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

Broward trash disposal board eyes new no-bid deal with long-time partner Wheelabrator

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

Wheelabrator North plant in Pompano Beach

The bruising battle over which firm can tap into Broward County’s multi-million dollar waste stream is back to where it started: With a no bid deal.

“This is another debacle. In my opinion, such non-competitive arrangements are bad governmental practice,” said Phil Medico, a lawyer with upstart Sun Bergeron, which is seeking to bid competitively for Broward’s waste disposal business.

At stake are the costs of garbage disposal for residents and businesses for years into the future.  Also at stake are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of earnings for companies seeking to dispose of Broward’s trash.

The fight for the lucrative deal has pitted two powerful corporate players – Wheelabrator Technologies, a subsidiary of the sprawling multinational Waste Management disposal titan, and Sun Bergeron, a new creation of the real estate/development/rock pit mogul Ron Bergeron. Both are fielding teams of lobbyists and attorneys.

Wheelabrator has held the current contract for decades.

Homeowners and businesses pay a single fee for two separate parts of garbage removal.  A hauler picks up and delivers trash to a disposal site.  A disposal firm sorts the waste for recyclable material and then buries or burns the remainder.

The current struggle is over the second part of the process – disposal.

A NEW DEAL EMERGES

Wheelabrator doesn’t want to lose its exclusive government contract, or share it.  With its contract expiring next year, the firm fashioned a no-bid deal with County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and the county’s Resource Recovery Board.

But some cities balked. An after ferocious lobbying by Sun Bergeron, Wheelabrator’s $1.5 billion, no-bid contract was rejected by the  county commission a year ago with critics calling the extension a bad deal.

A new version of the no-bid Wheelabrator deal surfaced last month at the Resource Recovery Board. Called the RRB in the industry, the board is a group of city and county officials whose job is to find a regional solution for waste disposal. The idea: to develop an alternative in case a plan by Miramar to put a bid out for disposal services – a bid other cities could use – faltered.

The new deal discussed at the RRB is being negotiated between Wheelabrator and a handful of city managers led by Weston’s John Flint. The talks between Wheelabrator and the managers have been going on quietly for a year.

Those meetings are closed to the public, and to Sun Bergeron. A Sun Bergeron representative who tried to attend was turned away.  Although the talks are being held in private, any agreement will have to be ratified by commissioners of various cities at public meetings, said Flint.

Flint told the RRB that the city managers are discussing a five-year deal starting next year with options beyond that date. He conceded the group still has to work out the cost.

Whatever the eventual agreement on price, Sun Bergeron says lower prices can always  be obtained through a competitive process.

For proof, Sun Bergeron points to Miramar. Miramar City Commissioners were so upset with the no-bid deal that the county was pushing last year that officials went out to bid on their own.  The prices it received through competitive bidding were roughly half those contained in the initial Wheelabrator proposal.

Medico, which won the bidding, said Miramar’s experience proved what should be done for the entire county – competitive bidding for disposal.

“The beneficiaries are the residents,” he said.

Still, Miramar has yet to actually award a contract that other cities might want to piggyback on. And that has created uncertainty that’s offering new hope for a deal to Wheelabrator.

“The question is what’s Miramar going to do, and when are they going to do it?” said an official at another city.

LEAVING WELL ENOUGH ALONE

Wheelabrator’s supporters say the firm has done a superb job since the 1980s disposing of millions of tons of garbage from 26 of the county’s 31 cities.

“If it’s not broke don’t fix it,” said Beam Furr, a Hollywood city commissioner and member of the Resource Recovery Board.

Other officials say that Sun Bergeron is untested and they doubt it can deliver cheaper rates, despite winning the Miramar bidding that featured rates at $9.25-per-ton less than Wheelabrator.  They point out that Sun Bergeron owns no landfills or waste-to-energy plants in Broward and will have to ship garbage a longer distance. Wheelabrator owns two local processing facilities– one along Florida’s Turnpike in North Broward and the other just south of Interstate 595 on U. S. 441.

