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 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 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 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 William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
An apparent misreading of state law by the Fort Lauderdale Police has kept officers from enforcing a Broward County ordinance that requires criminal background checks on gun buyers at gun shows.
Two legal experts have told BrowardBulldog.org that the police department is wrong to believe that a state statute enacted last year invalidates the county background checks ordinance. Similarly, the Hillsborough County Attorney said in a memo this month that his county continues to have the “authority to require criminal background checks.”
The 1998 Broward county ordinance says criminal background checks must be done on gun buyers when sales occur “on property to which the public has a right of access.” A violation is a misdemeanor.
But Fort Lauderdale Police spokeswoman Det. DeAnna Greenlaw said the county ordinance no longer is in effect due to Florida Statute 790.33, enacted in 2011. That statute declares any city or county ordinance that regulates gun possession and sales “null and void.”
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s legal position is important. Broward’s two largest gun shows, sponsored by Ohio-based Suncoast Gun Shows and North Lauderdale’s Trader Ritch, are held in Fort Lauderdale.
Legal experts say the city’s legal interpretation is wrong. They say the law the city cites is trumped by an amendment to Florida’s Constitution, passed by voters in 1998, that gives counties the option to enact background check ordinances like Broward’s.
“Each county shall have the authority to require a criminal history records check…in connection with the sale of any firearm…when any part of the transaction is conducted on property to which the public has the right of access,” the amendment says.
‘POLICE HAVE IT WRONG’
Robert Jarvis, a Constitutional Law Professor at Nova Southeastern University, explained that the null-and-void statute has no impact on the county’s ordinance because it is rooted in the state constitution.
“A statute cannot nullify a Constitutional vision,” Jarvis said. “I think the police have it wrong.”
“You have a right to bear arms, but the state has a right to regulate,” Jarvis said. “When it comes to the Second Amendment, to firearms, a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation exists.”
Andrew McClurg, a firearms policy expert and law professor at the University of Memphis, agreed.
Jarvis “is certainly correct that a constitution trumps a statute. That’s a basic principle of constitutional law,” said McClurg, adding that the amendment appears to grant Florida’s counties the authority to enact background check ordinances.
The profile of Broward’s ordinance may rise with the U.S. Senate’s recent defeat of efforts to close loopholes and strengthen the federal background check law for gun buyers.
Mayor Jack Seiler
Broward State Attorney’s spokesman Ron Ishoy said in an email that his office was unable to find “any time where a law enforcement agency in Broward has brought us a case involving Broward County ordinance sec. 18-97.”
Nevertheless, Fort Lauderdale Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler said in an interview that his city is enforcing the background check ordinance through another state statute, 790.065, regarding “the sale and delivery of firearms.”
However, that law only addresses the need for licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks. It does not address the issue of background checks for buyers who buy guns from non-licensed gun dealers, including those at gun shows.
The broader language of Broward’s ordinance covers non-licensed gun dealers. So, unless the buyer is exempt, it requires a buyer who purchases a gun from anybody at a public location to undergo a background check.
The Florida Constitution, state law and the county ordinance exempt from background checks gun buyers who are law enforcement officers or concealed weapons permit holders.
POLICE INTERPRET LAW
Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley expressed a similar, apparently mistaken, opinion about the state law’s application.
“Everything in the county ordinance is included in the state statute…That is our interpretation,” said Adderley, citing legal counsel. Attorney Bradley H. Weissman is the department’s legal advisor.
Police Chief Frank Adderley
“He’s interpreting it wrong,” said Nova Southeastern’s Jarvis. “The state statute does not touch on the issue which is addressed in the ordinance.”
Representatives of the Suncoast Gun Show, which holds shows at the War Memorial Auditorium, did not respond to several requests for comment about the ordinance and its background check practices. Its next gun shows at the auditorium are scheduled for May 4 and 5 and June 15 and 16.
Ritch Cecilio and Jim Hayden sponsor gun and knife shows in Broward County. They say they avoid violating the ordinance by requiring their gun buyers to have a Florida conceal weapons permit.
Cecilio requires a gun buyer at his shows to present a Florida driver’s license as well as a carrying permit because he is “trying to eliminate the possibility that anyone not supposed to have a gun gets a gun.” If a dealer or collector does not follow this rule, Cecilio says he will oust him from the show.
Hayden said a permit guarantees that person has been fingerprinted. A buyer who doesn’t have a permit must buy his gun through a licensed dealer who must order a background check and cannot deliver it until after a five-day waiting period, he said.
