Scott campaign ad touting jobs record stars convicted smuggler

UPDATE 8/18: A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign said Monday afternoon that a campaign television ad touting Scott’s jobs program and starring a man convicted of human trafficking is no longer being aired.

“It was not pulled,” said Greg Blair. “The run simply ended” last week.

Blair’s comments came hours after BrowardBulldog.org published a story about the 30-second spot with Tampa grocer Maikel Duarte-Torres, who four years ago was convicted of smuggling in St. Maarten. Blair declined to answer any more questions.

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

A Rick Scott television ad features the governor shoulder to shoulder with flag-waving smuggler Maikel Duarte-Torres

A Rick Scott television ad features the governor shoulder to shoulder with flag-waving smuggler Maikel Duarte-Torres

A Cuban-born grocery store owner starring in a Rick Scott Spanish language television campaign ad touting the governor’s job creation record was convicted on human smuggling charges in St. Maarten four years ago.

Maikel Duarte-Torres, who gives Gov. Scott a hug and a plug in the 30-second spot, is featured as a Florida success story.

“Four years ago, the economy was very bad. Rick Scott helped Florida’s economy and you can see the difference. He’s created jobs. That’s why I support Rick Scott. I’m just like him. I’m like the American Dream,” Duarte-Torres said in the commercial filmed during a campaign stop at his Tampa store in May.

Gov. Scott, his campaign staff, and the Republican Party of Florida were apparently unaware, however, that Duarte-Torres was arrested on Nov. 14, 2010, in the Caribbean nation for his alleged role in a smuggling ring that attempted to ferry 10 Cuban migrants from St. Maarten to Miami. Duarte-Torres was convicted five months later by a St. Maarten criminal court judge.

duarteHe was sentenced to two years in prison, but only served two days because of jail overcrowding on the island, according to Tineka Kampfe, a spokeswoman with the St. Maarten Attorney General’s office. Kampfe told BrowardBulldog.org that Duarte-Torres was allowed to return home to Tampa on the condition he never steps foot in St. Maarten again.

Duarte-Torres did not return three phone messages left on his cellphone voicemail. He also did not respond to a letter faxed to his business, MD Foot Market, located at 4019 W. Hillsborough Ave. in Tampa.

NO RESPONSE FROM THE GOVERNOR’S CAMPAIGN

Greg Blair, a spokesman for the Rick Scott for Florida campaign, and Susan Hepworth, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida, also did not respond to a list of questions emailed to them about Duarte-Torres.

David Custin, a Miami-based political consultant who has worked for Republican candidates running for state and federal office, says Scott’s campaign and the Republican Party should quickly cut ties with Duarte-Torres and stop running the ad, which began airing in the Miami market on local station America Teve in late July.

“It’s pretty bad to have the governor running an ad with a convicted human trafficker,” Custin says. “But if his people respond quickly and own up to what happened, then it won’t be as bad as sweeping it under the rug and not dealing with it.”

Duarte-Torres is a member of the “Small Business for Scott” Coalition, a group of more than 100 business owners from 67 counties who have endorsed the governor for re-election. In May, Scott and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera made a campaign stop at MD Food Market, where Duarte-Torres flanked the two politicians as they fielded questions from local reporters.

Duarte told the Tampa Bay Times that his store employs 18 people full-time and that he dreams of owning a chain of MD Food Markets. “I started with a watermelon in my hand, selling fruits and vegetables on Lois Avenue,” Duarte said. “Things have grown from there.”

Gov. Scott and Duarte-Torres embrace in the Scott campaign ad

Gov. Scott and Duarte-Torres embrace in the Scott campaign ad

During the photo-op, a film crew also shot footage for the commercial featuring Duarte-Torres. The spot, paid by the Republican Party of Florida, shows the 32-year-old Cuban stocking items on the shelves, interacting with his employees, and giving in an interview in Spanish.

“The most important thing [in Florida] are jobs,” Duarte-Torres said in the ad. “Let’s continue working toward that.”

DETAILS ABOUT THE SMUGGLING

Duarte-Torres was the alleged mastermind of the human smuggling ring busted in St. Maarten. Several articles published by Today, the island nation’s daily newspaper, detail Duarte-Torres’ crime.

At his trial in March 2011, Duarte-Torres said that he traveled to St. Maarten at the request of a friend to deliver $2,000 to Erold Montgomery Bolan, a 64-year-old cab driver who assisted human smugglers in transporting illegal aliens from Haiti and Cuba across the Florida Straits. Duarte-Torres claimed the money was payment for moving two Cuban girls from St. Maarten to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

However, M.L.P. Ridderbeks, the prosecutor in the case, argued that Duarte-Torres played a larger role in a ring that had brought over ten Cubans to St. Maarten on a boat called the Braveheart. Ridderbeks said the migrants each paid $12,500 to the smugglers. Duarte-Torres maintained contact with Erold Bolan and with a Cuban woman known as “Adele” in St. Lucia to organize the transport of the 10 migrants.

Kampfe, the attorney general’s spokeswoman, confirmed Duarte-Torres was found guilty and sentenced to two years, but was released because there was no room for him in the local jail. Kampe provided BrowardBulldog.org with a birthdate and Tampa address for Duarte-Torres that matches records in background report on the MD Food Market owner.

Custin says it is unlikely the Republican Party or Scott’s campaign were aware of Duarte-Torres’ conviction. “It’s not a presidential or congressional race that requires a high degree of vetting and research before you use the person in an ad,” Custin explains. “They don’t do international background checks on people.”

Duarte-Torres has not been arrested for any crimes in Florida.

Holness: Margate isn’t the only city that’s mishandled CRA funds

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness

Broward Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness

In the wake of a critical inspector general’s report that accused Margate of mishandling millions of dollars in community redevelopment funds, Broward Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness says he expects similar findings of wrongdoing about other cities as the county’s investigation continues.

“Unfortunately, this is not the only CRA (Community Redevelopment Agency) handling it this way; others are doing it,” said Holness. “Funds should be utilized…to rid areas of slum and blight, reduce unemployment and help businessmen. CRAs are going for big projects that don’t help neighborhoods and small businessmen.”

The inspector general referred the matter to the Broward Commission “for any action they deem appropriate,” stating the county may reclaim as much as $2.7 million from Margate’s Community Redevelopment Agency (MCRA). The commission has yet to debate the matter.

