Red light ticket? Enforcement depends on where you got it and how you try to resolve it

By Susannah Nesmith, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin played a series of dramatic videos of crashes caught on tape by red-light cameras. The people in the audience gasped each time someone t-boned a car, flipped over a railing, struck a motorcyclist or nearly plowed through a line of kids crossing the street.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please rise,” Benjamin told the audience after playing the videos. And then he surprised everyone. “Be safe out there. Case dismissed. Thank you.”

Three times that recent afternoon, groups of 20 or more filed into the courtroom, only to learn one of the quirks in the uneven enforcement of the state’s red-light camera tickets. Hundreds of tickets issued by Florida City for running red lights have been dismissed in recent months after drivers failed to pay them. That’s because the small town at the southern reaches of the county simply wasn’t sending an officer the 50 miles to court in Miami.

The way the state’s red-light camera statute is enforced varies depending on which city or county someone is ticketed in, and how the ticketed person tries to resolve the ticket. Different cities have different definitions of what constitutes a violation, and the hearing officers hired by cities are, at least in one case, interpreting the statute differently from the traffic magistrates hired by the court system.

Broward cities aren’t currently using red-light cameras pending the outcome of high-profile litigation.

While the differing enforcement may turn out to be a key issue for the Florida Supreme Court, which agreed in mid-May to take a case challenging the cameras, two things remain constant across the state. Like modern-day small town speed traps, the cameras raise significant revenues for cities and the state, and the tickets cause thousands of car owners statewide to have their licenses suspended every year. Approximately 40 percent of those suspensions happen to Miami-Dade drivers, according to records compiled by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

On a recent afternoon in traffic court, Magistrate Alex Labora suspended the licenses of 12 drivers who didn’t pay $158 when they initially received a notice of violation from the city of Miami, didn’t request an administrative hearing at Miami City Hall and then didn’t show up in court once the violation was converted into what’s called a Uniform Traffic Citation. The magistrates routinely do the same thing day after day for citations issued by Miami Gardens, Homestead and a dozen other cities in Miami-Dade that issue the tickets.

Many people say they learn of the tickets only when they discover that their licenses have been suspended.

A security guard’s story

Thaddeus Hughes, a 26-year-old security guard from Florida City, said he had unwittingly driven around for several months with a suspended license before he bought a new car and tried to register it. His original $158 ticket ballooned to $410 with fees, by that point.

But because his ticket was issued by Florida City, it was tossed that day in court.

“I would have paid the $158 if I had known about it,” he said. He paid $60 to get his license reinstated.

Traffic Magistrate Christopher Benjamin

Magistrate Benjamin says he often sees people in his courtroom who say they didn’t know they had been ticketed until they learned their license was suspended. Benjamin said he became concerned that cities were not sending out the notices properly.

“I started really inquiring of people and there was always a reason why they didn’t get the notice,” he said.

What he found was that many drivers hadn’t changed the address on their car registration when they moved, even if they changed the address on their driver’s license. The violation notice goes to the address where the car is registered, whereas the suspension notice goes to the address on file for the owner’s driver’s license.

“Red-light cameras are the number one problem for my clients,” said Jackie Woodward, a ticket attorney in Miami. “I got one myself. I ran my name in the system, that’s how I found out. And I’m a ticket attorney.”

Statewide, 1.2 million people were issued red-light camera violation notices last year, according to a report by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. By the end of the year, 383,000 of them were listed as unpaid. If the violation notices go unpaid, they become traffic citations, which don’t carry any points but do show up on a driver’s record. In Miami-Dade, 200,000 violation notices went unpaid last year and were converted to citations, according to court records.

‘Cutting into my rent money’

Prince Fields, a 33-year-old unemployed driver, tried to resolve his violation before it turned into a citation. He requested a hearing in Miami Gardens to plead poverty because he was having trouble finding the money to pay the $158. Dawn Grace-Jones, an attorney hired by the city as a special master to conduct the hearings at city hall, said that poverty wasn’t a defense for running a red light and levied an additional $150 as an administrative fine for a total of $308.

Traffic Magistrate Dawn Grace-Jones

“I can’t afford this,” he said after the hearing. “It’s cutting into my rent money. They’re just raping the residents of this city.”

What he didn’t know was that the total fine he would have paid had he simply ignored the ticket until it became a traffic citation was only $277, and a traffic magistrate at the courthouse could have given him 90 days to pay, instead of the 30 days Miami Gardens gives. The county clerk’s office also offers an extended payment plan, something Miami Gardens doesn’t.

Plus, the magistrates in county traffic court often try to work with people who say they’re going to have trouble paying the fine.

“All day, I’m trying not to suspend licenses here,” said Magistrate Tom Cobitz. “Because I have to drive on these streets too.”

He noted that drivers with suspended licenses can have insurance problems. While insurance companies don’t generally cancel coverage, they can refuse to cover an accident involving someone driving on a suspended license.

Fields also didn’t know that Miami Gardens is considered one of the strictest cities in the county for red- light camera enforcement. It’s the only city that still issues violations for making a right turn on red at camera intersections, according to traffic magistrates and court personnel. A traffic magistrate might have treated his ticket very differently than the special master hired by Miami Gardens.

“I tell Miami Gardens all the time, ‘y’all are lucky I’m on the bench because if I weren’t, I would represent a ton of people against you,” said Magistrate Benjamin, an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law and a resident of Miami Gardens. “I remember one time, we were dismissing so many of their right hand turn tickets their assistant city attorney came in to see what was going on.”

Miami Gardens still right turn trap?

The camera statute says a ticket “may not” be issued if the driver made a right turn on red that was “careful and prudent.” When the Legislature added that language to the statute in 2013, most cities stopped issuing red light camera tickets for right turns. The city of Aventura responded to the law change by putting up no right turn on red signs at the intersections that have red-light cameras, making the turns illegal and the tickets enforceable.

Miami Gardens City Hall

Miami Gardens took a different view of the statute, which also says drivers must come to a full stop.

“The city’s argument is you did not come to a complete stop,” Grace-Jones repeatedly told drivers during the hearing in Miami Gardens City Hall. “The statute must all be read together.”

City officials in Miami Gardens stood by that interpretation of the law, even after being told that the magistrates in county traffic court don’t agree and no other city in the county is using that interpretation.

“The City of Miami Gardens follows the state statute as it relates to right turns on red,” city spokeswoman Petula Burks said in an email. “Motorists must come to a complete stop before making the right turn on red.”

In fact, Miami Gardens has a stricter interpretation of the statute when it comes to other scenarios. On the day when Fields attended the hearing at city hall, another man came in with proof that his tag was not on the vehicle he owned, a trailer, when it went through the light. The video clearly showed the tag on a car. Grace-Jones ruled that was not a valid defense and levied a fine. In traffic court in front of Magistrate Alex Labora, Miami police moved to dismiss an almost identical case the week before.

Grace-Jones also upheld a ticket when a woman came to City Hall with her very young infant and said she received the ticket because she had gone into labor at McDonalds and was rushing to the hospital. Magistrate Benjamin said he probably would have tossed a ticket like that.

The Gardens’ strict enforcement is costly for drivers – and it’s profitable for the city.

Miami Gardens raised $3.2 million in revenue from the cameras last year, Burks said. The city’s budget for this year noted that revenues had improved over the previous year because of the hearings conducted by the special master.

‘Safety not profit’

Burks said the city’s red light cameras are strictly enforced out of a concern for safety, not profit.

“One of the main purposes for the use of cameras is safety,” she said in an emailed statement. “There is a general belief that if motorists are aware of the cameras that they will change their driving behavior, i.e. stopping at red lights, yielding for pedestrians, etc.”

One of the issues the Florida Supreme Court will hear about when it tests the legality of the cameras is whether the law is being enforced in a uniform manner.

Attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal

Miami attorney Stephen F. Rosenthal, who will argue before the Supreme Court that the tickets are not legal, said the whole point of having a uniform traffic code is to make sure the rules of the road don’t change from one intersection to the next.

“The Legislature enacted this law to get rid of the different rules across the state,” he said, referring to the red-light camera law. “If the cities are going to do it and charge people very significant fines, they darn well better do it according to the law.”

The private companies that operate the cameras have the cities fill out business rules questionnaires, which include options for what type of behavior they want the contractor to flag in videos: Should drivers who stopped after they crossed the white line but before they entered the intersection be flagged for review by an officer, for example? The questionnaires also ask how the cities want to handle right turns. Each tweak can change what cities are actually enforcing, and how much money they’re making.

