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.

 

 

Miami-Dade judge sent Shelborne Hotel case to judge with similar conflict

By Francisco Alvarado, Florida Bulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The Miami-Dade Circuit judge who chose to quit presiding over the high-profile Shelborne Hotel case due to an apparent conflict of interest, funneled the case directly to a second judge with a similar conflict in a way that avoided the case being randomly reassigned.

Typically, judges recuse themselves from cases in which they have a disqualifying conflict or the appearance of a conflict. But in the Shelborne case, Judge Jennifer Bailey chose another path after disclosing that she briefly had attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which prominent Miami Beach developer Russell Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property partially owned by one of his companies. Two other of Galbut’s companies were defendants in the Shelborne case.

“If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case,” Bailey said in open court during a Dec. 14 hearing.

But five days later, using her authority as administrative judge of the civil division, Bailey transferred the case to her associate administrative judge, Beatrice Butchko, who also actively campaigned in 2014 to convince voters to approve a bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse to replace downtown’s landmark courthouse built in 1928. The referendum did not pass.

Within weeks, Butchko tossed out the entire case that Bailey had set for trial in early January.

“Cases are randomly reassigned upon recusal,” said court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler. “This was not a recusal. This was a transfer.”  Transfers fall under the jurisdiction of the administrative judge, per 11th Judicial Circuit administrative orders adopted in 1979 and 2016.

For more than two years, Bailey had presided over the lawsuit filed by 40 investors who purchased rooms at the historic art deco Shelborne South Beach against the property’s condo association, condo board members, and companies tied to developer Galbut. The plaintiffs, who sued in 2012, alleged the condo association illegally assessed them $30 million in unnecessary repairs and renovations at the Shelborne, damaged their rooms and have tried to force them into foreclosure so the Galbut entities can acquire their units at a huge discount.

Butchko, however, made quick work of the investors’ case after she took over. She dismissed key parts in early January, days before jury selection was to begin.  She tossed the rest the following week. She did so while brushing aside a plaintiffs’ request that she recuse herself from the case and for a change of venue.

‘Dirty work’

“Obviously we were going to ask Bailey to remove herself once we found out about her involvement with Galbut,” Gia Hutt, one of the 40 investors, told Florida Bulldog. “But before any of that happened, she handed off the dirty work to Butchko, who destroyed our case.”

Hutt said the investors’ plan an appeal, but none was filed as of Tuesday.

Miami-Dade court spokeswoman Sigler said Bailey and Butchko would not comment on their rulings. She explained, however, that Bailey assigned the case to Butchko, who are both in the complex business litigation section, because Butchko was the only judge available to handle what was expected to be a 7-week trial for the Shelborne case that was set to start Jan. 9.

“The parties expressed their satisfaction with the transfer at the time, in the interest of keeping their specially-set trial date,” Sigler added.

But the case never got to jury selection. On Jan. 20, Butchko issued a summary judgment in favor of the Shelborne Beach Hotel Condominium Association and its board, as well as Shelborne Property Associates and Shelborne Operating Associates, two companies partially owned by Galbut. Butchko ruled that the plaintiffs had not presented any material facts disputing the defendants’ assertions that the repairs were necessary to address life safety issues.

Alice K. Sum, an attorney at the Fowler White Burnett law firm who represented the condo association, refuted Hutt’s claims that Bailey and Butchko were both compromised because of their public advocacy for a new courthouse and Galbut’s offer to build one.

“On the first day we appeared before Butchko, she said she didn’t know who Russell Galbut is and that her involvement in anything related to a new courthouse dated back to the prior initiative that was voted down in 2014,” Sum explained. “There’s no doubt lawyers and judges would like a new courthouse. But to imply no judge can be impartial because of that is to taint public servants unnecessarily.”

Kevin Malek, lead attorney for Hutt and the other 39 investors, declined comment.

Motions denied

Hutt, however, said that before Bailey disclosed her meeting with Galbut and transferred the case to Butchko, she had denied motions by the defendants to dismiss 8 of the 12 counts in their lawsuit, including civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing. According to a Dec. 29 motion filed by the defendants, Bailey’s rulings were contrary to state law that required her to disclose her conflict before making a decision.

On Jan. 6, 19 days after she took over the case, Butchko granted the defendants’ request to reverse Bailey’s denials and dismissed the eight counts, according to court documents. By doing so, Hutt contends, Butchko crippled their case.

“You have a judge who is on the case for less than a [month] and throws out most of our lawsuit,” she said. “She took our rights away to go before a jury.”

