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
Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, run by the city’s five elected commissioners, has sent a message to Broward’s new Inspector General’s Office – you can’t touch us.
Numerous questions have been raised about the business dealings of the CRA, in which city commissioners also serve as directors of the agency.
But now the agency has called into question the IG’s authority to delve into its management practices, declining to have commissioners answer county investigators’ questions about their actions as CRA directors. The move is the first significant challenge to the authority of the year-old criminal justice agency whose job is to investigate possible fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement.
“It is our opinion that the authority of the Inspector General does not generally extend to a community redevelopment agency (CRA) and its board members,” CRA attorney Steven Zelkowitz wrote in a June 18 letter to Inspector General Counsel Jennifer Merino.
“As we both know, the individual Hallandale Beach CRA board members and the city commissioners are each one in the same person. However, in these separate capacities they wear separate hats and are guided by separate legal requirements.”
The Hallandale CRA’s bottom line: the IG’s auditors and agents can talk to the five commissioners about their actions as commissioners, but not as CRA board members.
INVESTIGATIVE AUTHORITY QUESTIONED
Zelkowitz’s legal opinion is rooted in the CRA’s status as a special district, a distinct legal entity under Florida law. According to him, board members are public officers regulated by Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officials, not the recently updated, and more stringent, Broward County Code that covers all officials and employees of the county and its municipalities.
The CRA uses property tax dollars collected within the district to promote businesses and redevelopment.
What may happen next is unclear, but the Inspector General’s Office is not expected to back down from continuing its probe in the face of a challenge that could impact its authority over the many other special districts in the county. They include large the North and South Broward Hospital Districts and smaller ones such as the Performing Arts Center Authority or the Hillsboro Inlet District.
Inspector General John Scott declined comment.
Robert Jarvis, a professor of constitutional law at Nova Southeastern University, said this is the first big test of the IG’s authority, and that Zelkowitz may have a point. He cited a recent decision by the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach that limited the jurisdiction of the Attorney General to investigate foreclosure mills.
“I think the CRA may be right,” said Jarvis. “I think this has to be decided by a court.”
Last week’s letter is the second push back from Hallandale Beach.
Several weeks ago, City Attorney V. Lynn Whitfield informed the IG that the City Manager’s Office would not voluntarily schedule meetings between city commissioners and county agents investigating city management practices, including those at the CRA.
In last week’s letter to IG counsel Merino, Zelkowitz allowed that the IG has the authority, under county code, with respect to the same city commissioners in their city functions – but not those concerning the CRA.
He also stated that the IG may have the authority to review any goods and services that CRA provides to the city. However, Zelkowitz, stated, “In such case, the Inspector General would have authority, but solely with respect to the provisions of such goods and services.”
Zelkowitz declined comment.
City Attorney Whitfield also declined comment. In her June 13 letter to the IG, she said her office wants to know whether the probe is targeted at commissioners as a whole or to actions of individual commissioners to determine what type of legal representation they may require.
The IG is a watchdog agency established in the wake of recent county scandals. It can investigate, but not arrest. It is a member of Broward’s Public Corruption Task Force – a specialized group of federal, state and local investigators and prosecutors – that in April was designated as a “criminal justice agency” by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
CITY WANTS MORE INFO
Renee Crichton, Hallandale’s newly appointed city manager, said when the office received a call from the IG it contacted the city attorney and the CRA attorney to discuss the IG’s request to interview commissioners. She declined to comment on whether any member of the city commission was involved in the discussion at some point.
“The CRA and the city commission has not taken any position” on the dispute, Crichton said. “On our part, we need more information as to why the Inspector General wants to interview commissioners. There needs to be some structure; what do they want to discuss.”
“We are not saying we will not cooperate,” Crichton said, adding the city has done so by providing many of the documents requested by the IG.
A call to Broward County Attorney Joni Armstrong Coffey resulted in a callback from Assistant County Attorney Anthony Myers. Asked about the IG’s authority in the matter under county law, Myers said he does not have “sufficient knowledge” to comment. He added it is possible the matter could end up in a court of law.
At least one city commissioner disagrees with the CRA’s position. “The IG does have jurisdiction,” said London, who is running for mayor against incumbent Joy Cooper. A part of the state law, he said, speaks to the mingling of city and state funds and that would give the investigators authority.
If called by the IG, London said, “I’ll go; I look forward to it.”
Commission members Dorothy Ross and Anthony Sanders both said they would be guided by the city legal counsel on whether to be interviewed.
As Broward Bulldog reported last week, the IG has requested city documents about several community-based groups associated with Sanders or his wife Jessica. The complaints made to the IG, Sanders said, are “coming from the negativity of people. I’m not saying who specifically. It is what it is; it’s a part of the politics.”
When and if he speaks to investigators, Sanders said, “I’ll be glad to talk to them in any capacity, as a city commissioner or a CRA director.”
Mayor Joy Cooper and Commissioner Alexander Lewy could not be reached for comment.
In his letter, Zelkowitz asked the IG to restrict his questioning of city commissioners “to their actions as city commissioners and not as HBCRA Board Members. In this regard, we defer to the City Attorney as to the direction of your investigation with respect to the City and Commissioners.
“Notwithstanding the foregoing, the HBCRA is ready, willing and able to comply with all public records requests of the Inspector General as the records of the HBCRA constitute public records under Chapter 119, Florida Statutes.”
William Gjebre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org