By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
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.
In April 1996 Fadgen called his friend, attorney Cornelius Cunningham. Cunningham says Fadgen told him there was man dying who needed a will. The will Cunningham helped Vanella draw up called for Fadgen to become president of Vanella Enterprises, the company that owns and operates the strip mall, and to serve as trustee and personal representative of the estate in probate court. Fadgen was also made legal guardian of Vanella's 17-year-old son, who continued to live in Vanella's Plantation home. So, while Fadgen didn't outright own the strip mall, he controlled it in every way.
Fadgen has routinely portrayed his willingness to take over the strip mall simply as an attempt to honor his dying friend's wishes. It may be that his motives were as pure as the driven snow. But Fadgen was also breaking the law. State ethics laws forbid elected officials from forming contractual relationships with businesses that are regulated by their own governmental body. Not only was Fadgen president of Vanella Enterprises, but he was negotiating on behalf of the company directly with his own city in an effort to stave off foreclosure.
And Fadgen, regardless of his motives, has also made money from his involvement with Vanella Plaza. The public, however, wouldn't know that. The state Commission on Ethics recently reported in a press release that Fadgen "received no compensation for his service" from the Vanella estate, and The Miami Herald followed that up with a story stating that the councilman didn't receive a dime from Vanella Enterprises.
Not true. These myths have been fostered by Fadgen and his attorneys. It's true that Fadgen didn't receive money from the estate while serving as personal representative -- a point his attorney trumpeted at a recent Commission on Ethics hearing. Fadgen had waived those fees. But he did award himself a $1500 payday as "accountant" of the estate. As for the corporation, Fadgen paid -- and continues to pay -- himself an hourly rate for his work there, according to Plantation businessman Phil Demeo, who is currently serving as president of the corporation.
While Fadgen doesn't deny this, he also won't say how much he's made, and the information isn't a matter of public record. But there is the possibility of significant profit. The strip mall, which is assessed by the county to be worth roughly $600,000, generates thousands in rent each month from its dozen or so tenants. Fadgen also had the ability to set the rent on his own office in Vanella Plaza, which houses his wife's photography studio as well. (Again Fadgen would not disclose how much rent he pays.)
What's more, the will Cunningham drafted for Vanella dictated that Fadgen would control the estate and assets until the year 2009, when Vanella's son will finally take over, at the age of 31. In essence Fadgen was slated to make himself an income from Vanella Enterprises for 13 years -- no minor thing for a smalltime independent accountant like Fadgen.
Fadgen enjoyed one other little-known fringe benefit: He could hire his political friends to work on behalf of the strip mall.
There's nothing politicians covet more than the ability to dole out favors, and for Fadgen the strip mall became something of a favor clearinghouse. In August 1996, just a few months after he took over as president of Vanella Enterprises, he awarded a contract to fix up the plaza to RCA Construction. RCA is owned by then-councilwoman and current mayor Rae Carole Armstrong and her husband, Tom. The business just happened to be located in the Vanella strip mall, right next door to Fadgen's office.
In 1997 Fadgen gave RCA -- which recently moved out of the strip mall -- a second contract to help correct code violations. Combined, the contracts generated more than $8000 worth of business.
State law holds that elected officers are forbidden from having a "contractual relationship that will create a continuing conflict between" their private interests and public duties. Fadgen and Armstrong's relationship appears to fall under that category.
"A red flag should go up," says Ernest Bach, a long-time board member of Common Cause of Florida, a political watchdog group. "There is a very obvious potential for conflict of interest there, when it's dealing with two elected officials on the same council and it's dealing with code violations within that city."
It's pretty clear that Armstrong broke ethics laws by accepting the contracts. She was contracting with a company that was subject to an enforcement action by her city, and RCA was actually making the city-ordered improvements. Her conflict has only deepened since she became mayor last year. Now she is ultimately in charge of enforcing code laws at the strip mall.
The cozy contractual relationship between Fadgen and Armstrong has never been disclosed publicly. And Armstrong still won't talk about it openly. After last week's city council meeting, Armstrong refused to comment on the strip mall or the RCA contracts. She bristled at the notion that her actions constituted a conflict of interest, going so far as to threaten to have a reporter physically removed from city hall.