For the moment, Broward cities aren’t using the cameras because an appellate court ruled the tickets aren’t legal because the cities outsource the initial review of the tapes to a private company instead of having certified law enforcement separate the potential violations from videos of lawful driving. The appellate court that covers Miami-Dade, on the other hand, ruled that the contractor, who gets a cut of the ticket revenues, is only performing an administrative function and the tickets are legal because a certified law enforcement agency reviews the tapes to determine if an actual ticket should be issued. A Supreme Court decision might resolve the conflict between the two jurisdictions.

The city of Miami’s red-light camera program made the most of any city in the state last year, bringing in $5.1 million, city records show. Over the past two years, the city has issued more than 350,000 tickets. Miami also sent another $9.6 million to the state from the camera revenues, according to records from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Overall, the state collected $60 million last year from the camera tickets.

Even Florida City made significant money on the cameras last year, $850,000, according to Finance Director Mark Ben-Asher. That’s because, even though traffic magistrates were tossing the city’s tickets if they made it all the way to traffic court, many people paid them as soon as they got the notice of violation, or after going to an administrative hearing at city hall.

Meanwhile, Florida City police say drivers should not expect their tickets to be thrown out in the future because an officer doesn’t show up in court. Corporal Ken Armenteros said officers stopped attending the hearings more than a year ago to wait for a ruling from the Third District Court of Appeals on whether the tickets were legal. That ruling came down in July 2016. After that, the city had a problem with the way subpoenas were being issued to officers.

“We got them to fix that. We will resume regular operations next week,” he said in late May.

On May 31, an officer from Florida City did not show up in court for the morning hearings and all the cases were dismissed. An officer was on hand for the afternoon hearings, but he requested all the cases be dismissed.

 

 

‘Invisible’ crime: Immigrant scams are big business in South Florida, but few crooks caught

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

Latin American agricultural workers in South Florida are among the victims of scammers who promise to obtain visa for them, charge large fees and fail to deliver. Photo: WeCount!

Infamous as the setting for many cases of high-profile financial fraud and chicanery, South Florida is also home to a relatively unknown scam that targets the region’s large immigrant population, bilking many of them for thousands of dollars for “expert” immigration services that are never delivered, a Florida Bulldog investigation has found.

The victims are mostly legal and undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Haiti, typically people with limited skills and little or no knowledge of English. Some immigrants from other parts of the world arriving in South Florida are also lured into these schemes. Moreover, even for highly educated immigrants, U.S. immigration laws and regulations are extremely complex and difficult to navigate.

The perpetrators, often people from the home country of their targets, are almost never arrested and punished since victims – especially those without legal documents – are worried about deportation and do not call the police.

“Immigration services scams are a serious national problem,” said Ana E. Santiago, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS) in Miami. “They exploit the vulnerability of immigrants, refugees, foreign students and others, including U.S. citizens.” USCIS oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. and processes requests from immigrants once they are here.

This virtually invisible crime affects thousands of people in South Florida each year, according to those working with immigrants. But there are no hard figures available either from government agencies or from non-profit groups working with immigrants.

“These scams are not new, but it’s very hard to get your arms around them,” said Ed Griffith, public information officer for the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney. There are a lot of instances where immigrants are scammed, “but if they’re here illegally, they’ll never go to the police to file a complaint,” said Griffith, who has worked at the State Attorney’s office in Miami-Dade since 1982.

The general estimate from those who work in legal services assisting immigrants is that the total loss from these specific immigrant scams is several million dollars a year.

How the schemes work

Victims may pay a few hundred dollars to individuals claiming expertise in complex immigration law and regulations for filling out paper or digital forms that must be filed with USCIS. The applications and petitions are later rejected for addressing the wrong issues or providing inaccurate information.

Some immigrants pay many thousands of dollars for more complex help in changing the client’s own status or that of family members.

The Pew Institute, using 2014 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, estimated that there are more than 450,000 undocumented immigrants alone in the areas encompassing Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, the most vulnerable target group for immigration fraud.

Jose Luis (not his real name), a Mexican immigrant living in Pompano Beach without a visa, became a victim of one of these scams. He came to South Florida early last year with a tourist visa and decided to stay here and work after his visa expired.

“I knew this was risky, especially after Trump became president,” said Jose Luis, speaking to the Florida Bulldog in Spanish. “Some friends told me that lots of people have done the same thing, and one gave me the name of a Mexican-American legal expert who could help me.”

Jose Luis, who speaks very little English, met with the “expert,” who promised he would arrange for a work visa. The desperate immigrant paid him $2,000 three months ago, and has heard nothing. The man did not return phone calls and has disappeared.

“I’m now an ‘indocumentado’ [undocumented alien],” Jose Luis said. “I still have a job, but the pay is not great and if the police raid the place, I’ll be in real trouble.”

Liz-Marie Alvarado, a community organizer with the American Friends Service Committee in Miami, told Florida Bulldog about another case:

A woman from El Salvador living in South Florida under a temporary visa that expired wanted to renew her visa and bring her children here to escape the gang violence and deteriorating economic conditions in her home country. She went to a Spanish-speaking notary public who said he would get her visa renewed and arrange for her children to come here. She paid him $8,000, but what he did instead was to create a false story that the woman had been the victim of a gang rape in El Salvador, and used this to apply for asylum. The notary assured her he had used the false sexual assault story in other cases, and that it would work better than the woman’s real story.

The woman did not understand English well, signed the false asylum application and went by herself to a U.S. immigration center. After speaking with her, the immigration officials realized it was a false statement, denied her application and ordered her deportation. An applicant who gives the government false statements in an asylum application can never request asylum again in the U.S.

As far as anyone knows, the perpetrator is still in business. “I tell immigrants, if you go to a lawyer or other immigration expert and they make you a lot of promises and just want to talk about money, come see me first,” Alvarado said.

Widespread crime, sparse punishment

“The situation for many immigrants has become desperate, especially under the current administration,” said Juan Carlos Gomez, a Miami immigration attorney who has worked for decades to defend individuals in immigration matters.

Juan Carlos Gomez

Gomez, a Florida International University law professor and director of FIU’s Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic, said immigrants often turn to anyone they think can help them, sometimes to people practicing law without licenses who make extravagant promises. They end up paying for services they never receive, while the scammers often go undetected and carry on lucrative businesses for years, Gomez said.

Immigrants have become alarmed since President Trump took office because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has expanded detentions for visa overstays. “The government says nothing has changed under the Trump administration, but that’s BS,” Gomez said.

ICE did not respond to questions e-mailed by the Florida Bulldog.

Nabbing scammers

Scam artists are hard to catch. Victims are usually afraid to denounce them, and immigrants here illegally know they can be turned over to local police or ICE if they go public. Here are few cases that have been uncovered:

  • Two people running an accounting and translation office out of their home in Lakeland, Domenico Cingari and Rose Cingari, were charged with conspiracy, making false statements on immigration applications and mail fraud. They assisted undocumented aliens in obtaining Florida driver’s licenses by filing fraudulent applications for asylum, petitions for alien relatives and work authorization forms. The two charged clients between $500 and $1,300 for fraudulent immigration applications and collected over $740,000 while their scam lasted, according to the USCIS. The pair were found guilty last year and sentenced to federal prison.
  • Four people were charged with conspiracy to commit immigration fraud in a Miami federal court for running a school to train immigrants – mostly Mexicans – to be Cubans. Under the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuban immigrants who arrive here without a visa can apply for permanent residence (green card) after living here for at least one year, a much faster and easier process than immigrants from other countries face. Nelson Daniel Silvestri Soutto, Laura Maria Ponce Santos, Amelia Osorio and Fidel Morejon Vega reportedly made over $500,000 selling false Cuban birth certificates to undocumented immigrants, helping them fill out fraudulent immigration forms and teaching them how to pretend to be Cuban immigrants. “Clients” were told that they should tell immigration officials that they arrived here on a raft, avoid speaking to them whenever possible and to say that they picked up their Mexican accents (which are very different from Cuban accents) while working with Mexicans here. One of the group also posed as an immigration officer and threatened some immigrants with deportation.
  • Marriage fraud is a constant source of income for scammers. In 2015, federal authorities in Miami charged 27 people as part of a scheme to arrange marriages between residents of Miami-Dade County and immigrants from Latin America, the Ukraine and Israel, according to Law360. Last year, a Cuban-American woman was charged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida with allegedly marrying 10 foreign nationals between 2000 and 2012.

