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 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.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman Photo: WSVN-Channel 7
Broward prosecutors who declined to charge a Coconut Creek policeman who pulled a Taser on a frightened theft suspect standing in a bathtub never asked the officer under oath why he hadn’t mentioned the incident in his police reports.
Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman investigated police allegations that Officer James Yacobellis committed assault and tried to cover it up by falsifying his reports to omit the 2011 bathroom incident.
On Aug. 21 2012, Newman took an hour-long, voluntary sworn statement from Yacobellis. The 55-page transcript shows she did not question Yacobellis about the omission or ask him to answer his department’s allegation that he had falsified his reports.
Likewise, Newman did not ask Yacobellis to respond to accusations from the young man he interrogated in the bathroom, Blake L. Robinson, who claimed under oath that Yacobellis had threatened him with the Taser.
But two months later, Newman offered her own theory to explain Yacobellis’s incomplete police reports in her closeout memo that ended the inquiry without criminal charges.
“There appears to be no intent to hide this fact and the state has no evidence to rebut a contention that this was inadvertently left off the report,” wrote Newman, a prosecutor in State Attorney Mike Satz’s corruption unit.
Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly, who approved the closeout memo, said this week that Yacobellis was under no legal requirement to include in his reports any facts about the bathroom incident.
Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly
“The fact that he omitted any description of what occurred in the bathroom did not make the report false,” said Donnelly. “While (Newman) doesn’t ask him why he never put that in the report, there is no requirement that he put it in the report.”
Nova Southeastern University professor of constitutional law Robert Jarvis called Donnelly’s assertion “laughable.” Jarvis said the facts Yacobellis left out of his reports were clearly important to the state’s criminal investigation.
“They’re not being reasonable,” said Jarvis. “A police report is supposed to be a fair and accurate summary of what took place…It is very easy to see in this case that it is material if you put a suspect in a bathtub and you have a Taser out.”
“This sounds like a very unusual interrogation, and the more unusual it is the more complete a report has to be. It should bother anybody because that is not the way the cops should operate,” he said.
Records show Officer Yacobellis was summoned to Coconut Creek’s Star Pointe apartments on Aug. 15, 2011 to investigate a report of missing jewelry involving several members of the same family. After two suspects were identified, Yacobellis took one of them, Robinson, into a small bathroom for questioning. The door was closed and the sink faucet was turned on full.
Both Robinson and Coconut Creek police Sgt. Dominic Coppola later stated that Yacobellis held a Taser while a frightened Robinson stood in the bathtub. Under oath, Sgt. Coppola testified the Taser was switched on, with its laser beam targeting system emitting.
Coppola said he asked Yacobellis what was going on and Yacobellis replied, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists and I tase him.”
Newman concluded in her closeout memo that the statement could be either a threat or a response to a threat from Robinson. She then went on to express tolerance for police who display a Taser during an interrogation.
“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake (Robinson) into confessing,” Newman wrote. “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all accounts, was certainly to help the victims recover their missing items.
Civil rights advocates, however, called what happened a disturbing example of police misconduct akin to torture.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein asked the Justice Department this month to investigate the State Attorney’s “long, distressing history” of condoning improper interrogation techniques.
Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis
In his sworn statement last summer, Yacobellis confirmed he took a compliant Robinson into the bathroom for questioning and said he displayed his Taser only after Robinson started becoming “antsy.”
Yacobellis complained that Sgt. Coppola’s statement about him was riddled with inaccuracies and “lies,” though he offered no reason why Coppola would lie about him. He likewise denied activating his Taser and said Robinson didn’t look scared to him.
Yacobellis complained, too, about Police Chief Michael Mann, asserting the chief had unfairly disciplined him in the past and once threatened to “ruin” his reputation.
Yacobellis said that shortly after the bathtub incident the chief put him on paid administrative leave and ordered him to submit to what he termed a “psyche,” or fitness for duty evaluation by a local doctor.
The doctor found Yacobellis “temporarily unfit,” Yacobellis stated. Prosecutor Newman did not ask him to explain why.
Yacobellis’s union lawyer, Anthony Alfero, stated that another doctor hired by the Broward County Police Benevolent Association concluded “there’s nothing wrong with this guy at all, get him back to work.”
When Newman began to wrap up Yacobellis’s statement without asking him about the false reports allegation Alfero brought it up.
