About Dan Christensen
Dan Christensen has written 337 articles so far, you can find them below.
By Raymond Bonner, Special to ProPublica
Florida’s two legal means of execution
States that impose the death penalty have been facing a crisis in recent years: They are short on the drugs used in executions.
In California, which has the country’s largest death row population, the chief justice of the state supreme court has said there are unlikely to be any executions for three years, in part due to the shortage of appropriate lethal drugs. As a result, state prosecutors are calling for a return of the gas chamber. (more…)
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Convicted killer Robert Burkell Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office
Ten years ago, killer Robert Burkell bludgeoned to death his 81-year-old tenant Charles Bertheas, cracking open his aged skull like an eggshell, according to police. The motive: money.
Today, Burkell is in prison for life. But his wife Susan, a Lauderhill resident who authorities say did not participate in the slaying but knew what was happening, is set to inherit more than $214,000 of the victim’s money.
Bertheas’s eight elderly brothers and sisters, who live in France, won’t see a dime. Charles Bertheas designated the Burkells as co-beneficiaries on his accounts at the Bank of America.
Florida law blocks convicted killers like Robert Burkell from receiving property or other benefits because of their victim’s death. The law, however, does not extend to their spouses or consider the murderous circumstances of their crime.
“This is a travesty,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden. “She’s benefiting from her husband’s criminal offense…It stinks.”
“We couldn’t prove she was involved in the murder,” said BSO Detective Tim Duggan. “The only thing we could say was there was no way that she could not have known it was going on. She left moments before it happened.
Mary Susan Burkell, 63, says prosecutors and police have it completely wrong. Her husband was mistakenly convicted of Bertheas’s murder, she said, and now Holden and Duggan are falsely slandering her.
“They said I knew what was happening? What a pair. What a pair,” she said. “No. That’s not correct. They have fantasized over this for so long. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Charles Bertheas, whose skull was crushed
The Florida Department of Financial Services, which has been holding Bertheas’s money, awarded it to Susan Burkell in a final order dated March 21. With the help of a Tampa private investigation agency, SRS International, she filed a claim for the property last August after the department rejected a claim by the dead man’s brother. SRS stands to collect a 20 percent commission.
Marc Bertheas, who is 80 and lives in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, opposed the award and sought an extension of the state’s 30-day time limit to file an appeal. In a letter to the department postmarked April 19, he stated he needed time to find a U.S. lawyer, explaining that he was not fluent in English and had special medical conditions that limit his ability to communicate with legal counsel.
The Financial Services department rejected Bertheas’s request. The reason: It did not receive his letter until April 23 – the day after the deadline.
“Unfortunately, the referenced time period has expired and the department has taken steps to disburse the underlying unclaimed property funds in accordance with the final order,” Financial Services attorney Kate Pingolt Cotner informed Marc Bertheas in an April 25 letter.
Widower Charles Bertheas died Nov. 23, 2003 on the floor of the converted family room he rented from the Burkells in their four-bedroom home at 9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac.
9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac, the scene of the crime
Robert Burkell, now 64, summoned police that afternoon after reportedly finding the body. Bertheas had been dead for at least several hours.
Burkell told police he’d last seen Bertheas the night before when they had dinner together at a bar in Sawgrass Mills. He said he thought Bertheas might have hit his head in a drunken fall.
But “a large pool of blood” around the body, and a detective’s observation of “considerable trauma to the victim’s face and head” raised suspicion, court records say. The medical examiner’s office later classified the death as a homicide and attributed it to blunt trauma. The weapon used by the killer to crush Bertheas’s head was never identified.
A motive soon became apparent when it was found that Burkell had “forged a $10,000 check in Mr. Bertheas’s name” the night before the murder, according to Duggan. It wasn’t until later that police learned Bertheas had designated Robert and Susan Burkell as the beneficiaries of accounts containing $280,000 in savings at the time of his death, records say. That included proceeds from the sale of the condo he once shared with his late wife.
No signs of forced entry or a struggle were found at the home, and no valuables were missing. The victim’s DNA was discovered in bloodstains on a bath mat and counter top in the master bath – a location Susan Burkell later testified only she and her husband used. Likewise, two bare sole footprints found in dried blood adjacent to the body were matched to Robert Burkell, the records say.