But Holness, the only member of the nine-member commission to respond to requests for comment, said he’s more interested in the Margate CRA using the funds “the way though should be used, but are not” rather than focusing on reclaiming any mishandled funds.

Attorney Frank Schnidman, a CRA expert and senior fellow at Florida Atlantic University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, also expects county overseers to find that other CRAs mishandled funds similar to Margate. CRAs have “not paid attention as to how to account for funds left over” at the end of the year, treating their funds “as another [city] account and not as a trust fund” to be maintained separately, Schnidman said.

The county’s findings gives it “leverage to bring Margate to the table to get them to comply” with state requirements through an agreement that would tighten accountability, Schnidman said. If no agreement is reached, the county “has the legal right to the return” of the $2.7 million in county property tax funds that the IG identified in its report.

Should the county take no action, commissioners would be left to explain “to the taxpayers not going after the money,” Schnidman said.

The inspector generals’ July 22 report found that the Margate CRA had “engaged in misconduct in connection with the handling of tax increment financing (TIF) funds it received from Broward County and other taxing authorities.” TIF funds come from taxes levied on the increased value of property in the designated redevelopment area.

“We found that the MCRA has a pattern of intentionally retaining excess funds for the later use of whatever unspecified matter it desired,” the report state. “The MCRA’s failure to appropriate the money in accordance with any legally prescribed alternatives has resulted in a debt to Broward County of approximately $2.7 million for the TIF monies contributed in fiscal years 2008-2012.”

Under state law, the report said, the agency must allocate excess funds to projects to be completed within three years, to reduce existing debt, or to place money in accounts to pay down future anticipated debt. Otherwise, end of the year funds have to be paid back to the county, the city, or the North Broward Hospital District – the entities contributing funds to the Margate CRA.

The report cited one Margate CRA official who informed his board two years ago that the agency “had roughly $10 million in cash that was not committed to any project.”

The county’s report said Margate CRA officials claimed that the funds were allocated to the long-awaited City Center project. However, the report concluded, “…evidence plainly shows that the MCRA has never appropriated a single dollars of annual excess TIF monies for that project.”

In its response to the inspector general, the Margate CRA asserted that it was in “compliance with the spirit if not the letter” of state law, asserting said it “did not hoard public monies for improper purposes.” It nevertheless offered to “appropriate money it ‘hoarded’ to a more specific mandated option,” according to the response prepared by Rachel Bach, a Margate CRA official.

The county’s report on Margate stemmed from an investigation started last September of 10 Broward cities and appeared to center on their handling of end-of-year funds. Other cities included Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Lauderdale Lakes, Davie, Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, Plantation and Coral Springs.

The probe followed a yearlong investigation of the Hallandale Beach CRA in which county investigators found the agency made $2.2 million in questionable expenditures. The Hallandale investigation and report, issued in March 2013, followed a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable city loans to local businesses and controversial land purchase through the CRA.

The inspector general’s office also previously determined that Lauderdale Lakes misspent over $2.5 million in CRA funds.

Margate, like Hallandale before it, challenged the authority of the inspector general to investigate the city’s CRA.

“No report should be issued in this investigation, and if it is, it should be issued to the MCRA or the City of Margate, and not Broward County,” the Margate CRA stated in its response.

The Inspector General has dismissed that jurisdictional claim, stating it has the authority to investigate and asserting that it will continue to probe expenditures of CRA funds.

New law drives lobbyists out of the shadows at state water management districts

By Dan Christensen,BrowardBulldog.org 

The Everglades Photo: South Florida Water Management District

The Everglades
Photo: South Florida Water Management District

Florida’s five water management districts, special-purpose governments that collectively will spend $1.1 billion next year, have publicly registered 250 special-interest lobbyists since new registration requirements took effect July 1.

Until now, lobbyists seeking to influence spending and policy decisions at the water management districts operated in the shadows. The public had no way to obtain official information about them or their clients, or even know how many lobbyists were at work behind the scenes.

The new law requires lobbyists to register annually and disclose whom they’re working for. It is the first time state lobbyist regulations have been applied to any of the state’s nearly 1,000 independent special districts.

House ethics and elections chair Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Fort Myers, has said that if the water district registration process goes well, the law may be expanded further to include other independent taxing districts such as the North Broward Hospital District, which levied nearly $150 million in property taxes in 2012.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Fund for Investigative Journalism, reported in January that nearly all of the state’s independent special districts did not require lobbyists to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

A week later, Senate President Don Gaetz and Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chair Jack Latvala announced their support for reform legislation that ultimately focused on the water management districts.

“Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” said Gaetz.

Today, water management districts are required to post lobbyist registration information on their websites.

The West Palm Beach-based South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water resources in the Everglades, is the state’s largest with a projected budget next year of $724 million. It collects taxes in 16 counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade, and is a frequent focus of lobbyists who engage staff and an unelected governing board dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The SFWMD reported registering 104 lobbyists representing a variety of local governments, environmental and public interest groups like Audubon Florida, and large for-profit corporations.

Corporate interests include U.S. Sugar and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida, Florida Citrus, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and ALICO, the Fort Myers-based agribusiness and land management company.

Lobbyist registration at Florida’s other four water management districts: St. Johns River, 55; Southwest Florida, 41; Suwannee River, 36; and Northwest Florida, 14.

SB 846, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in June, requires lobbyists to pay a $40 fee per client. Registration includes a statement from each principal authorizing the lobbyists’ work and identifying the client’s main business and a statement disclosing the existence of any direct or indirect business relationship between the lobbyist and any officer or water district employee.

Broward judge to hear Hollywood tenants’ claims for relocation assistance

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hollywood's Townhouse Apartments was demolished over the weekend. Photo: NBC6

Hollywood’s Townhouse Apartments was demolished over the weekend. Photo: NBC6

Robert Mattson, 18, was stunned when two shipmates were killed when their U.S. Merchant Marine cargo ship was attacked by mortar on the Saigon River while delivering ammunition to U.S. troops in 1969.

Now 63, Mattson says he was stunned again last December when he and fellow tenants at Townhouse Apartments in Hollywood, just off Young Circle, were forced out of their apartments on short notice to make way for a 25-story luxury high rise apartment-hotel complex.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Mattson. “Management was unprofessional and compassionless.”

