Broward’s city managers use secrecy in push for huge trash deal; public excluded from meetings

By Dan Christensen and Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

City manager's association president Bruce Loucks as seen through a crack in the door during Thursday's not quite closed-door meeting

Broward’s top city and county managers regularly meet in secret to discuss public business, formulate policy and even negotiate contracts.

Five of them currently are hammering out a $1 billion contract for waste disposal for much of the county with the help of a single company, trash giant Waste Management, which wants the work. They are doing this without taking any public discussion or comment

A no bid-deal like that would affect disposal rates for most of the county’s residents and businesses.

When two Broward Bulldog reporters tried to attend Thursday’s Broward City County Management Association (BCCMA) meeting in Sunrise they were told to leave.

Questioned before the doors were shut, association president Bruce Loucks, the city manager in Cooper City, said the meeting was closed to the public.

“We’re not elected officials,” said Loucks, referring to the open meeting requirements of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.  “This is a manager’s association.”

Asked again if reporters could attend on the public’s behalf, Loucks said flatly, “No. You’re not coming in.”

The Sunshine Law does not generally apply to private organizations like the low-profile BCCMA. Still, the law’s broad access requirements have been held to apply when such groups are delegated governmental functions or play an “integral” role in the decision-making process, according to a 2009 Attorney General’s legal opinion.

Broward Bulldog filed public records requests with several cities today in an attempt to determine if the managers have crossed the line

GOVERNMENT OUT OF THE SUNSHINE?

The managers’ meeting was a catered luncheon at the Sunrise Civic Center’s Grand Ballroom, a glass and stone structure surrounded by decorative fountains with rooms featuring crystal chandeliers and plush chairs. It is not known who paid for the event, but at least one city employee – from Parkland – helped check-in attendees.

Other city managers that showed up included Lee Feldman of Fort Lauderdale, Bruce Moeller of Sunrise, John Stunson of Oakland Park and John Flint of Weston. Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry was also present.

The BCCMA is a private association whose dues-paying members run Broward’s municipalities. Those eligible for membership include city managers, other municipal officers and corporate executives “engaged in a business relationship with a local government,” according to its web site.

The association’s meeting agenda was confidential, and its discussions were private. But its web site identifies a dozen “key” economic and political issues including development, the escalating costs of providing police and fire services, and waste management.

Trash disposal has been a recent focus, according to records made public by other governmental bodies.

For example, minutes from the most recent meeting of the county’s Resource Recovery Board show that Weston City Manager appeared before the board to describe how the association is working to craft a contract that may be used to seal the immense, no-bid trash disposal deal with Waste Management.

Such a pact could squeeze out a competitor who has offered lower rates that would be less costly to businesses and residents.

The company’s Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary has had a decades-long monopoly over waste disposal for about 80 percent of Broward’s cities. That monopoly is set to expire next year.

“The city manager’s group met with Wheelabrator on a number of occasions, and have reached an agreement, with the exception of two points: they have not agreed upon a price and they have yet to select a term,” the minutes say.

INSIDERS PLAYING THE SYSTEM

The RRB, as it is known in the industry, is the governing body of Broward’s Solid Waste Disposal District. Its nine members are elected officials from eight cities and the county.

Flint has been trying to extend Wheelabrator’s contract behind closed doors despite attempts by a competitor, Sun/Bergeron, to offer competitive bids.

Weston City Manger John Flint, left, and Cooper City City Manager Bruce Loucks

He told the board the managers’ association was preparing to circulate the draft agreement negotiated with Wheelabrator to “city officials throughout the county.”

Flint bristled when asked before Thursday’s city manager association meeting meeting if the new no-bid waste contract would be discussed in private again that day.

“I have nothing to say,” he said before adding, “I don’t know yet.”

UPSETTING BUSINESS AS USUAL

The county commission in December 2010 rejected a 10-year, $1.5 billion no-bid proposal with Wheelabrator after cities said the negotiated rates were too high.

Outrage over how that deal was pushed led Miramar to go out for bids on its own. It received lower prices. The low bidder was Sun/Bergeron, but the city has yet to award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on. Broward Bulldog has learned Miramar commissioners will convene a special meeting about the bid on March 20 at 6 p.m.

The managers’ talks with Wheelabrator have been going on quietly for more than a year. The idea was to develop an alternative in case Miramar’s bid faltered.

Flint told the Resource Recovery Board in January the new contract is an improvement on the original Wheelabrator proposal because it eliminates risk to the county.

For reasons that have not been explained, Sun/Bergeron was excluded from that process and a company representative was turned away from an earlier association meeting.

“What they are doing is not open government,” said Phil Medico, lawyer for Sun/Bergeron.

 

 

To resuscitate or not to resuscitate PIP insurance — a South Florida pocketbook issue

By Amber Statler-Matthews, BrowardBulldog.org 

The tug-of-war may be in Tallahassee over personal injury protection insurance, but at the heart of the battle are drivers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties who are paying more each year in premiums.

Florida lawmakers are struggling over two bills that would reform or do away with the system altogether.

Time is running out.

The legislative session ends Friday and Gov. Rick Scott is pressuring lawmakers to have a new law in place by then.

“Big insurance companies embroiled in PIP litigation want to either eliminate PIP or create a system where they have virtual immunity from claims delays and wrongful denial,” said Dave Bierman, a Broward insurance claim attorney and certified insurance fraud examiner. “Neither one is good for Floridians.”

Special interest groups have been holding up the legislative process. Trial lawyers, medical providers, small business owners and the insurance industry are feverishly lobbying to protect their bottom line.

If a new bill is passed it will likely be a compromise that includes key parts of both bills. But many on both sides of the issue wonder if it will be enough to bring relief to drivers paying elevated insurance premiums.

THE COST OF FAKE CLAIMS

“Insurance fraud costs the average Florida family between $400 and $700 a year in increased premiums,” according to Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

The top four cities for PIP fraud include Miami, Hialeah, Tampa and Orlando.

According to insurance industry “Fast Track” data, in 2008, the average driver paid $500 for PIP. Today, those same drivers in Miami-Dade County are paying as much as $4,000.

Florida is one of 10 states in the nation that requires drivers to carry personal injury insurance protection to pay for medical expenses no matter who is at fault in an accident. Florida’s No-Fault Law requires a minimum of $10,000 of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and $10,000 of property damage liability (PDL).

The crush of bogus claims has caused insurance companies to restrict coverage.

“Because of the over abundance of claims in areas such as Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, insurance companies are already underwriting in a way that denies some drivers the ability to purchase insurance at all,” says Steven Marcus, chairman of the Insurance Committee for Broward Days.

He says some insurance companies look for people who’ve had 5 years of coverage with the same company before they will write a policy.  Others may deny anyone who want coverage of less than $25,000 per person and $50,000 per incident.

“That’s probably going to eliminate 60 percent of the public,” Marcus added.

But the insurance system is not as broken as the insurance companies want people to believe, according to Bierman.

“The insurance industry is blowing up examples of a few bad apples to turn the ‘no-fault system’ into a ‘no-pay system,’” he said.

WHICH APPROACH TO CHOOSE

Trial lawyers like Bierman, the Florida Hospital Association and the lobbying group Floridians for Fair Insurance are backing Senate Bill 1860 introduced by Republican Sen. Joe Negron, of Palm City.

This bill targets fraud by targeting bogus health facilities that file false claims.

Negron’s bill gives hospitals priority standing in PIP claims, tightens licensing requirements on medical clinics and eliminates massage therapists and acupuncturists from filing claims under the PIP system.