Condo association attorney Sum said Butchko had sufficient time to process evidence presented by the defense that the repairs and renovations were not only necessary, but mandated by the City of Miami Beach. She claimed the plaintiffs’ counsel offered nothing to refute that.

“Judge Butchko explained she has been brought in again and again to take over cases,” Sum said. “So she had a lot of experience getting up to speed on cases dumped on her last minute. Butchko is well regarded among her peers and lawyers as a hard worker.”

Lenny Walder, another the 40 investors, doesn’t buy it.

“The same element of ‘eureka’ and awareness Bailey had on the new courthouse issue should have applied to Butchko, since she too is a courthouse advocate,” Walder said. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Butchko should have recused herself.”

A curious search for justice amid Miami-Dade judges’ desire for new civil courthouse

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Circuit judges Beatrice Butchko, left, and Jennifer Bailey

The effort to build a new civil court building to replace the historic, but crumbling, Dade County Courthouse in downtown Miami recently took a bizarre turn that prompted a local judge to remove herself from a high-profile case involving prominent developer Russell Galbut and another local landmark, the Shelborne Hotel in Miami Beach.

Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey took herself off the case on Dec. 19 after disclosing she briefly attended a meeting with Chief Judge Bertila Soto at which Galbut presented preliminary plans to build a new civil courthouse on nearby property that’s partially owned by one of his companies.

Bailey transferred the case to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko, who like Bailey had actively campaigned to convince voters to approve a 2014 bond referendum to pay for a new $350 million courthouse.

Butchko quickly dismissed eight of 12 counts against the Shelborne Ocean Beach Hotel Condominium Association and five companies owned by Galbut, his brother Abraham and other relatives. The counts alleged civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and other wrongdoing.

“This is so shocking, you can’t believe it’s happening,” said David Kraus, a plaintiff in the Shelborne case.

Miami attorney Kevin Malek represents four-dozen Shelborne Hotel room owners who claim that Galbut’s companies and the condo association illegally tried to force them out. Malek told Florida Bulldog that his clients would appeal Butchko’s rulings, which he said severely weakened their case a week before the beginning of the Jan. 9 trial period. The trial on the remaining counts had not begun as of Thursday.

“This case is not over,” Malek said. “We will be back.”

A fair shake?

His clients, however, have little faith that they will get a fair shake as long as the case remains in Miami-Dade. Several of the unit owners, including Kraus, told Florida Bulldog they don’t believe any Miami-Dade judge can rule impartially on their case while Galbut is talking about building them a new home.

“Pretty much every judge wants a new courthouse,” said plaintiff Mark Shemel.

The Shelborne was converted into a condo hotel about a decade ago, allowing individual investors to buy rooms that are rented to tourists. In 2012, 40 of those investors sued alleging that the five Galbut entities – three of which own units in the hotel and two others that run the hotel’s operations – and the condo association broke Florida law by authorizing nearly $30 million in illegal assessments, or roughly $107,142 per room, for renovations at the Shelborne.

In court documents, the unit owners accuse Galbut of stacking the association’s board with flunkies and trying to force them out by foreclosing on their rooms because they refuse to pay the assessments. They also allege their rooms were demolished without their consent during the renovations, resulting in the City of Miami Beach revoking their certificates of occupancy until they fixed their units.

Their lawyer, Malek, sought unsuccessfully last week to remove Butchko from the case due to her advocacy for the 2014 bond referendum. She declined to recuse, while also rejecting a motion that sought to move the case outside of Miami-Dade County.

Nevertheless, Judge Butchko’s dismissal of the eight counts against the Galbut entities and the condo association was a jolt to plaintiffs in the long-running case.

“This lawsuit has been going on for years and Butchko dismissed our entire case within days,” said Kraus, who owns two rooms at the Shelborne. “How could she have reviewed so much evidence in such a short amount of time?”

Judges Bailey and Butchko declined comment through court spokeswoman Eunice Sigler, who said state law bars judges from publicly commenting on their rulings. Still, Sigler said Butchko had not been influenced by Galbut’s interest in developing a new courthouse.

“Judges rule based on the facts presented and applicable law,” Sigler said. “And their rulings can always be appealed to a higher court.”

‘A far-fetched theory’

Ron Lowy, Galbut’s personal attorney, said the 40 Shelborne owners are pursuing a “far-fetched” theory as to why Butchko dismissed the eight counts.

“I don’t believe any judge in Miami-Dade is going to give up their view of justice and doing what’s right simply because [Galbut] may in the future submit a formal proposal which may result in the construction of a new courthouse,” Lowy said. “The plaintiffs were simply unable to prove their case.”

