Hallandale commissioner Anthony Sanders resigns amid allegations of wrongdoing

Hallandale Beach Commissioner Anthony Sanders and Jessica Sanders

UPDATE, Aug. 11 By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org:

Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders resigned his commission seat today on the heels of a scathing report from the Broward Inspector General’s Office that said he “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” in the awarding of city grants and other funding.

“To the residents of Hallandale Beach and Mayor Joy Cooper…I have decided to end my term as Commissioner of the City of Hallandale Beach effective today,” Sanders said in his resignation letter. He said in his letter there was “toxicity” on the current commission.

Sanders, a commissioner for nine years, had generally supported Cooper in controlling the commission majority until the most recent election.  He denied any wrongdoing in his formal response to the IG report, which was finalized earlier this week.

City commissioners next week are expected to call a special election to fill Sanders’ seat because there is more than a year remaining on his four year term.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

July 11 – A preliminary report by the Broward Inspector General’s Office says Hallandale Beach City Commissioner Anthony Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him and other family members by a community group which Sanders voted to give thousands of dollars in city grants and other funding.

The July 7 report obtained by Florida Bulldog also said that Palms Community Action Coalition Inc. (PCAC) made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries, where Sanders is the pastor and the only paid full-time employee. The report adds that Sanders solicited and received contributions for the church from developers seeking to do business with the city.

PCAC is a Hallandale Beach-based nonprofit organization that provides job training and community development services to local residents.

The various payments occurred during a three-year period in which Sanders voted in favor of PCAC, according to the report.  “Commissioner Sanders continued taking a salary from his employer, continued accepting significant payments from PCAC on behalf of his employer, failed to abstain from voting, failed to disclose the voting conflicts to the voting body either verbally or in writing, directly and indirectly solicited developers to give contributions to his employer, and accepted those contributions on behalf of his employer,” the IG report stated.

The report said the Inspector General plans to refer the office’s findings about Sanders to the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Hallandale Beach city commission “for whatever action those entities deem appropriate.”

“We are filing against Commissioner Sanders an ethics complaint charging a violation of the Broward code of ethics to be tried by an administrative hearing officer,” the report said.

If sustained, the allegations would violate provisions of state, county and municipal codes that prohibit elected officials from receiving anything of value to influence their vote, take any action that provides undue benefit to family members and require refraining from voting to avoid conflict and disclosures in such cases.

The report apparently stems from an investigation opened by the IG’s office, as reported by the Florida Bulldog in June 2016, involving the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program requires contributions from private developers vying for city projects over $1 million to help fund recruitment, training and hiring of city residents and purchasing from local vendors.

PCAC partnerships

According to the IG documents, it was Sanders who “initially promoted the idea that local workers should be included in city development.” The city requirements made it difficult for developers to win a city contract without a program partner, which had to be named in bidding documents. The IG said PCAC was frequently designated as “partner” in bid documents.

The Bulldog story said investigators were looking for voting conflicts in their review of city commission and Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) minutes. The inquiry came three years after the IG found the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds. Sanders was investigated and cleared of any wrongdoing in the IG probe four years ago, but did not escape criticism in the latest probe.

Sanders did not return calls seeking comment on the Inspector General’s latest assertions.

The new investigation of Hallandale Beach covered a period from January 2013 through December 2015. During that time city commissioners, including Sanders, approved direct grants to PCAC three times and development contracts that included the group as a “benefit plan partner” seven times, according to the report.

The city requires companies seeking contracts above $1 million to set aside funds for things like job training programs.

The 10 grants and development contracts ultimately “benefited PCAC a total of approximately $893,320,” the report said. Funds collected from successful bidders were later transferred to PCAC, amounting to $695,870; the balance came from city grants.

The report outlined the connection between the commissioner and the community group. “The OIG [Office of Inspector General] substantiated that PCAC made contractual payments to Higher Vision Ministries…, that PCAC employed his [Sanders’] son; and that PCAC also made other consulting and employment payments to the commissioner’s wife and another son.”

Payments to Sanders’s wife

According to the report, PCAC paid Sanders’ wife, Jessica, for consulting and grant writing and paid two of Sanders’ adult sons for part-time employment. Jessica Sanders had been involved with PCAC in 2011. “We found that PCAC directly paid the commissioner’s immediate family a total of approximately $7,588 between January 2013 and December 2015,” the report stated.

In addition, the report said that PCAC made monthly $1,000 payments to Higher Vision Ministries to transport job trainees to classes. But, it added, neither the church nor PCAC documented any rides. The IG said it determined PCAC paid Higher Vision approximately $27,000 for 613 miles of transportation service – or about $44 for “each accountable mile” under the agreement.

“In all,” the report said, “PCAC paid Commissioner Sanders’s employer and immediate family a total of approximately $38,688 during this three-year period.”

“Following one of Commissioner Sanders’s votes in November 2013 for a Hallandale Beach multi-million public workers project that included PCAC as a community benefit plan partner, PCAC paid an extra (that is, over and above $1,000 per month) $2,000 to Higher Vision Ministries with a memo notation of Donation/Pastor’s Appreciation,” the report stated.

In another instance, the report said, “…following city commission approval for direct city funding to PCAC between October and November of the following year [2014], it [PCAC] made extra payments totaling another $2,100 to Higher Vision Ministries.”