What the Senate bill does not do is place specific limits on when drivers or their passengers can seek treatment; nor does it put a cap on attorney fees.

“Negron’s bill is like putting a band aid over a 12-inch slash,” said Marcus, who owns an insurance agency in Coral Springs. “It’s too weak because it doesn’t include criminal penalties for fraud. If this bill gets through, it will be more of the same.”

Marcus, the insurance industry and business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, support House Bill 119 sponsored by Republican Jim Boyd, of Bradenton. This bill basically repeals the current PIP system and requires people injured in auto accidents to go the emergency room.

In an effort to reduce fraud, hospital physicians must diagnose injuries within 72 hours after an accident. This process is designed to keep injured motorists away from fraudulent physicians and suspect medical clinics filing bogus PIP claims.

The Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies, which includes Allstate, State Farm and Geico, also supports the House Bill.

PIP INSURANCE TO LIVE OR DIE

With rising costs fueled by fraud, the state would appear to have reached a critical fork in the road that requires it to either resuscitate the current system or take it off life support.

Insurance companies believe going after fraud is the best approach. The industry backs House Bill 119, which gives them more control of accident investigations.

Floridians for Fair Insurance, made up of lawyers and business leaders, insists supporting the House bill means supporting a “bail out” for the insurance industry.

“Insurance companies want to raise rates and cry poverty but they’re still making massive profits,” said Russell Lazega, an insurance litigator with the group. He is also Bierman’s law partner.

“The solution is simple,” he said. “Just spend the money to prosecute the bad guys and move on to putting Florida back to work. Enough with the insurance industry bailouts.”

Past attempts to reform PIP have failed. But all sides are hoping 2012 is the year for real change.

If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement on a new bill, Florida residents will be left to foot the bill.

According to Bierman, “Big insurance companies embroiled in PIP litigation want to either eliminate PIP or create a system where they have virtual immunity from claims delays and wrongful denial. Neither one is good for Floridians.

Hallandale Beach holds back records in “botched” audit; $20 million in contracts go unchecked

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  

Hallandale Beach City Manager Mark Antonio

An outside auditing firm did not review more than $20 million in Hallandale Beach vendor contracts because the city failed to provide the information and limitations on the scope of the audit.

Auditors mention the large deficiency in an updated audit report to be presented to the city commission for review on Wednesday.

The initial draft audit, obtained by Broward Bulldog six months ago, stated that Hallandale Beach had failed to properly track business transactions made by the City Commission controlled Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

The city hired the Fort Lauderdale auditing firm Marcum Rachlin in August 2010 to inspect three years of vendor contracts that should have totaled $29.2 million. But the vendor contract file city officials turned over to the auditors for review only included contracts for a one year period totaling $8.9 million, the report says.

Auditors later discovered the discrepancy, but by then the terms of the scope of the review had been set and “Marcum’s procedures were limited to reviewing the vendor contracts that were included on the original listing provided by the city,” the report says.

The city is paying $60,000 for the audit.

DISCREPANCY UNEXPLAINED

Mayor Joy Cooper and City Manager Mark Antonio, who were critical of last summer’s draft audit, did not make themselves available to explain the discrepancy, despite repeated requests for interviews.

The city issued a press release late Friday that hailed the audit’s findings, but does not mention that more than two-thirds of the city’s vendor contracts were not audited.

“I am pleased that once all the information was reviewed by the auditors, the results show that city has and continues to follow best business practices,” said Antonio.

Of what auditors could check, a number of the key problems have been rectified but others remain, according to the updated report.

“It shows that the city does not have its financial house in order or doesn’t care about finances,” City Commissioner Keith London said.

London pointed the finger at the administration for an audit he said was “half-done…botched.”

“The city did not provide the information. We can’t blame the auditors; we got to blame the city,” he said. “It’s either incompetence or intentional, either way it’s unacceptable.”

London said he will ask his fellow commissioners to re-hire Marcum Rahlin to review the un-audited $20 million in contracts with vendors.

Auditors stated in both the initial and updated reports that the firm was retained to review procedures applied in vendor contracts between Oct. 1, 2007 and Sept., 30, 2010.

The review covered 136 vendor contracts totaling $8.9 million. The report does not say how many vendor contracts are involved in the additional $20 million in contracts.

Of the contracts it reviewed, auditors concluded there appeared to be proper approvals.

CITY SUSPECTED PROBLEMS

Questions about CRA business transactions came to a headafter former City Manager Mike Good was fired by the city commission in June 2010 after chronic absences from work. News reports stated an uncommunicative work style and questionable contracts also were cited as reasons for Good’s dismissal.

Commissioners asked for the audit a few weeks later. Marcum Rachlin was tasked with conducting “an extensive review of the city’s land acquisition program, developer agreements, the awarding of vendor contracts, and CRA expenditures and commercial loan programs,” according to Friday’s press release.

After the initial draft audit was made public six months ago, the city asked the firm to continue working and to revise the report.

The auditors’ updated version lessened some of the problematic findings, but some of the observations regarding land acquisitions and loans to businesses showed continued issues in record keeping.

The updated report cleared previously mentioned problems involving developer agreements with the city.

Regarding loans to businesses, totaling $1.5 million as of June 2010, the report said all agreements reviewed had been properly executed; no loans exceeded the prescribed interest rate; and only two loans did not adhere to a 15 percent forgiveness rate in repaying the city’s money. Those numbers were much higher in the first draft report. The report also said there were various documents still missing in 31 loan files.

The new audit reported progress regarding the location of missing land acquisition documents, as well as some continuing issues.

* Files for 30 acquired properties that were initially thought to be missing were located, but the files for 13 other properties that were later sold could not be found.

* The number of property acquisition files reviewed dropped to 40 from 49 after the files of some properties were accounted for. But 39 of the 40 files were incomplete, and 15 lacked contain purchase authorizations.

In Friday’s press release, Antonio said the report shows the city has “followed almost every policy. The areas they wanted us to address involved misfiled or misplaced documents. They recommended additional checks be added to ensure this does not recur. We agreed and have implemented changes.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

 

Broward judge, regulators chomp down on broker’s alleged effort to steal dogs’ inheritance

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org

Judge Mark Speiser

A Broward County probate judge has nipped an alleged attempt to redirect a $3 million inheritance intended to care for four beloved show dogs following their owner’s death.

Judge Mark Speiser threw out financial advisor Charles E. Bishop’s claim as inheritor of the estate and froze the $3 million account.

Now, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a non-governmental agency that oversees investment companies, has charged Bishop, of Pompano Beach, with attempting to misappropriate the money when he was a broker with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. in Fort Lauderdale.

“Bishop deceived the customer into believing that the money in her account would be transferred, after her death, to a company that she created to care for her prized show dogs,” say FINRA records. “Bishop’s scheme was foiled when a probate court refused to permit the transfer.”

A hearing on the regulatory complaint is set for Sept. 10, according to Bishop. If found guilty, he could be expelled from the securities industry and have to pay hefty fine. He could also face criminal charges if an adverse ruling is forwarded to prosecutors.

Bishop said he is innocent. “I’ve been trying to get a hearing for three years,” he said. “These are unsubstantiated allegations, they are very distorted.”

He declined further comment.

ELDERLY COUPLE AND PRIZED POOCHES

According to the FINRA complaint, in 2005 Bishop began handling the investments of Fort Lauderdale residents Stephen and Elizabeth Lupe, an elderly, childless couple.