“We don’t know what falsification has to do with these reports,” Alfero said. “If you don’t want to tell us, you don’t have to. But we’re trying to answer the questions so…”
“I think you have. I think you have,” Newman replied.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A Coconut Creek police officer who held an activated Taser stun gun at the ready while questioning a frightened 19-year-old theft suspect he made stand in a bathtub won’t be charged with a crime.
Civil rights advocates call Officer James Yacobellis’s interrogation of Blake L. Robinson on Aug. 15, 2011 a disturbing example of police misconduct akin to torture.
But Broward corruption prosecutors did not see it that way. In fact, their case closeout memo expressed tolerance for police use of the Taser as a technique to enhance an interrogation.
“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake into confessing,” the memo says. “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all accounts, was certainly to help the victims recover their missing items.”
The memo, obtained by BrowardBulldog.org using Florida’s public records law, was written by Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman and approved Oct. 22 by Public Corruption Unit chief Timothy Donnelly.
“It sounds like we’re in Iraq,” said attorney John De Leon, who stepped down this month as president of the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The actions of the prosecutor’s office clearly makes them complicit in the unlawful actions of the police officer, and by condoning those actions fosters a culture of improper, inappropriate and unlawful actions by police officers,” said De Leon.
Miami defense lawyer Jeanne Baker, immediate past president of the Florida ACLU, said police desire to obtain a confession does not justify pulling a Taser during an interrogation.
“Of course the officer had intent to obtain information, but you can’t use a method that smacks of excessive force,” said Baker.
Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis
Former Miami Police Chief Ken Harms reviewed the Broward State Attorney’s closeout memo at the request of BrowardBulldog.org. He called it “incomplete at best and amateurish at worst.”
“It clearly appears to try and sweep it under the rug,” said Harms.
Among other things, Harms said, the report does not acknowledge or examine questionable behavior by Yacobellis – such as taking the suspect into the bathroom alone for questioning – that “raises the inference of officer impropriety.”
“What the officer did was absolutely inappropriate,” said Harms. “Why not take (the suspect) outside, out of earshot of others and talk to him in plain view? What happened can only lead to allegations of misconduct.”
“A Taser is a form of intimidation if it is not used strictly to protect the officer’s interests. He put himself in that vulnerable position,” said Harms.
The memo says the State Attorney’s inquiry looked at a complaint received from the Coconut Creek Police Department regarding what happened after Officer Yacobellis responded to a report of missing jewelry by residents of the Star Pointe apartments on Aug. 15, 2011.
Gayle Brodman and others in her family summoned police. “All fingers quickly pointed to Gayle Brodman’s daughter Aimee Rubiano and her boyfriend, Blake Robinson,” the closeout memo says.
The family members, including suspects Rubiano and Robinson, were assembled at Brodman’s home at 3772 Cocoplum Circle when Officer Yacobellis arrived. Rubiano and Robinson also lived there at the time.
Passions were running high and Yacobellis took Rubiano and Robinson into a bedroom to confront them about the missing jewelry, the memo says. The officer then escorted Robinson into the bathroom. He turned the sink water faucet on so Rubiano could not hear their conversation “and had his Taser out,” the memo says.
Coconut Creek Police Sgt. Dominic Coppola
Yacobellis’s interrogation of Robinson was interrupted by a knock on the door. It was Sgt. Dominic Coppola, who would later describe the bathroom as “extremely small, approximately eight feet long by three feet wide.”
In a sworn statement, Coppola testified that when the door was opened he saw the suspect standing in the tub and Officer Yacobellis “with his Taser down by his side with the laser beam (targeting system) emitting. The sink faucet was running at full capacity. The suspect, Blake Robinson, was speechless, with his hands down by his side and he appeared to have a blank, scared look on his face.”
Coppola, who observed that Yacobellis “appeared to have a fixated, tunnel vision demeanor,” asked what was going on.
Yacobellis said, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists arrest and I tase him,” according to Sgt. Coppola.
After a brief conversation, Coppola informed Yacobellis “his investigation has concluded” and instructed him to handcuff Robinson because there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest on misdemeanor marijuana charges.
“I informed Officer Yacobellis not to make investigations personal. Officer Yacobellis stated something to the fact of making it worth it by taking someone to the hospital,” said Coppola, who is now a lieutenant.
Robinson was never charged in the jewelry case. His girlfriend, Aimee Rubiano, was prosecuted and sentenced to probation after she was found to have pawned some of the missing property.
