By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Ira Cor says he likes to stay behind the scenes. The real-estate broker contends he's happy to get government deals done while the politicians -- or "electeds," as he calls them -- take the credit.
That's one reason even some veteran political insiders don't know exactly what Cor does. The answer: He's a freelancer who plays the middleman in government land transactions. And the low-key strategy has done wonders for the 59-year-old Cor, who has made a veritable fortune brokering purchases for local governments, including Broward County. To be successful, Cor relies on the kindness of county staff and, ultimately, commissioners who vote on his deals.
A portly fellow who wears expensive suits and drives a late-model Cadillac, Cor has developed a network of public and private relationships hewn together by U.S. currency.
The tens of thousands of dollars he's given over the years to local and state political campaigns doesn't seem to hurt. But sometimes, Cor offers his public benefactors more personal favors. Take his relationship with Richard Rubin, husband of Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin. In March 2002, Cor employed Rubin, whom he calls an old friend, as a sales associate in his brokerage firm, according to state licensing records.
While the two men have maintained the professional relationship, Wasserman-Rubin has voted to approve land deals and grants that have compensated Cor. Neither Cor, Rubin, nor Wasserman-Rubin has been publicly investigated or accused of any criminal wrongdoing.
State law forbids elected officials -- and their spouses -- from receiving anything of value when they should know "with the exercise of reasonable care" that it was given to influence their public actions. Further, Florida dictates that public officials disclose conflicts of interest and abstain from voting on those matters.
Rubin explained that he uses Cor's business as a "legal resting place" for his real-estate license, which he's had since 1978. Without Cor's help, he says he'd have to furnish his own commercial address with a sign on the door to legally operate. Rubin further said that when he completes a real-estate transaction, the money is paid to Cor, who then reimburses him "100 percent."
"Because I'm so ethical," Rubin said, "I felt there wouldn't be a problem."
However, if Rubin were to work under almost any other brokerage firm -- including the major houses like Coldwell Banker -- he'd have to pay a portion of his fee to that company, often about 20 percent. That is why the free business set-up -- along with the services Cor provides as his broker -- seems to fall under what the statute terms a "thing of value."
Wasserman-Rubin, however, doesn't agree. She doesn't believe there is a conflict of interest because she doesn't consider Rubin's relationship with Cor a "financial" one. She says her husband, a licensed Realtor, simply hangs his shingle at Cor's Plantation company for convenience. But the commissioner added that she would consult with the county attorney's office about the matter. "I have never thought about this before, but if they say there's a problem with it, then I'll recuse myself," she said. "But then someone will have to notify me of where Ira's fingers are, because often you don't know if Ira is involved or not."
Another place one can find Cor's fingers is the Town of Southwest Ranches. The rural municipality has gone on a land-buying spree during the past few years. To pay for it, the town has won more than $20 million in public grants from the county and state. Town Administrator John Canada, who is a former Broward County finance director, hired Cor to broker all the deals. The two men knew each other from Cor's freelance work at the county, which he's been doing for more than two decades.
For Cor's part-time job with the Ranches, he has made more than $750,000. Once a pending deal between the town and the School Board goes through, he'll top the million-dollar mark. All in a few years.
Numerous town residents, including councilman Jeff Nelson, wonder if Cor has really earned his money. To understand the nature of the broker's work, consider the Ranches' purchase of Calusa Corners, a piece of pasture at the intersection of Dykes and Griffin roads. Cor said he couldn't even meet with the Miami lawyer, Ed Gong, who represented the land's owner. Gong demanded to speak directly with Canada, who eventually agreed to buy the 11 acres for $6.6 million, well over two appraisals commissioned by the town.
To pay for it, Southwest Ranches asked the county for help. Late last year, the Broward County Commission (including a yea from Wasserman-Rubin) voted to give the town a $3.3 million grant from the Safe Parks and Land Preservation Bond toward the purchase. The other $3.3 million came from a state Florida Communities Trust grant.
Cor was paid $423,000 for his work -- not a small sum considering that Gong shut him out of the process. The broker admits it wasn't the hardest money he ever made but says he did his work behind the scenes. Cor declares that he's earned every penny he's ever made. "I don't want to sound arrogant, but I'm going to say it: I'm as good as they come," he declares, "and you can print that."
Most of Cor's fees have been paid by grants, both from the state and the county. And the grants were written by none other than Rubin, who has also received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Southwest Ranches, along with an office and assistant. He is identified on his town voice-mail as "Richard Rubin Inc."
Wasserman-Rubin, meanwhile, has helped to push some of the grants penned by her husband through the County Commission and voted for each one of them. Again, she doesn't believe those votes constitute a conflict of interest because all the grants are first vetted by the Land Preservation Advisory Board. She also points out that Rubin doesn't get bonuses based on commission approval of the grants.
That is true. Rubin's contract was amended last fall to forbid such bonuses. But until then, he received them. And further, Southwest Ranches administrator Canada justifies Rubin's big paychecks by pointing to the grant writer's success at the county and state levels.
During a phone conversation, Wasserman-Rubin said the fact that her husband writes the grants has nothing to do with her voting for them. "I support each and every grant, no matter what it is, if it's in my district," she asserted. "It's not my fault my husband is one heck of a grant writer."
Then she became very emotional. "I'm certainly not getting rich from any of this," she said. "I am in public service simply because I like to help people. I am not getting rich from this; I am not getting kickbacks. I am a good human being. I am scrupulous, and I have remained scrupulous for 30 frickin' years."
The relationship between Cor and Rubin -- both in the private realm and in the Ranches -- would also seem to create an ethical minefield. But Rubin says it's just good business. "There are just a few good, honest, talented people in Broward County," he declared, "and I like to work with good and honest business people."
Did Rubin know the good and honest Cor was also a convicted felon?
"No, I did not," he answered.
In 1983, when he was 37 years old, Cor was charged with fraud and grand theft for a scheme that involved a burned-out Rolls-Royce. At the time, Cor was separated from his wife and rooming with a 23-year-old man named Sean Weygant. The Broward State Attorney's Office accused Cor of orchestrating a fake theft of the car and lying to the insurance company about its value.
An insurance company executive with the defrauded firm, United Services Automobile Association, wrote to the court that Cor used "extreme methods" to rip off his company. Court transcripts show that during the 1985 trial, the prosecutor declared to the jury that Cor "started out on a lie and he continued to lie. He used his... position in the community to his benefit. He was smart."
Not smart enough, apparently. A jury convicted him of three felonies, though one for bank fraud was later overturned on appeal. After he was initially sentenced to 18 months in prison, the court later allowed him to serve the time under house arrest. Cor was also sentenced to five years of probation and forced to pay $19,300 in restitution to the insurance company. His real-estate license was revoked for a time but later reinstated.
To this day, Cor says he was hoodwinked by "the kid," Weygant, whom he claims executed the entire fraud. "It was like watching a really bad movie but you can't change the channel," Cor recalled of his trial, himself becoming emotional. "I have nothing more deep, dark, or dank in my past than that."
Rubin found a positive spin to the crime.
"That experience probably made him even more ethical," said the commissioner's husband.
When it comes to ethics, though, Cor, Rubin, and other Southwest Ranches officials often seem to play very close to the vest. Nothing illustrates that better than the town's unique -- and much maligned -- plan to give an out-of-town developer $900,000 in taxpayer money.
Next week: Part 2.