Elizabeth Lupe had a passion for her four purebred Bouvier dogs, which regularly competed on the dog show circuit.

To ensure the dogs a comfortable life after the couple’s deaths, in2006 Elizabeth formed Dancing Bear Kennel, which would receive the family’s assets. According to FINRA, Bishop handled the paperwork for the corporation and its account.

Stephen Lupe, 77, died January 5, 2009, as his wife’s health was failing from a terminal illness.

Elizabeth Lupe “did not wish to leave her money to Bishop,” says FINRA’s complaint. Still, on Feb. 9 she signed a pair of Merrill Lynch documents that appear to have set Bishop up to inherit her $3.2 million brokerage account.

A Merrill Lynch “client relationship agreement,” restated Dancing Bear Kennel as her beneficiary, but listed the company’s federal tax identification number as “applied for” when, in fact, it already had a tax number. A separate “transfer on death form,” providing for an immediate transfer of assets upon her death, named as beneficiary an entity with a slightly different name, Dancing Bear Kennel I.

Elizabeth Lupe’s signature is on the transfer form, but she “was not present before the notary when the signature was notarized,” the complaint says.

IRS records list Bishop as the “sole member” of Dancing Bear Kennel I, according to the complaint. The entity was issued a federal tax number, but was never incorporated as a business. Nevertheless, state records show that on Feb. 11 Bishop incorporated yet another similarly named entity, Dancing Bear Dog Kennel LLC, listing himself as sole managing member.

A DOCUMENT IS ALTERED

On Feb. 19, three days before Elizabeth Lupe’s death and 10 days after she executed the client relationship agreement naming Dancing Bear Kennel as her beneficiary, the agreement was “altered,” the complaint says.

The words “applied for” were removed and the new tax identification number for Bishop’s new entity, Dancing Bear Kennel I, was added, the complaint says. Lupe did not acknowledge the change with her initials.

“Bishop’s actions assured that the paperwork at his firm made him the inheritor of (Lupe’s) Merrill Lynch brokerage account outside the probate process. He did this just after her husband died, and a few days before (her) own death,” the complaint says.

Broward Probate Judge Speiser was assigned the case.

One of the judge’s first actions was to freeze all accounts at the urging of Elizabeth Lupe’s close friend Irene Roussos, who feared she may have been taken advantage of and that the estate would be bled dry.

Records show that two days after the accounts were frozen, Bishop hired Miami attorney Richard C. Milstein, who filed a notice that his client was an interested party and claimant to the Lupe estate.

Court-appointed Estate curator Laurence Blair, an attorney who specializes in wills, trusts and estates, and his Deerfield Beach attorney Marc J. Gold took on the case. In early March, Gold researched whether “a person who is licensed to sell securities can be a beneficiary of a client’s account, which he opens up in the client’s name,” according to the court documents. The pair also reviewed documents for Dancing Bear Kennel.

Speiser threw out Bishop’s claim and ordered the money transferred to Blair’s care. The show dogs, Hot Shot, Party Girl, Lulu and Hoorah, were placed in adoptive homes and the $3.2 million divided among Elizabeth Lupe’s cousins.

Charles Bishop's waterfront home in Pompano Beach

Bishop says he did nothing wrong because he never received his client’s inheritance money.

But records show that Merrill Lynch fired him in April 2009 for violating company policies regarding his attempt to inherit assets from the account of a deceased client. In January 2011, an arbitrator found Bishop liable for breach contract with the company and ordered him to refund nearly $1 million of his sign-on bonus, plus interest and attorney’s fees.

Bishop filed for bankruptcy a month later and those debts, and others, were discharged in December.

DOGGED BY COMPLAINTS

Bishop has made his living managing client investment accounts.

In all, 11 complaints have been filed against Bishop with FINRA, three of which are still pending.

Currently he is an independent financial contractor at National Asset Management in Boca Raton – a firm not regulated by FINRA. Bishop says he makes $15,000 a month.

Florida’s Office of Financial Regulation investigated Bishop when he applied to be a registered agent with National Asset Management, but approved him on the condition the firm place him under “strict supervision.”

Bishop worked for Morgan Stanley in Fort Lauderdale from 1998 to 2008. While there, he was accused of misrepresentation in a bond purchase. A claimant was awarded $40,000 plus interest.

Bishop then went to work for Merrill Lynch after getting a nearly $1 million sign-on bonus, court records say.

He apparently did well.

According to records filed during a Broward divorce proceeding filed in 2008, Bishop had two kids in private schools, an expensive water-front home in Pompano Beach, two rental properties in Fort Lauderdale, two boats, a condo in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and was the half-owner of another condo in the Florida Keys. His annual income was upwards of $300,000.

But Judge Alfred J. Horowitz noted that Bishop had improperly bought one of the Fort Lauderdale rental properties with a client, a professional conflict of interest. To hide the conflict, the judge said, Bishop put his wife’s name on the deed.

In another instance, the judge wrote, Bishop “recommended to his clients to buy [Myrtle Beach condos in the same development as his] so that he could get a discount on his unit.”

Bishop, said Horowitz, “is motivated by his self dealing sometimes on the back of his clients.”


Graham: FBI’s public statements are in conflict with still secret records of Sarasota 9/11 probe

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers

Former Senator Bob Graham

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham has seen two classified FBI documents that he says raise new questions about the Bureau’s once secret investigation of a possible Saudi support operation for the 9/11 hijackers in Sarasota.

Graham would not disclose the content of the documents, which are marked “Secret,” but said the information they contain is at odds with the FBI’s public statements that there was no connection between the hijackers and Saudis then living in Sarasota.

“There are significant inconsistencies between the public statements of the FBI in September and what I read in the classified documents,” Graham said.

“One document adds to the evidence that the investigation was not the robust inquiry claimed by the FBI,” Graham said. “An important investigative lead was not pursued and unsubstantiated statements were accepted as truth.”

Whether the 9/11 hijackers acted alone, or whether they had support within the U.S., remains an unanswered question – one that began to be asked as soon as it became known that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. It was underlined when Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry, which Democrat Graham co-chaired, released its public report in July 2003. The final 28 pages, regarding possible foreign support for the terrorists, were censored in their entirety—on President George W. Bush’s instructions.

Graham said the two classified FBI documents that he saw, dated 2002 and 2003, were prepared by an agent who had participated in the Sarasota investigation. He said the agent suggested that another federal agency be asked to join the investigation, but that the idea was “rejected.”

Graham attempted in recent weeks to contact the agent, only to find the man had been instructed by FBI headquarters not to talk.

LICENSE PLATES TIED TO HIJACKERS

The FBI-led investigation a decade ago focused on Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his wife, Anoud, who moved out of their home in the upscale, gated community of Prestancia and left the country in the weeks before 9/11. The couple, who had lived there since about 1995, left behind three cars and numerous personal belongings such as furnishings, clothes, medicine and food, according to law enforcement records. A concerned neighbor contacted the FBI.

Analysis of Prestancia gatehouse visitor logs and photographs of license tags showed that vehicles driven by several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home at 4224 Escondito Circle, according to a counterterrorism officer – speaking on condition of anonymity – and former Prestancia administrator Larry Berberich.

The home was owned by Mrs. Al-Hijji’s father, Esam Ghazzawi, an adviser to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd and a noted racehorse owner. Prince Fahd died in July 2001.

Al-Hijji, who now lives and works in London, this month called 9/11 “a crime against the USA and all humankind” and said he was “saddened and oppressed by these false allegations.” He also said it was “not true” that Mohamed Atta and other 9/11 hijackers visited him at his Sarasota home.

