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.

New FBI records: A chilling find in a dumpster; 9/11 “person of interest” re-enters U.S.

By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Freshly released, but heavily-censored FBI documents include tantalizing new information about events connected to the Sarasota Saudis who moved suddenly out of their home, leaving behind clothing, jewelry and cars, about two weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The documents were released to BrowardBulldog.org Monday amid ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation. The news organization sued in 2012 after being denied access to the Bureau’s file on a once secret investigation focusing on Abdulaziz al-Hijji, his wife, Anoud and her father  Esam Ghazzawi, an advisor to a Saudi prince.

An FBI letter accompanying the documents, the fourth batch to be released since the suit was filed, cites national security and other reasons to justify why certain information was withheld. The letter does not explain why the documents were not previously acknowledged to exist.

One FBI report, dated April 3, 2002 recounts a chilling discovery made by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office on Halloween 2001.

Deputies were called after a man with a Tunisian passport was observed disposing of items in a dumpster behind a storage facility he’d rented in Bradenton.

The man’s name is blanked out, but the report says authorities who searched the dumpster found “a self-printed manual on terrorism and Jihad, a map of the inside of an unnamed airport, a rudimentary last will and testament, a weight to fuel ratio calculation for a Cessna 172 aircraft, flight training information from the Flight Training Center in Venice and printed maps of Publix shopping centers in Tampa Bay.”

The Flight Training Center is where 9/11 hijack pilot Ziad Jarrah, who was at the controls of United Flight 93 when it crashed in Shanksville, Pa, took flying lessons.

The three paragraphs that follow are completely blanked out. The reasons cited include information “specifically authorized under criteria established by [presidential] executive order to be kept secret in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.”

The documents were located via court-ordered text searches using the names of the al-Hijjis and Ghazzawi. U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch is currently reviewing more than 80,000 pages of 9/11 records.

Miami First Amendment attorney Thomas Julin represents BrowardBulldog.org.

“This release suggests that the FBI has covered up information that is vitally important to public safety,” said Julin. “It’s startling that after initially denying they had any documents they continue to find new documents as the weeks and months roll by. Each new batch suggests there are many, many more documents.”

“There needs to be a full scale explanation of what’s going on here,” said Julin.

The report of the Bradenton incident includes information about the al-Hijjis. The excisions, however, keep secret how what happened there ties back to the al-Hijjis.

The same is true about another FBI document dated Feb. 2, 2012.

On that day, FBI offices in Tampa and Charlotte received information from Washington stamped “secret” stating that a “person of interest” in the FBI’s massive 9/11 investigation had returned to the United States.

The person, whose name is redacted, was reported to be “traveling to Texas and LA for business/tourism.” The person apparently told authorities upon entering the country that he could be reached in Charlotte. He provided a phone number “associated with furniture manufacturers in North Carolina,” the report says.

Details about that were blanked out. But the report also says, “Tampa is notified that a person of interest to Tampa regarding the PENTTBOMB investigation has a valid visa for re-entry into the U.S.” PENTTBOMB is the FBI’s code name for its 9/11 investigation.

In all, the FBI released 11 pages Monday. They contain statements reiterating that the al-Hijjis had departed the U.S. in haste shortly before 9/11 and that “further investigation” had “revealed many connections” between them and persons associated with “attacks on 9/11/2001.”

Those statements flatly contradict the FBI’s public statements that agents found no connection between the al-Hijjis and the 9/11 plot.

Yet they dovetail with the account of a counterintelligence source who has said investigators in 2001 found evidence – phone records and photographs of license plates snapped at the entrance to the al-Hijji’s Sarasota area neighborhood – that showed Mohamed Atta, other hijackers and former Broward resident and current al Qaeda fugitive Adnan Shukrijumah had visited the al-Hijji’s home.

None of that information, or even the fact that an investigation in Sarasota took place was disclosed by the FBI to Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the attacks or the 9/11 Commission, according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham. Graham co-chaired the joint inquiry.

The documents, while stamped secret, are marked as having been formally classified earlier this month in accordance with the National Security Information Security Classification. The parts of the documents that were not released are to be kept secret until 2039.

Among other things, the government asserted that classification is necessary because the censored information pertains to foreign relations or foreign activities, including confidential sources.