“As described in this report,” the IG report stated, “the commissioner was well aware of the nature of these conflicting relationships and their bearing on the propriety of his voting. Yet, Commissioner Sanders admitted that he did not disclose these relationships or payments to the public at any time during the period he voted to benefit PCAC.”

The IG report said investigators “also established that, while they were at city hall for a commission meeting involving one of the development votes, Commissioner Sanders solicited one of the project awardees to make a direct contribution to the Higher Vision Ministries church, who then asked a second developer to do the same. Their companies’ two donations to the church totaled $1,100.”

 

Hallandale freezes payments for city development, jobs programs citing waste & fraud

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton

Hallandale Beach City Manager Roger Carlton has ordered what could be a multi-million dollar freeze on all payments under two city jobs and business development programs, saying they “have lost their way.”

Carlton acted about what he said was “waste” and possible fraud weeks before a report by county investigators became public last week that accused City Commissioner Anthony Sanders of failing to disclose payments he received from a local community group awarded city funds, including money under the two programs, with his backing.

In a June 5 memorandum obtained by Florida Bulldog, Carlton, who was appointed city manager by a new reform-minded city commission majority, expressed outrage about the flawed city programs and public apathy about them.

“I am angry about this situation,” Carlton wrote. “… It is extremely disappointing that there is no outrage in the community about these programs. No demands for reform have been publicly made to date. No complaints regarding the fact that public funds, which should have been utilized effectively to build capacity of local contractors, or help individuals find work can be found.”

In a preliminary July 7 report, the Broward Inspector General’s office said Commissioner Sanders “engaged in a pattern of misconduct” when he “failed to disclose payments” made to him, other family members and his church, Higher Vision Ministries, by a jobs development group, Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) during a three-year period. Sanders voted to give PCAC three grants and backed seven funding agreements under the Community Benefit Program (CBP), resulting in the PCAC receiving a total of $893,320 from 2013 through 2015, according to the report.

Carlton’s directive was aimed at the CBP and the Hallandale Opportunity Project (HOP), the city’s administrative arm created to monitor job development, including placement and training, and the purchase and use of local subcontractors and residents, by firms that won contracts. Those gaining contracts under the program pledged a percentage of the contract to hire residents and subcontractors and/or earmark funds to train and create jobs for residents.

“It’s not a pretty outcome,” Carlton said in a brief interview with the Florida Bulldog, adding “millions of dollars” are at stake. The city manager also said the city will “recover as much as possible” of any misused funds.

“I have directed the Finance Department and the Capital Improvement Division to cease making any payments to consultants, contractors, design/engineering firms and/or individuals under the CBP/HOP program until a complete review … can be completed,” Carlton said in his memo.

Exception to freeze for a handful

“The only exception to this payment freeze,” he wrote, “will be to those individuals and firms who are doing actual physical work or are in a verifiable training program at a job site, and who are qualified participants due to their employment and residency status.”

Jeremy Earle, assistant city manager, has been placed in control of the troubled programs and was directed to reform them. The city’s review of the programs, Carlton’s memo said, “will include an analysis of waste, fraud and abuse.” It added, “Without equivocation, there has been waste. Fraud and abuse will be determined.”

“If necessary,” Carlton stated, “the results of our review will be brought to the appropriate authorities for their determination.”

In his memo, Carlton said the city must retool the programs – not terminate them — and make them effective by using “best practices across the country… We must also eliminate providers that are not contributing to program goals.”

The new controversy surrounding the Hallandale’s CBP is similar in some aspects to that involving the city’s troubled Community Redevelopment Agency, which came under investigation by the Broward Inspector General Office five years ago. The findings: The city’s CRA lacked effective city oversight, agency funds were mixed with city funds, a good deal of spending lacked documentation, and policies changed frequently or were not adhered to. The IG found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures from 2007 to 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and nonprofits.

The IG’s new probe – as reported by Florida Bulldog in June 2016 – was already underway when Carlton took over as city manager on Feb. 6, 2017.  He didn’t like what he found surrounding the CBP and HOP.

“During the past six years, the CBP and the HOP programs have lost their way for a complex variety of reason,” Carlton said in the memo. Successful bidders for city contracts “have contributed to the CBP and HOP at a rate which has grown so rapidly since the recovery of the Great Recession, that there are not enough small contractors of unemployed/underemployed workers in the city of Hallandale Beach to feed into the program.”

The programs ran afoul, he stated, because:

  • Program personnel for both the city and companies awarded contracts were hired often without a competitive process or without demonstrating the ability met the goals of the programs.
  • City monitoring staffers were not given “uniform standards or criteria… to follow” and were not included in negotiations to understand CBP provisions of each contract; and sanctions for failing to comply were less severe than the cost of complying.
  • “City administrators did not demand the excellence and fair-dealing required for the effective use of public funds. That is our fault, and the city administration will resolve these issues going forward.”
  • “The city commission also needs to shoulder some of the responsibility for the difficulties in this program. The rumors, confrontations, accusations and innuendos regarding abuses in the CBP/HOP are not new. When my predecessor brought a series of reforms on October 19, 2016, these reforms were approved by the city commission in a 3/2 vote…, but were not made a priority. The turmoil that swirled around city hall at the time, in part, allowed the need to implement the reforms as a priority of the organization to go unmet.”

In its July 7 report, the Broward IG also stated that Commissioner Sanders solicited and received contributions from developments seeking to do business with the city under the CBP program during the period of the investigation.

