint alleges.

“There were not $125 million worth of units for sale when Shelborne Property Associates obtained this financing,” the lawsuit alleges. “But SPA knew that the association was about to levy tens of millions of dollars of additional special assessments against its members, and close the condominium property for over a year.”

The purchases gave Galbut controlled entities 75 percent ownership of the Shelborne, and the board the necessary majority to approve the Wyndham renovation after the construction had already begun.

A non-Galbut owner who identified himself as “Jackie” said Galbut and his accomplices are squeezing them out because they don’t want to pay them fair market value for their rooms. “They saw that Miami Beach real estate in general was skyrocketing, especially beachfront hotels,” Jackie said. “Rooms have been going for $700,000 to $800,000 a room. That was the case with Raleigh Hotel, the SLS South Beach and the Shore Club.”

According to a review of some of the Shelborne units purchased by Galbut-related entities in the last four years shows rooms have sold for an average between $150,000 and $250,000. Rosengarten countered that non-Galbut owners who sold rooms to his client got good deals.

“Property records evidence that the overwhelming majority of transfers occurred in sales whereby the owners received vastly greater prices for the units they sold compared to what they paid for them,” Rosengarten said. “In other words, the condo owners were not victims but were beneficiaries of the increasing valuation which resulted from maintaining and improving the building.”

Adding insult to injury, construction workers entered their units without their consent and destroyed their rooms, the non-Galbut owners allege. “When we finally gained access to our units, we found our rooms completely wrecked,” said the New Yorker who owns two rooms. “They demolished my kitchen, my bathroom and my living room. They never repaired the damages.”

The owner said city inspectors flagged his units for 20 life safety violations and told him he couldn’t use the rooms until he fixed it. He spent close to $25,000 per room after paying nearly $40,000 in special assessments, he said.

Another owner, a retiree who lives in Atlanta, said she had to dip into her 401K to finance her repairs. She had plans to live out her retirement in her Shelborne unit.

“In anticipation of losing my unit, I tried to buy a house,” she said. “But I was denied a mortgage when the bank saw I was shelling out these huge sums of money and that my income had dropped to $50,000 a year. All because of the Galbuts.”

Lawsuit: Broward Sheriff Scott Israel has tolerated and covered-up the illegal use of force

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

The late Steven Jerold Thompson, left, and suspended BSO Deputy Gerald Wengert

The late Steven Jerold Thompson, left, and suspended BSO Deputy Gerald Wengert

The family of a 26-year-old black man shot and killed by a Broward Sheriff’s deputy has sued the deputy and Sheriff Scott Israel, alleging wrongful death, serious and repeated failures of police oversight, and cover-up.

Steven Jerold Thompson died shortly after midnight on June 6, 2014 – less than two hours after being shot nine times at a Lauderhill apartment building by Deputy Gerald Wengert, a one-time police reality TV star with a history of violent encounters.

“There existed…a de facto policy by defendant Israel of covering up police misconduct by failing to properly investigate alleged misconduct, and/or by conducting investigations that were intentionally deficient,” says the 32-page complaint filed by veteran Fort Lauderdale civil rights lawyer Barbara Heyer.

Further, the complaint says, BSO covered up misconduct “by listing the problem investigations as ‘ongoing’ long after any investigation had ceased, thereby attempting to insulate” BSO from public scrutiny. Florida’s public records law allows police to keep secret information about cases under active investigation.

“This de facto policy enabled some deputy sheriffs to falsify reports, give false testimony, and create and/or destroy evidence, including but not limited to throw down firearms, in order to justify their misconduct,’’ the complaint says.

The lawsuit, pending in U.S. District Court in Miami, comes amid a grueling national debate about killings involving the police and racial unrest. It includes the allegation that Broward’s elected sheriff has “tolerated and caused a pattern and practice of unjustified, unreasonable and illegal use of force” at BSO and that offending deputies were not prosecuted, disciplined or retrained. Some incidents were “covered up with official claims that their acts were justified and proper,” the lawsuit says.

The sheriff’s attorney, Daniel Losey, filed court papers last week that denied any wrongdoing, asserted that BSO’s use of force was necessary and that Thompson’s own conduct was the sole cause of his injuries.

A sheriff’s spokeswoman said BSO makes “it a practice not to comment on pending litigation.”

Wengert has been on suspension with pay since June 12, 2015 regarding an active investigation into the beating of a suspect. BSO declined to facilitate an interview, and Wengert could not be reached for comment.

