Political Pull

The lucrative Dania Beach towing contract is worth all the political clout Vice Mayor McElyea exercised to win it

It wasn't until after 1 a.m. on December 23 that Peter Whitney decided to go out. Whitney, a 33-year-old from Barbados with light-brown skin and short, black, curly hair, had received a call from his friend Claude Harding. Meet at Harbor Grille in Dania Beach, Harding told Whitney. It's Jamaican night.

At 1:30 a.m., Whitney pulled into the Harbor Grille parking lot to find it full. Next door, in the parking lot of the Harbour Towne Marina, Whitney saw Harding's car parked with a number of others along the front of IK Yacht Designs. It was an area where he and Harding had parked many times before; no signs said they couldn't.

Inside, Whitney met Harding, a 33-year-old from Miramar, and the two socialized with friends among the mostly black crowd grooving to a DJ spinning Jamaican sounds. At 3:30 a.m., they walked back to the marina and discovered that their cars, along with about two dozen others parked in the same area, were gone.

Peter Whitney (left) thinks Dania Beach Vice Mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea (right) took his car illegally -- and then made him pay to get it back
Peter Whitney (left) thinks Dania Beach Vice Mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea (right) took his car illegally -- and then made him pay to get it back

Harbor Grille employees told Whitney where the cars had been taken: Mac's Towing Service at 418 SW Second Pl. in Dania Beach. A friend drove them to the tow yard, and they noticed that their cars were the closest to the fence. Then they saw the gate; it was unlatched. All they had to do was push it aside and drive their cars away. Riding a wave of liquid courage, Whitney and Harding reclaimed their automobiles.

On the ride home, Whitney had trouble steering his gray 1993 Volkswagen EuroVan. When he arrived home at close to 4 a.m., he took a flashlight and crawled under the van. The drive shaft was damaged; power steering fluid leaked into a pool on the driveway at his home near Griffin Road, in a recently annexed section of Dania Beach.

Then he heard the noise and saw the lights: screeching tires and pulsating red and blue. He crawled out from under his car, stood, and saw four Broward Sheriff's Office patrol cars, lights ablaze, outside his home. The deputies, guns drawn, ran toward Whitney. "They threw me on the ground like I was fucking [Pablo] Escobar," Whitney said. Down to the station they took him, for allegedly stealing his own car.

Harding, who lives outside BSO's coverage area, received gentler treatment from the Miramar police. An officer knocked on the door, asked what happened, and informed him that he'd have to turn himself in to the sheriff. "Be careful," the Miramar officer warned him. "BSO is pissed off."

Both Whitney and Harding were taken to holding cells where they spent the night, and they would later bond out for $1,500 each. Harding says he overheard BSO deputies joking about asking for "Christmas bonuses" because of all the revenue they had generated from towing that night.

The incident resurrects old questions about the relationship between BSO and Mac's Towing, which is owned by longtime Dania Beach politician and current Vice Mayor C.K. "Mac" McElyea. As a member of the Dania Beach City Commission, McElyea votes to award BSO municipal police contracts. BSO, in turn, contracts him for towing services. Each seems to scratch the other's back. "That issue came up years ago, long before I was here," Dania Beach City Manager Ivan Pato said, "and it was dealt with on the state level."

He's right. In 1989, four Dania Beach citizens filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, alleging that the agreement between Mac's Towing and BSO represented a conflict of interest for McElyea and that his voting on whether to contract with BSO for Dania Beach police services represented an ethical violation. Florida ethics law prohibits city officials from selling private services to their city.

The commission investigated. On June 21, 1989, Craig B. Willis, an assistant attorney general serving as an advocate for the Commission on Ethics, cleared McElyea. At the time, BSO used what was termed a "strip sheet" -- a list of towing companies that would be called to scenes on a rotational basis. Mac's Towing was one of several companies on the list. A Florida statute allows an exemption "when the business is transacted under a rotation system," Willis wrote. The commission dismissed the complaint.

There's now just one problem: BSO's strip sheet no longer exists. BSO contracts only with Mac's Towing and Westway Towing. Mac's covers all assignments east of the Florida Turnpike and Lyons Road. Westway covers the western portion of the county. No more rotation system.

For this reason, Mac's Towing is the only company receiving towing assignments in Dania Beach, where BSO has a $7 million annual police contract thanks, in part, to McElyea's favorable voting record.

McElyea said in a telephone interview that he has been cleared of any possible wrongdoing and that the city attorney would notify him if his towing contract represented a conflict of interest. He claims the rotation system still exists because Stuart's Garage & Body Shop occasionally receives Dania Beach calls from BSO. But Stuart's is owned by McElyea's daughter, Cari McElyea Kresa, who also serves as vice president of operations for Mac's Towing. The two companies are hardly competitors, and BSO could not confirm McElyea's claim that Stuart's receives assignments.

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