The FBI backs up al-Hijji. After initially declining to comment, the Bureau confirmed that it did investigate but said it found nothing sinister. Agents, however, have refused to answer reporters’ specific questions about its investigation or its findings about the Prestancia gate records.

The FBI reiterated its position in a February 7 letter that denied a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records from its Sarasota probe. The denial said their release “could constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“At no time during the course of its investigation of the attacks, known as the PENTTBOM investigation, did the FBI develop credible evidence that connected the address at 4224 Escondito Circle, Sarasota, Florida to any of the 9/11 hijackers,” wrote records section chief David M. Hardy.

Wissam Hammoud

Newly released Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents, however, state that an informant told the FBI in 2004 that al-Hijji had considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers. The informant, Wissam Hammoud, also said al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah, the ex-Broward resident and suspected al Qaeda operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

In 2003, the FBI asked Sarasota lawyer Scott McKay, who was involved in the sale of the property, to convince al-Hijji’s father-in-law, Ghazzawi, to return to the U.S. to sign documents. The ploy, intended to get Ghazzawi back for questioning, failed when Ghazzawi instead signed the sale documents at the American consulate in Beirut.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hijji had been on a watch list at the FBI. The agent believed that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds had been interested in both men even before 9/11.

The FBI interviewed Al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and her American-born mother, Deborah Ghazzawi, when they returned to Sarasota briefly in 2003. The women denied involvement with the 9/11 terrorists, and said the couple’s 2001 return flights to Saudi Arabia had been booked well in advance.

Al-Hijji told London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, that he returned to the U.S. for two months in 2005 to study in Houston, but was not questioned by the FBI. Asked why federal agents had questioned his wife and mother-in-law, he said he had “no idea.”

GRAHAM ASKS FOR HELP

Last September, FBI spokesmen also disputed Graham’s assertion that Congress was never told about the Sarasota investigation.

That prompted Graham to ask the FBI for assistance in locating in the National Archives the Sarasota-related files that were allegedly turned over to Congress. Instead, after what Graham said were two months in which the FBI was “either unwilling or unable” to help find the records, the Bureau suddenly turned over two documents to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Graham once headed and where he still has access. It is those documents that Graham has said are inconsistent with the FBI denials.

Graham shared this development with the Obama White House, which responded by setting up a meeting between Graham and FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce. Joyce told Graham he “didn’t want to talk” about the Sarasota episode. Graham was assured, however, that he would shortly be shown material that supported the FBI’s denials, and a further meeting was arranged with an FBI aide.

In December, Graham said, the scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled and he was told he would be allowed no further access to FBI information about Sarasota.

9/11 Commission co-chairs Lee Hamilton (left)and Thomas Kean

Graham said the Joint Inquiry was not the only national investigative body kept in the dark about Sarasota. He said the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Republican Thomas Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, have told him they also were unaware of it.

Kean, a former New Jersey governor, told Graham the Commission would have “worked it hard,” because the hypothesis that the hijackers completed the planning alone was “implausible.”

Kean did not return several phone messages seeking comment. But Hamilton, a former Indiana congressman, confirmed this month that he learned nothing about the Sarasota matter while serving as vice-chair of the 9/11 Commission.

Graham sees the information now emerging about Sarasota as ominously similar to discoveries his Inquiry made in California. Leads there indicated that the first two hijackers to reach the U.S., Saudis Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, received help first from a diplomat at the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and then from another Saudi, one of whom helped Mihdhar and Hazmi find an apartment. Multiple sources told investigators they believed the latter helpful Saudi had been a Saudi government agent.

Later, when 9/11 Commission staff gained limited access to these individuals in Saudi Arabia, the aides’ reaction was caustic. One memo described the testimony of one of them as “deceptive…inconsistent…implausible.” The testimony of another displayed an “utter lack of credibility.”

TWO HIJACKERS LIVED WITH FBI INFORMANT

Graham is troubled by what he sees as FBI headquarters’ persistent apparent effort to conceal information, including the fact that Mihdhar and Hazmi lived for months in California in the home of a paid FBI informant. Even when that emerged, the FBI denied his Inquiry access to the informant. Graham wonders if that was merely because of the Bureau’s embarrassment, or because the informant knew something that “would be even more damaging were it revealed.”

The newly surfaced FDLE documents containing Hammoud’s troubling 2004 information about al-Hijji have reinforced Graham’s concerns because they conflict with the FBI’s public statements.

Hammoud’s statement that al-Hijji introduced him to Broward’s own Saudi terror suspect, Shukrijumah, is consistent with the report that Prestancia gate logs showed Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji house – and buttresses longstanding official suspicion that he was linked to the hijackers. When Mohamed Atta visited a federal immigration office in Miami to discuss a visa problem in May 2001, a 9/11 Commission footnote reports, a man who closely resembled Shukrijumah accompanied him.

Graham sees what he believes to be the suppression of evidence pointing to Saudi support for the 9/11 hijackers as arising from the perceived advantages to the West, at the time and now, of keeping Saudi Arabia happy.

In late December, the U.S. announced a new $30 billion defense deal with the Saudis.

“This agreement serves to reinforce the strong enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro. “It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security.”

Graham said he was taken aback by that announcement.

“I think that in the period immediately after 9/11 the FBI was under instructions from the Bush White House not to discuss anything that could be embarrassing to the Saudis,” he said. “It is more inexplicable why the Obama administration has been reticent to pursue the question of Saudi involvement. For both administrations, there was and continues to be an obligation to inform the American people through truthful information.”

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

FBI informant says Sarasota Saudi praised bin Laden; knew Broward Qaeda suspect

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers 

A Saudi man who triggered an FBI investigation after he and his family abruptly exited their Sarasota area home and left the country two weeks before 9/11 considered Osama bin Laden a “hero” and may have known some of the hijackers, an informant told the FBI in 2004.

The informant also told authorities that Abdulazziz al-Hijji once introduced him to Adnan El Shukrijumah — the former Miramar resident and suspected al Qaeda leader who today has a $5 million bounty on his head.

The FBI and the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Wissam Taysir Hammoud at the Hillsborough County Jail on April 7, 2004. Broward Bulldog obtained Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports about the interview and the investigation using the state’s public records law.

Hammoud, 46, who once owned a cell phone business in Sarasota, is serving 21 years in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 in federal court in Tampa to weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in an earlier case against him. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons classifies him as an “International Terrorist Associate,” court records show.

Hammoud reaffirmed his previous statements about al-Hijji to the FBI in recent interviews.

Al-Hijj’s name made headlines in September when Broward Bulldog and The Miami Herald reported on a counterterrorism source’s disclosure of a previously unknown FBI-led probe that followed the attacks on New York and Washington — one that pointed to a possible Saudi support operation for the hijackers in Florida.

A decade after the nation’s worst terrorist attack, which claimed the lives of 3,000 people, al-Hijji has now been found to be living in London where he works for Aramco Overseas, the European subsidiary of Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s state oil company. His job title is career counselor.

Al-HIJJI RESPONDS

In an email to London’s Daily Telegraph, which worked the story with Broward Bulldog, al-Hijji acknowledged Hammoud had been his friend, but strongly denied any involvement in the 9/11 plot.

“I have neither relation nor association with any of those bad people/criminals and the awful crime they did. 9/11 is a crime against the USA and all humankind and I’m very saddened and oppressed by these false allegations,” al-Hijji said. “I love the USA, my kids were born there, I went to college and university there, I spent a good time of my life there and I love it.”

