Ft. Lauderdale police snooped on investigator helping FBI probe police corruption, suit says

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Allen Smith, left, chief investigator for the Broward Public Defender's Offfice, with Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

Allen Smith, left, chief investigator for the Broward Public Defender’s Offfice, with Public Defender Howard Finkelstein

The chief investigator for the Broward Public Defender’s Office sued Fort Lauderdale last week alleging that a city policeman impermissibly obtained his driver’s license records while he was helping the FBI investigate police corruption in the city.

The federal civil action is the second since September to accuse police in Broward of using their otherwise legitimate access to a confidential law enforcement database to commit privacy violations against members of the Public Defender’s Office.

The incidents spurred Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein to ask the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, which runs the database, to find out whether the license information of any other staff attorneys, investigators or administrators has been improperly checked. The DMV has not yet responded.

“We’re concerned,” said Finkelstein. “Clearly, the police had no legitimate reason to do this.”

Last week’s lawsuit was filed by Allen Smith, a 26-year veteran of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department who joined the Public Defender’s Office as an investigator in 1997. It alleges that in 2011, while Smith was assisting federal agents in their corruption probe, the FBI put his name on a watch list to be notified if his name was run through any government databases.

On Nov. 29, 2011, the FBI notified Smith that Fort Lauderdale Officer James Wood had accessed his records through the DMV’s Driver and Vehicle Information Database.

“Plaintiff was later informed that his driver’s license photograph was printed and used as a target on a dart board in the Fort Lauderdale police station,” says the nine-page complaint.

Smith, who the lawsuit says has never been arrested or stopped and ticketed while driving in the city, was made to “feel at risk as if he is subject to law enforcement scrutiny as a result of his work on police corruption investigations.”

Smith reported the matter to the State Attorney’s Office. In June 2012, prosecutor Stefanie Newman declined to prosecute. Her close-out memo says that while there was evidence that Wood exceeded his authority by obtaining Smith’s records for “personal reasons,” there “is no indication he disseminated that information in violation” of criminal statutes.

The department’s Internal Affairs division also cleared Wood, a decision later accepted without much probing by Fort Lauderdale’s Citizens Police Review Board, a body staffed by city Internal Affairs detectives and governed by a nine-member board that includes three city officers.

Officer Wood, who is not a named defendant in Smith’s lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment passed through the department’s media relations office. The City Attorney’s Office also did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In separate interviews, both Finkelstein and Smith said the FBI approached the Public Defender’s Office in 2011 for assistance as the bureau was establishing an anti-corruption unit in Broward.

“We were asked by them to furnish information we had in our files,” said Smith. “Knowing police officers the way I do, I told them that if it got out I was working with the FBI, my name and personal identification information would be checked so I asked to be put on an alert list. Two weeks later was when it was run.”

Smith said he ultimately gave the FBI “half a box full of stuff” regarding incidents of apparent police corruption in Broward.

What did the FBI do with that information? What is the status and scope of the FBI’s previously unreported police corruption investigation?

Smith doesn’t know. “You know how the feds are. You feed them, but they don’t give you any snacks in return,” he said.

FBI Special Agent Richard Stout, who met with Finkelstein and Smith, did not respond to a detailed voicemail message requesting comment.

Smith’s complaint, assigned to U.S. District Judge James Cohn, contends that the city violated the federal Driver’s Privacy Protection Act (DPPA), passed in response to the 1989 murder of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a crazed fan who obtained her address from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. It asserts that police obtained Smith’s records “without any permissible purpose for doing so.”

The suit seeks a declaration that the city broke federal law regarding the disclosure of personal information, and an order prohibiting the city from future violations. Also sought: liquidated damages of $2,500 per violation and unspecified punitive damages.

Assistant Public Defender Molly Caroline McCrae filed a class-action lawsuit citing the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act against both Fort Lauderdale and the Broward Sheriff’s Office this fall. She has the same lawyers that Smith does, Paul Kunz of Miami and Michael L. Greenwald of Boca Raton.

McCrae has been a public defender since 2009, handling homicide and other cases. According to her complaint, she has never been arrested or stopped while driving and has no reason to believe she is the focus of any criminal investigation.

However, after becoming concerned that her motor vehicle records may have been inappropriately accessed, McCrae asked the DMV to check. She got back a list showing that three law enforcement officers from Fort Lauderdale and BSO obtained her records four times in 2011 and 2012. The suit identifies those cases and policemen as:

  • Fort Lauderdale Officer Ethan Hodge obtained McCrae’s records on Sept. 17, 2011, ten days after she subpoenaed him to appear for a deposition in a third-degree felony case in which she was representing the defendant.
  • Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Ronald Cusumano obtained McCrae’s records on Nov. 3, 2011. At the time, Cusumano was listed as a witness in another third-degree felony case in which McCrae was the defense lawyer.
  • Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Lucca got McCrae’s motor vehicle records twice on Aug. 24, 2012.

The police actions to obtain her motor vehicle records “in violation of the DPPA” made McCrae, like Smith, “feel at risk and as if she is subject to law enforcement scrutiny as a result of her work as a public defender.”

Citing “repeated efforts” of police to improperly access McCrae’s motor vehicle records, the lawsuit contends that city officers and county deputies “routinely obtain private motor vehicle records of Broward County public defenders, without consent and without a permissible purpose for doing so.”

The proposed class in McCrae’s lawsuit: all current and former employees of the Public Defender’s Office whose motor vehicle records were obtained from Sept. 11, 2011 through Sept. 11, 2015 by an officer or deputy who got a subpoena or notice to testify.

Neither the Fort Lauderdale Police nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office responded to requests for comment about McCrae’s case.

Fort Lauderdale to use “poor people’s money” to subsidize transit for affluent?

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of Fort Lauderdale's proposed WAVE streetcar. Will tax dollars intended to eliminate slums be used to pay for it?

A rendering of Fort Lauderdale’s proposed WAVE streetcar. Will tax dollars intended to eliminate slums be used to pay for it?

Fort Lauderdale’s recent approval of a no-bid contract to update the plan for the troubled Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights Community Redevelopment Agency has raised concerns about a lack of public input amid a rush to add projects not in the current plan at the expense of community needs.

Scott Strawbridge, who serves on the CRA’s 14-member advisory board, has called for outside review of the agency after he and his colleagues were informed that City Manager Lee Feldman signed a $24,500 contract with a private firm in August to amend the current CRA plan, last updated in 2001.

Pompano Beach-based Redevelopment Management Associates LLC has already begun the first phase of the work. Under city code, the city manager has authority to enter into contracts up to $25,000, without seeking approval from the CRA board.

“The city is trying to push through a short term process that should take a longer review,” said Strawbridge, adding there needs to be more data to support any proposed changes. “I think it would be healthy for the public to understand what has been spent…There should be accountability.”

Except for one informational hearing on Sept. 23 about the Redevelopment Management firm’s study, there has been little public notice and input, Strawbridge added.

Frank Schnidman, a Florida Atlantic University professor recognized as an expert on legal issues regarding CRAs law, said state statute makes “clear if projects are not in the plan then it’s inappropriate to use tax increment” CRA funds to pay for them.

By law, the mission of CRAs is to clean up slum and blight. Schnidman said the Northeast Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA apparently is considering funding transportation projects not currently in the plan. But even if they met the legal requirements for CRA funding “they would not alleviate slum and blight…They would be using poor people’s money to subsidize transit for people living in more affluent areas.”

“This would be another manipulation of tax money,” Schnidman said, adding the funds would be better used for “affordable housing, where there is a crisis. Poor people would be left out in favor of politically favored projects, like the Wave,” a proposed streetcar system primarily servicing the downtown area.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman

City Manager Feldman, who also serves as executive director of the CRA, and Jeremy Earle, deputy director, of the city’s Sustainable Development Office, did not respond to requests for comment.

However, city spokesman Matt Little noted in an e-mail response that the CRA budget includes funding for the WAVE, “as approved by the CRA Board.” He also said the budget may include “a line item” subsidy for the existing Sun Trolley system, if the project is contained in the Plan, but did not clarify if that was the case or not.