Worse, he said, Hollywood did nothing to assist city residents displaced by a development that it is helping to fund.

“They treated people living there as though they were second class citizens. They want to build [Hollywood] up to look like South Beach,” Mattson said.

Another ex-tenant, Collette Curtis, 44, said that after she received her notice to vacate last September the complex’s manager was constantly “screaming and harassing” her to get her to move out. “It was terrible how we were treated,” she said.

Over the weekend, a decade after plans for a gleaming new tower were approved by City Hall, the 12-story Townhouse Apartments at 1776 Polk Street was demolished. Its end-of-the-line tale of gentrification is familiar: a rundown building in a rundown downtown area giving way to the promise of redevelopment.

Along with nearby properties, the 200-unit apartment building was designated as being located in a blighted area as defined under the state’s Community Redevelopment Act. Using that designation, the city can divert increased property taxes to developers to spur urban renewal.

But even as the dust settles, a legal tug-of-war continues as to whether the low and moderate-income tenants forced out of Townhouse Apartments are entitled to financial relocation assistance.

LEGAL AID LAWSUIT

Legal Aid Service of Broward County is pressing a class action lawsuit against both the city and the developer, Hollywood Circle LLC, claiming the ex-residents, including Mattson and Curtis, are owed that financial aid.

The defendants say they are not obligated to pay anything. They say residents were renting on a month-to-month basis – indicating that the building did not have a long life. City officials also contend that the fact that many tenants found new residences is proof that replacement rental units were available.

Legal Aid attorneys, however, contend that residents were forced out last December at the beginning of last year’s tourist season and had to pay higher rents or settle for less desirable housing. They also say residents are owed money under both state law governing the city’s use of community redevelopment funds for the project and applicable local law – a claim the city and the developer deny.

The next act in this drama will take place on Aug. 11 before Broward Circuit Judge John J. Murphy III who will hear from former residents, by affidavits or in person, about their plight. The judge will also consider Legal Aid’s request for an injunction to block construction of the hotel-apartment project until the issue of tenant relocation payments is resolved later.

Two former residents will not be testifying. They accepted cash payments of $15,000 and $4,000 from representatives for the owner of Townhouses Apartments to drop their legal action, according to court documents. Legal Aid attorney Sharon Bourassa believes two or three others may also have received financial payments.

After the two former residents accepted the payments, Legal Aid filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of the remainder of the tenants. It subsequently obtained a court order preventing representatives of the building owner from talking to their clients without Legal Aid attorneys being present.

THE NEED FOR FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE

Other former tenants, like Mattson and Curtis, say they had difficulties after moving without any financial assistance.

Mattson, a retiree receiving disability payments who lived at Townhouse Apartments for six years, had several hip operations before the tenants received notices to leave last fall. Because of his health, he had been trying to secure a lease on his $625-a-month apartment to make sure he had a place to be comfortable — but was turned down.

Wanting to get settled, Mattson moved in mid-November into a $595-a-month shared trailer off Sheridan Street, where he slept on a living room couch. In July, the widower moved in with his son and grandchildren in West Palm Beach.

Curtis, on the other hand, knew she could remain in her apartment until the end of the year despite the harassment because she’d paid the equivalent of three month’s rent – first, last and security – when she moved into Townhouse in November 2012.

“I told him [manager] to call my attorney,” she said. Still, she said, conditions went downhill. “The place was disgusting” especially at the end when maintenance stopped, including “spraying for bugs.”

Because she was studying to earn certification in technology studies, she didn’t have time to look for an apartment. With rents high in the area, Curtis said she moved to Williamsburg, Va., to stay with her mother.

In May, Curtis moved back to Florida. She’s now living in Sugarloaf Key, where she is working on and off in restaurants. She said she hopes to earn enough money to continue her studies.

Eanis Levinson, 68, a six-year resident, said she was also harassed by the building manager about when she planned to leave – to the point that she had to go to the emergency room “because of high stress.”

“I wish I was strong,” she said.

Levinson later found an efficiency apartment in a nearby house which she described as “a hellhole.”

She told her niece and her husband about her plight. The couple moved her to their city, Dothan, Alabama.

“I’m living in a two-bedroom apartment with central air,” Levinson said. “I have a beautiful apartment. No one is conning me. Thank God, in the end, it was fine.”

Looking back on her last days at Townhouse Apartments, Levinson said, “The residents were screwed. It’s all about money. We did nothing, but we were treated as peasants. The city did nothing.”

Gov. Scott, his investments and the ‘temptation to dishonor’

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org pipe

When Gov. Rick Scott set up his first blind trust in April 2011, his lawyers asked Florida’s ethics commission whether he had any conflicts of interest because of his investments in companies doing business in Florida.

Topping their list of concern was Texas-based Energy Transfer Equity – the multi-billion dollar parent of various limited partnerships and subsidiaries engaged in natural gas operations, including pipelines and retail propane sales.

The lawyers wanted a conflict ruling about Energy Transfer’s propane business and its 35 Florida outlets potentially subject to state regulation, not its pipelines. The company and its affiliate, Energy Transfer Partners, had pipeline operations in “Arkansas, Arizona, California and several other states,” but not Florida, the lawyers told the ethics commission.

The commissioners, all political appointees of the governor, the senate president and the house speaker, saw no conflict.

“The (propane) business operation that exists in Florida is a small portion of the entire business activities of the (ultimate) parent organization, which is the organization in which the governor has invested,” said the commission’s May 2011 opinion. “Given the scope of the governor’s investment portfolio” his nearly $600,000 investment in Energy Transfer wasn’t “so proportionately large as to provide a particular “temptation to dishonor.’”

Less than two months later, however, Energy Transfer announced it would acquire Southern Union Company and its 50 percent interest in Citrus Corp., owner of the Florida Gas Transmission (FGT) pipeline. The $9.4 billion deal closed in March 2012.

“FGT is the principal transporter of natural gas to the Florida energy market, delivering 64 percent of the natural gas consumed in the state,” Energy Transfer’s web site says. The pipeline runs from south Texas through the Florida Panhandle and south to Miami-Dade.

Also in 2012, Energy Transfer Partners purchased Sunoco and its pipeline, refining and retail businesses for $5.3 billion.