Burkell was arrested two days before Christmas. It wasn’t his first arrest for murder.
Detective Duggan said that in 1986 Burkell confessed to bludgeoning William Yalden, a Geneva, N.Y. businessman whose body was later found in an Ohio cornfield, “in the exact same manner as he killed Bertheas.” Burkell’s confession was thrown out prior to trial, however, because of a Miranada rights warning issue, Duggan said.
“He definitely got away with that one,” said Duggan.
Things turned out differently for Burkell 20 years later in Florida. While Burkell did not confess to killing Bertheas, he was nevertheless convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal in 2008.
The money in Bertheas’s bank accounts was turned over to the state as unclaimed property in 2005. In 2011, Marc Bertheas tried to claim it, but his claim was denied because he was not a beneficiary.
Burkell’s murder conviction meant he had no longer had a legal claim to Bertheas’ money. Florida law treats killers who stand to inherit from their victims as if they died first.
“Consequently, Susan Burkell is the only beneficiary who is legally permitted to receive the unclaimed property funds at issue,” the Department of Financial Services decided.
Robert Burkell, who has three children by his wife of 40 years, is currently being held at the Broward County Jail while awaiting a ruling on his lawyer’s motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The motion is pending before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.
On the day she was interviewed, Susan Burkell had not received any payout from the state. How much she will ultimately get is unclear.
For reasons that are not made clear in state records, the $280,000 that was in Bertheas’s accounts at the time of his death had dwindled to $214,221.86 by 2008. Detective Duggan said he’s heard that amount has dwindled further – eaten away by attorney fees.
By Paul Kiel, ProPublica, and Mitchell Hartman, Marketplace
itle Credit Finance is two doors down from Cashwells Title Pawn and World Finance Corp. on Victory Drive outside of Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga. Photo: Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace
This story was co-produced with Marketplace. Listen to their coverage.
Seven years after Congress banned payday-loan companies from charging exorbitant interest rates to service members, many of the nation’s military bases are surrounded by storefront lenders who charge high annual percentage rates, sometimes exceeding 400 percent.
The Military Lending Act sought to protect service members and their families from predatory loans. But in practice, the law has defined the types of covered loans so narrowly that it’s been all too easy for lenders to circumvent it. (more…)
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller
After a brief period of independence, the Hallandale Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is once again under the thumb of the city manager.
CRA oversight by Hallandale Beach city managers was a key issue in the year-long investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office which recently found that city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.
While the Inspector General expressed concern about a shift back to the city manager-directed CRA, City Manager Renee C. Miller said Hallandale was in line with the majority of Broward’s CRA cities – eight of 12 of which use the city manager to also head the CRA.
In its recent report criticizing the city, the Inspector General noted that CRA management improved briefly last year under the direction of former executive director Alvin Jackson who pushed through a number of changes that addressed the concerns of the county’s investigators. They included new measures to comply with laws and rules governing CRA grants and donations to community groups and to improve accountability.
“In August of 2012,” the report says, “the community redevelopment board finally provided for independent leadership of the CRA by promoting Dr. Jackson to the position of executive director. …Unfortunately, the city has since… receded from this course of action.” That’s a reference to Jackson’s January resignation under pressure from the mayor and the city commission, who also sit as the CRA’s board.
CITY MANAGER REGAINS CONTROL
The board then handed off the executive director’s duties to the city manager – the model that got the city into trouble in past years.
Except for last year’s blip, Hallandale Beach’s city manager has headed the CRA since its creation in 1996. Jackson was hired as CRA director in January 2011, but reported to then-city manager Mark Antonio.
Jackson quickly found the CRA lacked or was missing documents and had failed to create bylaws or establish a separate CRA trust fund to hold its funds. It also had not updated its operating plan, as required by law.
State law requires that each municipal CRA be led by an executive director, which can be a city manager or some other employee. It also requires the CRA to operate as an independent agency.
The Inspector General’s report said the CRA should create both a stable staff and “incorporate some level of independent management…whether the CRA executive director duties remain with the city manager or are again filled by an independent officer.”
