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

By William Hladky, 

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 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 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, 

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 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, 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 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, 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, 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, 

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.”

Lagging in South Florida, Broward County has no on-demand video of public meetings

By William Hladky, 

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don't make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

A screen shot from an on-demand video of a meeting last month by the Miami-Dade County Commission. Broward commissioners don’t make on-demand viewing of their meetings available to the public.

Unlike most local governments, the Broward County Commission limits the amount of sunlight that shines on its meetings.

Broward is the only county in Southeast Florida, and the only major government in Broward County, that does not archive its recorded commission meetings for later on-demand viewing online by the public.

Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe counties, the Broward School Board, and 18 of 31 Broward cities – including Fort Lauderdale – provide on-demand video or audio web viewing. Only Broward’s smaller municipalities lack this service.

More than 85 percent of Broward’s population resides in cities that offer on-demand web video or audio viewing of commission or council meetings.

Many governments also provide anytime viewing for meetings that occurred months or even years earlier. For example, Coral Springs has archived online video recordings of every city commission meeting since the start of 2007.

Fort Lauderdale started putting video of every city commission conference and regular meeting online in August 2012. The Broward County School Board keeps videos its meetings available online for the last six months.

Individuals wanting to watch a video of a prior Broward County Commission meeting must file a public records request to obtain a DVD copy of the session. A DVD copy costs $8 plus postage if it is mailed.

The Broward County Commission broadcasts live regular meetings and public hearings on its web page and on cable television. The meetings are re-webcast and most of the time re-broadcast on cable once, at 5:30 pm the Friday following the meetings.


While Florida’s Sunshine Law only requires governments to keep general written minutes of their proceedings, on demand videos increase transparency by preserving the “richness of the discussion” that leads to decisions, said Carla Miller, founder a non-profit organization called City Ethics that provides local governments with ethics training and programs.

“If you don’t do digital recordings there is a…suspicion,” she said. “Anything that decreases the public trust is not good…Withholding things on line will always bring up suspicion.”

Broward residents have reason to be suspicious. According to the Justice Department, Florida led the nation in federal public corruption convictions between 2000 and 2010.

Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization, reported that public corruption was a factor in Forbes Magazine’s decision to list the greater Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area as the seventh most “miserable city” in the United States in 2012. Forbes ranked Miami #1. West Palm Beach was fourth.

Daniel Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, supports on-demand video or audio web access, noting that many people are at work during commission meetings and are only able to watch them later. The Broward Commission meets regularly on Tuesdays starting at 10 a.m. Public hearings begin at 2 p.m.

“There is a difference between transparency and providing easy access,” said Krassner. “Putting them on line would be a best practice for open accessible government.”

Still, there appears to be no urgency to make on-demand video happen any time soon at County Hall.

“There are other things in the pipe line ahead of (on-demand video of commission meetings),” said Broward Mayor Kristin Jacobs. Jacobs pointed out that commissioners were briefed last week about efforts to redesign existing county web sites for mobile devices. “We are really excited about it,” she said.


Jacobs said, too, that Broward’s limited budget hinders archiving videos of commission meetings for on-demand viewing by the public.

In fact, many on-demand systems are relatively inexpensive.

In Jacksonville, the city purchased a $250 digital recording device and after each governmental meeting city staff links an audio recording on its web site for on-demand use.

“It’s not a hard thing to do,” said Carla Miller, who is also director of Jacksonville’s Office of Ethics, Compliance and Oversight.

Broward School Board spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said her board’s more sophisticated video system cost $12,485 to operate this year.

Fort Lauderdale pays Granicus, a California corporation, $2,290 a month to operate the city’s on-line video system. Granicus started managing the city’s system in 2012. The city’s startup cost with Granicus was $27,825.

Chaz Adams, Fort Lauderdale’s public information officer, stressed in an email that Granicus’ cost covers not just online web access to meeting recordings but it also covers many aspects of the city’s “workflow management system.”