GOV. SCOTT’S BETS ON ENERGY TRANSFER

Gov. Scott’s most recent financial disclosure form, filed in June, shows that as of Dec. 31 he continued to own a stake in Energy Transfer that he valued at $311,000. Additionally, he owned two other entities in the “Energy Transfer family of partnerships” – Regency Energy Partners and PVR Partners, which Regency acquired in March for $5.6 billion.

The governor valued his Regency stake at $194,000 and his PVR units at $207,000 as of Dec. 31. The total of all three of the governor’s Energy Transfer investments: $712,000.

BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that the governor’s portfolio at the end of 2013 included several million dollars worth of investments in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including several that control Florida’s two main natural gas supply pipelines.

One investment, Spectra Energy, is in a $3 billion joint venture with Florida Power & Light to build Florida’s third large natural gas pipeline, the Sabal Trail Transmission in north Florida. Gov. Scott signed legislation last year to speed up permitting for the project and his appointees on the Public Service Commission approved it last October.

Many of Gov. Scott’s natural gas investments, including Energy Transfer Equity, are publicly traded master limited partnerships. Such partnerships pay no federal or state income taxes and are required to pay out all earnings to their limited partners – investors like Gov. Scott – that aren’t needed for current operations and maintenance. The investors are then taxed on those earnings.

Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from having an ownership interest in companies that do business with the state or are subject to their regulation.

The governor holds his personal investments in a so-called “qualified blind trust” that by a state law the governor signed in 2013 allows public officials to hide their investment activity from the public while giving them immunity from illegal conflicts of interest.

The law seeks to “blind” the governor, a multi-millionaire, to the nature of his many holdings by requiring that he turn over control of his assets to a disinterested trustee. But BrowardBulldog.org has reported that the person overseeing the trust is a former longtime employee of Scott at Richard L. Scott Investments and that federal records show the trust has been ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret.

INVESTMENTS DISCLOSED

Gov. Scott made public his investments last month when he closed his original blind trust, then opened a new one into which he placed his investments.

The governor’s office has declined to explain that maneuver, but it was the first time since 2011 that Scott has released information about his investments.

Gov. Scott and First Lady Ann Scott’s 2012 federal income tax forms show the couple claimed a gain of $75,884 that year selling shares of Energy Transfer Equity and its principal subsidiary, Energy Transfer Partners. Total proceeds from those sales: $500,000.

Most of the Scotts’ 2012 gains on Energy Transfer, nearly $48,000, resulted from the sale of Energy Transfer Equity units that the couple reported had cost them nothing. A spokesman for the governor declined to elaborate.

The Scott’s tax returns list the sales of their Energy Transfer units separately from securities sales by the governor’s blind trust that netted about $1.3 million, but are not further identified. That accounting suggests the Energy Transfer units listed on the form were held in Mrs. Scott’s name.

The couple’s tax returns for 2013 have not yet been made public.

Gov. Scott and his staff would not be interviewed about his investments, including Energy Transfer. But a spokesman for his re-election campaign said via email that the governor has “no knowledge” of the contents of his blind trust.

Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, number #257 on Forbes’ list of the richest people in the world, is the chairman of both Energy Transfer Equity and Energy Transfer Partners, and chief executive of ETP. He has a reported net worth of $5.8 billion.

Warren is a big political supporter of Gov. Scott. Last November, two days after former Gov. Charlie Crist filed to run against Scott, Warren contributed $50,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee backing Scott.

In March 2012, Energy Transfer subsidiary LaGrange Acquisition LP gave $25,000 to Let’s Get to Work.

Federal election records show that Warren has given more than $500,000 to mostly Republican candidates and causes since 2008.

Broward Schools construction program woes cloud vote on $800 million bond issue

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org schoolconstruction

Three years after a scathing grand jury report about the Broward school district’s construction program, community activists are raising concerns about the management of future construction projects should voters approve an $800 million public schools bond issue in November.

They are apprehensive because the school district earlier this year approved a one-year contract for a subsidiary of URS, a large construction services firm with a controversial track record of managing a number of construction projects.

The contract award, they said, was preceded by a disputed bid tabulation that did not include disclosure of URS’s problems on past projects.

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

Nathalie Lynch-Walsh

“The evaluation process is flawed and…has to be fixed,” said Nathalie Lynch-Walsh, chair of the district’s Facilities Task Force who was upset that past work experience was not taken into consideration when URS Corporation Southern received the one-year contract. She said the fix must come soon in case the bond issue is approved and the district needs to hire a company to manage it.

Charlotte Greenbarg, a member of the task force when the board awarded the contract, said URS has had problems in various cities around the country. She said, “I would have concern” about any firm that wanted to manage the bond issue construction program without an airing of any of their past problems.

URS Corporation, the parent company, has paid more than $100 million in the past five years to settle construction problems on projects it was involved with, according to published reports.

The district will likely seek outside construction management after eliminating approximately half of its 28 construction project managers. This was done eight months before the district awarded the contract to URS.

LACK OF OVERSIGHT

In 2011, a statewide grand jury sharply criticized the Broward district and its facilities division for lack of oversight and handling of bids. Two former board members were arrested on corruption charges. In the wake of that report, then-superintendent James Notter retired, resulting in a nationwide search and the hiring of Robert Runcie.

The controversy involving the URS contract began unfolding at the Sept. 18 meeting of the district’s Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee (QSEC). Four firms, including URS, made presentations and were interviewed for a $1.75 million construction management contract.

The committee of mostly district officials, along with business and community figures, including Lynch-Walsh, rated the firms as follows: AECOM Technical Services, 1,131 points; URS, 1,095; Jacobs Project Management Co., 1,074; and B&A-CPM, 895.

The committee’s minutes state that a two-way tie was declared between AECOM and URS because each received five first-place votes. District policy, however, refers to total points as the main scoring method; there is no mention of first-place votes being a factor.

The minutes show the QSEC chair and staff then discussed the issue with legal counsel. The meeting was later adjourned until the following week without a selection.

At the reconvened meeting on Sept. 25, district staff announced that AECOM and Jacobs were disqualified because the firms violated various district policies related to the so-called “Cone of Silence,” which limits communications by participants to prevent undue influence.

While the minutes are not specific, Lynch-Walsh said persons associated with the two firms apparently phoned or sent emails about the controversy to a board member’s office or others outside the authorized group.