The IG report revealed some possible payment discrepancies that could receive closer review by the city:

  • PCAC had an agreement to pay $1,000 a month to Higher Vision to transport job trainees to Sheridan Technical College in Hollywood, with payments totaling $31,000. But the report said no services were provided after May 16, 2015. It also said the city provided free bus passes to the trainees to get to the school.
  • The city provided $17,000 from October 2014 to September 2015 for PCAC to send 10 women to Sheridan Technical to receive training as nurse aides. But six of them dropped out.

Broward’s Inspector General probes Hallandale Beach CRA – again

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA's board of directors

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA’s board of directors

The Broward County Inspector General’s Office has launched another inquiry into Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, three years after finding the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

The first probe led to reform and a grand theft charge against the director of a local cultural program for misspending CRA grant money. What triggered the new probe, however, isn’t known.

“I cannot comment,” said Inspector General John W. Scott, who leads the independent watchdog agency that investigates allegations of fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement at the county and Broward’s 31 municipalities. He’s asked the city and the CRA to submit the requested information by July 1.

A key focus of the inquiry, however, is the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program seeks to encourage private development and city-funded projects to recruit, train and hire city residents and local vendors.

Tuesday’s letter to the city from the Inspector General’s Office requested a variety of CRA documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. They include: all voting conflict memos submitted by city commissioners, who also serve for directors of the CRA; the minutes of all city commission and CRA meetings; a list of all bid solicitations with a Community Benefit Program component as well as documentation from vendors identifying specific partners to be engaged in the program.

In addition, Inspector General Scott’s office requested documents related to two groups that received grants from the city and the CRA: the Palms Community Action Coalition and the South Florida Educational Development Center.

The latest inquiry set off another disagreement among city officials.

“While the CBP has good intentions,’’ said City Commissioner Keith London, “it is my belief the program has been hijacked and abused by insiders who have used their power and influence to steer contracts and jobs to unqualified persons and companies for no other reason than their political connections.”

London said residents should “review the voting record of each commissioner who has blindly supported the CBP policy, every CBP expenditure and bid sheet awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to firms whose major qualification was their connection to city hall.”

But Mayor Joy Cooper, who has differed bitterly with London in the past, played down the significance of the IG’s records request.

We have been in compliance”

Cooper cited the city’s Hallandale Opportunity Program that monitors grants and contracts. She said the program’s monthly reports have indicated compliance with city provisions, including by the Community Benefit Program. “We have tightened up” controls over grants and contracts, Cooper said. “We have been in compliance.”

City Manager Daniel Rosemond added the same internal group has monitored city funds going to South Florida Educational Development Center and there have been “no performance issues.”

Rosemond likewise sought to downplay the significance of the Inspector General’s inquiry, observing that he merely asked for some records.

“This is not an investigation,” Rosemond said in an interview, adding “I don’t believe there is anything substantive” to the inquiry, but rather that the IG has received some information and “has a fiduciary responsibility to look at it.”

In an email to commissioners, Rosemond said, “The nature of the [IG] request appears to center around the city’s Community Benefit Program, its administration and recipients.”

Palms Community Action Coalition members could not be reached; South Florida Educational Development Center members did not return calls for comment.

Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) is a group attempting to prevent and reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity. The coalition came under scrutiny during the Broward Inspector General’s previous probe – although there was no finding of wrongdoing. Under a three-year agreement with the city, PCAC has received a total of $306,000.

According to state documents, the South Florida Educational Development Center, established six years ago, is a non-profit group that provides educational job training for youth and adults in underserved areas. It received $45,000 last year and again this year, and will receive the same amount next year under a three-year agreement ending Sept. 30, 2017.

City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said she and Commissioner London have questioned the effectiveness of the Community Benefits Program. In some instances, she said, city funds appeared to be going to only a few groups. There is also concern that some firms receiving city contracts may be having trouble fulfilling promised job slots because there are not enough qualified workers in the city.

A city ‘investigated twice’

“I wonder how many other Broward County cities have been investigated twice,” said Lazarow.

Commissioner Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Bill Julian said he could not comment because he hadn’t seen the IG’s letter.

In March 2013, after a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the Hallandale Beach CRA between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city, the report stated, improperly spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries. The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former City Managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report said.

The Hallandale Beach CRA, like other similar agencies in other municipalities, was established under a state law that allows the agency to raise and spend a large portion of increased property tax dollars collected within the CRA’s boundaries on projects aimed at eliminating slum and blight. Nearly 50 percent of those funds come from Broward County, which approved establishment of the agency.

While city officials contended that all expenditures were permissible under state law, the Broward IG cited in its report a 2010 opinion by Florida’s Attorney General that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital projects.

At the conclusion of the last investigation, Hallandale Beach officials denied wrongdoing and challenged the authority of the Inspector General to oversee the city’s CRA.

Nevertheless, the city ultimately made changes as a result of the probe that included updating its CRA development plans and adopting procedures for awarding grants. The city also announced plans to repay the CRA for funds used for parks outside the CRA boundaries.

The IG’s finding also led Broward prosecutors to charge Palm Center for the Arts (PCA) director Deborah Brown with grand theft in May 2014. The IG reported finding probable cause to believe that Brown spent nearly $5,000 in CRA funds on herself and her family. The funds were designated by the city in 2010 to send children on a trip to Washington, D.C.

The criminal case remains pending in Broward Circuit Court, with the next hearing set for Sept. 22.