The mayor isn't the only powerful player who Vanella Enterprises employed. There was also Ron Kall, a prominent Plantation architect hired to design a cosmetic overhaul of the strip mall. Kall also happens to be one of Fadgen's campaign contributors and has good reason to pad Fadgen's coffers: The architect often appears before the city commission, asking for variances and waivers of city rules on his building projects. Fadgen rarely, if ever, votes against Kall's projects. Reached by telephone, Kall said he was in a meeting and promised to call back. He never did and didn't return additional messages seeking comment.
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.
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.
The matter should have ended there. Fadgen's management of the strip mall -- and thus his conflict of interest -- was ostensibly over.
But it was just the beginning. Nearly two years later, political opponents of Fadgen's discovered that he'd never actually resigned as personal representative of the estate. And even though he did resign as president of the corporation, he simply made the dead man, Patrick Vanella, the president, while making his own son vice president. Fadgen also remained the corporation's registered agent. These revelations prompted political activist John Garon, who was running against Fadgen at the time, to file a complaint with the Commission on Ethics. The complaint sparked a state investigation that would help to expose a hidden underside to Fadgen's involvement with the strip mall and the city.
On August 31, 1999, Commission on Ethics Investigator Robert Malone interviewed Veltri, who was then the mayor of Plantation. Malone was curious about Fadgen's claim that he'd only spoken with Maclain, the city building director, once and had "purposefully and deliberately avoided all contact with city staff" since.
Veltri told Malone that Fadgen might have asked him what he thought about bringing down the fines and even remembered that he might have told Fadgen, "If that's your word, then we'll take it."
Maclain, meanwhile, strongly contradicted Fadgen's story, telling the investigator that Fadgen called him several times about the strip mall, both before and after the settlement agreement was voted on by council. According to Maclain, Fadgen called to make sure that the city felt that the strip mall was complying with the settlement agreement. Lunny, the city attorney, also says he's had discussions with Fadgen concerning the strip mall since Fadgen's announced resignation but wouldn't detail what was said.
City records contradict Fadgen's version of his role in the settlement as well. Malone overlooked a letter from Laystrom to the city in which the lobbyist wrote, "I have discussed this matter with the trustee representing Pat Vanella's minor son. The trustee has asked that I propose the following settlement to the city." The terms in the letter were the exact ones that were passed by council. While his name wasn't mentioned, Fadgen, of course, was that trustee. The only other possible person it could have been was Demeo, who was named the successor trustee, and he told New Times that he had nothing to do with coming up with the terms of the settlement agreement.
When Malone interviewed Fadgen last August, the councilman was accompanied by his lawyer, Ellen Gibbs, the wife of a former Plantation councilman and a contributor to Fadgen's campaigns. Before the interview Fadgen raised his right hand and swore to "tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God."
Malone knew that Fadgen hadn't really cut his ties with the strip mall. It was a matter of public record. But Fadgen had repeated -- to the press and anyone else who asked him -- that even though he didn't actually resign as personal representative of the Vanella estate, he no longer carried out those duties. It was a "technical error," he would say, and, in spirit, he didn't really violate the Commission on Ethics' ruling.
Malone showed him stark evidence to the contrary -- a document dated July 18, 1998, that Fadgen had signed as personal representative.
Had he known about it, Malone might have shown Fadgen the Armstrong building permit as well. In the permit, dated five months after his alleged resignation, Fadgen signed as "owner" of the strip mall. And there's also an estate document that Fadgen, post-"resignation," signed as personal representative and swore he made a "diligent search" to find everyone who had a claim against the Vanella estate.
Malone had only the accounting document. But it was enough. When Fadgen was presented with it, he literally began stammering.
"Wait a minute," Gibbs intervened sharply. "I've tried to explain this to him [Fadgen] and I'll try to explain it to you [Malone]. Jerry did resign as personal representative . [H]e had no control over what the court would do."
Then Fadgen said, "It wasn't until 1999 that I was released."
"OK, so despite your attempts to resign, you couldn't until the judge allowed you to?" Malone asked Fadgen.
"That's correct," Fadgen replied.
It was a handy excuse for Fadgen. He hadn't lied to his city when he said he was going to resign. It was only that the probate judge, Mark Speiser, wouldn't let him resign. Fadgen has told the same story to daily-newspaper reporters and even to city officials.
