By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward County Commission
Broward County commissioners vowed to seek changes in state law to give them more oversight over municipal redevelopment agencies after learning they cannot audit alleged misspending by Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency.
“We want to get back some control from the state,” County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger said in an interview.
Gunzburger and other commissioners expressed frustration when told by county staff that their authority to audit was limited by both state law and the county’s 1996 agreement with Hallandale Beach that established its CRA.
The issue came before the commission last week when a Hallandale city commissioner and a former city commissioner, both critics of the way the city has operated the CRA, traveled to County Hall to urge the county to conduct a financial review.
The critics, Commissioner Michele Lazarow and former Commissioner Keith London, cited a recent Broward Inspector General’s report that found that the CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds. The report had recommended a county audit with an eye toward recovering any misspent county funds.
A CITY DELEGATION TO COUNTY HALL
A delegation of city officials who have challenged the Inspector General’s report, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, argued successfully that the county has no authority to conduct an audit.
During the discussion, County Commissioner Tim Ryan noted that the Inspector General’s Office had cited possible violations of state law by the CRA, which is overseen by the Hallandale City Commission sitting as the CRA’s board of directors.
“Can we recoup [misspent funds]? Do we have the ability to act on violations?” he asked.
County Attorney Joni A. Coffey and County Auditor Evan Lukic gave the county commission the news that they were powerless to review $36 million in tax funds they have sent to Hallandale Beach for CRA purposes during the past 17 years.
Coffey explained that the county’s agreement with Hallandale Beach provided that oversight of CRA actions belongs to the city and the state, not the county.
Said Lukic, who reviewed the county-city CRA pact, “We have limited authority – but not to audit.”
Lukic said he and Coffey will work together in coming days to better define the scope of the county’s oversight authority.
CRA LIKE A PIGGYBANK?
The Inspector General’s report says that from 2007 through 2012 Hallandale used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored nonprofit groups and local businesses. In all, agents found $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.
“The Inspector General has raised concerns about the use of money,” said Gunzburger, whose district covers part of Hallandale. “We send money to the Hallandale Beach CRA and it may be being used in inappropriate ways.
“They continue to use CRA for a piggybank,” Gunzburger added. “I am disappointed we are…not able to do anything about possible violations of law.”
Gunzburger and other commissioners asked the county’s staff to look into finding ways to change state or county laws, and make recommendations after the county commission returns from its summer recess.
“This has to be addressed through Tallahassee,” Commissioner Lois Wexler said.
The matter is “not a Republican or Democrat issue” but one of oversight of CRA spending, Commissioner Martin Kiar said.
Changes are needed “to protect the taxpayers’ money,” Commissioner Ryan added.
While the county’s elected leaders had a lot to say publicly about the matter, Hallandale Commissioner Lazarow informed them that her colleagues in Hallandale have remained mostly mum.
“There has never been an official action taken by the policy makers: No agenda item. No resolution. No motion. No vote,” she said.
Since the county commission meeting, the Florida Legislature’s Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat, has jumped into the debate, asking city officials to explain how the funds were handled and spent.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
The Florida Legislature’s joint auditing committee is wading into Hallandale Beach’s questionable spending of local redevelopment funds, demanding that city officials explain the use and handling of those funds.
Legislators who head the committee also are urging the city commission to ask Florida’s Attorney General for a new opinion to clarify how Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) funds can be spent. City leaders have challenged a previous opinion.
In a separate but related development, the Broward State Attorney’s Office issued subpoenas last week to Hallandale Beach officials -including Mayor Joy Cooper -in connection with a criminal investigation into the alleged misuse of city funds by a nonprofit group, the Palm Center for the Arts.
BrowardBulldog.org obtained one subpoena served on the city clerk asking her to produce the transcribed minutes and tape recordings of a March 17, 2010 commission meeting, a copy of a $5,000 check issued by the city to the Palm Center and any correspondence between the nonprofit group “and/or founder Dr. Deborah Brown” regarding that check.
City Clerk Sheena James is to appear at the State Attorney’s Office with the records and to testify on June 24 at 9 a.m. The subpoena is signed by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.
A YEARLONG INVESTIGATION
The subpoena and the audit committee’s inquiry stem from a yearlong investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper
The CRA is funding by a portion of the property taxes collected within its boundaries.
Inspector General John Scott’s office said it found “probable cause” that Brown, the Palm Center’s founder and director, had engaged in criminal misconduct and asked the State Attorney’s Office to investigate.
Hallandale Beach officials have denied any misspending of CRA funds and defended how those funds were handled. They have also challenged many of the Inspector General’s findings, including criticism that the city wrongfully funded nonprofit groups, paid for fireworks displays and provided loans to businesses.
A delegation of city officials, led by Mayor Joy Cooper, went to County Hall last week in the wake of talk about a possible county audit of CRA tax funds it had sent to the city to inform Broward commissioners they don’t have the authority to do that.
County officials acknowledged that only the state has the authority to review CRA actions.
The Legislature now appears interested.
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat who is chair of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, and Rep. Lake Ray, a Duval County Republican who is the vice chair, began asking questions on Thursday after being contacted by “a concerned citizen.”
Abruzzo and Ray sent a certified letter to Mayor Cooper. Copies were sent to Florida Auditor General David Martin, Broward’s commissioners, county Inspector General John Scott and City Manager Renee C. Miller.
Citing the report by Scott’s office, the legislators asked Cooper to respond to accusations that Hallandale had improperly co-mingled city and CRA funds and justify more than $2.2 million in questionable spending.
Abruzzo and Ray’s letter says that if the city fails to provide “specific authority” under state law, or if the expenditures were not included in the city’s CRA plan, Hallandale may have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.
The legislators also suggested that city commissioners, who also sit as the CRA’s board of directors, seek a new Attorney General’s opinion regarding what constitutes allowable expenditures.
Abtruzzo and Ray also want to know if the city is complying with recommendations by Broward’s Inspector General, including whether the city has established policies to comply with state law and ensure the CRA operates independently.
Cooper said she has informed the committee that lawyers for the city and the CRA will respond to their questions. “I reaffirmed my position and that of our attorneys that expenditures by the CRA are within the authority of the statute to address slum blight, crime and economic development,” she said.
County agents have asked the city to provide a status report on their recommendations by July 16.
