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
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 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 and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward’s Inspector General has found that Hallandale Beach officials “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in public funds “entrusted to the care of its Community Redevelopment Agency,” according to a report obtained by BrowardBulldog.org.
“The OIG (Office of Inspector General) investigation substantiated the allegations and uncovered numerous deficiencies in the city’s administration of the CRA,” says the 50-page preliminary report that has not been released publicly.
Investigators said they found at least $2.2 million in questionable CRA expenditures between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans to local businesses and grants to local nonprofits – as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.
The city improperly spent $416,000 of CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries, says Tuesday’s report.
The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former city managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report says.
Former Commissioner Keith London told investigators that his colleagues “looked at the CRA fund as one big pile of money and they didn’t care how or where the money went,” the report says.
Mayor Joy Cooper, however, offered a different take. “She was not concerned with the CRA administration’s lack of (expenditure) verification because the CRA Board members observed the work of the nonprofits when they went out in the community,” the report says.
Cooper and the rest of the city commission also sit as the CRA’s board of directors.
“This report vindicates everything I have stated for the last six years,” London said Tuesday night.
Cooper could not be reached for comment.
Former commissioner Keith London
The probe began 14 months ago following a string of stories in BrowardBulldog.org about questionable city loans to local businesses and land purchase through the CRA. It surfaced publicly last April when county agents sought a multitude of records at City Hall.
In some cases, the report says, the CRA awarded funds despite a 2010 Florida Attorney General opinion that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital improvements – not, for example, to promote economic development or promote socially beneficial programs by nonprofits.
In one case, the line of what’s legal was apparently crossed and a crime may have been committed, the report says.
The Inspector General’s findings about Hallandale Beach are the latest to cite serious mismanagement of CRA funds. A year ago, for example, the Inspector General slammed Lauderdale Lakes for misspending $2.5 million in CRA funds. More recently, the Florida Auditor General identified misspending by Hollywood’s CRA.
“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 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. The county has provided Hallandale’s CRA with approximately $35 million since it began.
Inspector General John Scott’s report includes what amounts to a warning to other Broward cities that his office will be eyeballing their CRA’s to see how they spend their property tax dollars.
“The OIG will continue to examine the expenditure of CRA funds by municipalities,” says the report.
The final report will recommend to the county that it look over its legal options “to prevent the ongoing abuse of the CRA process and recover those funds that may have been misspent,” the preliminary report says.
In Hallandale, there was an apparent lack of regular monitoring by the CRA of who got its funds and how that money was spent.
In one case, the report says, a nonprofit grant recipient spent nearly $5,000 in funds to make a payment on her time-share at the Westgate Resort in Orlando, make payroll payments to herself and her brother and on other things.
Dr. Deborah R. Brown with former Congressman Kendrick Meek
“We found probable cause to believe that Dr. Deborah Brown, the founder and director of the Palms Center for the Arts (PCA), engaged in criminal misconduct in the handling of a $5,000 award the PCA received from the CRA,” the report says.
Brown could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The matter has been referred to the sheriff’s office and the Broward State Attorney for prosecution.
The Inspector General’s report also clears Commissioner Anthony Sanders of allegations that the CRA showed favoritism toward him by substantially overpaying his nonprofit, Higher Vision Ministries, for property it purchased in 2009 at 501 NW First Ave.
“The investigation did not substantiate the allegations, although we found that the CRA fomented an appearance of favoritism by failing to consider the purchase of the property in a fully transparent manner,” the report says.
The report also cites “institutional deficiencies in the establishment, organization and function of the CRA” that it says contributed to numerous instances of gross mismanagement. They include:
• Failure for nearly 16 years to establish a CRA trust fund, as required by law, which led to the commingling of CRA funds with city funds in the city’s bank account. A trust finally was set up last May.
• Failure to operate the CRA independently from the city. Former CRA executive director Alvin Jackson told investigators the CRA “was treated like any other city department and that the city had ‘free rein to tap into CRA funds.
• Failure to timely generate detailed CRA plans and adhere to them, as well as a lack of a “stable and empowered CRA staff to ensure compliance” with the law.
