By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org
Deerfield Florida House
A substance abuse treatment center has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Deerfield Beach alleging the city illegally blocked its plans to expand after neighbors complained.
The suit alleges the city violated the American with Disabilities Act as well as the Fair Housing Act when it denied Deerfield Florida House, Inc., which treats and houses recovering addicts, from adding a medical detoxification center in the 500 block of South Federal Highway.
The detox center was planned for across the highway from the existing Deerfield Florida House campus, which comprises three adjoining properties.
“This thing was moving through very smoothly, any concerns that the city had from a staff level were being addressed,” said Scott Backman, attorney for the center. “And as soon as the community started making noise, the elected officials started to listen, and the city started to change the manner in which they dealt with us and our application.”
Backman said the city initially treated the center under city code as a single facility undergoing expansion. Later, the city denied the expansion by asserting that it was a separate facility and citing code requirements for a 1,000-foot separation between special residence facilities like the Deerfield Florida House.
The Planning and Zoning Board denied the detox center’s plans on July 7, according to the lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale.
An appeal was not made to the City Commission. Instead, the lawsuit was filed.
City Attorney Andrew Maurotis declined to comment on the lawsuit and zoning board decision. Mayor Peggy Noland could not be reached for comment.
However, Dan Schabowski, who owns a home in the Deerfield Beach Gardens community near the facility, said that neighbors had a reason to be wary of an expanded addiction recovery campus.
“This is a neighborhood with a lot of little kids running around,” he said. “What if they get a pedophile running around?”
The lawsuit quotes others who spoke out against the project at the zoning board meeting.
“You are forcing us to offer up our children, our elderly, our special needs population, all of us to the undeniable ugliness that will be, is shown to be associated with these kinds of facilities,” one resident said.
Backman believes the city unfairly bowed to pressure from area homeowners.
“Sometimes things just go wrong and you have to protect the interests of your clients, and that’s exactly what’s going on here,” he said. “I do understand political pressure because that’s the environment I work in as a land-use attorney.”
The co-owners of the for-profit Deerfield Florida House are Sherief Abu-Moustafa and his father, Adel. Sherief Abu-Moustafa blames neighborhood worries on ignorance.
“Unfortunately, people aren’t educated to what substance abuse is about. So they hear ‘detox,’ they think of, I think, pain clinics and drugs, and it spun out of control,” he said. “I think, politically, the city saw that there were people against it and they became uncomfortable and unfortunately tried to find a way of stopping it, which isn’t fair to me, which isn’t fair to the people I serve.”
Abu-Moustafa, himself a former addict, purchased the first Deerfield Florida House property in 2003, when it was a halfway house that he said was also a haven for illegal drugs and prostitution.
He has since added landscape and expanded the property into a campus that includes two apartment buildings and pools and JoJo’s Cafe, which serves clients and the public. The nationally accredited facility provides treatment and a sober residence for clients suffering or recovering from substance abuse.
The staff of more than 80 full-time employees includes nurses and therapists who help transition clients back to a sober life off campus and to find re-employment, Abu-Moustafa said. The addition of a medical detoxification center would allow them to be involved from the beginning of this process.
“When I bought this building across the street, my intentions were good,” he said of property he purchased in May for $1.3 million. “By offering the entire continuum of care – and this is anywhere – you’re able to really guide people better.”
Moustafa maintains that the Deerfield Florida House, which attracts clients from across the country, is an “asset” to the community and estimates that the operation spends $100,000 to $150,000 a month at local businesses like Publix and Target.
“I’m not looking to hurt the city. I want what’s right for the clients we serve,” he said. “I love the city. I really do. But what’s right is right.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Steve Gonot, Sylvia Poitier
UPDATE: Dec. 16 – Five current and former Deerfield Beach commissioners have been cleared of accusations that they broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
The Florida Ethics Commission said last week that it found no probable cause to believe that any of the five had improperly accepted free tickets to a city festival from a local lobbyist, or that they had failed to disclose them as gifts as required by law.
The five are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky and former Commissioners Pam Militello, Sylvia Poitier and Steve Gonot and ex-Mayor Al Capellini. The complaint was filed by local activist Chaz Stevens based on the findings of a city-funded audit by Kessler International that raised questions about possible misuse of the tickets in 2006 and 2007.
Poitier, Gonot and Capellini, however, continue to deal with various other criminal matters. Poitier faces sentencing on Jan. 11 following her November conviction on four misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. Gonot is appealing his conviction last spring on grand theft and other charges. Capellini is awaiting trial on a charge of unlawful compensation.
Oct. 31 - After months of quiet investigation, the Florida Commission on Ethics will hold a closed-door hearing in early December to decide whether there is probable cause to believe that five current or former Deerfield Beach city commissioners broke state conflict of interest and gift disclosure laws.
Those to face hearings are Vice Mayor Marty Popelsky, former Mayor Albert Capellini and ex-city commissioners Sylvia Poitier, Steve Gonot and Pam Militello, according to ethics commission correspondence obtained by Broward Bulldog.
For Capellini, Poitier and Gonot, the Dec. 2 Tallahassee hearing is their latest legal woe. Capellini awaits trial Dec. 5 on a charge of unlawful compensation. Poitier is set to go to trial in two weeks in Broward Circuit Court on five unrelated misdemeanor counts of falsifying public records. In July, Gonot was sentenced to 364 days in jail and five years’ probation following his conviction on campaign-finance related charges of official misconduct, grand theft and falsifying records. He remains free pending his appeal.
Militello, who lost a re-election bid in 2009, sponsored the city’s ethics law after the unrelated corruption arrests of both Gonot and Capellini in December 2008.
