By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
The state’s ethics enforcer looked into a complaint about Broward County Commissioner Lamar Fisher’s personally lucrative land deals with Pompano Beach, where he was a growth-loving mayor, and found nothing wrong.
On Oct. 27, the Florida Commission on Ethics approved a no-probable-cause finding from its advocate, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Miller. She saw no good reason to believe Fisher broke a state law barring politicians from casting votes that enrich themselves.
“I think they’ve given a green light for all politicians to do whatever they want with taxpayer dollars, to take advantage in any way possible, and then they’re off the hook,” former Pompano Beach Mayor Kay McGinn said.
McGinn had tried in vain to interest the Broward Office of the Inspector General in Fisher’s possible conflict of interest after it was revealed by the New Pelican newspaper.
No one denies that Fisher, a real estate auctioneer, raked in $565,000 from property sales to the urban renewal authority he once led, the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The deals closed on March 30, 2020, after Fisher joined the county commission.
COMMISSION’S 1 PERCENT SOLUTION
Still, he prevailed with the ethics board due to a loophole of its own creation: If a politician’s stake in a project is less than 1 percent of the total acreage, they get a pass.
The project in question is called the East Transit Oriented Corridor (ETOC). It is a plan for large-scale commercial, residential and public transit development around the Atlantic Boulevard-Federal Highway business hub.
The city debated the plan for years on Fisher’s watch as mayor, which began in March 2007, and approved it in April 2017. Fisher won his county commission seat in November 2018.
In the ethics investigation, advocate Miller found that Fisher’s properties accounted for “much less than” 1 percent of the 279 acres in the newly mapped-out ETOC. Therefore the 1 percent exemption applies.
Rita Lipof, a whistleblower who filed the ethics complaint against Fisher based on a Florida Bulldog story, was disappointed and incensed at the outcome.
ACTIVIST: BUCKS STOPPED WITH MAYOR
“Everything they say is gobbledygook,” said Lipof, a former county library supervisor who lives in Hollywood. “It’s absurd. I know many developments are contingent on pieces of property that are less than 1 percent” of the whole.
“Fisher was mayor. He had absolute influence over the development of all of these plans and he made a substantial amount of money selling property to the city,” she said. “Once again a politician is able to use his position for great personal profit and not be subject to any penalty, unless someone decides to challenge him in the next election.”
Lamar Fisher, a Democrat who is running for re-election in 2022, went public with Lipof’s complaint at an Oct. 5 Broward County Commission meeting. He said he expected the ethics commission to dismiss it later that month.
“The complaint was based solely on an inaccurate online story,” Fisher said, referring to the Florida Bulldog article. He didn’t elaborate.
“I am shocked … a story on the internet might not be completely accurate,” Broward County Mayor Steve Geller said sarcastically before returning to the agenda.
Fisher did not respond to emailed questions from Florida Bulldog.
MORE GOOD NEWS FOR LAMAR FISHER
The ethics report brought him only good news. The commission has a statutory five-year time limitation, so it disregarded Fisher’s ETOC land buys prior to Aug. 10, 2015, five years to the day before Lipof filed her complaint.
That left three vacant lots Lamar Fisher and his partner Tom DiGiorgio Jr. bought in October 2018. Fisher and DiGiorgio had been partners in LBF Properties LLC since January 2014.
Later that year the city commission named DiGiorgio Pompano Citizen of the Year. “He is a true model citizen, never asking anything in return,” Fisher was quoted as saying at the time.
Fisher gave the ethics investigator several reasons why the commission shouldn’t hold him accountable for the October 2018 purchase.
First, he wasn’t the record owner of the vacant lots – DiGiorgio was. Also, any votes involving the ETOC that Fisher cast relative to this parcel occurred before the purchase. And finally, there was no way to know for sure if Fisher’s ETOC investments would ever pay off.
CITY ATTORNEY’S GO-AHEAD
The supposedly unpredictable nature of real estate investing came up in a favorable ethics opinion Lamar Fisher obtained with a call to Pompano Beach City Attorney Mark Berman.
He said “it would be speculative to assume” Lamar Fisher’s ETOC property will appreciate, according to the ethics report. So Berman gave Fisher the go-ahead to vote on ETOC matters.
That opinion surprised Tom Drum, a politically active Pompano resident who recalled how commissioners talked up the ETOC before it was approved. “They did community outreach,” he said. “They went door to door saying all of your property values will go up.”
At a Feb. 18, 2020 CRA board meeting DiGiorgio, chair of the Pompano Beach Economic Development Council, sounded upbeat about the ETOC’s future.
DiGiorgio suggested his investor group would accept much less for its ETOC properties than they’d eventually be worth. The partners agreed to the CRA’s offer of current fair market value “because we are concerned about this community,” he said.
PROJECT’S MOVING, NOT PARK
“They’re in it for the city,” Commissioner Rhonda Eaton said. She called the transaction “a gift” and the CRA agreed to pay DiGiorgio’s group more than $1.6 million. The CRA is the city commission acting under another name.
Today, specific plans for the ETOC district are starting to jell and financing is falling into place.
In December the Pompano Beach Planning & Zoning Board approved Pompano Station, a $102 million housing, plaza and commercial development that will include the Bank of America and Chase buildings on Atlantic Boulevard. The CRA is giving Grover Corlew, the investor group that owns the bank buildings, $9.1 million in tax increment financing.
A fight to save nearby McNab Park seems to have wound down. Drum and other residents had lobbied to preserve the park with its McNab House, both named for a pioneering Pompano family.
He regrets that the popular park has fallen into disrepair and that plans for turning it into a wedding venue and botanical garden are impractical. City leaders care far more about private business development, according to Drum.
“It just seems like no matter what, this area is run by the people that were born and raised here and they just run everything,” he said. “No matter what the citizens want, they just do what they want in Pompano Beach.”