Al-Hijji’s account is supported by the FBI, which has stated: “At no time did the FBI develop evidence that connected the family members to any of the 9/11 hijackers…and there was no connection to the 9/11 plot.”

In a brief interview outside his office, Al-Hijji also said he did not know Shukrijumah. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” he said.

While living in Florida, al-Hijji attended Manatee Community College (now the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota) and, from January 2000 until April 2001, the University of South Florida. He earned a bachelor’s degree with a major in management information systems awarded in August 2001.

In the weeks before 9/11, al-Hijji — then 27 — and his wife Anoud, daughter of an adviser to a member of the Saudi royal family, departed their home at 4224 Escondito Circle in the upscale gated community of Prestancia and returned to Saudi Arabia They left behind three cars and “numerous personal belongings including food, medicine, bills, baby clothing, etc,” according to the FDLE documents which state the family departed on Aug. 27, 2001.

Abdulazziz al-Hijji in a photo taken when he lived in Sarasota

Al-Hijji denied having abandoned his home in haste, explaining: “No, no, no. Absolutely not true. We were trying to secure the [Aramco] job. It was a good opportunity.” He said his wife and children followed him out to Saudi Arabia a few weeks after he left Sarasota.

An alarmed neighbor contacted the FBI. When several weeks passed without action, Prestanica resident and administrator Larry Berberich alerted local law enforcement. Authorities, including the FBI, moved in.

The investigation led to a stunning development, according to Berberich and a counterterrorism officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The car registration numbers of vehicles that had passed through the Prestancia community’s North Gate in the months before 9/11, coupled with the identification documents shown by incoming drivers on request, showed that Mohamed Atta and several of his fellow hijackers – and another Saudi terror suspect still at large – had visited 4224 Escondito Circle on multiple occasions,” the source said.

The others included Marwan al-Shehhi, who plowed a United Airlines jet into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Ziad Jarrah, who crashed another United jet into a Pennsylvania field and Walid al-Shehri, who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center. Also identified as having visited: Saudi-born fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah.

The source said law enforcement “also conducted a link analysis that tracked phone calls – based on dates, times, and length of phone conversations to and from the Escondito house – dating back more than a year before 9/11. And the phone traffic also connected with the 9/11 terrorists – though less directly than the gate logs did.”

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who co-chaired Congress’s bipartisan Joint Inquiry into the 2001 terrorist attacks, called news of the Sarasota investigation the “most important” development on the background to the 9/11 plot in years. He added that Congress should have been told about it.

Soon after the story broke, however, the FBI poured cold water on it. It acknowledged that there had been an investigation, but said it found no connection to the 9/11 plot. It declined to explain.

The FBI reiterated that position in a letter this month denying a Freedom of Information Act request for records of its investigation.

The FDLE records suggest such a finding may have been wrong. For example, one report that recounts what Hammoud said during the 2004 interview states, “The following information, in particular the information by Wissam Hammoud, is being followed up on internationally.”

DETAILS FROM FDLE REPORT  

The FDLE reports buttress key elements of the story, while providing new details:

Hammoud, who said he met al-Hijji through relatives, said the two men worked out together at Shapes Fitness in Sarasota and played soccer at the local Islamic Society. He told the FBI Al-Hijji was “very well schooled in Islam” and that “Osama bin Laden was a hero of al-Hijji.” He added that Al-Hijji showed him a “website containing information about bin Laden,” and spoke of “going to Afghanistan and becoming a freedom fighter.” Al-Hijji also tried to recruit him, Hammoud said.

According to Hammoud, al-Hijji also talked of “taking flight training in Venice.” He said he believed “al-Hijji had known some of the terrorists from the September 11, 2001 attacks” who were students at an airport there.

Hammoud said al-Hijji “entertained Saudis at his residence” at “parties” that he himself did not stay for because – unlike al-Hijji as he remembered him – he “did not drink or smoke cannabis.” One Saudi Hammoud identified as an al-Hijji “friend” he brought to a soccer game at the Sarasota mosque in 2000 or 2001 was Shukrijumah.

Hammoud’s wife and sister-in-law confirmed during recent interviews that they too knew the al-Hijjis and are familiar with elements of Hammoud’s account. Mrs. Hammoud, who asked that her full name not be used, got the impression from comments al-Hijji made that he was “anti-American.” Hammoud himself, speaking from prison in recent days, said al-Hijji “had a lot of hatred towards everyone in America.” He said he had thought al-Hijji “nuts” when he asked him to go fight in Afghanistan.

Al-Hijji, while confirming he used to work out with Hammoud, described his life in Sarasota as quiet, centered on his wife and children.

“My friends were very limited,” he explained. “Normally, I don’t hold parties in the house because I have little kids. I was not a frequent to any bars.”

HAMMOUD SEEN AS TERRORIST ASSOCIATE 

Prison officials have put Hammoud under heightened security measures due to his classification as a terrorist associate. Court records state the classification is based on what authorities said was Hammoud’s “support and membership” in a “Palestinian-related terrorist organization.”

Hammoud denies involvement with the group and has sought – so far unsuccessfully – a court order to overturn that classification. While representing himself, he filed documents that reveal a history of mental problems caused by a serious brain injury he suffered in a car accident in 1990.

After Hammoud’s first conviction in 2002 for selling illegal weapons to an undercover federal agent, an FBI agent wrote: “Hammoud is now claiming diminished capacity because of an auto accident in an effort to be sentenced to less time…There is speculation on the part of law enforcement that this was merely an attempt to gain sympathy from the sentencing judge…”

Hammoud was found to be competent by a judge before he was allowed to plead guilty to more serious charges arising from his 2004 arrest. The guilty plea and sentence were later upheld on appeal.

Hammoud’s lawyer, Matthew Farmer, would not comment. But his appellate attorney, Tampa’s Bruce Howie, remembers his former client as “not delusional or wacky…I think he has his share of paranoia. But he’s not a liar. He didn’t make it up as he went along.”

For his part, Hammoud has named several FBI agents that he claims to have dealt with while attempting to assist the government in its fight against terrorism. One was Miami Special Agent Kevin Griffin, best known locally for undercover work that put former Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in prison in 2010.

Hammoud’s current attorney, Detroit’s Sanford Schulman, said FBI agents have met with Hammoud on multiple occasions.

“There have been about 10 different agents, and that’s just the ones that I’ve been involved with. They were not two minute meetings either,” said Schulman, who did not attend but was notified of the meetings.

Hammoud may have known more than is revealed in the new FDLE documents.  A Sarasota Herald-Tribune story about him based on an FBI agent’s affidavit filed at the time of Hammoud’s arrest in January 2004 has this ominous reference:

“In September 2001, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement interviewed Hammoud because someone had anonymously called saying Hammoud had made a comment that the Oklahoma bombing was going to be small compared with what was coming.”

In a recent email, Hammoud denied having made such a remark.

Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers is the co-author of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden” published by Ballantine Books.

Oakland Park mayor asks for investigation into officials crafting no-bid, billion-dollar trash deal

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Oakland Park Mayor Susanne Boisvenue, left and Broward Commissioner Ilene Lieberman

The Inspector General’s Office has been asked to investigate whether members of the county’s Resource Recovery Board have violated Broward’s tough new ethics code.

Oakland Park Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue, who quit the board in December, made the request late last month in an email obtained by Broward Bulldog.