Cecilio, who operates as Trader Ritch, sponsors a show the first Sunday of every month at the Universal Palms Hotel, 4900 Powerline Road, Fort Lauderdale. Hayden’s Oakland Park Gun and Knife Show happens about every other month at American Legion #222, at 4250 NE 5 Ave., Oakland Park. His next show is May 19.
Licensed gun dealers in Florida are required to do background checks through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement whenever they sell a gun. The checks are required wherever the sale is made.
In counties without a background check ordinance, civilians or collectors are not required to do background checks at gun shows or other public locations.
It is not known if promoters at the large Suncoast shows require gun buyers to have concealed weapons permits.
Mayor Seiler says that after the Sandy Hook Elementary School student massacre he contacted City Manager Lee Feldman, Adderley and the city attorney’s office to discuss enforcing gun laws in the city.
“I support stricter background checks…We have a very strong law enforcement presence at gun shows and we are working with multiple agencies at the state and federal level to enforce our gun laws,” the mayor said.
Gun sales between civilians at non-public locations are not subject to background checks. So it is often the case that gun purchases are discussed inside gun shows but are actually sold outside in the parking lot, said Hamilton Bobb, retired Assistant Agent in Charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami.
“It is a big issue. It happens at every gun show,” Bobb said.
The Sun Sentinel reported that private dealers violated city law in during a gun show in January when they openly sold guns and ammunition outside Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium in Holiday Park. The city’s ordinance prohibits the sale of weapons in parks.
The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that seven counties, representing 45 percent of Florida’s population, have background check ordinances similar to Broward’s. The newspaper reported the ordinances have been ineffective because of inconvenience, lack of public concern and misunderstanding of state law.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward Inspector General’s final report on the “gross mismanagement” of millions in tax dollars by Hallandale Beach is sharply critical of city leaders it says have shown a “basic misunderstanding” of what’s gone wrong.
Hallandale Beach city managers past and present, the city attorney, the mayor and other city officials defended the handling of funds of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency in formal responses included in the 56-page report released last week.
The Inspector General, after a year investigating, determined 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.
By law, CRA is a limited purpose special district whose funds are only to be spent to address slum and blight conditions within a defined area. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries, or about $70 million since it began in 1996
Some of the report’s bluntest words rebut claims by Mayor Joy Cooper and City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield that the Inspector General had no authority to investigate the CRA’s activities.
Hallandale Beach City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield
Whitfield’s “assertions ignore the fact that the OIG (Office of Inspector General) has authority over all municipal officials in identifying mismanagement of public resources,” the report says. “A municipality cannot avoid OIG oversight by spending taxpayer funds through an agency that is independent in name only.”
Likewise, the report ripped “another common theme” of the city’s defenders that the Inspector General mistakenly relied on a Florida Attorney General’s advisory opinion that the Inspector General said precluded the city from spending CRA funds as it had.
City Attorney Whitfield’s arguments “reflect the basic misunderstanding that is at the core of the gross mismanagement identified in this report: the city has failed to comprehend that the CRA has a limited purpose and that the powers of the CRA to expend CRA…funds is not equal to the power of the municipality to expend general funds.”
The report urged Hallandale Beach’s leaders to ask the Attorney General for another opinion if they don’t like the original one.
CITY MANAGER MILLER CRITICIZED
The report also criticized City Manager Renee Crichton Miller, who it said made “unsupported” arguments to support Cooper and Whitfield’s erroneous claims that the Inspector General had incorrectly determined that CRA funds were improperly used to repay city bond obligations for park improvements in other parts of the city.
City officials contended that it was always the city’s intention to repay any CRA funds spent on parks outside the CRA boundaries, The report, however, says those arguments failed to “address the plain fact that $416,365 in CRA funds – deemed ‘negligible’ by (Miller) – have already been expended on parks outside the CRA boundaries” without any repayments or any plan for repayment.
Miller, hired last summer and not identified in the report as being responsible for past mismanagement, stuck by her arguments in an interview after the report’s release, saying the city has every intention to repay funds owed the CRA. She said it does not have to do so now because those projects have yet to get underway.
“We have a difference of opinion with the Inspector General,” said Miller. “I would not disparage their view.”
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper
Asked for comment, Mayor Cooper referred a reporter to her statements in the Inspector General’s report.
Said former City Commissioner Keith London, who lost a race for mayor to Cooper last November, “I hope the State Attorney’s office will look into this further.”
BrowardBulldog.org first reported the Inspector General’s preliminary findings last month. Last week’s final report incorporated the responses of city leaders.
