Hallandale Beach Chamber of Commerce gets “sweetheart deal” from city, critics say

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  

Hallandale Beach Chamber of Commerce's city hall office, right, and entrance to City Commission meeting room

In the midst of the Broward Inspector General’s Office investigation of city management practices, Hallandale Beach’s bus bench/shelter advertising agreement has come under fire.

The advertising pact has drawn critics because all the public money collected under the agreement, as well as additional dollars from city coffers, have gone to the Hallandale Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

The gift from City Hall amounted to $50,000 last year, with an additional $50,000 expected this year.

“That sounds too much like a sweetheart deal,” activist Charlotte Greenbarg said of the city’s latest bench/shelter payments to the chamber. “It sounds incestuous. Why are they giving taxpayer’s money to the chamber?”

Mayor Joy Cooper and a chamber official defended the city’s bus/shelter and payments to the business organization. They have been “a way to help the chamber,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, the chamber is showing its support for the mayor as she seeks re-election by urging attendance at a “meet and greet” breakfast reception with her on Friday.

The event is sponsored by the Crowne Plaza Hollywood Beach Hotel, which has a representative on both the chamber’s board of directors and its board of trustees.

City commissioner Keith London, who is running for mayor against Cooper, criticized the chamber in comments emailed to supporters on Monday.

“Three months before the election, your tax funded Hallandale Chamber of Commerce is holding an event exclusively for the mayor,” he said. “This event should include all candidates running for office running in Hallandale Beach; or perhaps the entire city commission…Singling out one elected official, particularly so close to an election, is entirely inappropriate.”

BUS BENCHES AND THE CITY

Hallandale Beach’s bus bench payments to the chamber dates back more than a half century to 1956, said Patricia Genetti, the chamber’s chief executive officer and executive director.

“There is a symbiotic relationship between the chamber, the city and the residents,” Genetti said. “The city wanted to help the chamber…to support the chamber.”

The city now funnels to the chamber revenue it receives from its deal with a private bus bench company, Martin-Gold Coast LLC. The company owns and maintains all bus shelters and bus benches in the city. The city gives it right-of-way authority to place benches and shelters in exchange for either a fixed fee for every bench and shelter or a percent of gross advertising revenues, whichever is greater.

Prior to the deal with Martin-Gold Coast, the chamber managed bus benches in the city. From 2008-2010, the chamber reported receiving an average of $15,300 a year in bus bench revenue.

The city further subsidizes the chamber by allowing it to have about 400 square feet of office space in city hall next to the commission’s meeting room for $1 a month. The city also provides the chamber’s office with electricity at no charge.

A copy of the city’s two-year old office lease agreement with the chamber was recently turned over to the Broward Inspector General’s Office as part of its ongoing investigation of city management practices. The IG is also looking into city grants and contributions to non-profit community organizations.

Last year, Hallandale Beach received $33,370 from its bus bench and shelter advertising agreement with Martin-Gold Coast LLC. It sent the entire amount to the chamber, plus an additional $16,630 in city funds.

Through June of this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the city has collected $30,580 from the agreement and turned it all over to the chamber, according to city records. The city may have to kick in additional funds if it intends to pay the chamber $50,000, as it did last year.

With $100,000 over the past two years from the agreement, the chamber will have received approximately $170,000 in city money in the past four years. This includes a $50,000 “donation” and nearly $18,000 for conducting a business survey for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency.

Since 2002, city payments to the chamber have reached approximately $240,000 for such other purposes as conducting economic development programs on behalf of the city.

An October 25, 2010 city memorandum stated the annual payment up to $50,000 to the chamber under the new agreement was in lieu of the city’s annual contribution to the chamber and revenue the chamber previously had received when it operated the bus bench program.

Commissioner London is critical of the giveaway to the chamber.

“For decades the city has been greasing the wheels and has nothing to show for it,” said London, who wants to halt the various payments to the chamber. “They should be self sufficient.”

Martin-Gold Coast manages 23 shelters and 65 bus benches. It’s agreement with the city has a section that states the city intends to pay the chamber up to $50,000 from revenues it receives from the company.

However, the agreement states the payments are at  “the city’s discretion and provided that the chamber shall work with local businesses and adjacent property owners to obtain any necessary easements for the placement of bus shelters and otherwise cooperate with the city and contractor in implementing this program.”

THE CITY SIDE OF THE DEAL

When asked what the chamber has done to earn, the chamber’s Genetti said it had done such work.

Genetti added that the chamber conducts or supports numerous activities that benefit the city and the community at large. Last year, she said the chamber paid $16,000 to 10,000 business directories and $4,000 more to pay for 10,000 tourist maps and guide booklets.

She also sent Broward Bulldog a one-page document outlining 32 functions the chamber supports that benefit the city “at no cost.”

The chamber is a tax-exempt, 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization. It has approximately 250 member businesses comprised of over 1,000 persons. Annual dues range from $250 to $2,000-plus, Genetti said.

She said other Broward cities subsidize their local chambers of commerce.

For example, in Southwest Broward, where the Miramar-Pembroke Pines Chamber of Commerce operates, that support comes from membership fees and amount to far fewer tax dollars.

A chamber spokesman there said each city pays an annual membership fee of approximately $5,000, but there is no other direct budget payments. However, each city supports variouis promotional and business events at an annual cost of about $60,000, primarily through event ticket purchases, the spokesman said.

BUS BENCHES

While the Hallandale chamber’s involvement in bus benches dates back years, a formalized agreement was made in 1994 that allowed the chamber to install and maintain bus benches. In return, the chamber retained all proceeds from bench advertising.

The agreement was amended and extended over the years, and in 2003 the city gave the Hallandale chamber “perpetual” rights to bus bench operations and revenues and allowed the chamber to subcontract the benches and advertising for revenue for the organization.

In 2003, the city also gave Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. authority to place bus shelters around the city, with a fee paid to the city for each shelter, which carried advertising space. In response to a request for information about Clear Channel payments to the city, city information chief Dobens could only provide data for 2008-2009, stating it was to pay $25,400.

As Clear Channel’s agreement expired, and the firm indicated it was no longer interested in continuing, the city sought to have one company manage both the bus benches and shelters. That led to a contract in November 2010 with Martin-Gold Coast to handle both bus benches and shelters, as well as the provision that the city will pay the chamber up to $50,000 annually.

 

Lauderhill cop’s suicide note leads to firing of two officers and questions about legality of arrests

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Lauderhill Police Officer Elijah "Eli" Rodgers

Three hours before he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, Lauderhill Police Officer Elijah “Eli” Rodgers wrote a four-paragraph goodbye.

Then he emailed it to several hundred of his fellow city employees – from City Manager Chuck Faranda on down.

“For those who know me as a friend or co-worker, they know I am a good person who strives to work hard and do the right thing. Unfortunately, some who become (sic) jealous began to weave a web of lies to discredit and try to ruin my career,” Rodgers wrote.

“I want to apologize to all my fellow co-workers for the negative publicity and hope someone listens now.’

The date was Feb. 24, 2011. Rodgers, 31, had just learned Broward corruption prosecutors were preparing a warrant for his arrest the next day on charges of official misconduct and falsifying official records. He took his life after an hour long stand off with police at a friend’s home in Pembroke Pines.

Broward Bulldog used Florida’s public records law to obtain Rodgers’ email, and other documents about what happened.