It isn't true. The truth is that Fadgen never petitioned the court to resign, says Cunningham, the estate's attorney. Fadgen had mailed a letter of resignation to Cunningham, but then, a couple days later, Fadgen called the attorney and told him that the city and the strip mall had come to an agreement. Cunningham says he interpreted that as meaning that the resignation was no longer necessary. Neither he nor Fadgen ever petitioned the court for the resignation, and Fadgen simply continued serving as personal representative without a "break" in service, Cunningham says. In March 1999 Garon filed an ethics complaint against Fadgen, and it was only then that Fadgen finally resigned.
When told that Fadgen claimed he tried to resign, Cunningham was incredulous: "Jerry said that? I find that hard to believe."
So did Investigator Malone. "We don't call them lies," he says, chuckling at Fadgen's excuse. "We call them discrepancies."
Malone notes that there were quite a few "discrepancies" in Fadgen's statement. After a dozen years of investigating politicians, he's used to it. He added that he doesn't think a politician has ever been charged with perjury for lying to the Commission on Ethics under oath.
Another discrepancy in Fadgen's statements was his oft-repeated assertion that Plantation businessman Demeo took over Vanella Enterprises after his resignation. But Demeo didn't really become president of the corporation until last year. Instead the deceased Vanella was penciled in as president, and Fadgen made his own son, Timothy Fadgen, then a 24-year-old student, vice president. It wasn't a bad deal for young Tim -- now he could put "corporate executive" on his résumé for doing absolutely nothing. Fadgen admitted to Malone that his son was a "corporate officer in title only and has not been involved in any corporate decisions," according to Malone's investigative report. When asked by Malone last August about Tim Fadgen's role in the corporation, Demeo said he had no idea who Tim Fadgen was.
Demeo says he doesn't remember when he took over Vanella's operations and added that he wouldn't even attempt to answer the question without a lawyer. "I don't have time for the place, to tell you the truth," he says, adding that it's been nothing but problems for him. Demeo said he makes all the executive decisions but conceded that Fadgen collects rent, does the strip mall's finances, and for the most part, handles tenants (though Demeo says he sometimes negotiates leases). Which leads to yet another discrepancy.
Fadgen swore under oath that the only work he's done at the strip mall since his "resignation" in 1997 has been tax and accounting work and serving as the corporation's registered agent. That alone, it seems, would comprise a "contractual relationship" and nullify his 1997 promise to quit all "functions" of the corporation. But there was still more. Roughly half a dozen tenants contacted in the strip mall said Fadgen is running the place outright. Like Demeo, the tenants said that Fadgen collects the rent, signs the lease, rents out space, and handles the tenants.
"We give the rent checks to Jerry, and he takes care of all the money," says Neal Schultz, a friend of Fadgen's who owns a locksmith shop in the plaza.
"If you have any questions about this building," says Ken Leeds, a dry cleaner a few doors down from Fadgen, "you need to go down there to Fadgen's office. FADGEN."
Leeds should know the name; he gave Fadgen $1000 in political contributions last year. It isn't known why Leeds felt compelled to give Fadgen so much money for the campaign. Both men refused to discuss the checks. Leeds' business, however, is certainly subject to city regulations and, at any time, might need a break from the council on which Fadgen has a seat.
Leeds, who is on probation from a 1998 grand theft conviction, circumvented the $500 campaign limit by giving checks from two different corporations. One of those companies, though, has been inactive since 1996. In other words it appears to be an illegal contribution.
The $1000 from the dry cleaner might have helped fund a campaign flier circulated by Fadgen in which he responded to Garon's ethics complaint. Any notion that he had a conflict of interest in the strip mall, Fadgen wrote, "is an outright lie!!! As a licensed CPA, I am duty bound to faithfully uphold the highest standards of business practice . I ask you to continue to trust me to do what is right."
Fadgen's political allies have argued that they approved the deal Vanella Enterprises got from the city because it ensured the strip mall would quickly be brought into compliance with city codes. And a promise from an upstanding citizen (and councilman) such as Fadgen should be solid, right?
Three years after the city agreed to cut Vanella Plaza some slack, the strip mall is still a mess.
You wouldn't know it by listening to Fadgen, though. In his sworn statement with Malone, he boasted that improvements to the strip mall were "virtually all complete." Malone wrote in his investigative report that Fadgen told him "that the majority of the code violations have been corrected at the shopping center and that the center is scheduled to be in complete compliance" by the end of 1999.