Miller, who was not the city manager during most of the period investigated by the Inspector General, said she embraces those goals.
She said the CRA now operates as a separate entity even though she is in charge of both the city and the CRA. She said she also seeks a stable staff for the agency, and wants it to operate in a “clean, transparent” manner.
In that regard, Miller said one of her first actions was to hire in February a former colleague, Daniel Rosemond, as deputy city manager/CRA director at a salary of $146,300.
Miller did not advertise the job, or do any search, saying she had confidence in Rosemond because they worked together at city hall in Miami Gardens, she as deputy city manager and Rosemond as an assistant city manager.
LAZAROW RAISES QUESTIONS
Some residents, however, have raised questions about the hire.
For example, City Commissioner Michele Lazarow. She said the Inspector General recommended that the CRA executive director should have CRA experience, and that the job should be “separate and distinct from the city.”
Lazarow said Rosemond will split his time between his duties as CRA director and deputy city manager in charge of several other departments, including public works. She said the CRA has major projects to complete.
“The CRA requires and deserves a full-time director; not a part time employee,” Lazarow said. “I want to see a separate CRA director, like Hollywood and Dania. “We have the budget to support an independent, separate executive director,” Lazarow said.
Miller said Rosemond’s experience in the past and his additional work assignments as deputy city manager will allow for better coordination of projects involving the CRA. Public Works, she said, has tie-ins to CRA projects. She added that Rosemond’s dual positions will enhance accountability between the CRA and other city departments.
In the past, she said Rosemond has worked in community development for numerous cities. He’s also knowledgeable of budgeting, planning, permitting requirements. Having a top city official in charge of the CRA, Miller said, should assure that the CRA functions properly with other departments.
“I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Miller said.
Mayor Cooper could not be reached for comment. It’s not surprising that she favored restoring the city manager as executive director of the CRA. She told Inspector General investigators that she preferred to have the city manager as CRA executive director rather than some other employee and had been opposed to Jackson’s promotion to executive director, according to the Inspector General’s report.
By Dave Levinthal, Center for Public Integrity
Amid withering accusations the Internal Revenue Service targeted tea party and other conservative groups with enhanced scrutiny, the agency faces another problem: it’s drowning in paperwork.
The IRS’ Exempt Organizations Division, which finds itself at the scandal’s epicenter, processed significantly more tax exemption applications in fiscal year 2012 by so-called 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations — 2,774 — than it has since at least the late 1990s, according to an analysis of IRS records by the Center for Public Integrity. (more…)
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger and Broward Auditor Evan Lukic
The Broward County Auditor’s Office has begun looking into whether Hallandale Beach should be required to repay some of the millions in tax dollars allegedly misspent due to “gross mismanagement” by city officials.
The preliminary review was undertaken recently at the urging of a county commissioner and a former Hallandale Beach city commissioner. It was also recommended by the Broward Inspector General’s April 18 report that was highly critical of the city’s handling of those public funds belonging to its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
“Based on the final report of the Inspector General I believe we should recover any funds that were misspent,” said County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, whose district covers parts of Hallandale Beach.
Broward Vice Mayor Barbara Sharief, who also represents the city, did not respond to calls for comment.
The county has an interest in the CRA funds because it approved establishment of the Hallandale Beach CRA in 1996. Since then the county has sent the CRA approximately $36 million in tax revenue, with the city putting up a matching amount to help rid slum and blight areas.
“The OIG report is problematic,” said County Auditor Evan Lukic. “If the funds were not used for the intended purpose in accordance with state law then money may be due back to the county.“ He said his review could take up to two months.
Following a yearlong investigation, the Inspector General reported that from 2007 to 2012 city leaders used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored charities and loans to local businesses. In all, agents found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.
The report urged the county government “to independently determine” whether Hallandale Beach expenditures were outside the scope the governing state statute, and if so to “determine what legal options are available to prevent ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent.”
Hallandale officials, including Mayor Joy Cooper, objected to many of the report’s findings. They also asserted it was riddled with “numerous factual inaccuracies” and even challenged the Inspector General’s authority to investigate the CRA. City commissioners sit as the CRA’s board of directors.