Newly released police and prosecutors records show that two of Rodgers’ colleagues in Lauderhill’s troubled Crime Suppression Unit who provided information to prosecutors – Officers Thomas Yopps and Raymond Ranger – were fired in December and January for violating departmental rules regarding honesty and competency.

The city did not announce the firings, and police officials have not publicly acknowledged problems with the Crime Suppression Unit.

Both men contend they did nothing wrong and are appealing their terminations.

Dead cop names colleague

In his suicide note, Rodgers singled out Yopps. He mentioned no one else by name.

“The lies that Thomas Yopps (police officer) told stated I lied in a police report. I tried to explain to the State Attorney’s office and told them about the hostile working environment to no avail,” he wrote. “Yopps is a bad person who could unravel all the hard work every department in the city has worked so hard to accomplish.”

A report on Rodgers’ death by the Fraternal Order of Police suggests the enmity was mutual.

The report by Lauderhill FOP Lodge 161 Vice President Michael Gordon says a half-dozen officers reported hearing Yopps say Rodgers was a “dirty cop” and that he was going to “get” him.  And when Rodgers killed himself, Yopps “placed a Grim Reaper license plate on the front of his police vehicle,” the report says.

In an interview this week, Yopps said he bore no hatred for Rodgers. “I respected him as a person,” he said. He added, however, that he was “extremely shocked, extremely pissed off and extremely upset” when he learned what Rodgers had said about him in his final declaration.

Ex-Lauderhill Police Officer Thomas Yopps

Yopps referred other questions to his attorney, Pompano Beach’s Johnny McCray Jr. McCray did not return phone messages.

The FOP report strongly criticized Lauderhill police brass for “poor judgments and decisions” that “led to a series of very serious consequences” that likely could have been avoided with proper management.

“Shockingly, not one person on the command staff who had knowledge and failed to act…is being held accountable for their failure and that is a travesty,” the report says.

“Even the City of Lauderhill’s management in some small way is to blame by promoting staff into ranks that they were not ready to assume from a lack of proper training and/or lack of well-rounded experience perspective,” the report says.

John Puleo is ex-Officer Ranger’s FOP representative. He said command staff can expect to be questioned when his client’s case is aired.

“It’s going to arbitration in about four or five months,” said Puleo. “Higher-ups knew what was going on and nobody did nothing.”

Police Chief Andrew Smalling, who became chief last September, did not return phone messages seeking comment.

Criminal case opened

The criminal case against Rodgers, an Iraq War veteran, began in October 2010 after Lauderhill Assistant Chief Michael Cochran enlisted help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, according to a Lauderhill Internal Affairs report.

The report does not say what caused Cochran to seek help at that time. It does, however, say that for as long as a year top police officials had considered Rodgers problematic.

At one point, then-Police Chief Kenneth Pachnek even tried to enlist “several outside police agencies to conduct a proactive investigation” of Rodgers.  He was unsuccessful, but the report does not say or explain why Rodgers was nonetheless allowed to remain in the Crime Suppression Unit that was formed in 2009.

Under a grant of immunity, Yopps provided the information that led to the affidavit seeking Rodgers’ arrest.

The State Attorney’s memo that closed the case following Rodgers’ suicide says the case involved an unlawful drug possession arrest in November 2010.

Rodgers reported at the time that during a traffic stop in the city at 440 W. Sunrise Blvd. he found a single Methadone pill in the lap of a male passenger. But Yopps, his partner that day, later told prosecutors that wasn’t true and provided a different version of events. Prosecutors said independent witnesses corroborated Yopp’s account.

Elijah Rodgers while serving with the Army National Guard in Iraq

Other incidents surface

The memo by Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly says prosecutors were investigating two other criminal allegations when Rodgers killed himself.

One case involved an allegedly falsified police report in which Rodgers was suspected of concocting a confession from a defendant. Another had to do with an incident in the Lauderhill Police holding cell area while Rodgers and Ranger were processing an individual charged with possession of marijuana.

“Ranger stated that Rodgers weighed the evidence, whereupon, he made a comment to the effect that it was only a misdemeanor based on weight. Officer Ranger further stated that when he turned around he saw Officer Rodgers adding what appeared to be marijuana to the baggie and then said ‘we’re okay, now it’s a felony.”

More allegations and observations about Rodgers are detailed in the city’s 91-page Internal Affairs report.

The report says that for a while in 2009 Yopps kept a list of Rodgers’ transgressions.

“Every time Rodgers violated someone’s rights or did something that was not right, Officer Yopps would jot it down,” the report says.  “On December 18, 2009… Yopps stopped documenting violations because he got tired of doing it.

Ranger told FDLE Special Agent Novia Maduro in October 2010 that he would often assist Rodgers searching cars during traffic stops.

“Officer Ranger would not locate illegal contraband, but Officer Rodgers would do a second search and locate narcotics,” the report says.

Ranger told investigators about overhearing Rescue Medics talk about how they once saw drugs stashed underneath Rodgers’ bulletproof vest tumble out after he was involved in a traffic crash.

The report says that after providing some information, Ranger balked at further cooperation.

Agent Maduro noted that Ranger “has personal knowledge of multiple incidents in which (Rodgers) allegedly engaged in inappropriate behavior while on duty; however, it appeared that Officer Ranger failed to notify the appropriate authorities in fear of agency reprisal.”

Rigged arrests out there?

After Rodgers killed himself, allegations of misconduct began to swirl involving Yopps, Ranger and other members of the Crime Suppression Unit. Chief Pachnek ordered the internal investigation.

In his January 30 termination letter to Ranger, City Manger Faranda accused him of failing to notify supervisors when he witnessed Rodgers’ misconduct and “deception” in his interviews with investigators.

Faranda cited Yopps for multiple failings regarding two arrests by Rodgers in which Yopps signed arrest paperwork even though he knew “the crimes for which they were arrested had not occurred.”

“The fact that you signed the affidavits with the full knowledge that the arrests were unlawful is extremely disconcerting,” Faranda wrote.

Internal affairs investigators deemed as unfounded similar alleged violations leveled by Yopps against another Crime Suppression Unit member, Detective Alexis Iwaskewycz.

The official reports do not address the number of people who may have been wrongly arrested by Rodgers or other Crime Suppression Unit members. But the FOP report by Michael Gordon says that if police supervisors had better followed established policies, events including Rodgers’ suicide might have unfolded differently.

“How many people were arrested and charged with crimes they did not commit will never be known but I am certain others might exist and not all can be blamed on just Officer Rodgers,” said Gordon.

 

Murder victims’ kin call out Mike Satz; seek Broward probe of police in miscarriage of justice

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Clarice Tukes' daughter was murdered; Calvin Sapp lost a sister

The arrest of Jerry Frank Townsend on Sept. 5, 1979 ended the hunt for a brutal serial killer and rapist who had terrorized a predominantly African-American neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale.

But it began an enduring miscarriage of justice.

Townsend spent 22 years of his life in prison until he was exonerated by DNA tests that did not exist when he was arrested. Eddie Lee Mosley remained free to continue to rape and kill until his 1987 arrest and confinement in a state hospital for the criminally insane.

The deaths of 10 women and children who were murdered after Townsend’s wrongful arrest have been linked to Mosley by DNA testing or other evidence.

Now, relatives of three of those victims are calling on longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz – who is up for re-election – to finally investigate the actions of police detectives whose testimony convicted Townsend.

“It matters a hell of a lot,” said Clarice Tukes, 72, whose 20-year-old daughter, Arnette, was raped and strangled five months after Townsend’s arrest. “My daughter would still be alive if they hadn’t arrested the wrong man.”

