By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
New Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Crichton has hired an independent auditor to review the controversial $1.1 million purchase last year of property from a charter school company run by former Broward County Congressman Peter Deutsch.
Crichton retained former longtime West Palm Beach internal auditor Imogene Isaacs to determine how the purchase was approved and who actually bought the property – the city or its Community Redevelopment Agency.
“It is paramount to me as an administrator to always strive for integrity and transparency in my operations,” Crichton told city commissioners in an Aug. 31 memo. “The time involved in doing a proper inquiry may be extensive.”
The city’s attempt to sort things out regarding the 1.9-acre parcel at 416 NE Eighth Avenue comes amid a broader investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office into allegations of mismanagement and possible corruption involving questionable city loans and CRA land deals.
The property was purchased in July 2011 from Deutsch’s Hallandale School LLC, which had planned to open a Ben Gamla Charter School there. Deutsch, a Democrat who served in Congress from 1993 to 2005, pushed hard for city support, but the plan wilted in the face of stiff neighborhood opposition.
Still, Deutsch’s group, which owned the property for just three years, netted a $600,000 profit on the sale to the city.
In her memo, Crichton said City Commissioner Keith London raised questions about the acquisition at last month’s meeting of the CRA’s board of directors. The directors are the five members of the city commission.
Commissioners, sitting as CRA board members, authorized acquisition of the “Ben Gamla” property with CRA funds.
But that’s not what happened.
Former City Manager Mark Antonio’s administration instead used city funds – not CRA dollars – to buy the land, and then titled it in the city’s name, not the CRA.
“No official action was taken by the city commission” to acquire the property using city funds, Crichton said in an interview.
In her memo, Crichton said Isaacs’s job will be to “review the circumstances surrounding the approval process and use of funds associated with the purchase of the Ben Gamla School property; to issue a report on the findings, including recommendations on how to improve the process.”
Several months ago, BrowardBulldog.org reported that all 59 properties purchased with CRA money in recent years are in the name of the city – not the CRA. The CRA has been seeking to re-title 43 of the properties in its name, with 16 others remaining in the name of the city.
PLAYING GAMES WITH MILLIONS?
London, who is running for mayor against incumbent Joy Cooper, said he was “disgusted and disappointed” that city officials “would play games with millions of dollars in funds.”
The money that actually paid for the Ben Gamla property was leftover dollars that developers put up to help pay for traffic, sewer and park improvements. “The money has been sitting there for years,” London said.
Commissioners had expected the funds to come from the CRA, and what happened was not authorized, according to London.
“This is sleight of hand with our money,” he said. “I’m looking forward to…the auditor’s report on who is responsible,” London said.
OLD PRO CALLED UPON
City Manager Crichton turned to a veteran auditor to get to the bottom of what happened.
Isaacs has 37 years of internal audit experience, which includes 25 years of work for West Beach Beach and Lakeland. She also worked in the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 12 years.
Earlier this year, Isaacs resigned as West Palm Beach’s first internal auditor after a dispute with City Commissioner Keith James who had instructed her not to meet with “any person from outside the city” without permission, according to a story in the Palm Beach Post.
In stepping down, Isaacs, 71, said she saw “some attempts at controlling the independence of the internal auditor,” according to the Post story.
In 2007, she wrote a critical audit of West Palm’s federally funded program to re-roof low-income housing after recent hurricanes, according to another Post story. Eventually, according to the Post, the city had to pay back the federal government $1.67 million.
Crichton said Isaacs will be paid $50 an hour. She expects the total cost of the audit to be as much as $3,000.