Many scams, many victims

The cases mentioned above represent only part of the immigration scam spectrum. The USCIS field office in Miami also sees different fraudulent schemes, according to Santiago. Some of the most common are:

  • Notaries – Immigrants often turn to notaries who improperly offer to solve their problems, but notaries in the U.S. are not authorized to provide any legal services to immigrants. They are individuals authorized by state governments specifically to witness the signing of documents and administer oaths. In Latin America, however, they perform some legal work.
  • Phone scams – People posing as officials from the USCIS or other government agencies call immigrants and ask for personal data, tell them there is “false” information on an individual’s immigration records and offer to correct the problem for a payment.
  • Business scams – Some individuals or community businesses guarantee that they can obtain benefits like an employment authorization or green card when they cannot. They sometimes file inaccurate forms with the USCIS, charging higher fees than the government agency’s normal fees and falsely promise to speed up processing times for a price.
  • Diversity lottery – Every year the State Department makes 50,000 diversity visas available to randomly selected applicants based on special criteria and related to countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. Scammers send out emails and set up websites saying that, for a fee, they can make it easier for an immigrant to enter the lottery.
  • Phony websites – Some websites offer step-by-step information on filling out a USCIS application or petition, sometimes providing links to the government website. USCIS has only one official website: uscis.gov.

“USCIS combats scams and the unauthorized practice of immigration law, in part, by educating and warning applicants about immigration scams and ensuring that applicants know how to find legal advice and assistance in completing and submitting forms,” Santiago said. “The wrong help can hurt.” USCIS works closely with federal, state and local law enforcement to support investigation and prosecution efforts for fraudulent activities, she added.

A senior official at the USCIS office in Miami, who asked not to be identified, told Florida Bulldog in a telephone interview that scammers charge their victims between a few hundred dollars to fill out immigration forms and as much as $15,000 or more for other false services, like telling a legal visa holder that he or she can become a naturalized citizen.

“These scams cost immigrants a lot of hard-earned money,” the official said. “They are damaging to immigrants and to our national security.”

USCIS reaches out to local communities, libraries and offices like the Department of Motor Vehicles to educate immigrants about proper procedures and how to contact non-profit organizations that can help them solve immigration problems, he said.

Any immigrant who wants to deal with complex U.S. immigration laws and regulations without expert assistance or prior counseling is at a serious disadvantage. The rules governing most visa changes, renewals and the like require lengthy written or digital applications, substantial fees and strict adherence to complicated procedures and timelines. Fortunately, South Florida is home to many honest immigration lawyers, advisors and for-profit firms who help immigrants, as well as a host of non-profit and advocacy groups, pro-bono immigration attorneys and others who work to assist immigrants.

The USCIS offers assistance in multiple languages at its regional offices. It has five in South Florida.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and USCIS are part of the Department of Homeland Security. ICE is the agency that enforces border control, trade and immigration laws and is almost universally feared by legal and undocumented immigrants.

Who are the scammers?

There appear to be legions of scammers and exploiters who prey on the fears of immigrants: They include people pretending to be attorneys, individuals who paint themselves as “experts” in immigration law, irresponsible notaries public (who in Latin America have a more substantial legal role than in the U.S. and are sometimes confused with attorneys by immigrants), unscrupulous lawyers and even “friends” or acquaintances from an immigrant community looking to make a fast buck.

January, 2016
Randolph P. McGrorty is the executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami.
Photo : Tom Tracy, Florida Catholic

The “experts” sometimes appear in an office space or work informally out of their homes. They buy advertising in community newspapers in Spanish or Creole and post ads on local buildings. In some cases, they have helped local people deal with simple immigration forms or applications and receive word-of-mouth referrals.

Badly handled immigration assistance is a serious, ongoing problem in South Florida, said Randolph P. McGrorty, an experienced immigration attorney and executive director of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Catholic Legal Services, an organization that works with about 3,000 immigrants every month. The bad advice may come from people innocently trying to help friends and family or from Latin Americans promoting schemes that prey on their own people.

“Sometimes, unqualified people do the immigration work with good intentions and really screw it up,” said McGrorty, whose organization has a staff of 45, including 22 attorneys. “We see the results after the damage is done.”

As for scams, “the most benign type involves improperly filling out forms or filing the wrong documents,” he said. The individual loses some money, but these problems often can be resolved.

“The real, critical problem involves scammers who fill out asylum claims. The applicant doesn’t speak English and just signs the document.”

People have a real story to tell, but scammers often make up information and immigrant officials don’t believe the story. “Any asylum application deemed to be ‘frivolous’ (containing false information) means that the immigrant is barred forever from access to the asylum program,” McGrorty said. “Some errors are correctable, but some can end up getting you deported. The consequences are dire.”

Victims fearful of police

The individuals returned to their native country must face the same problems – violent crime, discrimination, political oppression, etc. – that caused them to emigrate. “We are well aware of notary fraud that targets immigrant communities lacking the resources to seek legal help,” said Paola Calvo Florido, a representative of the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC). “Especially at this time, when fear [among immigrants] is so high, we urge community members to take extra precautions so that they don’t become victims of fraud.” FLIC, as well as other similar groups, has an immigrant hotline and provides lists of attorneys offering free or low-cost legal services.

So why don’t these types of scams receive more attention in the media? Why do very few people go to jail for stealing many thousands of dollars and repeating the fraud again and again in South Florida neighborhoods?

Fear. Most victims, after waiting for weeks or months are typically too frightened or ashamed to tell any legal authorities about the problem. They complain to the “expert,” who invents a convenient excuse: “The gringos turned you down,” or “The rules have changed,” or today they can blame anything on Trump. Irate clients are warned that the “expert” has contacts in the police and that they will be deported if they raise a fuss.

In some cases, the victims find a pro-immigrant organization or pro-bono lawyer and tell their stories. In others, they remain quiet and try to survive as undocumented workers. In still others, they are bilked for more money or are eventually deported.

Developer’s trail of lawsuits backdrop claim of illegal campaign contributions

Miami World Center site.

Miami World Center site.

Editor’s note: The Oct. 19 story below about lawsuits involving developer Arthur Falcone did not note that Tom Derington, his accuser in a recent lawsuit, was found guilty of bank fraud in federal court in Texas in 1999. Derington served 11 months in prison, five years on supervised release and was ordered to pay $48,565 in restitution.

Further, Derington, also known as Tommy Claude Derington, was wanted in Travis County, Texas on a state charge of harrassment that involved an alleged death threat he made against his son-in-law. A police affidavit filed in August described Derington as having an “extensive criminal history with multiple arrests and convictions, including aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury, delivery of controlled substance and impersonating a public servant, among other charges.”

The story also reported that in June 2014 a civil jury assessed $2 million in court costs and attorney fees against Falcone and his brother in a fraud lawsuit stemming from their purchase nine years earlier of Heritage Manor, a Boca Raton cemetery. A judge later reduced those fees to $900,000.

Falcone could not be reached for comment before the story ran. His spokespersons have since called Derington’s complaint “meritless.”

Derington sued Falcone in federal court in September, but soon withdrew the lawsuit only to refile it later in state court. Derington told the Miami Herald he withdrew the suit because a settlement was in the works. Falcone’s spokesperson said that statement is “completely false.”

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Arthur Falcone, a Boca Raton-based developer behind a downtown Miami project at the center of illegal campaign contribution allegations, has blazed a trail of lawsuits accusing him of swindling business associates and creditors out of tens of millions of dollars during the height of the real estate market crash.

According to two complaints filed in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach circuit courts, as well as filings in Fort Lauderdale bankruptcy court, Falcone committed fraud in three separate real estate-related transactions involving a cemetery, a national development company that went bankrupt and a prominent real estate broker who helped him secure various properties for the 10-block condo, hotel and retail site in downtown known as Miami World Center.

Falcone did not respond to two messages left on his office voicemail and two email requests for comment.

In a fourth and most recent lawsuit filed Sept. 14 in Miami federal court, a construction and plans examiner named Tom Derington sued three companies tied to Falcone and a business partner developing Miami World Center for wrongful termination. In the complaint, which was withdrawn and refiled in state court earlier this month, Derington claimed he was fired after he objected to, among other things, demands that he falsely promise subcontractors work on the project in exchange for their campaign contributions to local candidates.