Flint said the safety of signing with Wheelabrator is one reason he is negotiating an agreement with just that firm.

“The agreement eliminates risk” by tightening the agreement to protect the cities, Flint said.

Backers of Wheelabrator said they preferred a firm with a proven track record instead of a newcomer like Sun Bergeron.

Medico bristled when asked about accusations that Sun Bergeron’s competency was being questioned.

Southern Waste Systems, Bergeron’s partner in Broward disposal, has dozens of municipal and industrial clients including Fisher Island in Miami-Dade County, where the waste must be barged to the Port of Miami, shipped to Broward for recycling and what’s left sent to a landfill in another part of the state.  “This is a walk in the park compared to that,” he said.

Bergeron picks up hurricane debris in dozens of cities and counties, plus is rebuilding Interstate 595. “Do you really think that the guy who coordinates hundreds of different tasks to build 595 can’t dispose of waste? Ridiculous,” said Aleida “Ali” Waldman, Bergeron’s general counsel.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick towards the end of Wheelabrator’s current 20-year contract, which expires in the summer of 2013.  The company is pushing hard for the no-bid renewal.

“Due to our experience, expertise, and 20-year record of success, we believe Wheelabrator can provide the cities the most economical and environmentally sound waste disposal agreement,” William Roberts, Wheelabrator’s vice president of operations wrote in a letter distributed at the RRB.

But when questioned at the meeting by Lieberman to discuss just how economical Wheelabrator was willing to be, Roberts said he wasn’t authorized to publicly talk about prices.

Lieberman isn’t waiting. She will shortly bring to the county commission the general concept of a new no-bid Wheelabrator deal, but no firm agreement.

The outline of Flint and the city manager’s no-bid agreement with Wheelabrator will be made public in February or March.

And Sun Bergeron will continue to push for competitive bidding everywhere.

State ethics board finds it likely that ex-Broward Health commissioner broke law; does nothing

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Joseph Cobo

The Florida ethics commission has found probable cause to believe that Fort Lauderdale consultant Joseph Cobo had business conflicts that “interfered with his public duties” as a North Broward Hospital District commissioner.

But over the objections of a Broward corruption prosecutor, the ethics commission decided to do nothing about it and close Cobo’s case.

Cobo, accused of exploiting his public position for private gain, owns and operates Florida Medical Management Consultants, which provides management and financial services to doctors. He stepped down from the district’s board when his term expired in September.

In a signed settlement agreement, Cobo acknowledged that probable cause exists that he twice violated Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees. Nevertheless, the commission without comment last month adopted the recommendation of its attorney, Melody Hadley, that the case be dropped and no penalty assessed. Hadley did not explain the basis for her recommendation.

PROSECUTOR’S CONCERN DISCARDED

The ruling brushed aside concerns expressed by Broward Assistant State Attorney David Schulson. Schulson lodged the complaint against Cobo a year ago after declining to file criminal charges due to a lack of corroborating evidence that Cobo had used his power as a commissioner to try and punish a doctor who refused to retain Cobo’s consulting company.

“I do not agree that there should be no imposition of a fine,” Schulson wrote in a Nov. 21 letter. “Cobo admits in the proposed (settlement) that there is probable cause…and he should accept a reasonable fine for those violations.”

The district, which operates under the name Broward Health, is a special taxing district that runs several public hospitals, including Broward General and North Broward Medical Center. Cobo, a Republican activist, was appointed to the board in 2007 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Cobo’s legal troubles began in early 2009 when the hospital district board hired the Lash and Goldberg law firm to investigate allegations of ethical misconduct regarding his involvement in business matters involving Broward Health. The firm’s findings of potential ethical and criminal violations by Cobo were forwarded to the governor’s office, where they initially languished.