The CRA’s plan is being updated because it hasn’t been amended for 11 years, and changes could allow for the enhancement of transportation, provide support for community events and give the CRA Board flexibility to consider other proposals that may be presented, the spokesman said.

The concerns follow a problematic city auditor’s report in May that castigated the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA for its poor oversight of a taxpayer-financed office and retail complex, Sixth Street Plaza, which filed for bankruptcy last spring.

“The project lacked fundamental project discipline, from risk assessment and establishing proper governance to detailed accounting of funds disbursement,” City Auditor John Herbst wrote in a cover memo to the city commission, which also sits as the CRA’s board of directors.

The city commission requested the report after FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that taxpayer loans were in jeopardy due to the forced sale of the plaza.

Strawbridge, an official with the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, stopped short of naming the agency that should look into NPF’s spending practices. But the Broward Inspector General’s Office has kept close tabs of municipal CRAs in recent years.

Last year, for example, the Inspector General found the Margate CRA deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in funds by rolling the money over for several years without specific purposes. In 2013, it determined that the Hallandale Beach CRA had $2.2 million in questionable expenditures.

Two years ago, the Florida Auditor General cited the Hollywood Beach CRA for failing to report $36.2 million in unspent year-end funds from 2009-2010 and $34.2 million from 2010-2011. The city is now considering options that would redirect funds intended for the CRA to the city.

The proposed route of Fort Lauderdale's WAVE streetcar

The proposed route of Fort Lauderdale’s WAVE streetcar

Strawbridge said the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA is seeking to revise the existing plan to add projects for funding consideration that are not included in its existing plan, even as the new fiscal year began Oct. 1.

According to city documents, CRA officials expect Redevelopment Management Associates to present an outline of proposed changes at the end of November, and to city commissioners for approval in December. The company, formed in 2009 and run by redevelopment consultants Kim Briesemeister and Chris Brown, pitches itself as a way to help cities “reinvent” themselves to attract businesses, jobs and revenue.

The CRA budget for the new fiscal year of 2015-2016 will likely include funds for transportation projects not in the existing plan, Strawbridge said.

He cited two memos from Feldman to commissioners. One outlined an extension of the proposed $50 million WAVE streetcar to a portion of the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights area at a cost of $7.5 million. The CRA would make an anticipated annual payment of $870,000, for up to 11 years.

The other memo called for the CRA to pay $197,000 to offset operational expenses for the existing Sun Trolley system in the CRA area.

In the past, the CRA has also funded neighborhood street parties, giving one group up to $142,000, Strawbridge said. He questioned whether that was a proper expenditure under a previous opinion by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which opined that CRA funds should be used for “bricks and mortar” projects.

Lurid sex claims against Ft. Lauderdale police major and the difficulty of coming forward

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna

Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna

One evening in mid-summer 2010, the 13-year-old niece of Fort Lauderdale Police Maj. Eric Brogna fell asleep in the bedroom of his six-year-old daughter, whom she was babysitting.

Around 2:30 a.m., male hands pressing on her breasts jolted the adolescent girl awake. She quickly shifted her body and saw the silhouette of a tall man. “I turned on the TV because I was like freaked out,” the girl recalled three years later during a police interview. “So then I just stayed up the rest of the night.”

She identified Brogna, who was the only male in the house that night, as her attacker, according to an Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement the teen gave to Detective Jeff Payne of the Coral Springs Police special victims unit.

“He touched me inappropriately,” she said.

Even though Detective Payne believed the teenager was telling the truth, the Broward State Attorney’s Office declined in October 2013 to prosecute Brogna for lewd and lascivious behavior, citing a lack of physical evidence.

Last year, Fort Lauderdale police internal affairs investigators probed Brogna for alleged conduct unbecoming a police officer. But after Brogna denied under oath any wrongdoing and accused his ex-wife, the girl’s aunt, of lying to get back at him, the charge was not sustained.

The city’s Citizens Police Review Board, whose members included several current and former police officers, later accepted that finding despite hearing from the girl’s aunt that the family had “text messages, emails and photographs that contradicted the officer’s statements” and had not been given “an opportunity to provide this evidence,” according to the board’s April 2014 meeting minutes.

Brogna, who heads the department’s administrative support division, did not return two phone messages and emails seeking comment. His boss, Police Chief Frank Adderley declined to comment, as did Brogna’s ex-wife Lynn Michelle Brogna and her two sisters, including the victim’s mother.


The criminal and internal affairs investigative files in Brogna’s case illustrate how uncomfortable it is for victims of sex crimes to come forward.

Consider the case of Fort Lauderdale Detective Tim Shields, who is still with the department. On July 7, 2004, two women accused him of exposing himself and demanding sex from one of them, according to the minutes of a 2005 meeting of the Citizens Police Review Board and a 2006 Sun-Sentinel article.

Shields denied the allegations even though a tracking device in his cruiser revealed he was at their house that day for 28 minutes. He claimed he was reading a magazine while conducting surveillance of a stolen car, but investigators turned up evidence that Shields wasn’t part of the surveillance detail.

Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley

Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley

Broward prosecutors nevertheless cited insufficient evidence in declining to file criminal charges against him. Internal affairs investigators also cleared Shields in January 2005 of a conduct-becoming charge, recommending a one-day suspension for not telling dispatchers he’d gone back on duty at the time of the alleged incident.

The review board, however, was troubled by the case and issued an opinion that the unbecoming conduct charge against Shields should have been sustained. “It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said then-board member Ted Fling, questioning Shields’ story. “It’s just insane.”

Further, the board found that Internal Affairs detectives had violated the city disciplinary code by withholding the Shields case from it, the city manager and the public for nearly a year – long enough that its outcome, and Shields’ light punishment, could not be changed.

The case against Brogna traveled along a similar path. His family troubles began shortly before the alleged groping incident in 2010.

Lynne Brogna was married to Maj. Brogna at the time. Her twin sister, Dana Calvo, her other sister Jodi Hansen and their mother Linda Robinson later provided sworn statements that they caught Brogna masturbating at the dining room table after Thanksgiving dinner in 2009.

According to her Aug. 30, 2013 sworn statement to Detective Payne, Robinson said: “I looked under the table, and he was masturbating and you could see the top of his penis.”

On Oct. 10, 2013, Calvo relayed a similar account to Detective Payne: “I could see right under the table and he had his penis out. And I could see he had it in his hands.”

When contacted by FloridaBulldog.org, Calvo and her twin Dana did not want to comment, stating they wished to move on from the ugliest chapter in their lives. They said Robinson and Hansen also did not want to talk about it.


 Lynne Brogna told Coral Springs and Fort Lauderdale police she confronted her then-husband after being informed of the incident. She said in her Aug. 29, 2013 statement to Detective Payne that Brogna blamed his behavior on a combination of medications he was taking and beer he consumed during and after the holiday dinner. Lynne Brogna also retold her account to Internal Affairs investigators on Jan. 17, 2014.

Lynne Brogna told investigators their marriage quickly fell apart after her niece told her mom and her about what she said had happened in 2010. In both of her sworn statements, Lynne Brogna claimed her husband never denied groping the girl.

“Of course he cried and he begged,” Lynne Brogna said during her interview with Internal Affairs detectives last year. “I told him he needed to move out and told him he needed to get help.”

Lynne Brogna and her relatives said fear, shock and embarrassment prevented them from immediately reporting him to law enforcement. They also told investigators that Brogna agreed to seek counseling if they didn’t report him.

“There are a lot of reasons I didn’t,” Lynne told IA investigators. “I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I didn’t want my kids to be embarrassed.”

Hansen, the victim’s mother, said she initially wanted to turn Brogna in as soon as she found out, according to her Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement to Detective Payne. “Shame on me, I waited,” Hansen said. “I was thinking about my sister and my nieces. I didn’t want them to have to deal with any burdens.”

Part of her also wanted to protect Brogna, Hansen conceded. “I was also thinking of my brother-in-law,” she said. “He’s a police officer. I didn’t want him to have any consequences. Maybe I could just quiet things down and pretend it didn’t happen, but it did.”

By the time Brogna’s ex-wife and her family finally decided to file a police report, the divorce had been finalized and he had remarried. Brogna also told Payne and internal affairs investigators that her ex-husband lied to her about getting therapy and not drinking alcohol.