District staff then recommended URS, which the committee approved, with eight of the 10 members in favor. Lynch-Walsh was opposed and another committee member, Brian Johnson, abstained, according to the minutes.

The URS recommendation was sent to Runcie, who agreed.

URS GETS ONE-YEAR CONTRACT

In January, the school board awarded URS a one-year contract, with two one-year options. There was no mention of the voting controversy at the board meeting, according to board minutes.

The school board and Runcie went ahead with the vote even though the Facilities Task Force had urged the district to set aside the URS recommendation because of the mix-up.

The Facilities Task Force, also comprised of district and community representatives, was established to oversee actions of the district’s controversial facilities department in the wake of criticism of construction activities.

Runcie was unavailable for comment, but the district’s public information office released a response statement noting that while a tie was initially declared, AECOM was disqualified prior to its resolution. The statement said there was an opportunity for disqualified firms to file a protest, but none did.

The district is “working to include a requirement for all proposers to provide a work history as part of the evaluation criteria,” the statement said.

URS currently oversees 37 construction-related projects under the current one-year contract with the district, according to a district document.

In May, four months after it approved the URS contract, the school board also approved placing an $800 million bond issue on the November ballot. The money would be used for technology improvements and capital projects.

URS’s woes elsewhere have been outlined in various published articles, including a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

  • In 2004, a URS-designed pier that supported an elevated section of road on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa sank 11 feet into the ground, causing the span to crash. Two workers were injured. State transportation officials found that URS did not test shafts deep enough into the ground to support the expressway’s foundation. Hundreds of piers designed by URS were reconstructed and the project was delayed by a year. The company agreed to a $75 million settlement in 2009.
  • In 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring more than 140. Victims alleged in a lawsuit that URS, a consultant to the Minnesota Department of Transportation on the project, failed to detect the bridge’s flaws. URS settled the case in 2010 for $52.4 million.
  • In 2008, URS subsidiary Washington Savannah River Co. agreed to pay the federal government $2.4 million to settle a fraud allegation.
  • In 2010, a U.S. energy department report concluded that URS workers felt pressured by supervisors to ignore safety issues and hurriedly finish demolition and cleanup work at the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in upstate New York. Those actions led to the “uncontrolled spread of radioactive contamination” into the air and the Mohawk River, the government found. URS denied it had pushed employees to overlook safety, but was later fined $1.8 million.
  • In January 2012, URS paid $2.3 million to resolve allegations by Massachusetts that a senior engineer submitted false and padded invoices to the state Port Authority during its renovation work at Logan International Airport.

That’s not all. The Los Angeles Times has reported that in 2013 a senior scientist who worked for URS for 44 years was fired after he warned about design flaws at one of the largest facilities to treat radioactive waste in Hanford, Wash. The story said the concerns raised by scientist Walter Tamosaitis, were confirmed by federal investigators and work was halted while federal officials began to address a wide range of plan design problems.

Ironically, the disqualified AECOM may soon reemerge in the Broward School district’s construction program.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that AECOM Technology Corp., the parent of AECOM Technical Services, has agreed to purchase URS Corp. for $6 billion. The deal is expected to close in October, a company spokesperson said. The company would then control URS’s existing agreements, including the $1.75 million district contract.

In May, the Miami-Dade Commission awarded AECOM a $91 million, five-year contract to oversee sewer pipe repairs totaling $1.6 billion.

Gov. Scott had stake in pipeline firm whose $3 billion venture he and his appointees backed

 

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Florida's existing and proposed pipeline routes. Gov. Scott invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies that own all three. Illustration: NextEra Energy

Florida’s existing and proposed pipeline routes. Gov. Scott invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in companies that own all three. Illustration: NextEra Energy

Upon his election, Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team included a Florida Power & Light executive who pitched his company’s plan to build a major natural gas pipeline in North Florida to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in places like Port Everglades.

“The proposed project will need state regulatory and governmental agencies to understand and support this project,” said the proposal submitted by FPL vice president Sam Forrest.

Gov. Scott understood. In May and June 2013, he signed into law two bills (HB 999 and HB 1083) designed to speed up permitting for what came to be known as the Sabal Trail Transmission – a controversial, 474-mile natural gas pipeline that’s to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando.

Five months later, the Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Gov. Scott, unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline. More approvals are needed from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which the governor oversees.

What wasn’t publicly known in 2013, however, was that Gov. Scott owned a stake in Spectra Energy, the Houston company chosen by Florida Power & Light that July to build and operate the $3 billion pipeline. Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy and FPL’s parent, NextEra Energy.

BrowardBulldog.org’s review of financial records made public last month by Gov. Scott show that as of Dec. 31 his portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas – including some, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.

His stake in Spectra Energy was reported as being worth $53,000 that day.

Florida’s ethics laws generally prohibit public officials like the governor from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation, or that do business with state agencies. A similar prohibition exists on owning shares in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between an official’s private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of his public duties.

NEW CONCERNS ABOUT BLIND TRUST LAW

Scott’s investments in companies that do business in Florida raise fresh concerns about the operation of Florida’s so-called “qualified blind trust” statute – a law that allows public officials to veil their investment activity while affording them immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Scott acquired his Spectra shares via his blind trust. Exactly when that occurred is not known, and Greg Blair, a spokesman for the governor’s re-election campaign, said in an email that Scott has “no knowledge of the investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”

Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to the nature of their holdings. The law’s requirement that officials hand over control of an investment portfolio to a disinterested manager was intended to accomplish that.

But as BrowardBulldog.org reported in March, the governor’s blind trust was ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret. And Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm Richard L. Scott Investments, managed it.

“The legislature makes it easy for officials to get away with conflicts of interest through loopholes in the ethics code,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, the nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group. “Corruption has been institutionalized in Florida with flawed policies like blind trusts and political appointees issuing advisory opinions on what’s ethical.”

The governor, the senate president and the house speaker appoint the members of Florida’s Commission on Ethics.

The governor’s financial interest in Sabal Trail’s builder, Spectra, is also fueling criticism from opponents of the controversial natural gas pipeline project.

“That’s very interesting,” said Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It’s totally inappropriate that we have policymakers making important decisions where they have a financial stake in the outcome.”