Sgt. Coppola’s account dovetails with a handwritten complaint filed against Yacobellis, who is white, by Robinson, who is black, on Sept. 19, 2011.
According to Robinson, he was standing in the tub when Yacobellis got word on his radio there was an active warrant.
That’s when Yacobellis took out his Taser, pointed it at him and said “how he could shoot me in several of my body parts like my kidneys, liver and my shoulders so that I would fall and hit my head and be unconscious… . He also stated that my legs would give way and if I hit my head the blood could easily be rinsed away and I would be dead or in the hospital… . I have felt terrified, violated and humiliated since that night.”
Officer Yacobellis wrote three police reports about his investigation of the missing jewelry. None mention the bathroom encounter or his display of his Taser.
Yacobellis later gave a voluntary statement to prosecutors in which he acknowledged pulling his stun gun, but said he did not “electric charge” it. He stated he took it out because Robinson “was becoming upset, it was a small bathroom and (Robinson) is 6-feet-two and he is only five-feet-seven,” the memo says.
Robinson weighed 150 pounds, a police report said.
Prosecutors concluded there wasn’t evidence to charge Yacobellis with any crime.
Falsifying police reports was not a possible charge because each of the witnesses testified how Yacobellis took Robinson into the bathroom for questioning.
“There appears to be no intent to hide this fact and the state has no evidence to rebut the contention that this was inadvertently left off the report,” the memo says.
Likewise, it was not possible to file an assault charge because it wasn’t clear whether Yacobellis “actually pointed the Taser at the suspect or merely took it out for his own protection against a larger individual.”
“The statements that Sergeant Coppola claimed were made to him by Officer Yacobellis could reasonably be interpreted as either threatening the suspect or (be) because he was acting in self-defense,” the memo says.
Ex-Miami Police Chief Harms, an expert court witness in police misconduct matters, said the Broward State Attorney’s effort was seriously deficient.
He said prosecutors appeared to have done little fact-finding beyond taking witness statements. For example, there is no indication in the memo that they sought to determine whether Officer Yacobellis was a problem employee by examining his internal affairs file and police evaluations, Harms said.
Broward State Attorney Mike Satz
Prosecutors also did not establish a time frame of events, say when they learned of the allegations or identify which Coconut Creek officers, if any, conducted the internal criminal investigation that typically is the basis for a follow-up probe by prosecutors.
Harms also was critical of the internal accountability system put in place by State Attorney Mike Satz to review such important decisions.
“The memo went from (prosecutor) Newman to (supervisor) Donnelly, who is far down the pecking order. It was never reviewed up the food chain. It gives them the opportunity to have plausible deniability at the top,” said Harms.
The state’s decision to clear Yacobellis would be appropriate if a thorough inquiry had been made, but “it was apparently not of concern to them,” said Harms.
“What the prosecutor should have said is, ‘While we are unable to substantiate any criminal misconduct at this time we would encourage the department to initiate an appropriate investigation and keep us informed of any new information,’” Harms said.
Police records show Coconut Creek Police made only an administrative policy review of the matter after the State Attorney declined to prosecute.
Police Chief Michael Mann determined late last month that Yacobellis should serve a two-week suspension for “unsatisfactory performance and violation of rules” in this case and another matter. The discipline did not involve the bathroom incident.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward State Attorney’s Office has declined to prosecute three Coconut Creek police officers mixed up in a scheme to improperly access confidential law enforcement databases for personal reasons.
Instead, Coconut Creek officials who sought criminal charges only made stick a trio of lesser administrative charges against two of the officers.
Coconut Creek Patrol Sgt. David W. Freeman was suspended for one day without pay. Officer Laurence A. Christopher Jr. was suspended two days without pay.
Sgt. Curtis Cuddeback, granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony, was not disciplined.
The state’s closeout memo contains a legal analysis by Broward public corruption prosecutors who concluded that Florida’s poorly worded statute on computer-related crimes prevented them from filing criminal charges.
COPS GET A BREAK
Prosecutors said that while Freeman and Christopher may have exceeded their authority when they accessed data for non-case related purposes, such behavior by police is not a crime under Florida law.
“The onus is on the state to draft statutes with specificity so as to delineate the actions it seeks to prohibit,” says the memo written by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.
“Had officers done this before 2007, it is possible it could have been prosecuted as a crime. As the closeout memo details, a decision that year by the 4th District Court of Appeal now holds that such actions are to be handled administratively,” said state attorney’s spokesman Ron Ishoy.