Government on-demand web services range from the sophisticated to the simple, from the easy to the difficult to access.

Fort Lauderdale’s system is one of the more sophisticated. Once a video recording is selected, that meeting’s agenda appears below the screen. Clicking an agenda item moves the video to that part of the meeting where the item is discussed.

Miami-Dade County’s online video archives feature more than commission meetings. Also to be found are meetings of various committees, including county finance, health and social services, public safety and animal services.

William Hladky can be reached at


Hallandale finds allies amid aggressive response to county’s request for CRA documents

By William Gjebre, Broward hbcralogo

A group of Broward cities have reached an agreement with the county Inspector General’s Office to turn over financial documents from their redevelopment agencies, temporarily heading off a possible court battle over the county’s claim that it has jurisdiction to investigate those agencies.

The Inspector General’s Office requested those Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) documents earlier this month citing its authority under the county charter, but after encountering resistance agreed instead to request them using Florida’s public records law.

Hallandale Beach city commissioners, criticized this year by the Inspector General for mishandling millions of dollars in CRA funds, sounded the battle cry at a meeting on Monday with a vote to explore teaming up with other CRA cities to obtain a legal ruling about the county’s authority over CRAs.

Commissioners approved several aggressive measures aimed squarely at the Inspector General’s Office, including a requirement that the county pay the city copying and other fees for any CRA financial documents it receives under the Public Records Act.

Commissioners authorized the city to file its own public records request for the Inspector General’s file on its completed yearlong probe of Hallandale Beach, including information about the sources of the allegations that helped start the investigation. Likewise, the commission also approved asking the Inspector General to specify the authority it believes it has under county law, or any legal ruling, to investigate CRAs.


The Inspector General’s request for CRA records from city halls’ across the county signaled the opening of a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of funds and a possible attempt to recover from those cities millions of unspent taxpayer dollars.

Hallandale Beach maintains the Inspector General does not have the authority to investigate CRAs, and that CRAs are under the jurisdiction of the state.

“The jurisdiction question has to be resolved,” the Hallandale Beach CRA’s attorney Steven Zelkowitz told the CRA’s board of directors Monday. In Hallandale, as in many other cities, the city commission also sits as the CRA’s board.

Zelkowitz is expected to seek support for any legal action from eight other cities that challenged the IG’s request under the county charter for the financial documents. Those cities are: Lauderdale Lakes, Dania Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Coral Springs, Deerfield Beach, Pompano, and Davie.

“I feel comfortable that we have support,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. The cost of any legal action would be spread among the participating cities, he said.

Plantation, the tenth city to receive a letter from the Inspector General, is not part of the challenge. Mayor Diane Bendekovic said her city had already provided the requested documents under the original request.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper, who leads the pushback effort against the county, blamed county officials for “a witch hunt” against cities whose CRAs receive property tax funds from the county.

“I’m tired of the Inspector General wasting taxpayers’ money,” Cooper said. “We welcome an investigation by the proper authority,” Cooper said, adding that the Inspector General is not that agency.


Hostilities between Hallandale and the county flared again following the Inspector General’s letter to Hallandale Beach and nine other Broward cities seeking a variety of CRA financial documents. This time, Hallandale’s concerns were shared by others.

Attorneys and officials representing eight CRA cities challenged the Inspector General’s assertion of jurisdiction under the county charter. They met last week with Jennifer Merino, general counsel for the Inspector General.

Zelkowitz said an agreement was reached in which the Inspector General’s Office would rescind its letter citing charter authority and re-issue a letter seeking the information under Chapter 119 of Florida’s statutes, the public records act.

The county also agreed to push back the date when the documents were due to be produced by about two weeks. The records had been due on Friday.

Merino told her agency agreed only to “clarify” its request letter, saying the agency always wanted the documents under the public records law even though the original letter cited the county charter. She also said her agency is only conducting an “inquiry” for information and not an investigation.