“OUTRAGED AND DISHEARTENED”

Beth Gordon is a lawyer and former South Florida resident who now lives with her family on a 32-acre horse farm in Levy County where Spectra wants to route Sabal Trail. She helped found Spectrabusters, a citizens’ group that’s fighting Sabal Trail.

“I’m outraged and disheartened by this news. I feel blindsided,” said Gordon, who like Scott is a Republican. “The governor’s interest is in getting these companies the permits they need and he’s not interested in the environment.”

The governor’s financial disclosure form, essentially a snapshot of his extensive holdings as of Dec. 31, shows that Scott also owns a $55,000 stake in another Spectra asset, DCP Midstream Partners. DCM is a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy.

Scott disclosed his portfolio last month after he closed his original blind trust, then immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it.

He did it “to ensure that there would not be the possibility of any conflict of interest,” spokesman Greg Blair said via email. “As a result, Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current contents of the blind trust.”

The trustee of the new blind trust, however, continues to be New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management and its chief executive and longtime Scott crony Alan Baazar.

Neither the governor nor anyone on his staff would be interviewed about his investments. Last month’s disclosure form marks the first time the governor has made public a list of his securities investments since he formed the blind trust in April 2011.

The maneuver served to insulate Gov. Scott from criticism about financial transparency amid his re-election campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist. But it also revealed Scott’s large personal bet on natural gas and firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP.

GOV. SCOTT’S STAKES IN OTHER FLORIDA PIPELINES  

Energy Transfer is a publicly traded master limited partnership whose subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission. FGT is the state’s largest natural gas pipeline, transporting it from Texas through the Florida peninsula south to Miami-Dade.

Florida Gas Transmission is also a major state vendor. According to Transparency Florida, the state website where government spending information is posted, FGT was paid $28.4 million by the Department of Transportation for various construction services in 2013-2014.

Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as being worth $311,000 as of the end of last year. He likewise reported additional investments in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP, totaling $400,000.

Scott’s investments in Spectra and Williams, an energy infrastructure company, also gave him a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline, Gulfstream, which runs from Alabama to Tampa Bay beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Those companies and their limited partnerships jointly own and operate Palmetto-based Gulfstream Natural Gas System LLC.

Scott’s disclosure form reported that in addition to his Spectra holdings he owned Williams shares worth $104,000 and a $71,000 ownership interest in a master limited partnership owned by Williams, Access Midstream Partners.

In addition to the bills Scott signed to streamline permitting for natural gas pipelines, he likewise benefitted the industry last year by approving another law (HB 579) that provides $30 million over five years to fund rebates to commercial fleet operators who buy, convert or lease vehicles that run on natural gas. The program, administered by Agriculture and Consumer Services boss Adam Putnam, offers applicants a maximum annual rebate of $250,000.

The Public Service Commission later approved several individual natural gas vehicle programs. PSC Commission Chairman Ronald A. Brise said the moves helped make “natural gas pricing more competitive with conventional motor fuels.”

The law also exempts natural gas fuel from state fuel, sales and use taxes for five years.

“They’re doing everything they can to build the market,” said Glickman.

Florida’s natural gas market is huge and growing. Nearly 68 percent of Florida’s electric generation, and more than 72 percent of FPL’s total energy, was fueled by natural gas in 2012, according to the Public Service Commission. Pipelines bring virtually all of that gas to Florida.

SABAL TRAIL TO POWER FPL PLANTS

The Sabal Trail underground pipeline is to run through 13 Florida counties. Documents state that it is intended to provide Florida Power & Light with a dedicated supply of natural gas for power generation needs and other purposes starting in May 2017.

Much of that new supply is to come from natural gas fracked from shale. It would flow to Florida from Sabal Trail’s connection to Williams’ Transco pipeline in Alabama.

Sabal Trail is to terminate at a new central Florida hub where it would connect to the state’s two other main natural gas pipelines, Florida Gas Transmission and Gulfstream. Another part of the new pipeline project that does not involve Spectra is the construction of a 126-mile, $550 million pipeline to run from Sabal Trail’s termination point in Osceola County to an FPL plant in Indiantown in Martin County.

“The primary factors driving this increased need are the three modernization projects currently in progress at FPL’s Cape Canaveral, Riviera Beach and Port Everglades natural gas plants to upgrade older, 1960’s-era steam combustion turbine generating units to modern, and more efficient combined cycle technology,” said the Public Service Commission’s October 2013 memorandum endorsing the pipeline projects.

Sabal Trail, however, has drawn significant opposition from both environmentalists who fear pollution and residents who consider the 36-inch steel pipeline a hazard and don’t want it anywhere near them.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a 17-page letter to FERC that questioned the need for Sabal Trail and suggested alternatives, like improved energy conservation measures, that would allow FPL to otherwise meet the power needs of its customers.

“U.S. electricity sales appear to have peaked in 2007,” the letter says.

FPL isn’t the only utility looking to generate electricity using natural gas imported via Sabal Trail.

Later this year, the Public Service Commission will consider plans by Duke Energy Florida to build a new, combined-cycle natural gas plant near Crystal River in Citrus County that would be a major customer of the new pipeline.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the project also requires certification under Florida’s Power Plant Siting Act. Certifications are issued by Florida’s siting board, which consists of the governor and Cabinet.

Audit: $1 million grant for Miami-Dade trade school wasted by mismanagement

 By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Bay Point School in Miami-Dade County

Bay Point School in Miami-Dade County

A defunct youth offender program in Miami-Dade wasted a $1 million county grant building a vocational trade school that has sat empty for the last three years, according to a scathing audit by the Miami-Dade Inspector General.

The findings exposed gross mismanagement by the county’s now disbanded Office of Capital Improvements, which distributed the funds to Bay Point Schools in Cutler Bay between 2009 and 2011.

At the time, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice cut off all operational funding for Bay Point, effectively shutting it down in 2009.

Assistant Inspector General Patra Liu, who wrote the audit report, declined comment. In the report, Liu concluded “approximately $831,000 in taxpayer grant funds were expended after stakeholders were put on notice of the project’s lack of viability.”

The capital improvements office later distributed another $121,680 “without adequate supporting documentation. These disbursements were made at the end of project when it was well known that Bay Point Schools was no longer operational,” the June 20 report says.

