FBI found direct ties between 9/11 hijackers and Saudis living in Florida; Congress kept in dark

By Anthony Summers and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

United Airlines Flight 175 hits the World Trade Center's south tower

Just two weeks before the 9/11 hijackers slammed into the Pentagon and World Trade Center, members of a Saudi family abruptly left their luxury home near Sarasota, leaving a brand new car in the driveway, a refrigerator full of food, fruit on the counter — and an open safe in the master bedroom.

In the weeks to follow, law enforcement agents not only discovered the home was visited by vehicles used by the hijackers, but phone calls were linked between the home and those who carried out the death flights — including leader Mohamed Atta — in discoveries never before revealed to the public.

Ten years after the deadliest attack of terrorism on U.S. soil, new information has emerged that shows the FBI found troubling ties between the hijackers and residents in the upscale community in southwest Florida, but the investigation wasn’t reported to Congress or mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who cochaired the bipartisan congressional Joint Inquiry into the attacks, said he should have been told about the findings, saying it “opens the door to a new chapter of investigation as to the depth of the Saudi role in 9/11. … No information relative to the named people in Sarasota was disclosed.”

The U.S. Justice Department, the lead agency that investigated the attacks, refused to comment, saying it will discuss only information already released.

The Saudi residents then living at the stylish home, Abdulazzi al-Hiijjii and his wife Anoud, could not be reached, nor could the then owner of the house, Esam Ghazzawi, who is Anoud’s father. The house was sold in 2003, records show.

GRAHAM HAS QUESTIONS

For Graham, who served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987, the connections between the hijackers and residents raise questions about whether other Saudi nationals in Florida knew of the impending attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.

The FBI investigation began the month after 9/11 when Larry Berberich, senior administrator and security officer of the gated community known as Prestancia, reported a bizarre event that took place two weeks before the hijackings of four passenger jets that originated in Boston, Newark and Washington.

The couple, living with their small children at the three-bedroom home at 4224 Escondito Circle, had left in a hurry in a white van, probably on Aug. 30.

They abandoned three recently registered vehicles, including a brand-new Chrysler PT Cruiser, in the garage and driveway.

After 9/11, Berberich said he had “a gut feeling” the people at the home may have had something to do with the attacks, prompting the FBI’s probe that would eventually link the hijackers to the house.

As an advisor to the Sarasota County sheriff — Berberich was with the group that received President Bush during his aborted visit to a Sarasota school on the morning of 9/11. He alerted sheriff’s deputies.

Patrick Gallagher, one of the Saudis’ neighbors, had become suspicious even earlier, and had fired off an email to the FBI on the day of the attacks. Gallagher said law enforcement officers arrived and began an investigation, with agents swarming “all over the place, in their blue jackets,” he recalled.

Jone Weist, president of the group that managed Prestancia, confirmed the arrival of the FBI, which requested copies of the Saudis’ financial transactions involving the house.

SIGNS OF A FAST EXIT

Berberich and a senior counterterrorism agent said they were able to get into the abandoned house, ultimately finding “there was mail on the table, dirty diapers in one of the bathrooms … all the toiletries still in place … all their clothes hanging in the closet … TVs … opulent furniture, equal or greater in value than the house … the pool running, with toys in it.”

Inside the home at 4224 Escondito Circle

“The beds were made … fruit on the counter … the refrigerator full of food. … It was like they went grocery shopping. Like they went out to a movie … [But] the safe was open in the master bedroom, with nothing in it, not a paper clip. … A computer was still there. A computer plug in another room, and the line still there. Looked like they’d taken [another] computer and left the cord.”

The counterterrorism officer, who requested his name not be disclosed, said agents went on to make troubling discoveries: Phone records and the Prestancia gate records linked the house on Escondito Circle to the hijackers.

In addition, three of the four future hijackers had lived in Venice — just 10 miles from the house — for much of the year before 9/11.

Atta, the leader, and his companion Marwan al-Shehhi, had been learning to fly small airplanes at Huffman Aviation, a flight school on the edge of the runway at Venice Municipal Airport.

A block away, at Florida Flight Training, accomplice Ziad Jarrah was also taking flying lessons. All three obtained their pilot licenses and afterwards, in the months that led to 9/11, spent much of their time traveling the state, including stints in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach, among other areas.

The counterterrorism agent said records of incoming and outgoing calls made at the Escondito house were obtained from the phone company under subpoena.

Agents were able to conduct a link analysis, a system of tracking calls based on dates, times and length of conversations — finding the Escondito calls dating back more than a year, “lined up with the known suspects.”

The links were not only to Atta and his hijack pilots, the agent said, but to 11 other terrorist suspects, including Walid al-Shehhri, one of the men who flew with Atta on the first plane to strike the World Trade Center.

Another was Adnan Shukrijumah, a former Miramar resident identified as having been with Atta in the spring of 2001. Shukrijumah is still at large and is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

But it was the gate records at the Prestancia development that produced the most telltale information.

People who arrived by car had to give their names and the home’s address they were visiting. Gate staff would sometimes ask to see a driver’s license and note the name, said Berberich.

LICENSE PLATES PHOTOGRAPHED

More importantly, he added, the license plates of cars pulling through the gate were photographed.

Atta is known to have used variations of his name, but the license plate of the car he owned was on record. 

The vehicle and name information on Atta and Jarrah fit that of drivers entering Prestancia on their way to visit the home at 4224 Escondito Circle, said Berberich and the counterterrorism officer.

Sarasota County property records identify the owners of the house at the time as Ghazzawi and his American-born wife Deborah, both with a post office box in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and another address in the capital, Riyadh.

Ghazzawi was described as a middle-aged financier and interior designer, the owner of many properties, including several in the United States, said the counterterrorism agent.

While Ghazzawi visited the house, the people living there were his daughter Anoud and her husband al-Hiijjii, who appeared to be in his 30s and once identified himself as a college student, said Berberich, who met the son-in-law.

The couple’s sudden departure two weeks before 9/11 was tracked in detail by the FBI after the attacks, the counterterrorism agent said.

First, they traveled to a Ghazzawi property in Arlington, Va., then — with Esam Ghazzawi — via Dulles airport and London’s Heathrow, to Riyadh.

The counterterrorism agent said Ghazzawi and al-Hiijjii had been on a watch list at the FBI and that a U.S. agency involved in tracking terrorist funds was interested in both men even before 9/11.

“464 was Ghazzawi’s number,” the officer said. “I don’t remember the other man’s number.”

