Tired of problems, Fort Lauderdale audits its community redevelopment agencies

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org cralogo

Fed up with project failures, management problems and possible city overcharges, Fort Lauderdale commissioners have ordered an extensive audit of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agencies.

In a little-noted action, commissioners directed the audit of three CRAs at a conference meeting earlier this year.

The audit was triggered by the million-dollar failure of the Sixth Street Plaza project. Some commissioners expressed additional concerns about the findings of a city auditor’s report on CRAs that they said indicate the city had unfairly overcharged the CRAs for services during the past five years.

Commissioners ordered “a full audit” of the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights (NWP) Community Redevelopment Agency, the Central Beach (CB) CRA and the Central City (CC) CRA, City Auditor John Herbst said in an interview. He said the audit, now under way, may be completed in two months.

Herbst said the audit was undertaken because the city wants to get in front of the matter, knowing the Broward Inspector General’s Office has been investigating CRAs around the county for some time.

Herbst said he expects the audit to determine whether CRA spending was “in compliance with state law and CRA bylaws,” and whether the CRAs were properly managed and contracts adhered to the CRAs’ limitations.

“We want to make sure money was spent in accordance with governing legislation,” Herbst said. The audit will cover the past three years – a reasonable time period, the auditor added.

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Robert McKinzie

Herbst said the troubled Sixth Street Plaza project is a key factor in the ongoing audit. Last May, the city auditor’s office criticized the CRA for poor oversight of a taxpayer-supported office and retail plaza that was to be the centerpiece of the city’s ambitious plans to revitalize the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor.

But the 23,000-square-foot building at 900 NW Sixth St. filed for bankruptcy, jeopardizing the repayment of $1 million in taxpayer loans.

Following that finding, Vice Mayor Robert McKinzie’s staff asked Herbst in a memo to conduct “a complete audit of the day to day operations of the CRA.” Herbst said Mayor Jack Seiler and his fellow commissioners backed the call for the audit in a consensus vote during a city commission conference meeting in January.

‘Inconsistent leadership’

Herbst said the city’s CRAs have had problems because of frequent management shuffling. “There was inconsistent leadership due to transfers,” he said.

A report by his office noted that the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA, in a less-affluent area, was charged $1.7 million for city services over the past five years, while the Central Beach CRA, in a wealthier area, was charged $909,000 during that same period.

The finding upset City Commissioner Dean Trantalis, who said an “excessive amount of money is charged for administration, denying the neighborhood that is suffering blight and neglect and so much money being used for staff.”

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis

Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Dean Trantalis

Trantalis said he has asked City Manager Lee Feldman about correcting CRA allocation issues, but “he hasn’t been responding. We need to change the practice. We discovered that the city manager, to shore up the budget, has been attributing staff time to the CRA.”

Feldman did not respond to requests for comment before deadline after promising to make himself available for an interview.

At the city commission meeting in January, others expressed their concern about the auditor’s findings.

Minutes of the meetings say McKinzie “questioned why such a large portion of funds was allocated [to] the [Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights] CRA for administration and resources when the CRA did not have a director.”

Commissioner Bruce Roberts suggested the matter be referred to the State Attorney’s Office or some other investigative agency for a criminal probe.

“Many feel CRA funds have been drained for administrative services, and there is a lopsided disparity,” Trantalis said at the January meeting. The mayor and the city’s four commissioners also serve as directors of the CRAs.

Problems found

Herbst’s audit report mainly delved into the current fiscal year salary allocations of the two CRA offices, Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights and Central Beach. But it found problems.

“The method used to allocate personnel costs may lead to excessive General Fund expenses being allocated to the CRA, a violation of Florida Statute 163.370(3)(c),” the report stated. The state provision prohibits the tax-increment funds that CRAs receive from covering general government operating expenses unrelated to planning and carrying out a CRA plan.

The report goes on, “We determined that the Department of Sustainable Development (DSD) and the Budget Office were not able to provide adequate support for the percentages used for personnel cost allocations to/from the CRA fund and the sub-funds. Additionally, they are allocating charges to the CRA for personnel positions which are vacant for either a portion of the fiscal year or the entire fiscal year.

“The budgeted allocations are then charged to the CRA throughout the year without reconciling those estimates to actual costs incurred, resulting in an excess of allocation over actual cost,” according to the report.