“I want this reopened,” said Jacquelyn D. Miller, the daughter of Geraldine Barfield, whose body was found in a field adjacent to the Immanuel Church of God in Christ near Sunland Park on Dec. 19, 1983. She was 35.

“I’ve carried this with me 28 years. I want Michael Satz to tell me why he allowed this to happen, why a killer was allowed to remain on the streets,” she said.

Broward State Attorney Michael Satz

COMPARED TO JACK THE RIPPER

Satz was in his first term as Broward’s top prosecutor when Townsend was arrested.

The case captured the public’s imagination. A black serial killer police compared to Jack the Ripper.  Townsend, they said, had admitted to wanting to “rid the world of prostitutes.”

The victims, however, were not prostitutes.

Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, was led by detectives to confess to a string of rapes and murders he did not do. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980 and sent to prison for life.

In 2009, eight years after DNA proved his innocence, the Broward Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay $2 million over five years to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that its detectives fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses and coerced false confessions out of Townsend.

Miami, where city detectives were accused of similar wrongdoing against Townsend, paid $2.2 million to end another suit before trial in 2008. Taxpayers spent at least $1 million more to pay lawyers to defend the police.

Broward Bulldog reported in 2009that transcripts of Townsend’s Broward trial and hearings contain disturbing evidence of crimes like perjury and the falsification of police reports by BSO detectives and other officers. Several relatives recently saw the story.

Jerry Frank Townsend

For example, BSO detectives testified that Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.

But Townsend wasn’t the killer. So the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.

There is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. Whether the law could be enforced regarding original police testimony against Townsend is unclear because today’s statute is somewhat different than what was on the books in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, neither Satz, Broward’s state attorney since 1976, nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office has investigated the actions of the BSO detectives whose testimony sent Townsend to prison, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi.

The settled lawsuit contended those detectives framed Townsend to advance their careers. Schlein has declined to discuss the case. Fantigrassi has said he never lied to convict Townsend.

Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein retired in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel, later worked for the state and is today an attorney in private practice in Tallahassee.

The lawsuit said Mosley is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders between 1973 and 1987, when he was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook, 54.

Emma Cook

VICTIMS AND THEIR FAMILIES

Katrenna Bentley, a hedge fund accountant, was 11 years old the day her grandmother died.  She still vividly recalls seeing her battered body on a slab at the Mizell Funeral Home.

“I remember her laying on the table and seeing skin under her nails and hair in her mouth. They said she fought back, bit him in the head,” Bentley said. DNA from that trace evidence was matched two decades later to Mosley.

Katrenna and her mother, Mary Bentley, Emma Cook’s daughter, both said they want the state to investigate the actions of the police who handled the Townsend case.

“Every Christmas I relive this and get a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach,” said Mary Bentley, 61. “If they had investigated it properly from the beginning they could have caught Mosley earlier and he wouldn’t have ended up killing my mom or the other people. They should pay.”

Geraldine Barfield

“I would love to see that happen,” said Calvin Sapp, 68, a semi-retired construction worker and older brother of victim Geraldine Barfield. “It seems like very seldom that people of color get the type of justice that they give everybody else.”

The victims’ relatives are not alone in wanting an investigation.

JUSTICE SERVED?

Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, said, “The fact that these officers were allowed to lie and cheat to frame an innocent man, and then were allowed to go on with their lives as though they did nothing wrong and nothing happened is not only illegal, it’s a sin.”

Finkelstein said Townsend’s case is “the best example” of a local criminal justice system where authorities have for decades often ignored the crimes of police officers that plant evidence or commit perjury to make cases against suspects.

“That they turned a blind eye to such a heinous crime is the exact reason that most minorities in Broward feel they don’t get a fair shake – and they’re right,” said Finkelstein said.

Satz, who rarely talks to reporters, referred a request for comment to a subordinate who said prosecutors reviewed the Townsend case before the DNA tests were done and found insufficient evidence of perjury.

“In regards to the officers involved in that case, we know what it takes to charge someone with perjury,” said Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann. “People on the outside don’t know about the elements of the crime. They just think that if it smells bad and looks bad it’s a crime. In a perfect world, that would work. But we have to follow the law and can’t just harass people.”

Broward prosecutors, however, have made little effort to actually make such a case. Asked if her office ever confronted Fantigrassi or Schlein about their graphic testimony at Townsend’s trial, McCann said, “ Not that I’m aware of.”

A study released in May by the National Registry of Exonerations showed that Broward accounted for nine of Florida’s 32 exonerations since 1989 – more than twice as many as any other county in the state. Most of those exonerated defendants were black.

Townsend, who lived in Hallandale Beach at the time of his arrest, is one of two Broward men cleared of murders now attributed to Mosley. Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Death Row for raping and killing 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead in her bed in 1985. He died of cancer on January 30, 2000, less than a year before DNA tests identified Mosley as the girl’s killer.

Arnette Tukes

Three weeks before Townsend’s 1979 arrest, Fort Lauderdale Detective Doug Evans identified Mosley – known around his northwest area neighborhood as “The Rape Man” – as the prime suspect in the rape-murders in his jurisdiction. Evans based his case on eyewitness testimony and physical evidence, but the BSO detectives blew him off.

Evans later helped catch Mosley and free Townsend. Before his death in January 2011, Evans told Broward Bulldog that he was disappointed authorities had never investigated police misconduct that had caused Townsend’s wrongful arrest and conviction.

Evans’ friend and colleague, ex-Fort Lauderdale Detective Roy Brown, said, “Doug always pushed for an investigation, always wanted one, but it’s been a hard rock. They let it sleep, they let it lay and they moved on and there’s no justice and nobody is held accountable for it. You’ve got to want to pursue them.

“The public should have a right to know this stuff. A serial killer running around killing people and nobody cared,” said Brown.

Clarice Tukes, whose daughter Arnette was murdered not long after Townsend’s arrest, was Doug Evans’ cousin.

“They knew who it was that did it. They knew Townsend didn’t do it, Mosley did. Doug told the whole family he did it. He said he didn’t know why they won’t take his word. That hurts,” said Tukes.

Her grandson, Dominick Richardson, was three years old when his mother died. He’s grown now, with three children of his own. His daughter Arnette is named in his mother’s honor, Tukes said.

 

 

Hallandale commissioners agree to be quizzed about business deals, handling of tax dollars

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper

The Broward Inspector General’s probe of Hallandale Beach financial management practices has reached a critical stage: the questioning of the five members of the city commission this week.

The interviews got off to a false start on Friday, when Mayor Joy Cooper was to have been questioned by investigators.

Cooper said she went to the IG’s office but there was a miscommunication involving City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield who had been out of town and was not available to attend. As a result, Cooper said, she was scheduled to meet with IG investigators Monday.

“I’m looking forward to being interviewed and the completion” of the investigation, Cooper said before her scheduled appearance. She could not be reached Monday evening for further comment.

Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders and commissioners Dorothy Ross, Alexander Lewy and Keith London confirmed they would meet with IG investigators this week. The meetings, at the IG’s office in Plantation, are by invitation, not subpoena.

The commissioners, who are also the directors of the city’s embattled Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), may be the last group to be interviewed in the probe.

Investigators have interviewed former City Manager Mark Antonio, former City Commissioner William Julian, CRA Executive Director Alvin Jackson, Human Services Director Marian McCann-Colliee, and Jennifer Frastai, an administrator in the city manager’s office.