Investigators found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures, including inappropriate loans to local business and grants to local non-profits. The city improperly also spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries, the report said.
The report also said there is “probable cause” to believe that Dr. Deborah Brown, the founder and director of the Palm Center for the Arts engaged in criminal misconduct. In one case, the center allegedly spent nearly $5,000 to make a payment on Brown’s timeshare at the Westgate Resort in Orlando, and make payments to Brown and her brother. The matter was referred to the Broward State Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
In her response to the Inspector General, Brown provided a document of expenditures and details of youth activities that she said provided “positive, measurable results” at her Palm Center for the Arts. The report, however, said there was a lack of supporting documentation for those expenditures.
“Her submission does not alter our determination that there is probable cause to believe that Dr. Brown may have engaged in criminal misconduct,” the report says.
Brown could not be reached for comment.
CITY LOANS DEFENDED
In their responses, Cooper and former city manager Mike Good defended various CRA loans to local businesses, including a $75,000 loan in 2009 to Digital Outernet Inc., a startup firm that planned to earn income from advertising on televisions screens it hoped put in local businesses.
Digital Outernet closed a short time later when its principal owner died. But the city failed to secure a guarantee of repayment from other investors and waived a provision in the deal that would have given it some collateral for the loan.
Cooper said the Digital Outernet loan was “not gross mismanagement” because it attempted to help establish a minority-owned business, according to the report. Good said the loan was “properly made,” adding that at it was “unfortunate that some paperwork had not been signed,” the report said.
Good, too, defended a $50,000 loan to the South Florida Sun Times weekly newspaper, saying it was “justified” because the newspaper needed assistance. The 2009 loan, under terms so favorable that half of it need not be repaid, was made under a new program Good had established for assist struggling businesses.
At the time, the two top executives of the for-profit newspaper reported to the IRS that they’d paid themselves $469,000 in salaries in the two years before receiving the loan.
Cooper told the Inspector General that the salaries of those seeking loans are now part of the loan evaluation process, the report said.
But the Inspector General’s report said Hallandale Beach’s failure until recently to take any steps to empower the CRA as an independent body that might “act as a check on the improper use” of CRA tax funds is problematic.
“While we are encouraged by the remedial steps taken by the city and the CRA in the last year, the OIG remains concerned that the city has not acknowledged the statutory limit on the use of TIF (tax increment financing) funds diverted to the CRA,” says the report, which makes a number of recommendations it said would ensure the CRA’s independence.
Hallandale Beach is not the only Broward city to have misspent CRA funds. Within the last year, the Inspector General found $2.5 million misspent by Lauderdale Lakes and the Florida Auditor General identified “several significant expenditures” by Hollywood that did not follow state law.
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the gross mismanagement of CRA funds by a Broward County municipality is not a unique occurrence,” the report says. “The OIG will continue to examine the expenditure of CRA funds by municipalities.”
The report also recommends the county assess its legal options “to prevent the ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent.”
By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
The North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001
New FBI records connecting Saudis who lived in Sarasota before 9/11 to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks” have spurred a renewed push to find out whether the al Qaeda suicide hijackers who killed nearly 3,000 people had help.
“One question that has gone unanswered through the investigation of 9/11 is ‘Did the hijackers operate alone or did they have accomplices who facilitated their ability to act?” said former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. “I think the information we have now makes a very strong case that they did.”
Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, met Tuesday with Senate Intelligence Committee member Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to discuss disclosures in the FBI records released to BrowardBulldog.org.
“He’s very interested in getting to the bottom of the events in Sarasota,” said Graham, who plans to meet with senior Obama administration officials in Washington next week.
“The fact is that most of the hijackers spoke no English and had not been in the U.S. before, yet were able to carry out a very complicated plot while maintaining anonymity,” said Graham. “What we’ve discovered in Sarasota may be another step toward exposing a larger network of Saudi-related individuals who assisted the hijackers.”
The FBI records provide new information about an investigation into what occurred prior to 9/11 at the upscale home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family in the gated community of Prestancia. Information in them contradicts prior FBI statements that no evidence was found connecting the al-Hijjis to 9/11.
Former Florida Senator Bob Graham
The names of individuals were redacted before the reports were made public, but are apparent because the documents describe unique, known events. The records were released in response to a specific request for information about the probe at al-Hijji’s former residence at 4224 Escondito Circle.
Agents determined the al-Hijjis “fled” their home on August 27, 2001 – two weeks before the attacks – leaving behind three cars, furniture, clothing, toys, food and other items.
“Further investigation of the [ name deleted ] family revealed many connections between the [ name deleted ] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” says an April 16, 2002 FBI report.