The faulty allocations can negatively impact the CRAs’ ability to achieve their goals, the report aid.

The city charged the CRAs for hours city employees spent working on agency matters.

In one instance, the report said the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA was “overcharged” $30,000, which should have been charged to the Central Beach CRA. That happened after an employee was promoted from assistant to the city manager to the position of economic and business development manager in charge of the Central Beach CRA. For three months, he was paid from funds allocated to a vacant position in the Northwest/Progresso/Flagler Heights CRA, the report said.

A correction was later made, but “the prior overcharging was not corrected timely” and ate into how much funding was available to meet the CRA’s goals.

Since the report, the city has begun making changes.

Trantalis said in an interview that city commissioners have removed the CRAs from reporting to the Department of Sustainable Development and made them separate entities with their own managers to oversee day-to-day operations. State law requires CRAs to operate independently of other departments.

City Manager Feldman, however, will continue to function as executive director of the CRAs.

Other changes call for improved financial oversight from the city finance director and the city auditor, identifying a separate CRA funding and accounting structure, and allocating additional funds for the two CRAs to implement changes during the current fiscal year.

Rep. Lois Frankel’s endorsement of security guard firm may breach House ethics rules

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. Photo: WPEC

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. Photo: WPEC

Congresswoman Lois Frankel’s endorsement of a private security guard firm whose owner poured $11,000 into her campaign after her support helped him land a sweet, no-bid government contract appears to have run afoul of House ethics rules prohibiting business endorsements.

Ethics principles restrict how members of Congress may interact with commercial enterprises.

“Members and staff must avoid becoming too closely affiliated with any commercial entity, in order to avoid any appearance that they are accruing benefits by virtue of improper influence exerted from their position in Congress, or are dispensing special favors,” the House Ethics Manual says.

As FloridaBulldog.org reported last month, however, records and interviews show that Rep. Frankel was actively involved last year in pushing a company called Professional Security Consultants (PSC) for the lucrative job of providing a team of unarmed “security ambassadors” to the Fort Lauderdale Downtown Development Authority (DDA) to enhance safety with foot and bicycle patrols in places like Riverwalk.

DDA minutes show that Democrat Frankel introduced the company to DDA officials, and later met with a DDA delegation about the matter.

The DDA soon hired PSC without seeking competitive bids. PSC’s contract continues this year with the program’s budget doubled to $200,000 with help from the city.

According to DDA board chairman Michael Weymouth, “Lois spoke highly of the work they had done for the West Palm Beach DDA when she was mayor.”

The company also featured Frankel’s official photograph and endorsement of PSC and its regional boss, Willie Perez, in a PowerPoint marketing pitch to the DDA’s board of directors before its unanimous June 12, 2014 vote to hire PSC without seeking competitive bids.

PSC literature also contains Frankel’s photo and endorsement quotes.

“TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN”

Frankel herself wrote a “To Whom It May Concern” letter of recommendation for Perez under letterhead that identifies her as “Representative Lois J. Frankel Member of Congress.”

“It was with his guidance and the use of his Security Ambassadors that West Palm Beach saw two important neighborhoods, our downtown and Northwood Village business district, transform from dangerous places to friendly and safe venues,” says Frankel’s Dec. 26, 2013 letter.

Frankel’s letter does not mention PSC by name. Still, the company used it less than a month later as part of its successful competitive bid package to Pompano Beach’s Northwest Community Redevelopment Agency for a $300,000-a-year contract to operate a security ambassadors program there. The contract is for three years, according to CRA records.

CRA director Nguyen Tran said he has never spoken to Frankel and does not recall her being actively involved in events leading up to the contract.

Frankel, whose coastal district stretches south to include downtown Fort Lauderdale, declined to be interviewed. Her spokesman Douglas Lyons, however, noted that Frankel obtained advance clearance for the Perez reference letter from House Ethics Committee staff.

“She loves Willie, obviously. She recommended him to the Fort Lauderdale DDA because of what he did when she was mayor,” of West Palm Beach, said Lyons. “They called the West Palm Beach DDA who connected them with Willie.

“She had no idea that PSC used her image and the quotes,” Lyons said. “She had nothing to do with putting that in their promotional material.” He said her office will be in touch with PSC to ask them to remove her image and statements from their promotional material.

A page from PSC's PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014. Rep. Frankel's office said Monday the congresswoman "had no idea" PSC was using her image or statements to market itself.