About a year after the family abandoned the home, the FBI made an attempt to lure the owner back.

Scott McKay, a Sarasota lawyer for the Prestancia homeowners’ association in its claim for unpaid dues on the property, said the FBI tried to get him to bring the Saudis back for the transaction.

“They didn’t say you must do this. It was more like, ‘But we’d really, really like you to make this happen,’” said McKay said.

McKay said he tried to get the Ghazzawis to sign the necessary documents in person, but the ploy failed because the documents could legally be signed elsewhere using a notary. Records show Ghazzawi’s signature was notarized by the vice consul of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon in September 2003. Deborah Ghazzawi’s signature was notarized in Riverside County, Calif.

CONGRESSIONAL INQUIRY KEPT IN DARK

Former Florida U.S. Senator Bob Graham

During an interview on Sunday, Graham said he was surprised he wasn’t told about the probe when he was co-chair of Congress’ Joint Inquiry into 9/11 — even though he was especially alert to terrorist information relating to Florida.

“At the beginning of the investigation,” he said, “each of the intelligence agencies, including the FBI, was asked to provide all information that agency possessed in relation to 9/11.”

The fact that the FBI did not tell the Inquiry about the Florida discoveries, Graham says, is similar to the agency’s failure to provide information linking members of the 9/11 terrorist team to other Saudis in California until congressional investigators discovered it themselves.

The Inquiry did nevertheless accumulate a “very large” file on the hijackers in the United States, and later turned it over to the 9/11 Commission. “They did very little with it,” Graham said, “and their reference to Saudi Arabia is almost cryptic sometimes. … I never got a good answer as to why they did not pursue that.”

The final 28-page section of the Inquiry’s report, which deals with “sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers,” was entirely blanked out. It was kept secret from the public on the orders of former President George W. Bush and is still withheld to this day, Graham said.

This in spite of the fact that Graham and his Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, both concluded the release of the pages would not endanger national security.

The grounds for suppressing the material, Graham believes, were “protection of the Saudis from embarrassment, protection of the administration from political embarrassment … some of the unknowns, some of the secrets of 9/11.”

Anthony Summers is co-author of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, published last month by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. Dan Christensen is the editor of the Broward Bulldog.

‘Police Women’ star wrongly claimed juvenile confessed during BSO crime stats scandal

By Wanda J. DeMarzo and Dan Christensen, Broward Bulldog.org

Detective Julie Bower

Altered police reports and a controversial off-duty employment policy for sheriff’s deputies chase the Police Women of Broward County.

For two seasons, the Broward Sheriff’s Office has thrown its support behind the gritty reality television show which features four deputies on the job while video cameras whir documentary-style to capture their work. With the cooperation of the agency, the women have become television stars working under privately paid media contracts while also carrying out their official duties.

One of those deputies, Detective Julianne “Julie” Bower, was chosen for the role despite her involvement in a departmental scandal in which crime statistics were falsified to make the department and its deputies look good during the administration of former Sheriff Ken Jenne.

Broward Bulldog has obtained BSO Internal Affairs records stating that in May 2004 an internal BSO audit found that two years before Bower had “exceptionally cleared” 10 car burglaries by reporting that an unidentified juvenile suspect had confessed to committing those crimes.

“The audit however revealed that [the youth] was incarcerated in the Broward County Juvenile Detention Center when one of these cases was reported to have occurred and therefore he could not have committed this crime,” the report said.

The internal investigation took nearly three years to resolve. Bower told investigators under oath she’d made a mistake. In 2007, the agency sustained a charge that Bower had failed to meet BSO standards but decided that another charge of untruthfulness was unfounded.

In excess of 10,000 BSO cases were “cleared by exception” between 2001 and 2003. More than 30 detectives were transferred to road patrol as a result of the scandal. Six deputies were prosecuted for falsifying reports or concocting confessions, but no one went to jail.

Bower, who declined comment for this article through an office spokesman, received a one-day loss of pay.

Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said he believes that BSO’s internal affairs case against Bower was presented to the State Attorney’s Office before he became sheriff in October 2007 and that prosecutors “declined to do anything.”

COURTROOM TUSSLE OVER CONTRACTS

Lamberti and BSO have been at odds with the Public Defender’s Office throughout the summer about the “talent” contracts signed by Bower and fellow Police Women Andrea Penoyer, Erika Huerta and Shelunda Cooper with Relativity Real LLC, the California producer of Police Women of Broward County.

The defense lawyers say they need to see the contracts to determine whether there are any hidden conflicts of interest that could taint police testimony against clients arrested on the show. Lamberti says he can’t turn over the contracts because he doesn’t have them, hasn’t seen them and has no idea how much his deputies are being paid.

“We don’t ask them,” Lamberti said. “We just look at what their duties are going to be. What they make – that’s between them.”

A source familiar with the contracts said the deputies are paid $12,000 a year.

Assistant Broward Public Defender Gordon Weekes Jr. has subpoenaed the contracts. Attorneys for the TLC channel’s parent, Discovery Communications, are seeking to quash the subpoena, contending they contain trade secrets. A judge is reviewing the contracts. A hearing is set for Thursday.

Plot lines for the 24 episodes of Police Women aired to date describe a show that is virtually all about busting crack dealers, pill-pushers, prostitutes, johns, drunk drivers and burglars. Scenes have also showed the deputies at home and lying on the beach.

The Police Women – Bower, Penoyer, Cooper and Huerta – each signed BSO forms declaring their “outside employment” on the show would be confined to off-duty hours. That’s the basis for Lamberti’s assertion that his deputies are paid strictly for their off-duty performances, not their on-duty work. He told Broward Bulldog he insisted on that arrangement to keep Broward taxpayers off the hook from having to pay overtime to deputies moonlighting for the show.

Producers and film crew are simply allowed to “tag along” during on-duty shoots, Lamberti said.

But that’s not the contractual relationship that a lawyer for the TLC channel’s parent network, Discovery Communications, described to a judge at a July 25 hearing, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

WHAT THE CONTRACT COVERS

“There is some notion that it only covers on-duty. The contract, to be clear, covers the appearance on the show. And that’s what it covers. It really doesn’t specify,” said a Fort Lauderdale attorney Dana McElroy.

“The show originally was conceived as an off-duty idea. But…it does include footage from when they are on duty. So I just don’t want the court to have a misunderstanding,” McElroy said.

The distinction is important. Police officers are not allowed to accept pay from a second employer for work performed while they are also being paid by their department.