Miami-Dade Budget Management Director Jennifer Moon, whose office now oversees capital improvement funds, said the county is working actively with the landowner — The Ethel and W. George Kennedy Foundation — to find another agency to use the school building for its intended purpose.

Miami-Dade Budget Management Director Jennifer Moon

Miami-Dade Budget Management Director Jennifer Moon

Moon explained that when Mayor Carlos Gimenez consolidated county departments shortly after he assumed office in July 2011, he and his executive staff found a “number of shortcomings” in the capital improvements office.

“We realized it needed to be better managed,” Moon said. “That is why there was a reorganization well in advance of this audit.”

In 2008, Bay Point was among 37 non-profit groups that received grants from Miami-Dade’s $2.9 billion general obligation bond program.

Founded in 1995 by Mary Louise Cole-Wood, the boarding school for at-risk youths had an annual $2 million contract from the juvenile justice department to rehabilitate troubled teenage boys. During its first eight years of existence, judges, children’s advocates, and former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist hailed Bay Point as a model program.

It grew from one boarding home along SW 87th Avenue to a large campus with five buildings housing 157 juvenile offenders. Bay Point wanted the county funds, along with a $1 million match from the Lennar Foundation, to build the trade school so the young men could find work once they were released.

But problems tagged along with the school’s rapid expansion. From 2003 to 2009, the juvenile justice department documented 98 incidents at Bay Point, including 34 escapes involving 63 youths, and allegations of unnecessary force, abuse or neglect, improper supervision and falsification of records.

State administrators finally yanked Bay Point’s contract and began moving youths to other facilities in January 2009.

While Cole-Wood fought unsuccessfully to keep the state funding intact, construction on the trade school fell behind schedule. The Inspector General’s report says employees in the county’s capital improvements office knew about Bay Point’s problems, but failed to act. The auditors did not blame any employees by name, but criticized the department in general for mismanagement.

“During these early months, we believe that [capital improvements staff] should have informed [the county commissioners] and [the bond program citizen’s advisory committee] of the red flags and their possible impact on Bay Point Schools’ ability to comply with grant agreement terms,” the report says.

The county had handed out less than $200,000 of the $1 million grant in 2009, the Inspector General discovered.

“At this time, [capital improvements staff] with knowledge of Bay Point School’s demise had questionable basis to continue funding this project for which there was no reasonable and foreseeable alternative for successfully completing,” the report states.

Instead, the capital improvements office continued doling out money until the entire grant had been spent. The final payment of $90,000 was made in June 2011 to finish construction and obtain a certificate of occupancy.

By then, the school was no longer housing juvenile offenders. Last year, the Kennedy Foundation formally evicted Bay Point and Cole-Wood did not renew the agency’s non-profit status.

Moon said employees from the capital improvements office, including former director George Navarette, were reassigned to other county departments. She refused to blame them for what happened with Bay Point.

“Just because Bay Point is not there anymore doesn’t mean the facility won’t be used for its intended purpose,” Moon said, adding that the Kennedy Foundation has been taking care of the school building.

Complicating matters, however, is a law passed by the town of Cutler Bay prohibiting the Bay Point campus from again being used to house juvenile offenders.

Moon insists the law doesn’t prevent the school building from being used to teach vocational trades. “The facility is well-built and well-maintained,” she said. “I’m sure we will find someone to utilize it.”

U.S. Supreme Court green lights 9/11 victims lawsuit against Saudi Arabia

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

President Barack Obama meets with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a bilateral meeting at Rawdat Khuraim in Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama meets with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during a bilateral meeting at Rawdat Khuraim in Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In a decision largely unreported by the national media, the U.S. Supreme Court last week denied Saudi Arabia’s appeal that it be dropped as a defendant in a civil lawsuit alleging it bankrolled al Qaeda in the years before 9/11.

The justices ruled without comment. The long-running case, brought by thousands of 9/11 victims, relatives and others, now proceeds toward trial against Saudi Arabia and other defendants.

Plaintiffs attorneys were heartened by the high court’s decision that keeps the Saudis on the hook for potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.

“We are excited about the opportunity to pursue the first meaningful public inquiry into the evidence of possible direct involvement of agents of the Saudi government in the September 11th attacks, and concerning the involvement of Saudi government charities in channeling financial and logistical support to al Qaeda throughout the world,” said Philadelphia attorney Sean Carter.

“Based on what we have seen thus far, we expect that both inquiries will ultimately point back to the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs, an arm of the government largely under the control of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious clerics.” Carter said.

Michael K. Kellogg, a Washington, D.C. attorney who led Saudi Arabia’s appeal effort, did not respond to requests for comment. The Kingdom, however, has called the lawsuit’s allegations “categorically false.”

Multiple lawsuits asserting a variety of claims were originally filed against hundreds of defendants – including Saudi Arabia, members of the royal family, banks and charities. The lawsuits were consolidated in federal court in New York City and a number of defendants, including the Kingdom, were dismissed in 2005 under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

But last December, in what amounted to a reversal of its own prior opinion, a Manhattan appeals court restored Saudi Arabia as a defendant, citing legal error. The ruling also restored as a defendant the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a government agency the plaintiffs contend funneled tens of millions of dollars to terrorist fighters across the globe.

With the U.S. government as a courtroom ally, the Kingdom appealed. The Justice Department filed a “friend-of-the-court” brief arguing that both the Kingdom and its officials were immune from suit for their governmental acts.

Sharon Premoli, who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Towner, is co-chair of the activist group 9/11 Families United to  Bankrupt Terrorism.

“The US Government unfortunately chose not to stand by the families and survivors of 9/11.  All we can say is that we were very, very disappointed,” she said.

The same day the Supreme Court allowed 9/11 victims to proceed with their case against Saudi Arabia, it also refused to hear a related plaintiffs’ appeal that had sought the reinstatement of their claims against dozens of banks and individuals.

The ruling was in the case of O’Neill v. Al Rajhi Bank. The plaintiffs include the family of former FBI agent John P. O’Neill Jr., a counterterrorism expert who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Ironically, O’Neill was among the first to focus attention on threats issued by Osama bin Laden.

Hollywood tenants pushed out for upscale housing sue for relocation assistance

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org 

Hollywood Circle's proposed 25-story housing and hotel project at Young Circle.

Hollywood Circle’s proposed 25-story housing and hotel project at Young Circle.