Broward prosecutors, however, have not sought legislation that would make it a crime for police personnel to misuse sensitive information obtained from law enforcement databases they were otherwise authorized to access.
After concluding they could do nothing, prosecutors sent the case back to Coconut Creek Police “for whatever administrative action they deem appropriate.”
Prosecutors did not, however, refer the case to the Florida Commission on Ethics. The commission prosecutes civil violations of Florida’s Code of Ethics, including misuse of public position. Violators face penalties that include dismissal, suspension, demotion, and a civil penalty up to $10,000.
In December 2010, a report on public corruption by Florida’s Statewide Grand Jury urged the Legislature to criminalize the misuse of public position. That didn’t happen.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said the State Attorney’s failure to send the matter to the ethics commission for review was another example of its continuing “refusal or reluctance to stand up to police misbehavior.”
“You’re breeding future contempt for the law,” Finkelstein said.
CITY SOUGHT CRIMINAL CHARGES
The city sought criminal charges against its three officers last winter in an internal investigation prepared by then-Coconut Creek Deputy Police Chief Robert Biondolillo.
Sgt. David Freeman
The investigation started after it was learned that Freeman and Christopher had accessed the law enforcement databases in early 2011 to help Cuddeback, their friend, check out the owner of a car he was buying, according to the state’s close out memo.
At the time, Cuddeback was not a police officer. He’d been fired a few weeks earlier for a variety of alleged misconduct – including neglect of duty, leaving his post and falsifying records.
Cuddeback was reinstated last April – amid the state attorney’s criminal probe –after a federal arbitrator decided that his dismissal was too harsh. The mediator instead ordered Cuddeback to serve a 70-day suspension without pay.
Cuddeback was also suspended for six days in May 2010 after his car rolled over in Richfield Township in central Michigan in 2009 and he was arrested for drunk driving.
Michigan police reported Cuddeback was visibly impaired and his blood alcohol content was measured at .203, above the legal limit. He was later adjudicated guilty of the lesser offense of careless driving and paid a $185 fine, records state.
Despite his checkered past, Sgt. Cuddeback today oversees Coconut Creek Police’s training and records units.
TARGETED COPS REFUSED TO TALK
Prosecutors granted immunity to Cuddeback after Officers Freeman and Christopher each declined to give a sworn statement.
Sgt. Curtis Cuddeback
Under oath, Cuddeback told prosecutors how in January and February 2011 he asked his friends to run six different law enforcement database queries to help him check ownership of a 2005 Cadillac he wanted to buy from Palm Beach County resident Mark Freseman.
Cuddeback explained that Freseman had only recently acquired the car and there was a question as to whether the title had been properly transferred.
The first police check revealed the car was registered to Joel L. Goode, and included his address in Palm Beach. Follow-up checks in February disclosed the car was then registered to Freseman.
Cuddeback told Assistant State Attorney Zimet the officers only provided him information about who owned the car, not more problematic personal information such as the birthdates and addresses of the previous owners.
Prosecutors accepted Cuddeback’s story, apparently without question. The closeout memorandum mentions no attempt by them to verify his story with those former owners, or to inform them that their personal information had been improperly accessed.
BrowardBulldog.org could not locate Goode. An attorney for Freseman did not respond to requests for comment.
Prosecutors accepted another assertion by Cuddeback that the Coconut Creek Police will sometimes release the same kind of data to people who come to the station and ask for it.
“Consequently, he did not think it would present a problem,” the closeout memo says.
A ranking member of the Coconut Creek police who spoke on condition of anonymity disputed Cuddeback’s assertion, saying the department does not do that.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
The Broward Inspector General’s Office appears poised to ask Broward prosecutors to investigate a Hallandale Beach group that received at least $25,000 in city funds.
The Zamar School of Performing Arts had been slated to get another $50,000 from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency last week. The deal fell apart, however, shortly after it was discovered that Zamar was ineligible for the funds because its status as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) non-profit had expired.
CRA Attorney Steven Zelkowitz said the county’s Inspector General’s office has informed him investigation of Zamar by the State Attorney’s Office was “ongoing.” The Inspector General has been investigating allegations of mismanagement at the city and its CRA since last spring.
City Manager Renee Crichton Miller and CRA executive director Alvin Jackson confirmed that a the state’s investigation involving Zamar was underway, although both said Zelkowitz was the source of their information.