According to Zelkowitz, the Inspector General’s office refused a request by the cities to jointly seek a ruling in Broward Circuit Court on whether does or does not have investigatory authority over CRAs. He also said the Inspector General failed to cite specific provisions giving it investigatory authority over CRAs.

Merino, maintaining that the Inspector General’s Office has the authority, said her office felt it “was not the right time” to seek such a court ruling.

“We are not trying to throttle any investigation,” Zelkowitz told Hallandale commissioners. “We want the right investigative agency to do the investigation.”

In June, Broward County commissioners, expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit Hallandale Beach’s CRA was limited by both state and county law. They vowed to change state law to gain control. The commissioners created the Inspector General’s Office several years ago.

In Hallandale, several of Mayor Cooper’s colleagues expressed a different kind of frustration as the tug-of-war continues with the Inspector General’s Office.

“We spent enough taxpayers’ money on this,” said Vice Mayor Alexander Lewy.

But Commissioner Michele Lazarow, the lone dissenting vote in Monday’s commission action, has called for state officials to seek an Attorney General’s opinion on the city’s use of CRA funds, and for an outside audit of the CRA to determine if funds have been misused in the past.

William Gjebre can be reached at

Broward opens broad inquiry into misuse of property tax dollars by CRAs; millions at stake

By William Gjebre and Dan Christensen, iglogo

The Broward Inspector General’s Office has opened a broad inquiry into the potential misuse of public funds across the county with written requests sent to at least nine cities with a Community Redevelopment Agency to hand over a variety of financial records for inspection.

One official with knowledge of the inquiry told the Inspector General’s review is “the beginning of a long term process.”

Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said the Inspector General’s request for records is all about millions in tax dollars and who should control them.

“It’s about time that somebody was trying to hold CRAs accountable. The Inspector General’s Office might not be the right mechanism to do that, but it’s about time,” Schnidman said.

CRA’s administer programs within districts designated by local governments under state law as community redevelopment areas.  Boards made up of local government officials or persons appointed by the local government run them.

Tax increment financing is used to fund CRAs, which receive tax revenue generated by increases in real property value in their area over a baseline number determined when the CRA is created. By law, those revenues – the “increment,”— are put into a CRA Trust Fund that’s dedicated to the redevelopment of the area.


In sending letters to the CRAs the Inspector General’s Office is carrying out a vow made earlier this year amid its investigation of Hallandale Beach’s CRA to keep close tabs on municipal redevelopment groups that receive half their funds from property taxes collected by the county.

Identical records requests were sent to at least eight of the 10 Broward cities with CRAs that receive county funding – Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Pompano Beach, Margate, Deerfield Beach and Plantation. An official in Coral Springs, the 10th city, said that city has not received a letter but expects one soon.

While some CRA officials express uneasiness, others welcomed the Inspector General’s action.

“I think they are looking for general information, but they may want to see if there is anything that’s improper,” said Will Allen, administrator at the Davie CRA. “They won’t find anything wrong here.”

In Hallandale, City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said, “I don’t think it is an accident that the letter was sent” shortly after the Inspector General issued a critical report against the Hallandale Beach CRA.

Earlier this year, the Inspector General charged that Hallandale Beach city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. The office said it found at least $2.2 million in questionable expenditures between 2007 and 2012.

Mayor Joy Cooper challenged many of the county’s allegations. Asked to comment about the Inspector General’s new request for documents, she said the city “will respond accordingly.”

The Inspector General’s office asked the cities to produce:  

*A copy of the ordinance that established the CRA Community Redevelopment Trust Fund. Hallandale Beach, for instance, did not have a separate fund for the first 16 years of the agency’s existence.

*Bank statements for the redevelopment trust fund accounts for the months of September and October for the years 2009-2012.

*The CRA’s general ledger account ending balances from 2009-2012

*Any and all CRA capital improvement plans for 2009-2012.

*Documentation for the disposition of all money remaining in the redevelopment trust fund at the end of fiscal year ending September 20, 2012 that was later used to reduce indebtedness for pledged funds.

