By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org
The Broward County Inspector General’s Office has launched another inquiry into Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, three years after finding the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.
The first probe led to reform and a grand theft charge against the director of a local cultural program for misspending CRA grant money. What triggered the new probe, however, isn’t known.
“I cannot comment,” said Inspector General John W. Scott, who leads the independent watchdog agency that investigates allegations of fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement at the county and Broward’s 31 municipalities. He’s asked the city and the CRA to submit the requested information by July 1.
A key focus of the inquiry, however, is the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program seeks to encourage private development and city-funded projects to recruit, train and hire city residents and local vendors.
Tuesday’s letter to the city from the Inspector General’s Office requested a variety of CRA documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. They include: all voting conflict memos submitted by city commissioners, who also serve for directors of the CRA; the minutes of all city commission and CRA meetings; a list of all bid solicitations with a Community Benefit Program component as well as documentation from vendors identifying specific partners to be engaged in the program.
In addition, Inspector General Scott’s office requested documents related to two groups that received grants from the city and the CRA: the Palms Community Action Coalition and the South Florida Educational Development Center.
The latest inquiry set off another disagreement among city officials.
“While the CBP has good intentions,’’ said City Commissioner Keith London, “it is my belief the program has been hijacked and abused by insiders who have used their power and influence to steer contracts and jobs to unqualified persons and companies for no other reason than their political connections.”
London said residents should “review the voting record of each commissioner who has blindly supported the CBP policy, every CBP expenditure and bid sheet awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to firms whose major qualification was their connection to city hall.”
But Mayor Joy Cooper, who has differed bitterly with London in the past, played down the significance of the IG’s records request.
“We have been in compliance”
Cooper cited the city’s Hallandale Opportunity Program that monitors grants and contracts. She said the program’s monthly reports have indicated compliance with city provisions, including by the Community Benefit Program. “We have tightened up” controls over grants and contracts, Cooper said. “We have been in compliance.”
City Manager Daniel Rosemond added the same internal group has monitored city funds going to South Florida Educational Development Center and there have been “no performance issues.”
Rosemond likewise sought to downplay the significance of the Inspector General’s inquiry, observing that he merely asked for some records.
“This is not an investigation,” Rosemond said in an interview, adding “I don’t believe there is anything substantive” to the inquiry, but rather that the IG has received some information and “has a fiduciary responsibility to look at it.”
In an email to commissioners, Rosemond said, “The nature of the [IG] request appears to center around the city’s Community Benefit Program, its administration and recipients.”
Palms Community Action Coalition members could not be reached; South Florida Educational Development Center members did not return calls for comment.
Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) is a group attempting to prevent and reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity. The coalition came under scrutiny during the Broward Inspector General’s previous probe – although there was no finding of wrongdoing. Under a three-year agreement with the city, PCAC has received a total of $306,000.
According to state documents, the South Florida Educational Development Center, established six years ago, is a non-profit group that provides educational job training for youth and adults in underserved areas. It received $45,000 last year and again this year, and will receive the same amount next year under a three-year agreement ending Sept. 30, 2017.
City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said she and Commissioner London have questioned the effectiveness of the Community Benefits Program. In some instances, she said, city funds appeared to be going to only a few groups. There is also concern that some firms receiving city contracts may be having trouble fulfilling promised job slots because there are not enough qualified workers in the city.
A city ‘investigated twice’
“I wonder how many other Broward County cities have been investigated twice,” said Lazarow.
Commissioner Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Bill Julian said he could not comment because he hadn’t seen the IG’s letter.
In March 2013, after a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the Hallandale Beach CRA between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.
The city, the report stated, improperly spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries. The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former City Managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report said.
The Hallandale Beach CRA, like other similar agencies in other municipalities, was established under a state law that allows the agency to raise and spend a large portion of increased property tax dollars collected within the CRA’s boundaries on projects aimed at eliminating slum and blight. Nearly 50 percent of those funds come from Broward County, which approved establishment of the agency.
While city officials contended that all expenditures were permissible under state law, the Broward IG cited in its report a 2010 opinion by Florida’s Attorney General that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital projects.
At the conclusion of the last investigation, Hallandale Beach officials denied wrongdoing and challenged the authority of the Inspector General to oversee the city’s CRA.
Nevertheless, the city ultimately made changes as a result of the probe that included updating its CRA development plans and adopting procedures for awarding grants. The city also announced plans to repay the CRA for funds used for parks outside the CRA boundaries.
The IG’s finding also led Broward prosecutors to charge Palm Center for the Arts (PCA) director Deborah Brown with grand theft in May 2014. The IG reported finding probable cause to believe that Brown spent nearly $5,000 in CRA funds on herself and her family. The funds were designated by the city in 2010 to send children on a trip to Washington, D.C.
The criminal case remains pending in Broward Circuit Court, with the next hearing set for Sept. 22.