Derington was convicted of bank fraud in 1999 and spent nearly a year in federal prison.

Specifically, Derington alleged that an executive for Square Edge, a construction company managing the Miami World Center project, instructed him to raise money for the re-election campaigns of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, as well as the campaign of Teresa Sarnoff, who last year lost a bid for the Miami City Commission seat vacated by her husband Marc Sarnoff.

“Square Edge provided Plaintiff with a list of names to demand contributions from, sometimes under the false pretense that the proposed professional or subcontractor would get work on the Paramount Ft. Lauderdale project or Miami World Center project, which the Defendants then did not deliver upon,” read the lawsuit by Derington, who said he was fired over his “numerous objections” to improper business practices.

Derington told the Miami Herald last week he withdrew his federal suit because a settlement was in the works. A spokesman for Falcone later called that assertion “completely false.”

A Falcone spokesman called Derington’s complaint “meritless,” stating that Derington “is not and was never an employee of any company tied to Falcone.”

In a written statement, Miami World Center spokesman Aaron Gordon denied any wrongdoing by the Miami World Center developers: “Their fundraising efforts have always been above board and in compliance with the law, which ultimately led to this lawsuit being withdrawn.”

Arthur Falcone

Arthur Falcone

Falcone, along with his brothers Edward and Robert, have been major real estate players in South Florida since the mid-1980s. In 1989, Falcone established Transeastern Homes, a firm that specialized in buying distressed homes in foreclosure brought on by the national recession. The company grew into one of the largest private homebuilders in the U.S. and by 2005, Falcone and his brothers were looking to cash out.

In August of that year, Transeastern merged with Hollywood-based Technical Olympic USA, or TOUSA, another national builder, in a deal that gave Arthur and Edward Falcone 50 percent ownership of the new company. TOUSA paid $857 million to acquire Transeastern’s assets and operations.

However, the joint venture floundered within a year. In November 2006, Falcone hit TOUSA with a notice of default after the company failed to pay him tens of millions of dollars still owed on the deal, according to a 2010 lawsuit filed by TOUSA’s creditors against Falcone, his brother and several entities they controlled.

$50 million fraudulent transfer?

The complaint alleged the Falcones induced a fraudulent transfer of more than $50 million from TOUSA, which went bankrupt by 2008, as part of a settlement releasing the brothers from their ownership stake and any liabilities arising from the company’s implosion as a result of the housing crash.

“The Defendants were intimately familiar with the crashing Florida homebuilding market, were well aware of the financial distress suffered by the Transeastern JV, were familiar with TOUSA’s operations and its various entities, and were privy to internal and publicly available information reflecting the severity of the housing crisis and its impact on the Debtors’ businesses,” the lawsuit alleges. “Upon information and belief, the Defendants received the value of the Fraudulent Transfers, lacking good faith, and with knowledge of their avoidability.”

At the time, Falcone issued a press statement that dismissed the lawsuit as meritless. “Just because in hindsight TOUSA’s creditors think they overpaid, it doesn’t mean they can now go to the courts and demand their money back,” Falcone wrote. “Imagine if you bought your home a few years ago for $300,000 and now it’s worth $150,000. You can’t just go back to the seller and demand your money back. That’s the market.”

The fraudulent transfer claims against the Falcones individually were later dropped. Other counts continue alleging the fraudulent transfer of funds against TEP Holdings, of which Arthur Falcone is chairman and chief executive officer. The case remains pending.

Edie Laquer

Edie Laquer

The same year TOUSA went bankrupt, Miami real estate broker Edie Laquer sued Falcone alleging he squeezed her out of a promised 10 percent ownership stake in Miami World Center without compensating her. Laquer also brokered the deals for the first seven properties used to assemble the site. In April of last year, the 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing Laquer’s complaint. Her lawyers successfully argued that even though the properties went through foreclosure, she should have remained in the Falcone partnership that purchased the parcels from the banks. The case was later settled.

In June 2014, a jury concluded that Falcone and his brother committed civil theft when they purchased the Boca Raton cemetery Heritage Manor from a pair of widows for $6.1 million nine years earlier. The two women sued the Falcones after finding out that their then-attorney, Michael Masanoff, received an allegedly under-the-table payment of $100,000 from the brothers. According to the widows’ trial lawyers, the cemetery was actually worth $40 million in 2005 when the deal closed.

The judge later overturned the jury’s finding of civil theft against the Falcones because the jury awarded no damages relating to the sale of the business and land. The plaintiffs are appealing.

Jurors awarded only $2 million in court costs and attorney fees to the adult children of the plaintiffs Elishka and Kathleen Michaels, who died during the drawn-out legal battle. A judge later reduced the award to $900,000. Under Florida law, the amount automatically tripled because the jurors found “clear and convincing evidence” that the Falcones acted with criminal intent to obtain the plaintiffs’ business and land, according to the jury form.

During the trial, Masanoff — who was disbarred and is now a real estate developer — testified that the Falcones encouraged him to breach his fiduciary duty to the widows, in addition to concealing the $100,000 payoff. In court motions and at trial, Falcone attorney William Cornwell dismissed Masanoff’s testimony by citing a confidential settlement he reached with the Michaels family members.

The Falcones’ appeal of the verdict is pending. In a brief phone interview, Cornwell told Florida Bulldog that the jury reached the wrong conclusion. “We believe the verdict will be overturned,” he said. “And we are vigorously pursuing an appeal.”

Miami City Attorney’s Office in another fight – this time with the county ethics commission

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

Miami-Dade Ethics Commission wants to know if a Miami assistant city attorney lied to the city commission about a controversial megayacht marina and resort project planned for Watson Island.

A City of Miami senior assistant city attorney is trying to block the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust from reconsidering its decision six months ago to not sanction her for breaking local ethics rules.

In a recent petition filed with the appellate division of the Miami-Dade Judicial Court, Robin Jones Jackson claims the ethics commission doesn’t have the authority to reopen a closed complaint. The complaint alleged that she knowingly gave false statements to city commissioners two years ago when they approved changes to a massive Watson Island development project.

On July 13, the ethics commission voted 3-2 to rehear Jackson’s case after weighing new information presented by Coral Gables-based attorney Samuel Dubbin, who represents Stephen Herbits, a community activist who filed the complaint against the assistant city attorney.

Herbits has been locked in a long-running legal battle with the city to stop a megayacht marina and resort project on Watson Island being developed by Flagstone Property Group. In 2014, the city commission approved a restructured lease agreement with the developer. Herbits claims Jones Jackson was untruthful when she informed city commissioners that Miami was on the hook for $58 million in damages if the deal didn’t go through.

Herbits maintains the city had no liability and that Jones Jackson made her recommendation knowing that the amended lease agreement violated the city charter, thus making the new deal with Flagstone null and void.

“The ethics commission recognized there were serious questions about the quality and objectivity of a staff investigation, so it voted to revisit it,” Dubbin told Florida Bulldog. “No county law prohibits [the commission] from doing so. Otherwise, the commission has no authority over the integrity of the complaint process.”

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Miami Senior Assistant City Attorney Robin Jones Jackson

Jones Jackson is challenging the ethics commission at a time the City Attorney’s Office faces accusations it’s beholden to developers. Last week, four city commissioners rejected their colleague Ken Russell’s attempt to fire Jones Jackson’s boss Victoria Mendez over her handling of a zoning matter in Coconut Grove. Russell said he lost confidence in Mendez because she withheld public records from him that showed she helped a developer’s attorney bypass a city board’s approval on behalf of his client.

Ethics commission executive director Joe Centorino and ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski, who presents cases to the board, declined comment for this story. Jones Jackson and her lawyers, Joseph Serota and Laura Wendell, did not respond to emails and phone messages requesting comment.

According to Jones Jackson’s petition, the ethics commission lacks jurisdiction to reopen closed investigations that ended in findings of no probable cause. On March 29, the ethics commission found no probable cause to Herbits’ complaint. Her attorneys argue that four months later Dubbin was allowed to make his case in an unusual public session as to why there is probable cause.

The ethics commission acted after Dubbin successfully lobbied his point that Herbits was entitled to present his arguments because he was a personally aggrieved party. Dubbin said the county ordinance governing the ethics commission allows complainants to show they have been personally affected by the alleged violation.

“Irreparable injury”

“The actions of the ethics commission departed from the essential requirements of law, deprived Jones Jackson of her right to due process and confidentiality,” her petition claims. “And its decision has caused and will continue to cause irreparable injury.”