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.

Two senators short-circuit Legislature’s plan to audit troubled Hallandale Beach CRA

By Willliam Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens

State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood and State Sen. Oscar Braynon II, D-Miami Gardens

A Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is dropping its inquiry of Hallandale Beach’s questionable use of local redevelopment funds at the urging of two area state senators, one a long-time acquaintance of Mayor Joy Cooper.

Democratic Senators Eleanor Sobel and Oscar Braynon II, representing portions of Hallandale Beach, could not be reached for comment, despite repeated calls, to elaborate on a letter they signed recommending against a state audit or any action related to the controversial city spending of Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds.

In addition, the committee will not ask the Florida Attorney General for an updated opinion on how CRA funds can be used. This was a contentious issue between the city and the Broward Inspector General’s Office which found that Hallandale Beach had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds while ignoring a 2010 opinion that limited CRA spending to “bricks and mortar” redevelopment projects.

‘NO ONE STEPPED TO THE PLATE’

“Broward has a huge (legislative) delegation and no one stepped to the plate and said let’s take a look at what happened to the $80 million” received by the city’s CRA from property tax dollars since 1996 to battle slum and blight, said Frank Schnidman, an attorney and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee “depends on local input and two delegation members said don’t…look back.” Schnidman said.

With the Broward County Commission recently having conceded it has no authority to order an audit of the Hallandale Beach CRA under an existing operating agreement, the Legislature’s audit committee was an opportunity for an analysis of the city’s CRA spending, said Schnidman, who worked as a consultant to Hallandale’s CRA for about a month earlier this year.

“State law has to [be amended] to establish clear criteria so cities, counties and CRAs can be held accountable,” said Schnidman.

Hallandale Beach’s CRA is funded by a portion of property taxes collected with its boundaries, roughly three-fourths of the city west of the Intracoastal Waterway. By law, the funds are to be used to revitalize the area.

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Palm Beach, chaired the Legislature’s auditing committee in June when he and vice chairman Rep. Lake Ray, R-Duval, sent a certified letter to Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper city citing the Inspector General’s report and seeking further information about questionable spending. The letter warned that if expenditures were found to be improper the city might have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.

In an interview, Abruzzo, now the committee’s vice chairman, said not a single Broward legislator “came forward to ask that we take it up. We can’t do anything until we have a request [from a legislator].”

Instead, the committee has only the joint letter from Sobel and Braynon.

“Out of respect for the two, the committee will not go forward with an audit,” said committee staff coordinator Kathy Dubose.

INSPECTOR GENERAL’S REPORT

The committee had waded into the thorny issue of Hallandale Beach’s CRA spending after receiving the Broward Inspector General’s 56-page report that found city officials had co-mingled CRA redevelopment funds with city funds for many years and misused CRA funds for grants to nonprofit groups and for such expenditures as fireworks displays. The committee asked the city to explain the allegation of misuse of funds.

At the same time, the committee urged the city commission to ask the Florida Attorney General for an updated opinion to clarify how CRA funds can be spent, and to abide by the decision. The city rejected that request in a 3-2 vote in July supported by Mayor Joy Cooper and commissioners Alexander Lewy and Anthony Sanders.

Neither Sobel nor Braynon responded to multiple requests for comment about their letter recommending against a state audit.

Their letter, however, Sobel and Braynon’s letter urged the committee to “abandon” any plans to audit the city or its CRA as “unnecessary and duplicative.”

While not mentioning the county’s inquiry found “gross mismanagement” of tax dollars by top city leaders, including questionable loans and grants to businesses and nonprofits, the two senators embraced arguments that paralleled the city’s arguments. They noted the city cooperated by providing requested documents and that city personnel gave interviews even though it was the city’s position that the Inspector General did not have jurisdiction. The city also implemented many of Inspector General’s recommendations, including a reorganized CRA staff and procedures, the letter said.

“It is our opinion that the city and the Hallandale Beach CRA are being punished because they asserted their right to express a difference of opinion with the OIG,” the letter said. “Finally, we are concerned that the state legislature is being used to further political agendas at the local level.”

Former city commissioner Keith London said he was disappointed the committee has backed off its probe. “It has egg on its face and its tail between its legs,” he said.

London, who lost a bitter race for mayor against Cooper last year, also said he was not surprised Sobel made a recommendation against a state audit because she and Cooper have been friends for years.

Cooper acknowledges her 14-year friendship with Sobel, but says it had nothing to do with the senator’s opposition to the Legislative audit. Sobel’s stand was based on her review of the situation, nothing more, the mayor said.

“I think she responded knowing Hallandale Beach and what we have done and how much we have accomplished,” Cooper said. “Why go any further?”

Cooper blamed London for attempting to keep the issue in the public eye. “We have a sour grapes person who lost an election,” said Cooper. “I think the city is doing wonderfully.”

While the committee’s plans for a Hallandale audit appear over, Abruzzo said the matter could resurface if a member of Broward’s legislative delegation steps forward to ask for one.

Legislature asks Hallandale for answers about CRA spending; Subpoenas land at city hall

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org  hallandalecomplex

The Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is wading into Hallandale Beach’s questionable spending of local redevelopment funds, demanding that city officials explain the use and handling of those funds.

Legislators who head the committee also are urging the city commission to ask Florida’s Attorney General for a new opinion to clarify how Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds can be spent. City leaders have challenged a previous opinion.