*Records regarding all money deposited into escrow accounts from 2009-2012 for repayment of CRA debts.

Schnidman said the records that were sought indicate that the county’s agents are attempting to determine if the CRAs have complied with the requirements of state statute – 163.387(7) – regarding how tax increment trust fund balance amounts are to be treated at the end of the fiscal year.

Under the law, Schnidman said, those balances are supposed to be proportionally returned each year to each taxing authority, such as the county, that paid into the CRA.

“What the Inspector General is doing is he’s trying to figure out which of the county’s CRAs are in violation of the law and need to return all this money they’ve husbanded away,” said Schnidman. “It’s millions of dollars.”


At a time of tight municipal budgets, the Inspector General’s gambit could reverberate it city halls across the state.

“I wonder if other counties will follow this effort by the Broward IG’s Office in the continuing revenue discussions between some counties and their CRAs,” said Schnidman. “The threshold question is by what authority is the Broward IG seeking this information from Broward County Dependent District CRAs that it arguably does not have jurisdiction over?”

City officials in Hallandale briefly challenged the Inspector General’s authority over its CRA, but later backed off that position.

In Margate, where the CRA has focused on “streetscape” improvements along Atlantic Boulevard and State Road 7, City Attorney Eugene Steinfeld took a wait-and-see approach to the county’s inquiry.

“It sounds like they are just gathering information,” Steinfeld said.

Lauderdale Lakes CRA executive director J. Gary Rogers welcomed any new oversight.

“They are doing their job,” said Rogers.

In 2012, following up on a story the year before by about missing redevelopment funds, the Inspector General found that Lauderdale Lakes had misspent $2.5 million in CRA funds. The city is repaying the money to the CRA.

“We were investigated and employees were terminated,” Rogers said. “We came close to a big financial disaster” under a previous administration, added Rogers who was not with the city at the time.

“I got no problem with them looking at us,” Rogers said. “They want to make sure we are spending money appropriately.”

William Gjebre can be reached at

ATI career school company implodes amid fraud claims; $3.7 million whistleblower settlement

By Dan Christensen, oie_2941128RKljF32J (1)

A for-profit career school operator with once-bustling campuses in Broward and Miami-Dade counties agreed this month to pay $3.7 million to the government to settle whistleblower fraud claims.

ATI Enterprises, which operated as ATI Career Training Center, agreed to the payout while denying accusations it had recruited students at homeless shelters, strip clubs and among criminals, then forged paperwork to make them eligible for thousands of dollars in federal tuition grants and loans.

The settlement, announced by the Justice Department last week, comes as crisis managers liquidate the Texas-based company by selling off assets and transferring or referring students to other schools, according to interim CEO Michael F. Gries.

At its height a few years ago, privately held ATI boasted 24 campuses in five states with more than 3,000 employees and 16,000 students. It was valued at more than $400 million.

ATI’s South Florida training schools in Fort Lauderdale, Oakland Park, the Doral area west of Miami International Airport, and Miami Gardens closed at the end of last year, Gries said.

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

Whistleblower Dulce Ramirez-Damon

The settlement resolved a pair of federal whistleblower complaints, including one filed in federal court by Dulce Ramirez-Damon, ATI’s former assistant director of education in Fort Lauderdale.

Ramirez-Damon’s False Claims Act complaint was filed in secret in July 2011. It alleged that ATI had engaged in a “systematic and nationwide fraudulent practice of forging documents and records to create an appearance of student eligibility in order to receive federal funds.

A similar whistleblower action was filed in federal court in northern Texas in 2009. Both suits have now been made public.

Private individuals bring false claim lawsuits in the name of the United States. They share in any recovery, in this case up to 25 percent plus attorney fees.

After investigating, the government decided to intervene on Aug. 7 in Ramirez-Damon’s case for the purposes of settlement, court records say.

The Department of Justice’s press release said ATI’s payment would resolve allegations it “falsely certified compliance with federal student aid programs’ eligibility requirements and submitted claims for ineligible students.”