Investigators apparently also met with Richard Cannone, a former director of the city’s Development Services Department. When asked if he met with investigators, Cannone referred request for comment to the IG’s office.

INVESTIGATION MARCHES ON

County investigators are reviewing grants and contributions to community groups, CRA loans to businesses and land acquisitions, and management practices. They are expected to eventually issue a report on their findings, with recommendations, and they may also refer some issues to state agencies, such as the Broward State Attorney’s Office.

Vice Mayor Sanders, who along with his wife Jessica, appear to be a focus of the probe, declined to comment or say when he would meet with investigators.

“I wish I could talk to you,” he said.

Investigators have asked for files of several community groups that received city funds and are linked to Sanders or his wife. They have also asked about the city’s purchase of property once owned by a group headed by Sanders.

Ross said she was not sure of the date of her appointment because it had been changed. “I’m going to ask the city attorney to go with me,” she said.

Lewy declined to say what day he will meetwith investigators. He previously stated he believes the investigators have been “fishing for information.”

London, who is running against Cooper for the mayor’s seat, disagreed with that assessment. “This is not a fishing expedition,” he said.

London said he is to meet with investigators at their office on Thursday morning. “I don’t know who else they can talk to. It doesn’t take six months to find people innocent. I look forward to the final report.”

Former commissioner William “Bill” Julian, who is seeking to regain a commission seat this fall and who voluntarily spoke to the IG weeks ago, said he thinks politics is behind the IG’s investigation.

“I don’t see any wrongdoing,” Julian said.” I think we have solid policies.  Any problems in the past have been corrected. I don’t see where they can point any finger at anything criminally wrong. I’d say it’s politically motivated investigation.”

IMPASSE BROKEN

The meetings end a short-lived impasse between the Inspector General’s Office and the city regarding investigators attempts to interview city commissioners.

Earlier this month, an attorney for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), whose directors are city commissioners, had maintained that the IG had no authority to probe the CRA under state and county law because it was an independent special district. Prior to that, the City Attorney’s Office informed the IG that the city manager’s office would not voluntarily schedule meetings between city commissioners and county investigators.

Why the city decided instead to cooperate was not immediately clear.

Steven Zelkowitz, the CRA’s lawyer, and Hallandale Beach City Attorney Whitfield could not be reached for comment. Inspector General John Scott declined comment on any aspect of the probe.

Commissioners didn’t seem to know what had changed and indicated they did not inquire.

London, often at odds with fellow commissioners, said he believes Zelkowitz was trying “to protect his clients (city commissioners) ” when he issued his opinion to the IG’s office.

The city’s opposition to having commissioners interviewed may have dissipated because it was only this past March that it officially constituted the CRA as an “agency” under state statutes. Up until then, the CRA, which began functioning in 1996, had been a sub-department or a department of the city.

Another factor could be the IG’s aggressive oversight of another Broward city where elected commissioners also comprise the city’s CRA.

In a report this March, the year-old agency concluded that Lauderdale Lakes “had grossly mismanaged public funds…The OIG investigation also substantiated allegations that the city’s CRA funds were improperly used to pay city operating expenses….”

Or it could be that city commissioners felt public pressure to at least be questioned rather than having this as an issue during an election year.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Carvel ice cream heiress’s trip to bankruptcy court ends in sticky mess; judge seeks her arrest

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Pamela Carvel testifying in New York in 2009

One of Florida’s strangest bankruptcy cases is drawing to a close in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

Pamela Carvel, the litigious niece of Carvel Ice Cream’s late rags-to-riches founder, filed the case voluntarily last year amid a bitter, 17-year legal struggle for control over the assets from an estate once valued at $67 million.

She got more than she bargained for.

Carvel’s $1.6 million home on secluded Mayan Lake off A1A in Fort Lauderdale’s exclusive Harbor Beach neighborhood was seized and auctioned at the end of May to the highest bidder. Her six New York City rental apartments were also sold off against her wishes by court order.

U.S Trustee Leslie Osborne said he’s recovered about $2.9 million to pay off Carvel’s creditors, including several law firms and the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation, with whom Pamela Carvel has grappled so long in court.

Carvel also is now a fugitive.

U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge John K. Olson of Fort Lauderdale ordered U.S. Marshal’s to arrest her on sight nearly a year ago for civil contempt after she repeatedly ignored his orders.

Carvel does not have an attorney. In a recent email to Broward Bulldog, she accused the judge and Osborne of being in cahoots with the foundation created by her late aunt and uncle.

“There has been theft of over $700 million belonging to the Carvel family, with tax evasion through estate tax fraud, income tax fraud, charity fraud and capital gains tax fraud,” she wrote. “’Justice goes to the highest briber. Crime is rampant in the courts…but this is nothing new.”

Carvel’s initial court filings indicate, and those familiar with the case contend, that Carvel’s bankruptcy filing was a ploy in her broader legal war against the foundation.

If so, she was the one trapped by the legal tactic.

Thomas Carvel

Court records trace the “genesis” of the litigation to the 1988 “mirror-image wills” signed by the Carvels.

When one of them died, their assets were to be placed in a marital trust to provide income for the life of the surviving spouse. In the end, the money would go to their charitable foundation.

Pamela Carvel got a specific bequest of $20,000.

DEATH OF A MULTI-MILLIONAIRE

Thomas Carvel, creator of the Cookie Puss and Fudgie the Whale ice cream cakes, died in New York in 1990. His wife, Pamela and five others were appointed co-executors of his estate and co-trustees of the trust.

In late 1994 and early 1995, without telling the other co-executors, Pamela Carvel transferred more than $2 million from her uncle’s estate into an account in London, where she was then living, in her own name and that of her aunt, records say.

Her aunt moved to London to live with Pamela. About the same time, Pamela got a judge in Palm Beach, where she also had a residence, to name her as limited guardian of her aunt’s property.

Agnes died in 1998 at age 90.

Without notice to the Thomas and Agnes Carvel Foundation, based in Yonkers, New York, Pamela Carvel quickly probated another will her aunt had signed in 1995 in London. The will purported to change her beneficiary from the foundation to a corporation “apparently controlled by Pamela Carvel,” court records say

When the foundation found out, court records say, lawsuits started flying in New York, Florida, Delaware and the United Kingdom.

SOFT-SERVE LITIGATION

Years of litigation with more twists than a Carvel ice cream cone followed. Among the more bizarre: Pamela’s 2007 attempt to get a federal judge in Fort Lauderdale to have her uncle’s body exhumed to see if he’d been poisoned by an embezzler.

Finally, in 2010, a federal judge dismissed Pamela’s claims and barred her from filing any new lawsuits.

But matters did not end there.

In February 2011, Pamela filed her petition in Fort Lauderdale seeking the bankruptcy court’s protection as a Chapter 11 debtor.  Individuals who file for Chapter 11 generally remain in control of their assets as a plan to reorganize their debt is worked out.

Carvel’s petition listed debts of $615,000. She claimed assets of $32.9 million in “potential litigation claims.” She also re-stated her earlier assertions that members of the foundation had stolen the money.

“There has never been a trial by jury in any proceeding since 1990 involving the theft,” she wrote.

Agnes Carvel

That’s true. Says U.S. Trustee’s attorney Brett Marks, of Fort Lauderdale, “There never was a time when a judge said to her, ‘You don’t have a case.’ It was you haven’t done it right. I don’t know if anybody will ever know if she’s right.”