Inspector General John Scott’s office replied that Hallandale’s top leadership, including the mayor and city manager, showed a “basic misunderstanding” of what’s gone wrong.
Cooper could not be reached for comment about the auditor’s inquiry.
City Manager Renee C. Miller said, “I would understand that they are looking into this… We will communicate and will reach out to them.”
Miller said the city continues to work to improve CRA operations, which includes “having and retaining a stable staff.”
Auditor Lukic said his review would determine what spending authority the Hallandale Beach CRA was given when it began. Hallandale got one of the first CRAs, he said, and there were fewer restrictions placed on them at that time.
Should he find the county’s authority lacking, there will be “no recourse” to recover funds from Hallandale Beach, Lukic said.
The County Commission will address the matter at its regular June 4 meeting. One of those who will speak is former Hallandale Beach city commissioner Keith London, who has called for a full county audit.
London, who frequently challenged CRA expenditures when he was on the commission, said a county audit is necessary not only because of the Inspector General’s findings. He accused his former colleagues of skirting “their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers” by ignoring both the Inspector General’s recommendations and a relevant 2010 Attorney General’s opinion.
That opinion held that CRA expenditures should go toward “brick and mortar” projects. The Inspector General, however, determined that Hallandale CRA’s violated that guideline with spending on grants and donations for favored charities.
City officials have countered that the Attorney General’s advisory opinion was non-binding, and does not prevent the city from making such grants.
By Christie Thompson, ProPublica
President Barack Obama meets with Director of National Drug Control Policy Gil Kerlikowske in the Oval Office White House Photo by Pete Souza
When the Obama administration released its 2013 Drug Control Strategy recently, drug czar Gil Kerlikowske called it a “21stcentury” approach to drug policy. “It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue,” he said.
The latest plan builds on Obama’s initial strategy outlined in 2010. Obama said then the U.S. needed “a new direction in drug policy,” and that “a well-crafted strategy is only as successful as its implementation.” Many reform advocates were hopeful the appointment of former Seattle Police Chief Kerlikowske as head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy signaled a shift in the long-lasting “war on drugs.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Bugle owner Andrew Miller, right, with Roger Stone Photo: Dan Christensen
The registered owner of an online Broward “news” operation contributed over $120,000 to a political group that made payments to a firm owned by Sheriff Scott Israel’s campaign manager, Amy Rose, and to her husband.
Andrew James Miller, 29, gave the money to Taxpayers for Integrity in Government last August, amid Israel’s successful bid to unseat then-Sheriff Al Lamberti, election records show.
Miller is a protégé of flamboyant South Florida-based political consultant and prospective gubernatorial candidate, Roger Stone. Miller describes himself on his Twitter page as a “political pirate, provocateur, street fighter.”
Internet domain registration records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org identify Miller as the owner of record of the Broward Bugle, which calls itself “your new source for political and governmental news.” The records list Miller’s address as Stone’s former offices at 401 E. Las Olas Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale.
A SECRETIVE NEWS SITE
The secretive Bugle does not identify its publisher or staffers by their real names. Its Hollywood attorney, Holiday Hunt Russell, would not answer questions about his client. Stone, an Israel supporter with a reputation as a political dirty trickster, has been rumored for months to be behind it because of stories with headlines like last month’s “Lamberti has Chutzpah.”
“I’m nervous talking about this. I don’t want to say something wrong,” said Miller when asked about the Bugle. “I’m not the one running it. I know who is, but I’m not at liberty to give any names. It’s above my pay grade.”
Said Stone, “I’m not going to talk about the Bugle, I’m really not.
Taxpayers for Integrity in Government is a Florida electioneering communications organization (ECO) which raised more than $1.2 million last year. Its chair is Todd Wilder, a Tallahassee political consultant and former top aide to disgraced ex-Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne.
Miller, who said he is a friend of Wilder, lives in a three-story walk-up in an older building on Manhattan’s upper east side. He said he makes a living as a political operative, but that Stone doesn’t pay him. However, with Stone, he worked last year for Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico and Libertarian Party nominee for president.