Broward prosecutors began an investigation into whether Cobo had improperly used his public office to steer business to his company after reports of his actions were published in New Times Broward-Palm Beach. Last January, Schulson closed the probe after concluding Cobo’s actions were not criminal, but followed up quickly with a complaint to the ethics commission.

Specifically, Schulson asked for a review of issues involving two matters: Cobo’s role in a lease dispute at one of the district’s hospitals, Imperial Point Medical Center, and his involvement in the district’s recruitment of Dr. Dimitrios Lintzeris, a family practitioner in Pompano Beach.

COBO HAD CONFLICTS

The ethics commission ultimately determined that then-Commissioner Cobo had a conflict when he contacted Imperial Point’s chief executive, Calvin Glidewell, and questioned him about the terms of the lease while also representing clients involved in the dispute.  The commission also decided Cobo had a similar conflict when he contacted Glidewell to allegedly bad mouth Dr. Lintzeris after Litzeris decided not to sign a consulting agreement with Cobo’s firm even though Cobo previously had interceded on his behalf with a Broward Health official.

Three other related charges against Cobo were not sustained by the commission in findings made public Dec. 7.

Neither Cobo nor his Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Stuart R. Michelson, responded to requests for comment.

But in a pleading filed with the commission this fall, Michelson observed: “This entire process, with the investigation of the state attorney and now before this honorable commission, has been a nightmare…and he has suffered greatly as a result of it, both emotionally and financially.”

In September, Gov. Rick Scott chose Oakland Park lawyer and Broward Republican Party activist David Di Pietro to succeed Cobo on the board.

 

A Pompano Beach murder mystery; a year later BSO has not cracked it

By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org

Russell Walker

During the first week of January 2011, Russell Walker answered his front door and was shot nine times, his body left lying face down in a pool of blood on the floor of his Pompano Beach home.

The killer got a long head start on a getaway. A week would pass before anyone even knew Walker was dead.

The execution-style slaying was cold. One year later, it appears, so is the Broward Sheriff’s Office’s hunt for the killer.

Walker’s family says they have few answers from police about what happened. They learned how he died when the slaying was aired on a local TV news report.

“My sister, brother-in-law and two nieces were in a hotel room, horrified by the report,” said brother John Genzale. “That was no way for a family to learn the details.”

Walker’s body was discovered inside by the front door by sheriff’s Detective Tim Duggan on the night of Jan. 14, 2011, after a family friend went to check on Walker and detected a foul odor. The single-family home is on a canal in the 700 block of Southeast Seventh Avenue.

Genzale and sister Diane Scott believe Walker died on Jan. 5, as neither they nor his girlfriend heard from him by phone, text or email after Jan. 5. Duggan believes Walker died on Jan. 7, which is when a neighbor thought he heard a bang, according to Genzale.

BSO IS MUM

Duggan declined to comment when reached on his cell phone, and sheriff’s office spokesperson Dani Moschella did not respond to subsequent requests for an interview with Duggan.

Robbery does not appear to have been the motive, and the family remains mystified by what happened, Genzale said.

Walker’s girlfriend, Tricia Meza, also knows of nothing in the 50-year-old American Airlines pilot’s background that could explain his murder.

“This shouldn’t have happened,” said Meza, a San Diego resident who had been dating Walker long-distance for about a year at the time of his death. “There’s just nothing about him that would trigger me to think that somebody would want to do this to him.”

Longtime friend and fellow American Airlines pilot Jay Weitzel has no explanation either. “No one knows anything,” the Plantation resident said. “It’s very disheartening.”

Walker’s ex-wife, Nancy Hill Walker, also knows of no one who would have had  motive to murder Walker.

“I’ve not a clue,” said the American Airlines flight attendant. “It’s just a mystery.” The two divorced in 2008 after 10 years of marriage and 14 years together.

Police appear equally clueless. According to Genzale, Duggan assumed that the grizzly nature of his murder likely meant that Walker was secretly involved with nefarious activities, such as gambling.

