Cash Cow

A group of political opportunists is cashing in on the rural town of Southwest Ranches

The Florida Supreme Court, however, has ruled otherwise. In an unrelated case, the court determined that any private company that "performs the public function in place of the public body" falls under the Sunshine statutes.

Pat Gleason, general counsel for the Florida attorney general, says it's clear that Canada is violating the law. "It's all public record," Gleason says. "If a private corporation is standing in the shoes of the government, then they must adhere to public records. It's unusual for that kind of situation to occur. Most of the time, the private entities are aware of their responsibilities under the law."

Canada also defended his nepotistic practices. "In traditional government, you can't [hire relatives]," he acknowledged. "But these are not traditional employees. We run our business just like any other business."

Alfred Fisikelli (pictured) says the town of Southwest Ranches is being ruined by the unethical and reckless government run by John Canada (following picture).
Colby Katz
Alfred Fisikelli (pictured) says the town of Southwest Ranches is being ruined by the unethical and reckless government run by John Canada (following picture).
John Canada
Colby Katz
John Canada

That, however, wasn't the original plan for Southwest Ranches. The town charter, which effectively stands as the supreme law for the town, has nothing in it about a company running the place. Rather, it states that an administrator should be hired not on a contractual basis but for an "indefinite" amount of time. In other words, Canada's own contract, which covers a specified number of years, violates town law.

Charged with making sure the town follows the law is Gary Poliakoff, who is known not quite affectionately as "Big P" by the Ranchers for Better Government. "Little P" would be his son, Keith. Neither father nor son, however, works for the town. Their 120-member legal and lobbying firm, Becker & Poliakoff, actually holds the contract.

Gary Poliakoff, who made his fortune representing neighborhood and condo associations, has been deeply involved in the town since well before its inception. As a leader of one of the most influential law firms in Florida, he was one of the few people in the Ranches who had any idea how to assemble a municipality. He wrote the charter, and his firm contributed to several council campaigns, most notably those of Fink, the town's first mayor, and Johnny Dollar, the first vice mayor, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2002. Fisikelli, the maverick ex-councilman, didn't receive any funds from Becker & Poliakoff and says he didn't want them.

"The town became a clique, and I was invited to join the clique," the former vice mayor says. "But I told them I wouldn't join. The whole scheme was based on the fact that there was a lot of money to be made on the town. Money changes people. It makes people lie, and I can't get behind that."

The townsfolk tried to bone up on the rules of government, but Poliakoff, even though he didn't practice municipal law, played the role of wizard. Any doubt that the lawyer was the man behind the curtain was extinguished at the first town hall meeting, which was held in the quaint setting of a school auditorium on August 8, 2000. The initial order of business was to name Poliakoff as interim town attorney. Mayor Fink, according to the Sun-Sentinel, then cried out hurriedly from the makeshift dais, "Gary, please come up here and help us!"

Poliakoff's law firm was then contracted by the town for up to $200,000 a year at a rate of $175 an hour. On top of that, the firm has received hundreds of thousands of dollars more in other fees, including from the proceeds of land deals it closes for the town.

Oh, and there have been many land deals.

Since incorporation, Southwest Ranches has purchased more than 200 acres of open land, ostensibly for public parks. Though its budget hovers at a minuscule $6 million annually, the town has borrowed roughly $5 million and obtained some $25 million in grants. The majority of the latter, about $18 million, came from Broward County's $400 million Safe Parks and Land Preservation Bond. The way all that county money was procured reveals the labyrinthine and incestuous nature of politics not only in Southwest Ranches but also in Broward County.

From the town's early days, the man behind the grants has been Poliakoff chum Richard Rubin, whom the Ranches hired to secure government money for its land-buying bonanza. Rubin had a bit of an advantage, since he's married to Diana Wasserman-Rubin, who won a seat on the Broward Commission shortly before her husband took the job.

A month after the town was incorporated, the Rubins bought a $305,000 home in Southwest Ranches (at the right time -- their house is likely worth $700,000 or more today). Wasserman-Rubin was then the clear front-runner for the commission seat. Managing her campaign was none other than Bernie Friedman, an influential lobbyist who works for the Poliakoffs' law firm.

The Ranches has not only provided Richard Rubin a free office in which to conduct his business but has paid him as much as $1 million for writing grants. If that sounds like an obscene amount of money for a part-time government gig, that's because it is. Most grant writers, even those working full-time for a big city, would consider themselves lucky to earn $75,000 annually.

From the start, Rubin pulled phenomenal coin from Southwest Ranches, in the ballpark of $200,000 a year, give or take 10 or 20 grand. He clearly had nothing to complain about, but things would get much better. And his fortuitous rise in compensation would occur simultaneously with his wife's political rise. In November 2002, Wasserman-Rubin was appointed for a yearlong term as Broward's first mayor. Just four months later, Southwest Ranches basically began to print money for the man, town records indicate. And it was done with a confusing string of contracts that the Ranchers for a Better Government say effectively hid the payout from the public's view.

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