The case shows how difficult it is for citizens who file complaints to prove public officials committed ethics violations. According to a transcript of the July 13 meeting, Dubbin assailed the ethic commission’s practice of adjudicating cases without allowing complainants to present evidence that help prove their allegations or dispute Murawski’s recommendations of no probable cause. Cases are decided in sessions closed to the public and in which only Murawski and attorneys for the accused are permitted to address the board.

Dubbin said he analyzed every complaint adjudicated by the ethics commission from July 2014 to July 2016. He found that Murawski has recommended no probable cause in 66 percent of those cases, and that the ethics commission approved 98.5 percent of Murawski’s recommendations.

Dubbin said Murawski never asked him or his client for documents they had showing Jones Jackson was well aware that Flagstone had already defaulted on its lease and could not sue the city.

“For whatever reason, the advocate never asked for that information, never,” Dubbin told the ethics board. “Some of it was in their file and it was ignored by the advocate.” The lawyer also accused Murawski of “making subjective determinations about Mr. Herbits’ credibility based upon collateral information and incorrect information.”

Dubbin told ethics commissioners there is no county law that prevents them from reversing an earlier decision. “There is nothing in your rules that precludes you from reconsidering it or from sending it back for a reinvestigation,” he said. “And anything that is not precluded, I would submit is allowed.”

Murawski, a former prosecutor, countered that the ordinance creating the ethics commission doesn’t allow for the board members to reconsider cases. He also warned them they would be opening the door to other complainants demanding that their cases be reheard. “From a practical standpoint, I would ask you to take a good hard look at whether or not you want to set a precedent of having … people come back and say, ‘No, no, Murawski screwed up, he didn’t do a good investigation,’ ” the advocate said. “There should be a certain finality for all of the parties involved that’s based on what we have done here and the conclusions that we’ve made.”

However, ethics commission board member Marcia Narine Weldon said she would not have made the motion or voted in March to find no probable cause against Jones Jackson had she seen the documents Dubbin presented.

“The reason I was so troubled with this the last time is I think you ought to be held to a higher standard if you are the city attorney,” Weldon said. “As attorney for the people and attorney for the city, she has to be held to a higher standard.”

The Miami fight over right to sue to block controversial development

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A rendering of planned development on Watson Island

A proposed amendment to Miami’s charter that would help a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping controversial mega-projects on public waterfront land has drawn fierce opposition from City Attorney Victoria Mendez.

Amendment supporters, on the other hand, accuse Mendez of running interference because she fears the lawsuits — if allowed to move forward — would expose her office’s role in violating the city charter, breaking Florida’s public records law and feeding misinformation to city commissioners before they voted on the mega-projects.

“The city attorney has been conducting a vigorous campaign against this provision because if it passes, multiple cases will be brought back to court,” said Stephen Herbits, a Venetian Islands homeowner suing to stop a mega-project on Watson Island. “When the merits of these cases are finally heard by a neutral court with witnesses under oath, the city attorney will find it difficult to explain her own role in them.”

City Attorney Mendez did not return two phone messages from a reporter seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the Miami City Commission will decide whether to place on the November ballot 17 revisions to the charter, including the amendment that would grant residents legal standing to sue the city over the Watson Island mega-project, as well as others in Coconut Grove, Bayside Marketplace and Virginia Key.

Herbits, Miami-Dade School Board member and county mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado and prominent Miami businessman Steven Kneapler are among a dozen city activists who have filed separate lawsuits in the past two years accusing Miami officials of misleading voters, concealing and withholding public records from citizens and city commissioners and ignoring the city’s own charter to help developers secure deals to build lucrative projects on public land.

However, none of the lawsuits have had the opportunity to be judged in court on the merits because the city’s lawyers have successfully argued the plaintiffs don’t have legal standing to sue. Local judges and appeals courts have sided with the city in at least three complaints that sought to overturn the redevelopment of city-owned land at Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, invalidate a referendum approving the SkyRise Miami observation tower behind Bayside and the Herbits lawsuit challenging the Watson Island project, where the first phase — a mega-yacht marina — opened for business in February.

Hoping for a vote authorization

The plaintiffs are hoping the city commission authorizes the “standing” charter amendment so voters can have the final say regarding who can sue the city. Kneapler, a charter review committee member and the plaintiff in the Dinner Key lawsuit, told FloridaBulldog.org he believes Mendez is fighting the amendment because it would force her to provide neutral advice to the city commission instead of yielding to political pressure.

“It is not the legal department’s position to play politics,” Kneapler said. “I hope it passes.”

If his complaint were heard on the merits, Kneapler said, he would be able to show how the city violated the charter by failing to obtain two separate property appraisals for the Dinner Key seven-acre site, where Grove Bay Investment Group LLC is proposing a new marina, public baywalk, restaurants and a parking garage.

“The city always hides behind the standing issue and no one gets an opportunity to get to hear their cases upon the merits,” Kneapler said. “It is very frustrating.”

According to a four-page memo Mendez prepared for the charter review committee’s May 2 meeting, the city attorney argues the “standing” charter amendment would be “opening the floodgates” to frivolous lawsuits filed out of “spite” by opponents of projects that are approved by a majority of Miami voters.

She noted the Florida Supreme Court last year voted not to review Kneapler’s lawsuit and Regalado’s complaint after an appeals court sided with the city.

“This committee should not allow the charter review process to be used by anyone to force the city to squander time and resources defending meritless claims by disgruntled citizens,” Mendez wrote.

Roger Craver, another Venetian Islands resident who is also a plaintiff in the Herbits lawsuit, claims the city attorney’s office hides behind the “standing’’ issue to mask what he says are their unlawful actions.

“Their defense strategy has prevented all the facts from being laid on the table, Craver said. “As a result, a stable of reputable citizens are getting blocked from publicly exposing the city’s misbehavior.”

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

By Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Jerry Frank Townsend

Jerry Frank Townsend

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANATOMY OF A FRAME-UP

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

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

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

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

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz

Broward State Attorney Mike Satz

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

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

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

DETECTIVES IMPLICATED, NO INVESTIGATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DETECTIVE’S TESTIMONY TAKES ON NEW MEANING

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

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

Sonja Marion

Sonja Marion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schlein declined to discuss his testimony or his police reports.

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

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

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

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

TOWNSEND’S LAWSUIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddie Lee Mosley

Eddie Lee Mosley

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

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

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

COPS MISS REAL KILLER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top two FDLE agents in Miami are out; Turmoil amid takeover of police shooting probes

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Addy Villanueva, former special agent-in-charge of the FDLE's Miami regional office Photo: CBSMiami

Addy Villanueva, former special agent-in-charge of the FDLE’s Miami regional office Photo: CBSMiami

The abrupt replacement of Gerald Bailey as Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner wasn’t the only major shake-up at the state’s top law enforcement agency in December.

Also out amid reports of internal intrigue: the first woman to lead FDLE’s Miami Regional Operations Center, Addy Villanueva, and her number two, Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden.

The upheaval couldn’t have come at a worse time, say critics of FDLE’s high-profile takeover of sensitive police shooting investigations from the Miami-Dade County Police and Miami Police.

“The FDLE Miami office is in complete disarray,” said John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file Miami-Dade County cops. “I am not sure this is the proper time to switch over, even if they want to.”

John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association

John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association

The PBA opposes handing over the investigation of shootings by local police officers to the state, as does the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents Miami police officers.

FDLE officially took control of police shooting investigations from Miami-Dade on January 5 under an agreement championed last year by Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The move followed a pair of controversial police shootings that occurred in 2011 and 2013:

  • June 30, 2011 – Police informant Rosendo Betancourt and three home invaders were killed in a fusillade by a Miami-Dade special robbery detail. A police video shows officers shooting Betancourt 70 seconds after he surrendered, put his hands up, and dropped to the ground. State prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, citing insufficient evidence.
  • December 10, 2013 – More than two-dozen Miami police officers fired at least 377 shots at two men in a blue Volvo who led them on a high-speed chase through Hialeah into Liberty City. Driver Adrian Montesano, wanted for robbing a Walgreens and shooting a Miami-Dade officer earlier that evening, and his passenger, Corsini Valdes, died. Valdes had committed no crime. The shooting, in which two Miami-Dade officers were also wounded, remains under investigation by state prosecutors.

In a parallel action the same week, Miami city commissioners also agreed to turn over police shooting investigations to FDLE, despite objections from FOP President, Miami Police Sgt. Javier Ortiz.

