Condomania

Warring septuagenarians end up in court after an ugly incident involving an umbrella and mace

In the courtroom of Judge Robert W. Lee sit the past six presidents of the International Village Association. They are all gray-haired and a bit stoop-shouldered. They are mostly transplanted Jewish northerners. They all talk a tad too loud. They have a combined age of close to 450. Yet all appear ready for a fight.

One of the men sits alone. Scott Samuels, the current president of the International Village Association, which oversees 832 condominium units in Lauderhill, is on the stand. The 74-year-old is on trial for the unlikely charge of battery. The five other condo politicos and their wives are here in hopes of seeing him sent to the slammer. On September 5, 1997, Samuels attacked one of the past presidents, Charles Fagelbaum, age 75, with mace.

The long-simmering feud between the two irascible World War II veterans escalated to physical violence after a seemingly innocuous episode in which Fagelbaum refused to let Samuels listen for a second time to a tape of a board meeting. Fagelbaum afterward spent three days in the hospital with heart problems.

In a calm, defiant voice, Samuels explains to the jury that he wielded the can of mace only in self-defense after being assaulted by an armed and dangerous Fagelbaum. "He picked up my umbrella... and he started jabbing me in the abdomen," Samuels recounts, demonstrating with his fingers the prods of the weapon. "In order to make him stop attacking me, I sprayed him."

It's a scene straight out of Seinfeld (or as the prosecutor puts it in her closing argument, "a Seinfeld episode from hell"), but the potential consequences are very real: The maximum penalty for battery is one year in prison.

The two-day trial features enough name-calling and whispered charges from the gallery of International Village observers to make a Broward County Commission meeting look benign. Samuels is at various times referred to by Fagelbaum partisans as "vicious," an "animal," and a "dictator." And he is accused of inflicting on his own body the umbrella wounds that figure prominently in the case. Seldom has the nasty backstabbing and petty grandstanding of South Florida condominium politics been so baldly on display.

At the courthouse on this Tuesday in early January, the antipathy between the two camps is palpable. As the interested parties wait outside the courtroom, Samuels grows agitated at the close proximity of jurors to Fagelbaum's vocal supporters. "I don't believe it," Samuels practically shouts into his cell phone, as he paces the courthouse hallway. "They're standing right next to them talking. They're gonna cause a mistrial!" A bemused bailiff is soon summoned and the jury is sequestered until the trial gets under way.

A moment later the milky-haired and mustachioed Fagelbaum is sweet-talking a defense witness. He calls over to Robert Clauss, a burly landscaping contractor who was working at International Village on the day of the incident and who is about to take the stand. Fagelbaum puts his arm around the man as they talk quietly. Stuart Smith, Samuels' lawyer, is not amused. "You're not supposed to be talking with witnesses," he barks.

It's the same story inside the courtroom. On one side of the gallery sit the supporters of Fagelbaum. On the other side sit Samuels' backers. The two camps do not intermingle. They insult each other audibly. Mrs. Fagelbaum passes notes to the prosecutor and claims that one of the witnesses lied on the stand.

The civil war at International Village goes back at least to 1995. Samuels and Fagelbaum were allies at the time and ran for the board of directors on a platform of change. The old guard had to go, they claimed; Fagelbaum and Samuels represented the not-quite-as-old guard. But by the end of 1996, the political allies had become bitter enemies. Samuels attempted to sabotage Fagelbaum's campaign for board president that year. Fagelbaum won anyway.

Relations continued to deteriorate. Samuels relentlessly attacked the association -- and in particular its president -- for purported corrupt practices, such as signing off on checks without the approval of the full board and not giving sufficient notice when announcing board meetings. He also accused Fagelbaum of physically assaulting him on at least one occasion.

Fagelbaum says that he received more than 150 letters from Samuels in 1997 charging wrongdoing. One such letter, dated July 21 and labeled "Memo No. 087," alleges that Fagelbaum illegally signed a contract without board consent for $51,944.76 to purchase equipment. At other times during the year, Samuels accused board members of engaging in illegal insider deals, wasteful spending, and various other types of malfeasance.

"Whoever didn't agree with him," Fagelbaum says, "he would demean, insult."
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulations, which is responsible for regulating condominiums, Samuels has filed 29 complaints against the International Village Association over the last three years. In the last two years, Fagelbaum has sent four such complaints.

The result of all these accusations? "Not a single complaint was substantiated," says David Fountain, a spokesman for the department.

Robert Kaye, a lawyer who represents Samuels and the International Village Association, as well as many other condominium boards, says that disputes such as this one are not uncommon. "In 12 years I've seen more than enough physical altercations between elderly board members," he says.

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