In a separate but related development, the Broward State Attorney’s Office issued subpoenas last week to Hallandale Beach officials -including Mayor Joy Cooper -in connection with a criminal investigation into the alleged misuse of city funds by a nonprofit group, the Palm Center for the Arts.

BrowardBulldog.org obtained one subpoena served on the city clerk asking her to produce the transcribed minutes and tape recordings of a March 17, 2010 commission meeting, a copy of a $5,000 check issued by the city to the Palm Center and any correspondence between the nonprofit group “and/or founder Dr. Deborah Brown” regarding that check.

City Clerk Sheena James is to appear at the State Attorney’s Office with the records and to testify on June 24 at 9 a.m. The subpoena is signed by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.

A YEARLONG INVESTIGATION

The subpoena and the audit committee’s inquiry stem from a yearlong investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper

The CRA is funding by a portion of the property taxes collected within its boundaries.

Inspector General John Scott’s office said it found “probable cause” that Brown, the Palm Center’s founder and director, had engaged in criminal misconduct and asked the State Attorney’s Office to investigate.

Hallandale Beach officials have denied any misspending of CRA funds and defended how those funds were handled. They have also challenged many of the Inspector General’s findings, including criticism that the city wrongfully funded nonprofit groups, paid for fireworks displays and provided loans to businesses.

A delegation of city officials, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, went to County Hall last week in the wake of talk about a possible county audit of CRA tax funds it had sent to the city to inform Broward commissioners they don’t have the authority to do that.

County officials acknowledged that only the state has the authority to review CRA actions.

The Legislature now appears interested.

Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat who is chair of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, and Rep. Lake Ray, a Duval County Republican who is the vice chair, began asking questions on Thursday after being contacted by “a concerned citizen.”

Abruzzo and Ray sent a certified letter to Mayor Cooper. Copies were sent to Florida Auditor General David Martin, Broward’s commissioners, county Inspector General John Scott and City Manager Renee C. Miller.

Citing the report by Scott’s office, the legislators asked Cooper to respond to accusations that Hallandale had improperly co-mingled city and CRA funds and justify more than $2.2 million in questionable spending.

Abruzzo and Ray’s letter says that if the city fails to provide “specific authority” under state law, or if the expenditures were not included in the city’s CRA plan, Hallandale may have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.

The legislators also suggested that city commissioners, who also sit as the CRA’s board of directors, seek a new Attorney General’s opinion regarding what constitutes allowable expenditures.

Abtruzzo and Ray also want to know if the city is complying with recommendations by Broward’s Inspector General, including whether the city has established policies to comply with state law and ensure the CRA operates independently.

Cooper said she has informed the committee that lawyers for the city and the CRA will respond to their questions. “I reaffirmed my position and that of our attorneys that expenditures by the CRA are within the authority of the statute to address slum blight, crime and economic development,” she said.

County agents have asked the city to provide a status report on their recommendations by July 16.

THE MAYOR’S SUBPOENA

Cooper said prosecutors subpoenaed her as a witness in their criminal case.

“I cannot comment any further on the matter.  I was asked to go in as a witness on the 25th, but have asked to come in earlier due t o my schedule,” the mayor said.

Prosecutors’ investigation of The Palm Center for the Arts follows the Inspector General’s allegations that nearly $5,000 in city funds were used to make a payment on Brown’s timeshare at the Westgate Resort in Orlando and to make payroll payments to herself and her brother and for miscellaneous personal expenses.

City Commissioner Bill Julian said in an interview that the city clerk’s office informed him a subpoena had arrived for him, too. He had not seen the subpoena, but was told it requires him to appear at Zimet’s office on June 25th.

Julian believes that many of the same city officials who previously were questioned by the Inspector General’s Office were issued subpoenas. “I’ll go there and answer questions,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.”

Commissioners Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Likewise, Brown could not be reached. Commissioner Alexander Lewy said he did not receive a subpoena.

PALM CENTER PAYMENTS

Palm Center received at least $107,000 in CRA funds over a three-year period. Brown was also listed as a principal and director of Zamar School of Performing Arts. About three years ago, Zamar received $25,000 in CRA funds.

Both programs operate on city property at 501 NW First Ave. The city leased the property to Palm Center in 2009 for a one-time payment of $10. While Palm Center was prohibited from subletting the facility, the city later modified the agreement to permit Zamar to operate a summer camp there in 2009.

The city property was once owned by a group headed by Commissioner Sanders. The Inspector General’s Office probe involved a review of the city’s purchase of the property from Sanders’ nonprofit Higher Vision Ministries.

Higher Vision bought the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city eight years later for $235,000. Sanders, appointed to fill a commission vacancy in 2008, did not vote on the purchase.

In between the purchase and the sale, the CRA gave Sanders’ group a $46,000 property improvement loan. Sander’s group was only required by the city to repay $31,000; the rest was forgiven.

In its report, the Inspector General cleared Sanders of an allegation that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit group for the property.

Broward Auditor looks at Hallandale Beach CRA with eye toward recovering misspent funds

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger and Broward Auditor Evan Lukic

County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger and Broward Auditor Evan Lukic

The Broward County Auditor’s Office has begun looking into whether Hallandale Beach should be required to repay some of the millions in tax dollars allegedly misspent due to “gross mismanagement” by city officials.