“This could be about information considered embarrassing to Saudi Arabia,” said Julin. Fifteen of the 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi nationals.

The April 2002 FBI report contains additional new information, though the deletions make its full meaning difficult to discern.

It says the Tampa FBI office “has determined that (blank) is an antagonist of the United States of America. (Blank) resides in Jerusalem. (Blank) allegedly has held regular and recurring meetings at his residence to denounce and criticize the United States of America and its policies. (Blank) is allegedly an international businessman with great wealth.”

In November 2001, (blank) visited the United States for the first time. He traveled to Sarasota, Florida, opened a bank account and made initial queries into the purchase of property in south central Florida. (Blank) intends to establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida. (Blank) revealed that (blank) is fearful of (blank) and fears that (blank) intends to begin offensive operations against the United States if he is able to purchase property and establish a Muslim compound in Central Florida.”

Three follow-up lines are blanked out.

Miami-Dade prosecutors, state agents investigate police chief, internal affairs officers

By Francisco Alvarado, BrowardBulldog.org 

Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle

Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle

Miami-Dade prosecutors and state law enforcement agents are investigating Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle’s alleged participation in an elaborate scheme to hide and destroy public records requested by an officer he terminated, BrowardBulldog.org has learned.

Other targets of the investigation: Capt. Marie Kent, the former head of the department’s Internal Affairs office, and current IA boss Detective Tony Aquino, who took over IA from Kent.

It is a crime for government officials to tamper with public records.

Edna Marie Hernandez, a police administrative assistant, implicated Rolle, Kent and Aquino during a May 22 arbitration hearing for former Homestead police Sgt. Lizanne Deegan. Deegan, 46, is trying win back her job.

Hernandez said under oath that Rolle signed a fake log sheet that she created on Capt. Kent’s orders in October 2012. The phony document declared that IA files detailing allegations against Kent had been destroyed when in fact the documents still existed.

Deegan wanted to see Kent’s file believing it would provide evidence to show that the department was treating her unfairly compared to others who got into trouble.

AN ABOUT FACE

Hernandez’s testimony marked a significant about face. Last year, she refused to talk to state prosecutors by invoking her rights against self-incrimination. Prosecutors have since given her immunity.

With that protection in place, Hernandez recounted her role in the apparent cover-up in great detail, at times crying and apologizing to the arbitrator, according to a transcript of Deegan’s hearing.

“We are hoping to see some arrests out of this,” said John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents Homestead’s rank-and-file officers. “The chief should go to jail. The captain should go to jail. And [Aquino] should go to jail.”

Rolle declined to comment citing the pending investigation. Kent and Acquino did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.

Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter, who ran an election campaign in 2013 promising to reform city hall, said he was unaware of Hernandez’s testimony.

“Certainly if anyone has been advised to do something improper by a superior, that’s a bad situation,” Porter said. “We are trying to clean up the way things are done around here. If what [Hernandez] is saying is true that would be unfortunate.”

Chief Rolle’s troubles began shortly after Deegan came under criminal investigation in February 2011 for allegedly failing to write a report about a fellow officer striking a drunk patron outside Celio’s Latin Quarter bar in Homestead.

According to press reports, the victim suffered a cut lip and bruised hand from blows allegedly inflicted by Officer Giovanni Soto, who at the time was supervised by Deegan.

Deegan and Soto, along with Jeffrey Rome, another officer accused of beating up a suspect in an unrelated incident, were arrested in July 2012 after the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office filed criminal charges against the three officers. In March 2013, Homestead fired them.

CRIMINAL CHARGES DROPPED

Last December, however, the State Attorney’s Office dropped its criminal case against Deegan. Prosecutors said they could not prove she acted with “criminal intent” and that the victim could not remember specific details about his complaint.

Deegan’s PBA attorney, Andrew Axelrad, subpoenaed Hernandez to recount what happened when his client initially requested Kent’s internal affairs file on Aug. 21, 2011, as well as the subsequent steps Deegan’s superiors allegedly took to conceal their deception.

Hernandez testified that Kent ordered her not to turn over the file to Deegan. Instead, Hernandez only provided Deegan with a copy of a one-page summary of Kent’s internal affairs files.

One year later, on Aug. 21, 2012, Deegan’s PBA representative requested reports and logs documenting the destruction of Homestead police internal affairs files between 2009 and 2012. The department did not respond to request for three months.