The ethics commission probe began in the wake of complaints filed last December by Deerfield Beach muckraking activist and blogger Timothy “Chaz” Stevens, 47, shortly after an independent audit report detailed alleged “exploitation and gross financial mismanagement” of taxpayer dollars to pay for large street festivals.
The audit by Kessler International included evidence that commissioners obtained multiple tickets and parking passes to festivals in 2006, and in the case of Militello, also in 2008.
One city document “lists 262 tickets given to Commissioner Poitier” for that year’s Mango Festival, Stevens wrote in a complaint letter to the ethics commission. The face value of each ticket was $35; parking passes cost $10.
Gonot and Militello requested dozens of tickets and multiple parking passes for the same festival, according to Stevens’ complaint. Popelsky requested three dozen tickets and nine parking passes; Capellini received 18 tickets, the complaints say.
In his Nov. 29, 2010 audit cover letter to City Attorney Andrew Maurodis, company president Michael Kessler stated that “interviews and supporting documentation” showed that Poitier, Gonot and Militello “saw an opportunity to capitalize on at least one of these street festivals and secured blocks of tickets for free and distributed the tickets to garner political support.”
Stevens, a professional software developer who operates MyActsofSedition.com, alleged in separate complaints that Poitier, Gonot and Militello took those tickets and parking passes and then failed to report them on the state’s required gift disclosure forms. The complaints also contend that because all three later voted to approve city funding for the festivals, they should have filed with the city clerk – but did not – a state “Memorandum of Voting Conflict” form.
Tamarac lawyer and former Broward School Board member Kevin P. Tynan, who represents Gonot, and Deerfield Beach attorney A. Thomas Connick Jr., who represents Militello, both said they received a report about the investigation that suggests it has boiled down to a single question: whether the tickets should have been disclosed by city commissioners on gift disclosure forms.
“It clearly was indicated by the investigator that there was no one at the city that thought that this was considered to be a reportable gift,” said Connick. He said does not know if Militello intends to attend the probable cause hearing.
Neither Connick nor Tynan would agree to release the report about the investigation, which is not yet public.
Popelsky could not be reached for comment.
A lawyer for Capellini, Fort Lauderdale’s J. David Bogenshutz, said he believes it likely that the case against his client will be dropped at the hearing.
Sylvia Poitier’s Pompano Beach lawyer, Johnny L. McCray Jr., did not respond to a request for comment.
The ethics commission is a nine-member body that operates in secret until its members decide whether probable cause exists to believe that state ethics laws have been violated. If it finds no such cause, the complaint is dismissed. If it finds probable cause, a trial may be held. If a violation occurred, the commission can recommend a penalty to the governor.
Three of the commission’s current members are from Broward. They are Susan Horovitz Maurer, managing partner at the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Panza Maurer and Maynard; Pompano Beach attorney Linda M. Robison, a partner at Shutts & Bowen and Lighthouse Point businessman Roy Rogers.
The ethics commission correspondence that announced the December hearing last week is stamped “Confidential.” It says the hearing will be held Dec. 2 at 10 a.m. in Room 37S of the Senate Office Building. Under commission rules, only the accused, their attorneys and Stevens are allowed to attend.
The ethics commission’s “advocate” and the accused will each get five minutes to provide statements to the commission. No witnesses will be called, and no new evidence may be introduced. “The sole purpose of the probable cause hearing is to evaluate the results of the preliminary investigation,” the correspondence says.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Deerfield Beach Commissioner Sylvia Poitier has agreed to surrender at the Broward County Jail Wednesday to be arrested and booked on charges of falsifying official records, Broward Bulldog has learned.
The state charges, both misdemeanors, were filed yesterday at the Broward Court Clerk’s office. They follow a year-long Broward Sheriff’s Office investigation.
Many details about the charges were not immediately available because the charging document won’t be made public until Poitier’s arrest. But Broward Bulldog has learned they involve Poitier’s alleged falsification of disclosure documents – known as a Form 8B – that public officers must file when faced with voting on a measure in which they have a conflict of interest.
Assistant Broward State Attorney Spencer Multack, of the special prosecution unit, would not discuss the Poitier case Tuesday afternoon.
“I’d like to know how you heard,” he said.
Neither Poitier nor her Pompano Beach attorney, Johnny L. McCray Jr., returned phone calls seeking comment.
Poitier, 75, a Democrat who served on the county commission from 1986-1998, is a lifelong resident of Deerfield Beach. She was re-elected to her District 2 city commission seat last month. The Sun-Sentinel reported last week that she will marry her boyfriend, Daniel Norman Sr. on May 28.
Upon her arrest, Poitier’s political fate will rest with her fellow city commissioners, who could decide to suspend her from office. The governor’s office is not involved because no felony charge is involved.
Last fall, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general ordered Deerfield Beach’s Community Development Division to pay back $225,000 in grants after auditors found that Poitier and former Commissioner Gloria Battle violated federal rules intended to curb favoritism.
HUD intervened after the Kessler International forensic auditing firm, hired by the city, reported possible evidence of fraud, conflicts of interest and unaccounted-for money. A local blogger, Chaz Stevens, was also instrumental in focusing HUD’s attention on the city and law enforcement’s attention on Poitier.
HUD found the city had award tens of thousands of dollars in HUD funds to companies connected to Poitier and Battle: the Haitian American Consortium and the Westside Deerfield Businessmen Association.
Poitier voted to approve about $40,000 for the Haitian American Consortium, whose business address was the same as Poitier’s dry-cleaning store.
Poitier’s daughter was executive director of the Westside group. Poitier abstained from a vote to award it more than $200,000, but the relationship was not disclosed to HUD, the Sun-Sentinel reported in October.
According to the city’s web site, Poitier began her business career in 1956 by opening Deerfield Cleaners and Laundry.