Her concern: board members may be violating strict new rules that prohibit elected officials from interfering in how contractors are selected.

The board, known as the RRB, is the governing body of Broward’s Solid Waste Disposal District. Its members include nine elected commissioners and mayors from municipalities across the county, including Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman who serves as chair.

The possible interference involves who will get the billion-dollar job of disposing of much of Broward’s trash. The decision will affect how much homeowners and businesses pay for that service for years to come.

For the past three decades, trash giant Waste Management has had a lock on disposing of municipal trash that’s hauled to two Broward waste-to-energy incinerators. Both incinerators are owned and operated by Waste Management subsidiary, Wheelabrator Technologies.

But lately, an aggressive competitor whose public face is the politically influential west Broward landowner Ron Bergeron, threatens that monopoly.

Bergeron is pursing the contract in a partnership with Lantana-based Sun Recycling.

CONTRACT STEERING?

Boisvenue said she resigned from the RRB because of her concerns about the board’s repeated evaluations of various bid proposals, and plans to make a recommendation to the county commission. She believes the board, led by Lieberman, is trying to steer the contract to Waste Management.

“That’s exactly what I think,” the mayor said in an interview this week. “I think it crosses the line.”

Her email to Inspector General John Scott asks whether “the advisory RRB to the county should be involved in reviewing bids in any way.”

“I request that you investigate the matter,” she said.

Scott would not comment.

“We don’t confirm or deny whether we are investigating,” Scott said.

Broward’s ethics code says, “It shall be a conflict of interest for any elected official to serve as a voting member of a selection/evaluation committee in connection with any prospective procurement by the elected official’s governmental entity.”

Elected officials cannot serve on selection committees, nor can they “participate or interfere in any manner” at committee meetings. They can ask questions and express concerns only after the selection process is completed.

The new code took effect Jan. 2 for city officials. For county commissioners, it took effect when it was enacted in August.

While the RRB is not a selection committee, its voting members serve in a similar advisory capacity to the county commission. As elected officials in their own right, they would also be eligible to vote in their hometowns on any deal that might emerge through the RRB.

Since September, the RRB has discussed and rejected plans to issue its own request for proposals and advanced the idea of awarding a no-bid contract with Wheelabrator.

A DEAL IN THE WORKS

City managers from several RRB-member cities have been negotiating a deal directly with Wheelabrator, in meetings closed to both the public and disposal competitor Sun Bergeron.

The RRB heard an update on those negotiations Jan. 19 from Weston City Manager John Flint. He said cost has yet to be worked out, but the framework would be a five-year deal with options.

Broward Bulldog reported last week that after Flint appeared before the RRB, Broward Commissioner Lieberman said that she will shortly bring to the full county commission the concept of a new no-bid Wheelabrator deal, but no firm agreement.

On Monday, via email, Lieberman called Boisvenue’s assertion of contract-steering “preposterous.”

“No one…is trying to steer anything to Wheelabrator and the correct chronology of events and what ..the RRB (has) determined have been explained to Mayor Boisvenue many times. However, she seems incapable of understanding these important details,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said, too, that Boisvenue was “misinterpreting the county’s ethics ordinance.” As proof, she cited a three-page legal opinion dated Feb. 6 by RRB lawyer Eugene Steinfeld. The opinion was written in response to a Jan. 25 inquiry from Oakland Park Assistant City Manager Horace McHugh.

Steinfeld acknowledged that the RRB “is expected to consider matters of vendor selection” and “may be considering the award of a contract.” Nevertheless, he wrote, “I believe this would not be in violation of the county’s new ethics code ordinance.”

The RRB’s current push for a no-bid contract resurrects a scenario that county commissioners rejected in December 2010 after cities objected that disposal rates the board had negotiated were too high. That proposal called for a 10-year, $1.5 billion no-bid deal with Wheelabrator.

Outrage about how the RRB pushed that deal led the Miramar City Commission to go out for bids on their own. The prices it received through competitive bidding were significantly less than those contained in the initial Wheelabrator proposal.

But Miramar has yet to actually award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on, and no date has been set to do so. That that has created uncertainty that’s allowed renewed talk of a no-bid deal for Wheelabrator.

Reporter Buddy Nevins contributed to this report

Broward’s main trash hauler under investigation in Palm Beach for cheating on contract

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

The mammoth international waste company fighting to retain its near-monopoly on Broward County’s trash disposal business is under investigation for cheating Palm Beach County out of more than $700,000.

Waste Management is accused of dumping garbage in Broward, which deprived Palm Beach of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

A company official said the allegations involved a tiny fraction of the garbage that Waste Management handled and said it was the result of unintentional errors.

At the same time Waste Management’s hauling operation has been battling allegations of fraud in Palm Beach, it has been negotiating through its subsidiary Wheelabrator Technologies for a no-bid disposal deal in Broward.

The biggest portion of Waste Management’s business in Broward is garbage disposal for 26 of the county’s 31 municipalities.

Handling waste is divided into two separate jobs, both done by separate arms of Waste Management. There is hauling, or picking up garbage usually under a franchise agreement with a local government. And there is disposal, the site where garbage is taken by a hauler to burn or bury in a landfill. Hauling and disposal are generally added together and billed homes and businesses as one amount.

AN ENORMOUS DEAL

Broward’s long-term contract represents more than a $1 billion deal for Wheelabrator.

The company has had a lock on this waste disposal for more than 20 years and is seeking to use no-bid negotiations to extend it through at least the end of the decade. Other waste firms are lobbying Broward officials to allow bids for waste disposal, arguing that competition can bring lower prices for homes and businesses.

While the jockeying continued in Broward, Palm Beach Commissioners this week rejected a $719,000 settlement agreement with Waste Management. Palm Beach Commissioners instead ordered the violations investigated by the county’s inspector general.  The inspector general is expected to determine if the problem is bigger than auditors uncovered.

Commissioner Burt Aaronson noted that an independent audit only covered the period from Oct. 1, 2008 to April 30, 2011.  The same study found indications that waste from Southern Palm Beach and Boca Raton had been diverted as early as 2004.

“It may just be the tip of the iceberg,” Aaronson said.

Criminal fraud, which the inspector general could refer to law enforcement authorities, is not suspected, according to Charles Maccarrone, the chief financial officer for Palm Beach’s Solid Waste Authority.

Under its franchise agreement, Waste Management must haul “all” waste to a processing and disposal facility where the county can receive a $42-per-ton fee.  When the waste is hauled by Waste Management to its Broward facilities in violation of the contract, Palm Beach received nothing and the company saves the $42-per-ton.

HOW THE FRAUD WAS FOUND

The fraud was discovered during a routine review by the Palm Beach waste authority’s staff of a Boca Raton commercial waste customer’s accounts. Trying to determine whether the customer could benefit from recycling, staffers “learned that their contract waste hauler, Waste Management, was diverting some of its (municipal solid waste) to facilities owned by (Waste Management) in Broward County,” according to an authority memo prepared last month.

The memo was made public at a waste authority meeting this week.  At the meeting, Waste Management was excoriated by members of the public. Delray Beach resident Kenneth MacNamee charged that Waste Management had a “deliberate and concerted plan” to cheat the county government.

A Waste Management spokeswoman bristled.

“The allegations thrown out by a few members of the community were clearly baseless,” said Dawn McCormick of Waste Management.

An independent forensic auditor found that 8,440 tons of waste had been diverted to Waste Management’s Broward disposal sites during a 31-month period surveyed. “It was only .6 percent of the waste we handle.  Therefore we correctly delivered 99.4 percent of material collected to SWA (Solid Waste Authority) facilities,” McCormick said.