Soon after seeking the court’s protection as she reorganized her debts, Carvel began pushing to obtain the court’s permission to issue subpoenas that would allow her to go after the foundation’s records.

LEGAL TACTIC MELTDOWN

Trustee Osborne and others familiar with the case said Pamela Carvel’s was hoping to use the bankruptcy to get around the prohibition against further litigation in the estate fight.

“I’ve seen other pro se debtors do that before with the intent to bring adversary proceedings in bankruptcy court,” Osborne said. “The first thing she did was ask for discovery in furtherance of the lawsuit she just lost to the foundation, which is the main creditor.”

But Carvel quickly ran afoul of the court, and lost control of the case after refusing to insure her Harbor Beach home as bankruptcy rules required. She tried to withdraw her petition and have the case dismissed. Instead, Judge Olson converted the case to Chapter 7 liquidation and named a trustee.

“In ruling against dismissal, I recall him saying that bankruptcy is like the roach motel, you can go in, but can’t get out,” said Brett Marks, Trustee Osborne’s Fort Lauderdale attorney.

“She’s been ignoring the proceedings ever since,” said Osborne.

Creditors filed about $2.9 million in claims. That included the foundation’s claim of $432,000 to cover a judgment it had obtained for legal fees, plus another $2.2 million in non-adjudicated claims for malicious prosecution.

Legal fees by others, including Marks, account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional claims.

Osborne believes Carvel has more assets squirreled away, but said that her former Fort Lauderdale home – sold for $1 million on May 29 – will likely be the last asset to be liquidated. Creditors will be paid 100 cents on the dollar, except for the foundation’s $2.2 million malicious prosecution claim.

“At the end of the day, they just want it over with,” Osborne said.

With a warrant out for her arrest, Pamela Carvel’s whereabouts are today unknown. Osborne said he suspects she’s probably living in New Jersey because her mother, who died last year, has real estate there.

“She got the wrong judge to play with,” said Osborne

 

 

 

Radio pitchman’s investment empire under siege by financial regulators

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

David Lerner

David Lerner has made a fortune peddling controversial real estate investments for 20 years, but has left a trail of complaints, litigation and regulatory sanctions.

Now his investment empire is threatened by charges that he and his company deceived customers – including thousands of unsophisticated, elderly South Florida investors.

The folksy Lerner, who is 75 and pitches his services on the radio and in seminars, specializes in selling customers shares of a Virginia-based Real Estate Investment Trust company that pays high dividends, but can’t be easily sold.

Apple REITs, in turn, invest in extended-stay hotels like Marriott Residence Inns and Homewood Suites by Hilton.

Industry regulators say David Lerner Associates, with an office in Boca Raton, has sold nearly $7 billion worth of Apple REIT shares since 1992.

The fees generated from that sales bonanza: $600 million.

Lerner is well known in South Florida and New York, where’s he’s headquartered, for his AM radio spots in which he tells investors to “Take a tip from Poppy.”

Lerner’s 350-plus brokers use cold calls, mailings and seminars at senior centers, hotels, restaurants and country clubs to rope customers.

The strategy has been highly effective. According to financial industry regulators, David Lerner Associates has sold illiquid Apple REIT securities into more than 120,000 customer accounts.

Along the way, however, Lerner and his firm have been repeatedly censured and fined by regulators – including $2.3 million in April – for violations that include over-charging customers and making misleading claims in advertising and sales pitches.

TURNING UP THE HEAT

Today, real estate investment trusts that are not traded on exchanges, including Apple REITs, are under heightened scrutiny from both the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Lawsuits by unhappy investors have also turned up the heat.

Non-traded REITs have raised more than $73 million, mostly from small investors, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

FINRA has focused on Lerner and his firm, the exclusive selling agent for Apple REIT Companies. Lerner’s web site states that he borrowed $2,500 from a credit union to start the firm in 1976.  His everyman’s motto: “You don’t gamble with your rent or grocery money.”

But in December, FINRA filed a 58-page enforcement action that suggests Lerner clients may be doing just that. It alleges numerous securities rule violations by Lerner and his firm.

Should FINRA win, Lerner and his company could be ordered to pay fines, disgorge profits and be barred from the securities business.

Lerner is charged with soliciting investors to buy Apple REIT shares without properly investigating their suitability, making negligent misrepresentations or omissions of material fact, and artificially valuing shares at a constant $11.

Lerner is also accused of making “false, exaggerated, unwarranted and misleading” claims when pitching Apple REITs. FINRA says his firm continued to improperly pitch Apple REIT shares to thousands of customers after it filed an initial complaint against it in May 2011.

Hearings before a FINRA disciplinary panel are scheduled for September.

COMPANY MOUNTS DEFENSE

Joseph Pickard, David Lerner Associates’ general counsel, characterized FINRA’s complaint as “a misguided and misdirected action” that his firm is vigorously defending.

“We are vehemently at odds with them. They are questioning a business model that goes back some 19 odd years,” Pickard said.

He said that FINRA regulators, “spooked” by Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme and concerned that investors may have been misled, have taken unfair aim at Lerner.

“No one has taken a look at the real story, and that is Apple’s performance compared to their peers. They have performed quite admirably. The track record has been good,” Pickard said.

He added that David Lerner Associates has been scrupulous about disclosing to its customers the inherent risks associated with non-traded REITs.

ELDERLY TARGETS?

FINRA tells a different story in its complaint, which notes that David Lerner Associates earns 10 percent from its Apple REIT offerings – fees that every year since 1996 have accounted for 60-70 percent of the firm’s business.

The complaint says Lerner and his firm used false claims and omissions about investment returns, market values, performance and the prospects of Apple REIT shares while “targeting unsophisticated and elderly customers.”

One such omission: not disclosing at seminars that the Apple REITs had to borrow money to pay dividends.

It recounts statements FINRA says Lerner made at investment seminars at the Boca Raton Marriott. At an April 28, 2011 gathering before about 100 potential customers, for example, Lerner boasted that prospects for one of the Apple REITs were so “incredible” that “attendees will name their children after” him.

At the end of the session, the song “We’re in the Money” was piped in over the sound system, the complaint says.

More than 200 mostly elderly attendees were on hand last Nov. 17 when Lerner referred to Apple REITs as a “cash cow” and Apple REIT investors as “the luckiest people in the world,” according to the complaint.

A proposed federal class action lawsuit says Lerner offers door prizes “like umbrellas and flat-screen TVs” to those who attend its seminars.

TROUBLED PAST

FINRA has gone after Lerner for other investment offerings.

William Mason

In April, a FINRA hearing panel fined David Lerner Associates $2.3 million and suspended its head trader, William Mason, for six months for charging excessive markups on thousands of municipal bond and collateralized mortgage obligation transactions from 2005 until 2007.

FINRA also ordered Lerner’s firm to pay $1.4 million in restitution, plus interest, to customers. Mason was fined $200,000 and suspended from the securities industry for six months.

The company is appealing.

“We have always felt that the prices charged to our customers were fair and reasonable,” said Pickard. “We firmly believe we will be vindicated.”

Individual investors are also litigating claims against Lerner.

In May, Investment News reported that the first of potentially hundreds of arbitration cases before FINRA related to Lerner’s sale of Apple REITs were decided in favor of two claimants.

About 100 claims were pending then, the newspaper said, but others have been filed since.