THE MAYOR’S SUBPOENA
Cooper said prosecutors subpoenaed her as a witness in their criminal case.
“I cannot comment any further on the matter. I was asked to go in as a witness on the 25th, but have asked to come in earlier due t o my schedule,” the mayor said.
Prosecutors’ investigation of The Palm Center for the Arts follows the Inspector General’s allegations that nearly $5,000 in city funds were used to make a payment on Brown’s timeshare at the Westgate Resort in Orlando and to make payroll payments to herself and her brother and for miscellaneous personal expenses.
City Commissioner Bill Julian said in an interview that the city clerk’s office informed him a subpoena had arrived for him, too. He had not seen the subpoena, but was told it requires him to appear at Zimet’s office on June 25th.
Julian believes that many of the same city officials who previously were questioned by the Inspector General’s Office were issued subpoenas. “I’ll go there and answer questions,” he said. “I have nothing to hide.”
Commissioners Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Likewise, Brown could not be reached. Commissioner Alexander Lewy said he did not receive a subpoena.
PALM CENTER PAYMENTS
Palm Center received at least $107,000 in CRA funds over a three-year period. Brown was also listed as a principal and director of Zamar School of Performing Arts. About three years ago, Zamar received $25,000 in CRA funds.
Both programs operate on city property at 501 NW First Ave. The city leased the property to Palm Center in 2009 for a one-time payment of $10. While Palm Center was prohibited from subletting the facility, the city later modified the agreement to permit Zamar to operate a summer camp there in 2009.
The city property was once owned by a group headed by Commissioner Sanders. The Inspector General’s Office probe involved a review of the city’s purchase of the property from Sanders’ nonprofit Higher Vision Ministries.
Higher Vision bought the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city eight years later for $235,000. Sanders, appointed to fill a commission vacancy in 2008, did not vote on the purchase.
In between the purchase and the sale, the CRA gave Sanders’ group a $46,000 property improvement loan. Sander’s group was only required by the city to repay $31,000; the rest was forgiven.
In its report, the Inspector General cleared Sanders of an allegation that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit group for the property.
By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
A gun show in January at Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium
Fresh efforts to enforce two county ordinances should prevent cash-and-carry gun sales at guns shows in Broward County for buyers who have not already passed a state background check.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last month that Fort Lauderdale Police were not enforcing the county’s background check ordinance for sales made at gun shows due to police confusion over its legitimacy. This month, police posted a sign at the entrance to a gun show at War Memorial Auditorium warning patrons about the county ordinances.
The Broward County Commission in 1998 passed the background-checks ordinance and a companion ordinance requiring a five-day waiting period when gun sales occur “on property to which the public has the right of access.” A violation is a misdemeanor.
The ordinances exempt holders of Florida concealed weapons permits who have already passed background checks. State law also exempts law enforcement officers from background checks mandated by state statute.
Fort Lauderdale Police spokeswoman Detective DeAnna Greenlaw verified by email that city police were now enforcing the background check and waiting period ordinances.
“I am aware of the sign,” said Fort Lauderdale Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler. “That sign already confirms what we are doing…We are fully enforcing the county ordinances as well as the state law.”
Last month, police told BrowardBulldog.org that the county’s background checks ordinance was no longer in effect due to Florida Statute 790.33, enacted in 2011. That law declares all municipal ordinances that regulate gun possession and sales “null and void.”
Legal experts, however, said the department’s legal interpretation was wrong because that statute is trumped a 1998 amendment to Florida’s Constitution giving counties the option to enact ordinances requiring a background check and a three-to-five-day waiting period.
FORT LAUDERDALE POLICE ABOUT-FACE
The department soon changed its policy. The sign about the county ordinances was first posted outside the auditorium for a gun show on May 4-5.
The city police’s legal position is important. Broward’s two largest gun shows, sponsored by Ohio-based Suncoast Gun Shows and North Lauderdale’s Trader Ritch, are held in Fort Lauderdale.
Greenlaw, who speaks for Police Chief Frank Adderley, declined to discuss the department’s about-face.
But Sunrise Mayor Michael Ryan focused attention on the enforcement issue in an email to county commissioners and the mayors of other Broward cities. He cited last month’s BrowardBulldog.org article and said, “If your City is intending to conduct a gun show or your law enforcement encounter a gun transaction initiated or conducted on property to which the public has access, I would strongly suggest you obtain a legal opinion regarding the city’s authority and obligation to enforce Broward County Ordinance(s)…”
Broward Commissioner Lois Wexler
Ryan’s email prompted County Commissioner Lois Wexler ask County Administrator Bertha Henry to request a legal opinion about the ordinances from County Attorney Joni Armstrong.
On May 1 Armstrong wrote, “…The County’s requirements for a five-day waiting period and a criminal history records check for the described firearms sales remain valid.”
Wexler also brought the ordinances to the attention of the Broward County League of Cities. “I wanted elected officials to be aware of what the ordinances said and for them to be enforced,” Wexler said. She added that Henry sent the county attorney’s opinion to Broward’s city managers.
The county ordinances should slow down “straw purchases” at gun shows, said Hamilton Bobb, retired Assistant Agent in Charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami. Straw purchases occur when a criminal uses a girlfriend or an associate who can pass a background check to buy a gun.
“It should slow it down if the girlfriend has to wait five days,” Bobb said. “Usually they want to get a quick sale.”
Gun sales between individuals at non-public locations are not subject to background checks and a waiting period.
While state law requires licensed gun dealers to perform background checks on buyers even at gun shows, private sellers at gun shows in Florida are not required to do so in locations without an ordinance similar to Broward County’s.
Bobb pointed out that a felon can purchase a gun at a gun show if the seller does not do buyer background checks.
“I think (the ordinances) will have an impact,” Broward County Mayor Kristin Jacobs said, adding that she backs the ordinances “1000 percent.”
“It will surely stem the tide of illegal sales,” the mayor said. “I’m hoping through education about the ordinances that those cities that have shows will work with their city attorneys and law enforcement…”
“I don’t believe (the ordinances) will have an impact,” said Rich Nascak, executive director of Port Orange-based Florida Carry, which describes itself as a nonprofit, grassroots, lobbying organization “dedicated to advancing the fundamental civil right of all Floridians to keep and bear arms for self defense…”
Nascak said, “I don’t believe in laws that are designed to be preventative in nature because they do not work. Laws against murder and robbery don’t prevent them. Laws are designed to determine penalties.
