Cash Cow, Part 2

Things are changing in Southwest Ranches, but the outlaws are in charge

After years of unlawful secrecy, profiteering, and nepotism by the Town of Southwest Ranches, things are finally changing. But its 7,000-some citizens need not worry; they can still look forward to plenty of unlawful secrecy, profiteering, and nepotism from their little government in the future.

After I wrote an investigative ditty on the Ranches back on March 24 ("Cash Cow"), Town Attorney Gary Poliakoff finally admitted that public-records laws have been broken aplenty in the wealthy, rural, southwest Broward enclave. The lawyer also conceded that Town Manager John Canada's hiring of his daughter as town clerk is illegal and that the manager's wife's work as town bookkeeper is highly questionable.

So far, Canada has been taking most of the heat, as well he should. But Poliakoff -- who manages Becker & Poliakoff, one of the largest legal and lobbying firms in the state -- is just as much to blame for the town's blatant brand of corruption. During the five years of the town's existence, the lawyer never challenged Canada's outlaw ways and at times even endorsed them.

John Canada, Southwest Ranches town manager
Colby Katz
John Canada, Southwest Ranches town manager

In an April 22 legal opinion, Poliakoff addressed that issue in oblique fashion: "While I may have expressed orally that I saw no problem with John Canada and Associates employing family members within the company, the specific question as to whether doing so violates the state's... anti-nepotism laws was never asked, researched, or addressed."

I see. The town attorney will point out lawbreaking only if he is asked about it in writing. Poliakoff's words -- you know, the stuff that actually comes from his mouth -- mean nothing. But hey, that's all part of being a big-shot attorney, right?

With guys like Poliakoff running Southwest Ranches, the town will never get much better. More attention is being paid to the little western town, though. The Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel followed the issues raised in my report and, in the case of the Herald, even advanced the story. But both newspapers have missed the real point: Plainly stated, the Ranches is an elaborate racketeering operation. Or, more specifically, it's a Broward County Commission outpost of corruption -- and a lot of well-connected people are getting rich (or richer) off town hall.

Let's count the connections, starting with Poliakoff, who hired his son, Keith, as the town's deputy attorney (did someone say nepotism?). His firm, behind partner Bernie Friedman, lobbies the county extensively and relies on its influence at county hall to haul in big money. There's one.

Canada, who has made obscene amounts of cash since the town was founded five years ago, came to the Ranches immediately after retiring from county government, where he served as finance director. There's two.

Writing grants for the town is the husband of Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin, Richard Rubin, who has pulled in close to a million dollars during the past five years for a part-time job. Three.

And four, the man brokering the town's numerous land deals is one Ira Lee Cor, who has done the same kind of behind-the-scenes work for the county for many years. Cor told me last week that he's pulled in some $750,000 negotiating land deals for the town, with another $250,000 pending from the sale of land from the Ranches to the Broward County School Board.

"Poliakoff and Canada could have handled those deals themselves, so what is Ira Cor doing in the middle of it?" asks Freddy Fisikelli, the town's venerable former vice mayor and current leading critic. "It's ridiculous."

Cor says his old friend Canada, whom he met during the administrator's years in county government, gave him the job. And he insists he's earned his hefty fees. "There's more to a transaction than meets the eye," Cor explains. "A lot of it is work, and a lot of it is wasted work. In the situation I'm under, I know every day when I try to do a transaction, 50 percent of my time is totally a waste of time."

Thank goodness the Ranches' taxpayers are making sure all that wasted time is worth Cor's while.

On top of all that, Canada just added another county connection to this West Virginia barn dance: attorney Stuart Michelson, the husband of Broward Commissioner Ilene Lieberman. The pair met back in the early 1990s, when he defended his wife-to-be, then mayor of Lauderhill, against accusations of ethical misconduct. Now they work together in their Fort Lauderdale law firm defending accused public officials.

Defending Canada, though, seems a rather ludicrous occupation for anyone. The administrator's argument is essentially that he is above the law. Canada contends that he doesn't have to follow antinepotism and public disclosure laws because the town contracts not directly with him but with his company, John Canada & Associates.

Unfortunately, state statutes don't back up Canada, as Poliakoff recently admitted. But the administrator still refused to turn over the records for a time. After Poliakoff unleashed his unfavorable opinion regarding Canada, the Miami Herald requested salary records for town employees hired by Canada (which he'd refused me). And last week, at Michelson's behest, the administrator finally relented. The newspaper published a story on May 11 detailing what the town had produced. Canada, whose company will bring in at least $655,000 this year from the town, claimed to be making $114,400, while his wife is pulling in $57,200 as his assistant, and his daughter is making $43,000 as town clerk. That comes out to $214,600 for the Canada compound, which is pretty astronomical when you consider the diminutive nature of the town. The six other employees are pulling in a total of $310,820, according to Canada's figures.

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