Delays in reporting sexual abuse are common due to embarrassment or fear.

“It can take decades for some people to come forward,” said Jeff Dion, deputy director with the Washington D.C.-based National Center for Victims of Crime. “Victims feel no one will believe them especially when the perpetrator is someone in the family.”

Still, while Detective Payne believed the now 18-year-old victim, he informed her mother that the delay was a problem.

“The biggest thing that’s gonna raise a flag for everyone is why a three-year delay in reporting,” Payne told Hansen, according to her Aug. 29, 2013 sworn statement.

Indeed, Brogna’s Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Mitchell Polay called the timing of the allegations against his client “highly suspect,” according to Payne’s narrative report.

Polay provided Kristin Kanner, then the Broward assistant state prosecutor assigned to the case, with text messages and witnesses that purportedly supported Brogna’s claim that his ex-wife and her family were making up stories to get back at him.

However, in her Oct. 31, 2013 closeout memo, written as she was leaving to take a new job as director of the state’s Sexually Violent Predator Program, Kanner wrote that Brogna “had to walk around the bed to [the victim’s] side of the room, so it couldn’t have been an accidental brushing while he was checking on his daughter (which is the first defense).”

Still, Kanner identified several difficulties with the case, specifically noting that any admissions Brogna made to Lynne would be subject to marital privilege. The prosecutor also cited Polay’s argument that Brogna’s former wife was motivated by jealousy over his recent nuptials.

“Again, another hard to surmount defense hurdle,” Kanner opined. “There is no physical evidence and no admissible admissions of any kind,” she added. “As such, there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction.”


The internal affairs probe, completed on March 31, 2014, was even more favorable to Brogna. Unlike the criminal case, he provided a sworn statement for IA investigators.

Brogna vehemently denied masturbating in the presence of his in-laws as well as fondling his then-niece’s breasts. Brogna claimed the allegations were part of his ex-wife’s “methodology and an attempt to control him.”

“It was a blackmail tool that she attempted to tell me how I was gonna live my life,” Brogna said. “And I lived like that for three years until I couldn’t live with it anymore.”

Lynne Brogna told IA investigators that she had proof Brogna was being untruthful. “It’s all in text messages,” she said in her sworn statement. “He can lie all he wants.”

Backing Brogna up were Chief Adderley and Thomas Harrington, an assistant chief under Adderley who joined the Broward Sheriff’s Office in 2013.

An Internal Affairs summary report says that on March 11, 2014, Harrington told investigators, “Brogna expressed his belief that his ex-wife was trying to make his life miserable by making some allegation about him touching his ex-wife’s niece.”

Adderley recalled the same day Brogna telling him that Lynne had sent him text messages threatening to file a “criminal allegation against him if he did not sever his relationship with Eric’s now wife.” The chief said he advised Brogna to file an incident report with the Coral Springs Police that Lynne was trying to extort him.

Adderley declined through a spokesman to talk about his statement or say why he gave Brogna personal advice about how to handle the situation.

Auditor rips Ft. Lauderdale CRA as taxpayers face $1 million loss

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Sixth Street Plaza

Sixth Street Plaza

A new Fort Lauderdale auditor’s report castigates the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) for its poor oversight of a taxpayer-financed office and retail plaza that was to be the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

Sixth Street Plaza, a 23,000-square foot building at 900 NW Sixth Street, filed for bankruptcy this month, further jeopardizing the repayment of almost $1 million in taxpayer loans.

“The project lacked fundamental project management discipline, from risk assessment and establishing proper governance to detailed accounting of funds disbursement,” City Auditor John Herbst wrote in a cover memo to the city commission. “Accordingly, there is no way to be certain that all of the funds put into this project were spent appropriately.”

The city commission, sitting as the CRA board, requested the report after FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that taxpayer loans were in jeopardy due to the forced sale of the plaza.


The report found the Sixth Street Plaza project flawed from the start by a shoddy business plan. Still, it was pushed by cheerleading CRA staff.

“The CRA staff failed to maintain their objectivity,” the report adds. “As observed in emails…in 2008 and 2009, they appeared to view their role as project advocates rather than as stewards of the CRA’s funds.”

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale's Department of Sustainable Development

Former CRA director Al Battle, now deputy director of Fort Lauderdale’s Department of Sustainable Development

Alfred Battle, who headed the CRA for the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights area during part of Sixth Street Plaza’s construction, did not respond to requests for comment. Battle is currently a deputy director at the city’s Department of Sustainable Development.

The report, released last week, to be discussed during Tuesday’s city commission conference meeting.

The Fort Lauderdale CRA is one of nine municipal CRAs in Broward County that direct tax dollars to areas to clean up slum and blight.

In November, Broward County Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the public sale of Sixth Street Plaza at the request of Regent Bank, which from 2005 to 2007 had loaned the developer nearly $2.3 million.

The developer is Sixth Street Plaza Inc., whose corporate president is Maria J. Freeman.

Freeman is well known to city hall and Broward political circles. She is vice chair of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority and has served on the CRA’s Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights Redevelopment Board, the city Marine Advisory Board, the city Planning and Zoning Board and the city Planned Unit Development Zoning District Advisory Committee.

Freeman’s business telephone has been disconnected. She did not respond to a request to comment made through her attorney, Susan D. Lasky.


The Fort Lauderdale CRA gave Sixth Street Plaza another $1.2 million in loans and grants between 2005 and 2009, according to the report. The South Florida Regional Planning Council, a quasi-governmental agency, also loaned Sixth Street Plaza $300,000.

Regent Bank hoped to recoup some of its loan in the public sale of the plaza. The sale, however, was put on hold when Freeman’s Sixth Street Plaza Inc. filed for bankruptcy in federal court. Sixth Street Plaza filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 4, the day before the plaza was to be sold at a public auction.

Freeman personally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, claiming she “has experienced difficulties caused by the significant downturn in the real estate market.” That action is pending.

Regent Bank’s attorney Steve Moody said in an interview that the latest bankruptcy filing shifts the state court foreclosure case to federal court and stops the public sale.

Even if the public sale eventually occurs the odds remain long that the city will recoup the money it loaned to build Sixth Street Plaza. The taxpayer loans are “subordinate,” meaning that if the public auction does not raise enough money to pay off Regent, no monies will be left over to repay the taxpayers.

Zillow, an online real estate database, placed the value of Sixth Street Plaza this month at $743,512, down from a February estimate of $905,275.

The Sixth Street Plaza opened in 2010, but has never been successful in attracting more than a handful of long-term tenants despite rosy CRA estimates. A 2002 CRA staff analysis of the plaza’s vacancy rate “was unsupported” and lacked “market studies or comparative rents,” the auditor’s report states.

“…Even under aggressive assumptions regarding vacancy rates, and using an extremely low budget for construction, the development was projected to generate barely enough cash flow after operations to service its debt,” the report concludes.

One long-term plaza tenant is the CRA itself, which is paying $96,000 a year through 2016 for 6,000-feet of office space, rent the auditor’s report criticizes as an “above-market rate.” The CRA will pay “as much as $481,947” in excess rent” during the term of its lease, the report points out.


The report says “the CRA director at the time” said that “paying higher (rental) rates would jumpstart the office market in the area, but there was no rationale provided to justify that statement.”

The report goes on describe the plaza’s business plan as “meager, lacking a detailed market demand analysis, marketing plan, construction budget and cash flow projections.” Auditors found no “documentation of the developer’s capacity to undertake the work.”

That disorganization was reflected in the project’s construction budget that jumped from $735,000 in 2001 to $1.6 million in 2002. “There is no explanation of what increased and why,” the report states.

CRA files likewise contained “no payroll reports, subcontractor labor invoices, material invoices, etc…It is unclear whether the information regarding the cost overruns, change orders and additional loans from Regent Bank was shared with the CRA in a timely manner,” the audit said.

Sixth Street Plaza failed even though Freeman raised a total of $3.75 million through loans and grants. “The project should have had more than adequate capital,” the report adds.

According to Sixth Street Plaza’s bankruptcy petition, the company also owes more than $52,000 to subcontractors and other businesses.