Residents have spoken out about gun shows at War Memorial Auditorium.
At commission meetings this winter, Charles King urged that they be discontinued, saying they were “getting a little out of hand” with guns being displayed as kids played outside in the surrounding Holiday Park.
Mark Hartman told commissioners, “The use of park facilities for gun shows for the promotion of weapons is completely contrary to a child’s safe environment. It sends an inappropriate message especially to our youth and to our foreign tourists.”
Marshall Schnipper disagreed. “I’ve never been to a gun show where a gun fight has broken out, never. Most of the people who own guns are responsible owners of firearms…I think everybody should own an assault rifle.”
Mayor Seiler said in an interview that Suncoast has a contract with the city to hold eight gun shows at War Memorial during the year. Suncoast will pay the city more than $38,000 for the use of the auditorium, he said.
“We will evaluate at the end of the year” whether the city should enter into a new contract with Suncoast, said the mayor, pointing out that he is not against gun shows.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Lawrence Livoti represents Suncoast. He said his client supports background checks and will not challenge the county’s ordinance.
“We’re appalled at what happened at Sandy Hook. We are not out to make sure everyone has a firearm…We want to keep them in the right hands,” Livoti said.
Suncoast considers the city its business partner. He said the company recently sent letters to each of the commissioners inviting them to attend a show.
“We pay a lot of money to the city, plus they earn huge fees from parking. Exhibitors stay overnight and buy food. They come from around the state and bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in business,” Livoti said.
The next Suncoast gun show at the auditorium is scheduled for June 15-16.
Gun shows have been held at War Memorial since the 1970s. The city never has had an issue inside the auditorium, Seiler said.
The mayor, however, is concerned about the city’s lack of authority to control guns outside the auditorium in Holiday Park. “There should be reasonable restrictions so people can enjoy Holiday Park,” he said.
Seiler complained about the 2011 state law that invalidated all other city or county ordinances regulating gun possession and sales, saying it has “handcuffed the city.” He called it “ironic” that the state law that blocks police from enforcing “reasonable (gun) restrictions” in Holiday Park may now force the city to stop gun shows at the auditorium.
The city commission unanimously voted on Feb. 5 to ask the Legislature to repeal the law and allow municipalities the authority to regulate “firearms and ammunition in public parks and other local government owned facilities and property”
The Broward County Commission passed a similar resolution three weeks later.
Broward Bulldog Editor Dan Christensen contributed to this report.
William Hladky can be reached at email@example.com
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Convicted killer Robert Burkell Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office
Ten years ago, killer Robert Burkell bludgeoned to death his 81-year-old tenant Charles Bertheas, cracking open his aged skull like an eggshell, according to police. The motive: money.
Today, Burkell is in prison for life. But his wife Susan, a Lauderhill resident who authorities say did not participate in the slaying but knew what was happening, is set to inherit more than $214,000 of the victim’s money.
Bertheas’s eight elderly brothers and sisters, who live in France, won’t see a dime. Charles Bertheas designated the Burkells as co-beneficiaries on his accounts at the Bank of America.
Florida law blocks convicted killers like Robert Burkell from receiving property or other benefits because of their victim’s death. The law, however, does not extend to their spouses or consider the murderous circumstances of their crime.
“This is a travesty,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden. “She’s benefiting from her husband’s criminal offense…It stinks.”
“We couldn’t prove she was involved in the murder,” said BSO Detective Tim Duggan. “The only thing we could say was there was no way that she could not have known it was going on. She left moments before it happened.
Mary Susan Burkell, 63, says prosecutors and police have it completely wrong. Her husband was mistakenly convicted of Bertheas’s murder, she said, and now Holden and Duggan are falsely slandering her.
“They said I knew what was happening? What a pair. What a pair,” she said. “No. That’s not correct. They have fantasized over this for so long. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Charles Bertheas, whose skull was crushed
The Florida Department of Financial Services, which has been holding Bertheas’s money, awarded it to Susan Burkell in a final order dated March 21. With the help of a Tampa private investigation agency, SRS International, she filed a claim for the property last August after the department rejected a claim by the dead man’s brother. SRS stands to collect a 20 percent commission.
Marc Bertheas, who is 80 and lives in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, opposed the award and sought an extension of the state’s 30-day time limit to file an appeal. In a letter to the department postmarked April 19, he stated he needed time to find a U.S. lawyer, explaining that he was not fluent in English and had special medical conditions that limit his ability to communicate with legal counsel.
The Financial Services department rejected Bertheas’s request. The reason: It did not receive his letter until April 23 – the day after the deadline.
“Unfortunately, the referenced time period has expired and the department has taken steps to disburse the underlying unclaimed property funds in accordance with the final order,” Financial Services attorney Kate Pingolt Cotner informed Marc Bertheas in an April 25 letter.
Widower Charles Bertheas died Nov. 23, 2003 on the floor of the converted family room he rented from the Burkells in their four-bedroom home at 9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac.
9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac, the scene of the crime
Robert Burkell, now 64, summoned police that afternoon after reportedly finding the body. Bertheas had been dead for at least several hours.
Burkell told police he’d last seen Bertheas the night before when they had dinner together at a bar in Sawgrass Mills. He said he thought Bertheas might have hit his head in a drunken fall.
But “a large pool of blood” around the body, and a detective’s observation of “considerable trauma to the victim’s face and head” raised suspicion, court records say. The medical examiner’s office later classified the death as a homicide and attributed it to blunt trauma. The weapon used by the killer to crush Bertheas’s head was never identified.
A motive soon became apparent when it was found that Burkell had “forged a $10,000 check in Mr. Bertheas’s name” the night before the murder, according to Duggan. It wasn’t until later that police learned Bertheas had designated Robert and Susan Burkell as the beneficiaries of accounts containing $280,000 in savings at the time of his death, records say. That included proceeds from the sale of the condo he once shared with his late wife.
No signs of forced entry or a struggle were found at the home, and no valuables were missing. The victim’s DNA was discovered in bloodstains on a bath mat and counter top in the master bath – a location Susan Burkell later testified only she and her husband used. Likewise, two bare sole footprints found in dried blood adjacent to the body were matched to Robert Burkell, the records say.
