There's Something About Jerry

Plantation councilman Jerry Fadgen's management of a little strip mall has led to big conflicts of interest and even bigger lies

Fadgen hired the law firm of Doumar, Curtis, Cross, Laystrom & Perloff to represent the strip mall in negotiations with the city over the code violations. The firm includes prominent lobbyists Bill Laystrom and Emerson Allsworth, who are fixtures at city council meetings. They routinely go before Councilman Fadgen on behalf of clients ranging from huge land-development corporations to mom-and-pop shops.

In other words Fadgen hired two lobbyists who are constantly lobbying him on other matters -- and whom Fadgen has, again, rarely, if ever, opposed. Bach says such a relationship lends itself to favoritism. "You have so many intertwining fingers on both hands that the potential for conflict just seems tremendous," he says.

While Laystrom didn't return phone calls from New Times, Allsworth, before cutting short an interview, said his representation of the strip mall was only as an occasional stand-in for Laystrom.

Garbage piles up outside the strip mall every week. The store's façade seems ready to collapse. And no, it's not legal.
photos/Preston
Garbage piles up outside the strip mall every week. The store's façade seems ready to collapse. And no, it's not legal.

Fadgen and Allsworth make especially odd associates. Fadgen is a Boy Scout leader and a Knight of Columbus; Allsworth is a convicted felon. A former Florida speaker of the house, Allsworth counted among his clients Benjamin Kramer, a legendary pot smuggler and convicted killer of Don Aranow, the inventor of the Cigarette boat. Allsworth was convicted in 1993 of laundering Kramer's drug money through a maze of offshore bank accounts.

When New Times asked Fadgen why he would align himself with Allsworth and his firm, Fadgen's only response was to wave good-bye and say to his interviewer, "Adios." He was slightly more helpful when he was asked a similar question by a state investigator last year, under oath. "If you want to solve a problem," he explained, "you get Bill Laystrom."

And Fadgen definitely had a serious problem. Vanella Enterprises owed the city $1.4 million in fines and faced foreclosure. He risked losing not only control of the strip mall but his and his wife's place of business as well. It was time for Fadgen to broker a deal with his city.

Fadgen's participation in negotiating down the strip mall's fine and hammering out an agreeable settlement for Vanella Plaza is quite simple and benign. According to Fadgen.

The councilman's version, culled from state records, newspaper reports, and the few sentences he uttered to New Times, goes like this: After taking over the strip mall, he made one phone call -- and only one phone call -- to then-Plantation building director Manny Maclain to tell him that the strip mall was now determined to strike a deal with the city rather than fight it in court. Fadgen then hired Laystrom's firm to represent the strip mall with the city and had nothing to do with the negotiations after that.

In early 1997 Fadgen and city attorney Don Lunny decided to ask the Florida Commission on Ethics for an opinion on whether Fadgen's roles with the city and strip mall constituted a conflict of interest. The commission ruled that "The council member's interests as personal representative [of Vanella's estate] are completely incompatible with those of the city's." The message was clear: Fadgen had to cut his ties with either the strip mall or the city.

At the city council meeting on March 12, 1997, Fadgen announced that his allegiance would remain with the city. "Yesterday I resigned as personal representative to avoid the appearance of any actual conflict of interest with my public duties," Fadgen said. "And I also resigned as president of the corporation and removed myself from all executive positions and functions of the corporation."

By then, of course, he had already helped broker an agreement with the city. Quite an amazing agreement. Rather than foreclosing on the plaza, the city agreed to reduce the code fines from $1.4 million to $15,000 and gave Vanella Enterprises two years to come into compliance. It might seem like a sweetheart deal for a city insider, but former Plantation mayor Frank Veltri and Lunny have insisted that the agreement was in no way influenced by Fadgen's role in Plantation. They say it is the city's policy to reduce code fines substantially, so long as the offender agrees to fix the problem in a timely fashion.

The Council was set to vote on the plan at the March 12 meeting. Fadgen recused himself from the vote, as did Councilwoman Armstrong. She announced that she had a conflict of interest because RCA Construction was a strip-mall tenant. She didn't mention the contract RCA had to fix up the place. But her glowing comments at the meeting seemed to indicate some inside knowledge: "I know that Councilman Fadgen and the family have done a good job in making a commitment to provide for improvements there… and I know that things are moving in the right direction." A few months later, Fadgen awarded RCA a second contract to help make some of those "improvements."

It was Veltri, who was succeeded as mayor by Armstrong last March, who proposed the settlement agreement to the council. To understand the tight political relationship between Veltri and Fadgen, consider that Fadgen has a framed picture of the octogenarian former mayor on his office wall, just above the one of Newt Gingrich. Veltri authorized the settlement and then publicly explained that city officials didn't really want the money from the fine anyway. They just wanted the place fixed up. "We're not money launderers like that," Veltri told the council, standing, ironically enough, next to Allsworth. The three voting council members approved the settlement agreement unanimously.

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