Robert Breeden, Assistant-Special-Agent-In-Charge with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said he was not aware of the situation at BSO. He did, however, say that such payments are “considered theft, plain and simple.”

Nonetheless, the arrangement by which uniformed deputies in BSO patrol cars ferry their private paymasters to film at crime scenes and police traffic stops for profit has blurred the lines between police work and entertainment, between off-duty and on-duty.

“The sheriff is trying to draw this line that doesn’t exist,” said Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, himself a longtime television presence on WSVN-Channel 7’s “Help Me Howard” legal advice segment. “But for the producers of the show being able to go along and video the arrests, would they even care about videoing the private lives of these deputies? It’s a silly distinction that doesn’t pass the giggle test.”

“Why is BSO allowing this show to be on TV? What good is it doing the agency or the residents of the county?’’ asked Nova Southeastern University Law Center Professor Robert M. Jarvis, co-author of Out of the Muck, a history of the Broward Sheriff’s Office published last year.

Lamberti says he supports Police Women, which debuted in August 2009, because it offers a unique take on police life – showing officers not just on the job, but as regular people at home and at leisure with their families.

HUMAN SIDE OF DEPUTIES

“The human side is what attracted me,” Lamberti said. “I didn’t want another COPS.”

Police Women, however, also offers a political benefit for a Republican sheriff facing a tough re-election fight next year in a Democratic stronghold.

Lamberti harnessed his deputies’ star power at recent public appearances before voters and shoppers in stores and supermarkets around the county. Here’s a link to a sheriff’s video about a “Coffee with the Sheriff” in June at the Super Target in Davie.

One of those deputies is Julie Bower, a veteran sex crimes detective who tells her TV fans she goes to church twice a week and loves boating and traveling.

BSO records show that in 2008 Bower was investigated by Internal Affairs for allegedly failing to show good judgment when she conducted a private inquiry into allegations of child-on-child sex involving relatives. The charge was not sustained and the matter closed last year.

Still, the records raise troubling questions about Bower’s conduct. They show she waited a day before calling the Boca Raton Police to report the incident. They document how she conducted her own taped “forensic interviews” with the two juveniles in Boca Raton, outside her jurisdiction in Broward County.

 

Governor refuses to reappoint Broward medical examiner who autopsied Anna Nicole Smith

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday rejected a recommendation that he reappoint Dr. Joshua Perper, Broward’s high-profile medical examiner, to another three-year term.

The move appears to signal the end of Perper’s 17-year tenure as Broward’s Chief Medical Examiner – a post that in 2007 made him a national media celebrity after he conducted the examination and autopsy of the body of model and actress Anna Nicole Smith.

The governor’s decision about Perper was made public in Tampa at a quarterly meeting of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission. In a brief letter received Wednesday morning, Scott asked the commission to come up with additional names for his consideration, according to Chairman Dr. Bruce Hyma, chief medical examiner for Miami-Dade.  At the same time, Scott announced that he had reappointed eight other district medical examiners, Hyma said.

“It was a surprise,” said Hyma. “In May, the commission forwarded Dr. Perper’s name with a favorable recommendation. His was the only name that was sent up….No explanation was given.”

Another Medical Examiner present at the meeting said the announcement landed like “a bombshell.”

Perper, 78, a registered Democrat whose term expired July 1, said today that he was surprised and disappointed to learn of the governor’s decision.

“I don’t see any reasonable explanation. The county administrator and the Broward Medical Commission supported me very strongly,” he said. “Certainly the public would like to know and I would certainly like to know why he made his decision.”

Lane Wright, the governor’s press secretary, said later “Governor Scott wants to have options when choosing who will be the Medical Examiner going forward for Broward County. It’s difficult to have options when only one name has been submitted.”

Broward’s Medical Examiners Office investigates all violent, suspicious, unnatural and unattended deaths and performs toxicology testing for drugs and poisons, according to its website. Its full name is the Office of Medical Examiner and Trauma Services, and its duties include countywide trauma medical care and transportation.

The governor appoints each of the nine members of the Medical Examiners Commission. By law, they must include the attorney general or a designee, Florida’s surgeon general or his designee, two physicians who are also medical examiners, a funeral director, a county commissioner, state attorney, public defender and a sheriff.

Perper, who was born in Romania, was the chief coroner in Pittsburgh, Pa. when he was tapped by Gov. Lawton Chiles to be Chief Medical Examiner in Broward.

Over the years, Perper presided over a number of high-profile cases:

  • 1995. The autopsy of 17-year-old Krissy Taylor, the sister of supermodel Niki Taylor, who died of  an asthma attack after collapsing at the family’s Pembroke Pines home.
  • 2001. The execution-style slaying of Fort Lauderdale businessman Gus Boulis, whose murder figured in a national political corruption investigation surrounding ex-lobbyist “Casino” Jack Abramoff.
  • 2003. The autopsy of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who collapsed during a spring training workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Perper later concluded that while Bechler died of heatstroke, the appetite suppressant ephedra played a significant contributing role in his death, according to The New York Times.

But it was the sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Feb. 8, 2007 that catapulted Perper to celebrity and talking-head status.  Perper considers the Smith case so significant that he continues to post copies of Smith’s autopsy report and medical examiner crime scene reports on the county’s website. No other case is listed.

Perper’s conclusion: Smith died of an accidental overdose of the sedative chloral hydrate and other medications.

Perper rode the publicity wave to a guest seat on a number of national television shows: Larry King Live, Nancy Grace, Anderson Cooper 360. Earlier this year, he was interviewed on True Crime with Aphrodite Jones.

Perper’s reputation suffered a serious blow last year after federal agents determined his office botched the 2009 autopsy of 87-year-old Bernice Novack, widow of Fountainbleau Hotel owner Ben Novack Sr. The initial ruling set the cause of death as a slip-and-fall accident.

Three months later, however, her millionaire son Ben Novack Jr. was brutally beaten to death in a New York hotel room. Authorities eventually arrested  the dead man’s widow, Narcy Novack, and it soon came out that prosecutors believed she also had helped arrange Bernice’s murder. Perper reclassified Bernice’s death as a homicide.

Perper said he does not believe his reversal in the Novack case had anything to do with the governor’s decision.

“The autopsy, that’s something that is in the past. This was something that was done in conjunction with the investigation by the police,” he said. “The manner of death is a matter of circumstances and circumstances change.