“We also identified multiple instances where city officials ignored warnings from CRA staff of various deficiencies in the management of the CRA,” the report says.
The report notes that before Jackson there were several CRA managers under City Manager Good’s heavy managerial thumb. “More troubling is evidence that Mr. Good and other senior officials lacked understanding of” state statutes governing the CRA “and did not require compliance.”
The report notes that in 2011, after news reports about CRA problems in BrowardBulldog.org and elsewhere, it undertook “remedial steps” to improve its management and effectiveness.
But the Inspector General indicated those steps, including the establishment of the trust fund, are not enough.
The report includes a half-dozen recommendations intended to “ensure the independence of the CRAs,” including building a stable and knowledgeable staff with the authority to ensure compliance with the law, and diligent future monitoring of expenditures.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach officials altered city pension guidelines to enable the son-in-law of former city manager Mike Good to join a lucrative management-only pension plan after it was closed to additional employees.
The policy revisions made by top city staff – apparently without city commission approval – extended the defined-benefit plan’s cutoff date, allowing Douglas Grant Baber to participate.
City records obtained by BrowardBulldog.org state that in 2006 then-City Manager Good ordered the plan shut to new management employees effective January 1, 2007.The move followed complaints by city commissioners about the plan’s escalating costs. Instead, those employees would enter a 401(a) defined contribution plan.
But that deadline would soon change.
On March 5, 2007 then-Assistant City Manager Mark Antonio sent an email to Human Resources Director George Amiraian, with a copy to Good, with the subject line “Pension Options for Douglas Baber.”
Baber was hired as an administrative analyst in early 2006 and in February 2007 he was promoted to personnel analyst. It was a position that would have made him eligible for the management retirement plan if it were still in effect, and Baber wanted in.
Antonio’s memo says that because of the January 1st deadline he had “assumed” Baber would instead enter the other plan.
“However, based on our recent conversations, it appears Doug (Baber) is expecting to enter the Defined Benefit (management) Plan and I’m not sure how to accomplish that without a new pension plan amendment and ordinance,” Antonio said. “Please set up a meeting to discuss with me and or the city manager.”
No record of that meeting could be located. But handwritten notes on a copy of the same email maintained in city files indicate that Good OK’d Baber’s entry into the management plan.
“Sent Doug app. for DB plan per C.M.,” the notes on Antonio’s email say.
Baber, now 37, married Good’s daughter on March 31, 2007.
Good, a 25-year city employee who served as city manager from 2002 until his dismissal for excessive absences and other reasons in June 2010, did not respond to requests for comment.
Baber, who no longer works for the city, declined to comment.
Antonio’s solution, it turned out, did not require an amendment to the pension plan or a new city ordinance.
He explained his decision in twin memos to Amiraian and representatives of the company that administers the pension plan, the Principal Financial Group, on May 17, 2007.
The memos state in part that employees hired prior to Oct. 1, 2006 and promoted to a “professional/management” position prior to Oct. 1, 2010 – a description that fit Baber – “will be eligible to enter the defined benefit (management) plan.”
Antonio’s memos cite no authority for that decision, nor do they explain why the change was being made.
The city clerk’s office said it could not locate any reference to the policy change in city commission minutes.
Browardbulldog.org asked Amiraian how Baber was allowed into the management pension plan after it was closed. His assistant, Radu Dodea, later cited Antonio’s memos to show how it was accomplished.
A Principal Financial Group enrollment form in Baber’s personnel file showed he was placed in the management plan as of his promotion date on Feb. 5, 2007. That form is dated April 18, 2007.
The Professional Management Retirement Plan, approved and implemented by the city commission in 2001, boosted pensions for top city bureaucrats in several costly ways. For example, it was calculated to equate their jobs to the “high risk” duties of police and firefighters and granted retroactive credit for prior years of service even if they were in another city retirement plan.
Baber, whose annual salary was $65,000, resigned after five years of city employment on Feb. 22, 2011. When he left, he took a pension plan payout of nearly $20,000.
Today, the city is suing Baber for failing to repay $6,400 in tuition reimbursements he received. Baber, however, has sought bankruptcy protection in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Antonio, who succeeded Good as city manager and retired last June, would not discuss the policy changes, saying he could not recall the circumstances.