Russell Walker, right, with brother John Genzale and sister Diane Scott

“The immediate reaction from the cops was rather offensive,” Genzale said. “And you know, we’ve never discovered anything.”

Genzale, a former newspaper editor in Miami, added that detectives later told him their investigation turned up nothing about his brother’s past to suggest why he was killed. Mistaken identity has not been ruled out.

Police have been tight-lipped about the case. Last year’s newspaper stories don’t even report that Walker was shot.

Fellow pilots held a service for Walker in South Florida before the funeral arranged by his family in San Diego. About 200 people attended the first service and at least 150 attended the second, according to Genzale, who traveled from his home in Como, Italy.

Walker, whose loved ones and friends called him Russ, is survived by his mother, brother and sister.

A “TOP GUN” NAVY PILOT

He grew up in San Diego and earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from San Diego State University. After college, Walker served in the Navy. “He was the real ‘Top Gun’ and flew the F-14 Tomcat,” said Scott, who lives in San Diego. As of the time of his death, Walker had worked for American Airlines for 19 years, flying out of Miami International Airport.

Family and friends describe Walker as an active, outgoing person who enjoyed traveling in his free time. He owned a boat and a Harley Davidson motorcycle and was an active member of the American Airlines Ski & Snowboard Club, a recreational team open to the airline’s employees.

Shortly before his death, Walker was preparing to compete with the ski team in Colorado. Some of his family and friends thought he was in Colorado when they didn’t hear from him after Jan. 5, but Walker had cancelled the trip because of a cold.

One year later, Genzale worries that solving his brother’s murder is no longer a priority for the sheriff’s office.

“I’ve kind of lost faith,” Genzale said. “We can’t live with the fact that we’re here a year down the road and we’re no closer to finding my brother’s killer.”

Karla Bowsher can be reached at KBowsher@BrowardBulldog.org.

 

Reality TV show case leads to disclosure of countywide roster of cops in trouble with the law

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward County Courthouse Photo by Georgia Guercio

An investigation involving a Broward Sheriff’s Office reality TV show has led to the release of a state attorney’s list of 137 current and former police officers and deputies whose testimony may be suspect because of their troubles with the law.

The list includes officers who have been arrested or convicted of crimes like sexual battery, attempted murder, fraud, drug trafficking and official misconduct. Others are on the list because they are under investigation regarding fatal shootings, the falsification of records, perjury, traffic fatalities, theft and other crimes.

Every police agency in the county, except for the three smallest departments, has at least one officer on the list. The county’s largest police agency, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, has the most with 57 deputies, followed by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department with 19 officers. Hollywood and Lauderhill each have eight officers on the list. Five men and women on the list could not be identified by department.

Since Oct. 1, prosecutors have added 23 officers and deputies to the list – a rate of nearly two names a week. The list, which you can see here, is through Dec. 22.

The so-called “Brady List” includes the names of all officers listed as “active” in the state’s computerized attorney notification system, whether their cases are “pending, open, closed, convicted or not,” said Broward State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ron Ishoy.

The list is named for a U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, which established a legal doctrine requiring prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence in the state’s possession to defendants and their lawyers. The officers on the list are those about whom the state has information that may be favorable to the defense.

“They remain on the list because they could be subject to impeachment as potential witnesses in other cases,” Ishoy said. “The list is complete as of the day you received it as far as we know.”

In addition to the names of the officers, the list includes brief comments indicating why they are on it and the name of the prosecutor who put them there. Prosecutors make those calls “on a case by case basis as to whether the evidence is relevant under discovery rules detailed in the Florida Rules of Criminal Procedure,” Ishoy said. Prosecutors won’t comment on the open cases.

Most of the officers on the list are there for matters since the beginning of 2009, but some date to 2004. The list is dynamic, with names added and removed as prosecutors believe is warranted.

THE LIST BECOMES KNOWN

The existence of the list became known recently when it was mentioned in an August letter from prosecutors to Gerald Wengert, a Broward Sheriff’s deputy and star of the reality television show “Unleashed: K-9 Broward County, informing him that he is under investigation for falsifying records.