An awkward time for Israel

The complaint arrives at an awkward time for Sheriff Israel. He is seeking re-election to a second term and his campaign has portrayed him as a sensitive, reform-minded sheriff working “to bring transparency and accountability” to BSO.

Wengert, who turns 38 on July 26, was hired in 2004 when BSO merged with the Cooper City Police Department. He did not, however, undergo a background investigation, psychological evaluation, drug testing or a polygraph examination as required by BSO policy, the lawsuit says.

Gerald Wengert in a publicity photo for "Unleashed: K-9 Broward County"

Gerald Wengert in a publicity photo for “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County”

From the day he was hired until the day he shot Thompson dead, Deputy Wengert had “73 documented use of force incidents, and ten documented complaints, including three shootings,” the lawsuit says, while noting Wengert was never disciplined for any of those incidents. (Wengert, who starred in TLC/ Discovery Channel’s “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County” in 2011, was criminally charged in 2012 with battery, official misconduct and falsifying records involving the beating of Mark Visconti, but was found not guilty in April 2013.)

Local news accounts at the time, relying on information supplied by BSO, described Thompson as a convicted felon and a robbery suspect when he was killed in a “gunfight” with police.

The complaint paints a much different picture of what happened.

The sequence of events that led to Thompson’s death began after K-9 deputies Wengert, Todd Yoder and Emanuel Koutsofios were dispatched to a suspected armed robbery at a Lauderhill condominium. Two cell phones had been stolen, and tracking located one of them four miles away at the Cypress Grove apartments in the 4300 block of NW 18th Ave. The suspects were described as two black men, one heavyset and dressed all in black and the other tall, thin and carrying a gun. Neither was said to have distinguishing features like scars or facial hair, the complaint says.

Lauderhill officers established a perimeter before the deputies arrived. After searching without their dogs, a tracking system “ping” revealed the phone had moved to the center of a parking lot on the south side of the complex, the complaint says.

Walking toward the parking lot at about 11:16 p.m., Wengert, a white man, spotted Thompson walking out of a building and toward the parking lot. Thompson, who had a beard, moustache and tattoos, was leaving a friend’s apartment, but when he saw the deputies he turned to go back to the building, the complaint says.

“Despite the fact that Thompson did not fit the description of the assailant provided by dispatch, and the fact that [he] was exiting the building when the iPhone was already in the parking lot where other people were standing,” Wengert began pursuing Thompson and “immediately drew his firearm and began shooting,” according to the complaint.

The BSO version is that Wengert fired after a fleeing Thompson shot first at him.

“He’s shooting at me”

Thompson, whose back was turned from Wengert, was hit by a bullet traveling from back to front that fractured his thigh bone and caused him to fall forward. Residents reported hearing Thompson scream, “Help…help, he’s shooting at me! I’m shot!”

“Although Thompson posed no risk of harm to defendant Wengert or anyone else, defendant Wengert continued firing at Thompson’s fallen body, hitting him eight more times,” the complaint says. In all, Wengert “discharged 25 rounds, which required that he reload his gun.”

Deputy Yoder called fire rescue at 11:18 p.m. Paramedics arrived in five minutes, but didn’t see Thompson for another 10 minutes because Wengert had instructed other deputies not to let them in right away until they made “sure it was safe in case a second suspect was there.”

During the delay, Wengert went to his car. The complaint indicates he retrieved a 9mm Luger Diamondback DB 9 pistol, planted it in the corridor about 50 feet from Thompson’s body and then “falsely claimed that Thompson had fired twice at him.”

Thompson was pronounced dead at Broward Health Medical Center at 12:57 a.m. During the confusion, the complaint says, the “actual suspect” with the stolen iPhone walked out of the front gate at the apartment complex.

What followed was an “incompetent” BSO investigation that if done correctly, would have shown that “Thompson had no involvement in the armed burglary, that he did not have a firearm, and that he did not shoot” at Wenger, the lawsuit says.

The complaint contends BSO allegedly relied “wholly” on Wengert’s version of events before deciding it was “justifiable homicide.” Evidence that didn’t support Wenger’s story “was either not addressed and/or ignored by defendant Israel.”

According to the complaint, Wengert’s sworn statement wasn’t taken until a week after the shooting. “It was contradicted by the physical evidence and the inconsistent statements of the other deputy sheriffs at the scene,” the complaint says. “Israel’s investigation accepted Wengert’s lies as fact, and then tailored the findings of the investigation to comport with Wengert’s false statements.”