In reality, just two weeks before Fadgen made these assurances to Malone, a city code enforcer found that "the building lacks proper maintenance or repair" and reported that "a majority of the items on the 1996 list have not been repaired and further deterioration has occurred." The decrepit fascia boards still hadn't been replaced, according to a building-department memo. The rain gutters weren't fastened securely. Ceiling tiles were still missing. No dumpster enclosure had been built. Some firewalls still hadn't been installed.
All this was in violation of the March 1997 agreement, in which Vanella Enterprises promised that it would make $92,495 worth of improvements within two years. The two biggest problems were a lack of dumpster enclosures and the shoddy face of the strip mall itself, which comprised $60,500, or roughly two-thirds of the work promised. Neither has been corrected.
Because the strip mall has failed to comply, the $1.4 million fine should have been reapplied, according to city rules. But city officials have taken no action against the plaza. And oddly enough, no one in the city seems to want to enforce the penalty or to take responsibility for addressing the broken settlement agreement.
Jeff Sabouri, the new building director, is the man charged with directly overseeing the strip mall's progress. But he says enforcement is not his responsibility. City attorney Lunny, who is another contributor to Fadgen's political campaigns -- wrote a letter to Sabouri last year in which he defended the strip mall's progress. Lunny says he thinks the strip mall has "substantially performed the settlement agreement." But he wouldn't respond to questions about how he could come to that conclusion when the deadline has long since passed and the majority of the work hasn't been done. As for Fadgen's conflict of interest, Lunny is almost defiant. "I didn't think it was a conflict then, and I don't think it is one now," he says.
In the end, enforcement of the agreement appears to fall to Armstrong. Serving as the city's "strong" mayor, she is also the city's top administrator and is in charge of every department. But she's been silent on the issue.
Fadgen and Demeo contend that the city has held up the process by failing to OK the building permit for their proposed $130,000 facelift. But city records show that the permit wasn't even submitted until January 11 of this year -- ten months after the work was supposed to be completed.
It did take a month for building officials to approve the project, however. Why? Because the plans lacked dumpsters. They still do, but the city approved the permit anyway.
The dumpsters, in fact, are another example of creative management at the strip mall. Instead of spending $20,500 to enclose the dumpsters, as promised, someone at the strip mall decided to get rid of the dumpsters altogether. The logic being: no dumpster, no code violation.
Only one problem: By Plantation law, businesses must have dumpsters. Instead the businesses at the plaza -- which include a Food Spot convenience store and a liquor store -- have been using special residential "blue bags," which are piled high on the sidewalk on garbage days. It's saving the strip mall thousands, both in not building the enclosures and in dumpster fees to the city and its garbage company, Waste Management.
"If they are doing that, it's illegal," says Carolyn Johnson, the city's zoning coordinator. "They aren't supposed to have blue bags. That is terrible."
Waste Management operations director Ken Rivera said he would have to "investigate" the matter.
Elliott Deutsch, an executive with Food Spot, says the city is allowing the store to use residential bags. "I don't know if Jerry worked out a deal with the city or what," Deutsch says. "I really don't know."
Though the strip mall is woefully in violation of city laws to this day, Fadgen continues to sit in judgment of other code violators in his city. During a May 1999 council meeting, Fadgen complained publicly that the city's code enforcement process in general is too slow, saying, "The fact is that things do not seem to get done quick enough after someone is cited."
Jeb Bush called it a top priority: Make corrupt politicians pay. The governor formed a special task force to figure out how to keep the oft-ridiculed Commission on Ethics, which is charged with enforcing ethics laws, from continuing to be a statewide embarrassment. Bush said he wanted to see influence peddlers and crooked politicians do time in jail.
The tangle of conflicts in which Fadgen had himself wrapped up might have made him an ideal candidate for the crackdown, but that's not the way it worked out this past January 27, when the commission made a ruling on Fadgen's conflict of interest case.
Fadgen did have some things going for him on judgment day. For one, Malone's investigation didn't uncover the Armstrong contracts, and Fadgen's hiring of political allies was never made an issue in the complaint. All the "discrepancies" that Malone uncovered were politely never mentioned at the hearing, either. In short, it wasn't exactly a hard-hitting affair.
Given Fadgen's loyal service to the Republican Party, this shouldn't come as a shock. The commission chairman is a Republican lobbyist in Tallahassee named Peter Dunbar. All nine commissioners were appointed by Republicans, five of them by Bush himself. And there were Fadgen's ties to Bush, as well. At the time of the hearing of his case, Fadgen's name was on Bush's short list to become Broward's Clerk of the Courts. No surprise there. Fadgen worked on the governor's campaign in 1998 and personally contributed to Bush's coffers.