A page from PSC’s PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014. Rep. Frankel’s office said Monday the congresswoman “had no idea” PSC was using her image or statements to market itself.

DDA executive director Chris Wren said in an interview that the owner of a local security firm inquired about submitting a proposal before PSC was hired, but was told the job would not be bid. Wren said, too, that the board rejected his recommendation that bids be obtained.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR’S BODYGUARD

The contract with PSC was signed Sept. 30, 2014. Federal records show that one month earlier, PSC founder and owner Moshe Alon, of California, made two donations totaling $4,500 to Lois J. Frankel for Congress. Since then the former Israeli secret service agent and bodyguard for the late Hollywood star Elizabeth Taylor gave another $6,400 to Frankel’s campaign in seven contributions – the latest last September.

According to the Code of Ethics for Government Service, House members may help constituents obtain information regarding government contracts and deal with government regulations, but cannot “discriminate unfairly by the dispensing of special favors or privileges to anyone, whether for remuneration or not.”

House rules say members must also “avoid becoming too closely affiliated” with businesses to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

The Fort Lauderdale DDA’s security guard contract isn’t the first government contract involving PSC regional boss Perez to raise questions of favoritism by Rep. Frankel.

In 2010, the Palm Beach Post reported about police union anger toward IPC International, the security guard company where Perez was then regional manager, after city commissioners hired it to guard the city’s waterfront. The paper also reported that Perez was periodically serving “as Mayor Lois Frankel’s bodyguard.”

In an editorial several days later, the paper expressed concern about a “perception of favoritism from Mayor Frankel’s relationship with the security company’s regional manager.

“Mayor Frankel denies that Willie Perez gives her free bodyguard services, accompanying her to events downtown. Instead, she says, he is accompanying her on weekly inspection tours,” the editorial said. “Still the mayor gushes over Mr. Perez’s company, Chicago-based IPC International, and he keeps getting city contracts…to patrol downtown, city hall, the Northwood Business District, Broadway and now the waterfront.”

Universal Protective Service acquired IPC in 2013, and Perez soon went to work for PSC, bringing at least some of those government contracts with him.

Firm tied to US Rep. Lois Frankel gets no-bid contract, owner gives her campaign $11K

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org  

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton Photo: WPTV

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton Photo: WPTV

Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority awarded a lucrative, no-bid contract for its security patrol program to a private guard firm with political ties to Congresswoman Lois Frankel.

Frankel was actively involved in the DDA’s selection last year of Professional Security Consultants (PSC), which does business as Professional Security Concepts. DDA records state that Frankel introduced the company to DDA officials and later met with a DDA delegation about the matter in 2014.

“Lois spoke highly of the work they had done for the West Palm Beach DDA when she was mayor,” said Fort Lauderdale DDA board chairman Michael Weymouth.

Democrat Frankel’s glowing endorsement of PSC and its regional boss, Willie Perez, was used in a marketing PowerPoint presentation to the DDA’s board of directors before it voted unanimously on June 12, 2014 to hire PSC without seeking competitive bids.

Two months after the vote, PSC’s founder and owner, Moshe Alon, began contributing to Frankel’s campaign.

Alon is a California businessman and ex-Israeli Secret Service agent who the New York Post once reported was a longtime bodyguard for the late film star Elizabeth Taylor. Alon has contributed nearly $11,000 to Rep. Frankel’s election campaigns since August 2014, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Frankel, whose elongated congressional district covers downtown Fort Lauderdale, declined to be interviewed, but her office did release this statement:

“The congresswoman has known Willie Perez from his work with the city of West Palm Beach as a security consultant. He was instrumental in helping turn West Palm Beach into one of the safest cities in America. While meeting with the (Fort Lauderdale) Downtown Development Authority, she mentioned her experience with Willie, and they asked for his contact information.”

A page from PSC's PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014

A page from PSC’s PowerPoint marketing presentation to the Fort Lauderdale DDA in June 2014

The DDA is a special taxing district created in 1965 with a mission to provide for the rehabilitation, redevelopment and revitalization of slum and blighted areas in the downtown area. Governed by a seven-member board appointed by the city commission, the DDA levies property taxes on commercial properties within its compact boundaries.