A spokesman for Broward State Attorney Mike Satz said Friday that the matter has had some review, but that no criminal investigation was underway.
“I’m told that we have not received anything formally on this yet,” Ron Ishoy said on Friday. “The case was apparently discussed last month at the public IG Oversight Committee meeting that (Assistant State Attorney) Tim (Donnelly) sits on.”
Inspector General Scott declined to comment.
Zamar’s president and director Deborah Brown did not respond to repeated phone messages seeking comment. A person who answered the phone at Brown’s office initially advised a reporter to hold for her. A short time later the line went dead and follow-up calls to Zamar were sent to an answering machine.
Zamar provides arts and education programs and job training and job placement, according to city documents.
County investigators are believed to be nearing the end of a months-long examination of city grants and contributions to community groups, CRA land buys and loans to local businesses. City commissioners – who do double duty at the board of directors of the CRA – and various city employees have been interviewed, and thousands of pages of city records examined.
In June, Browardbulldog.org reported those records included files on eight community-based groups that received city funds, including Zamar.
Zamar, which got $25,000 in CRA funds three years ago, operates on city property at 501 N.W. 1st Avenue – in a building once owned by a group headed by City Commissioner Anthony Sanders.
The city leased the property for a one-time payment of $10 to the Palm Center for the Arts in 2009 shortly after acquiring the property. 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.
When the Inspector General asked the city this year for records about Zamar and Palm Center, state corporate records listed Brown as president of Palm Center and a principal and director of Zamar. At that time, Palm Center had received at least $107,000 in CRA funds over the past three years.
The IG’s probe has also involved a review of the city’s acquisition of 501 N.W. 1st Avenue from Commissioner Sanders’ nonprofit, Higher Vision Ministries. The group purchased the property in 2001 for $45,000 and sold it to the city eight years later for $235,000. Appointed to fill a vacancy in 2008, Sanders did not vote on the purchase.
In between, the CRA gave Sanders’ group a $46,000 property improvement loan. The city only required Sanders’ group to repay $31,000 of that loan, the rest was forgiven.
The Inspector General’s office has yet to say why it is interested in Zamar and why prosecutors should look at it.
City Manager Miller said Zelkowitz was likely contacted about Zamar by the Inspector General because it involved the CRA, whose directors are the five members of the city commission. She added she has no other information on the nature of the Zamar probe.
“I’m concerned when a non-profit is under scrutiny,” said Miller.
Zelkowitz declined to elaborate.
Earlier last week, Zamar had a setback when it was announced that the group had withdrawn its request for CRA funds for this fiscal year.
Commissioners, as CRA board members, were to vote on the $50,000 GRANT on Dec. 17. Shortly before, however, city staff learned the group did not have current 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, making it ineligible for the funds.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Original I.A. report states "Officer was arrested," left. Revised version, right. Click to enlarge.
The Broward State Attorney’s refusal to pursue a Fort Lauderdale Police Internal Affairs report that was purged of information about an officer’s arrest has drawn the ire of Public Defender Howard Finkelstein.
Finkelstein asserts that the police broke Florida public records law when the head of Internal Affairs changed a police database to delete any mention of the out-of-state arrest of Sgt. Jerald Fuller.
Fuller had been arrested in New York in connection with a dispute involving property damage. A New York municipal judge dismissed the case and sealed the court file four days after Fuller’s July 19, 2009 arrest.
Fort Lauderdale Police Capt. Rick Maglione, who left Internal Affairs in 2011, says he removed the arrest information to comply with the judge’s order.
It can be a crime in Florida to falsify or alter a public record, whether a paper report or an electronic database. So when a tipster alerted the Public Defender’s Office in February to what was done, a request was made for State Attorney Michael Satz’s public corruption unit to investigate.
Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly said last week that he spoke with Maglione and determined no investigation was necessary.
“There is no crime in editing your own document,” Donnelly told Broward Bulldog. “It’s not a public record. It’s like a Word document.”
Finkelstein is not happy with Donnelly’s conclusion.
“Despite direct evidence that a police captain, while conducting an Internal Affairs investigation, altered a report to conceal the fact that a police officer was arrested, your office has found nothing wrong nor even found the need to investigate,” Finkelstein said in a recent letter to Satz.
In an interview, Finkelstein added, “The public record is not a work of fiction, but that’s what happened here….It was creative writing to make it appear that what happened didn’t really happen. If it isn’t illegal, it is certainly unethical.”