On June 14, the Boca Raton law firm of Klayman & Toskes filed a due diligence claim against Lerner on behalf of a widow who invested $425,000 in four Apple REITs, according to attorney Jahan K. Manasseh.

“In early 2011, my client was sold the Apple REIT Ten, and the Lerner representative didn’t disclose that this FINRA investigation was going on,” said Manasseh. “She was told she would ultimately have access to her money, and she can’t get out. So she came to us because she has no other options.”

David Lerner Associates also is the target of a proposed class action suit in federal court in Brooklyn, New York regarding the sale of Apple REIT shares. The allegations mirror some of FINRA’s charges.

Court papers identify Palm Beach Gardens resident William Murray as seeking to represent a proposed subclass of Florida investors in Apple REIT securities. His investment: $388,000.

 

Broward IG questions former Hallandale commissioner about CRA deals, newspaper loan

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach paid $235,000 to buy this property in 2009 from a nonprofit whose officers included Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders and his wife Photo: William Gjebre

A former Hallandale Beach commissioner said he voluntarily met with Broward Inspector General investigators Monday who questioned him about the city’s embattled Community Redevelopment Agency, its purchase of property once owned by a group headed by Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders and a city loan to a local newspaper.

The former commissioner, William “Bill” Julian, is currently running for city commission. He declined to discuss details of his four-hour interview with three investigators because “they asked me not to talk about anything.”

For more than a year, however, Broward Bulldog has reported about questionable city loans to local businesses and land purchases through the CRA – whose board of directors are also the city’s commissioners.

The IG’s office investigates suspected misconduct that includes fraud, corruption and mismanagement. IG investigators appear to have begun focusing on Hallandale Beach and its CRA this spring with a trip to City Hall in April. In response to their requests, the city recently turned over thousands of pages of records.

Records indicate that investigators are examining the CRA and a city grant program that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations to eight local non-profits, including several linked to Vice Mayor Sanders or his wife, Jessica.

In 2009, after Sanders’ appointment to the commission the year before, the city spent $235,000 in CRA tax dollars to purchase a building and land at 501 NW First Avenue owned by Higher Vision Ministries, a not for profit corporation whose officers included Sanders and his wife.

Sanders, who did not vote on the city’s purchase, was a director of Higher Vision Ministries when it bought the property in 2001 for $45,000. The nonprofit received a $46,000 property improvement loan from the city not long after the purchase.

The terms of the loan immediately forgave $7,500 in principal. An error by the city at the time the property was sold in 2009 doubled that forgiveness to $15,000 – meaning Higher Vision Ministries only had to pay back $31,000.

LOCAL NEWSPAPER DEAL

Julian, who served as a commissioner and vice mayor from 2001 to 2010 when he was defeated for reelection, said the investigators also asked about a CRA loan to the for-profit South Florida Sun Times.

The weekly newspaper, which regularly features a column by Mayor Joy Cooper, received a $50,000 CRA business loan under favorable terms in 2009.

Half of the loan — $25,000 – was forgiven even though for two years prior to the loan the newspaper’s two top executives each reported incomes averaging more than $200,000.

Julian told Broward Bulldog there has been turmoil at the CRA, with several directors being removed in past years. He added that CRA funds were used for a variety of charitable contributions to community groups.

“I didn’t question use of CRA funds for charitable contributions,” Julian said of his time on the city commission. Commissioners, he added, wanted to “take a load off the general fund…I don’t know if that was legal. That will have to come to light.”

“I don’t know of wrongdoings by commissioners or myself,” Julian said. “I don’t know if I did something wrong.” Julian added that if something was done incorrectly “let’s fix it.”

VOLUNTEERED TO TALK

Julian said he contacted the IG office Friday and volunteered to be interviewed because “there’s a cloud of suspicion over me.”

He said he was compelled to come forward because of public comments on recent stories about the IG investigation and what his involvement might have been while in office.

“I want to be as open as possible,” Julian said. “I have never been accused of anything in my life.”

Inspector General John Scott did not respond to a request for comment.

Julian is one of six candidates vying for two at large commission seats up for grabs on November 6. The other candidates are Vice Mayor Sanders, Gerald Dean, Ann Pearl Henigson, Csaba G. Kulin and Michele Lazarow.

Dorothy Ross, a commission member for 17 years, is not seeking reelection.

CITY BALKS AT COOPERATION

County investigators have asked to speak with each of the commission’s current members.  The City Manager’s Office has informed them that it won’t schedule any interviews until the IG’s office informs the city about its intentions.

In addition, CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz recently told the IG’s office by letter that the CRA is “a separate legal entity” and not subject to the authority of the IG under county and state laws.

Historically, however, the city administration and commissioners have treated the CRA as a part of the city government.

*The CRA has been operating since 1996, but it wasn’t until March that its board of directors – the city commissioners – voted to establish it as a separate “agency” reporting directly to the board in accordance with state law. Until then, the CRA functioned mostly as a subdivision of the city’s Department of Development Services.

* All 59 properties purchased with CRA funds are in the name of the City of Hallandale Beach – not the CRA. The CRA is now seeking to re-title 43 properties to itself, but 16 will remain in the name of the city.

*Hundreds of thousands of dollars in past city grants and charitable contributions to local non-profit community groups did not clearly spell out how much CRA money was used in those taxpayer-provided gifts.

*CRA business loan policies changed frequently under former city managers, allowing for some loans to exceed established limits, some funds to be distributed without repayment agreements, and questionable forgiveness arrangements.

A critical study of city and CRA record keeping this year by an outside auditing firm recommended that a financial manager be hired. The recommendation was also in agency bylaws adopted by city commissioners sitting as the CRA’s board of directors. In June, however, those same board members voted down a CRA staff request to hire a financial manager.

That study was ordered after it had become clear that management problems existed. The commission, however, authorized a limited review rather than a more intensive financial audit. Aside from poor record keeping the recent report by the auditing firm said some $20 million in vendor contracts were never reviewed because city staff failed to provide them.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

Broward Inspector General hits first legal hurdle; Hallandale CRA says hands off

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, run by the city’s five elected commissioners, has sent a message to Broward’s new Inspector General’s Office – you can’t touch us.

Numerous questions have been raised about the business dealings of the CRA, in which city commissioners also serve as directors of the agency.

But now the agency has called into question the IG’s authority to delve into its management practices, declining to have commissioners answer county investigators’ questions about their actions as CRA directors. The move is the first significant challenge to the authority of the year-old criminal justice agency whose job is to investigate possible fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement.

“It is our opinion that the authority of the Inspector General does not generally extend to a community redevelopment agency (CRA) and its board members,” CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz wrote in a June 18 letter to Inspector General Counsel Jennifer Merino.

“As we both know, the individual Hallandale Beach CRA board members and the city commissioners are each one in the same person. However, in these separate capacities they wear separate hats and are guided by separate legal requirements.”

The Hallandale CRA’s bottom line: the IG’s auditors and agents can talk to the five commissioners about their actions as commissioners, but not as CRA board members.

INVESTIGATIVE AUTHORITY QUESTIONED

Zelkowitz’s legal opinion is rooted in the CRA’s status as a special district, a distinct legal entity under Florida law. According to him, board members are public officers regulated by Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials, not the recently updated, and more stringent, Broward County Code that covers all officials and employees of the county and its municipalities.

The CRA uses property tax dollars collected within the district to promote businesses and redevelopment.