In a January 7 letter to city commissioners, Ortiz accused Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa of “passing the buck” to FDLE and noted Miami officers killed no one in 2014.

“Some politicians or chiefs want to jump on what they deem as being a trendy topic to some of their constituents,” Ortiz wrote. “I believe our priorities are all wrong.”

REMOVING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Proponents say allowing FDLE to investigate police shootings involving county and Miami cops removes inherent conflicts of interest when departments investigate their own officers for using deadly force.

“The goal is to have an objective, outside party investigate police shootings,” said Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson. “This will add more transparency and build public confidence in what we are trying to accomplish.”

The PBA’s Rivera has been an outspoken opponent of the move since Miami-Dade Commissioners ratified the accord between FDLE and county police in October. The union head says FDLE’s Miami office lacks experience investigating complex cases involving county officers who shoot people.

“The FDLE Miami office is not prepared,” Rivera said. “They are going from zero to 100. They have not worked side-by-side with Miami-Dade homicide investigators.”

Furthermore, Rivera noted that Miami-Dade would continue to control the lab and crime scene work when officers are investigated for firing their weapons.

“The most important part of an investigation is the scientific side,” Rivera said. “Yet, Miami-Dade police will still be gathering that evidence. It doesn’t make sense. Giving them partial control seems like an oxymoron.”

The practical problems Rivera cited appear to be compounded by the recent turmoil in the FDLE’s Miami office.

A law enforcement source close to FDLE told

Former Miami FDLE Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden with ex-FBI director Robert Mueller.

Former Miami FDLE Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Robert Breeden with ex-FBI director Robert Mueller.

FloridaBulldog.org that Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Breeden, who spent 20 years with the agency, opted to retire rather than accept a demotion after an internal investigation found he violated numerous policies, including creating a hostile work environment and allowing an unauthorized civilian to enter a room where investigators were counting money seized in a raid.

According to a December 3 letter he sent to Bailey, Breeden retired effective February 3. However, he took accrued leave time and has not been at work since submitting his retirement letter.

A 2 1/2 HOUR COMPLAINT

The source said Breeden took Villanueva down with him by informing Bailey of alleged misdeeds by Villanueva. Breeden made a 2½-hour oral complaint about Villanueva in September, FDLE records show. Details were not immediately available.

Villanueva accepted a demotion rather than retire, the source said.

But Steve Arthur, an FDLE spokesman, said Villanueva asked for the reassignment to a lesser post in the same office.

“She is not and has not been under investigation,” Arthur said, without elaboration.

Villanueva affirmed Arthur’s statement, but declined further comment. Breeden did not return a message sent to his Facebook account seeking comment about the complaint against him and his complaint against Villanueva.

Former Commissioner Bailey replaced Villanueva with Troy Walker, a 22-year-veteran who was promoted from his position as assistant special agent-in-charge of FDLE’s Tampa Bay Regional Operations Center.

Chris Woehr, a supervisor in FDLE’s Orlando office, replaced Breeden.

On December 16, Gov. Rick Scott shocked Tallahassee insiders when he replaced Bailey, who’d led the agency for eight years.

Scott, who picked Tallahassee Police director Richard Swearingen as interim FDLE commissioner, refused to say if he pushed Bailey out the door. But Bailey recently told the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times that Scott’s chief of staff and general counsel ordered him to “retire or resign.”

Bailey could not be reached for comment about Villanueva and Breeden.

FDLE ‘CONFIDENT’ 

FDLE spokesman Arthur dismissed the idea that his agency is not prepared to investigate police shootings. He noted that Walker has investigated police shootings in the Tampa Bay area, and that Woehr was in charge of an investigative squad that handled public integrity cases and officer involved shootings in Orlando.

“We are confident in our ability to conduct independent and thorough investigations,” Arthur said.

Miami-Dade’s Patterson agreed. “I’ve already met with Troy Walker,” Patterson said. “He assured me they will not have any problems with the transition.”

Miami-Dade homicide detectives will continue to conduct investigations of police shootings in other jurisdictions where it has contracts, including Coral Gables and Miami Gardens, Patterson said.

The police director also downplayed Rivera’s claims that FDLE is not prepared.

“The crime lab has more to do with the fact FDLE doesn’t have one in Miami,” he said. “With all due respect to Mr. Rivera, he keeps repeating that this move is a knee-jerk reaction, but that does not make it correct or factual.”

Dan Christensen contributed to this report.

For the public’s right to know or for profit? A town’s showdown with litigious residents

By Dan Moffett, Special to Broward Bulldog 

Martin O'Boyle, left, and Christopher O'Hare

Martin O’Boyle, left, and Christopher O’Hare

A non-profit foundation that bills itself as dedicated to the public’s right to know is a target of angry municipal officials who allege it is actually a money-making tool that uses frivolous public records lawsuits to squeeze payouts from governments in South Florida and across the state.

The small south Palm Beach town of Gulf Stream gave unanimous approval on Oct. 10 to a legal strategy to invoke the federal racketeering statute against two litigious residents, wealthy commercial real estate developer Martin O’Boyle and sculptor Christopher O’Hare, and the group O’Boyle founded, the Citizens Awareness Foundation.

O’Boyle has warned the city that a lawsuit against him could lead to Gulf Stream’s “demise” as a municipality.

Town officials say the class-action RICO suit will allege that O’Boyle used Citizens Awareness Foundation to intimidate, harass and force settlements of meritless public records suits in communities such as Fernandina Beach, Miami, Bradenton, Cutler Bay and Miami Lakes.

“We thought this was about a feud in Gulf Stream,” said Mayor Scott Morgan. “But we learned it was a lot more.”

Commissioners unanimously approved hiring a team of outside lawyers that includes Gerald Richman, a prominent West Palm Beach attorney, who will spearhead the federal RICO case.

Gulf Stream Mayor Scott Morgan

Gulf Stream Mayor Scott Morgan

Richman told the commission that O’Boyle and his Citizens Awareness Foundation had used a “scorched-earth strategy” against Gulf Stream and many other communities.

“We’re well familiar with their tactics,” he said.

Said Morgan: “All the talk about open public access and white knights on chargers helping the common man is nonsense. This has all been about money.”

‘VOLUME OF CASES’ DESCRIBED

O’Boyle, the wealthy owner of the Deerfield Beach-based commercial real estate firm Commerce Group, founded Citizens Awareness in 2013 and Joel Chandler served as its executive director until the relationship soured after a few months earlier this year. A longtime advocate for Florida’s public records laws, Chandler says he quickly became disillusioned with how CAF was run.

“I thought the foundation as originally presented to me would be a wonderful resource for open government across the state,” Chandler said. “What it ended up being is nothing more than a scheme to generate lawsuits for The O’Boyle Law Firm.”

Chandler said he had a quota of 25 public records lawsuits per week to fill and, though he recommended other attorneys, O’Boyle insisted that all the work be done at The O’Boyle Law Firm, a Deerfield Beach for-profit company run by his son, Jonathan O’Boyle, a lawyer based in Johnstown, Pa.

Joel Chandler

Joel Chandler

“The money was in the sheer volume of the cases,” Chandler said. “A lawyer could use a template and file a suit in 15 minutes. We filed hundreds of cases. The typical settlement started at $5,000. It all adds up to millions in legal fees.”

Court papers show that Fernandina Beach paid $5,000 to settle a lawsuit with Citizens Awareness this year. Miami Lakes paid $2,000. Cutler Bay paid $2,250.

In February, Citizens Awareness sued the city of Miami a day after Chandler was turned away at City Hall when he sought to photograph Mayor Tomas Regalado’s appointments calendar.

Marrett Hanna, a lawyer affiliated with The O’Boyle Law Firm and the wife of Mark Hanna, who is O’Hare’s attorney, signed the complaint. The suit is pending in Miami-Circuit Court.

Though O’Boyle and O’Hare filed most of their complaints individually, the town’s federal case will argue they often acted together, town officials said.

In an interview, Chandler said he wanted to work with Gulf Stream, meet with Town Manager William Thrasher, and work out the foundation’s differences over public records.

“O’Boyle was adamant that we wouldn’t do that,” Chandler said. “Marty said we’ll sue and that is all we do.”

Chandler resigned his $120,000 -a-year job at Citizens Awareness in June. Later, O’Boyle sued him alleging Chandler had misused the group’s funds.

Chandler, a longtime government transparency watchdog, denied misusing Citizens Awareness’s funds or any wrongdoing.