Burkell was arrested two days before Christmas. It wasn’t his first arrest for murder.
Detective Duggan said that in 1986 Burkell confessed to bludgeoning William Yalden, a Geneva, N.Y. businessman whose body was later found in an Ohio cornfield, “in the exact same manner as he killed Bertheas.” Burkell’s confession was thrown out prior to trial, however, because of a Miranada rights warning issue, Duggan said.
“He definitely got away with that one,” said Duggan.
Things turned out differently for Burkell 20 years later in Florida. While Burkell did not confess to killing Bertheas, he was nevertheless convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal in 2008.
The money in Bertheas’s bank accounts was turned over to the state as unclaimed property in 2005. In 2011, Marc Bertheas tried to claim it, but his claim was denied because he was not a beneficiary.
Burkell’s murder conviction meant he had no longer had a legal claim to Bertheas’ money. Florida law treats killers who stand to inherit from their victims as if they died first.
“Consequently, Susan Burkell is the only beneficiary who is legally permitted to receive the unclaimed property funds at issue,” the Department of Financial Services decided.
Robert Burkell, who has three children by his wife of 40 years, is currently being held at the Broward County Jail while awaiting a ruling on his lawyer’s motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The motion is pending before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.
On the day she was interviewed, Susan Burkell had not received any payout from the state. How much she will ultimately get is unclear.
For reasons that are not made clear in state records, the $280,000 that was in Bertheas’s accounts at the time of his death had dwindled to $214,221.86 by 2008. Detective Duggan said he’s heard that amount has dwindled further – eaten away by attorney fees.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller
After a brief period of independence, the Hallandale Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) is once again under the thumb of the city manager.
CRA oversight by Hallandale Beach city managers was a key issue in the year-long investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office which recently found that city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.
While the Inspector General expressed concern about a shift back to the city manager-directed CRA, City Manager Renee C. Miller said Hallandale was in line with the majority of Broward’s CRA cities – eight of 12 of which use the city manager to also head the CRA.
In its recent report criticizing the city, the Inspector General noted that CRA management improved briefly last year under the direction of former executive director Alvin Jackson who pushed through a number of changes that addressed the concerns of the county’s investigators. They included new measures to comply with laws and rules governing CRA grants and donations to community groups and to improve accountability.
“In August of 2012,” the report says, “the community redevelopment board finally provided for independent leadership of the CRA by promoting Dr. Jackson to the position of executive director. …Unfortunately, the city has since… receded from this course of action.” That’s a reference to Jackson’s January resignation under pressure from the mayor and the city commission, who also sit as the CRA’s board.
CITY MANAGER REGAINS CONTROL
The board then handed off the executive director’s duties to the city manager – the model that got the city into trouble in past years.
Except for last year’s blip, Hallandale Beach’s city manager has headed the CRA since its creation in 1996. Jackson was hired as CRA director in January 2011, but reported to then-city manager Mark Antonio.
Jackson quickly found the CRA lacked or was missing documents and had failed to create bylaws or establish a separate CRA trust fund to hold its funds. It also had not updated its operating plan, as required by law.
State law requires that each municipal CRA be led by an executive director, which can be a city manager or some other employee. It also requires the CRA to operate as an independent agency.
The Inspector General’s report said the CRA should create both a stable staff and “incorporate some level of independent management…whether the CRA executive director duties remain with the city manager or are again filled by an independent officer.”
Miller, who was not the city manager during most of the period investigated by the Inspector General, said she embraces those goals.
She said the CRA now operates as a separate entity even though she is in charge of both the city and the CRA. She said she also seeks a stable staff for the agency, and wants it to operate in a “clean, transparent” manner.
In that regard, Miller said one of her first actions was to hire in February a former colleague, Daniel Rosemond, as deputy city manager/CRA director at a salary of $146,300.
Miller did not advertise the job, or do any search, saying she had confidence in Rosemond because they worked together at city hall in Miami Gardens, she as deputy city manager and Rosemond as an assistant city manager.
LAZAROW RAISES QUESTIONS
Some residents, however, have raised questions about the hire.
For example, City Commissioner Michele Lazarow. She said the Inspector General recommended that the CRA executive director should have CRA experience, and that the job should be “separate and distinct from the city.”
Lazarow said Rosemond will split his time between his duties as CRA director and deputy city manager in charge of several other departments, including public works. She said the CRA has major projects to complete.
“The CRA requires and deserves a full-time director; not a part time employee,” Lazarow said. “I want to see a separate CRA director, like Hollywood and Dania. “We have the budget to support an independent, separate executive director,” Lazarow said.
Miller said Rosemond’s experience in the past and his additional work assignments as deputy city manager will allow for better coordination of projects involving the CRA. Public Works, she said, has tie-ins to CRA projects. She added that Rosemond’s dual positions will enhance accountability between the CRA and other city departments.
In the past, she said Rosemond has worked in community development for numerous cities. He’s also knowledgeable of budgeting, planning, permitting requirements. Having a top city official in charge of the CRA, Miller said, should assure that the CRA functions properly with other departments.
“I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Miller said.
Mayor Cooper could not be reached for comment. It’s not surprising that she favored restoring the city manager as executive director of the CRA. She told Inspector General investigators that she preferred to have the city manager as CRA executive director rather than some other employee and had been opposed to Jackson’s promotion to executive director, according to the Inspector General’s report.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger and Broward Auditor Evan Lukic
The Broward County Auditor’s Office has begun looking into whether Hallandale Beach should be required to repay some of the millions in tax dollars allegedly misspent due to “gross mismanagement” by city officials.
The preliminary review was undertaken recently at the urging of a county commissioner and a former Hallandale Beach city commissioner. It was also recommended by the Broward Inspector General’s April 18 report that was highly critical of the city’s handling of those public funds belonging to its Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).
“Based on the final report of the Inspector General I believe we should recover any funds that were misspent,” said County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, whose district covers parts of Hallandale Beach.
Broward Vice Mayor Barbara Sharief, who also represents the city, did not respond to calls for comment.
The county has an interest in the CRA funds because it approved establishment of the Hallandale Beach CRA in 1996. Since then the county has sent the CRA approximately $36 million in tax revenue, with the city putting up a matching amount to help rid slum and blight areas.