McCormick said the “unintentional” errors mostly occurred on Sunday when the Palm Beach facilities were closed.  Some Waste Management commercial customers, such as restaurants, demanded a pickup Sunday and there was no place but Broward to dispose of the garbage.

McCormick said Waste Management would work diligently with the inspector general to “put this matter behind us.”

BIG $ FOR YOUR GARBAGE

Designating where garbage is disposed, is a highly lucrative clause written into each city’s contract with waste haulers.  By controlling where garbage is disposed, governments can tack a high fee to the disposal cost.

Courts have repeatedly upheld government’s authority over where garbage is disposed. Still, “we’ve had problems with enforcing it,” conceded Ron Greenstein, executive director of Broward’s Resource Recovery Board.

County inspectors frequently check disposal sites to insure they are not handling waste that is supposed to go to the county facilities operated by Wheelabrator.

Haulers who violate their franchise agreement over disposal locations either promise to stop, pay a fine or end up in court.

But in the case of Waste Management, the disposal issue hasn’t been an issue in Broward.

In Broward County, Waste Management’s subsidiary Wheelabrator owns the two biggest garbage disposal facilities. Through Broward’s Resource Recovery Board, the company has had a disposal contract with 26 of the county’s 31 cities since the late 1980s. It is currently negotiating behind closed doors to renew its current contract, which expires in the summer of 2013.

Waste Management owns the disposal sites, so there has never been a problem of the company shipping its trash to other facilities to avoid paying the county fees like it has with other firms, Greenstein said.

Because of those reasons, Greenstein believes that the allegations against Waste Management in Palm Beach should not affect the disposal negotiations in Broward.

 

Sweet deal for owners of Hallandale newspaper that features mayor as columnist

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper's newspaper column

A weekly newspaper in Hallandale Beach got a $50,000 city “loan” under terms so favorable that half of it – $25,000 – amounted to a taxpayer giveaway because the city did not require it to be repaid.

The for-profit South Florida Sun Times obtained the loan even though the paper’s two top executives reported incomes averaging more than $200,000 each for two years prior to receiving the city loan in 2009.

The Sun Times also benefited in recent years from an increase in city spending on advertising. The city’s no-bid ad purchases and loan averaged $65,000 annually during the past three years.

Throughout that time, and currently, the weekly Sun Times has featured Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper as a  prominent columnist, with a link to her writings about city issues on the front page of the paper’s web site.

The newspaper, which often writes upbeat stories about advertisers, circulates in Dania Beach, Hollywood and Pembroke Pines south to North Miami and Surfside. Cooper, who is not paid, is the only elected official listed on the paper’s site as having a regular column.

The paper’s arrangement with Mayor Cooper is under fire.

“How can you be independent if you are dependent on the city?” said community activist Csaba Kulin. He criticized the Sun Times for neglecting to print comments from readers in response to stories.

“It’s propaganda for the mayor,” complained City Commissioner Keith London, a rival of the mayor who  has sought unsuccessfully to halt city spending for ads in the Sun Times. “There’s no fact checking and no rebuttal; the city pays a lot of money for a bully pulpit for the mayor.”

Mayor Cooper said she was invited to write for the paper about five years ago. She sees “no conflict” in her writing a regular column and the city’s advertising and loan to the paper. She said she had nothing to do with those deals, adding that they were recommendations of former City Manager Mike Good.

Cooper said, too, that she has not used her column to gain any political advantage.

“I’ve written to inform residents what’s going on,” Cooper said. “I try to make it informative. It’s not always about city business. It’s also been about individuals, about the environment, about veterans. I’m like a reporter. I don’t get paid.”

Cooper also said her columns were not part of the city’s expenditures for advertisements in the newspaper.

The mayor generally writes about community activities, city government operations, and city commission actions from her perspective. There is no mention of oppositional or different viewpoints – if they exist.

TAXPAYER GIVEAWAY

In April 2009, the Sun Times became the first city business to receive a loan under a new program, funded through the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), to retain and to assist firms having financial difficulties. The CRA, a special taxing district that covers most of the city, is controlled by city commissioners and the mayor.

The city’s Business Retention and Expansion Program provided for 50% to 80% forgiveness on loans up to $50,000, with the balance to be repaid at two percent interest over 10 years.

The Sun Times received the maximum loan amount, $50,000, with half of that amount “forgiven” under the program in its loan agreement with the city.

Richard Cannone, who oversaw the CRA as the city’s director of development services, wrote a memo in December 2008 that then city manager Good had approved the $50,000 CRA loan to the Sun Times. In another memo, Cannone stated the funds were “loaned to rescue the newspaper from financial hardship that had befallen their company over the past few years.”

No other CRA loan program has the forgiveness percentage that the Sun Times received under the new program. CRA code compliance loans, allocating up to $100,000, and CRA Business Incentive and Enticement loans, allocating up to $200,000, provide for forgiveness of 15% of loans, with balances to be repaid at four percent interest over 10 years.

Craig Farquhar, president of the South Florida Digest, which publishes the Sun Times, declined to discuss the newspaper’s financial dealings with the city, its editorial policies, or its relationship with the mayor.

“This is old news,” he said. “I have nothing else to say.”

Hallandale Beach took other action beneficial to the Sun Times’ owner.

In 2010, according to CRA records, the city agreed to subordinate its position on the loan balance so the newspaper could refinance a mortgage loan. That meant the city gave up its claim as first in line for repayment in case of a default — putting taxpayer funds at increased risk.

BIG SALARIES AND CITY MONEY

City documents also show that before the loan “rescue the newspaper” was made, its two top executives drew six figure salaries.

Farquhar likewise declined to address the newspaper’s need for the city loan in view of the hefty incomes of he and South Florida Digest Vice President Cecile Hiles.

CRA files contain federal income tax returns showing that South Florida Digest paid salary and wages to Farquhar totaling $259,193 in 2007 and $239,054 in 2008, as well as an additional $41,239 in pension and annuity payouts.  Hiles received $192,052 in 2007 and $229,010 in 2008.

Current CRA Director Alvin Jackson said the wages Farquhar and Hiles were paid would not have disqualified the Sun Times from receiving the $50,000 loan. The information about their incomes was required by the city to determine the newspaper’s ability to pay back the loan, he added.

Jackson said the paper asked for the loan to survive a downturn in the economy. The paper had lost advertising and had cut jobs and reduced benefits, he said.

Hallandale Beach has also come to the rescue of the Sun Times with increased advertising purchases made without competition.

City records show that for the five-year period between 2003 and 2008, the city paid the Sun Times about $32,000 for advertising.

Those numbers jumped the next year, when the city bought about $42,000 in advertising and issued the $50,000 loan . The city bought $52,000 in advertising in 2009-2010, and $53,000 in 2010-201. It has agreed to buy $50,000 in advertising this fiscal year.

The most recent advertising buy was included in the current budget approved by the city commission on Sept. 26, 2011 in a 4-1 vote. Cooper voted yes; London was the lone dissenter.

PURCHASES WITHOUT BIDS

The city advertised in the Sun Times without seeking bids. The mayor said that’s because it was the only local newspaper in the city. City code, she said, provides for giving preference to local businesses and those which are one of a kind. “There is no other provider,” Cooper added.

Because the Sun Times is not a newspaper of general circulation in the county, like the Sun-Sentinel or The Miami Herald, the city has to place its legal notices in other area newspapers.