Los Angeles-based PSC says on its website that it has 2,500 employees and approximately $80 million in annual revenues. The company says it is licensed in more than 40 states and provides security guards to about 100 malls, hotels, private communities and municipalities.

‘SECURITY AMBASSADORS’

PSC was hired to provide a small team of unarmed “security ambassadors” to enhance downtown safety by patrolling on foot or on bicycles in areas like Riverwalk. The company also provides security ambassadors to the Pompano Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) as well as the West Palm Beach DDA, according to its contract with the Fort Lauderdale DDA.

In addition to hiring PSC to patrol downtown, the contract says the DDA also wanted to hire the firm to provide security guards for the Fort Lauderdale CRA. Wren said that plan fell apart when Jenni Morejon, the city’s director of sustainable development, said PSC could not be hired without a competitive procurement process. The city’s Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA is currently rewriting its plan to mitigate slum and blight and its plan to bid out an ambassadors program would not occur until after that.

The contract between the Fort Lauderdale DDA and PSC was signed Sept. 30, 2014 and the program began three weeks later. The agreement is on a month-to-month basis. DDA board-approved minutes indicate that the board was pleased with PSC’s work.downtown-development-authority-fortlauderdale

The DDA’s original budget for last year’s pilot program was $100,000, but that soon rose to $154,882 when the city kicked in additional funding. The current budget is $200,000, said Fort Lauderdale DDA executive director Chris Wren. The funds pay for two or three patrol guards, Wren said.

Wren said he recommended to the board that bids be obtained for the security ambassadors contract, but that his idea was rejected.

“We did not competitively bid it. I brought that up at a board meeting. I wanted to competitively bid it and they didn’t want to wait around. They asked the general counsel and he said it did not have to be competitively bid,” said Wren.

Wren explained that the board was enthusiastic about the idea of establishing a security ambassadors program – an idea in use in a number of cities across the country, including West Palm Beach – in order to better address safety and nuisance issues often caused by the homeless downtown.

“They said no, we don’t want to go out to bid. Get a contract and hire them,” said Wren. “I thought we might get a better deal with bids, but in their minds it was an emergency.”

AN EAGER BOARD

DDA chairman Weymouth said Monday that he did not know why the contract was not bid and had no recollection of Wren’s recommendation that bids be taken. The board’s non-verbatim minutes don’t mention such a recommendation by Wren, but do make clear the board was eager to move ahead quickly.

Willie Perez, regional security manager for Professional Security Consultants

Willie Perez, regional security manager for Professional Security Consultants

PSC’s Perez told the DDA in 2014 that he’d been running an ambassadors program at West Palm Beach’s City Place for 13 years. It was during that time that Frankel’s involvement with PSC began. She served as mayor of West Palm Beach from 2003 until 2011.

The Palm Beach Post reported in 2010 about police union anger with IPC International, the security guard company Perez was then working for, after the city commission hired it to guard the city’s waterfront – one of a number of city contracts obtained by the company. Universal Protective Service acquired IPC in 2013 – the same year Perez’s Linked In profile says he started at PSC.

The paper also reported that Perez’s full name is Wilfredo Perez-Borroto. Perez-Borroto, while employed by IPC International in 2011-2012, contributed a total of $2,700 to Frankel’s campaign.

In an editorial several days later, the paper fretted about a possible perception of favoritism due to Perez’s close relationship with then-Mayor Frankel. Mayor Frankel, the editorial said, publicly “gushes” over Perez’s company and, while denying Perez was giving her free bodyguard services, did say he accompanied her on weekly inspection tours.

Wren said Frankel did not lobby in Fort Lauderdale for PSC. “She just said we do a program, why don’t you talk to (West Palm Beach DDA boss) Rafael (Clemente) about it?” Wren said. “I wasn’t told to hire them as much as it was presented as an opportunity.”

Wren did meet with Clemente and said he came away impressed with PSC’s work. He also said that Rep. Frankel’s endorsement of PSC “made me feel more comfortable” about the company.

Board minutes from Feb. 13, 2014 say that James Ellis, a local real estate developer who today is a DDA board member, also led a DDA team to evaluate the ambassadors program to West Palm Beach where they “met with Lois Frankel and the DDA and it was positive.”

FRANKEL ‘DROPPED BY’

In an interview Monday, Ellis denied that there was any substantive meeting with Frankel, explaining she merely “dropped by” during a lunch meeting he was leading with about a dozen people, including PSC officials.

