By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Back in the '50s, the peach-color building at the corner of Broward Boulevard and East Acre Drive could claim the distinction of being Plantation's first strip mall. These days the strip looks like any number of other aging retail outlets that have overrun South Florida: a crumbling façade, piles of garbage lying about, and patches of weed-covered dirt where landscaping ought to be.
But there is something special about this particular strip mall: It's run by Plantation councilman Jerry Fadgen, whose accounting business is located there.
Don't expect Fadgen to admit that he's the man in charge, though. "I haven't had anything to do with running this shopping center since 1997, when I resigned," Fadgen insists. "You're talking to the wrong person."
If that's the case, Fadgen sure has a lot of people fooled. According to his fellow tenants, who give their rent checks to the councilman each month, Fadgen still runs the strip. Somebody's mistaken. Either a slew of tenants or one councilman.
Indeed Fadgen has been dodging the truth -- and the state's ethics laws -- ever since he took over the plaza in 1996. Conflicts of interest have been a matter of course. As a councilman he dictated the terms of a deal with his own city that reduced the strip mall's code fines from $1.4 million to $15,000. He's also doled out strip mall-related contracts and legal work to his political allies, including current mayor Rae Carole Armstrong and Plantation's most powerful pair of lobbyists.
In 1997, the state Commission on Ethics determined that Fadgen's dual roles represented a violation of ethics laws, prompting the 54-year-old councilman to announce that he was resigning as president of the company that ran the strip mall. The implication was clear: Fadgen was disassociating himself from the plaza. But he remained in charge. In an ensuing investigation, Fadgen's sworn statements were full of falsehoods, or what a state investigator characterizes, charitably, as "discrepancies."
To top it off, the strip mall -- under Fadgen's leadership -- has failed to abide by the settlement agreement he helped negotiate with the city and is currently breaking the city's garbage laws.
This past February the Commission on Ethics found probable cause to believe that Fadgen had violated ethics laws and had indeed engaged in a conflict of interest. But they let him off without even so much as a reprimand, noting that he was being "altruistic" even while breaking ethics laws. And Fadgen is still widely regarded as an up-and-comer in Broward's Republican Party. During the investigation itself, Jeb Bush put Fadgen on his short list for Broward's Clerk of the Courts position.
When questioned by New Times on three separate occasions, Fadgen refused to discuss his exact role with the strip mall -- other than denying his involvement. Instead the councilman either walked away or demanded that his questioner leave.
Fortunately a paper trail, consisting of city and court records, tells the story Fadgen doesn't want told.
The story of Fadgen's descent into conflict is a far cry from the image he's groomed during his long and often frustrating career in politics. Fadgen has run campaigns on promises of honor and integrity. As a Catholic and a conservative Republican, he's firmly opposed to gay-rights legislation and sex education and is a dedicated protester at area abortion clinics.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Fadgen has been running for office virtually since he arrived in South Florida two decades ago. His "family values" platform has taken some time to catch on, though. He lost his bid for the Republican nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982, was defeated in his run for Plantation City Council in 1985, and lost again in a 1990 bid for the state house. He was beaten in two more races for city council in 1991 and 1993 before finally prevailing in 1995.
The biggest stink he's made in office was coming out publicly against the blockbuster comedy There's Something About Mary, a portion of which was filmed at Plantation City Hall. Fadgen was appalled when he learned that the production, which he'd initially voted to allow in his city, was rated R. "We've soiled our hands," he lamented at a 1998 council meeting.
Fadgen, who is married and has two sons, opened his own accounting office in 1988 at 19 E. Acre Dr., in the old strip mall. Soon Fadgen was doing the taxes of the owner of the plaza, Patrick T. Vanella, who was a questionable landlord at best. By the early 1990s, the face of the strip mall seemed ready to collapse. Bushes grew on the rooftop in dirt accumulated there. There was no firewall for safety, and the rain gutters hung loose on the building. City code enforcers cited the property in 1993 for numerous violations. Vanella failed to respond, while a total of 41 code violations were accumulating fines at a rate of $100 per day. These unpaid fines prompted the city to begin foreclosure proceedings on the property in 1995, the year Fadgen finally became a Plantation councilman. Instead of paying fines, Vanella hired a lawyer to fight them. But Vanella had a bigger fight on his hands by this time: cancer.