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.

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.

The other $130,000 is spent on Social Security, interns, and expenses, Canada told the newspaper.

So all is well and good in Canadaville, eh?

Hell n'eh.

To this day, nobody knows how much money Canada and his family have raked in during the years his company has been on the Ranches' payroll. Back in 2000, the town paid John Canada & Associates $350,000 for a year's work -- and all he employed was a single clerk. Only later did he hire his wife, daughter, and other employees.

And at least 130,000 legitimate questions remain. It's a mystery why Canada would need any money for "expenses." In addition to salary, the town pays all his office and travel bills, after all. And how long has he been paying his employees the salaries listed? It'll be interesting to see who the town's interns were too.

I filed a public records request for some of that information last week. How much do you want to bet the administrator dodges it? I'll make that wager based on one known fact: Canada is one of the most purely arrogant men in the civilized world, Weston included.

The administrator, for instance, is still claiming that he never needed to release the salary information. And so far, he's kept his wife and daughter on the payroll. We'll see how long he can keep that charade going. Complaints have already been filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics regarding his love of public money for his family, according to well-placed sources. I know well of the ethics board's vagaries, but I can't believe the commission will let Canada's transgressions stand.

The Broward State Attorney's Office, meanwhile, is investigating whether Canada's public-records embargo violated the state's "Government-in-the-Sunshine Laws." Canada's handing over of a few numbers shouldn't satisfy prosecutors, but it probably will. We're talking about Michael Satz here, a state attorney who never met a corrupt official he couldn't clear.

If nothing else, the rigmarole surrounding the town has helped to save the new city of West Park from a similar fate. Canada, Poliakoff, and town Mayor Mecca Fink had planned to move their act from Southwest Ranches to West Park. They spoke with city leaders, urging them to privatize their government and hire them as their managers and attorney. And they were serious contenders for the job after the city was incorporated in March. Following the recent revelations about the town, however, the city not only dumped the Ranches carpetbaggers but decided not to privatize the manager position.

Now if Southwest Ranches would only do the same.

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