What may happen next is unclear, but the Inspector General’s Office is not expected to back down from continuing its probe in the face of a challenge that could impact its authority over the many other special districts in the county. They include large the North and South Broward Hospital Districts and smaller ones such as the Performing Arts Center Authority or the Hillsboro Inlet District.

Inspector General John Scott declined comment.

Robert Jarvis, a professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University, said this is the first big test of the IG’s authority, and that Zelkowitz may have a point. He cited a recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that limited the jurisdiction of the Attorney General to investigate foreclosure mills.

“I think the CRA may be right,” said Jarvis. “I think this has to be decided by a court.”

Last week’s letter is the second push back from Hallandale Beach.

Several weeks ago, City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield informed the IG that the City Manager’s Office would not voluntarily schedule meetings between city commissioners and county agents investigating city management practices, including those at the CRA.

In last week’s letter to IG counsel Merino, Zelkowitz allowed that the IG has the authority, under county code, with respect to the same city commissioners in their city functions – but not those concerning the CRA.

He also stated that the IG may have the authority to review any goods and services that CRA provides to the city. However, Zelkowitz, stated, “In such case, the Inspector General would have authority, but solely with respect to the provisions of such goods and services.”

Zelkowitz declined comment.

City Attorney Whitfield also declined comment. In her June 13 letter to the IG, she said her office wants to know whether the probe is targeted at commissioners as a whole or to actions of individual commissioners to determine what type of legal representation they may require.

The IG is a watchdog agency established in the wake of recent county scandals. It can investigate, but not arrest. It is a member of Broward’s Public Corruption Task Force – a specialized group of federal, state and local investigators and prosecutors – that in April was designated as a “criminal justice agency” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

CITY WANTS MORE INFO

Renee Crichton, Hallandale’s newly appointed city manager, said when the office received a call from the IG it contacted the city attorney and the CRA attorney to discuss the IG’s request to interview commissioners. She declined to comment on whether any member of the city commission was involved in the discussion at some point.

“The CRA and the city commission has not taken any position” on the dispute, Crichton said. “On our part, we need more information as to why the Inspector General wants to interview commissioners. There needs to be some structure; what do they want to discuss.”

“We are not saying we will not cooperate,” Crichton said, adding the city has done so by providing many of the documents requested by the IG.

A call to Broward County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey resulted in a callback from Assistant County Attorney Anthony Myers. Asked about the IG’s authority in the matter under county law, Myers said he does not have “sufficient knowledge” to comment. He added it is possible the matter could end up in a court of law.

At least one city commissioner disagrees with the CRA’s position. “The IG does have jurisdiction,” said London, who is running for mayor against incumbent Joy Cooper. A part of the state law, he said, speaks to the mingling of city and state funds and that would give the investigators authority.

If called by the IG, London said, “I’ll go; I look forward to it.”

Commission members Dorothy Ross and Anthony Sanders both said they would be guided by the city legal counsel on whether to be interviewed.

As Broward Bulldog reported last week, the IG has requested city documents about several community-based groups associated with Sanders or his wife Jessica. The complaints made to the IG, Sanders said, are “coming from the negativity of people. I’m not saying who specifically. It is what it is; it’s a part of the politics.”

When and if he speaks to investigators, Sanders said, “I’ll be glad to talk to them in any capacity, as a city commissioner or a CRA director.”

Mayor Joy Cooper and Commissioner Alexander Lewy could not be reached for comment.

In his letter, Zelkowitz asked the IG to restrict his questioning of city commissioners “to their actions as city commissioners and not as HBCRA Board Members. In this regard, we defer to the City Attorney as to the direction of your investigation with respect to the City and Commissioners.

“Notwithstanding the foregoing, the HBCRA is ready, willing and able to comply with all public records requests of the Inspector General as the records of the HBCRA constitute public records under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes.”

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

Details emerge about Broward IG’s Hallandale probe; payments to commissioner’s wife eyed

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Inspector General John Scott Photo: CBS4 Miami

A Hallandale Beach program that funneled hundreds of thousands of dollar in grants and contributions to community groups is a key focus of the Broward Inspector General’s widespread investigation of city management practices.

Documents obtained by Broward Bulldog show the Inspector General obtained city files on eight community-based organizations, several linked to City Commissioner Anthony Sanders or his wife, Jessica. The documents include information about city payments to Jessica Sanders and others associated with the groups.

Those disclosures, and others about the probe, are contained in a 15-page letter sent to Inspector General John Scott on April 23 from City Manager Mark Antonio.  The letter was the city’s formal response to Scott’s request two weeks earlier for dozens of city records.

Among the records turned over to county investigators are thousands of pages of city memos, reports, minutes, email, budgets, policies, programs, audits, grant reviews and program files. The records sought are for the fiscal years 2010-2012. Antonio also referred investigators to additional public documents on the city’s website.

Some requested information was not supplied. For example, investigators asked for all city records that would show attendance by nonprofit grant recipients at quarterly workshops, as required by grant agreements. Antonio said, however, that there were no sign-in sheets to verify attendance

Antonio, who retires next week, said, “The city has diligently fulfilled the request for records to the best of our ability.’

Scott does not comment on pending investigations.

Antonio’s letter says investigators also sought information about the leasing and rental of city property to local groups; plans and loan programs operated by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency; and expenditure reports involving the CRA, the city’s general fund and the Law Enforcement Trust fund.

County investigators are also reviewing whether non-profit groups receiving city funds followed procedures, assessments, and commitments.

Broward Bulldog reported last week that the City Manager’s Office has not been fully cooperative with investigators by declining to set up interviews between city commissioners and county investigators who want to speak with them. Those commissioners also sit at the CRA’s board of directors.

The refusal was cited in a June 13 letter from the City Attorney’s Office, which also sought the identities of commissioners who might be targets.

INVESTIGATORS VISIT CITY HALL

The Inspector General’s office began its probe on April 10 with a visit to city hall where investigators met city with Antonio and CRA Executive Director Alvin Jackson. Jackson started in January 2011.

Investigators revisited City Hall in recent weeks, meeting with Jackson for several hours. Documents state that IG special agent William Cates and senior auditor Susan Friend also met with other city officials, including Jennifer Frastai, an administrator in the City Manager’s Office, and Marian McCann-Colliee, the city’s Human Resources Director.

The probe appears to be limited to the past three years, but some requests for records have resulted in the city providing documents going back to 2000.

In March, an outside audit was critical of city management and the tracking of CRA loans and property acquisitions. Broward Bulldog also reported then that the audit, which raised questions about the city’s loan practices, did not review more than $20 million in contracts with city vendors because the city failed to provide the information and limitations on the scope of the audit.

In several of the loan deals involving taxpayer property tax dollars, recipients did not have to pay back the amount as much as half of the value of the loan.

COUNTY FOCUSING ON GIVEAWAYS

While records indicate that the Inspector General’s probe is multi-faceted, investigators appear to be strongly focused on city grants and charitable contributions made through its Community Partnership Grants program.

City records show that such giveaways increased 60 percent in the past three years – from $400,000 in fiscal year 2009-2010 to $647,000 this year.

“As economic times worsened the city saw a greater need for services in the community which directly corresponded with the increase in the amount of requests to the city,” Antonio said in his letter. He added that for 2012 “two teams of professional who were non-city employees” reviewed 29 applications.

Available city documents show that in 2010 and 2011, city grants and donations did not specify where the money came from: the general fund, CRA or the Law Enforcement Trust fund. But this year, after a CRA management makeover, they were shown as follows: general fund, $256,130; CRA, $274,600; and Law Enforcement Trust Fund, $116,654.