Perper, a leader in the campaign to curb prescription drug abuse, suffered an embarrassing personal blow earlier this year when his 49-year-old son , Dr. Zvi Harry Perper, was arrested and charged with racketeering and drug trafficking by federal agents during a series of raids on South Florida pain clinics. The younger Perper pleaded not guilty.

Why the governor chose not to reappoint Perper is not known.

In June, after Scott signed legislation intended to crack down on so-called pill mills, the Sun-Sentinel quoted Perper as praising the governor.

“The state is going in the right direction this time,” he said. “I support the bill very strongly.”

 

Federal government checking whether Hollywood has discriminated against Orthodox Jewish family

By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org

Steven and Renee Kohn

Hollywood is under a federal fair housing investigation after a family of 10 Sephardic Orthodox Jews accused the city of discrimination and harassment.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notified the city last week of the investigation that’s in response to a complaint that the city is illegally using code enforcement against Steven and Renee Kohn.

Among the assertions, the Kohns say they were forced to give away their chickens and dwarf goats this month as a result of discrimination. They argue that other residents in their neighborhood are allowed to have such animals.

The Kohns contend the disagreement over the animals fits into a larger pattern of discrimination against their religious beliefs and culture.

“All I want is to live in my house,” Renee Kohn said. “That’s all I want.”

The Kohns, who have lived in Hollywood’s Emerald Hills neighborhood since September 2008, were born in the United States but are of Middle Eastern descent. While they practice Judaism, their cultural customs are influenced by their Arabic heritage. They speak Arabic and the female family members wear clothing that covers their arms and knees in public, similar to Muslim attire.

The Fair Housing Act, which is jointly enforced by HUD and the Department of Justice, prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability.

In response to the formal complaint, federal law requires HUD to conduct an investigation. HUD could charge the city or dismiss the complaint.

“We will obviously cooperate with the investigation, but we do not believe that we have done anything discriminatory against the Kohn family,” city spokesperson Raelin Storey said.

A CITY WITH A PAST

The Kohns are not the first to accuse the city of religious discrimination.

In 2006, the city agreed to certain reforms to settle a federal lawsuit brought by the Justice Department alleging it had discriminated against the Hollywood Community Synagogue based on its religious denomination, the Chabad Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism. The city had denied the synagogue a zoning permit to operate from single-family homes despite granting such permits to other houses of worship.

The city also agreed to pay the synagogue $2 million in damages and legal costs.

According to the Kohns’ discrimination complaint, “The neighbors undertook a campaign to harass the complainants by repeatedly reporting them to the City of Hollywood Police and Code Enforcement in regards to their pets: eight hens and two 17-inch Dwarf Nigerian goats.”

Next-door neighbor Sandra Einhorn denied the Kohns’ claims and told Broward Bulldog the Kohns are the ones who harass her and her husband. “Everything they accuse me and the city of they are actually doing,” she said. “They have no proof other than what they say.”

Sandra Einhorn has recorded the Kohns’ alleged harassment on video and uploaded it to a YouTube channel.

FAVORITISM ALLEGED

The Kohns say Sandra Einhorn does business with Hollywood and believes she has used her influence at city hall against them. Sandra Einhorn is the executive director of the nonprofit Rebuilding Together Broward County, which revitalizes low-income neighborhoods.

Public records show that last year the city gave Einhorn’s organization $55,000 in exchange for their services in Hollywood. The resolution was signed by Victoria Johnson, director of what was then Hollywood’s Department of Community Development and Code Compliance. (Code Enforcement has since been made part of the Police Department.)

Einhorn denied using her relationship with the city against the Kohns.

“The only alliance the city has with me is of me being a good citizen,” she said. “All we want is for the rules to be enforced fairly.”

CODE CITATIONS

Records show Code Enforcement has cited the Kohns twice because their animals violated city law.  The ordinance prohibits “the keeping of poultry, dogs, cattle and other domestic or wild animals” but makes an exception for pets: “The keeping of dogs and other small domestic animals as household pets shall be permitted within the city, but said household pets shall not be kept for breeding purposes.”

In August 2010, the city imposed a retroactive lien on the Kohns’ home, fining them $250 a day for not complying. On July 13, 2011, the city sued Steve Kohn to collect more than $160,000 in fines. The case is pending.

“They assert that they are in compliance with the city’s ordinances, dispute the characterization of their pets as “livestock,” according to the complaint.

Code Enforcement Officer Irish Gardner, who cited the Kohns for keeping chickens, testified during a July 27 deposition “that other city residents with poultry have been treated differently by the City,” according to the HUD complaint. The Kohns claim that the residents who keep poultry but have never been cited for it are not Sephardic Orthodox Jews and were not cited because the city has a cultural bias.

On August 8, Judge Michele Towbin Singer ordered the Kohns to give the animals away as the result of the lawsuit the Einhorns filed against them last year in Broward Circuit Court. The Kohns have complied with the court’s order, but said they are appealing.

NUMEROUS CITATIONS

The Kohns have been cited a total of nine times since September 2008 and claim that police or code enforcement officers have visited their home 54 times in response to calls from neighbors.

“It started the day I moved in,” Renee Kohn said. “From the second our local government laid eyes on us, we weren’t welcomed here.”

The Kohns said police and Code Enforcement often visit them on their religious holidays, including four of the eight days of the past Hanukkah and six of the eight days of the past Passover.

“Meanwhile, our next holiday is coming up and everybody is wondering what is going to happen,” Steve Kohn said. The family is considering spending Rosh Hashanah at someone else’s home.

“You’re dreading the night before the holiday. You can’t sleep,” Renee Kohn said. “I’m just praying.”

Karla Bowsher can be reached at KBowsher@BrowardBulldog.org.

It’s Waste Management vs. Team Bergeron as cities seek to lower cost of trash disposal

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

Ron Bergeron

The declining cost of trash disposal in Broward is shrinking again – and could tumble further if enough cities decide to band together in a new purchasing co-op.

Miramar has spearheaded this summer’s push toward lower disposal rates by introducing to the purchasing mix something that’s been missing for decades: competition.  The effort began after the county’s Resource Recovery Board failed last December to win approval of a long-term disposal deal in which it sought no competitive bids.

Last week, Miramar and four other Broward cities working with it took the next step in the plan by assembling what they say is an apples-to-apples price comparison gleaned from the two bidders who responded to a recent request for proposals.