Basic tests not done?

The complaint accuses BSO of failing to conduct “the most rudimentary and obvious evidentiary tests such as gunshot residue tests, fingerprint and DNA analysis which would have determined that Wengert gunned down an unarmed man.

Specifically, the complaint notes that while the dead man’s “hands had allegedly been bagged and swabbed” by the crimescene detective, the test kit for gunshot residue was never actually tested. Such a test would have shown whether Thompson recently had fired a weapon.

Likewise, no blood or Thompson’s fingerprints were found on the recovered pistol. The dead man’s epithelial DNA was found on the weapon, but the complaint says it was in a way “consistent with the Luger Diamondback being swiped across his hand or body as he lay dying.”

No DNA or fingerprint comparison was made to determine whether Wengert or anyone else had handled the gun, the complaint says.

At the time of the shooting, the complaint says, Wengert was “unfit” to be a deputy due to his “known history of violence.” Sheriff Israel knew or should have known that, yet despite Wengert’s conduct – and his “large physique” – he was never tested for steroid use.

“It is common knowledge that steroid use increases a person’s aggressiveness and can lead to violence,” the complaint says.

Even so, BSO does not test its deputies for steroid use, the lawsuit says.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright confirmed that BSO does not test its deputies for steroids.

“Random drug tests are currently conducted once every quarter,” she said. “A 10-panel drug test is administered in accordance with our policy for pre-employment and random drug tests. Steroids are not included in the 10-panel drug test. However, upon reasonable suspicion, supervisors can order testing for steroids.”

The complaint also contends that BSO has had an “ongoing” investigation of steroid abuses by some deputies since 2008.

Asked about that probe, which involved as many as 26 deputies, BSO released a May 2011 memo by Internal Affairs Lt. Gregory S. Gordon that says IA merely “monitored” two separate federal investigations by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that ended with no criminal charges against any deputies.

The memo says that instead of investigating to determine whether any BSO policies were violated by the deputies, all of Internal Affairs’ steroid cases were “reclassified to preliminary investigative inquiries…closed and marked ‘confidential.'”

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke.

Secret U.S. Marshals’ report ID’d security weaknesses at Broward courthouse before escape

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Broward County Courthouse

Broward County Courthouse

A confidential U.S. Marshals’ security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse exposed numerous weaknesses in the building’s security system four years before last week’s scandalous escape of a 21-year-old murder suspect.

The assessment included several recommendations that, if implemented, may well have prevented Dayonte Resiles’ desperate dash out of Judge Raag Singhal’s courtroom, down four flights of stairs and out a fire emergency door to short-lived freedom.

Resiles, who escaped one week ago, was captured Wednesday without incident at a West Palm Beach motel and returned to Broward. Seven people have been charged with aiding in the escape of Resiles, who is accused of stabbing to death Jill Halliburton Su in her Davie home in 2014.

Resiles’ arrest, however, did little to ease anxiety about courthouse security.

“Here’s the bottom line, and it’s something we’ve been talking about for years and clearly predates Sheriff [Scott] Israel. We do not have sufficient staffing from the sheriff’s department in this courthouse,” Broward Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said Thursday.

“We constantly hear from the county, ‘We give the sheriff sufficient funding to run the department.’ The sheriff says, ‘I don’t have enough manpower.’ And we’re the people in the middle,” said Weinstein.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The first page of the U.S. Marshals Service security assessment for the Broward County Courthouse.

The U.S. Marshals’ assessment, a copy of which was obtained by the Florida Bulldog,  similarly noted the need for more law enforcement personnel in both the lobby screening station and courtrooms.

“There is not an armed security officer assigned to each courtroom, instead, there are civilian court deputies. Very few of the courtrooms have armed security officers,” says the assessment. “On an average day, the central courthouse has approximately 14 law enforcement officers working in the building. This building has 54 judges and 11 magistrates. In-custody defendants are ‘dropped-off’ in courtrooms with no law enforcement personnel present.”

The recommendation: “one court deputy for every judge. Court deputies should be armed and trained by BSO and should have access to a duress alarm. Two law enforcement officers for in-custody defendants,” with an additional officer for each additional defendant.