The preliminary review was undertaken recently at the urging of a county commissioner and a former Hallandale Beach city commissioner. It was also recommended by the Broward Inspector General’s April 18 report that was highly critical of the city’s handling of those public funds belonging to its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

“Based on the final report of the Inspector General I believe we should recover any funds that were misspent,” said County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, whose district covers parts of Hallandale Beach.

Broward Vice Mayor Barbara Sharief, who also represents the city, did not respond to calls for comment.

The county has an interest in the CRA funds because it approved establishment of the Hallandale Beach CRA in 1996. Since then the county has sent the CRA approximately $36 million in tax revenue, with the city putting up a matching amount to help rid slum and blight areas.

“The OIG report is problematic,” said County Auditor Evan Lukic. “If the funds were not used for the intended purpose in accordance with state law then money may be due back to the county.“ He said his review could take up to two months.

Following a yearlong investigation, the Inspector General reported that from 2007 to 2012 city leaders used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored charities and loans to local businesses. In all, agents found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.

The report urged the county government “to independently determine” whether Hallandale Beach expenditures were outside the scope the governing state statute, and if so to “determine what legal options are available to prevent ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent.”

Hallandale officials, including Mayor Joy Cooper, objected to many of the report’s findings. They also asserted it was riddled with “numerous factual inaccuracies” and even challenged the Inspector General’s authority to investigate the CRA. City commissioners sit as the CRA’s board of directors.

Inspector General John Scott’s office replied that Hallandale’s top leadership, including the mayor and city manager, showed a “basic misunderstanding” of what’s gone wrong.

Cooper could not be reached for comment about the auditor’s inquiry.

City Manager Renee C. Miller said, “I would understand that they are looking into this… We will communicate and will reach out to them.”

Miller said the city continues to work to improve CRA operations, which includes “having and retaining a stable staff.”

Auditor Lukic said his review would determine what spending authority the Hallandale Beach CRA was given when it began. Hallandale got one of the first CRAs, he said, and there were fewer restrictions placed on them at that time.

Should he find the county’s authority lacking, there will be “no recourse” to recover funds from Hallandale Beach, Lukic said.

The County Commission will address the matter at its regular June 4 meeting. One of those who will speak is former Hallandale Beach city commissioner Keith London, who has called for a full county audit.

London, who frequently challenged CRA expenditures when he was on the commission, said a county audit is necessary not only because of the Inspector General’s findings. He accused his former colleagues of skirting “their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers” by ignoring both the Inspector General’s recommendations and a relevant 2010 Attorney General’s opinion.

That opinion held that CRA expenditures should go toward “brick and mortar” projects. The Inspector General, however, determined that Hallandale CRA’s violated that guideline with spending on grants and donations for favored charities.

City officials have countered that the Attorney General’s advisory opinion was non-binding, and does not prevent the city from making such grants.

 

Hallandale Beach turns tables, accuses Broward Inspector General of “factual inaccuracies”

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller

Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller

Hallandale Beach officials have fired back at county investigators who last month found “gross mismanagement” of tax funds at the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, accusing them of “numerous factual inaccuracies” and challenging their legal authority.

In its official 10-page response to the Broward Inspector General’s report, the city also said the OIG had misinterpreted the state statute governing the CRA.

“It is this failure which results in the OIG (Office of Inspector General) erroneously coming to certain conclusions that the city and CRA grossly mismanaged public funds,” says the report approved by City Manager Renee C. Miller.

The Inspector General’s preliminary report in March, after a year-long investigation, concluded that top city officials had grossly mismanaged millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its” CRA. It identified at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to nonprofits.

More than $400,000 in bond proceeds also were said to have been used improperly, according to the Inspector General’s report.

The report identified several contributing factors to the mismanagement: the city commingled CRA money with city funds instead of setting up a separate CRA trust fund in years past; the city improperly spent on parks and other activities outside the CRA’s boundaries; and it failed to access and verify work performed by nonprofits that received grants.

The CRA was established in 1996 under a state law that allows it to collect tax revenue to be used to rid slum and blight conditions. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries. Hallandale’s CRA has received approximately $70 million since it began.

Florida law does not permit the CRA to fund charitable donations to nonprofits, according to the Inspector General’s report. And a Florida Attorney General’s opinion in 2010 said CRA expenditures should be used only for “brick and mortar” projects, it said.

Yet in its April 4 response obtained by the Browardbulldog.org, the city challenged many of the Inspector General’s assertions, including that one.

“A close reading of this opinion will reveal that the Attorney General gives no definite answer as to whether or not grants to nonprofits are outside the scope of the community redevelopment act,” says the response, noting the opinion was advisory and nonbinding.

City Manager Miller declined to discuss the response in detail. “We asserted our objections,” she said.

City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield and CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz helped Miller prepare the response, which included the assertion, first raised last June, that the Inspector General does not have regulatory authority over the CRA.

Mayor Joy Cooper, who like her fellow city commissioners also acts as a CRA director, did not respond to a request for comment.

But Hallandale Beach’s response made it clear that city officials were not backing down and asserting they had acted properly and in accordance with state law.

“There is very little case law or authority providing guidance as to what types of projects may or may not qualify as a community redevelopment project,” stated the response.

The response pointed out that in a case involving the Panama City Beach CRA, a court ruled the state statute governing CRA expenditures for public projects.

iglogoThe city objected to the Inspector General’s finding that the city had failed to create a separate CRA trust fund until last May, saying in its response that a fund was established in 1996 by city ordinance. The response adds that state law does not require that the trust fund “be maintained in a separate bank account.”