Wheelabrator, the Waste Management subsidiary that has long had a stranglehold on the county’s solid waste disposal business, is the incumbent bidder. The upstart is a politically formidable new venture led by influential Davie developer Ron Bergeron. Bergeron has teamed his Bergeron Environmental and Recycling with Lantana-based Sun Recycling.

The comparison’s bottom line: if Miramar and other municipalities deliver a big enough pile of trash – 500,000 tons per year – they can collectively expect to save more than $7 million a year by ditching Wheelabrator and signing with “Sun Bergeron.”

At one million tons, the evaluation says, the estimated savings are about $35 million.

If the cities can only muster 300,000 tons a year, Wheelabrator ’s estimated five-year price is $2.5 million less than Sun Bergeron’s. Wheelabrator’s price is $200,000 less than Sun Bergeron’s at 100,000 delivered tons.

In an interview, a Wheelabrator executive expressed concern about the way the evaluation was conducted because Wheelabrator had found significant errors in the calculations.

“I don’t trust those numbers. We have found mistakes,” said Bill Roberts, who noted that Miramar appropriately adjusted its comparison after those mistakes were reported to it. One mistake, regarding the delivery of one million tons of trash, inflated the savings that Sun Bergeron offered over Wheelabrator by about $40 million, a Miramar official said.

A Sun Bergeron lobbyist declined to give an opinion about the evaluation process.

“Upon advice of counsel, since this is an active procurement, neither my client or I can comment,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Ali Waldman.

Four cities are on Miramar’s bid evaluation board: Coconut Creek, Davie, Oakland Park and Hallandale Beach.  Those cities together generated more than 260,000 tons of trash in 2008, the most recent statistics available.

A few questions more

Miramar has asked Wheelabrator and Sun Bergeron to clarify a few points in their proposals over the upcoming week. Then, representatives from Broward and its 27 cities will be given the information and asked to decide within 45 days whether they will participate.

“If you get every single city to commit there’s a substantial savings,” said Miramar Public Works director Tom Good. “We’re hoping for the best, that’s all I can tell you.”

Oakland Park Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue, a member of the county’s Resource Recovery Board, said it’s too soon to tell if what’s happening in Miramar is the solution to high trash disposal prices.

“I can’t say that today, but it looks like it’s leaning that way,” she said.

Miramar officials have indicated they are prepared to go it alone if others don’t want to join.

Rising discontent and change

Discontent with the high cost of trash disposal fueled a municipal rebellion last year that now appears to be supplanting the county’s Resource Recovery Board as Broward’s dominant authority on matters of solid waste disposal.

The board, whose members include elected officials from eight cities, is the governing body of Broward’s Solid Waste District. The district was created in the 1980s under the terms of an inter-local agreement (ILA) that expires in 2013.

Several other cities have expressed interest in what Miramar is doing, including the county’s biggest trash producer, the city of Fort Lauderdale.

In all, Broward ILA members generated 1.2 million tons in 2008.

The prices offered by Wheelabrator and Sun Bergeron differ because of the way their proposals are structured.

Wheelabrator is offering a flat disposal rate of $52.50 a ton for garbage hauled to its waste-to-energy plant off I-595 in southwest Fort Lauderdale. Sun Bergeron’s rates vary from $46.20 to $55.18 a ton depending on how many tons are delivered. Sun Bergeron’s bid does not say specifically where the trash would be deposited, but said it could be shipped to Palm Beach County.

An evaluation of the bids by Weston consultant Sandy Gutner included a projection of  the five-year cost to use each bidder’s services. At 300,00o tons of delivered trash a year, Wheelabrator would charge $76.5 million and Sun Bergeron $79 million. If 500,000 tons are delivered, the evaluation said, Sun Bergeron offers cities the better deal — $120.4 million versus $127.4 million.

Those prices, however, are significantly lower than what most of Broward’s cities now pay, and have long paid, under the existing agreement

The earlier deal

Wheelabrator’s proposal to Miramar is also $4.50 a ton lower than the rate it negotiated with Broward County just six weeks ago as part of a two-year, $107.3 million interim deal. That short-term deal happened after the county commission refused last December to sign off on a long-term, $1.5 billion deal with Wheelabrator that was put together by the Resource Recovery Board without competitive bids.

Commissioners have instructed county staff to seek a long-term deal to take effect when the existing inter-local agreement expires. Should Miramar’s plan catch fire, however, that might become unnecessary.

Either way, it’s likely that downward price pressures will continue.

A study commissioned by the Resource Recovery Board of the Broward Southwest Regional Landfill, a 588 acre site just east of U.S. 27 and north of Sheridan Street, concluded last month that the county can operate the site as an expanded trash dump at a cost of $19 and $25 a ton. Further study has been ordered.

 

Oakland Park residents wary as decision looms on location of new veteran’s program

By Buddy Nevins, BrowardBulldog.org

Site of proposed VA treatment center on East Oakland Park Boulevard

A unique proposed treatment program for veterans has run into a firefight in Oakland Park as upset residents fear their neighborhood will be overrun with drunks, drug addicts and mental patients.

Community pressure last month helped prod the city’s Planning and Zoning Board to reject the building that would house the project.

The fate of the pilot program by the Veteran Administration – one of only four in the nation — is now in the hands of city commissioners.

Commissioners are scheduled to decide Sept. 7 whether to overturn the Planning and Zoning Board ruling and approve the redevelopment of a long vacant building on East Oakland Park Boulevard to accommodate the VA program.  The project is supported by congressmen and veterans and opposed by the city’s own planners and community groups.

Home owners are worried, said Oakland Park Commissioner Shari McCartney.

“Everybody’s concern is we’ll have one-legged veterans like in that Tom Cruise movie wheeling their wheel chairs up and down the street swigging out of a bottle,” McCartney said. “Whether there is any truth to that or not, that’s their concern.”

“This would abut homes,” Mayor Suzanne Boisvenue added. “We would prefer something that children and families could visit.”

The profit-seeking developer for the VA project, John Sabty of WSSA LLC in Flint, Michigan, bristles when he hears the criticism.

“I’ve seen letters that call the veterans undesirables and vagrants,” Sabty said. “But when you want your borders protected are they undesirables and vagrants?  When they serve overseas? When they protect our airports?”

Sabty specializes in developing and managing federal government buildings, including a new facility for the Department of Homeland Security near Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. He has repeatedly assured the city that undesirables will not be using the new treatment facility.

“If they have severe mental problems or substance abuse issues, this won’t be the facility for them,” he said. “The VA has other places for that.”