The report lists three of those individuals. Two, including one described as a “family member,” were described as students at the nearby Venice airport flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. The third person lived with some flight students, the report says.
BrowardBulldog.org previously reported that a counterintelligence officer speaking on condition of anonymity said an FBI examination of gatehouse log books and photos of license tags revealed that vehicles linked to the future hijackers visited al-Hijji’s residence. Phone records also reportedly showed indirect ties to the hijackers.
FBI agent Gregory Sheffield was the lead agent on the case. He wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks, the counterterrorism official said. Sheffield’s name is blanked out, too.
On July 22, 2002, Sheffield interviewed al-Hijji’s wife, Anoud, and mother-in-law, Deborah Ghazzawi “regarding possible terrorist activity.” The women, who had returned briefly to the home, denied fleeing before 9/11 or knowing certain unnamed individuals, according to the reports.
Soon after, Sheffield was transferred to the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence (FCI) division and left the area, according to the counterintelligence officer. The transfer suggested Sheffield may have recruited an al-Hijji family member as a source of information, the source said.
If so, that could explain why the FBI has reported finding only 35 pages of records regarding an investigation that records and interviews indicate resulted in the filing of numerous investigatory reports over a period of at least three years.
“I believe that the transfer of Sheffield to the FCI side of the bureau speaks volumes as to the lack of information available. If he was able to recruit a family member then all information up to that point will be off limits under the National Security Act,” the counterintelligence source said.
Likewise, that scenario could account for a curious statement in another FBI report written after the Sarasota probe became public in September 2011. The report states, “The FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community.”
According to the counterintelligence officer, that statement is “not true.” In fact, the source said, Agent Sheffield took the Sarasota files, apparently to include the gatehouse and phone records, with him when he departed to his new, more secretive FBI post.
Much remains unclear. Chunks of the released reports are blanked out for national security and other reasons. Four pages were withheld in their entirety.
Sen. Graham believes that what happened in Sarasota points to the idea that there was a broader support network of Saudis who provided aid and sympathy for the future hijackers.
Graham cites a “common outline” with events in San Diego, Ca. involving Khalid al-Mihdar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the five Saudi hijackers aboard the American Airlines jet that was flown into the Pentagon.
The Joint Inquiry and 9/11 Commission reports describe how Omar al-Bayoumi, another Saudi living in San Diego, provided assistance to al-Mihdar and al-Hazmi, including housing.
One report said al-Bayoumi had access to “seemingly unlimited funding from Saudi Arabia” and that “one of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego” reported al-Bayoumi appeared to be an intelligence officer for Saudi Arabia or another foreign power. The FBI also learned al-Bayoumi “has connections to terrorist elements,” the report said.
“There is no evidence that Bayoumi knew what was going on; just that he’d been told to take care of these men,” said Graham, who has criticized the FBI for withholding key information about what happened in San Diego.
A former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Graham believes a new investigation is now needed to get the truth.
“My goal is to have the investigation reopened and do a full inquiry into the Saudi aspects and then make the results available to the American people,” Graham said.
Such an inquiry should not be led by the FBI, according to Graham.
“They are the ones who have significantly been responsible for us not knowing 10 years ago what the Saudi role was by withholding information and withholding witnesses,” he said.
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden, published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.
By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers,
©2013 Broward Bulldog, Inc.
A Saudi family who “fled” their Sarasota area home weeks before September 11th had “many connections” to “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” according to newly released FBI records.
The information runs counter to previous FBI statements. It also adds to concern raised by official investigations but never fully explored, that the full truth about Saudi Arabia and the 9/11 attacks has not yet been told.
One partially declassified document, marked “secret,” lists three of those individuals and ties them to the Venice, Florida flight school where suicide hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi trained. Accomplice Ziad Jarrah took flying lessons at another school a block away.
Atta and al-Shehhi were at the controls of the jetliners that slammed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, killing nearly 3,000 people. Jarrah was the hijack-pilot of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania.
The names, addresses and dates of birth of the three individuals tied to the flight school were blanked out before the records were released to BrowardBulldog.org amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation.
National security and other reasons are cited for numerous additional deletions scattered across the 31 released pages. Four more pages were withheld in their entirety.
The records cast new light on one of the remaining unresolved mysteries regarding Florida’s many connections to the 9/11 attacks: what went on before the attacks at 4224 Escondito Circle, the home of Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family before the attacks.
The documents are the first released by the FBI about its once-secret probe in Sarasota. Information contained in the documents flatly contradicts prior statements by FBI agents in Miami and Tampa who have said the investigation found no evidence connecting the al-Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.