ATI also allegedly misrepresented its job placement statistics to authorities in Texas in order to maintain its licensing and accreditation, the press release said.


Federal prosecutors in Miami, Washington, and Texas investigated, along with the Department of Education’s Inspector General.

“Federal financial aid is there to help students attain their dreams and goals, and misuse of these funds to increase corporate profits is unacceptable,” Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer said in a press release. “We are committed to ensuring that federal student aid is used for the benefit of students.”

Neither Ferrer’s office, nor Ramirez-Damon’s Miami lawyer, Bjorg Eikeland, responded to requests for comment.

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

Former ATI CEO and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin

ATI has changed hands a couple of times in recent years, with the current owner being Texas-based Ancora Holdings.

But according to Gries, “all of these allegations” engulfing ATI occurred under the leadership of former ATI Chief Executive and Chairman Arthur E. Benjamin, a resident of Delray Beach.

Benjamin, who now runs Salt Lake City-based Stone Mountain Investments, did not return a phone message left with his office. Here’s a link to a You Tube video he made about ATI when he was CEO.

Benjamin worked at ATI from 2005 to 2011. While there, he contributed tens of thousands of dollars to a bipartisan array of Congressional candidates, according to federal election records.

Florida recipients of Benjamin’s largess include: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston; Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar; ex-Reps. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale and Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton; and Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican and ex-governor and presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

The whistleblower lawsuit alleges that within a month of Ramirez-Damon’s hiring in October 2009 it became apparent to her that ATI was engaged in active Pell Grant fraud. She said she notified her superiors, but that company management chose “to look the other way.”

Ramirez-Damon claimed she was abruptly demoted in April 2011 and transferred off the Fort Lauderdale campus at 2890 NW 62nd Street to a job as an instructor in Miami. The reason: “to keep her silent” and deny her access to school records, the lawsuit said.

She is no longer employed by ATI.

Pell Grants provide government aid to students from low-income families. At ATI, students could take courses to train them for jobs in automotive, health care, business, information technology and other fields.

According to the whistleblower suit, ATI falsified documents to enroll “as many students as possible” in programs with tuitions ranging from $13,741 to $46,744 per program. One former ATI employee is quoted as saying “the ATI culture…was to recruit anyone with a pulse.”

The numbers could add up quickly.


“With a student mass of over 750 (in Fort Lauderdale) alone, and 18,000 country wide, federal subsidy of tuition is a very lucrative scam for ATI,” the suit said.

To find students, the suit said, ATI admission representatives targeted “the ‘down and out’ at homeless shelters, strip clubs and poor neighborhoods.” The “bait” to entice them to sign up was the promise of financial aid and low-interest loans. ATI distributed flyers promising lucrative salaries and guarantees of job placement.

The alleged fraud by ATI was sweeping: forged admission exams, forged proof of education, the acceptance of students without screening for criminal history, forged attendance records and falsified grades – all done to make it appear that federal standards were being met so the money would continue to flow.

In the lawsuit, Ramirez-Damon contended, “of a student body of 750 enrolled students” in Fort Lauderdale “at least 150-200 students have a violent or drug-related background.” She provided the names of more than a dozen such students in her complaint.

“It is common practice at ATI when a student is missing attendance, that employees check (the) Florida Department of Corrections website to see if the student has become incarcerated,” said the lawsuit.

ATI would also “re-circulate” poorly achieving students who faced dismissal, letting them know that they could transfer into another career training program. “This way the old grades no longer count and the student is again eligible to receive financial aid,” the suit says.

Some students who failed would fail again because they did not have the academic ability or background to take the courses they were in, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result, the students incurred more debt without graduating. ATI, on the other hand, has made more money,” the suit said.

The government’s press release noted that $2 million of ATI’s settlement payout would be used to refund student loans involving lawsuits brought by individual students against ATI.

The press release did not say how much taxpayers lost on government loans to ATI students.

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