The project information from WSSA on file in city hall states: “This facility is not a homeless shelter, walk up center, soup kitchen, assisted living facility, drug rehab center, group home, jail transition center, or hospital.  This is a drug and alcohol free facility.”

The file also contains letters of support for the project from two politicians who usually never see eye-to-eye – U. S. Rep. Allen West, the Plantation Republican and a Tea Party favorite, and liberal U. S. Rep. Ted Deutsch, D-Boca Raton.  Both represent parts of North Broward, with West’s district covering the Oakland Park site.

Unique VA Program

The new experimental VA program is “designed to efficiently integrate the veterans back into the community, assisting them with the transition from typical military ‘dependent’ living to self-sufficient independent living,” WSSA attorney Bonnie Miskek of Boca Raton told the P & Z Board.

A maximum of 40 veterans would live in single rooms in the facility for three months and be enrolled in the program.

The program teaches life skills through vocational and education programs. The new multi-step transitional program is being tried only in Denver, San Diego, Philadelphia and Oakland Park.

“The veteran community needs this,” said Bill Kling, the World War II Navy veteran who is chairman of the Broward County Veterans Council.

The program is designed to save taxpayers money, relieving the government of having to develop, own and operate its own building. WSSA will take over those tasks. The VA will only be on the hook for a 10-year lease.

Sabty touts the tax money the project would provide — over $100,000 annually in local real estate taxes.  The property today pays no property taxes because it is owned by the Archdiocese of Miami.

Building Formerly a Women’s Shelter

The 50,000-square foot building at 1299 E. Oakland Park Blvd was constructed in the 1970s as the Player’s Club, a private sports and entertainment complex, complete with a bar and motel.  After the Player’s Club folded in the mid-1980s, the archdiocese bought the property and proposed using it to feed the homeless.

The city fought the homeless plan and the Archdiocese sued. The case was settled and the Archdiocese was allowed to operate a shelter for abused mothers and children on the site for a decade.  When the shelter closed around two years ago, the property was left vacant and has remained so.

Because the property hasn’t been used, its approvals to operate certain community facilities expired.  WSSA has to gain new city approval to operate a treatment center.

While the shelter was operating, city hall began developing a master plan for a new mixed-use downtown of restaurants, stores, office buildings and condos.  A master plan was eventually approved in 2004. Now city hall staffers believe the VA facility “would be incompatible and out of the character envisioned” for the new downtown Oakland Park, according to Justin Proffitt, the city’s senior planner.

Mayor Boisvenue said Oakland Park has been plagued with too many incompatible buildings alongside one another.   To remedy the incompatibility, she said, “We spent $20 million the last 11 years trying to create a new downtown.”

Sadby believes his VA Project would fit into any new downtown, saying it would boost the employment and activity. For a start, he is spending up to $3 million to renovate the building

“This is a powerhouse economic generator,” Sabty said. “It’s immediate new taxes. It’s immediate new construction jobs. It’s 30 to 40 full time employees earning $30,000-$100,000-a-year.  Those people will eat in the coffee shop, shop in Oakland Park, buy gas in the gas station. It’s a way to plant seed money in the downtown.”

But most of all, Sabty said his project would give South Florida an opportunity to show appreciation to veterans. “When it comes time to give back, we should be there,” he said.

 

 

 

Prominent developer targets anonymous blogger in First Amendment battle

By Lynn Walsh, BrowardBulldog.org

Raanan Katz

A First Amendment battle has erupted between a prominent South Florida developer and a blogger, who so far has only been identified as “John Doe.”

Raanan Katz, a minority owner of the Miami Heat, and his family-owned company R.K. Associates are suing the anonymous blogger for defamation and libel for reports he claims are false and malicious.

The blogger’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Robert Kain, argues in court papers that his client is a “citizen journalist” deserving of First Amendment protection because his reporting on Katz is about “matters of public concern.”

“Doe is an anonymous citizen journalist critically reporting what he considers to be abusive litigation tactics and prior criminal convictions by a well know public person Raanan Katz and Katz’ companies,” the papers say.

Katz filed the case in state court in June, but it has since been removed to federal court in Miami. Katz dropped an additional claim for false advertising against the blogger last week.

“The true thrust of our case is defamation,” said Todd Levine, a Miami lawyer for Katz and the company.

Kain calls Katz’s litigation a “classic slap suit” by a big developer seeking to suppress a critic.

“There is no defamation, you can read it,” Kain said in an interview. “Mr. Katz needs to realize that sometimes in doing business you will be criticized.”

In the blogger’s defense, Kain includes the assertion that his client has a First Amendment right to “maintain his anonymous status.”

Levine calls the nameless blogger a “coward hiding behind the cloak of the Internet.”

Katz’s son, Daniel Katz, vice president and owner of the company, is also a plaintiff against John Doe. The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, his son and their real estate company.

KATZ AND HIS PROMINENCE ARGUED

R.K. Associates owns over six million square feet of commercial space in Florida and New England, including 14 shopping centers in South Florida, the company website says. Their properties include two in Hallandale Beach and the landmark Searstown Plaza in Fort Lauderdale.

The privately-held company was founded by the elder Katz, who remains the principal owner of the company.

Katz, an Israeli immigrant, has a street named after him in Sunny Isles Beach, according to news articles.The renaming of Northeast 170th Street at Collins Avenue was done as part of a $7 million eminent domain settlement with the city.

The elder Katz was called “one of the most prolific real estate owners in Miami-Dade” in a 2008 article inMiami New Times.

John Doe publishes articles about the Katzes and their real estate company in the blog  in called “RK Associates.” It is published free on blogspot.com, a Google-owned company. The domain is RKAssociatesUSA and the information is also posted on a second website based in the United Kingdom.

The archive on the U.S. site shows 22 posts about Katz and his company starting in May.

“There are some things that are taken from other people’s claims that may not be defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But there are other parts that really surpass opinions and come out to be a conclusion or moral of a story…to [falsely] show that the company and my clients are ‘criminals’…a clear indication that my clients are bad people.”

The blog details previous legal battles and activities involving Raanan, Daniel and their real estate company. A recent post claims the company “ripped off the single mother of a special needs child.”

According to a post dated July 24: “RK Associates, Raanan Katz, and Daniel Katz automatically renewed her lease, without her knowledge and consent, from January 1, 2009 for the next five years and filed legal action against her claiming damages for five years in advance in the amount of about quarter a million dollars.”

Levine said some content posted by John Doe is accurate, but the lawyer did not elaborate on what was true.