One reason the auditor had difficulty tracing expenditures is because the original agreement between the CRA and developer did not allow for the CRA to audit Sixth Street Plaza’s records.

“Accordingly, the (auditor’s office) was unable to review key elements that may have yielded a better understanding of the cost increases and flow of funds,” Herbst said in his cover memo.

The report also blasts the CRA for failing to monitor adequately the distribution of taxpayer monies to the project. As a result, “the city is unable to determine how $916,344…of CRA funds were spent,” the report says.

Herbst recommended the “CRA needs to integrate a culture of fiscal discipline and accountability into its core mission of eliminating slum and blight.” To accomplish that, the report suggests the city commission separate project management and advocacy within the CRA as “these functions have goals which may be at odds with each other…”

Fort Lauderdale redevelopment project fails; $1 million in taxpayer funds at risk

By William Hladky, FloridaBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale's Sixth Street Plaza

Fort Lauderdale’s Sixth Street Plaza

Almost $1 million in taxpayer loans may never be repaid due to the forced sale of Sixth Street Plaza, centerpiece of Fort Lauderdale’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor, at a public auction on May 5.

Broward County Circuit Court Judge Carlos Rodriguez ordered the sale of the troubled 22,825-square foot office and retail plaza at 900 NW Sixth St. in November at the request of Davie-based Regent Bank.

Regent Bank gave Sixth Street Plaza Inc. and its president Maria J. Freeman a nearly $2.3 million mortgage in 2005 to construct a “flagship” project as part of Fort Lauderdale’s efforts to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor. The Sixth Street Plaza opened in 2010, but has never been successful in attracting more than a handful of long-term tenants.

Maria J. Freeman, president of the Sixth Street Plaza

Maria J. Freeman, president of the Sixth Street Plaza

Freeman, a general contractor, is vice chairman of the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority.

At the same time in 2005, the South Florida Regional Planning Council loaned $300,000 to Sixth Street Plaza. In 2008, the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) loaned the project an additional $447,990 and made a second loan a year later worth $250,000.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, the loans by the planning council and the CRA are “subordinate,” meaning that if the public auction does not raise more than the $2.1 million owed the bank, no monies will be left over to repay them. Zillow, an online real estate database, places the value of the Sixth Street Plaza building at 900 NW 6 St. at $905,275.

The South Florida Regional Planning Council is a quasi-governmental agency set up to address regional problems in growth, land development and transportation. The Fort Lauderdale CRA is one of nine city CRAs in Broward County that direct tax dollars to areas to clean up slum and blight. The Sistrunk corridor is called the Northwest-Progresso-Flagler Heights area. The city commission sits as the CRA board.


The CRA may be able to recoup their investment if it buys the plaza at auction, said Frank Schnidman, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida Atlantic University.

Schnidman told FloridaBulldog.org that by owning the plaza, the CRA would both avoid the $9,513 a month in office rent it now pays to Sixth Street Plaza and control the balance of the property so it could find tenants to “put feet on the street.” Once the vacant tenant space was filled the CRA could sell the property to a private buyer, allowing the CRA to recover the purchase price and return the property to the roll, Schnidman said.

The CRA offices are located on the second floor of the Sixth Street Plaza.

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said in an interview that the auction price of the Sixth Street Plaza will influence what the city does. He declined to say whether they city would consider bidding. The commission, sitting as the CRA board, will discuss the matter on Feb. 17.

Escalating costs plagued the Sixth Street Plaza project.

In November 2005, Regent initially loaned Sixth Street $1.45 million. Seven months later, the loan was modified and increased to $1.9 million. In December 2007, the loan was modified again and increased to almost $2.3 million.

The CRA made its first loan of nearly $450,000 to the project in June 2008. It had already had contributed $400,000 for infrastructure improvements. The $400,000 was a grant, not a loan.

According to the CRA minutes, then Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle noted that the project had encountered “various problems” and wanted Freeman to personally signed the loan, saying that without it the CRA would be “guilty of malfeasance.”


Freeman personally guaranteed the loan. The minutes did not elaborate on the problems.

Thirteen months later, on July 7, 2009, Freeman was back before the city commission asking for another $250,000 in CRA tax funds.

Al Battle, Director of the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA

Al Battle, Director of the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA

The money was needed primarily to pay off mechanic liens, but this time Freeman faced a different commission. Jack Seiler had replaced Naugle as mayor and Romney Rogers had joined the commission.

An audiotape of the meeting reveals that Seiler and Rogers grilled Freeman and Alfred Battle, CRA director for the Sistrunk corridor, for 90 minutes.

Rogers pointed out that Freeman’s project was $3.2 million in debt and the Six Street Plaza was appraised at $2.4 million. “So you’re underwater $800,000 at least…Has anyone really crunched the numbers?” Rogers asked. Battle admitted such an analysis had not been done.

Seiler asked, “If we don’t give this money, you’re essentially going to lose the property?”

Freeman didn’t answer the mayor’s question, but said, “The project has done what it is supposed to have done as far as its ability to attract tenants.”

Bobby DeBose, who also had joined the city commission, came to Freeman’s defense. “We need to commend her for jumping in,” he said, calling Sixth Street Plaza a “flagship” project that was needed to revitalize the “blighted,” predominately black Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

“We know it is difficult,” he added.

Rogers said Battle and his staff “should be all over this thing and more involved…It shouldn’t have gotten this far…If it is a flagship you should treat it like a flagship.”


Turning to Freeman, Rogers said, “You’re a pioneer…I applaud you for that…but maybe you should have reached out (to the CRA)…quicker…I see a real problem coming down the pike…I’m sitting here looking at this package and I’m not feeling good about it because I don’t have enough information to make a prudent decision.”

Rogers nevertheless voted to approve the second CRA loan with the stipulation that Battle made sure Freeman settled the mechanic liens and paid any other outstanding bills. Only then Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom voted against the loan.

Seiler told FloridaBulldog.org he voted for the second CRA loan to salvage the Sixth Street Plaza project. “If we did not assist with the loan, the property would not be able to survive,” the mayor said, adding that the loan shored up the project in the middle of the recession.

Freeman is well known to city hall and Broward political circles. In addition to her service on the Housing Authority, she has served on the CRA’s Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights Redevelopment Board, the city Marine Advisory Board, the city Planning and Zoning Board and the city Planned Unit Development Zoning District Advisory Committee.

Freeman is also active politically. The Sun-Sentinel reported that in August 2012 Freeman hosted a fundraiser for Dale Holness who later was elected to the Broward County Commission.


The second CRA loan did not stabilize Freeman’s finances. She filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in April 2012, but her petition was soon dismissed due to her failure to file additional paperwork. She filed again nine months later as a reorganization bankruptcy under Chapter 11, claiming she “has experienced difficulties caused by the significant downturn in the real estate market.” That action is pending

Since September 2009, city CRA minutes reflect no further discussion about the Sixth Street Plaza.

Nevertheless, Seiler said that city staff kept him informed about Sixth Street Plaza’s financial difficulties and its pending foreclosure, although he did not know Freeman had filed for bankruptcy protection.

Sixth Street Plaza’s financial troubles came about from the lack of tenants, Seiler added.

Even with the plaza’s foreclosure and the pending public sale, the mayor believes the Sistrunk corridor will prosper. The property has increased in value and the improving economy may make the plaza a good investment for whoever takes it over, he said.

Cheryl Cook, South Florida Regional Planning Agency’s loan program director, said Freeman has not repaid the planning agency’s loan. “You know we will be paid last,” she said.

When contacted, Freeman said, “I am working with my bank.” She declined further comment.

Battle would not be interviewed, but issued a statement via city public affairs officer Petula Burks.

“We will have an agenda item dedicated to this issue on Feb. 17 during the CRA meeting. Our conversation with the CRA board/city commission is expected to include a discussion about the status of the foreclosure and our lease,” the statement said.

Broward to seek return of CRA tax dollars mishandled by cities; Millions at stake

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Administrator Bertha Henry and attorney and FAU professor Frank Schnidman

Broward Administrator Bertha Henry and attorney and FAU professor Frank Schnidman

Broward will seek the return of county property tax dollars from city community redevelopment agencies that hoarded that money instead of spending it on projects to fight slum and blight that are ready to get underway, according to County Administrator Bertha Henry.

