Our Mayor, the Lobbyist, Part 3

Ilene Lieberman's misadventures in Pembroke Park... conflict after conflict

Pembroke Park is the little town that Broward County forgot. It's a decidedly working-class, if not poor, industrial burg on the Miami-Dade County border with about 6,000 people, most of whom live in mobile homes. Town officials have long complained that the County Commission has largely ignored the town.

Last year, however, Broward Mayor Ilene Lieberman momentarily had the town in her sights -- not as an elected official but as a developer's lobbyist. Maybe it's best to let Lieberman, who shares a law practice with husband Stuart Michelson, describe the difference between her roles, as she did during a commission meeting in the small, wood-paneled Pembroke Park town chamber on February 26, 2003. "I'm not here as Commissioner Lieberman," she announced. "I'm here as Ilene Michelson. In my private life, as you all know, I'm a lawyer, and Pinnacle is my client."

She was referring to Miami-based Pinnacle Housing Group, a company that hired Lieberman in late 2002 and has since become one of Broward's most prolific developers. Currently, Pinnacle is working on five projects from Pompano Beach to Pembroke Park worth about $120 million. Lieberman ended her employment with the developer last month during a New Times investigation that questioned whether she engaged in unethical and illegal practices with the company (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist, 1 and 2," September 16 and October 14).

While most of Lieberman's conflict-ridden efforts on behalf of Pinnacle have taken place outside the public eye, her work in Pembroke Park was documented on an audiotape that can be found in the town archives. It provides searing insight not only into the mayor's work for the developer but also into her hardball tactics as a lobbyist. Lieberman, in a sharply worded response to a list of questions submitted by New Times, denied she did anything wrong while working for the developer.

The Pembroke Park deal concerns a seven-acre piece of land on Hallandale Beach Boulevard a few miles west of Interstate 95 that is graced with one of the most beautiful oak tree hammocks in South Florida. The town agreed to sell the property for $1.8 million to Pinnacle back in summer 2002. The company promised to build 168 affordable housing units and 8,000 square feet of retail space promptly and without funding from the town. In honor of the hammock, which is supposed to be protected, the $19 million project was named Pinnacle Oaks.

More than two years later, the company has yet to even close the land deal. Instead, Pinnacle has requested several time extensions while it attempts to secure public financing to pay for the land. And that was where Lieberman entered the picture in February 2003.

During the Pembroke Park town meeting, Lieberman, who was flanked by Pinnacle President Michael Wohl and Vice President Tim Wheat, urged the town to apply for a grant from the county that she serves to help Pinnacle pay for the land. The deal was relatively simple: If the town put up some federal grant money, the county would match it with new funds -- as long as the cash went to Pinnacle Oaks. That would, in turn, show local government support for the project, which would help the firm obtain about $10 million worth of federal tax credits from the state.

All the town had to do was apply to the county for the money, Lieberman said, before launching into a fawning endorsement of the company. "By choosing Pinnacle, you have made a wise move," she told the commission, which at times relies on her county vote for funding and project approvals.

Lieberman, who was then county vice mayor, assured the town that the County Commission would approve the new grant money, and to prove it, she brought a letter of support from her friend, then-county Mayor Diana Wasserman-Rubin. "Broward County is continuing to grow rapidly and your project will certainly help to accommodate that growth," Wasserman-Rubin wrote in the January 23, 2003, letter addressed to Wohl.

(Wasserman-Rubin says that even though she knew that her colleague was employed by Pinnacle, she never discussed the company with Lieberman and was unaware that her fellow commissioner used the letter in her lobbying efforts. She said she had met with Wohl at his request and introduced him to county staff.)

When Pembroke Park Commissioner Howard Clark balked at the Pinnacle plan during the meeting, which wasn't covered by the media, Lieberman lost her collegial tone. She made a veiled threat to sue the town, saying that if the commission didn't apply for the county grant, it would be in "capricious and arbitrary" violation of its contract with Pinnacle.

Then she interrupted town attorney Christopher Ryan, telling him -- quite wrongly -- that the town wouldn't lose any grant money. "Would we both agree to that?" she repeatedly and pointedly asked Ryan.

"Yes, but --" the lawyer tried to respond.

"Thank you!" Lieberman shot him down.

She was so aggressive that Clark likened her to Judge Judy, the TV personality famous for dominating the litigants on her show. A city commissioner, Emma Shoaff, found no humor in the matter. She confronted Lieberman directly about her dual role as county commissioner and developer's lobbyist.

"We better start looking at this thing all over again," Shoaff said of the project.

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