“She introduced herself and I believe she took off. That was the only time I’ve met or seen her. It was just a ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ ” Ellis said. He added that Frankel might have mentioned how pleased she was with West Palm Beach’s ambassadors program.

Support for the ambassadors program solidified a month later after discussions about funding sources and additional positive input from Mayor Jack Seiler and police officials in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. At that time, Wren announced his goal was to begin in October.

Fort Lauderdale DDA executive director Chris Wren

Fort Lauderdale DDA executive director Chris Wren

“Mr. Weymouth said the DDA (is) invested in getting this up and going and once up and running the DDA would step away and let the police take over,” the minutes say.

In the months that followed, there was no discussion of bids or considering any other private security guard firm. The board made its intention to hire PSC explicit in May 2014.

The deal came formally together at the board’s June 12, 2014 meeting following Perez’s PowerPoint presentation about PSC. Wren said Fort Lauderdale would “mirror” West Palm Beach’s program, and help pay for it with a tax rate increase. The millage rate was raised a month later.

Compliments about the program began to flow after it began that October. In February 2015, amid discussions about expanding the program and obtaining additional funding from both the city and the Northwest Progresso-Flagler Heights CRA, “Chairman Weymouth reminded the board that Lois Frankel introduced them to PSC.”

Draft minutes of the DDA’s most recent board meeting on Dec. 10 say Wren is now working with Perez on creating an ambassadors program for the next three years. Wren said the DDA would need to supply $1.2 million to make that happen.

Horrific police frame-ups that Broward State Attorney Michael Satz won’t investigate

By Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Jerry Frank Townsend

Jerry Frank Townsend

Last week’s manslaughter indictment of Broward County deputy sheriff Peter Peraza for the 2013 killing of Jermaine McBean marks a watershed in the tenure of Broward State Attorney Michael Satz – the first time in 36 years his office is prosecuting a police officer in a fatal police shooting.

The indictment also serves as a reminder of unresolved injustices at the hands of other Broward police officers.

Jerry Frank Townsend spent 22 years in prison for a string of sex murders he did not commit. Satz’s office put Townsend away in 1980 using the testimony of BSO homicide detectives who framed him, court records show. Townsend was cleared by DNA testing and freed from prison in 2001.

What happened to Townsend is strikingly similar to what happened to Anthony Caravella, another mentally challenged Broward man who spent 25 years in prison for murder before DNA testing led to his release in September 2009. A federal civil jury later found that two Miramar police officers had coerced a 15-year-old Caravella into confessing and withheld evidence that would have cleared him.

Neither State Attorney Satz nor the police investigated the police officers involved in those miscarriages of justice.

What happened to Townsend was the focus of the Florida Bulldog’s first story published on October 29, 2009. The story, with updates, follows:

ANATOMY OF A FRAME-UP

Once upon a time Jerry Frank Townsend was South Florida’s deadliest serial killer and rapist.

Broward Sheriff’s Office and Miami Police Department homicide detectives said it was so. Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, confessed to nearly two dozen sex murders, they said.

Convicted of six brutal murders and a rape in 1980, Townsend was sent to prison for life. He remained behind bars for 22 years, until he was exonerated by DNA tests that didn’t exist when he was arrested.

The police frame-up of Townsend continues to haunt both BSO and county taxpayers. The Sun-Sentinel reported last month [September 2009] that BSO agreed to pay $2 million over the next five years to settle a Broward civil rights lawsuit brought on Townsend’s behalf. Miami paid $2.2 million in 2008 to end a similar Townsend suit filed in federal court. The public spent at least $1 million more on defense lawyers for the officers who were involved.

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz

Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, once quick to prosecute Townsend on scant evidence, moved to set aside Townsend’s convictions after the DNA tests cleared him, but conducted no criminal investigation of the police whose testimony put Townsend in prison. Satz spokesman Ron Ishoy said Wednesday that prosecutors reviewed “the entire Townsend case even before the DNA testing” but “did not uncover any evidence to suggest” a frame-up.

Had an actual investigation been made, however, Satz would have found a disturbing record replete with clear and convincing evidence of specific crimes by BSO detectives and other officers, including perjury and the falsification of police reports.

Broward court records, including the lawsuit and the original trial and hearing transcripts, lay out in chilling detail how multiple murder charges were apparently trumped up against Townsend. The irrefutable DNA evidence that exonerated him implicates the detectives.