“The only things true in the suit against me were my name and that I live in Florida,” said Chandler, 51. The suit is pending.

O’Boyle did not return calls seeking comment for this story but has maintained his goal is to promote transparency in government.

SUIT GREETED WITH APPLAUSE

The Town of Gulf Stream has spent about $370,000 since January in the legal fight against O’Boyle and O’Hare, and billable hours are likely to skyrocket with a new stable of lawyers onboard.

Besides Richman, the town hired a trio of Broward-based lawyers at the Weiss Serota law firm, including former Hollywood City Attorney Jamie Cole. The lawyers specialize in laws governing sober houses — a business venture O’Boyle says he is planning in the town.

Gulf Stream Mayor Morgan says his town has no choice but to defend itself, and if it can win the RICO case, the town can collect attorneys’ fees and triple damages from O’Boyle and O’Hare.

“In my opinion, the town of Gulf Stream has suffered enough,” Morgan said. “The town has been expending funds, and time and resources and morale, and the difficulties of hiring and retaining employees as the result of the scandalously malicious and frivolous lawsuits and public records requests by Mr. O’Hare and Mr. O’Boyle. I think it’s time for the madness to stop.”

Between them, O’Boyle and O’Hare have filed dozens of lawsuits in the state and federal courts against Gulf Stream, as well as more than 1,500 public records requests with the town. The two have joined in at least one of those suits. O’Boyle and O’Hare have both accused the town of being unwilling to negotiate a settlement.

O’Boyle and O’Hare’s original beefs with Gulfstream started several years ago over architectural issues. O’Boyle wanted to redesign the entrance to his home and the town’s architectural board and zoning staff didn’t like the design and said no. O’Hare wanted to put a metal roof on his house, and the town nixed that, too. Things have escalated ever since.

“It’s disappointing and unfortunate when a town sues one of its citizens,” said Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents O’Boyle. “It’s unfortunate it has come to that over such a matter as public records.”

In September, O’Boyle told the commission he was prepared to “cost the town a million dollars” in legal fees if commissioners did not negotiate with him. He did not attend the October meeting saying he was out of town, but had an associate deliver a letter to the mayor.

O’BOYLE’S WARNING TO THE TOWN

“In connection with the proposed RICO action, Mr. O’Boyle wishes to provide the commission with a warning that any such launch will be met with an unfriendly response,” the letter said. “Mr. O’Boyle reminds the commission that the mayor has been inviting a fight for some time now. Mr. O’Boyle further reminds the commissioners, that should they decide to embark upon and support the mayor’s grand battle, the likely result will be the demise of Gulf Stream.”

O’Hare told the commission that filing a federal case ensures a long and expensive battle: “I bet you $5 million from now, it’s still going on.” He urged the commission to settle.

“RICO is for criminal activity, O’Hare said. “I didn’t know it was a crime to ask for public records.”

O’Hare said he didn’t know about Citizens Awareness until recent weeks and is unaware of the group’s activities. He said he only filed one lawsuit jointly with O’Boyle but did use The O’Boyle Law Firm.

“Mr. Morgan’s claim that this is all about money is simply not true,” O’Hare said. “There is no profit to be had by asserting your right to a public record in court.”

He told commissioners they will cost the taxpayers millions in legal fees on the RICO strategy: “And it’s not your money.”

A cluster of 20 residents at the October meeting broke into applause over the commission’s decision to file suit in federal court.

“I don’t usually agree with what Mr. O’Hare says, but he did say something with which I fully agree,” resident Anthony Graziano told the commission. “It is our money. And we would like you to spend it fighting these gentlemen.”

Morgan said the RICO action would allow the town to settle many disputes in one case.

“We can either take the approach of defending these individual cases as they come in and bleed to death by a thousand cuts,” he said, “or we can take steps necessary to stop those cases by advancing this case. From the evidence that I’ve seen, it’s a conspiracy of sorts to advance actions that essentially do nothing other than shake down municipal agencies.”

This article first appeared in slightly different form in The Coastal Star, a monthly newspaper that covers nine beachside towns and communities in south Palm Beach County.

Millions unspent to fix landmark Miami courthouse; $368 million sought for replacement

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Miami's Dade County Courthouse

Miami’s Dade County Courthouse

As judges and lawyers embark on a campaign to convince Miami-Dade voters to foot the bill for a new $368 million courthouse, it turns out taxpayers have already contributed $18.1 million to pay for extensive repairs to downtown’s landmark courthouse that have been repeatedly delayed.

Ten years ago, the county earmarked the funds to fix the courthouse’s air conditioning system, plumbing, and electrical systems, county records and interviews with officials in charge of the Dade County Courthouse show. The county commission subsequently diverted the $18.1 million to restore the historic landmark’s crumbling facade, a project that got under way in July of last year.

The delays are indicative of the county’s mismanagement of the Flagler Street building, said Miami-Dade School Board Member Raquel Regalado, an outspoken critic of using more taxpayer funds for a new courthouse.

“Voters have a right to know who is responsible for the conditions at 73 W Flagler,” Regalado said. “Approving this tax will result in a restored and abandoned historic courthouse in the heart of the city.”

County commissioners voted 11-2 on Sept. 2 to place a question on the November ballot asking the electorate to approve a $393 million bond issue backed by property taxes.

A political action committee organized by well-connected Miami attorney Gene Stearns plans to raise more than $1 million to galvanize voters.

In addition to a new 620,000-square-foot courthouse, the county would use $25 million to maintain the Flagler building for up to five more years. County officials have not said what would become of the historic structure after that. It could be used for county office space, sold or leased to private developers.

Property owners in Miami-Dade would face an additional $7 per year in taxes on every $100,000 of a property’s assessed value.

Built between 1925 and 1928 using steel, granite and tera cotta, the Dade County Courthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet it has fallen into an unsightly state of disrepair and some areas of the building are considered dangerous workplaces. It cannot be razed because it is designated as historic by the City of Miami.

ROOF LEAKS, FLOODS

The roof leaks water and the basement floods. Water intrusion resulted in the closing of the top floor of the 25-story building. Recently, a contractor found “black” mold on the 22nd and 23rd floors, forcing employees to work from home.

Things have gotten so bad the courthouse can’t pass a city code inspection that takes place every 40 to 50 years to re-certify the building as safe for public use.

According to an Aug. 7 letter to the Flagler courthouse’s building manager, Miami’s Code Compliance Office threatened demolition if the county doesn’t re-certify the building soon. Inspectors also posted notices on the Roman-style columns near the front and rear entrances of the building.

Nearly two months later, officials from the Miami-Dade Internal Services Department, which maintains county real estate, have not responded to the city.

Internal Services Director Lester Sola insisted the county is not avoiding the recertification process. The last one was in 1976, according to city building records. He claims the courthouse’s building manager never received the city’s correspondence or saw the posted notices.

“The county first became aware of this on Sept. 9 when ISD staff was at the city of Miami requesting any and all documentation relating to 73 W Flagler,” Sola said.

He said the county has been addressing deficiencies with the building since last year to bring 73 W Flagler into compliance. “The county also brought in a consultant to provide recommendations that would bring the building up to date with the recertification,” Sola said.

However, over the last decade the county has scrapped and delayed funding for projects that would address the building’s deplorable conditions.

PRIOR BOND ISSUE

In 2004, Miami-Dade voters green-lighted a $2.9 billion bond program that included $5.7 million to replace the Flagler courthouse’s heating and air conditioning system, $2.8 million for new electrical wiring and panels, and $9.6 million to replace plumbing pipes that date back to the 1920s.

Five years later, county commissioners diverted those funds for the facade, which has become so porous it acts like a sponge, retaining large amounts of water during heavy rainfalls.

A July 21, 2009 memo from then-County Manager George Burgess to commissioners states the original estimate of $15 million for the facade restoration was off by roughly $18 million. “This work must be completed prior to the other projects,” Burgess wrote. “Or those projects will not be effective in the long-term due to the unabated water intrusion.”

Yet, county records show work on the facade restoration, which now stands to cost $35 million, did not begin until last year.

An April 2, 2013 memo from Mayor Carlos Gimenez to county commissioners, partly explains the delays were the result of “a multi-year process of research, evaluation, and development of construction documents to support a restoration plan that started in 2007.” Four months later, the scaffolding finally went up. The restoration won’t be finished until 2016, Sola said.