Hernandez testified that when the PBA began making repeated demands for the release of the information Kent instructed her to create a log stating that the internal affairs file, along with files on other Homestead police officers, had been destroyed a year earlier.

A sobbing Hernandez described how she studied the department’s legitimate logs detailing the destruction of documents as well as Florida statutes governing the disposal of public records in order to create the fake one.

She said she backdated the falsified log sheet to May 16, 2011, more than three months before Deegan had requested it, to cover up why they hadn’t provided the file.

Rolle and Kent later signed the fake log sheet.

CHIEF ‘HESITANT’ TO SIGN

“I didn’t think [Rolle] was going to sign it at first because he was hesitant,” Hernandez said. “He knew that we were in 2012 and we were signing stuff that we were claiming was done in 2011.”

Hernandez said Detective Aquino, by then the head of IA, drove her to Capt. Kent’s house to obtain Kent’s signature, and later pressured her to stick to the cover story when Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents started asking questions.

Hernandez said she didn’t tell anyone except William “Bobby” Rea, a former Homestead police captain who filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city on May 30. In his complaint, Rea alleges he was fired because he reported Hernandez’s allegations to the state attorney and the FDLE.

Hernandez’s admission that she initially declined to testify citing her right against self-incrimination came under attack by the city’s labor lawyer, Brian Schneider. He accused Hernandez of “concocting a story about other folks” because she’d gotten immunity.

“I will take a polygraph right here, right now, live in front of everybody,” Hernandez replied. “I am not lying.”

Axelrad, as well as the PBA’s Rivera, noted that Rolle sat in during Hernandez’s testimony, but that he did not take the stand to rebut her claims.

“The reason for that is because he would have either pleaded the fifth [to protect himself against self-incrimination] or perjured himself,” Axelrad said. “Her testimony was compelling and it was credible. Finally we have someone with the intestinal fortitude to come forward.”

The arbitrator is expected to make a decision on whether to reinstate Deegan in the next three months. Prosecutors won’t comment on when their probe will be wrapped up.

Down the rabbit hole with the FBI: Saying 9/11 documents don’t exist when they do

 By Dan Christensen and Anthony Summers, BrowardBulldog.org 9-11

In its only public statements about the Sarasota Saudis who suspiciously quit their home in a gated community in haste two weeks before 9/11 – leaving behind numerous personal belongings — the FBI has said it investigated, but found no connection to the 9/11 plot.

Nearly three years later, however, the FBI has yet to back up its assertions by producing investigative reports written by agents who conducted the probe.

In fact, the few FBI records that have been released in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in 2012 by BrowardBulldog.org flatly contradict the Bureau’s public statements. They say the Sarasota Saudis had “many connections” to 9/11 terrorist figures – a determination in line with the recollections of a counterterrorism officer with knowledge of the investigation.

The officer, who has asked not to be named, said authorities found gatehouse vehicle and telephone records indicating that Mohamed Atta and other terrorist figures visited the luxury home of Abdulaziz and Anoud al-Hijji.

KEY RECORDS HAVEN’T SURFACED

The gatehouse and phone records haven’t surfaced – despite the completion this month of a court-ordered search of more than 80,000 pages of FBI 9/11 records. Neither have specific FBI documents mentioned in the handful of FBI records that have trickled out to date, or others that former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, co-chair of Congress’s Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks, says he was shown by the FBI after the story broke in 2011.

What’s going on?

The answer appears to lie in an obscure provision of federal law enacted decades ago that allows the FBI to say that certain sensitive records don’t exist when they actually do exist.

“That sounds like the most likely thing because you know beyond any question that records were created and they’re not showing up where they should show up,” said Washington, D.C. attorney James Lesar, a veteran FOIA litigator. “They’ve simply kept them secret.”

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act into law in 1966. It provides access to federal agency records, but there are nine exemptions, including personal privacy, which agencies can invoke to withhold records from public inspection. There are also three less common “exclusions” used to suppress information about sensitive law enforcement and national security matters.

A 1986 amendment to the act incorporated an exclusion that allows the FBI to treat classified records about foreign intelligence or counterintelligence, or international terrorism as “not subject to the requirements” of the act.