The county’s toughened stand follows recent findings by Broward’s Inspector General that Margate deliberately mishandled $2.7 million in CRA funds. It also comes amid fresh criticism about the way Hallandale Beach allegedly handled its community redevelopment funds.

Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said in an interview that Hallandale Beach appears to have mishandled $12.6 million in CRA funds – an allegation disputed by a top city official.

“They lost track of the money,” Schnidman said. “They were not aware there were all these millions of dollars…they had misplaced.”

The County approves the establishment of CRAs after the need for redevelopment is studied and documented and contributes tax dollars – so called tax increment funding, or TIF – to the municipal agencies from revenue generated by the increase in property values in the redevelopment area.

Ten Broward cities have CRAs that receive TIF dollars. Others include Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Pompano Beach, have CRAs.

Henry said in an interview last week that the county will enhance its review of expenditures to make sure municipal CRAs don’t improperly bank funds at year end instead of spending them as required by state law.

“They now know they have to comply,” said Henry, referring to the Inspector General’s publicized findings.

Under state law, CRAs that have funds at the end of the year must spend that money on projects to be completed in three years, pay down debt or return it to the county.


For months, the Inspector General has been conducting what appears to be a review of how some municipal CRAs in Broward have handled funds unspent at the end of each fiscal year.

In Margate, investigators found, the CRA mishandled funds by rolling them over from year to year without designating them for specific purposes. The Inspector General said the county could retrieve $2.7 million in funds provided to Margate.

Henry’s parallel review of CRA spending is expected to take two months. County representatives will then meet with CRA’s receiving tax increment property tax funds. For cities that don’t have projects ready to go, “I will recommend we go after the money,” she said.

Cynthia Chambers, director of Broward’s environmental protection department whose duties include overseeing municipal CRAs, will also be watching. She said the county would “certainly” seek the return of tax funds from CRAs that violate state law regarding the handling of year-end funds.

The Inspector General’s ongoing CRA probe began in 2012 after a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases by Hallandale Beach. The 14-month investigation found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures, the improper co-mingling of city and CRA funds dating to the CRA’s establishment in 1996 and poor record keeping.

The Inspector General also asked the city to tell it how much money the CRA had, suggesting the amount was uncertain. An audit by Hallandale Beach that in July, 2013 identified $12.6 million in CRA funds co-mingled with city funds.

Schnidman, the FAU professor and a former consultant for the Hallandale Beach CRA, was critical of the audit finding such a huge sum.

“They were not aware the money was there; they misplaced it. They were hanging onto the money…year after year,” Schnidman said.

The $12.6 million, Schnidman said, should be returned to the government agencies that, like the county, contributed property tax increase funds to the Hallandale Beach CRA – the city, South Broward Hospital District and Children’s Services Council.

Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Miller disputed the notion the CRA had excess funds. “Anyone saying that is misleading the public. It’s not found money…not excess cash,” she said.

Miller said the audit went back to as far as 1996 to ascertain the amount of CRA funding, with interest. The money, she said, was then transferred to the CRA trust fund. Asked where the money was located, Miller said it was from current funding that year, not from any leftover funds from previous years.

Miller said the city had a good estimate of the amount of CRA dollars co-mingled with city funds, but the audit confirmed $12.6 million.

In the past when funds were co-mingled, Miller said it had been the city’s practice to account for CRA costs near the end of the budget year on September 30.

The $12.6 million CRA funds were used to pay agency costs during 2012-2013, according to Miller and city controller Melissa Cruz. Of that, more than $10 million went to pay salaries and benefits, administrative charges, debt service, utilities, material and supplies, repairs and maintenance, community redevelopment programs, grants to community groups, professional and outside services, subsidized loan programs, and other service charges. Another $500,000 was transferred to the city, and $2.3 million was designated for capital projects.

“It’s not as insidious as was inferred,” Miller said.


All Aboard Florida: Boon or Boondoggle?

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org aaf2

A growing number of local and federal government officials want to put the brakes on the proposed passenger train between Miami and Orlando before some say it becomes one big boondoggle placed on the backs of Florida taxpayers.

At the core of their concerns are questions about All Board Florida, the private rail project pushing the proposal. The skeptics, including a number of elected officials, want to know more about the corporate interests behind the project, how it is to be financed and why most of the associated businesses are limited liability corporations (LLCs).

All Aboard Florida (AAF) says it plans to operate 16-round trip passenger trains between Miami and Orlando every day starting in 2016. Each of those 32 train trips would include seven cars and two locomotives for a total of 400 seats per train, the company has said. AAF is seeking a $1.5 billion federal loan to help finance the project.

Meanwhile, AAF is moving forward with plans to build downtown rail stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott also has pledged more than $200 million in state funds for the construction of another train station facility in Orlando.

AAF says its passenger service will be a boon for tourism, increase jobs, reduce road congestion and pollution and boost state and local tax revenues. But its plans have hit resistance from public officials along its route who want to know more about what’s happening.

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari is leading pushback in the Treasure Coast, where he says “our community is now solidly against this project.” He said he’ll continue his efforts at least until AAF and its sister and parent companies become more transparent about themselves and their plans.

“My greatest fear is that as bad as we think this project is, it will destroy our communities,” said Solari, of Vero Beach.  “Many people and I think that All Aboard Florida [and its family of companies] wants to get federal loans to build more tracks for their freight trains.”

On April 8, the Indian River County Commission unanimously passed a resolution indicating it was misled by AAF officials who “touted” proposed passenger rail service as “using solely private resources.” The resolution asked state and federal agencies to forgo low interest loans for AAF, “as such support would put the risk of the passenger rail service on the backs of the taxpayer,” and also to require the company to pay all projected costs, including the installation of quite zones and corridor improvements.

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari Photo: Mark Schumann/InsideVero

Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari
Photo: Mark Schumann/InsideVero

Sebastian County later passed an identical resolution, as did the town of Indian River Shores. Port St. Lucie and Martin County will consider the matter soon, Solari said.

On April 18, the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, of which Solari is a member, asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to double the public comment period from 45 to 90 days after it releases its Environmental Impact Statement on the project. A favorable impact statement would open the door for federal loans to AAF.

Elected officials in South Florida have largely been either silent about the rail project or, like Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, supportive of it.

Broward Commissioner Lois Wexler said the Treasure Coast’s complaints are likely rooted in frustration that All Aboard Florida has no plans to stop there.

“My sense is that they seem to want to have stops up there, and if they can’t have stops it becomes how can I obstruct,” said Wexler. “But the whole idea of All Aboard Florida is to get as quickly as possible to the population hubs in Orlando and South Florida.”


U.S. Representatives Lois Frankel and Patrick Murphy are Democrats who represent portions of South and Central Florida where the trains will run. Responding to complaints from constituents, they met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on April 7 to ask him to consider how the rail project will impact the quality of life for residents, as well as its effect on safety and the economy.

Murphy also wrote to Florida Gov. Scott in early April, citing his concerns, which include cost sharing for bridge upgrades to speed the raising and lowering of drawbridges, now that it was clear that state and federal money are involved. He urged a go-slow approach.

“If this project is to proceed it is critical that the State of Florida do everything in its power to guarantee that its citizens are unharmed,” Murphy wrote to Scott. “I know that if we come together on this, we can meaningfully preserve the safety and livelihood of our fellow Floridians.”

Murphy is scheduled to speak at an anti-AAF rally set for 10 a.m., Sunday, May 4, at the Flagler Park in Stuart.


Opponents are concerned by the lack of clarity about the various corporate interests involved in the rail project.

At the top of AAF’s corporate hierarchy is Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that purchased Florida East Coast Industries (FECI) for $3.5 billion in 2007. Florida East Coast Railway (FEC), an affiliate of FECI, operates freight trains throughout Florida. FEC is an independent company owned separately by Fortress, according to Florida Trend magazine.

FECI’s corporate tree “now includes 10 to 12 entities and nearly all are LLCs, from which company officials can simply walk away” without liability should serious problems develop, said Solari.