At the same time, the county began to address some of the courthouse’s myriad of other problems. Since 2013, Internal Services has spent approximately $25,000 on some electrical upgrades and roughly $1.1 million replacing the heating and air conditioning systems on the 3rd, 14th and 15th floors. Earlier this year, repairs began on the structural columns in the basement.

“We’ve also stationed construction staff on and off the facility since 2013 to initiate repairs as needed,” Sola said.

Still, the delays should concern voters, according to Regalado.

“Now that we are at the point of crisis we need to know how did we ended up in this predicament,” she said.

Miami developer hires governor’s pal; Scott, Cabinet green light Watson Island project

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Lobbyist William "Billy" Rubin, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

Lobbyist William “Billy” Rubin, left, and Gov. Rick Scott

In late March, state emails show, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection was poised to pull the plug on a long-delayed, contentious plan to build a resort and mega-yacht marina on Miami’s Watson Island.

But developer Flagstone Island Gardens had an ace in the hole. A month earlier, the company hired Fort Lauderdale lobbyist William “Billy” Rubin, a longtime personal friend, business associate and political supporter of Gov. Rick Scott.

Within weeks of Rubin’s hiring, the DEP dropped its opposition to the estimated half-billion dollar resort project. Instead, Secretary Herschel Vinyard recommended the state waive a significant impediment: a deed restriction barring private development on Watson Island, land the state deeded to Miami in 1919.

Gov. Scott and the Cabinet unanimously approved the controversial waiver on May 19, state records show.

Such positive action by the state had seemed unlikely only two months before. At a March 26 meeting, top state environmental protection officials – including Deputy Secretary Katy Fenton and State Lands Manager Scott Woolam – had reiterated their opposition to the waiver to both the developer and the city.

“It became apparent to the city and Flagstone that a speedy flip of our longstanding position was not forthcoming,” Deputy General Counsel Thomas Sawyer wrote in an April 1 email to his boss and Fenton summarizing his department’s concerns.

Yet a speedy flip did come, and it happened in spite of objections from the Sierra Club, the Tropical Audubon Society, and Coral Gables lawyer Sam Dubbin, who represents Stephen Herbits, a condo resident on the Venetian Causeway who unsuccessfully sued the city to stop the project in 2004. In his complaint, Herbits argued Watson Island should only be used for public purposes and that the resort would block his condo’s view of downtown Miami.

Herbits, who used Florida’s public records law to obtain emails about the matter from both the state and the city said in an interview that lobbyist Rubin is the reason the waiver was granted.

‘ON INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE CAPITOL’

“Fenton, Woolam and Sawyer told us that the department had changed its position based on instructions from the Capitol,” Herbits said. “The developer sent in a lobbyist with direct access to the governor, who then shut the public out of the process.”

Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard

Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard

Rubin did not return phone messages seeking comment. But Flagstone’s lead lobbyist, Brian May, acknowledged that Rubin played an important role in convincing both Scott and Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard that their client deserved to continue with its Watson Island development.

“I think Billy was very helpful,” May said. “No doubt, he did a great job.”

Gov. Scott’s spokesman, John Tupps, would not answer questions about Rubin’s role in securing the deed waiver, but provided this statement: “We trust the voters of Miami and the City Commission can decide what’s best for the development of Watson Island.”

Flagstone has fought to keep its project alive for more than a decade.

In 2001, Miami voters approved leasing prime waterfront land on Watson Island so Flagstone could develop its resort and marina. But 9/11 caused the first in a series of delays as Flagstone’s owner, Turkish businessman Mehmet Bayraktar, was unable to secure financing for the project. The real estate market crash in 2008 brought more problems as Bayraktar’s company was besieged by lawsuits and further delayed by dredging for the recently opened port tunnel.

Despite those setbacks, city commissioners and state officials granted Flagstone several extensions and lease modifications.

A rendering of Flagstone's Island Gardens on Watson Island

A rendering of Flagstone’s Island Gardens on Watson Island

In 2013, Flagstone announced it was teaming up with the Related Group to build a much larger version of the project. However, the partnership was short-lived as Related pulled out following opposition from Miami Beach city leaders about potential traffic congestion on the MacArthur Causeway.

Today, the site remains barren and overgrown.

As part of its agreement with Miami, Flagstone pays the city base rent of $2 million a year. Should the project get built, the city would also collect one percent of the revenues from the marina slips and two planned hotels and a shopping mall.

Herbits and other critics accuse the city of using outdated appraisals to determine those payments. Indeed, two recent appraisals conducted by the city found Flagstone ought to pay $7 million a year based on today’s real estate market.

After years of wrangling and delay, Flagstone and the city went to the Department of Environmental Protection in September 2013 asking help in securing the deed restriction waiver. They were met, however, by regulators’ concerns about the project’s viability after failing to break ground after more than a decade and Flagstone’s failure to pay off five court judgments it had earlier told the department it would satisfy by a January 2012 deadline.

Email traffic shows that environmental officials not only opposed the waiver, but wanted Miami to give the state 50 percent of the base rent instead of the 15 percent in the original agreement.

ENTER BILLY RUBIN

Months went by without any movement. Then, in February, lobbyist Rubin entered the picture.

Initially, the city wanted to retain Rubin to lobby on its behalf. On Feb. 7, Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo sent an email to Rubin saying the city was in the process of preparing a professional services agreement for him to sign.

Instead, Flagstone hired Rubin. Florida’s online lobbyist database shows he registered to lobby the executive branch on Feb. 19. He later reported Flagstone paid him between $20,000 to $29,000 for the quarter.

Rubin, owner of The Rubin Group, gave Flagstone the influence of a Tallahassee insider who was part the governor’s inner circle upon his election in 2010. Rubin helped select candidates for Scott’s transition team.

In the early 2000s, Rubin and Scott – along with then Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne – served together on the board of Cyberguard, a Deerfield Beach computer security firm in which both men had invested. Securities and Exchange Commission records show that Scott ultimately made more than $60 million from his Cyberguard investment.

The day Scott was elected, Rubin told the Tampa Bay Times that he’d met Scott in 1991 when the governor was building his Columbia/HCA hospital company. “We’ve stayed close ever since. I love him,” Rubin said at the time.

Rubin added that he would not benefit from Scott being in the Governor’s office. “I won’t be. I’ll quickly dispel that perception.”

In fact, Rubin is currently registered to represent 62 clients before the governor and executive branch agencies – including Flagstone and heavyweights like Florida Power & Light, Florida East Coast Railway and HCA Healthcare.

EVENTS MOVE FAST

Brian May, Flagstone’s other lobbyist, said the company retained Rubin because of his relationships with the governor and the Cabinet. He said it was done to counter Herbits and Dubbin’s efforts to stir things up at the Department of Environmental Protection.

“By the time we realized what was going on,” May said, “the best thing we could do is get Billy to lead the effort and get everyone to move forward.”

He added: “I am sure he spoke to the governor’s office since you don’t get on the cabinet agenda without talking to the governor’s office.”

Herbits disputed May’s version, noting that the department of environmental protection conducted its own research to determine that Flagstone had gotten a sweetheart deal.

“The state agency responsible for protecting the public interest was about to rule against the project,” Herbits said.

Spokeswomen for two Cabinet members, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, said that lobbyist Rubin did not meet with them or any members of their staff. A spokesperson for the third member of the Cabinet, Attorney General Pam Bondi, did not respond to questions.

Flagstone’s waiver request appears to have come before the Cabinet in May with unusual speed.

DEP counsel Sawyer’s email about the March 26 meeting says Deputy Secretary Fenton had informed Miami Assistant City Manager Bravo that placing the issue on the Cabinet’s May 13 agenda “was unreasonable” given that it usually takes three to four months to get an item on the calendar. He added that Fenton was “going to check the pulse of cabinet aides to determine if there is an interest in trying to rush this onto the May agenda.”

Herbits said he later was shocked to learn that Secretary Vinyard had not only put the Flagstone waiver on the Cabinet agenda for May 13, but had recommended its approval without mentioning his staff’s opposition. According to a transcript of the meeting, DEP staffers did not make any comments.

DEP spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie refused to answer specific questions about Sawyer’s email and Rubin’s involvement. This was her statement: “Based on the support of Miami’s voters and the city commission, the department brought this issue before the Florida Board of Trustees.”

According city administrators, Flagstone met a June 2 deadline to commence construction when the developer sent a diver to survey coral and other sea life that has to be relocated before dredging for the marina begins.

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