Both Lowy and Sigler also noted that Miami-Dade County government, not the 11th judicial circuit, is the actual owner of the current courthouse and it is that body which would negotiate with Galbut for any deal for a new building.

Still, it was Bailey’s concern about a perception of possible impropriety and conflict of interest that caused her to remove herself from the Shelborne case, according to a transcript of the Dec. 14 hearing.

Bailey explained that two weeks before the court hearing, she was invited “out of the blue” to participate in a meeting with Galbut and Chief Judge Soto because she is the only local judge who is familiar with national courthouse standards and guidelines.

Three years ago, Soto, Bailey and Butchko were among a group of judges and high profile lawyers who led a public awareness campaign to tell voters that the downtown courthouse, built in 1926, had fallen into a state of disrepair and was no longer safe for the people who work there. Their goal: to convince Miami-Dade voters to approve a bond referendum to pay the nearly $400 million cost to build a new courthouse, plus repair the existing building, which was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Voters, however, rejected the referendum.

“I was very involved in public appearances with all that,” Bailey said during the Dec. 14 hearing. “Suffice it to say I am very involved in the campaign to get a new courthouse for my judges and the people I work with.”

Bailey relayed that when she showed up for the meeting with Soto, Galbut was also there. She said the plans Gabut presented were very preliminary and that she did not believe his proposal would go anywhere. However, she soon realized that his plan is gaining steam and that she needed to address it with the lawyers involved in the Shelborne litigation.

A judicial ‘epiphany’

“I had the epiphany that it might be a potential issue in this case,” Bailey said according to the transcript. “If I am a plaintiff and I read in the newspaper in a month that Russell Galbut is going to build a new courthouse, I might not be incredibly comfortable with Judge Bailey hearing my case.”

Five days later, Bailey transferred the case to Butchko. However, the plaintiffs’ don’t believe they got a fair shot in court.

“I don’t think there is a conspiracy between Galbut and Butchko,” said owner Mark Shemel said. “But she is very sympathetic about getting a new courthouse. So it’s certainly possible she is sympathetic to the defendants.”

Shemel noted that Galbut has been involved in new courthouse talks for quite some time. He cited statements made by Greenberg Traurig attorney Ron Rosengarten, who represents two of the Galbut entities.

In a Jan. 3 motion, Rosengarten admitted that Galbut has been communicating with Soto, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office, Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin, members of the Dade Heritage Trust and retired judge Scott Silverman for more than a year about getting involved in a possible deal to develop an “expanded courthouse project.”

Silverman, who declined comment, was the court appointed mediator in the Shelborne case. Galbut’s lawyer, Lowy, said his client only met once with Silverman and that the encounter took place after the mediation had ended with an impasse.

“That bothers me,” said plaintiff Shemel. “Silverman made the plaintiffs feel doomed. The whole thing stinks.”

New whistleblowers sue Plaza Health Network saying insiders milked nursing home chain

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Plaza Health Network's headquarters at 1800 NE 168th St., North Miami Beach.

Plaza Health Network’s headquarters at 1800 NE 168th St., North Miami Beach.

For the second time in four years, Miami Beach builder Russell Galbut and a nursing-home chain his family cofounded have been accused of illegal misconduct by a whistleblowing former executive.

This time the accuser is William Zubkoff, ex-CEO of Aventura-based Plaza Health Network. Zubkoff was a defendant in a 2012 whistleblower complaint against the non-profit company. Joyce Galbut, Zubkoff’s wife and Plaza’s former chief nursing officer, is also suing Russell Galbut and the non-profit.

In separate complaints filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the couple accuse Galbut, Plaza and it’s current board chairman, attorney Ronald Lowy, of milking non-profit Plaza Health to benefit themselves at the expense of the their elderly residents.

“Russell Galbut has paid himself, his relatives and…(certain) employees and consultants well over $100M,” says Zubkoff’s suit. “During that same time period, not-for-profit facilities have been closed, nurses and other employees have been fired, staffing ratios have been reduced, and appropriate pay raises for nurses and other employees have not been implemented.”

Similarly, Joyce Galbut’s complaint accuses Galbut and Lowy of “improperly and illegally” diverting funds from Plaza Health while presiding over “dramatic cuts affecting the quality of nursing care and using not for profit finances for private interests.”