Andrew Miller with Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson in a photo he tweeted last year
This year, Miller is helping another Stone client, Kristin Davis, a former madam running for mayor of New York City as a Libertarian. Miller’s stepmother, Dianne Thorne, is Stone’s longtime assistant and chairs the Libertarians’ Miami-Dade chapter.
Stone called Miller a “trust fund baby” from a wealthy Missouri family who’s “like a son to me.”
Miller, however, told a reporter he’s not wealthy. He also said he had no specific candidate or issue in mind when he decided in advance of last summer’s primary election to give $120,200 to Taxpayers for Integrity – his lone statewide political contribution last year, according to state records.
So why did Miller contribute such a large sum to an obscure group that, unlike candidates, can accept unlimited contributions to influence political campaigns?
“DOING MY CIVIC DUTY”
“I was just doing my civic duty. Making the world a better place,” said Miller. Asked where the money from, he said “my bank account.”
Two weeks before last November’s general election, Taxpayers for Integrity, paid $10,000 to Amy Rose’s firm, Win on the Ground Consulting, and another $5,000 to her husband, Wally Eccleston.
Those payments were unrelated to the sheriff’s race, according to Rose and Wilder. Rose said the payments were for various data and fundraising lists.
Taxpayers for Integrity, however, was on Israel’s side in the sheriff’s race. The Sun-Sentinel reported in August that Wilder’s group used email, mail and phone calls to tout Israel and attack his opponent during the primary.
Broward Sheriff Scott Israel
The Bugle, too, has been on Israel’s side since it began publishing last year, with most of its coverage either positive about Israel or negative about Lamberti. The Bugle also has attacked Barbra Stern, the new Florida elections commissioner, whose mother, lobbyist and consultant Judy Stern, ran Israel’s losing campaign for sheriff in 2008.
Rose said she and Eccleston will soon join BSO. Rose starts at the end of the month as Israel’s assistant chief of staff. Eccleston is to work under Finance Director Angelo Castillo, though no start date has been set.
Stone, 60, who enjoys his reputation for political hardball, is a longtime Republican operative who cut his professional teeth working for Richard Nixon’s notorious CREEP, the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Nixon’s face is tattooed on his back.
He says he became disillusioned with the Republican Party last year and switched his allegiance to the tiny Libertarian Party. He announced his interest in a 2014 run for governor in February.
STONE’S $1.6 MILLION IN TAX LIENS
But some Libertarian party leaders don’t believe Stone. Bill Still, a candidate for the party’s presidential nomination last year, said Stone and sidekick Miller appeared to him to be Republican moles looking to take over or destroy the Libertarian Party.
“That was my feeling, yes,” said Still.
Stone, who lives in Miami Beach, is a former business partner of imprisoned Fort Lauderdale Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.
The South Florida Business Journal reported last month that he agreed to pay $18,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from the bankruptcy of Rothstein’s law firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler. A bankruptcy court trustee had sued alleging Stone and his companies were paid $400,000 in professional fees that provided no benefit to the law firm.
Stone, however, has not resolved more serious financial claims by the Internal Revenue Service.
Five tax liens filed in Miami-Dade say Stone and his wife, Nydia, owe more than $1.6 million in unpaid back taxes. The assessments are for the years 2006-2011.
Stone said his attorneys are in talks with the IRS to resolve the matter.
By Theodoric Meyer, ProPublica
President Obama opening this year’s White House Easter Egg Roll
When the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt faced cancellation this year due to the package of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, the National Park Service kicked into high gear. It rescued the event — held since 1878 — with money from “corporate sponsors and the sale of commemorative wooden eggs,” according to the Washington Post.
The nation’s airline passengers also caught a break last month when Congress passed (and President Obama quickly signed) a bill allowing the Federal Aviation Administration to shift some funds and halt the furloughs of air traffic controllers that had been blamed for long flight delays around the country.
But other programs haven’t been so lucky. (more…)
By Lois Beckett, ProPublica
Photo: ACS Law
In mid-April, Kansas passed a law asserting that federal gun regulations do not apply to guns made and owned in Kansas. Under the law, Kansans could manufacture and sell semi-automatic weapons in-state without a federal license or any federal oversight. (more…)