The Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is wading into Hallandale Beach’s questionable spending of local redevelopment funds, demanding that city officials explain the use and handling of those funds.
Legislators who head the committee also are urging the city commission to ask Florida’s Attorney General for a new opinion to clarify how Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds can be spent. City leaders have challenged a previous opinion.
In a separate but related development, the Broward State Attorney’s Office issued subpoenas last week to Hallandale Beach officials -including Mayor Joy Cooper -in connection with a criminal investigation into the alleged misuse of city funds by a nonprofit group, the Palm Center for the Arts.
BrowardBulldog.org obtained one subpoena served on the city clerk asking her to produce the transcribed minutes and tape recordings of a March 17, 2010 commission meeting, a copy of a $5,000 check issued by the city to the Palm Center and any correspondence between the nonprofit group “and/or founder Dr. Deborah Brown” regarding that check.
City Clerk Sheena James is to appear at the State Attorney’s Office with the records and to testify on June 24 at 9 a.m. The subpoena is signed by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.
A YEARLONG INVESTIGATION
The subpoena and the audit committee’s inquiry stem from a yearlong investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.
The CRA is funding by a portion of the property taxes collected within its boundaries.
Inspector General John Scott’s office said it found “probable cause” that Brown, the Palm Center’s founder and director, had engaged in criminal misconduct and asked the State Attorney’s Office to investigate.
Hallandale Beach officials have denied any misspending of CRA funds and defended how those funds were handled. They have also challenged many of the Inspector General’s findings, including criticism that the city wrongfully funded nonprofit groups, paid for fireworks displays and provided loans to businesses.
A delegation of city officials, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, went to County Hall last week in the wake of talk about a possible county audit of CRA tax funds it had sent to the city to inform Broward commissioners they don’t have the authority to do that.
County officials acknowledged that only the state has the authority to review CRA actions.
The Legislature now appears interested.
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat who is chair of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, and Rep. Lake Ray, a Duval County Republican who is the vice chair, began asking questions on Thursday after being contacted by “a concerned citizen.”
Abruzzo and Ray sent a certified letter to Mayor Cooper. Copies were sent to Florida Auditor General David Martin, Broward’s commissioners, county Inspector General John Scott and City Manager Renee C. Miller.
Citing the report by Scott’s office, the legislators asked Cooper to respond to accusations that Hallandale had improperly co-mingled city and CRA funds and justify more than $2.2 million in questionable spending.
Abruzzo and Ray’s letter says that if the city fails to provide “specific authority” under state law, or if the expenditures were not included in the city’s CRA plan, Hallandale may have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.
The legislators also suggested that city commissioners, who also sit as the CRA’s board of directors, seek a new Attorney General’s opinion regarding what constitutes allowable expenditures.
Abtruzzo and Ray also want to know if the city is complying with recommendations by Broward’s Inspector General, including whether the city has established policies to comply with state law and ensure the CRA operates independently.
Cooper said she has informed the committee that lawyers for the city and the CRA will respond to their questions. “I reaffirmed my position and that of our attorneys that expenditures by the CRA are within the authority of the statute to address slum blight, crime and economic development,” she said.
County agents have asked the city to provide a status report on their recommendations by July 16.
THE MAYOR’S SUBPOENA
Cooper said prosecutors subpoenaed her as a witness in their criminal case.
“I cannot comment any further on the matter. I was asked to go in as a witness on the 25th, but have asked to come in earlier due t o my schedule,” the mayor said.
Prosecutors’ investigation of The Palm Center for the Arts follows the Inspector General’s allegations that nearly $5,000 in city funds were used to make a payment on Brown’s timeshare at the Westgate Resort in Orlando and to make payroll payments to herself and her brother and for miscellaneous personal expenses.
City Commissioner Bill Julian said in an interview that the city clerk’s office informed him a subpoena had arrived for him, too. He had not seen the subpoena, but was told it requires him to appear at Zimet’s office on June 25th.
Julian believes that many of the same city officials who previously were questioned by the Inspector General’s Office were issued subpoenas. “I’ll go there and answer questions,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.”
Commissioners Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Likewise, Brown could not be reached. Commissioner Alexander Lewy said he did not receive a subpoena.
PALM CENTER PAYMENTS
Palm Center received at least $107,000 in CRA funds over a three-year period. Brown was also listed as a principal and director of Zamar School of Performing Arts. About three years ago, Zamar received $25,000 in CRA funds.
Both programs operate on city property at 501 NW First Ave. The city leased the property to Palm Center in 2009 for a one-time payment of $10. While Palm Center was prohibited from subletting the facility, the city later modified the agreement to permit Zamar to operate a summer camp there in 2009.
The city property was once owned by a group headed by Commissioner Sanders. The Inspector General’s Office probe involved a review of the city’s purchase of the property from Sanders’ nonprofit Higher Vision Ministries.
Higher Vision bought the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city eight years later for $235,000. Sanders, appointed to fill a commission vacancy in 2008, did not vote on the purchase.
In between the purchase and the sale, the CRA gave Sanders’ group a $46,000 property improvement loan. Sander’s group was only required by the city to repay $31,000; the rest was forgiven.
In its report, the Inspector General cleared Sanders of an allegation that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit group for the property.