“The OIG report is problematic,” said County Auditor Evan Lukic. “If the funds were not used for the intended purpose in accordance with state law then money may be due back to the county.“ He said his review could take up to two months.
Following a yearlong investigation, the Inspector General reported that from 2007 to 2012 city leaders used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored charities and loans to local businesses. In all, agents found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures.
The report urged the county government “to independently determine” whether Hallandale Beach expenditures were outside the scope the governing state statute, and if so to “determine what legal options are available to prevent ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent.”
Hallandale officials, including Mayor Joy Cooper, objected to many of the report’s findings. They also asserted it was riddled with “numerous factual inaccuracies” and even challenged the Inspector General’s authority to investigate the CRA. City commissioners sit as the CRA’s board of directors.
Inspector General John Scott’s office replied that Hallandale’s top leadership, including the mayor and city manager, showed a “basic misunderstanding” of what’s gone wrong.
Cooper could not be reached for comment about the auditor’s inquiry.
City Manager Renee C. Miller said, “I would understand that they are looking into this… We will communicate and will reach out to them.”
Miller said the city continues to work to improve CRA operations, which includes “having and retaining a stable staff.”
Auditor Lukic said his review would determine what spending authority the Hallandale Beach CRA was given when it began. Hallandale got one of the first CRAs, he said, and there were fewer restrictions placed on them at that time.
Should he find the county’s authority lacking, there will be “no recourse” to recover funds from Hallandale Beach, Lukic said.
The County Commission will address the matter at its regular June 4 meeting. One of those who will speak is former Hallandale Beach city commissioner Keith London, who has called for a full county audit.
London, who frequently challenged CRA expenditures when he was on the commission, said a county audit is necessary not only because of the Inspector General’s findings. He accused his former colleagues of skirting “their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers” by ignoring both the Inspector General’s recommendations and a relevant 2010 Attorney General’s opinion.
That opinion held that CRA expenditures should go toward “brick and mortar” projects. The Inspector General, however, determined that Hallandale CRA’s violated that guideline with spending on grants and donations for favored charities.
City officials have countered that the Attorney General’s advisory opinion was non-binding, and does not prevent the city from making such grants.
By William Hladky, BrowardBulldog.org
An apparent misreading of state law by the Fort Lauderdale Police has kept officers from enforcing a Broward County ordinance that requires criminal background checks on gun buyers at gun shows.
Two legal experts have told BrowardBulldog.org that the police department is wrong to believe that a state statute enacted last year invalidates the county background checks ordinance. Similarly, the Hillsborough County Attorney said in a memo this month that his county continues to have the “authority to require criminal background checks.”
The 1998 Broward county ordinance says criminal background checks must be done on gun buyers when sales occur “on property to which the public has a right of access.” A violation is a misdemeanor.
But Fort Lauderdale Police spokeswoman Det. DeAnna Greenlaw said the county ordinance no longer is in effect due to Florida Statute 790.33, enacted in 2011. That statute declares any city or county ordinance that regulates gun possession and sales “null and void.”
The Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s legal position is important. Broward’s two largest gun shows, sponsored by Ohio-based Suncoast Gun Shows and North Lauderdale’s Trader Ritch, are held in Fort Lauderdale.
Legal experts say the city’s legal interpretation is wrong. They say the law the city cites is trumped by an amendment to Florida’s Constitution, passed by voters in 1998, that gives counties the option to enact background check ordinances like Broward’s.
“Each county shall have the authority to require a criminal history records check…in connection with the sale of any firearm…when any part of the transaction is conducted on property to which the public has the right of access,” the amendment says.
‘POLICE HAVE IT WRONG’
Robert Jarvis, a Constitutional Law Professor at Nova Southeastern University, explained that the null-and-void statute has no impact on the county’s ordinance because it is rooted in the state constitution.
“A statute cannot nullify a Constitutional vision,” Jarvis said. “I think the police have it wrong.”
“You have a right to bear arms, but the state has a right to regulate,” Jarvis said. “When it comes to the Second Amendment, to firearms, a lot of misinterpretation and misinformation exists.”
Andrew McClurg, a firearms policy expert and law professor at the University of Memphis, agreed.
Jarvis “is certainly correct that a constitution trumps a statute. That’s a basic principle of constitutional law,” said McClurg, adding that the amendment appears to grant Florida’s counties the authority to enact background check ordinances.
The profile of Broward’s ordinance may rise with the U.S. Senate’s recent defeat of efforts to close loopholes and strengthen the federal background check law for gun buyers.
Mayor Jack Seiler
Broward State Attorney’s spokesman Ron Ishoy said in an email that his office was unable to find “any time where a law enforcement agency in Broward has brought us a case involving Broward County ordinance sec. 18-97.”
Nevertheless, Fort Lauderdale Mayor John P. “Jack” Seiler said in an interview that his city is enforcing the background check ordinance through another state statute, 790.065, regarding “the sale and delivery of firearms.”
However, that law only addresses the need for licensed gun dealers to conduct background checks. It does not address the issue of background checks for buyers who buy guns from non-licensed gun dealers, including those at gun shows.
The broader language of Broward’s ordinance covers non-licensed gun dealers. So, unless the buyer is exempt, it requires a buyer who purchases a gun from anybody at a public location to undergo a background check.
The Florida Constitution, state law and the county ordinance exempt from background checks gun buyers who are law enforcement officers or concealed weapons permit holders.
POLICE INTERPRET LAW
Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley expressed a similar, apparently mistaken, opinion about the state law’s application.
“Everything in the county ordinance is included in the state statute…That is our interpretation,” said Adderley, citing legal counsel. Attorney Bradley H. Weissman is the department’s legal advisor.
Police Chief Frank Adderley
“He’s interpreting it wrong,” said Nova Southeastern’s Jarvis. “The state statute does not touch on the issue which is addressed in the ordinance.”
Representatives of the Suncoast Gun Show, which holds shows at the War Memorial Auditorium, did not respond to several requests for comment about the ordinance and its background check practices. Its next gun shows at the auditorium are scheduled for May 4 and 5 and June 15 and 16.
Ritch Cecilio and Jim Hayden sponsor gun and knife shows in Broward County. They say they avoid violating the ordinance by requiring their gun buyers to have a Florida conceal weapons permit.