DETECTIVES IMPLICATED, NO INVESTIGATION

The Broward case against Townsend was driven by two BSO detectives, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi. According to the lawsuit, they pinned the murders on the weak-minded Townsend to advance their careers.

Former BSO homicide detectives Tony Fantigrassi, left, and Mark Schlein

Former BSO homicide detectives Tony Fantigrassi, left, and Mark Schlein

In Florida, there is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. But like Satz, BSO did not investigate what its detectives did to Townsend.

Indeed, in 2001, then-Sheriff Ken Jenne promoted Fantigrassi from captain to major as the Townsend case was falling apart.

“They weren’t interested,” said Townsend’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Barbara Heyer.

Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein, an attorney, is a lieutenant colonel in charge of insurance fraud investigations for the Florida Department of Financial Regulation. [In 2015, Schlein is an attorney in Washington, D.C.]

Upon Townsend’s release in June 2001, media attention focused on the four days of nearly non-stop interrogation he endured as detectives allegedly coached and rehearsed him into falsely confessing to crimes he did not commit. The Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel also reported how detectives stage-managed confessions through the use of selective tape recording.

The bad press caused BSO policy to change in 2003. Spokesman Jim Leljedal said that ever since the agency has required full audio or video recordings of all “interviews of arrested persons and most victims and witnesses.”

Proving that such police misconduct is a crime is difficult. But testimony made in court proceedings under oath and in signed police reports offer prosecutors more straightforward evidence.

At trial, ex-partners Schlein and Fantigrassi both testified Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.

DETECTIVE’S TESTIMONY TAKES ON NEW MEANING

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

On the witness stand Schlein and Fantigrassi recounted how they followed Townsend to crime scenes, including the Dillard High School athletic field where 13-year-old Sonja Marion was raped and murdered. Schlein also testified Townsend identified the weapon he used to kill the teenager.

Sonja Marion

Sonja Marion

“The words he used – I’m not absolutely positive – but [Townsend] hit her in the head with a brick that he had gotten from that cement patch,” Schlein said, according to the 1980 trial transcript.

At a pre-trial hearing on a motion to suppress evidence, the detectives gave graphic testimony regarding Townsend’s alleged story about the murder of Terry Cummings.

“He indicated, number one, that when he initially struck her in the vicinity of the shack her wig had fallen off. That wig was in fact recovered immediately outside the shack,” said Schlein. “In addition to that he indicated that when she threatened to scream or began to scream he removed a very large – like a knee sock, which was red and white in color, and stuck it deep into her throat. This is consistent with the way the body was originally found.”

Fantigrassi offered more detail about Townsend’s “confession.”

“He looked down at the ground and said, ‘I used her bra to kill her.’ He made mention that he used a sock in her mouth to keep her from being heard, screaming. He drew a diagram in the sand for us of where the structure was, how it was located and how the position of the body laid in the structure. He pinpointed which direction the head was, which way the legs were, how the legs were. He made mention of a hand he had placed up on – the left hand, that he had place up on her pants.”

Police reports written and signed by Schlein contain many of those same statements. His Sept. 12, 1979 report adds this flourish: “Townsend stated that he placed her left hand on her hip, “to make her look like she pulled down her pants.’”

Townsend, of course, could not have known any details from the crime scene attributed to him by Schlein and Fantigrassi. DNA tests prove conclusively he did not kill Sonja Marion or Terry Cummings, and identify the real killer as Eddie Lee Mosley.

Schlein declined to discuss his testimony or his police reports.

“I’m not going engage in this exercise,” Schlein said before hanging up the telephone.

In an interview, Fantigrassi stuck by his original testimony and said he never lied to convict Townsend.

“I still vividly remember standing in that crowd with the Miami detectives and Mark and listening to [Townsend’s] story and him making the comment about the color of the sock in the mouth,” he said. “How did he get that specific information? I don’t know. I can just tell you I remember hearing it from him like it was yesterday.

“And to this day, how he got that information I don’t know. But he didn’t get it from me, and he didn’t get it from Mark. We are both cut from the same cloth. We don’t play around like that,” said Fantigrassi, who lives in Southwest Ranches.