Former City Commissioner Keith London, who lost a race for mayor in November, said the reason for the retirement plan deadline change is apparent to him.
“It’s obvious it was for Doug Baber,” London said. “This was all Good’s doing. Who else could do it?”
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Hall
Two Hallandale Beach commissioners who backed generous retirement benefits for top city officials said they were never told that the program granted retroactive credit for years worked prior to the plan’s start in 2001.
Those extra years and subsequent improvements are allowing those ex-administrators to collect millions of dollars in enhanced benefits that some say amount to undue compensation.
The commissioners’ claim was buttressed when City Manager Renee Crichton said her office has been unable to find any official documents that authorize the granting of retroactive retirement credit
However, two ex-managers – Mark Antonio and Randolph J. “R.J.” Intindola – said commissioners were given details in an actuarial report on the pension plan back in 2001.
“It’s easy for them to say now,” said Antonio, a former city manager and finance director who has said the plan was developed and approved because the existing plan was inadequate.
The controversy surrounding the costly executive retirement plan has intensified as election day approaches. The flap surfaced as the Broward Inspector General’s Office continues its investigation into city management practices.
One current and one former city commissioner are now calling for an outside audit to review the plan and determine how it came to include the lucrative provision granting credit for past years of service – with an eye toward possibly rescinding or halting some of the benefits for those covered by the plan.
The plan was stopped in 2007 for new employees, however about 70 former and current employees continue to accumulate benefits under the program.
COMMISSIONERS KEPT IN THE DARK
Current Commissioner Dorothy Ross and former Commissioner William Julian, who is running again, say they were not aware of the richness of the perks when they backed the management retirement program 11 years ago.
“It was never explained,” Ross said. “Why do something for past years of service? I don’t see the reason for it.”
“When we voted on the pension plan that never was brought up to us,” said Julian. “I never saw any documents about free years. They should not be getting anything free.”
Former Mayor Arthur “Sonny” Rosenberg agreed.
Rosenberg, who was off the commission when the plan was voted on but attended meetings about it in the months before, said there was no discussion about retroactive service credit.
“Robbery, that’s what it was,” Rosenberg said of the plan. The city staff, he added, misled commissioners about the plan and its costs.
Rosenberg said he saw a memo from the finance department stating that the plan would cost “no more than $10,000 a year” and would benefit only about 15 employees with 15 to 20 years of service.
City Manager Crichton, who took over this summer, said she can’t find details on the pension agreement in the city record.
“The city does not have any item that speaks directly to the credit of back time,” Crichton wrote in her memo last week. She attached minutes of various city commission meetings in 2001 where the management plan was discussed and approved but there were no references to approving retroactive service credit.
CITIZEN STEPS IN
Crichton’s memo responded to a public records request filed by commission candidate and community activist Csaba Kulin.
“As I expected there is no authorization to grant all those extra years of service to managerial employees,” said Kulin. “It was done illegally….The three previous city manager, starting with R.J. Intindola, have given themselves and others, illegally, millions of dollars.”
While she could not find any reference to the retroactive credit, Crichton said it is possible the approval was “inherent” when the commissioners approved documents outlining the management plan. She said she has no intention of hiring an outside auditor to review the matter, unless instructed by the commission.
The chance of such a review would appear to increase if Julian and Kulin are elected next month. Both said they want one.
“The commission can reverse anything it wants,” Julian said.
City commissioner Keith London also entered the fray, saying that if he’s elected mayor next month he will seek an outside audit and obtain legal advice on what aspects of the plan can be reversed for current retirees or halted for future ones.
BrowardBulldog.org first reported last week how the management retirement plan has paid off big for some top city officials who helped set it up, or backed later enhancements. Three former city managers – Intinola, Antonio and Mike Good – are among those who have received generous payouts, including monthly pensions totaling $37,000.
Intindola received nearly 20 retroactive years of credit when he retired in 2002. In addition, the plan allowed him to purchase an additional four years without actually working. Without those 24 years his pension would be 96 percent lower. He currently receives an annual pension of $111,700. His highest base city salary was $118,664.