Zubkoff and Joyce Galbut claim they fought to put a stop to the abuses and even notified federal authorities about what was happening. They also say they rejected Galbut and Lowy’s offers of “multi-year, 6-figure consulting agreements” in exchange for their silence. Both said they were fired within weeks of rejecting those offers.

The twin lawsuits seek damages for lost wages and emotional distress suffered after because of prohibited retaliation under Florida’s Private Sector Whistleblower’s Act.

Russell Galbut

Russell Galbut

Responding for Russell Galbut and himself, Lowy said Zubkoff and his wife are making a last-ditch effort for monetary gain by filing frivolous lawsuits. “We will fight this abuse of the judicial process in the most vigorous way possible,” Lowy said in an email to FloridaBulldog. “We will do everything in our power, including filing counterclaims if necessary, to put a stop to this.”

Jon Herskowitz, an attorney for Zubkoff and Joyce Galbut, whose ex-husband is Russell Galbut’s cousin, said his clients have the evidence to back up their accusations. “They would not be coming forward with these allegations if there was not significant proof over the years of what we consider not only improper illegal actions but various objections and complaints raised by Joyce Galbut and William Zubkoff,” Herskowitz said.

Plaza Health was founded 66 years ago as Hebrew Homes for the Aged, a convalescent home for Jewish people and war veterans. Today, the network operates seven nursing homes in Miami-Dade and counts former state Rep. Elaine Bloom as its president and CEO.

Galbut family founded Plaza Health

Members of the Galbut family have been involved with Plaza since its inception in 1950. Russell Galbut, a power broker in Miami Beach whose building portfolio includes the Alexander Hotel, the Castle Beach Club, 100 Lincoln Road, and the Shelbourne Hotel, joined Plaza’s board of directors in 1995. A year later, he was named chairman, a post he held until 2014.

Plaza’s board, at the time led by Galbut, hired Joyce Galbut in 2005 and Zubkoff in 2008, according to their lawsuits.

Last June, Plaza agreed to pay the U.S. government $17 million to settle allegations made in a 2012 federal lawsuit by the non-profit’s ex-Chief Financial Officer Stephen Beaujon. The complaint was also against Zubkoff. Using Beaujon’s claims, the Department of Justice found that Plaza had violated the False Claims Act by improperly paying doctors for referrals of Medicare patients requiring skilled nursing care.

“From 2006 through 2013, [Plaza] allegedly operated a sophisticated kickback scheme in which they hired numerous physicians ostensibly as medical directors pursuant to contracts that specified numerous job duties and hourly requirements,” according to a June 16, 2015 federal press release. “The United States alleged that in reality these were ghost positions, and that most of the medical directors were required to perform few, if any, of their contracted job duties.”

In his March 8 lawsuit, Zubkoff alleged that was essentially Galbut’s flunky during his tenure, and that the developer “completely controlled” both the board and Plaza Health’s management for more than two decades. Galbut used that control to pick his relatives and friendly employees and consultants from his other companies to sit on the non-profit’s board, the complaint alleges.

Three of Plaza’s five current directors have ties to Galbut: Lowy has represented the developer on some transactions, Joan Brent is his cousin, and Ben Rozsansky, is a former vice president of Galbut’s real estate firm, Crescent Heights.

“These decisions have always been made in the best personal financial interest of Russell Galbut,” Zubkoff’s complaint states. “Mr. Zubkoff states that he objected to and attempted to stop the illegal personal for-profit actions.”

For instance, Zubkoff claims, Galbut and his slate on the board forced the shutting of a 104-bed Miami Beach nursing home at 320 Collins Ave. in 2013 and then sold the property for $13.6 million to a New York developer a year later. In February of last year, FloridaBulldog.org reported how the board had initially agreed to sell the site to a private partnership that included Galbut, but that his partnership had submitted a lower offer than the top bidder, JMH Development.

When JMH threatened to sue Plaza, the board reversed course and sold the property to the Brooklyn-based company. Company documents obtained by a reporter and confirmed by Lowy say Plaza paid back a $2.5-million unsecured mortgage that Galbut had provided the non-profit. An additional $1 million was used to pay for a security deposit on another nursing home facility at 42 Collins Ave. that Plaza rents from Crescent.

Lowy told FloridaBulldog.org that Zubkoff is making false and outrageous statements. “Mr. Galbut always acted as a volunteer member of the Board and left the management of the Plaza Health Network to William Zubkoff and his management team,” Lowy said. “All of the Plaza records and emails reviewed by the U.S. Government in their 2014 and 2015 investigation support the conclusion that William Zubkoff was the decision maker and person whom all employees went to for authorization and decisions.”

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