Abdulaziz al-Hijji, right, in Sarasota prior to 9/11 and leaving his London office in 2012 Photo in London by Warren Allot for The Telegraph
Former Florida Senator Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks a decade ago, has said the FBI did not disclose the existence of the Sarasota investigation to Congress or the 9/11 Commission.
The records also show for the first time that Graham’s former colleague, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., queried Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller about the Sarasota investigation six days after its existence was disclosed in a story published simultaneously by BrowardBulldog.org and The Miami Herald on September 8, 2011.
The story told how concerned residents in the gated community of Prestancia tipped the FBI after the attacks to the al-Hijjis’ sudden departure in late August 2001. The family left behind three cars, clothes, furniture, diapers, toys, food and other items.
It also reported that a counterterrorism officer and Prestancia’s former administrator, Larry Berberich, said an analysis of gatehouse security records – log books and snapshots of license tags – had determined that vehicles either driven by or carrying several of the future hijackers had visited the al-Hijji home.
Phone records revealed similar, though indirect, ties to the hijackers, said the counterterrorism officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In contrast, the newly released FBI records include a pair of two-page reports, written in response to the story, that reiterate the bureau’s public position that its investigation turned up nothing.
One report, written on stationery of the Justice Department’s 9/11 prosecution unit, notes “the FBI appears not to have obtained the vehicle entry records of the gated community, given the lack of connection to the hijackers.”
But the counterterrorism source, who has personal knowledge of the matter, called that assertion “not true.”
The Escondito Circle home where al-Hijji lived with his wife, Anoud, and their small children was owned by her parents, Esam and Deborah Ghazzawi. Esam Ghazzawi was an advisor to Prince Fahd bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, nephew of King Fahd. Prince Fahd, a prominent racehorse owner, died in July 2001 at age 46.
Al-Hijji, who following 9/11 worked for the Saudi oil company Aramco in England, could not be reached by phone or email last week. Aramco staff said there was no longer anyone by that name in the London office.
Last year, al-Hijji told a reporter his family did not depart their Sarasota home in haste but left so he could take a job with Aramco in Saudi Arabia. He denied involvement in the 9/11 plot, which he called “a crime against the USA and all humankind.”
The records as released do not identify al-Hijji or anyone else by name, citing various exemptions that protect persons’ names in law enforcement records. The names are apparent, however, because the documents describe unique, known events and were released in specific response to a request for information about the investigation at the al-Hijji’s residence.
An April 16, 2002 FBI report says “repeated citizen calls” led to an inspection of the home by agents of the Southwest Florida Domestic Security Task Force.
“It was discovered that the [ family name deleted ] left their residence quickly and suddenly. They left behind valuable items, clothing, jewelry and food in a manner that indicated they fled unexpectedly without prior preparation or knowledge,” the report says.
“Further investigation of the [ name deleted ] family revealed many connections between the [ name deleted ] and individuals associated with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001,” the report says.
The report lists three of those individuals. While their identities remain secret, the first person on the list was described as “a [ name deleted ] family member.”
That person and a second individual were said to be flight students at Huffman Aviation – the flight school at the Venice Municipal Airport attended by hijackers Atta and al-Shehhi.
The third person on the list “lived with flight students at Huffman Aviation” and was “arrested numerous times by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office,” the report says.
The next paragraph, which ends the report, is blanked out entirely. The document cites two reasons: an Executive Order that allows matters “to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy” and the National Security Act, which lets the CIA director exempt his agency’s operational files from the Freedom of Information Act.
FBI Special Agent Gregory Sheffield wrote the April 2002 report, according to the counterterrorism officer. His name is blanked out, too.
A notice on the document indicates the censored information regarding the three individuals associated with the terrorist attacks is scheduled to remain classified for another 25 years – until March 14, 2038.
The FBI released the records as a Freedom of Information lawsuit filed by BrowardBulldog.org inches toward trial this summer in federal court in Fort Lauderdale. The suit was filed in September after the FBI rejected both a request for its investigative records and an appeal of that request.
Thomas Julin, the news site’s attorney, called the FBI’s release of records that it had previously determined to be exempt from disclosure “highly unusual.”
“The government initially took the position that it had no documents. It hasn’t explained why things changed,” said Julin, of Miami’s Hunton & Williams.
Miami Assistant U.S. Attorney Carole Fernandez, who represents the FBI, declined comment.
The released FBI records are in two tiers: reports and other material written in 2001-2002 and memos, letters and email that followed publication of the first story about the matter in September 2011.