Justice Department guidelines established by Reagan-era Attorney General Edwin Meese say that means that those who request excluded records can be told, “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request.”

NO LYING?

“The approach has never involved ‘lying,’ as some have suggested,” Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich told Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Iowa Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a Nov. 2011 letter. “The logic is simple: When a citizen makes a request pursuant to the FOIA, either implicit or explicit in the request is that it seeks records that are subject to the FOIA; where…records that exist are not subject to the FOIA, the statement “there exist no records responsive to your FOIA request” is wholly accurate.”

Still, such answers can “mislead,” as California U.S. District Court Judge Cormac J. Carney observed in a 2011 ruling in another FOIA case.

When the law is invoked “the government will routinely submit an in camera declaration addressing that claim, one way or the other,” the guidelines say. “In camera” is legal terminology for privately in the judge’s chambers.

That appears to be what happened in federal court in Fort Lauderdale this month when the FBI filed Records Section Chief David Hardy’s fourth declaration in BrowardBulldog.org’s FOIA case. A footnote in the declaration says the FBI simultaneously filed Hardy’s fifth declaration in camera and ex parte (without providing a copy to the news organization).

Miami attorney Thomas Julin represents BrowardBulldog.org.

“We intend to challenge the FBI’s claim that it has no records or that they can be treated as not subject to the Freedom of Information Act,” said Julin. “The judge can make a determination that these records should be open to the American public and I would expect him to do that if he finds that disclosure of these records would not endanger national security.

“We have every reason to believe that this is the case since Sen. Graham has been espousing the view that the existence of a Saudi network in the United States is something that should be disclosed to the American people and would not endanger the United States,” Julin said. Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fl., chaired Congress’s Joint Inquiry into 9/11.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge William J. Zloch continues his review of Hardy’s latest declarations and more than 80,000 pages of un-redacted 9/11 documents the FBI has produced for his private inspection.

QUESTIONS ABOUT AN FBI AGENT’S TRANSFER

FBI records released to date and the observations of the counterterrorism officer appear to fit the FOIA exemption scenario.

The FBI agent in charge of the Sarasota Saudi investigation was Gregory Sheffield. According to the counterterrorism officer, Sheffield wrote two released 2002 reports, including one citing connections between al-Hijji and others tied to the attacks.

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, according to the counterterrorism officer, Sheffield was transferred to the FBI’s foreign counterintelligence (FCI) division and left the area. The officer said the transfer suggested Sheffield may have recruited an al-Hijji family member as a source of information.

“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 officer said in an interview last year.

Broward commissioner’s dad wins VAB contract; Higher pay than AG, justices, judges

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

VAB members attend Monday's meeting. Commissioner Stacy Ritter, left, Mayor Barbara Sharief, Wendy S. Bodner with VAB counsel Monroe Kiar.

VAB members attend Monday’s meeting. Commissioner Stacy Ritter, left, Mayor Barbara Sharief, Wendy S. Bodner with VAB counsel Monroe Kiar.

With no debate, Broward’s Value Adjustment Board voted Monday to rehire the father of County Commissioner Martin David Kiar as its $225,000-a-year lawyer, without going out for competitive bids. 

The contract extension, for as long as five years, means that Monroe Kiar will continue to receive annual pay that’s tens of thousands of dollars above the yearly salaries of Florida’s Attorney General, Supreme Court justices, Circuit and County Court judges and administrative judges.

The 4-0 vote included Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief and Commissioner Stacy Ritter, both VAB board members. Sharief, Ritter and colleague Martin Kiar are all Democrats.

“I certainly have full confidence in your ability to do the job,” VAB chair Ritter told Monroe Kiar before the vote was taken. She will now negotiate a final agreement that will include a term of three years, with two additional one-year options.

VABs are independent authorities that hear taxpayer appeals regarding assessments and other adverse decisions by county property appraisers.

Monday’s vote closely followed the release of a critical audit by the Florida Auditor General’s office that raised questions about the independence and objectivity of VABs in Broward and other counties across the state. The audit said property tax appeals in those counties appear to have been rigged by local government officials more concerned in preserving tax revenues that fairly assessing home values.

Counties and school boards dominate VABs. Two county commissioners and a school board member serve on their boards. The county and the school board also pick the VABs two citizen members.