Antonio, the city’s finance director before he became city manager, retired in June and received 14.25 years of retroactive service. He also bought five additional years. Without those 19.25 years his annual pension would be 77 percent lower than its current $127,000. His highest annual salary as a city official was $165,000.
Antonio accumulated another $744,637 in a city DROP (Deferred Option Retirement Plan) savings account.
Good was fired in 2010 after eight years as city manager, for chronic work absences and for other reason. Good now receives a monthly pension of $17,522, or more than $210,000 a years, just $2,000 under his highest regular base pay of $212,000. He also cashed out $786,000 from his DROP account shortly before leaving city employment.
Good did not receive retroactive credit for past years of service in the management plan. Previously, he was in the city employee group pension plan, and his years and payments were transferred to the new plan.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Crichton
New Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee Crichton has hired an independent auditor to review the controversial $1.1 million purchase last year of property from a charter school company run by former Broward County Congressman Peter Deutsch.
Crichton retained former longtime West Palm Beach internal auditor Imogene Isaacs to determine how the purchase was approved and who actually bought the property – the city or its Community Redevelopment Agency.
“It is paramount to me as an administrator to always strive for integrity and transparency in my operations,” Crichton told city commissioners in an Aug. 31 memo. “The time involved in doing a proper inquiry may be extensive.”
The city’s attempt to sort things out regarding the 1.9-acre parcel at 416 NE Eighth Avenue comes amid a broader investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office into allegations of mismanagement and possible corruption involving questionable city loans and CRA land deals.
The property was purchased in July 2011 from Deutsch’s Hallandale School LLC, which had planned to open a Ben Gamla Charter School there. Deutsch, a Democrat who served in Congress from 1993 to 2005, pushed hard for city support, but the plan wilted in the face of stiff neighborhood opposition.
Still, Deutsch’s group, which owned the property for just three years, netted a $600,000 profit on the sale to the city.
In her memo, Crichton said City Commissioner Keith London raised questions about the acquisition at last month’s meeting of the CRA’s board of directors. The directors are the five members of the city commission.
Commissioners, sitting as CRA board members, authorized acquisition of the “Ben Gamla” property with CRA funds.
But that’s not what happened.
Former City Manager Mark Antonio’s administration instead used city funds – not CRA dollars – to buy the land, and then titled it in the city’s name, not the CRA.
“No official action was taken by the city commission” to acquire the property using city funds, Crichton said in an interview.
In her memo, Crichton said Isaacs’s job will be to “review the circumstances surrounding the approval process and use of funds associated with the purchase of the Ben Gamla School property; to issue a report on the findings, including recommendations on how to improve the process.”
Several months ago, BrowardBulldog.org reported that all 59 properties purchased with CRA money in recent years are in the name of the city – not the CRA. The CRA has been seeking to re-title 43 of the properties in its name, with 16 others remaining in the name of the city.
PLAYING GAMES WITH MILLIONS?
London, who is running for mayor against incumbent Joy Cooper, said he was “disgusted and disappointed” that city officials “would play games with millions of dollars in funds.”
The money that actually paid for the Ben Gamla property was leftover dollars that developers put up to help pay for traffic, sewer and park improvements. “The money has been sitting there for years,” London said.
Commissioners had expected the funds to come from the CRA, and what happened was not authorized, according to London.
“This is sleight of hand with our money,” he said. “I’m looking forward to…the auditor’s report on who is responsible,” London said.
OLD PRO CALLED UPON
City Manager Crichton turned to a veteran auditor to get to the bottom of what happened.
Isaacs has 37 years of internal audit experience, which includes 25 years of work for West Beach Beach and Lakeland. She also worked in the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for 12 years.
Earlier this year, Isaacs resigned as West Palm Beach’s first internal auditor after a dispute with City Commissioner Keith James who had instructed her not to meet with “any person from outside the city” without permission, according to a story in the Palm Beach Post.
In stepping down, Isaacs, 71, said she saw “some attempts at controlling the independence of the internal auditor,” according to the Post story.