TRUTH AS A DEFENSE

Attorney Jon Kaney, a board member of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said the blogger has a First Amendment right to publish stories if what is being said can be supported by facts.

“The blogger’s opinion, if it is based on facts that he has disclosed or in this case linked to, and he tells the reader what the company is doing and then shares his opinion that he believes it is inappropriate or whatever the case may be, then that’s protected.”

Kaney is a partner at Cobb & Cole in Daytona Beach.

“Truth is always a defense to defamation,” Levine acknowledged. “But [the blogger] would have to prove this. And this person signs off every post with ‘always true.’ He is saying, this is the only spot where you are going to find information about my client.”

Other articles on the blog discuss alleged racketeering charges against the Katz’ and their company and allegations of falsely asking for rental reimbursement associated with a property the company owns.

Levine says the blogger and his lawyer are trying to make people believe Raanan Katz is a public figure, which would require Katz to offer a higher level of proof to win in court. The Katzes “are not Donald Trump-type businessmen that make themselves out to be celebrities. He owns shopping centers; he doesn’t have a radio show; he doesn’t have a magazine like Oprah;, he isn’t on red carpets.”

Having Sunny Isles Beach name a street after the developer isn’t enough to make him a public figure, Levine argues.

“If I told someone to meet me at Raanan Katz Boulevard they wouldn’t know where that was,” Levine said, comparing the street named after Katz to a school driveway.

Sunny Isles Beach has also named a public gymnasium after Katz and his wife.

Raanan Katz was an original partner of the expansion franchise for the Heat and has “been a fixture at courtside” games since the team’s inaugural season in 1988, according to the company website.

WHO IS JOHN DOE?

While much is publicly known about Raanan Katz, that can’t be said for his critic.

On one of his blogs, Doe identifies himself only a male living in Boston.

The Katz complaint initially accused “John Doe” of being a competitor. But Levine has backed away from that contention, and now says he believes Doe “is a disgruntled employee or disgruntled tenant,” he said.

Either way, Levine intends to find out precisely.

He said a subpoena has been issued to Google in an attempt to unmask John Doe.

With bad news as a backdrop, negotiations resume between Broward and its school teachers

 By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo

Smarting from criticism, the Broward public schools administration and the teachers union have returned to the bargaining table to hammer out a contract and salvage $52 million in state and federal money.

“We’ll see if we can get on the same page,” Pat Santeramo, Broward Teachers Union President said. “We are willing to cooperate.”

Hostilities among the negotiating parties have mounted for years while both sides have sustained blows that raised doubts about competence.

Talks resumed last week after being on hold since late April. In May, the district had declared an impasse in negotiations.

Agreements between the union and the district on the federal and state funds “should have happened a long time ago,” community activist and watchdog Charlotte Greenbarg said. “This is a lot of money. Both sides have to realize there’s a financial emergency, due, in part, to self-inflicted wounds.”

A statewide grand jury in February criticized the management and operations of the School Board and administration. Meanwhile, the political website BrowardBeat.com reported last week that the BTU has agreed to let its national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, review a $1.3 million drop in local union funds and assets. The declines, attributed to declining membership, had brought grumbles from BTU board members about their own management team.

The union hopes to smooth relations internally and with the school administration, while seeking to tap $31 million in federal “Race to the Top” incentive dollars awarded for teacher performance and another $21 million in state grants. The union and the district must agree on how that money will be apportioned.

That federal money “is a key component” in reopening talks because “it’s money for salaries,” Santeramo said. It is likely also the only source for new salary funds given the poor economy and the state’s cut in education funding during the past five years.

The union’s declining revenues, a history of bleak contract talks and the grab for outside money paint the backdrop to what’s now happening, although Santeramo said they were not directly related.

Santeramo said the drop in BTU funds stems from dues hikes imposed on local affiliates by the AFT. He said money to the state and national bodies went up without increases to local membership fees to cover the additional expenses.

He added there had been no misappropriation of BTU funds

“I told the AFT we have nothing to hide,” said Santeramo, adding the BTU has reduced staff salaries, including his own four field representatives were laid off.

According to district records, the BTU had 16,668 teachers and other members as of March 31. About 2,500 eligible workers have not joined the union or paid dues. According BrowardBeat.com, the union’s net assets dropped $1.3 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 – from $5 million to $3.7 million amid declining membership.

Interim Superintendent Donnie Carter, who took over after Jim Notter’s June 30 retirement, did not respond to requests for comment.

Broward, the sixth largest school district in the nation, is behind Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fourth largest school district in the nation, in dealing with its teachers. Miami-Dade reached an agreement in May with the United Teachers of Dade on local Race to the Top performance pay – and teachers there are not facing layoffs. Palm Beach managed a $500 raise and voters approved an additional property tax for salaries for arts teachers.

In comparison, Broward teachers, who have been without a pay raise for three years, are faced with the prospect of about 1,800 layoffs. The teachers are among 2,400  employees targeted for layoff as part of the district’s effort to cut $171 million from its projected $2.9 billion budget for 2011-2012.

Broward’s application for federal Race to the Top performance pay is pending before the state; it has until Sept. 30 to reach agreement with the BTU on a plan that could bring $29.7 million in performance pay to teachers over the upcoming three years. The district received $6 million from the state for planning.

The state has earmarked an additional $21 million in grants to pay Broward teachers working at low performing school, for development of a merit evaluation plan that mirrors provisions of the Race to the Top and for classroom technology. The grants require union agreement.

Broward’s chances for completing agreements on the federal and state funding programs dimmed when the district declared an impasse in negotiations in May, especially because of the hostility between Santeramo and then superintendent Notter.

But with Notter’s retirement, the door reopened to talks.

Santeramo said he contacted school board members and interim superintendent Carter about working to get a deal on the labor contract that would include agreements on Race to the Top and the state grants.

Holding back on the Race to the Top agreement was a “bargaining chip” in order to get a new labor agreement, Santeramo said. The district, he added, now wants agreement on both to remain competitive with Miami-Dade and Palm Beach

At the resumption of bargaining last Thursday, newly formed bargaining teams for both sides reviewed the status of bargaining proposals, and agreed to narrow the issues in dispute at upcoming sessions, 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 and 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 2.

Activist Greenbarg noted it will take a lot more than agreements on a labor contract and the federal and state funds to repair the district’s damaged image. But, she added,”it won’t hurt” if they reach accord.