Residents of a Hollywood apartment building say they are entitled to relocation assistance after they were forced out of their homes on short notice to make way for a city-sponsored, multi-million dollar redevelopment plan.

The residents made the allegations in a class action lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court by Legal Aid Service of Broward County. The suit seeks monetary damages against the city of Hollywood and the project developer, Hollywood Circle LLC.

The city and the developer failed to establish a required tenant relocation assistance plan and to provide adequate public notice to Townhouse Apartments residents before approving the most recent development agreement, the complaint says.

Residents allegedly received no direct notice regarding possible demolition of their building. In addition, the suit claimed the operators of the complex used unfair and deceptive measures in renting the apartments in the months prior to the eviction notices.

Tenants were ordered to move at the beginning of the winter tourist season in late 2013, forcing them to incur higher rents or settle for less desirable housing than they could afford, the lawsuit says.

Those who were forced to move included a 70-year-old man who had lived at Townhouse Apartments for 19 years. The complex, just off Young Circle, was near shopping and public transportation, a convenience because some of the tenants did not have personal transportation.

WORKING CLASS PEOPLE FORCED OUT

“These were working-class people,” said Sharon Bourassa, the Legal Aid attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of most of the former residents. “It would be easy [for the developer] to do the right thing. But they would rather fight this and pay big legal fees…than settle with these people [tenants]. … They want to put up a big money-maker.”

Legal Aid provides free civil legal advice, representation and education to the disadvantaged of Broward County.

Townhouse Apartments, at 1776 Polk St., and other properties near Young Circle in downtown Hollywood, have been designated by the city as being located in a blighted area as defined under the state’s Community Redevelopment Act. With that designation, the city would divert increased property taxes to developers to spur urban renewal.

Developer Hollywood Circle, which currently does business as Townhouse Apartments, plans to build a 25-story upscale housing complex with 397 apartments and 104 hotel rooms.

The lawsuit, filed in May, asserts that ousted residents are due relocation assistance, but that the city failed to set up a plan under both state law and a related city ordinance governing community development projects. The developer’s agreement with the city obliges the developer to do the same, the lawsuit says.

In response to Legal Aid‘s lawsuit, the city last week denied that it had any responsibility to assist the tenants and asked the court to dismiss the case. The city has rejected requests by Legal Aid to pay each tenant $4,000 in relocation assistance, according to City Attorney Jeffrey Sheffel.

‘PREPOSTEROUS’ LAWSUIT

“We believe it’s preposterous,’’ Sheffel said of the allegations in the lawsuit.

According to Sheffel, the city provided adequate notice of public hearings about the redevelopment project. He said residents were aware of possibly having to move because they had been paying rent on a month-to-month basis.

“There was an abundance of affordable rentals in that area,” he said. The lawsuit acknowledges that rentals existed, but said they were generally less desirable or more expensive.

Lawyers for Hollywood Circle said their client was under no obligation to provide a relocation plan or assistance, arguing that the lawsuit “improperly seeks to join Defendant City of Hollywood with Defendant Hollywood Circle as if they have the same obligation and duties.”

Similarly, the developer’s court filings maintain that public hearing notices on different aspects of the development agreement were the obligation of the city. They also denied that deceptive and unfair practices were used in renting the apartments before the order to vacate.

Matthew J. Feeley, of Miami’s Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, represents Hollywood Circle. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Real estate developer Charles “Chip” Abele Jr. is Hollywood Circle’s managing director. He did not respond to a request for comment via a public relations firm.

DEMOLITION PERMIT ISSUED

The owner of the current Townhouse Apartments, a 12-story building, is Block 55 LLC, which merged last year with the Hollywood Circle development firm. It obtained a demolition permit from the city on June 19.

Legal Aid Service countered last week by seeking an injunction to block demolition of the old building until the lawsuit is settled. A hearing on the request for an injunction is scheduled for today, July 2.

The case is before Broward Circuit Judge John J. Murphy.

The move to redevelop the Townhouse Apartments property began in July 2004, when the city of Hollywood and its Community Redevelopment Agency entered into a development agreement with SFD@Hollywood LLC to replace the building with a project of 500 “upscale residential units,” 125,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space and parking. The estimated value at completion was $250 million.

To assist the project, the agreement called for the city and its redevelopment agency to pay the developer up to $14.5 million over a period of approximately 20 years.

That agreement changed in October 2006, including the addition of a provision that “…developer will coordinate any tenant relocation program with and through the city’s Housing Division.” Some time afterwards, SFD transferred the agreement and interest in Townhouse Apartments to Block 55.

The development agreement was altered again in 2012 to reduce the number of residential units in the proposed 25-story high rise to 397 and to add 104 hotel units, commercial space and parking. The new agreement also excluded the 2006 provision regarding relocation assistance.

Months later, Block 55 merged with Hollywood Circle LLC, which acquired the development agreement, according to the lawsuit.

PROPERTY TAXES FOR DEVELOPER

The 2012 agreement also changed the payment structure. It stated the developer would receive half of the property tax increase generated by the project once completed. City documents stated the payments would continue until the expiration of the current Community Redevelopment Agency in 2025.

Legal Aid’s lawsuit contends that many of the tenants faced severe hardships when they were forced to leave Townhouse Apartments on short notice last year.

Glory Harris, 62, moved into the complex on June 1, 2013, paying first and last month’s rent and security, for a total of $1,800. Less than four months later, on Sept. 27, she received notice to vacate. Had she known of the owner’s intent she would not have moved in, the suit says.

Harris ultimately borrowed $2,160 to move to a more expensive apartment away from nearby shopping. Because she does not drive, she now pays someone to take her shopping.

Six-year resident Eanis Levinson, 68, asked management last August about a rumor that the building was going to be demolished. She paid September’s rent after being assured  “she had nothing worry about.”

On Sept. 27, she received notice to relocate and was soon “threatened and harassed” daily about moving. The stress led her to depart the following month, but she could only afford a room in a nearby house. Instead of a kitchen, she only has a hot plate.

Earl Martin, 70, a 19-year resident living on a fixed income, got a similar termination notice the same day. He found an efficiency apartment, but because of its small size had to dispose of much of his furniture and other belongings.

Page 1 of 2112345»1020...Last »

Welcome to Broward Bulldog

Broward Bulldog Archives