A number of pages recount information provided to the FBI by mail carriers and others, including a Sept. 18, 2001 observation that the al-Hijji’s appeared to have “left in a hurry.”
Former Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich
A Sept. 25 report talks of bank records that agents had obtained. The report was referred to the counterterrorism division’s Usama Bin Laden Unit/Radical Fundamentalist Unit.
One of the reports written in September 2011, after the existence of the Sarasota investigation was revealed, discusses briefly the unnamed “family member” who took flight lessons at Huffman Aviation.
“[ Name deleted ] was interviewed multiple times after 9/11 and identified Atta and al-Shehhi as individuals [ phrase deleted ] flight training at Huffman. However, investigation did not reveal any other connection between [ name deleted ] and the hijackers and the 9/11 plot,” the report says.
FBI 302 reports about those interviews were not made public.
Senate Judiciary chair Leahy’s inquiry is disclosed in a declassified Nov. 22, 2011 response letter written by Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich.
Weich called the FBI’s response to the 9/11 attacks “comprehensive and unprecedented.” He assured Leahy that agents found no evidence of contact between the hijackers and the al-Hijjis.
Similarly, Weich denied Sen. Graham’s assertion that the FBI had not turned over its Sarasota records to Congress. The bureau, he stated, made all of its records available and suggested they may have been overlooked by investigators.
“The FBI is unable to ascertain whether these investigators reviewed records concerning the Sarasota family. The FBI also has not identified any specific requests by the investigators concerning the Sarasota family,” the letter says.
“You can’t ask for what you don’t know exists,” said Graham.
FBI Director Robert Mueller with wanted poster for Adnan Shukrijumah
Documents the FBI now has released do not mention other known aspects of the Sarasota investigation, including troubling information provided to the FBI by al-Hijji’s former friend, Wissam Hammoud.
Hammoud, 47, is a federal prisoner classified by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons as an “International Terrorist Associate.” He is serving a 21-year sentence for weapons violations and attempting to kill a federal agent and a witness in a previous case against him.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement documents obtained by BrowardBulldog.org last year state that shortly after his 2004 arrest Hammoud told agents that al-Hijji considered Osama bin Laden a “hero,” may have known some of the hijackers, and once introduced him to fugitive al-Qaeda leader and ex-Miramar resident Adnan Shukrijumah.
When reached last year, al-Hijji acknowledged having known Hammoud well. He did not, however, respond to a question about Hammoud’s allegations and said Shukrijumah’s name did not “ring a bell.”
What the FBI did about Hammoud’s allegations is not known.
Other FBI documents about Sarasota are known to exist, but were not released – including a report Graham says he read last year but can’t discuss because it is classified.
The Bulldog’s FOIA lawsuit asks U.S. District Judge William Zloch to order the FBI to produce all records of its Sarasota investigation, including the records seen by Graham.
Dan Christensen is the editor of Broward Bulldog. Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who also contributed to this article, are co-authors of “The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden,” published by Ballantine Books, which was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2012.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller
Hallandale Beach officials have fired back at county investigators who last month found “gross mismanagement” of tax funds at the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, accusing them of “numerous factual inaccuracies” and challenging their legal authority.
In its official 10-page response to the Broward Inspector General’s report, the city also said the OIG had misinterpreted the state statute governing the CRA.
“It is this failure which results in the OIG (Office of Inspector General) erroneously coming to certain conclusions that the city and CRA grossly mismanaged public funds,” says the report approved by City Manager Renee C. Miller.
The Inspector General’s preliminary report in March, after a year-long investigation, concluded that top city officials had grossly mismanaged millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its” CRA. It identified at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to nonprofits.
More than $400,000 in bond proceeds also were said to have been used improperly, according to the Inspector General’s report.
The report identified several contributing factors to the mismanagement: the city commingled CRA money with city funds instead of setting up a separate CRA trust fund in years past; the city improperly spent on parks and other activities outside the CRA’s boundaries; and it failed to access and verify work performed by nonprofits that received grants.
The CRA was established in 1996 under a state law that allows it to collect tax revenue to be used to rid slum and blight conditions. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries. Hallandale’s CRA has received approximately $70 million since it began.
Florida law does not permit the CRA to fund charitable donations to nonprofits, according to the Inspector General’s report. And a Florida Attorney General’s opinion in 2010 said CRA expenditures should be used only for “brick and mortar” projects, it said.
Yet in its April 4 response obtained by the Browardbulldog.org, the city challenged many of the Inspector General’s assertions, including that one.