 

 

South Florida water district to re-think policies that skirt state law on influence-peddling

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org

SFWMD Executive Director Melissa L. Meeker

South Florida Water Management District will reconsider its policies on influence-peddling after news reports about how it does not follow state laws on insider dealing and requiring lobbyists to register.

Two Broward Bulldog reports this year pointed to how loopholes in the law allowed lobbyists at the district to avoid any public disclosure and let a former district board chairman sidestep state conflict-of-interest rules.

“The general counsel will be asked to review the agency’s current policies and procedures related to lobbying and post-employment restrictions and to make recommendations for revisions, if necessary,” said Melissa L. Meeker, the district’s new executive director.

The district, which levies property taxes in Broward and 15 other South Florida counties, spends tens of millions of dollars in public funds every year and is charged with protecting drainage and drinking water.

The district’s nine-member governing board hired Meeker in May after the abrupt departure of former district boss Carole Wehle following a wave of embarrassing news articles about waste and alleged favoritism.

Any policy changes would be decided by the board.

As Broward Bulldog reported in April, lobbyists at the district skirt state disclosure laws that require lobbyists before state agencies to register and disclose who they are working for and how much they are being paid. None of Florida’s five regional water management districts require lobbyists to register.

Broward Bulldog also reported in June how a loophole quietly inserted into Water District’s rules more than a decade ago has undermined another state law that bars appointed state officers and others from returning to lobby their former agency for two years after leaving office.

Meeker’s statement in an email to Broward Bulldog was in response to recent questions about her thoughts on the district’s lobbying practices and whether she would seek change.

Meeker did not say whether she favors or opposes registration. She did, however, reiterate the district’s previous position that, as an independent taxing authority, it does not have the statutory authority to require lobbyists to register.

In a July 29 email, Meeker also sought to justify the district’s no-registration stance stating, “Other state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation also do not require lobbyists to register.”

State law, however, says that all lobbyists seeking to influence “any department, division, bureau, board, commission or authority of the executive branch” must register and make disclosure before they can begin lobbying.

New district General Counsel Carolyn S. Ansay, who started Aug. 1, will conduct the review of the district’s lobbying policies. No timetable was set for completion.

Ansay, who joined the district after 14 years as a private practice lawyer specializing in water, environmental, land use and local government law, succeeds longtime counsel Sheryl Wood.

Wood took a buyout on July 1 and now works as the $180,000-a-year general counsel to the Palm Beach School Board.

Besides the registration issue, Ansay will review the district’s restrictions on post-employment lobbying.

Florida law prevents appointed state officers like members of the district’s governing board from returning to lobby for two years after their departure. The idea is to prevent them from cashing in at the public’s expense on their inside knowledge and personal influence with ex-colleagues.

But 15 years ago, the district watered down the state’s flat two-year prohibition by adding language to its rules. The extra language narrowed the application of the ban to persons who represent clients in matters in which they “participated personally and substantially” while in office.

Former Water District board chairman Nicolas Gutierrez, a three-time appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, told Broward Bulldog he relied on that language when he returned seven times to the district to lobby its purchasing director and others within two years of his departure from the board in April 2008.

“Obviously this benefited me,” Gutierrez said. “But this is the way things have evolved.”

Critics, including Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert Jarvis and Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper, have said the district’s lobbying rules are troubling and need to be changed.

“The district’s rules make it too easy for influence-peddling by former board members,” Jarvis said.

Draper called on the Legislature to “set statewide [lobbying] rules for all taxing districts.”

 

 

 

 

 

Internal audit cites sloppy bid practices in Broward school construction division

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org

The Broward School Board in session

A new Broward public schools internal audit of the district’s troubled Facilities and Construction Management Division has found “areas of concern” in the bidding of contracts and says changes should be made.

The latest audit comes after a February statewide grand jury sharply criticized the district and the facilities division for a lack of oversight and handling of bids. The grand jury made 21 recommendations to correct problems.

The report by the district’s Office of the Chief Auditor, to be discussed at today’s Broward School Board meeting (Tuesday, Aug. 2), stems from one grand jury recommendation that the district’s auditor review the bidding process “to certify bids met minimums.”

“In our opinion, the F&CM Division has areas of concern in the bidding and bid opening process which should be addressed immediately to ensure that appropriate internal controls are enforced …,” says the report dated June 23.

Among concerns cited were failures to: attract a minimum of three qualified bidders for projects; exclude from bidding contractors who have exceeded their bonding limits; use a secured lock box system for receiving bids; and to prepare and publish “invitation to bid” documents.

The internal audit made seven recommendations, some of which have been already adopted by staff:

  • Strengthen bidding procedures to ensure compliance with construction procurement laws and regulations. The department should maintain lists of pre-qualified, certified contractors so there are no fewer than three bidders available in each category; document that qualified bidders received original bid information and any addendums; notify potential bidders which newspaper will carry printed bids. The audit reviewed four bid openings but, only one had a minimum of three pre-qualifiers. Three other bids were postponed or rejected. The audit also found that prospective bidders may fail to observe bids because of the district’s practice of alternating bids in the Sun Sentinel and The Miami Herald.
  • Improve the  monitoring of the approved vendor list by constant review to ascertain pre-qualified vendors and discontinue bid opening when it is determined there are fewer than the required three pre-qualified bidders. The report found instances where only one pre-qualified bidder existed or there may have been a weakness of the district’s monitoring system to reach and seek bids from firms pre-qualified for projects.
  • Utilize all available bid broadcast tools – in particular the district’s Internet bid management system, Demandstar, as an additional means to advertisement for bids to ensure that the largest number of prospective bidders to maximize market competition. The report found that the Demandstar system, used by contractors, was mainly being use to post addendum bid information.
  • Strengthen contract language to ensure that addendums are fully tracked in the district. The report found there was no requirement for contractors to notify the bid- printing companies of receipt of bid addendum information.
  • Establish a procedure for determining when proposers’ bids should not be opened if a contractor has exceeded state-established bonding limits. The report found several instances where the district had opened sealed bids from contractors who had exceeded their bond capacity.
  • Use a lock box to secure all bids and require two staff members be present to access the box. The report found the facilities department was not using a a lock box system for submission of bids and did not regularly time stamp bids, raising concerns about the integrity of the process.
  • Provide the “invitation to bidders” document as an internal step in all design/bid/build procedures. The report found that in three of four bids reviewed, the facilities division did not prepare, execute and publish “invitation of bid” documents, as required, and thus delaying the bid process.
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