The Inspector General asked for the files on these program recipients:

  • Eagles Wings Development Center Inc., job training and social services program, $50,000 in the past two years.
  • Greater Mt. Everett Resources and Learning Center, a work force training program for construction trades, $61,000 this year.
  • Lampkin’s Creative Arts for All LLC, including Dizzy Fingers School of Excellence, Inc., training youth in how to advance in the arts, $50,000 this year.
  • Palms Center for the Arts, Inc., a youth arts and job preparation program, $107,000 past three years.
  • Palm Community Action Coalition, community based program assistance, $26,000 over two years.
  • Palms of Hallandale Beach Weed and Seed, a crime prevention and community development program associated with the Department of Justice, $143,000 past three years.
  • Phileo Outreach Ministries Inc., a program for rehabilitation of youth, $45,000 past two years.
  • Zamar School of Performing Arts, Inc., $25,000 two years ago.

COMMISSIONER SANDERS AND WIFE

State corporate records for Eagles Wing listed Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anthony Sanders as president and his wife, Jessica, director, in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Jessica was listed as director, but Anthony Sanders was not listed. He was appointed to the city commission on Sept. 8, 2008 to fill a vacancy.

Commissioner Anthony Sanders

Jessica Sanders also has ties to two other non-profits on the Inspector General’s list, according to public records.

She is a contact for the Palms Community Action Coalition, which until April 2011 was known as the Palms Community Development Corporation. Jessica Sanders, as “interim site coordinator” for Palms of Hallandale Beach Weed and Seed, appeared at a July 14, 2011 Hallandale Beach commission meeting before a vote to award a $45,000 grant to her group.  “Vice Mayor Sanders excused himself from the dais during the presentation and recused himself from voting,” city minutes say.

In an interview this week, Commissioner Sanders indicated that he is perplexed about the county’s inquiry.

“I can’t answer why they are asking for the records,” he said. “They are looking at nonprofits. I don’t mind that they are looking at Eagles Wings. It is a service to the community and always has been…food programs, job training and other services.”

Sanders indicated he may meet with IG investigators soon.

Jessica Sanders said, “I’m not concerned about the probe.” She said there has been no wrongdoing and noted that she has provided some records to IG investigators. She said that she and her husband “stayed here to make a difference. We do good work.”

Her income from the Weed and Seed program was not from city funds, she said, but came from the Department of Justice, which backed the program. She said that on several occasions she was asked by the Weed and Seed governing board to operate the program when the group’s administrators failed to perform.

OTHERS SCRUTINIZED

The county investigators also sought information payments made by the city to Nellie Bacon, Clara Brown, Deborah Brown, Selinda Washington-Jackson and Jacquelyn Rosenau.

According to state corporation records Rosenau is director at Eagles Wing. Clara Brown is corporate secretary for Palms Community Action Coalition. Deborah Brown was president of Palm Center for the Arts in 2011, and a principal and director of Zamar School in 2011. Washington-Jackson works for Weed and Seed. Rosenau used to work for the agency.

The city supplied copies of its lease and rental agreements with non-profits to investigators.

Those agreements are with: Hallandale Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, Zamar School of Performing Arts, and the Palm Center for the Arts.

The chamber, which received $25,000 from the city in 2010, has an office in City Hall, next to the commission chambers. The rental fee for approximately 400 square feet of space is $1 a month.

The Palm Center for the Arts, 501 NW 1st Ave., sits on land the city purchased with CRA funds in 2009 from Anthony Sanders’ nonprofit Higher Vision Ministries; a commissioner at the time, Sanders did not vote on the sale.

Sanders bought the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city for $235,000 after receiving a $46,000 property improvement loan. The city initially agreed to forgive $7,500 of the loan. When the city bought Sanders’ property, however, it forgave an additional $7,500 when at the time the sale was finalized. City officials have said it was an error by the city.

In August 2009, the city leased Sanders’ former property to the Palm Center for the Arts for a one- time fee of $10, on the condition it provide community art and music training programs. While the lease states the center is not allowed to sublet or rent the facility, the city modified the agreement to permit the Zamar School for Performing Arts to operate a summer camp at the center in the summer in 2009.

A provision in the Palm Center lease allowed for a summer camp music program. The city helped Zamar with $25,000 to operate the camp.

The IG’s office has also requested information about additional money given to various groups that was more than initially authorized.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

 

Broward finally looks to build a new Elections HQ; a politically connected developer wants the job

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes

Broward County may finally be closing in on a new home for its Supervisor of Elections following 10 years of trying re-locate to new digs.

Last week, at the urging of public works staff, the County Commission approved a plan to obtain formal bids from two developers – one of them from a family with deep political connections.

The developers expressed interest last March in building a long-sought facility that would consolidate the crowded downtown Fort Lauderdale elections office in County Hall and an elections warehouse now housed about five miles away in the back of the Lauderhill Mall.

The county wants to spend no more than $15 million for both a six- to seven-acre site in a central location and a 74,000-square-foot building.

The goal is to have a developer under contract by September, with a new facility ready within two years.

THE CONTENDERS

One of the interested developers, Continental Real Estate Companies, is proposing an eight-acre parcel, the site of a former BJ’s Wholesale Club in Sunrise, near Oakland Park Boulevard and University Drive. The property was purchased by Oakland University Associates LTD, based in New Jersey, in July 1998 for $10 million and is for sale. For 2011 property tax purposes, the county estimates the value of the site at $11.4 million.

The property is in foreclosure with the public sale set for July 12.  According to county documents, Continental expects to gain title to the property on or before July 25.

“It’s premature to comment on what we will propose there until the commission approves step two,” said Dave Moret, of Continental. “We need to see what they are looking for.”

The other developer is Sunrise Properties & Investment, controlled by M. Austin Forman, son of the late longtime political powerbroker Hamilton Forman. In his prime, Hamilton Forman was said to have a hand for decades in nearly every major political decision in the county.  He died in January 2010. The company’s project manager could not be reached for comment.

Forman’s plan, according to county documents, includes three parcels in Plantation at 6901 Sunrise Blvd., near Plantation High School. The company purchased the 6.67 acres in March 1999 for $1.6 million. The site’s current assessed value is $3.4 million. In a June 12 memo to the board, Snipes recommended this option.

An evaluation committee will make a recommendation to the county commission, which will make the final decision on a developer.  

“All things being equal, the contractor will be responsible for building at the negotiated price, time and place,” said Steve Hammond, a county assistant director of Public Works.

FINDING A SATISFACTORY SITE

Finding a new home would be a relief for Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes, who splits her time between the two existing facilities.

In October, commissioners discussed purchasing and remodeling the current Lauderhill Mall location to consolidate Snipes’ operations. However, Snipes objected during the January commission meeting saying the facility was too small and too old. A heated debate ensued and the site was dropped.

“The Lauderhill Mall owners have been very responsive to our needs, but it’s an old leaky building and we need more security,” Snipes said.

Vandals had damaged staff cars in the parking lot, she said.

Other sites have been considered and discarded over the years; one bid was tossed because it came in over the previous $10 million budget.

Commissioners have also been wary of spending county funds due to the economy and at one point, the money was returned to county coffers, Snipes said.

“This time around, things are going well,” Hammond said. “With the county commission you never know, there’s a healthy debate about all expenditures. But, I think everyone is aware of the need.”

Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at ahenson@browardbulldog.org

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