All Aboard Florida is not a single company. Rather, according to Dunn & Bradstreet, it is comprised of four Delaware based LLCs: AAF – Operation, AAF – Stations, AAF Northwest Sixth Street LLC, the site of Fort Lauderdale’s proposed downtown train station and AAF TOD (Transit Oriented Design), a development arm.

“Fortress is a private equity firm that has a slew of different companies,” he said. ”What they do is build up wealth over two to five years and then sell all of them as individual companies to the highest bidder. I doubt that Fortress will own two or three of these companies five years from now”

Solari met with Russell Roberts, vice president of FECI, on April 10 and presented a four-page letter outlining his concerns. In it, Solari posed more than a dozen questions about the company’s structure, finances and engineering that he termed “fair and reasonable.” He said he has yet to receive a response.


Florida East Coast Railway’s principal business is moving freight, and much of that freight is shipped into Florida via ports that do business with its subsidiaries.

The expansion of the Panama Canal, due for completion next year, will increase demand for U.S. ports that can handle new, larger cargo ships. Miami, where deep dredging is ongoing, is one of those ports. Plans to deep dredge Port Everglades are awaiting a report due this fall from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

Landside, FEC is ramping up operations to greatly increase its freight train service. In January, the company announced it had ordered an additional 24 freight locomotives totaling $55.4 million. It also received a $30 million loan from the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) plus a grant of $18 million to help build a new $53 million Intermodal Transfer Facility at Port Everglades, according to FDOT. The company has said will invest $5 million from its capital budget.

FEC is the exclusive rail provider for the Port of Miami and Port Everglades.

AAF has applied for a $1.5 billion loan from the Federal Railroad Administration to help finance the purchase of passenger trains and to double track and realign existing tracks.

Those tracks are owned by FEC, which worries Solari.

“AAF only has an easement on those tracks,” Solari said. “If AAF goes bankrupt, FEC will have added $750 million in value to its rail system and every other Fortress company will have value added by the $1.5 billion loan.”

The company has refused requests by BrowardBulldog.org and Solari to make public its marketing plan or the studies upon which the company based its plan.

“They said no because they are a private company,” he said. “But once you start getting the government involved in a loan, you need to disclose information.”

However, plans put forward by AAF mirror the state transportation department’s 2006 Florida Freight and Passenger Rail Plan. That plan envisioned using FEC right-of-ways to provide service from Miami to Jacksonville, with a new rail line connecting Cocoa Beach to Orlando International Airport. It estimated 1.8 million riders a year from Miami to Orlando, using trains with seven passenger cars and two locomotives.

Solari said AAF officials have said the company expects initial annual revenue of $143 million. He said that given a 5.75 percent interest on a $1.5 billion loan, and other costs like salaries, there won’t be enough left to make it a viable operation.

“I don’t see how they can come close to making it,” he said.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in promised state funding to design and build an Intermodal Transit facility at the Orlando airport, which would serve as a station for AAF, will depend on whether Gov. Scott gets re-elected and whether future Legislatures approve earmarks Scott has pledged.

However, as the rail plans ultimately unfold, there is a two to four year time lag between the time a train is ordered and the date a manufacturer will deliver it.

“When you take delivery of them, you have to test them out and do certain things to certify the trains for passenger use,” Solari said. “It’s like airplanes — you don’t get them and fly.  It takes processes and time to become certified,” further delaying the start up.

AAF officials said the company is in contract negotiations with a U.S. manufacturer they declined to name. In a written statement, however, they said the trains would be “state-of-the-art.”

“They will be first of their kind and will employ the latest technologies available for the comfort of our passengers, efficiency of operations, and optimal environmental performance. In addition, they will be the only fully [Americans With Disability Act] accessible trains in the world.”


Broward prosecutors vilify BSO detective who alleged misconduct; ‘Bloody…not improper’

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org bsohomicide

A Broward Sheriff’s homicide detective who reported that Fort Lauderdale police unleashed a dog on a murder suspect who was in custody and no longer a threat should not be believed, according to a memo by local prosecutors closing the case.

“A violent, bloody, confused, quickly-developing, and unfortunate turn of events, but not improper action by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department officers and not a violation of Florida law,” concludes the 10-page memo signed by Timothy L. Donnelly, chief of the Broward State Attorney’s public corruption unit.

Jeffrey Kogan, a featured detective on the A&E channel’s police reality show The First 48, claims he was ostracized and demoted to road patrol in Pompano Beach for reporting what he saw. In July, he filed a whistleblower suit against Sheriff Scott Israel, claiming unlawful retaliation.

The state’s investigation began after a brief conversation between Kogan and homicide prosecutor Lanie Bandell three days after the April 4, 2013 arrest of murder suspect Walter Morris Hart. Bandell said Kogan had asked her whether the use of the dog would negatively affect the prosecution. When she asked why, Kogan said, “You know, they let the dog loose after we had him in custody.” Bandell alerted her colleagues in public corruption.

The inquiry that followed ended with the Feb. 26 close-out memo, written by Assistant State Attorney Nickolaus Hunter Davis, that castigates Deputy Kogan for giving sworn testimony that the memo says was “inconsistent” and “not credible.” Worse, the memo suggests Kogan deliberately lied – though prosecutors filed no criminal charge against him.

Broward Sheriff's Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

Broward Sheriff’s Homicide Detective Jeffrey Kogan Photo: A&E Network

The recommendation to State Attorney Mike Satz: take no action against Robert Morris, the city K-9 officer on scene who unleashed his dog “Grief” on murder suspect Walter Morris Hart in the early morning hours of April 4, 2013. The memo also recommended no action be taken against Fort Lauderdale Officers Jason Marcus and Craig Sheehan, who were also present.

Still, the state’s investigation offers no satisfactory explanation for why Kogan, a veteran BSO detective with a history of superior performance evaluations, would make such an unfounded accusation against his fellow officers.

The memo asserts the lawsuit gave Kogan a reason to lie – “a direct financial motive to testify in a manner that makes Officers Morris, Marcus, and Sheehan’s conduct seem as outrageous as possible.”

Yet the lawsuit wasn’t filed until three months after Hart’s capture and a month after Kogan gave a pair of sworn statements to state investigators.

Moreover, Florida’s Whistleblower Act is not a path to a windfall. Employees who prevail under the act are only entitled to reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position with full seniority and benefits, compensation for any lost remuneration and attorney’s fees and costs.

Kogan’s demotion cost him $75 from his biweekly paycheck, according to his lawyer.

“He doesn’t have a financial motive. Does anyone really think he’s going to taint his career for $150 a month?” said attorney Tonja Haddad Coleman.

Both the state’s investigation, and the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, arose from the April 3, 2013 fatal stabbing of 20-year-old Keema Gooding in a residence at 3024 NW Eighth Court in unincorporated Fort Lauderdale. Hart, who lived there, was identified as the prime suspect.

Hart, now 20, was soon determined to be hiding out at another home within Fort Lauderdale’s city limits. BSO deputies and Fort Lauderdale police arrived at 1701 NW 15th Place about 1 a.m.  A short time later, Hart fled out the back door where city officers were waiting.

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

Murder suspect Walter Hart Photo: BSO

In his lawsuit, Kogan said that when he entered the backyard Hart was sitting on the ground with his hands behind his back and was not resisting or being combative. Then, the lawsuit said, the Fort Lauderdale K-9 officer “unnecessarily deployed his canine, who bit the suspect on his right arm.”

The memo says Hart’s injuries to his right arm later required “eight or nine stitches to close.”

Hart, who remains jailed while awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder and resisting an officer with violence, refused to be interviewed by prosecutors, but gave a similar account to friends and relatives he telephoned from jail. The calls were tape-recorded by authorities, the memo says.

“I dropped on the ground and they still let the dog bite on me for five minutes…you know how city police is,” Hart said in one conversation on April 11, 2013, the memo says.

Prosecutors later dismissed Kogan’s testimony as “imprecise and impeachable.” Hart’s statements were discounted as coming from “a murderer.”

Instead, prosecutors credited the testimony of BSO Sgt. David Ellwood, Kogan’s supervisor and fellow star on The First 48, and BSO Sgt. Ian Sklar, a K-9 deputy who was on scene but kept his dog in his vehicle.