Cooper has been a strong advocate in the community for the Sun Times. She urged local businesses to advertise in the newspaper in a 2008 letter on city stationery, co-signed by then city manager Good. Today, she says she favors future city support for the only city-based newspaper.

“To the naysayers, it’s not about” the column being used as a political platform, said Cooper. “It’s a service to the community to inform.”

Not everyone sees Cooper’s writing as useful.

“The mayor’s column: I used to read it,” Kulin said. “But it’s one-sided. It’s feel good stories about herself and the city.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Tough new voting restrictions clamp down in Florida; Video of Broward elections chief Snipes

By Amber Statler-Matthews, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward voters who plan to turn out to the polls during the busy 2012 election season better be prepared for changes.

State voter laws approved last year reduce the number of early voting days and locations, make it tougher for organizations to register voters, impose strict identification requirements and make it more difficult for felons to regain the right to vote.

“These laws were designed to further depress elections because legislators want to know ahead of time who will be voting.” said Nova Southeastern University constitutional law Professor Robert Jarvis.

Florida has two elections this year when voters turn out in large numbers – Aug. 14 that features primaries for federal, state and county races and then Nov. 6 when the race for president is decided and turnout is at its peak.

Florida is 1 of 14 states that changed election laws in 2011.

The changes in Florida were approved by a Republican-controlled state Legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott citing worries over election fraud.

“I want people to vote, but I also want to make sure there’s no fraud involved in elections,” said Scott when he signed the voter changes into law. “All of us as individuals that vote want to make sure that our elections are fair and honest.”

Cost savings has also been given as a reason for the new voter laws.

The changes strike hardest at Broward Democrats, who outnumber Republicans 2 to 1 in Florida’s second largest county. Democrats make up a little more than half of Broward’s 1 million voters. Republicans and independents about equally split the balance of county voters.

Democrats turned out in force during the 2008 presidential election to take advantage of early voting, weathering long lines at some voting locations. Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes expects “long lines in November because of fewer early voting days.”

One of the biggest changes is a sharp reduction in the time allowed for early voting, a period cut nearly in half from 14 days to eight. The 2011 restrictions come after 4.3 million Florida residents voted early by absentee ballot or in-person in the 2008 presidential election.

According to a Florida Senate report that analyzed election records, 52 percent of those who voted early were Democrats compared to 37 percent Republicans. In Broward during the 2008 presidential election 55,038 people voted early — 33,751 Democrats, 14,453 Republican and 6,834 third party/independents. A total of 341, 607 Broward residents cast ballots in that election.

The state’s decision to reduce the number of early voting days is at odds with the desire of voters expressed in an online poll taken last spring by the Broward elections office. Just 21 percent of the nearly 400 people who participated said they preferred to cast their ballot on Election Day. Seventy-nine percent said they preferred absentee ballots, or voting in person at early voting locations.

About a quarter of those respondents said they preferred early voting because of convenience. Another 22 percent said “it fit their schedule.” More than 60 percent of the poll takers identified themselves as Democrats, 27 percent were Republicans and the rest independents or third party.

CLOSED SUNDAY

The impact on voting in Florida is similar to other states that have tackled new limits on voters, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

A center study last fall reported, “These new restrictions fall most heavily on young, minority, and low-income voters, as well as on voters with disabilities. This wave of changes may sharply tilt the political terrain for the 2012 presidential election.

One of the biggest changes in Florida potentially affecting minorities eliminates early voting on the last Sunday before an election. In 2008, nearly 54 percent of those early voters were black, one third Hispanic.

According to the NAACP, that year 33 percent of blacks in Florida and nearly 24 percent of Hispanics in the state voted on the last Sunday before the presidential election.

The change will end the “Souls to the Polls” turnout drive used by African American and Latino churches before the 2008 general election, according to the Brennan report. Obama won Florida by about 200,000 votes that year. Many church goers went directly to the polls once the service was over.

President Obama garnered strong support from black voters and also benefited from a change in political allegiances among many Hispanics, according to a 2009 report from Applied Research Center, a racial justice think tank with offices in Chicago, Oakland and New York City.

EASIER TO CHALLENGE ADDRESSES

Voters also face new challenges at the polls if they move outside their precinct and don’t update their voter registration documents.

Previously, voters showing proof that they had moved were allowed to cast their regular ballot. Now those with different addresses will have to cast a provisional ballot that won’t be counted until their new address is confirmed.
Mike Ertel, the Republican elections supervisor in Seminole County, said the hype over provisional ballot equates to “fear-mongering.”

“Requiring provisional ballots for voters who move across county lines is vital to ensure that they vote only once,” Ertel said.

The state’s election clamp down also extends to third party groups who register voters. Statewide trends since 2008 show Hispanics prefer to register as Democrats or independents. In the past three years, 73,000 Hispanics have registered as Democrats and 31,000 registered as Republicans. Another 76,000 registered non-partisan.

Blacks and Hispanics in Florida register to vote through drives twice as often as whites, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Groups that register voters used to have 10 days to handover registration forms to the state elections office. Now they must do so within 48 hours or face penalties and fines up to $1,000.

Concerned about volunteers being subjected to possible fines, the Florida League of Women voters has ended registration drives for the first time in 72 years, according to Deirdre Macnab, president of the organization’s Florida chapter.

Snipes said her office is working to help churches, community leaders and organizations follow the law so they don’t get into trouble.

“The Voter Education Department has added a couple staff members. Their efforts are expanding,” added Snipes.

Snipes said there were a lot of “mom and pop voter drives around town” in 2008, but that she expects fewer will mount such drives this year.

Felons, many for drug-related offenses, also face a harder time regaining the right to vote.

Gov. Scott rolled back lesser restrictions put in place by former Gov. Charlie Crist, and set a 5-year-time limit for felons to regain their rights.

In a report issued by the Brennan Center, the group suggests the 2011 Florida voting laws “made it substantially more difficult or impossible for people with past felony convictions to get their voting rights restored.”

POLITICS OF ELECTORAL CHANGE

Mitch Ceasar, the chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, says the changes in Florida are politically-motivated.

“The Republican Suppression Act is doing a magnificent job to keep voters away,” he said.

State Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said that’s not true.

“The changes are about reducing voter fraud and saving tax dollars,” Curry said.
Professor Jarvis doesn’t buy the Republicans’ argument.

“Voting is where government acts efficiently. We’re talking pennies, slivers of pennies, on what would be saved on elections,” he said.

The Florida League of Women Voters, the Florida Public Interest Research Group and Rock the Vote, a non-profit group that seeks to engage young voters, filed a federal lawsuit in December claiming the state’s new law violates National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Voter Rights Act of 1965.

In October, a Miami federal judge threw out a similar legal challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union saying it lacked standing to sue because it had not been harmed by the new law. Other lawsuits have been filed.

Meanwhile Snipes’ office is caught in the tug-of-war between the parties.
Republicans have accused her of making it more difficult for GOP supporters to vote.

Republicans had been up in arms since November of last year about the decreased number of early voting locations in Broward.

In November, Richard DeNapoli, Broward Republican Executive Committee Chairman Richard DeNapoli fired off a letter to Snipes complaining about a lack of early voting locations in areas represented by Republicans.

After looking into the matter, Snipes recently agreed to reinstate one location, Pompano Beach City Hall, for the Jan. 31 Republican primary.

Reporter Amber Statler-Matthews, who conducted the Snipes interview, can be reached at astatlermatthews@browardbulldog.org

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