Broward Bulldog obtained the list using Florida’s public records law.

Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said he was unaware such a list existed. After being told how many officers and deputies were on the list, he said he believes the state has undercounted.

“My office has a list that’s larger than that using our own information. The State Attorney’s Office always takes a restrictive rather than an expansive view of what constitutes Brady material. If they say it’s about 130 it’s my guess it’s probably more like 450,” Finkelstein said.

Ishoy said the Brady List is a printout of the latest data that his office has collected and made available to defense lawyers for several years. He said the state’s release of information goes “far beyond” what the law requires.

“It has evolved as our computer system has evolved,” he said. “We did it to enhance efficiency and consistency in disclosing this information.”

Still, the Brady List assembles in one place the names of problematic officers, including officers under investigation in police shootings and other matters that have not previously been made available to the public at large.

The list shows that prosecutor-led grand jury investigations of fatal police shootings often take years before they are concluded.

As of Dec. 22, 30 officers from around the county were under scrutiny by the grand jury in cases in which a person died as a result of police action. Eleven of those officers have been under investigation since 2009. One officer, Pembroke Pines Sgt. James Helms, is under scrutiny in two death cases opened in 2009 and 2011.

“NO PRIORTY” FOR POLICE SHOOTING PROBES

Veteran Fort Lauderdale civil rights attorney Barbara Heyer said that such delays are unfair and intolerable for cases that should be among the State Attorney’s top priorities.

“These police shooting cases are just tagging along, there is no priority” she said. “The families of these victims, and they are victims, have to have some type of closure. To constantly hear prosecutors say this is ‘under investigation’ provides no one with anything.”

In June, Public Defender Finkelstein sent a letter to the Justice Department complaining that Broward State Attorney Michael Satz had failed to adequately investigate and prosecute criminal conduct by police. He alleged that was, in part, a “misguided” attempt to “insulate the state from its obligations under Brady.”

Finkelstein said his office reviewed dozens of prosecutors’ memos closing out investigations of officers without the filing of charges, and asserted that a there is a “double standard of justice in Broward County – one for law enforcement and the connected, and one for everyone else.”

“The state declines any prosecution against law enforcement unless there is a ‘reasonable likelihood of conviction.’ For my clients and other citizens, corroboration is not necessary to file charges and a ‘reasonable likelihood of conviction’” is measured to a lower standard, Finkelstein said.

Satz has called Finkelstein’s assertions “false and irresponsible.”

 

 

Prominent developer targets anonymous blogger in First Amendment battle

By Lynn Walsh, BrowardBulldog.org

Raanan Katz

A First Amendment battle has erupted between a prominent South Florida developer and a blogger, who so far has only been identified as “John Doe.”

Raanan Katz, a minority owner of the Miami Heat, and his family-owned company R.K. Associates are suing the anonymous blogger for defamation and libel for reports he claims are false and malicious.

The blogger’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Robert Kain, argues in court papers that his client is a “citizen journalist” deserving of First Amendment protection because his reporting on Katz is about “matters of public concern.”

“Doe is an anonymous citizen journalist critically reporting what he considers to be abusive litigation tactics and prior criminal convictions by a well know public person Raanan Katz and Katz’ companies,” the papers say.

Katz filed the case in state court in June, but it has since been removed to federal court in Miami. Katz dropped an additional claim for false advertising against the blogger last week.

“The true thrust of our case is defamation,” said Todd Levine, a Miami lawyer for Katz and the company.

Kain calls Katz’s litigation a “classic slap suit” by a big developer seeking to suppress a critic.

“There is no defamation, you can read it,” Kain said in an interview. “Mr. Katz needs to realize that sometimes in doing business you will be criticized.”

In the blogger’s defense, Kain includes the assertion that his client has a First Amendment right to “maintain his anonymous status.”