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

BSO Homicide Sgt. Dave Ellwood Photo: A&E Network

According to the memo, Ellwood stated under oath that he never entered the backyard and was thus unable to see how Hart was taken into custody. However, Ellwood testified that Kogan didn’t enter the backyard until after he heard Hart scream as the police dog was biting him.

“I’ve been a cop for 23 years. I know what that screaming sounds like. That is a person, a human being, being bit by a dog,” Ellwood said.

Sklar testified that he managed to “peek” over a six-foot wooden fence and saw Officers Marcus and Sheehan struggling with Hart on the ground while trying to handcuff him. As the struggle continued, Morris appeared with his dog. Marcus and Sheehan disengaged and then Morris released the dog.

Sklar said K-9 procedure is that a dog should not be removed until the suspect is handcuffed. He said, “they did not remove the dog until after the guy was handcuffed…that’s what [Kogan was] standing there witnessing.”

The memo concludes the testimony of Ellwood and Sklar “makes it seem very unlikely Kogan would have even had an opportunity to see whether Morris had cause to deploy the dog,”

A status conference in the homicide case is set for April 23 before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.

How many railroad crossings will close for new downtown passenger train service?

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org allaboardflorida

New downtown passenger train service that will speed users from Orlando to South Florida and back may sound like a tourism dream come true, but there’s a potentially unexpected cost to local residents.

Local governments face increased costs to maintain the areas where their roads cross the tracks and some fear the closing of smaller crossings to vehicular traffic to save money.

Elizabeth Fulford lives west of Broward General Hospital and believes if crossings are closed, “it may turn into a life or death issue.”

“I am very concerned about the road closures. What happens if I need an ambulance and trains are blocking the tracks?” she asked.  “If they close the smaller crossings, how will this affect the police and fire” in their ability to quickly get to the scene?

So far, plans have been announced to close several streets in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to make way for new train stations on land owned by the developer, All Aboard Florida. Downtown Miami is also slated for a new station; however, company officials say no road closures have been planned at this time.

“We are working with the city staffs to determine the appropriate traffic mitigation measures, like perimeter roads,” All Aboard Florida staff wrote in an e-mail.


But more crossings could be earmarked for closure if municipalities along the Florida East Coast Rail line balk at paying increased maintenance costs that could total between $6,000 and $8,000 per year per crossing, said Paul Calvaresi, transportation planner with the Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

In all, there are 68 crossings in Broward.

All Aboard Florida, a project of Florida East Coast Industries (FECI), is seeking a federal loan for the $1.5 billion needed to upgrade its tracks and purchase other infrastructure. The company will build train stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott recently pledged up to $215 million in state money to build a new Orlando rail station that would serve All Aboard Florida. FECI Executive Vice President Jose Gonzalez promises a three hour ride from Miami to Orlando.

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

Jose Gonzalez, executive vice president of Florida East Coast Industries, the parent company of All Aboard Florida Photo: Ann Henson Feltgen

“The [passenger] trains will average 79 miles per hour overall speed,” Gonzalez said. He added that speeds will be higher, up to 110 miles per hour, in rural areas. Freight trains operated by FECI affiliate Florida East Coast Railway will travel along a second set of tracks, which will be restored, on the old Flagler Railroad bed at slower speeds, he told the Fort Lauderdale City Commission during its conference meeting on April 1.

“We plan to run 32 [passenger] train trips on the tracks from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. per day. The 14 freight trains will eventually be moved west,” to the state-owned tracks currently used by the Tri-Rail, he said.

That’s 16 round trips a day. All Aboard Florida’s website says it expects that about three of every four of its future customers will be leisure travelers, “whether that’s a couple taking a weekend trip, or a family of four visiting from an international destination.” It cites a 2012 ridership study found that people take more than 50 million trips between South Florida and Central Florida.

More than 350 roads cross the tracks between Miami and Cocoa, at which point the train will turn west to Orlando. Each crossing that remains open requires safety upgrades, which Gonzalez said his company would pay.

But the municipalities who control the roads will have to come up with funding for enhanced safety measures to create “Quiet Zones” where trains are to refrain from blasting their horns at every crossing.

Train horns produce a sound level of 110 decibels (human conversation is about 60 decibels, with the sound level doubling at 10 decibel intervals). Conductors normally must sound the horns for at least 15 seconds before each crossing, but in Quiet Zones the horns are mounted on the crossing gates to reduce the range of the noise.

A preliminary estimate for Broward County’s upgrades comes to $13.75 million for its 68 crossings, according to Broward’s MPO. The costs are to pay for beefed up gates, vehicle detectors, sidewalks, medians, additional lights and gate-mounted horns.

“Quiet Zones affect the train horn only,” said Broward MPO planner Paul Calvaresi. “They do not minimize the vibrations made by the train. And if conductors hear of danger ahead, they will sound the train horn.”


Calvaresi and James Cromar, the MPO’s director of planning, are working on behalf of Broward and Palm Beach counties with All Aboard Florida. When the project started, they conducted a study.

“We looked at the 68 crossings in Broward County and made a list of where quiet zones would be most needed if funding was limited,” Cromar said. Palm Beach County’s 114 crossings also were studied

They recommended that 41 crossings in Broward not be upgraded for Quiet Zones to save costs. They included:

• Nine crossings in Fort Lauderdale between Southwest Fifth Street and Southwest 24th Street;

• Six crossings in Oakland Park from East Commercial Boulevard to Oakland Park Boulevard;  

• Seven crossings in Dania Beach from Griffin Road to Sheridan Street; and

• Eight crossings in Pompano Beach from Northeast 48th Street to State Road 811/Dixie Highway.

“We got quite a bit a push back from the cities about that list,” Cromar said.  The draft plan was scratched and the planners began looking for ways to fund all of the crossings in Broward and Palm Beach counties, with Florida Department of Transportation working up the cost estimates.

All Aboard Florida officials concede that some additional crossings will be closed but say those decisions are local and have not been made.

Hollywood does not plan to close any of its railroad crossings at this time, said Raelin Storey, director of public affairs and marketing.

All Aboard Florida “requested us to look at different crossings that could be closed but we are not of the mind to do this as it doesn’t make sense for our residents,” she said.

Fort Lauderdale City Manager Lee Feldman said All Aboard Florida has not asked his staff about closing any crossroads other than Northwest Second Street.

“I don’t expect that they will ask,” he said. “But, we would look at them individually.”


The Broward MPO is in the process of applying for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant for Broward and Palm Beach counties. The grant provides funding nationwide for road, rail, transit and port projects that encourage economic recovery. The grant would pay for the increased safety equipment at crossroads in the Quiet Zones.

Grantees must provide a 20 percent non-federal match, according to the agency’s website, and no more than $150 million can be awarded to projects in a single state. The grant pool for 2014 is $600 million. The deadline to apply is April 28.

Even if the full grant amount is awarded, some crossings may close, Broward’s Calvaresi said.

“With Quiet Zones comes additional safety and maintenance costs,” he said. “The municipalities must pay those costs and they might determine the costs are too high and close the crossing.”

Streets already set for closure are Northwest Second Street in Fort Lauderdale.  Crossings on Datura and Everinia streets in West Palm Beach also will close. In Fort Lauderdale a new perimeter road will run around the station.

Miami-Dade County, which has only 13 miles of track, has not taken up the issue yet, said Wilson Fernandez, transportation assistant manager for the Miami-Dade County MPO.

“We intend to bring this up but we have a different situation,” he said. “We have a different order of magnitude and more  opportunities to be able to get this done” on their own. He added that approval for the train station in downtown Miami is going through the county approval process.

The Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council is also seeking funding for the three other affected counties under its jurisdiction – Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. Kim DeLaney, strategic development coordinator, said they are taking a different route.

“We are asking the legislature for a $10 million appropriation to offset costs,” DeLaney said. “We don’t have as many crossings and because the train speeds will be higher, more safety infrastructure will be required” in the upgrades.

Because All Aboard Florida’s parent company is seeking a federal loan for the project, an Environmental Impact Statement study must be conducted. The study looks at the project’s significant affects on the environment.