Cecilio requires a gun buyer at his shows to present a Florida driver’s license as well as a carrying permit because he is “trying to eliminate the possibility that anyone not supposed to have a gun gets a gun.” If a dealer or collector does not follow this rule, Cecilio says he will oust him from the show.
Hayden said a permit guarantees that person has been fingerprinted. A buyer who doesn’t have a permit must buy his gun through a licensed dealer who must order a background check and cannot deliver it until after a five-day waiting period, he said.
Cecilio, who operates as Trader Ritch, sponsors a show the first Sunday of every month at the Universal Palms Hotel, 4900 Powerline Road, Fort Lauderdale. Hayden’s Oakland Park Gun and Knife Show happens about every other month at American Legion #222, at 4250 NE 5 Ave., Oakland Park. His next show is May 19.
Licensed gun dealers in Florida are required to do background checks through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement whenever they sell a gun. The checks are required wherever the sale is made.
In counties without a background check ordinance, civilians or collectors are not required to do background checks at gun shows or other public locations.
It is not known if promoters at the large Suncoast shows require gun buyers to have concealed weapons permits.
Mayor Seiler says that after the Sandy Hook Elementary School student massacre he contacted City Manager Lee Feldman, Adderley and the city attorney’s office to discuss enforcing gun laws in the city.
“I support stricter background checks…We have a very strong law enforcement presence at gun shows and we are working with multiple agencies at the state and federal level to enforce our gun laws,” the mayor said.
Gun sales between civilians at non-public locations are not subject to background checks. So it is often the case that gun purchases are discussed inside gun shows but are actually sold outside in the parking lot, said Hamilton Bobb, retired Assistant Agent in Charge of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Miami.
“It is a big issue. It happens at every gun show,” Bobb said.
The Sun Sentinel reported that private dealers violated city law in during a gun show in January when they openly sold guns and ammunition outside Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium in Holiday Park. The city’s ordinance prohibits the sale of weapons in parks.
The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this month that seven counties, representing 45 percent of Florida’s population, have background check ordinances similar to Broward’s. The newspaper reported the ordinances have been ineffective because of inconvenience, lack of public concern and misunderstanding of state law.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward Inspector General’s final report on the “gross mismanagement” of millions in tax dollars by Hallandale Beach is sharply critical of city leaders it says have shown a “basic misunderstanding” of what’s gone wrong.
Hallandale Beach city managers past and present, the city attorney, the mayor and other city officials defended the handling of funds of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency in formal responses included in the 56-page report released last week.
The Inspector General, after a year investigating, determined that from 2007 to 2012 city leaders used the CRA like a piggybank to improperly pay for the city’s general expenses and other pet projects, including donations to favored charities and loans to local businesses.
By law, CRA is a limited purpose special district whose funds are only to be spent to address slum and blight conditions within a defined area. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries, or about $70 million since it began in 1996
Some of the report’s bluntest words rebut claims by Mayor Joy Cooper and City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield that the Inspector General had no authority to investigate the CRA’s activities.
Hallandale Beach City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield
Whitfield’s “assertions ignore the fact that the OIG (Office of Inspector General) has authority over all municipal officials in identifying mismanagement of public resources,” the report says. “A municipality cannot avoid OIG oversight by spending taxpayer funds through an agency that is independent in name only.”
Likewise, the report ripped “another common theme” of the city’s defenders that the Inspector General mistakenly relied on a Florida Attorney General’s advisory opinion that the Inspector General said precluded the city from spending CRA funds as it had.
City Attorney Whitfield’s arguments “reflect the basic misunderstanding that is at the core of the gross mismanagement identified in this report: the city has failed to comprehend that the CRA has a limited purpose and that the powers of the CRA to expend CRA…funds is not equal to the power of the municipality to expend general funds.”
The report urged Hallandale Beach’s leaders to ask the Attorney General for another opinion if they don’t like the original one.
CITY MANAGER MILLER CRITICIZED
The report also criticized City Manager Renee Crichton Miller, who it said made “unsupported” arguments to support Cooper and Whitfield’s erroneous claims that the Inspector General had incorrectly determined that CRA funds were improperly used to repay city bond obligations for park improvements in other parts of the city.
City officials contended that it was always the city’s intention to repay any CRA funds spent on parks outside the CRA boundaries, The report, however, says those arguments failed to “address the plain fact that $416,365 in CRA funds – deemed ‘negligible’ by (Miller) – have already been expended on parks outside the CRA boundaries” without any repayments or any plan for repayment.
Miller, hired last summer and not identified in the report as being responsible for past mismanagement, stuck by her arguments in an interview after the report’s release, saying the city has every intention to repay funds owed the CRA. She said it does not have to do so now because those projects have yet to get underway.
“We have a difference of opinion with the Inspector General,” said Miller. “I would not disparage their view.”
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper
Asked for comment, Mayor Cooper referred a reporter to her statements in the Inspector General’s report.
Said former City Commissioner Keith London, who lost a race for mayor to Cooper last November, “I hope the State Attorney’s office will look into this further.”
BrowardBulldog.org first reported the Inspector General’s preliminary findings last month. Last week’s final report incorporated the responses of city leaders.
Investigators found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures, including inappropriate loans to local business and grants to local non-profits. The city improperly also spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries, the report said.
The report also said there is “probable cause” to believe that Dr. Deborah Brown, the founder and director of the Palm Center for the Arts engaged in criminal misconduct. In one case, the center allegedly spent nearly $5,000 to make a payment on Brown’s timeshare at the Westgate Resort in Orlando, and make payments to Brown and her brother. The matter was referred to the Broward State Attorney’s Office for criminal prosecution.
In her response to the Inspector General, Brown provided a document of expenditures and details of youth activities that she said provided “positive, measurable results” at her Palm Center for the Arts. The report, however, said there was a lack of supporting documentation for those expenditures.
“Her submission does not alter our determination that there is probable cause to believe that Dr. Brown may have engaged in criminal misconduct,” the report says.
Brown could not be reached for comment.
CITY LOANS DEFENDED
In their responses, Cooper and former city manager Mike Good defended various CRA loans to local businesses, including a $75,000 loan in 2009 to Digital Outernet Inc., a startup firm that planned to earn income from advertising on televisions screens it hoped put in local businesses.