Based on Malone's investigation, the Attorney General's Office recommended that the commission find that Fadgen had violated ethics laws. The commission had the power to recommend that Fadgen be censured, fined, or forced to pay back the money he received from Vanella Enterprises. It could even have recommended that Fadgen be suspended or removed from office. These are only recommendations, however, which would be forwarded to the governor. Rather convenient for Fadgen, considering that it would have been his ally Bush who would have had to decide whether or not to punish him.
To represent him, Fadgen hired yet another lawyer, Mark Herron, of Tallahassee. Herron represents more politicians before the commission than any other attorney. As a former ethics commissioner himself, Herron knows the territory.
After the closed-door hearing was called to order and the case was announced, Herron assured the commissioners: "No compensation was paid, absolutely none" to Fadgen, and therefore it wasn't a contractual relationship. Fadgen, in fact, didn't receive any money for serving as personal representative of the estate -- he'd waived it after the ethics complaint was filed. Fadgen made his money from the corporation as an accountant for the estate, as he admitted to Malone.
Herron portrayed Fadgen as Fadgen portrays himself: a man who made a sacrifice to help his dying friend. After Herron's presentation, one commissioner asked: "[Fadgen] never received any compensation? Period?"
Herron responded that Fadgen had been paid only as an accountant. Herron didn't know how much. Another commissioner wondered out loud if Fadgen wasn't "mixing up money" between the job titles to get off on a technicality. Another commissioner pointed out that Fadgen had written in his request to the commission for an opinion, back in 1997, that he would be compensated as a personal representative. Commissioners wondered aloud if he'd waived those fees only to ward off punishment.
So, for a minute there, things didn't seem to be going well for Fadgen. The commissioners seemed skeptical of his story. William Donegan, a Republican commissioner from the Orlando area, says he sat there thinking, Gee, this doesn't sound right.
But then Peter Prieto, a Miami Republican lawyer and recent Bush appointee, suddenly made a motion: Find probable cause that Fadgen was guilty of a conflict of interest, but take no action against him because of the fact that he was helping a dying friend and didn't accept money for his work. It was a classic political do-nothing move -- and the commission immediately concurred. They didn't fine him. They didn't even censure him or verbally reprimand him. They just dropped the case.
Did Prieto do a fellow South Florida Republican a favor? He says he didn't even know who Fadgen was until the hearing.
The commission's press release came out a week after the decision: "Noting the unusual and altruistic circumstances of the deathbed request under which Fadgen had come to be the estate's personal representative and that he had received no compensation for his service, the Commission felt that the public interest would not be served by proceeding with the complaint."
And that's about all the public heard. The Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel both ran this quote from Fadgen without challenge: "I know in my heart I did nothing wrong. I did my best to honor my promise to a dying friend and in doing so may have committed a technical error." The Herald also reported that Fadgen received "no compensation from the corporation" -- which is flatly untrue. The two newspapers cited different reasons for why Fadgen didn't resign in 1997, when he said he would. In The Herald, Fadgen is quoted as saying his lawyer "thought the conflict of interest no longer existed." In the Sun-Sentinel, however, Fadgen repeated the bogus story he'd told Malone, saying he didn't follow through on his promise to resign because the court wouldn't allow him to withdraw. Apparently Fadgen couldn't keep his own stories straight.
Today Fadgen still spends every Wednesday night presiding over the city at council meetings. During the day he can be found at the strip mall, working in his cluttered accounting office.
Nobody seems to notice when he parks his green Mercury Tracer along a curb at the strip mall every day. The parking spot is unauthorized by the city. Fadgen and a few other business owners park there to make room for customers. The lack of spaces at the plaza -- which is 23 spaces short of the 63 city law demands -- is yet another code violation. A few years ago, in fact, the city dubbed the parking shortage a "priority" in order to force the strip mall to add additional spots.
That, of course, was before Jerry Fadgen took over the plaza. In more recent days, Vanella Enterprises dispatched lobbyist Allsworth to ask city officials at a Plan Adjustment Committee to forgive the strip for its parking shortage. Allsworth explained that there were usually plenty of empty spots there. Nobody mentioned the illegal parking.
City officials obliged, and Fadgen has kept his parking spot.
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: email@example.com