In 2007, she wrote a critical audit of West Palm’s federally funded program to re-roof low-income housing after recent hurricanes, according to another Post story. Eventually, according to the Post, the city had to pay back the federal government $1.67 million.
Crichton said Isaacs will be paid $50 an hour. She expects the total cost of the audit to be as much as $3,000.
By William Gjebre and Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
From Jay Schorr's campaign website
A political writer for Examiner.com who for months has written stories attacking opponents of Hallandale Beach mayoral hopeful Jay Schorr did not tell her readers that she is Schorr’s wife.
Reporter Margaret Kessler Schorr, who uses her maiden name in her byline, disclosed the relationship in a story published Monday in Examiner.com after inquiries by Broward Bulldog
“Apparently, (Commissioner Keith) London is none-too-pleased that his opponent’s wife, yours truly, has the unmitigated gall to write objective, fact-based articles about him,” Kessler wrote.
Hallandale Beach blogger David Smith first raised questions about reporter Kessler’s relationship to candidate Schorr in an email to friends over the weekend. He operates http://hallandalebeachblog.blogspot.com/
Schorr, 54, is a write-in candidate and a long shot in a three-way race that includes London and incumbent Mayor Joy Cooper. Kessler has the title “Miami Political Buzz Examiner.” She also writes about celebrities and travel.
The election is Nov. 6.
Examiner.com is an “entertainment, news and lifestyle network” based in Denver and operated by the Clarity Digital Group, part of billionaire entrepreneur Philip Anschutz’s namesake corporation, Anschutz Company. It bills itself as a credible source of local news that relies on as many as 70,000 “citizen journalists” in cities across the country to generate local content.
Examiner writers are lightly vetted, filling out only an online form before they are hired. A former editor of the site has said their stories are not edited.
“It’s kind of like the reinvention of local news, in a way,” Clarity Digital President Leonard Brody told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail last year. “It is a huge network of trusted insiders in local markets that talk about the things they are passionate about.”
A spokeswoman said Clarity has nothing to do with Examiner.com’s editorial content. No one at Examiner.com responded to requests for comment.
Margaret Kessler Schorr
Candidate Schorr and his wife operate Hallandale-based TMR Multimedia, an advertising, marketing, public relations and television production company. Among other things, TMR sells various items online including its Home Alien Abduction Verification Kit ($24.99, plus $1 shipping and handling).
“The kit comes complete with everything an abductee needs to prove an other-worldly abduction,” the sales site says.
Schorr’s biography describes him as a visionary and TMR as a “nationally renowned think tank” whose clients have included corporate giants like Kmart.
In an email, however, Schorr sounded more like a political brawler. He described Mayor Cooper as “Hallandale’s own Hugo Chavez in a dress” and called London “the poster boy for would-be Broward public servants with limited vocabularies and ideas.”
In a June interview with his wife, Schorr said he’d like to turn Hallandale Beach’s city commission meetings into a “nationally broadcast television talk show like Late Night with David Letterman, complete with celebrity guests and an in-house band.”
Last week, the Sun-Sentinel reported that Schorr is behind a recent petition drive that seeks a citywide vote on the development of a $100 million, 31-story hotel/condominium along the Intracoastal Waterway at Hallandale Beach Boulevard. The city commission unanimously approved the Beachwalk project in June.
Blogger Smith, who often writes about city issues, raised questions about the couple in an email that first took issue with a Kessler story critical of London. Smith wrote that he’d never heard of any of the people she quoted. He said a city official told him that Kessler and Schorr were apparently married.
When asked by Broward Bulldog, Schorr confirmed the two were indeed married.
Kessler, who also posts items on the “Jay Schorr for Mayor” blog, declined to answer questions about her coverage of her husband’s campaign.
Schorr said he sees no conflict of interest.
“Last time I read the AP (Associated Press) Stylebook, there was no prohibition against nepotistic journalism as long as it’s honest and straightforward,” Schorr said. “If I did something wrong I’d encourage my wife to write about it.”
Write-in candidates like Schorr do not appear on the ballot and rarely win elections.
“I love my chances,” Schorr said.