Digital Outernet closed a short time later when its principal owner died. But the city failed to secure a guarantee of repayment from other investors and waived a provision in the deal that would have given it some collateral for the loan.
Cooper said the Digital Outernet loan was “not gross mismanagement” because it attempted to help establish a minority-owned business, according to the report. Good said the loan was “properly made,” adding that at it was “unfortunate that some paperwork had not been signed,” the report said.
Good, too, defended a $50,000 loan to the South Florida Sun Times weekly newspaper, saying it was “justified” because the newspaper needed assistance. The 2009 loan, under terms so favorable that half of it need not be repaid, was made under a new program Good had established for assist struggling businesses.
At the time, the two top executives of the for-profit newspaper reported to the IRS that they’d paid themselves $469,000 in salaries in the two years before receiving the loan.
Cooper told the Inspector General that the salaries of those seeking loans are now part of the loan evaluation process, the report said.
But the Inspector General’s report said Hallandale Beach’s failure until recently to take any steps to empower the CRA as an independent body that might “act as a check on the improper use” of CRA tax funds is problematic.
“While we are encouraged by the remedial steps taken by the city and the CRA in the last year, the OIG remains concerned that the city has not acknowledged the statutory limit on the use of TIF (tax increment financing) funds diverted to the CRA,” says the report, which makes a number of recommendations it said would ensure the CRA’s independence.
Hallandale Beach is not the only Broward city to have misspent CRA funds. Within the last year, the Inspector General found $2.5 million misspent by Lauderdale Lakes and the Florida Auditor General identified “several significant expenditures” by Hollywood that did not follow state law.
“It is becoming increasingly apparent that the gross mismanagement of CRA funds by a Broward County municipality is not a unique occurrence,” the report says. “The OIG will continue to examine the expenditure of CRA funds by municipalities.”
The report also recommends the county assess its legal options “to prevent the ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent.”
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller
Hallandale Beach officials have fired back at county investigators who last month found “gross mismanagement” of tax funds at the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, accusing them of “numerous factual inaccuracies” and challenging their legal authority.
In its official 10-page response to the Broward Inspector General’s report, the city also said the OIG had misinterpreted the state statute governing the CRA.
“It is this failure which results in the OIG (Office of Inspector General) erroneously coming to certain conclusions that the city and CRA grossly mismanaged public funds,” says the report approved by City Manager Renee C. Miller.
The Inspector General’s preliminary report in March, after a year-long investigation, concluded that top city officials had grossly mismanaged millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its” CRA. It identified at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to nonprofits.
More than $400,000 in bond proceeds also were said to have been used improperly, according to the Inspector General’s report.
The report identified several contributing factors to the mismanagement: the city commingled CRA money with city funds instead of setting up a separate CRA trust fund in years past; the city improperly spent on parks and other activities outside the CRA’s boundaries; and it failed to access and verify work performed by nonprofits that received grants.
The CRA was established in 1996 under a state law that allows it to collect tax revenue to be used to rid slum and blight conditions. It receives 95 percent of the taxes collected on the appreciated value of properties within its boundaries. Hallandale’s CRA has received approximately $70 million since it began.
Florida law does not permit the CRA to fund charitable donations to nonprofits, according to the Inspector General’s report. And a Florida Attorney General’s opinion in 2010 said CRA expenditures should be used only for “brick and mortar” projects, it said.
Yet in its April 4 response obtained by the Browardbulldog.org, the city challenged many of the Inspector General’s assertions, including that one.
“A close reading of this opinion will reveal that the Attorney General gives no definite answer as to whether or not grants to nonprofits are outside the scope of the community redevelopment act,” says the response, noting the opinion was advisory and nonbinding.
City Manager Miller declined to discuss the response in detail. “We asserted our objections,” she said.
City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield and CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz helped Miller prepare the response, which included the assertion, first raised last June, that the Inspector General does not have regulatory authority over the CRA.
Mayor Joy Cooper, who like her fellow city commissioners also acts as a CRA director, did not respond to a request for comment.
But Hallandale Beach’s response made it clear that city officials were not backing down and asserting they had acted properly and in accordance with state law.
“There is very little case law or authority providing guidance as to what types of projects may or may not qualify as a community redevelopment project,” stated the response.
The response pointed out that in a case involving the Panama City Beach CRA, a court ruled the state statute governing CRA expenditures for public projects.
The city objected to the Inspector General’s finding that the city had failed to create a separate CRA trust fund until last May, saying in its response that a fund was established in 1996 by city ordinance. The response adds that state law does not require that the trust fund “be maintained in a separate bank account.”
The city also parried the Inspector General’s assertion that the CRA had failed to create an update its redevelopment plan saying, “there is no statutory requirement to update the plan.” The city noted, however, that it is currently updating its plan.
The Inspector General’s critique that the city had failed to established standards for awarding grants to charitable organization was met by a similar defense. The city argued that state law “does not require a transparent process or standardized criteria” — and because of that cannot be accused of “gross mismanagement.”
The city said, however, that it has adopted a formal process for applying for grants that will go into effect next year.
The city’s response acknowledges a good practice would have been to monitor how non-profits spent the money the CRA gave them, but once again contended that state law did not require this.
“The legal requirement is that the funds be utilized for a public purpose,” the response said. “It is the responsibility of the government board to determine whether or not it is a public purpose.”
The city attacked the Inspector General’s criticism of the CRA loan program saying it had failed to understand the need for “flexibility in the administration of its programs” and that some businesses may not qualify for regular private financing.
“This is the nature of community redevelopment,” the response stated. “In certain instances, such may result in financial losses and require the waiver of certain loan terms. Such does not necessarily constitute gross mismanagement….”
Likewise, the city took issue with the Inspector General’s concern that CRA bond funds were used to pay costs related to the upgrading of two parks outside its boundaries, Scavo and South Beach.
“The city objects to the inclusion of this matter in the report,” the response said.
City officials have said a plan is in place to repay any CRA funds used for those parks once work actually gets underway.
The city noted, too, that changes have been made in the past year to improve CRA management and operations.
These include hiring an experienced CRA attorney and a financial analyst; amending CRA policies on loans and grants; assuring accountability for loans; creating standards and accounting for charitable loans to nonprofit groups; fiscally separating CRA funds from city funds; ensuring city and CRA priorities are aligned; maintaining clear and consistent lines of communications regarding for plans and projects.