Monroe Kiar won a competitive process to serve as VAB counsel in 2009 while his son was a state legislator. This time, however, he’d asked the board to rehire him without advertising the post.

Legal services are exempt from county procurement rules. Still, the VAB’s vote to eschew a competitive process when hiring a county insider creates appearance issues that could become politically problematic.

State rules say VAB legal counsel “should avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.” Kiar’s contract contains similar language.

Still, while serving as VAB counsel in 2012, Kiar was a member of a committee that held a re-election fundraiser for Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish’s husband, Geoff Cohen. Cohen is a Broward Circuit Court judge.

Kiar and his son, Martin, also contributed to the campaign of Parrish’s husband.

Broward commissioner’s father wants no-bid VAB contract worth $225,000 a year

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Broward Commissioner Martin David Kiar, right, with his father, Broward Value Adjustment Board Counsel Monroe Kiar. Photo: Brittany Wallman

Broward Commissioner Martin David Kiar, right, with his father, Broward Value Adjustment Board Counsel Monroe Kiar. Photo: Brittany Wallman

Broward’s Value Adjustment Board will consider a resolution Monday to give a lucrative no-bid contract to the father of County Commissioner Martin David Kiar.

Incumbent VAB legal counsel Monroe Kiar, who makes $225,000 a year, has asked the board to extend his contract for as long as five more years without having to endure any competition for the job.

County rules exempt legal services from the standard competitive procurement process due to the specialized nature of attorney services. But a decision by the VAB, whose members include two of Commissioner Kiar’s county commission colleagues, to award a big-Money contract to a county insider without publicly advertising the job could have political repercussions.

Further complicating the matter is political activity by Monroe Kiar that raises questions about his evenhandedness as counsel to the independent quasi-judicial authority that decides disputes between homeowners and commercial taxpayers and Broward’s Property Appraiser.

In 2012, while serving as VAB counsel, Monroe Kiar was a member of the “Committee to Re-Elect Circuit Judge Geoff Cohen,” the husband of Broward Property Appraiser Lori Parrish.

Kiar and his son, then running for his commission seat, are both named on a committee campaign flyer as sponsors of a March 18, 2012 “backyard picnic” fundraiser at Cohen and Parrish’s Davie home. “Please make checks payable to: Geoff Cohen Campaign,” the flyer says.

‘INDEPENDENT AND IMPARTIAL’

Kiar’s VAB contract includes conflict of interest language that says, “It is important that counsel be independent and impartial in order to properly conduct its services for (the) board.”

Nevertheless, state election records show that Monroe Kiar also contributed $100 to the 2012 campaign of Parrish’s husband. Martin Kiar and his wife, Kelly, contributed $100.

“It’s a situation that surely lends itself to the appearance of something that’s not fair,” said veteran appraiser and tax representative David Zachem.

Kiar declined to comment for this article.

Monday’s vote comes on the heels of last week’s news of a critical audit by the Florida Auditor General’s Office that raised questions about the independence of VABs in Broward and other counties. The performance audit said it found evidence suggesting that property tax appeals in those counties appear to have been rigged by local government officials concerned with maintaining tax revenues.

VABs have five members. By law, they are two county commissioners, a school board member and two citizen members who are appointed by the county commission and the school board.

MAGISTRATES TRACKED

The audit cited Broward’s VAB for compiling “tracking reports” on special magistrates who recommended large reductions in property assessments to the VAB and used them to get rid of six magistrates who gave the highest assessment reductions.

Broward Commissioner Stacy Ritter, who chairs the county’s VAB, has said the agency no longer compiles tracking reports. She did not respond to a request for comment relayed through her chief of staff.

Monroe Kiar has been VAB counsel since he was hired on an interim basis in 2008. The job was not advertised. His son was then a Democratic state legislator representing Davie.

In 2009, Kiar won a competitive three-year contract, with two one-year extension options. The amount budgeted for the post that year was $200,000. The contract was extended twice and expires in October.

Under the terms of Kiar’s contract, he’s an independent contractor who receives a monthly retainer of $2,450, mostly for attending about a half-dozen VAB meetings a year, plus $175 an hour for additional non-retainer services like legal research and providing legal opinions. The board caps how much Kiar can charge at $225,000 a year.

Monday’s VAB Monday meeting is scheduled to run from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Room 422 of the county Governmental Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

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