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper
The Broward Inspector General’s probe of Hallandale Beach financial management practices has reached a critical stage: the questioning of the five members of the city commission this week.
The interviews got off to a false start on Friday, when Mayor Joy Cooper was to have been questioned by investigators.
Cooper said she went to the IG’s office but there was a miscommunication involving City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield who had been out of town and was not available to attend. As a result, Cooper said, she was scheduled to meet with IG investigators Monday.
“I’m looking forward to being interviewed and the completion” of the investigation, Cooper said before her scheduled appearance. She could not be reached Monday evening for further comment.
Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders and commissioners Dorothy Ross, Alexander Lewy and Keith London confirmed they would meet with IG investigators this week. The meetings, at the IG’s office in Plantation, are by invitation, not subpoena.
The commissioners, who are also the directors of the city’s embattled Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), may be the last group to be interviewed in the probe.
Investigators have interviewed former City Manager Mark Antonio, former City Commissioner William Julian, CRA Executive Director Alvin Jackson, Human Services Director Marian McCann-Colliee, and Jennifer Frastai, an administrator in the city manager’s office.
Investigators apparently also met with Richard Cannone, a former director of the city’s Development Services Department. When asked if he met with investigators, Cannone referred request for comment to the IG’s office.
INVESTIGATION MARCHES ON
County investigators are reviewing grants and contributions to community groups, CRA loans to businesses and land acquisitions, and management practices. They are expected to eventually issue a report on their findings, with recommendations, and they may also refer some issues to state agencies, such as the Broward State Attorney’s Office.
Vice Mayor Sanders, who along with his wife Jessica, appear to be a focus of the probe, declined to comment or say when he would meet with investigators.
“I wish I could talk to you,” he said.
Investigators have asked for files of several community groups that received city funds and are linked to Sanders or his wife. They have also asked about the city’s purchase of property once owned by a group headed by Sanders.
Ross said she was not sure of the date of her appointment because it had been changed. “I’m going to ask the city attorney to go with me,” she said.
Lewy declined to say what day he will meetwith investigators. He previously stated he believes the investigators have been “fishing for information.”
London, who is running against Cooper for the mayor’s seat, disagreed with that assessment. “This is not a fishing expedition,” he said.
London said he is to meet with investigators at their office on Thursday morning. “I don’t know who else they can talk to. It doesn’t take six months to find people innocent. I look forward to the final report.”
Former commissioner William “Bill” Julian, who is seeking to regain a commission seat this fall and who voluntarily spoke to the IG weeks ago, said he thinks politics is behind the IG’s investigation.
“I don’t see any wrongdoing,” Julian said.” I think we have solid policies. Any problems in the past have been corrected. I don’t see where they can point any finger at anything criminally wrong. I’d say it’s politically motivated investigation.”
The meetings end a short-lived impasse between the Inspector General’s Office and the city regarding investigators attempts to interview city commissioners.
Earlier this month, an attorney for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), whose directors are city commissioners, had maintained that the IG had no authority to probe the CRA under state and county law because it was an independent special district. Prior to that, the City Attorney’s Office informed the IG that the city manager’s office would not voluntarily schedule meetings between city commissioners and county investigators.
Why the city decided instead to cooperate was not immediately clear.
Steven Zelkowitz, the CRA’s lawyer, and Hallandale Beach City Attorney Whitfield could not be reached for comment. Inspector General John Scott declined comment on any aspect of the probe.
Commissioners didn’t seem to know what had changed and indicated they did not inquire.
London, often at odds with fellow commissioners, said he believes Zelkowitz was trying “to protect his clients (city commissioners) ” when he issued his opinion to the IG’s office.
The city’s opposition to having commissioners interviewed may have dissipated because it was only this past March that it officially constituted the CRA as an “agency” under state statutes. Up until then, the CRA, which began functioning in 1996, had been a sub-department or a department of the city.
Another factor could be the IG’s aggressive oversight of another Broward city where elected commissioners also comprise the city’s CRA.
In a report this March, the year-old agency concluded that Lauderdale Lakes “had grossly mismanaged public funds…The OIG investigation also substantiated allegations that the city’s CRA funds were improperly used to pay city operating expenses….”