The city also parried the Inspector General’s assertion that the CRA had failed to create an update its redevelopment plan saying, “there is no statutory requirement to update the plan.” The city noted, however, that it is currently updating its plan.

The Inspector General’s critique that the city had failed to established standards for awarding grants to charitable organization was met by a similar defense. The city argued that state law “does not require a transparent process or standardized criteria” — and because of that cannot be accused of “gross mismanagement.”

The city said, however, that it has adopted a formal process for applying for grants that will go into effect next year.

The city’s response acknowledges a good practice would have been to monitor how non-profits spent the money the CRA gave them, but once again contended that state law did not require this.

“The legal requirement is that the funds be utilized for a public purpose,” the response said. “It is the responsibility of the government board to determine whether or not it is a public purpose.”

The city attacked the Inspector General’s criticism of the CRA loan program saying it had failed to understand the need for “flexibility in the administration of its programs” and that some businesses may not qualify for regular private financing.

“This is the nature of community redevelopment,” the response stated. “In certain instances, such may result in financial losses and require the waiver of certain loan terms. Such does not necessarily constitute gross mismanagement….”

Likewise, the city took issue with the Inspector General’s concern that CRA bond funds were used to pay costs related to the upgrading of two parks outside its boundaries, Scavo and South Beach.

“The city objects to the inclusion of this matter in the report,” the response said.

City officials have said a plan is in place to repay any CRA funds used for those parks once work actually gets underway.

The city noted, too, that changes have been made in the past year to improve CRA management and operations.

These include hiring an experienced CRA attorney and a financial analyst; amending CRA policies on loans and grants; assuring accountability for loans; creating standards and accounting for charitable loans to nonprofit groups; fiscally separating CRA funds from city funds; ensuring city and CRA priorities are aligned; maintaining clear and consistent lines of communications regarding for plans and projects.

“It is our mission to continue to implement enhanced internal controls as well as stabilize the administration of the CRA and the city,” the response concludes.

The Inspector General’s Office has said that once it receives the city’s response it will finalize its report and officially release it.

William Gjebre can be reached at wgjebre@browardbulldog.org

 

Broward Inspector General slams Hallandale for “gross mismanagement”; CRAs elsewhere eyed

By William Gjebre and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org igreport

Broward’s Inspector General has found that Hallandale Beach officials “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its Community Redevelopment Agency,” according to a report obtained by BrowardBulldog.org.

“The OIG (Office of Inspector General) investigation substantiated the allegations and uncovered numerous deficiencies in the city’s administration of the CRA,” says the 50-page preliminary report that has not been released publicly.

Investigators said they found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to local nonprofits – as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city improperly spent $416,000 of CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries, says Tuesday’s report.

The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former city managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report says.

Former Commissioner Keith London told investigators that his colleagues “looked at the CRA fund as one big pile of money and they didn’t care how or where the money went,” the report says.

Mayor Joy Cooper, however, offered a different take. “She was not concerned with the CRA administration’s lack of (expenditure) verification because the CRA Board members observed the work of the nonprofits when they went out in the community,” the report says.

Cooper and the rest of the city commission also sit as the CRA’s board of directors.

“This report vindicates everything I have stated for the last six years,” London said Tuesday night.

Cooper could not be reached for comment.

Former commissioner Keith London

Former commissioner Keith London

The probe began 14 months ago following a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable city loans to local businesses and land purchase through the CRA. It surfaced publicly last April when county agents sought a multitude of records at City Hall.

In some cases, the report says, the CRA awarded funds despite a 2010 Florida Attorney General opinion that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital improvements – not, for example, to promote economic development or promote socially beneficial programs by nonprofits.

In one case, the line of what’s legal was apparently crossed and a crime may have been committed, the report says.

The Inspector General’s findings about Hallandale Beach are the latest to cite serious mismanagement of CRA funds. A year ago, for example, the Inspector General slammed Lauderdale Lakes for misspending $2.5 million in CRA funds. More recently, the Florida Auditor General identified misspending by Hollywood’s CRA.

“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the gross mismanagement of CRA funds by a Broward County municipality is not a unique occurrence,” the report says.

The CRA was established in 1996 under a state law that allows it to collect tax revenue to be used to rid slum and blight conditions. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries. The county has provided Hallandale’s CRA with approximately $35 million since it began.

Inspector General John Scott’s report includes what amounts to a warning to other Broward cities that his office will be eyeballing their CRA’s to see how they spend their property tax dollars.

“The OIG will continue to examine the expenditure of CRA funds by municipalities,” says the report.

The final report will recommend to the county that it look over its legal options “to prevent the ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent,” the preliminary report says.

In Hallandale, there was an apparent lack of regular monitoring by the CRA of who got its funds and how that money was spent.

In one case, the report says, a nonprofit grant recipient spent nearly $5,000 in funds to make a payment on her time-share at the Westgate Resort in Orlando, make payroll payments to herself and her brother and on other things.

Dr. Deborah R. Brown with former Congressman Kendrick Meek

Dr. Deborah R. Brown with former Congressman Kendrick Meek

“We found probable cause to believe that Dr. Deborah Brown, the founder and director of the Palms Center for the Arts (PCA), engaged in criminal misconduct in the handling of a $5,000 award the PCA received from the CRA,” the report says.