The document is expected to be available in mid-May, according to Gonzalez. A series of up to six public meetings along the rail corridor will be held and public comment can be provided at the workshops, in writing or by email.


Meanwhile, an engineer with the Federal Railroad Administration is concerned that All Aboard Florida is short-cutting safety requirements in 57 rural areas north of Palm Beach where the passenger trains run at speeds between 110 and 125 miles per hour.

A report by Engineer Frank A. Frey said such high-speed railroad crossings should be completely sealed off so that no vehicles can get onto the tracks when the crossing bars are down. In fact, he said federal guidelines require it.

Yet his report notes that All Aboard Florida officials oppose the sealed corridor idea, saying it is a suggestion, not a requirement, and arguing that such added safety measures would cost the company an additional $47 million.

“They are not exercising appropriate safety practices and reasonable care when designing for high speed passenger rail service,” he said.

A loss of faith: Fort Lauderdale church sale angers parishioners, worries neighbors

By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Fort Lauderdale's Episcopal Church of the Intercession

Fort Lauderdale’s Episcopal Church of the Intercession

For 60 years, the Episcopal Church of the Intercession has provided religious guidance and ministered to the needs of its congregation. Now, plans by the cash-strapped Episcopal diocese to sell the church and its peaceful, four-acre parcel in Fort Lauderdale’s South Middle River neighborhood, is roiling both church members and neighbors.

The Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida has a deal to sell the property and its one-acre community garden to a local developer for $1.3 million, if the city agrees to rezone it to accommodate 60 two-story townhouses.

Parishioners, who have yet to be notified by church higher-ups of the pending sale, and local residents say density is already too high in the neighborhood.

The first public meeting to discuss the proposed rezoning is set for 6:30 p.m., March 19, at Fort Lauderdale City Hall, 100 North Andrews Ave.

Complicating the discussion are the remains of 80 deceased church members who chose to spend eternity at the site by having their ashes interred in the sunset-facing memorial garden.

The Church of the Intercession, located at 507 Northwest 17 Street, once had hundreds of active members, according to parishioner Steve Kanter. Today, those who attend Sunday service have dwindled to about 30.

“They have grown old and died or now lost their faith in the church because of all the turmoil,” said Kanter, who was attracted to the church because of its religious traditions and missions.

The lack of membership caused the diocese about a decade ago to downgrade the church’s status to that of a mission, an entity that by church law can only remain in that status for six years.

The way events have unfolded has sewn distrust.

Kanter said he understands the diocese’s stance. Nevertheless, he is critical of its decision not to notify parishioners that the property was up for sale and of the need to do so.

“I found out in September that the church was on the MLS [Multiple Listing Service] website,” Kanter said. According to MLS records, the property was listed for sale July 15, 2013, but could have been for sale earlier.

“Why in this paradise with God are we having so much trouble,” he continued. “The diocese is up to no good and we don’t like it.”

The Venerable Thomas Bruttell, diocese’s archdeacon for deployment, confirmed in an interview that the property is for sale, the price and that a deal is on the table.

“When the rezoning goes through, the sale will be finalized and, by the end of the year, letters announcing the sale will be sent to the congregation,” he said.


“We’ve told [the congregation] for the last seven or eight years the same message: If something doesn’t change, we will have to sell the property,” he said. “There are too many churches and not enough parishioners and something has to give.”

Rumors the church was for sale had circulated for months, Kanter said. So late last year his wife emailed Bishop Leo Frade, who heads the diocese, and asked if the church was for sale.

On Dec. 17, 2013 Frade replied. “There are no plans to sell at this time,” he wrote.

Bruttell, who is adamant that the congregation knew the status of the church, speculated that Frade may have said that because he knew it would be a year before the sale could go through.

The diocese has helped support the church financially and brought in new ideas to increase membership, Bruttell said. One of them, he said, was to fight for the city to approve urban farming on the property so the farming efforts could expand. He said the diocese attempted to include the church into a new program combining All Saints and St. Ambrose into the New River Ministry, “but they didn’t step up to that.”

He added that the people who are now complaining “are not emotionally connected for spiritual reasons, it is because of the community garden…These 16 people do not own the church, they are visitors.”

But church member JoAnn Smith disputed that assertion.

“We have not had one dime in mission support,” to attract new members, said Smith, a certified master gardener who oversees the nature area and community garden. “If we do anything, we do it ourselves.”

She added that last year the church was $3,000 short of being financially self-sufficient.

Kantner said the diocese’s lack of candor has raised other red flags, such as how the church’s money has been spent and why his church was put up for sale when there are other small congregations like the Church of the Intercession.


The controversy has not gone unnoticed by developer Jay Clark, who with his partner Jay Fertig, have offered to buy the church property.

Clark said their project would feature 60 two-story townhouses houses in 10 buildings. The two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath units will have a total of 1,600 square feet, including a single car garage. The price for each townhouse would range from $230,000 to $240,000, “depending on the market,” he said.

The current zoning is for 15 single-family homes, according to city records.

“But realistically only five or six could be built there,” Clark said.

“Our offer is contingent on getting the zoning changed,” he said. That change would allow for the 60 townhouses, a community swimming pool and green space, including preserving some of the trees.

“We’re looking at incorporating a community garden and turning over the control to the South Middle River Civic Association,” Clark said. The garden, he added, would be about 20-feet wide by 200-feet deep, about one-tenth the size of the current garden.

Clark said he knows that some people don’t want change, but others want to clean up the property and turn it into something that can make the community proud.

“We’re not trying to ram anything down their throats,” he said.


The South Middle River neighborhood is bounded by Sunrise Boulevard on the south, Powerline Road on the west, Northeast Fourth Avenue on the east and the South Fork of the Middle River on the north.

Neighbors are concerned an influx of new residents to the area will aggravate existing problems.

Lawrence Jackson-Rosen is president of the South Middle River Civic Association. He said the elimination of the church grounds will further limit green space that’s already in short supply.

“It’s the most populous neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale,” he said. “We have more than 2,500 households here.”

Jackson-Rosen said the association has not yet taken a formal position on the project, but is taking a survey of residents’ thoughts about the townhouse project that’s available online and via hard copies at association meetings.

With nearly 50 survey returned, “Thus far, the overwhelming majority of people who returned the survey oppose the change” in zoning, he said. Based on the feedback, the association will take a stand and provide that to the city, he added.

Gregg Pentecost, a local Realtor who is also a member of the civic association, offered his personal opinion. “People are already complaining about the traffic now and adding at least 120 more cars is not attractive,” he said.

The church site is amid a neighborhood packed with 1950s bungalows, some of which are foreclosed and stand empty, while others have been renovated. The dusty neighborhood, in the process of renewal through gentrification, has some of the last unpaved roads and in Fort Lauderdale, according to Pentecost, who lives a block-and-a-half away from the church and heads up the survey.


“People are concerned about the loss of green space, the disposition of animals on the site, the environmental effects including water runoff and traffic,” he said.

“There are no sidewalks and most of the children play and walk to school in the streets,” he said.

The west end of the church property includes an octagonal-shaped church sanctuary plus several concrete block buildings that serve as offices, a church hall and a kitchen and a food bank. Last year, the church provided 22,000 meals for those in need, Kantner said.

Towering mango and mahogany trees and other mature trees on site provide cool shade over open spaces. To the west of the sanctuary is the Memorial Garden where the parishioners’ cremains are interred. The diocese’s Bruttell said he is aware of the situation and has talked to two or three churches about reburying the biodegradable containers.

A path on the eastern portion of the property leads to a sanctuary of greenery where visitors can enjoy a quiet moment with nature, said Smith, the church member who oversees the natural area and community garden.

Smith and other volunteers have been shaping and cultivating the nearly 1-acre garden area for the past 14 years.

“We started with hardscrabble and kept adding mulch and now we have free garden plots for church members and anyone in the neighborhood who wants one,” she said.

The idea of the organic community garden came 15 years ago from a former church priest, Kantner said. At the time, the project had the backing of the diocese.

“For years now, we have had no help from the diocese with the garden,” said Kantner. “We have had help from the neighborhood, school and other groups.”

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