“A close reading of this opinion will reveal that the Attorney General gives no definite answer as to whether or not grants to nonprofits are outside the scope of the community redevelopment act,” says the response, noting the opinion was advisory and nonbinding.
City Manager Miller declined to discuss the response in detail. “We asserted our objections,” she said.
City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield and CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz helped Miller prepare the response, which included the assertion, first raised last June, that the Inspector General does not have regulatory authority over the CRA.
Mayor Joy Cooper, who like her fellow city commissioners also acts as a CRA director, did not respond to a request for comment.
But Hallandale Beach’s response made it clear that city officials were not backing down and asserting they had acted properly and in accordance with state law.
“There is very little case law or authority providing guidance as to what types of projects may or may not qualify as a community redevelopment project,” stated the response.
The response pointed out that in a case involving the Panama City Beach CRA, a court ruled the state statute governing CRA expenditures for public projects.
The city objected to the Inspector General’s finding that the city had failed to create a separate CRA trust fund until last May, saying in its response that a fund was established in 1996 by city ordinance. The response adds that state law does not require that the trust fund “be maintained in a separate bank account.”
The city also parried the Inspector General’s assertion that the CRA had failed to create an update its redevelopment plan saying, “there is no statutory requirement to update the plan.” The city noted, however, that it is currently updating its plan.
The Inspector General’s critique that the city had failed to established standards for awarding grants to charitable organization was met by a similar defense. The city argued that state law “does not require a transparent process or standardized criteria” — and because of that cannot be accused of “gross mismanagement.”
The city said, however, that it has adopted a formal process for applying for grants that will go into effect next year.
The city’s response acknowledges a good practice would have been to monitor how non-profits spent the money the CRA gave them, but once again contended that state law did not require this.
“The legal requirement is that the funds be utilized for a public purpose,” the response said. “It is the responsibility of the government board to determine whether or not it is a public purpose.”
The city attacked the Inspector General’s criticism of the CRA loan program saying it had failed to understand the need for “flexibility in the administration of its programs” and that some businesses may not qualify for regular private financing.
“This is the nature of community redevelopment,” the response stated. “In certain instances, such may result in financial losses and require the waiver of certain loan terms. Such does not necessarily constitute gross mismanagement….”
Likewise, the city took issue with the Inspector General’s concern that CRA bond funds were used to pay costs related to the upgrading of two parks outside its boundaries, Scavo and South Beach.
“The city objects to the inclusion of this matter in the report,” the response said.
City officials have said a plan is in place to repay any CRA funds used for those parks once work actually gets underway.
The city noted, too, that changes have been made in the past year to improve CRA management and operations.
These include hiring an experienced CRA attorney and a financial analyst; amending CRA policies on loans and grants; assuring accountability for loans; creating standards and accounting for charitable loans to nonprofit groups; fiscally separating CRA funds from city funds; ensuring city and CRA priorities are aligned; maintaining clear and consistent lines of communications regarding for plans and projects.
“It is our mission to continue to implement enhanced internal controls as well as stabilize the administration of the CRA and the city,” the response concludes.
The Inspector General’s Office has said that once it receives the city’s response it will finalize its report and officially release it.
William Gjebre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann, left, and Capt. John DiCintio
An internal police investigation of a Coconut Creek officer who pulled his Taser while interrogating a frightened theft suspect in a bathtub omitted relevant facts and did not follow department policy.
Police Chief Michael Mann ordered the inquiry last fall – more than a year after the bathtub incident involving Patrolman James Yacobellis and 19-year-old Blake L. Robinson.
To lead the investigation, the chief chose a police captain who has never worked as a detective.
Records show that Capt. John DiCintio did not do an actual investigation. His inquiry was limited to reviewing a flawed Broward State Attorney’s criminal probe of Yacobellis into possible assault and falsified police reports that ended with no charges.
In January, DiCintio sustained a pair of administrative charges against Yacobellis for committing an “unsafe practice” – leaving a second suspect, Robinson’s girlfriend, unattended while he questioned Robinson in the bathroom. Yacobellis was suspended for two weeks.
But DiCintio’s internal affairs report did not answer more disturbing questions that might lead to more serious discipline, including dismissal. Did Yacobellis threaten Robinson with his Taser while interrogating him alone in a bathtub? Did he try to cover it up by failing to mention it in his police reports?
Civil rights advocates have likened what happened to Robinson to a form of police torture. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has asked the Justice Department to investigate.
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct cases, read the three-page internal affairs report at the request of BrowardBulldog.org. He called it “unprofessional, incomplete.”