Levine calls the nameless blogger a “coward hiding behind the cloak of the Internet.”

Katz’s son, Daniel Katz, vice president and owner of the company, is also a plaintiff against John Doe. The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, his son and their real estate company.

KATZ AND HIS PROMINENCE ARGUED

R.K. Associates owns over six million square feet of commercial space in Florida and New England, including 14 shopping centers in South Florida, the company website says. Their properties include two in Hallandale Beach and the landmark Searstown Plaza in Fort Lauderdale.

The privately-held company was founded by the elder Katz, who remains the principal owner of the company.

Katz, an Israeli immigrant, has a street named after him in Sunny Isles Beach, according to news articles.The renaming of Northeast 170th Street at Collins Avenue was done as part of a $7 million eminent domain settlement with the city.

The elder Katz was called “one of the most prolific real estate owners in Miami-Dade” in a 2008 article inMiami New Times.

John Doe publishes articles about the Katzes and their real estate company in the blog  in called “RK Associates.” It is published free on blogspot.com, a Google-owned company. The domain is RKAssociatesUSA and the information is also posted on a second website based in the United Kingdom.

The archive on the U.S. site shows 22 posts about Katz and his company starting in May.

“There are some things that are taken from other people’s claims that may not be defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But there are other parts that really surpass opinions and come out to be a conclusion or moral of a story…to [falsely] show that the company and my clients are ‘criminals’…a clear indication that my clients are bad people.”

The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, Daniel and their real estate company. A recent post claims the company “ripped off the single mother of a special needs child.”

According to a post dated July 24: “RK Associates, Raanan Katz, and Daniel Katz automatically renewed her lease, without her knowledge and consent, from January 1, 2009 for the next five years and filed legal action against her claiming damages for five years in advance in the amount of about quarter a million dollars.”

Levine said some content posted by John Doe is accurate, but the lawyer did not elaborate on what was true.

TRUTH AS A DEFENSE

Attorney Jon Kaney, a board member of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the blogger has a First Amendment right to publish stories if what is being said can be supported by facts.

“The blogger’s opinion, if it is based on facts that he has disclosed or in this case linked to, and he tells the reader what the company is doing and then shares his opinion that he believes it is inappropriate or whatever the case may be, then that’s protected.”

Kaney is a partner at Cobb & Cole in Daytona Beach.

“Truth is always a defense to defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But [the blogger] would have to prove this. And this person signs off every post with ‘always true.’ He is saying, this is the only spot where you are going to find information about my client.”

Other articles on the blog discuss alleged racketeering charges against the Katz’ and their company and allegations of falsely asking for rental reimbursement associated with a property the company owns.

Levine says the blogger and his lawyer are trying to make people believe Raanan Katz is a public figure, which would require Katz to offer a higher level of proof to win in court. The Katzes “are not Donald Trump-type businessmen that make themselves out to be celebrities. He owns shopping centers; he doesn’t have a radio show; he doesn’t have a magazine like Oprah;, he isn’t on red carpets.”

Having Sunny Isles Beach name a street after the developer isn’t enough to make him a public figure, Levine argues.

“If I told someone to meet me at Raanan Katz Boulevard they wouldn’t know where that was,” Levine said, comparing the street named after Katz to a school driveway.

Sunny Isles Beach has also named a public gymnasium after Katz and his wife.

Raanan Katz was an original partner of the expansion franchise for the Heat and has “been a fixture at courtside” games since the team’s inaugural season in 1988, according to the company website.

WHO IS JOHN DOE?

While much is publicly known about Raanan Katz, that can’t be said for his critic.

On one of his blogs, Doe identifies himself only a male living in Boston.

The Katz complaint initially accused “John Doe” of being a competitor. But Levine has backed away from that contention, and now says he believes Doe “is a disgruntled employee or disgruntled tenant,” he said.

Either way, Levine intends to find out precisely.

He said a subpoena has been issued to Google in an attempt to unmask John Doe.

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