TOWNSEND’S LAWSUIT

The Townsend lawsuit alleged a sweeping pattern of police misconduct, including perjury, witness and evidence tampering, obstruction of justice and a racketeering conspiracy in which detectives and successive administrations covered up police wrongdoing.

In pre-settlement court filings, BSO’s attorneys argued the agency and its detectives acted in good faith.

The terms of the $2 million settlement are confidential, except for the payout numbers which were filed in Townsend’s guardianship case.

Police misconduct in Townsend’s case paralleled what happened to Anthony Caravella.

In 1983, when he was 15, Caravella confessed to the rape-murder of Ada Jankowski in Miramar. He was released from prison under supervision in September 2009 after DNA testing excluded him as the source of sperm found on Jankowski’s body. He was later fully exonerated.

In 2013, a federal civil jury found that former Miramar police officers William Mantesta and George Pierson had coerced Caravella into confessing and withheld evidence that would have cleared him. They were ordered to pay $7 million. State Attorney Satz did not investigate.

Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said police should be held accountable under Florida’s law that allows a witness in a capital case to be charged with perjury if they recant their testimony.

“If we don’t apply those standards to folks in law enforcement then it allows them to act with impunity,” Miller said.

Eddie Lee Mosley

Eddie Lee Mosley

Eddie Lee Mosley, linked by DNA to four murders once attributed to Townsend, is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders, according to the lawsuit. The crimes occurred between 1973 and 1987, when Mosley was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook and confined to a state mental hospital for the criminally insane.

In the summer of 1979, when Mosley was free, police were under intense pressure to catch the brutal serial killer terrorizing predominantly African-American neighborhoods in northwest Fort Lauderdale and nearby unincorporated areas.

Townsend’s Sept. 5 arrest in Miami as he walked home near the scene of an assault on a prostitute offered Broward detectives an opportunity to close multiple murder and rape cases. To make it happen, detectives testified falsely and ignored exculpatory evidence like independent alibi witness statements that put Townsend elsewhere at the time of some murders, according to court records.

COPS MISS REAL KILLER

The BSO detectives also turned a blind eye on the real killer.

Former Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Doug Evans. Evans died in 2011

Former Fort Lauderdale Police Detective Doug Evans. Evans died in 2011

Three weeks before Townsend’s arrest, Eddie Lee Mosley, known around his northwest neighborhood as “The Rape Man,” was identified as the prime suspect in rape-murder cases in Fort Lauderdale’s jurisdiction.

At an interagency meeting, Fort Lauderdale Detective Doug Evans laid out the case against Mosley, including the eyewitness testimony of surviving rape victims and a unique shoeprint found at the Cummings death scene.

At trial, Fantigrassi told Townsend’s defense lawyer under cross examination that Evans had an “irrational vengeance” against Mosley.

“He would pursue him to no end. Any time any sort of homicide investigation broke out, he wanted us to check out Eddie Lee Mosley,” said Fantigrassi. “And as a precaution, when I was investigating the ’79 cases I did just that. I did check Eddie Lee Mosley. I discarded him as a suspect.”

Fantigrassi’s decision cost Townsend 22 years of his life. It also left Mosley free to continue to rape and kill.

tenwhowouldnothavediedThe murders of 10 young African-American women and children that occurred between the day of Townsend’s arrest in 1979 and the day Mosley was taken off the streets for good in 1987 are now linked to Mosley, according to the lawsuit.

One of them was 8-year-old Shaundra Whitehead of Fort Lauderdale, who was raped and fatally beaten in her bed in 1985.

But there were other victims, including the man State Attorney Satz’s office helped send to Death Row for Shaundra’s murder, Frank Lee Smith.

Smith spent 14 years in prison before dying of cancer on January 30, 2000. Eleven months later, he was exonerated by DNA tests that identified Mosley as Shandra’s killer.

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.

DIFFICULT FOR VICTIMS TO COME FORWARD

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.

WIFE CONFRONTS HUSBAND

 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 ABUSE

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.”

BROGNA VEHEMENTLY DENIES WRONGDOING

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.

FLAWED FROM THE START

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.

LOANS AND GRANTS

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.

NO JUSTIFICATION

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.

A WAY TO RECOUP?

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.”

A PERSONAL GUARANTEE

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.”

FREEMAN A ‘PIONEEER’

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.

BANKRUPTCY FILINGS

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.

INSPECTOR GENERAL’S PROBE

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.

 

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