“I don’t call that an investigation because of what’s missing,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they take their own statements? There are a number of issues not addressed in the statements that were given to prosecutors.”
Coconut Creek Chief Mann declined to discuss the details of the internal affairs report saying “it speaks for itself.” He added, however, that he considers Yacobellis to be a good officer and is glad he’s back on the job.
“I know this is a story for a lot of people. I get it. I understand it. It seems to have the fallaciousness to it,” Mann said. “But I’m over it right now. He’s been disciplined and he’s back to work. We’re monitoring him.
The bathtub incident occurred on Aug. 15, 2011 while Yacobellis was checking out a report of missing jewelry involving a family living in the Star Pointe apartment complex.
Blake L. Robinson Photo: WSVN,Channel 7
At one point, Yacobellis took Robinson into the small bathroom, closed the door, turned the sink faucet on full force, and made him stand in the tub. Yacobellis later acknowledged pulling his Taser, but not turning it on, because he thought Robison was preparing to fight. He added that Robinson did not seem frightened to him.
But Yacobellis’s supervisor that night, Sgt. Dominic Coppola, contradicted him on several key points.
Coppola said that when Yacobellis opened the door he was holding an activated Taser “with the laser beam emitting.” A “scared” Robinson was in the tub, he said.
Neither of Sgt. Coppola’s observations, sworn to under oath, are included in the “investigative findings” of the internal affairs report.
“Did they disbelieve the sergeant’s testimony?,” said ex-Miami Chief Harms. If they did, no reason was cited in the report.
Likewise, there is no apparent recognition in the report that Coppola’s statements corroborate suspect Robinson’s sworn account, and contradict Yacobellis. In his statement, Robinson stated that Yacobellis’s Taser was switched on, and that he was scared.
The internal affairs report also omits:
- Coppola’s observation that when he arrived Yacobellis had a “fixated, tunnel vision demeanor” and stated, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him.”
- Robinson’s vivid account of the bathtub incident, including details that dovetail with Coppola’s assertions.
- The fact that Yacobellis‘s three police reports about that night do not mention the bathroom incident.
The report also does not address whether it is a violation of Coconut Creek police policy to interrogate a suspect in a bathroom. City rules for criminal investigations say suspect interviews are to be taped when possible, but Yacobellis’s interrogation of Robinson was not recorded. The internal affairs report does not mention the matter.
Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis
Officers who encounter resistance and use a Taser are also required to file what’s known as an “Officer’s Response to Resistance Report.” An additional report is required if someone is injured.
Yacobellis did not file a response to resistance report. The internal affairs investigation does address it.
In an interview, however, Chief Mann said the officer was not obliged to file such a report. “The actual display of a Taser is not part of the use of force continuum,” he said.
Rules also say internal affairs investigators must conduct “a complete investigation of the alleged misconduct,” which includes interviewing the accused officer. DiCintio did not interview Yacobellis. Instead, he relied on his statements to prosecutors who asked Yacobellis about possible crimes, not policy violations.
Capt. Gerald Feisthammel signed the police complaint that led to the internal inquiry. Chief Mann said he turned the complaint over to prosecutors in 2011 when he decided to ask them, not his own detectives, to investigate the bathtub incident as a possible crime.
The chief’s move was unusual: department policy and the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Police Benevolent Association both contemplate a police inquiry in such matters.
“We turned it over to the State Attorney’s Office to basically see if there was any criminal investigation that needed to be done,” said Mann.
Captain Gerald Feisthammel
But questions surround Feisthammel’s complaint.
Prosecutors don’t have a copy of it in their case file. “We have no documents that reflect how this originated in our office,” public records custodian Susan Seltzer said in response to a reporter’s inquiry.
There is also a discrepancy about the date of the complaint. It indicates it was written on Sept. 19, 2011, the day Robinson filed his four-page handwritten complaint, but no case number was assigned until 2012. Coconut Creek Police rules require internal affairs investigations be documented immediately and receive a case number “issued sequentially by calendar year.”
Former Miami Chief Harms said those problems raise “a suspicious inference of backdating.”
“It was absolutely not backdated,” Mann said. He explained that the complaint did not immediately get a case number because “as we got into it we realized we were going to turn it over to the State Attorney’s Office.”
Records show that instead of immediately ordering an investigation, Mann initially treated it as a personnel matter. He put Yacobellis on paid administrative leave and, on Aug. 30, ordered him to undergo a “psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation.”
In his sworn statement, Yacobellis said the evaluation determined he was “temporarily unfit for duty.” He did not elaborate, or explain why he was apparently later deemed fit to carry a badge and a gun again.
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