By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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By Kyle Swenson
Josephus Eggelletion's people wait. The Broward County commissioner has called a town hall meeting at Dillard High School, and about 40 residents have shown up to hear what their man in office is doing for them. The 55-year-old politician, dressed in a gold-colored, U.S. Open golf shirt and black slacks, strolls into the school about 7 p.m., when the thing is supposed to start. Slow and sure, with a slight Everyman's slump in his stride, he glad-hands a couple of constituents, helps himself to an Oreo cookie from a refreshment table, and walks toward the auditorium.
Eggelletion plans to talk about street improvement projects in the predominantly black neighborhoods over which he presides. It fits his practiced image. He often portrays himself as the voice of poor minorities. But the former state representative has also become a champion for a decidedly unoppressed demographic group: deep-pocketed and opportunistic Miami developers who've flocked to Broward County during the past few years.
They specialize in affordable housing, which has become increasingly necessary in Broward as median home prices have soared beyond $300,000. The developers rely on millions of dollars in government subsidies to build apartments -- and to bring in hefty profits. Eggelletion has been one of their leading advocates, publicly demanding that the Broward County Commission give them more public money.
But Eggelletion's interest in the developers isn't selfless. His support, in fact, seems to originate in an all-too-predictable place: his wallet. Even as he uses his considerable influence to help developers reap windfalls, he's gone on their payroll. A few years ago, when Miami-based Cornerstone Group Development came to Eggelletion's district to build a townhome project in Lauderdale Lakes, it hired the commissioner. The county has since given Cornerstone hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money and millions in tax-exempt bonds.
Though his work for Cornerstone -- which earned Eggelletion an estimated $50,000 -- never made the newspapers, he did it in the open. His more recent work for another Miami developer, United Homes International, appears to have been done completely behind the scenes. Well-placed sources say United Homes, which has a history marred by corruption, hired the county commissioner to help it secure a $100 million contract to build a "downtown" for Lauderdale Lakes, where Eggelletion once served in public office.
But the county commissioner isn't talking about the deal. For weeks, he didn't return phone messages and detailed, e-mailed questions. Then came the November 30 town hall meeting at Dillard. As he strolled toward the auditorium, he was asked about his employment with United Homes. "I'm not going to answer those questions tonight," he said, quickening his stride.
There's good reason to keep his business with United Homes quiet. The city banned lobbying on the project, and a violation could disqualify the offending firm from competition.
While taking a break from the town hall meeting, he entertained some questions but answered only a few. "I work for a company and provide services for that company," he said cryptically when asked again about United Homes. He evaded specific queries about his work but promised to reply in detail to questions e-mailed to him.
"All I care about is those people in there," he added, motioning to the auditorium. "Those are the people that don't have what you and I have."
When pressed about his work for developers and the potential ethical and legal problems that could come with it, he asked pointedly, "Is it illegal?"
He obviously believes the answer is no. Such work certainly isn't without precedent. Fellow commissioner Ilene Lieberman worked for Pinnacle Housing Group, another well-heeled Miami developer, for at least two years (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist," Parts 1-4). However, Florida's unlawful-compensation statute, which forbids politicians from profiting from their public positions, is very broad, and the right answer may be more problematic than either commissioner realizes.
Even if Eggelletion's efforts for Cornerstone and United Homes aren't unlawful, several Lauderdale Lakes officials contend it should be. Deputy Vice Mayor Barrington Russell, for one, calls for an investigation of the commissioner's work. "I think it's inappropriate for any elected official to lobby any city," Russell says. "It must be prohibited. It's offensive, and it sets a bad example for government... It is morally and ethically wrong and must be legally wrong as well."
Russell is particularly offended that Eggelletion appears to have marketed his political influence to a developer at the same time the county commissioner was quietly working to destroy Lauderdale Lakes' effort to annex several predominantly black neighborhoods. Lakes commissioners allege that Eggelletion ran a stealth campaign against the city's ambitious plan to expand the city to include some 15,000 residents in the poorest neighborhoods of central Broward.
Annexation is widely perceived as the best way for those areas to achieve self-rule and get the tax dollars the county has long denied them. But Eggelletion worked against the measure, which was defeated by voters on November 2. Several black community leaders say Eggelletion betrayed them. They wonder if his actions were dictated more by his love of developers than by his dedication to the people. And they're waiting for him to prove otherwise.