Or it could be that city commissioners felt public pressure to at least be questioned rather than having this as an issue during an election year.
William Gjebre can be reached at email@example.com
By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org
Commissioners Dorothy Ross, left, and Anthony Sanders
Hallandale Beach City Manager’s Office has refused to fully cooperate with the Broward Inspector General’s Office investigation into the city’s management of the Community Redevelopment district.
City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield informed the Inspector General’s Office by letter Wednesday that City Manager Mark Antonio’s office will not voluntarily schedule requested meetings between county agents and city commissioners, who also serve as the CRA’s Board of Directors.
City Attorney Whitfield also sought in her letter to identify the target or targets of the investigation.
“As it relates to the members of the City Commission, it is imperative, in order to properly advise them as to the availability of legal counsel, that I know whether your investigation is directed to the actions of the City Commission as a whole or to the actions of only individual City Commissioners,” Whitfield wrote. “This will assist me in advising whether or not they need to obtain independent legal counsel.”
The Inspector General began an investigation in April of city management practices following numerous news stories in Broward Bulldog and elsewhere regarding the city’s poor record keeping of land acquisitions and loans through the CRA.
County investigators have been to City Hall at least twice. They are known to have met with Antonio, who retires June 29, and CRA executive director Alvin Jackson. The city also has responded to the Inspector General’s request for various documents dealing with the CRA and other aspects of city operations.
But in yesterday’s letter addressed to county Special Agent William Cates, the city refused complete cooperation – apparently until the county is willing to disclose which commissioners are under scrutiny.
Outgoing City Manager Mark Antonio
“It is my understanding that the City Manager’s office has notified you that they will not be scheduling those meetings and advised that all such requests should be directed to me or the CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz,” Whitfield said.
Antonio, a 25-year city employee who has been city manager for the past two years, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Whitfield or his replacement, Renee Crichton, who is working alongside Antonio until his departure and has assumed administrative duties, according to a city spokesman.
Special Agent Cates also could not be reached for comment.
Despite the letter, two city commission members told Broward Bulldog that they are willing to be interviewed if asked. Two others indicated they would not talk without consulting with the city attorney.
Commissioner Keith London said he does not understand the suggestion that city officials refrain from cooperating with investigators.
“I will go as quickly as I can. I have nothing to hide and look forward to speaking with the IG about (the) CRA and Hallandale’s mismanagement of fund,” he said. “I look forward to the final report and the arrest and conviction of people who mismanaged taxpayers’ money.”
The Inspector General is not conducting a criminal inquiry. It can, however, refer its findings to the State Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution.
Commissioner Dorothy Ross was not aware of the city attorney’s letter, but said she was willing to meet with county agents. “I’m of the opinion there is nothing to investigate; there is nothing wrong,” she said.
Commissioner Alexander Lewy was more cautious. “If they subpoena me, fine,” he said, adding that the county was “fishing for information.
Lewy said city staff has told him that most of the information the county has sought predates his election to the city commission in November 2010.
Vice Mayor Anthony Sanders took a similar stance. “I would check with (the city attorney) if asked for an interview,” he said.
Mayor Joy Cooper did not respond to a request for comment.
The CRA was created in 1996 with a 30-year mission to facilitate redevelopment in the city. But while it has spent millions in tax dollars over the years, critics complain the city has little to show for it.
Many of the issues faced by the city happened before Antonio and Jackson were in their current posts.
A number of controversial findings and actions regarding the city’s redevelopment agency have surfaced in the past year:
- An auditing firm reported in September that the CRA failed to properly track city land acquisitions totaling more than $28 million and loans to businesses exceeding $1.5 million. In March, auditors said the city also failed to provide them with $20 million in vendor contracts for review, limiting the scope of their audit report.
- The CRA acquired nine properties for $23.5 million during the past five years – taking them off the tax rolls – yet the city has enacted no plans for how to use eight of the parcels. The value of those properties has also fallen by $9.1 million.
- A local weekly newspaper that regularly features a column written by Cooper – and has touted her in front page puff pieces – received a $50,000 CRA loan in 2009 that only required the paper to repay half of that amount.