“It is our mission to continue to implement enhanced internal controls as well as stabilize the administration of the CRA and the city,” the response concludes.
The Inspector General’s Office has said that once it receives the city’s response it will finalize its report and officially release it.
William Gjebre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Coconut Creek Police Chief Michael Mann, left, and Capt. John DiCintio
An internal police investigation of a Coconut Creek officer who pulled his Taser while interrogating a frightened theft suspect in a bathtub omitted relevant facts and did not follow department policy.
Police Chief Michael Mann ordered the inquiry last fall – more than a year after the bathtub incident involving Patrolman James Yacobellis and 19-year-old Blake L. Robinson.
To lead the investigation, the chief chose a police captain who has never worked as a detective.
Records show that Capt. John DiCintio did not do an actual investigation. His inquiry was limited to reviewing a flawed Broward State Attorney’s criminal probe of Yacobellis into possible assault and falsified police reports that ended with no charges.
In January, DiCintio sustained a pair of administrative charges against Yacobellis for committing an “unsafe practice” – leaving a second suspect, Robinson’s girlfriend, unattended while he questioned Robinson in the bathroom. Yacobellis was suspended for two weeks.
But DiCintio’s internal affairs report did not answer more disturbing questions that might lead to more serious discipline, including dismissal. Did Yacobellis threaten Robinson with his Taser while interrogating him alone in a bathtub? Did he try to cover it up by failing to mention it in his police reports?
Civil rights advocates have likened what happened to Robinson to a form of police torture. Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein has asked the Justice Department to investigate.
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct cases, read the three-page internal affairs report at the request of BrowardBulldog.org. He called it “unprofessional, incomplete.”
“I don’t call that an investigation because of what’s missing,” he said. “Why wouldn’t they take their own statements? There are a number of issues not addressed in the statements that were given to prosecutors.”
Coconut Creek Chief Mann declined to discuss the details of the internal affairs report saying “it speaks for itself.” He added, however, that he considers Yacobellis to be a good officer and is glad he’s back on the job.
“I know this is a story for a lot of people. I get it. I understand it. It seems to have the fallaciousness to it,” Mann said. “But I’m over it right now. He’s been disciplined and he’s back to work. We’re monitoring him.
The bathtub incident occurred on Aug. 15, 2011 while Yacobellis was checking out a report of missing jewelry involving a family living in the Star Pointe apartment complex.
Blake L. Robinson Photo: WSVN,Channel 7
At one point, Yacobellis took Robinson into the small bathroom, closed the door, turned the sink faucet on full force, and made him stand in the tub. Yacobellis later acknowledged pulling his Taser, but not turning it on, because he thought Robison was preparing to fight. He added that Robinson did not seem frightened to him.
But Yacobellis’s supervisor that night, Sgt. Dominic Coppola, contradicted him on several key points.
Coppola said that when Yacobellis opened the door he was holding an activated Taser “with the laser beam emitting.” A “scared” Robinson was in the tub, he said.
Neither of Sgt. Coppola’s observations, sworn to under oath, are included in the “investigative findings” of the internal affairs report.
“Did they disbelieve the sergeant’s testimony?,” said ex-Miami Chief Harms. If they did, no reason was cited in the report.
Likewise, there is no apparent recognition in the report that Coppola’s statements corroborate suspect Robinson’s sworn account, and contradict Yacobellis. In his statement, Robinson stated that Yacobellis’s Taser was switched on, and that he was scared.
The internal affairs report also omits:
- Coppola’s observation that when he arrived Yacobellis had a “fixated, tunnel vision demeanor” and stated, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him.”
- Robinson’s vivid account of the bathtub incident, including details that dovetail with Coppola’s assertions.
- The fact that Yacobellis‘s three police reports about that night do not mention the bathroom incident.
The report also does not address whether it is a violation of Coconut Creek police policy to interrogate a suspect in a bathroom. City rules for criminal investigations say suspect interviews are to be taped when possible, but Yacobellis’s interrogation of Robinson was not recorded. The internal affairs report does not mention the matter.
Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis
Officers who encounter resistance and use a Taser are also required to file what’s known as an “Officer’s Response to Resistance Report.” An additional report is required if someone is injured.
Yacobellis did not file a response to resistance report. The internal affairs investigation does address it.
In an interview, however, Chief Mann said the officer was not obliged to file such a report. “The actual display of a Taser is not part of the use of force continuum,” he said.
Rules also say internal affairs investigators must conduct “a complete investigation of the alleged misconduct,” which includes interviewing the accused officer. DiCintio did not interview Yacobellis. Instead, he relied on his statements to prosecutors who asked Yacobellis about possible crimes, not policy violations.
Capt. Gerald Feisthammel signed the police complaint that led to the internal inquiry. Chief Mann said he turned the complaint over to prosecutors in 2011 when he decided to ask them, not his own detectives, to investigate the bathtub incident as a possible crime.
The chief’s move was unusual: department policy and the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Police Benevolent Association both contemplate a police inquiry in such matters.
“We turned it over to the State Attorney’s Office to basically see if there was any criminal investigation that needed to be done,” said Mann.
Captain Gerald Feisthammel
But questions surround Feisthammel’s complaint.
Prosecutors don’t have a copy of it in their case file. “We have no documents that reflect how this originated in our office,” public records custodian Susan Seltzer said in response to a reporter’s inquiry.
There is also a discrepancy about the date of the complaint. It indicates it was written on Sept. 19, 2011, the day Robinson filed his four-page handwritten complaint, but no case number was assigned until 2012. Coconut Creek Police rules require internal affairs investigations be documented immediately and receive a case number “issued sequentially by calendar year.”
Former Miami Chief Harms said those problems raise “a suspicious inference of backdating.”
“It was absolutely not backdated,” Mann said. He explained that the complaint did not immediately get a case number because “as we got into it we realized we were going to turn it over to the State Attorney’s Office.”
Records show that instead of immediately ordering an investigation, Mann initially treated it as a personnel matter. He put Yacobellis on paid administrative leave and, on Aug. 30, ordered him to undergo a “psychological fitness-for-duty evaluation.”
In his sworn statement, Yacobellis said the evaluation determined he was “temporarily unfit for duty.” He did not elaborate, or explain why he was apparently later deemed fit to carry a badge and a gun again.
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