Mall Rat

Plantation councilman Jerry Fadgen says there's nothing wrong with his role at a local strip mall, no matter what that pesky state ethics board says

When the subject of Vanella Plaza came up at a July 9 code-enforcement-board hearing in Plantation, chairman Tom Scalfani, sitting on the dais, asked the $1.4 million question: "Tell us what the deal is here. What's the story?"

City building manager Tom Hanrahan, who stood before the board, could only smile as he tried to answer. "Good question," he said. "This has been going on for ages, the violations on this shopping center. I think the board is aware of that. It predates many of us here."

Hanrahan told Scalfani that several building permits were still open on the plaza, which is located on the northwest corner of Broward Boulevard and East Acre Drive, and that the code violations hadn't all been corrected. Then he made a stunning revelation: "I took a report to Mr. Fadgen on the open permits since he's the resident of the business there -- Jerry Fadgen," Hanrahan explained to the board. "I took a report to him every week. I wanted to make this thing go away. Get it done. And to that point I wasn't successful -- yet. We did an overview of the total thing, and I reported to [Fadgen] that the permits were not final."

Jerry Fadgen is up to his old tricks at Vanella Plaza
Preston
Jerry Fadgen is up to his old tricks at Vanella Plaza

And with that, Jerry Fadgen was busted -- again. Fadgen, a city councilman who has been in office six years, isn't supposed to have anything to do with the shopping center, as per a Florida Commission on Ethics report issued back in 1997. The commission found that Fadgen's role as councilman conflicted with his duties at the strip mall, which has had a long-standing dispute with the city over code violations. By the time the ethics commission acted, however, Fadgen had already helped to reduce a $1.4 million city fine against the strip mall to a mere $15,000. Despite Fadgen's public promise that he would cease to represent Vanella Plaza, the ethics commission found probable cause in 1999 that he had violated ethics laws by working on behalf of the plaza. And today, as his meetings with Hanrahan prove, he continues to act as the property's paid accountant and unofficial manager -- behavior that, as he has repeatedly been told, constitutes a conflict of interest.

City activist and former councilman Lee Hillier, a long-time political foe of Fadgen's, attended and videotaped the July 9 code-enforcement meeting and says he's planning to file a complaint with the state attorney's office alleging criminal misconduct. "This is official malfeasance at its worst," says Hillier, who lost his bid for reelection earlier this year. "Fadgen is clearly violating the law, and the city is doing nothing about it."

Fadgen downplays Hanrahan's visits, claiming he's not violating the law because he's not a "decision-maker" for Vanella Enterprises, the company that owns the plaza. He insists the real boss is his (handpicked) successor, gas station owner Phil Demeo. Fadgen has also put both of his grown sons on the plaza's board of directors, though he admits they do little in exchange for their titles. Because Fadgen continues to handle the financial end of the strip mall, he says people often assume he is the man in charge. After denials on the matter last year to New Times (see "There's Something About Jerry," March 16, 2000), he now admits that he often collects rent checks and handles tenants' concerns in addition to his accounting work. Further, the company's principal address remains that of his accounting office, which is next door to his wife's photography shop in the plaza.

"Phil's office isn't in the plaza, and mine is," he explains. "Where is headquarters? Is it where the chief executive is or is it where the accounting office is? Often it's where the accounting office is, and that's where I am. But my function is not as an executive."

But state ethics laws concerning elected officials' business dealings don't seem to recognize this distinction. Florida Statute 112.313 forbids public officials from forming contractual relationships with businesses that are regulated by their own governmental body, or that create "a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties."

The councilman's own history with the plaza began in 1988, when he moved his small accounting firm there. He struck up a friendship with the plaza's owner, Patrick T. Vanella, who happened to be letting the place fall to pieces. When city code inspectors complained, Vanella didn't listen. The fines began to pile up; by 1996 Vanella owed the city $1.4 million. That same year, Vanella died of cancer. Before he passed away, he made Fadgen, by then already a city councilman, president of the company that owned the mall and the personal representative of his estate until the year 2009, when Vanella's son is slated to take charge.

Fadgen, for all practical purposes, became the owner of the strip mall. He could set the rent for tenants (including his wife and himself), pay himself a salary, and run the place. But first he helped negotiate a reduction in the fine with his city, which was then run by his political mentor, long-time Plantation mayor Frank Veltri. In March 1997 the council (with Fadgen abstaining from the vote) reduced the fine to $15,000, with the stipulation that the strip mall would correct the violations by 1999.

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