Brown could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

The matter has been referred to the sheriff’s office and the Broward State Attorney for prosecution.

The Inspector General’s report also clears Commissioner Anthony Sanders of allegations that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit, Higher Vision Ministries, for property it purchased in 2009 at 501 NW First Ave.

“The investigation did not substantiate the allegations, although we found that the CRA fomented an appearance of favoritism by failing to consider the purchase of the property in a fully transparent manner,” the report says.

The report also cites “institutional deficiencies in the establishment, organization and function of the CRA” that it says contributed to numerous instances of gross mismanagement. They include:

•  Failure for nearly 16 years to establish a CRA trust fund, as required by law, which led to the commingling of CRA funds with city funds in the city’s bank account. A trust finally was set up last May.

•  Failure to operate the CRA independently from the city. Former CRA executive director Alvin Jackson told investigators the CRA “was treated like any other city department and that the city had ‘free rein to tap into CRA funds.

•  Failure to timely generate detailed CRA plans and adhere to them, as well as a lack of a “stable and empowered CRA staff to ensure compliance” with the law.

“We also identified multiple instances where city officials ignored warnings from CRA staff of various deficiencies in the management of the CRA,” the report says.

The report notes that before Jackson there were several CRA managers under City Manager Good’s heavy managerial thumb. “More troubling is evidence that Mr. Good and other senior officials lacked understanding of” state statutes governing the CRA “and did not require compliance.”

The report notes that in 2011, after news reports about CRA problems in BrowardBulldog.org and elsewhere, it undertook “remedial steps” to improve its management and effectiveness.

But the Inspector General indicated those steps, including the establishment of the trust fund, are not enough.

The report includes a half-dozen recommendations intended to “ensure the independence of the CRAs,” including building a stable and knowledgeable staff with the authority to ensure compliance with the law, and diligent future monitoring of expenditures.

Broward Inspector General looks ready to ask prosecutors to investigate Hallandale grants

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

The Broward Inspector General’s Office appears poised to ask Broward prosecutors to investigate a Hallandale Beach group that received at least $25,000 in city funds.

The Zamar School of Performing Arts had been slated to get another $50,000 from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency last week. The deal fell apart, however, shortly after it was discovered that Zamar was ineligible for the funds because its status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit had expired.

CRA Attorney Steven Zelkowitz said the county’s Inspector General’s office has informed him investigation of Zamar by the State Attorney’s Office was “ongoing.” The Inspector General has been investigating allegations of mismanagement at the city and its CRA since last spring.

City Manager Renee Crichton Miller and CRA executive director Alvin Jackson confirmed that a the state’s investigation involving Zamar was underway, although both said Zelkowitz was the source of their information.

A spokesman for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said Friday that the matter has had some review, but that no criminal investigation was underway.

“I’m told that we have not received anything formally on this yet,” Ron Ishoy said on Friday. “The case was apparently discussed last month at the public IG Oversight Committee meeting that (Assistant State Attorney) Tim (Donnelly) sits on.”

Inspector General Scott declined to comment.

Zamar’s president and director Deborah Brown did not respond to repeated phone messages seeking comment. A person who answered the phone at Brown’s office initially advised a reporter to hold for her. A short time later the line went dead and follow-up calls to Zamar were sent to an answering machine.

Zamar provides arts and education programs and job training and job placement, according to city documents.

County investigators are believed to be nearing the end of a months-long examination of city grants and contributions to community groups, CRA land buys and loans to local businesses. City commissioners – who do double duty at the board of directors of the CRA – and various city employees have been interviewed, and thousands of pages of city records examined.

In June, Browardbulldog.org reported those records included files on eight community-based groups that received city funds, including Zamar.

Zamar, which got $25,000 in CRA funds three years ago, operates on city property at 501 N.W. 1st Avenue – in a building once owned by a group headed by City Commissioner Anthony Sanders.

The city leased the property for a one-time payment of $10 to the Palm Center for the Arts in 2009 shortly after acquiring the property. While Palm Center was prohibited from subletting the facility, the city later modified the agreement to permit Zamar to operate a summer camp there in 2009.

When the Inspector General asked the city this year for records about Zamar and Palm Center, state corporate records listed Brown as president of Palm Center and a principal and director of Zamar. At that time, Palm Center had received at least $107,000 in CRA funds over the past three years.

The IG’s probe has also involved a review of the city’s acquisition of 501 N.W. 1st Avenue from Commissioner Sanders’ nonprofit, Higher Vision Ministries. The group purchased the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city eight years later for $235,000. Appointed to fill a vacancy in 2008, Sanders did not vote on the purchase.

In between, the CRA gave Sanders’ group a $46,000 property improvement loan. The city only required Sanders’ group to repay $31,000 of that loan, the rest was forgiven.

The Inspector General’s office has yet to say why it is interested in Zamar and why prosecutors should look at it.

City Manager Miller said Zelkowitz was likely contacted about Zamar by the Inspector General because it involved the CRA, whose directors are the five members of the city commission. She added she has no other information on the nature of the Zamar probe.

“I’m concerned when a non-profit is under scrutiny,” said Miller.

Zelkowitz declined to elaborate.

Earlier last week, Zamar had a setback when it was announced that the group had withdrawn its request for CRA funds for this fiscal year.

Commissioners, as CRA board members, were to vote on the $50,000 GRANT on Dec. 17. Shortly before, however, city staff learned the group did not have current 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, making it ineligible for the funds.

 

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