Israel tweaks courthouse security

On Monday, Sheriff Israel moved the Broward Sheriff’s Office part-way toward the Marshals’ recommendations. From now on, he said, maximum-security inmates appearing in court would have a sworn deputy with them at all times, not just a civilian bailiff. A detention deputy who escorts the prisoner to court “will only release custody once an armed deputy is present,” the sheriff said in a statement.

Israel did not address the report’s call for shielding judges with bulletproof glass or improving the knee wall and gate that now partially separates the courtroom gallery areas from public seating area and does not extend the width of the courtroom.

WPLG Local 10 reported Monday that Israel did not accept $2.6 million offered by the county last year to beef up courthouse security. The offer, said to be in writing, would have doubled the number of armed courthouse deputies from 29 to 58 and also allowed the sheriff to “guarantee that every high-risk inmate like Resiles could be accompanied by at least one armed deputy in addition to a bailiff,” the television station reported.

BSO spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright responded Thursday: “We support having an armed deputy (plus additional BSO personnel) in every critical courtroom in the courthouse, but the county has not approved additional staffing or funding to provide this level of coverage.”

Coleman-Wright also provided a Wednesday memo written to the County Commission by BSO General Counsel Ron Gunzburger. It accuses county administrators of holding the $2.6 million “hostage until the sheriff signs a global memo of understanding (MOU)” for the entire judicial complex that would build on existing staffing levels that are “woefully inadequate,” locking in future personnel shortfalls.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel

“If the sheriff would sign the proffered MOU, he would be agreeing to continue inadequate and unsafe staffing for the greatly expanded size of the entire complex…The sheriff is unwilling to sign this deeply flawed agreement,” the memo says.

Assistant County Administrator Alphonso Jefferson disputed that account. He said the MOU would ensure that dollars allocated by the county specifically for courthouse security would actually be spent by the sheriff on courthouse security, and not be diverted to the sheriff’s other priorities.

“Essentially, we want to make sure the money is earmarked for courthouse security,” said Jefferson. “You don’t want to be back with the same issue down the road.”

BSO and Broward’s judiciary asked the Marshals’ Office to evaluate security because of their expertise in arranging security for federal courthouses. The evaluation, completed in July 2012, was done after several fleeing defendants had highlighted courthouse security deficiencies.

“What report?”

According to Jefferson, however, the security assessment was done without the county’s knowledge. He said county officials didn’t learn about it until November 2013. “It was at a meeting with BSO and the judiciary when we heard about the report. We said, ‘What report?’”

The county soon put together a task force of all the players, including the court administrator’s office. He said that as a result, the county has been spending $1.8 million to address a number of recommendations – for example, installing security cameras and improving security at entry screening areas in the East Wing and the North Tower that houses felony courtrooms

The Marshal’s security review looked at a wide variety of areas from outside perimeter security to courtrooms and chambers, public area and access control and law enforcement staffing and technology.

“Security is of fundamental importance to every court because the impartial and independent application of the law may be threatened by intrusion, disruption, intimidation, force, theft, malicious and environmental disaster,” says the assessment. “If a court cannot operate with a high degree of security, its legitimacy has the potential to be undermined.”

Other recommendations included the installation of numerous closed circuit television cameras inside and outside the courthouse, door and window alarms, additional barriers to prevent vehicle intrusion, better external lighting and better monitoring of nighttime cleaning crews.

The marshals’ assessment team, while acknowledging that implementing its recommendations would be costly, emphasized “that an acceptable level of security will only be reached when all of the measures at the best practice level are incorporated… Care should be taken to prioritize and implement as many of the recommendations as quickly as possible.”

The review did not estimate costs, but some were simple and relatively inexpensive. For example, report notes that in many courtrooms the door leading to a judge’s chambers had the lock on the courtroom side of the door.

“This means that if someone was chasing the judge and the judge runs into chambers, the judge has no way of locking the door. This also means that prior to court commencing, anyone could turn the lock and have access to chambers,” says the report, which recommended reversing the locks, with the deadbolt on the chambers’ side.

Many of the reports’ recommendations have not been adopted. Chief Judge Weinstein said, however, that many would be incorporated into the new, $250-million high-rise courthouse building that remains unfinished. The new courthouse was supposed to open last year, but is now expected to open in October, said Weinstein.

After the new courthouse opens, the old 10-story courthouse will be demolished and a plaza and new parking facility will be installed. The more modern felony wing on the east side of the courthouse will remain, and be connected by walkways to the new 20-story courthouse.

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