Public Defender Howard Finkelstein
SERGEANT DISCLOSED ARREST
Fuller, a supervisor with the city’s controversial anti-drug unit known as the Northwest Raiders, disclosed his arrest to superiors. Details, however, are sketchy. Not only is the New York court file sealed, Maglione did not obtain – or request – a copy of the New York police report describing what happened. New York law allows police agencies access to sealed cases.
“Everything I had was self-reported” by Fuller, said Maglione, a former Raider. “I was satisfied with that because I was also assured (by Fuller’s New York lawyer and an unnamed local district attorney) that no crime occurred.”
Maglione’s account, based solely on what Fuller told him, states that Fuller was on vacation in Niagara County, N.Y. on July 19, 2009 when “he became involved in a disturbance at a privately-owned residence.” Fuller, a 19-year-veteran, was with his brother “and another individual known to the Fuller family, the report says.
“The disturbance prompted a neighbor to contact the local police and it was initially determined that Sergeant Fuller and his brother were responsible for some minor damage to the other individual’s property, but any contemplated charges were subsequently dismissed once it was determined that no crime occurred,” the report says.
Maglione’s report does not say what crime Fuller was charged with, provide the location and time of the incident, describe the damage or say what police agency investigated. It also does not mention that one or two other persons were arrested.
Likewise, the police file includes no notation that the report was altered because of New York law. The department’s software system, IAPro, also does not track such changes. “It overwrites the first entry entirely,” Maglione said.
Maglione, now a top aide to Chief Frank Adderley, says he deleted the arrest information in an update before finalizing his report in August 2009. But Al Smith, Finkelstein’s chief investigator, said he determined the alterations were actually made about a year later. During that time, he said, the cleaned-up version was sent out in response to several requests for information about Fuller.
The arrests occurred on a Sunday. By the end of business Thursday, the case was dismissed and sealed by Somerset Town Court Justice Donald P. Martineck.
A few days later, Fuller presented Maglione with a letter from his attorneys, George Muscato and Michael H. White Jr., declaring that “all charges” had been dismissed and that complainant Clayton Cooper had signed a document stating “he did not want to pursue any further charges” and, in fact, had never wanted “to bring charges in the first place.”
Cooper is not further identified. A 78-year-old man with the same name who resided in a small home in the tiny town of Barker, which is surrounded by Somerset, N.Y, died in September 2010.
CLOSED CASE COMES BACK
Maglione closed Fort Lauderdale’s Internal Affairs investigation on August 10, 2009. He did so, he said, without obtaining a police report to verify what Fuller had told him. A signed hard copy of his report, sans mention of the arrest, is included in the file. Case closed, he said.
Captain Rick Maglione
But two and a half years later, on February 1, 2012, investigator Smith, a former Fort Lauderdale police detective, received at his home copies of two nearly identical internal Affairs reports about the New York incident. The second, as Smith put it in his referral to prosecutors, was “sanitized” to omit the fact of Fuller’s arrest.
The Public Defender’s Office filed a public records request seeking Fuller’s file because he is a witness against a client. The police coughed up the version of the report that does not mention that he was arrested.
Police legal advisor Bradley Weissman now says it was a mistake for police to release even the censored report because of the blanket sealing order.
“I believe we made an error when we turned it over,” Weissman said. Still, Florida’s broad public records law requires such records to be open to the public.
Fuller’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Michael Gottlieb, is upset that someone leaked Internal Affairs records about his client. He said he suspects it was done by “somebody in internal affairs who wanted to get somebody else in trouble and who thought this case was improperly closed or that favoritism was shown.” He declined to name names.
A MATTER OF CONCERN
While prosecutors have brushed the matter off, Finkelstein’s letter to Satz calls it a matter of “great concern” because defense counsel rely on information in Internal Affairs files to locate information they can use to impeach the testimony of officers who are witnesses against their clients.
The disagreement is part of long-running legal spat between Satz and Finkelstein about pre-trial disclosure by prosecutors. For nearly 50 years, courts have required prosecutors to turn over so-called Brady evidence – information favorable to a defendant.
Satz has said his disclosure policy “far exceeds” his legal obligations under Brady. Finkelstein counters that Broward prosecutors tend to withhold too much potentially favorable evidence and have little interest in enforcing Brady requirements when it comes to the police. He cited that concern in his letter to Satz.
“The failure to address this incident evidences the double standard your office employs when police misbehavior is at issue,” Finkelstein said.