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
By Frank Owen
A high-rolling Miami developer came to Pembroke Park and left with a prized piece of public land. For their trouble, taxpayers stand to lose more than $3 million on the deal.
The little Broward County town still doesn't even know what hit it.
Back in 2002, Pinnacle Housing Group agreed to buy seven oak-covered acres of public land near Town Hall on Hallandale Beach Boulevard with the promise to build affordable housing for working families.
But the company delayed the project, called Pinnacle Oaks, for more than two years as it tried to obtain public financing. Pembroke Park helped by contributing $30,000, which allowed the company to get a $300,000 grant from Broward County. Pinnacle finally bought the land last December for $1.8 million, the price negotiated in 2002. Company executives assured the town it still planned to build affordable housing there.
Instead, just four months later, the firm abandoned the project and put the land on the market for $5.9 million. Pinnacle is currently in negotiation to sell the acreage to a condo developer, says a chagrined Pembroke Park Mayor John Lyons, adding that his town has no legal recourse against the company. "Even though Pinnacle promised at every meeting they would put affordable housing on the site, it wasn't written in the contract," he says. Pinnacle President Michael Wohl didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
But Wohl and his partners didn't pull it off by themselves; they hired some of the most powerful political players in Broward County to help grease the wheels. The story behind the Pembroke Park debacle -- call it the anatomy of a fleecing -- involves two county commissioners, one of their husbands, and a passel of lobbyists.
It begins with real-estate broker Ira Cor, who specializes in government deals. Pinnacle hired Cor -- who has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to local political campaigns over the years -- to help broker the land deal with Pembroke Park.
A well-placed source told New Times that Cor also filled another role. The source, who was privy to internal discussions between the company and government officials, said the real-estate broker procured a lucrative lobbying job for Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman at Pinnacle. When asked about the source's claim, Cor confirmed it.
"That is true," Cor said. "I was looking for someone that knew the law. It was something that had nothing to do with the county, and I asked her if she would give [Pinnacle] professional guidance. When you hire people to help you in government, you hire people who know what the rules are. The rules set you free. She knows what the rules are."
After the company hired her, Lieberman recused herself from voting on matters related to Pinnacle but voted several times to approve Cor-related projects at the county, where he's helped to broker numerous land deals. Lieberman flatly denied in an e-mail that Cor got her the job. "Ira Cor played no role in my employment with Pinnacle," she wrote. "I no longer work for that company and will not answer any further questions on that subject."
A day after the e-mail, Cor contacted the newspaper and said he'd been mistaken. He alleged that he'd become confused and was thinking of his $1,000 donation to Lieberman's 2004 Mayor's Ball. Yet, when confronted with his earlier statement, he again admitted that he recommended Lieberman to Pinnacle executives. "I wish I had only spoken of things that directly related to me," he lamented.
Lieberman wasn't the only Cor friend with financial ties to Pinnacle. Richard Rubin, a business associate of Cor's, said he evaluated land for Pinnacle at the Pembroke Park site as well as other locations for about $150 an hour. He added that he billed the work to the legal and lobbying firm that employed him at the time, Shutts and Bowen, which contracted with Pinnacle. Rubin said he quit doing work for Pinnacle when he left Shutts and Bowen in February 2003.
Rubin also happens to be the husband of another county commissioner, Diana Wasserman-Rubin.
"It's a small world, isn't it?" Rubin said when asked about his connection to Pinnacle.
Unlike Lieberman, Wasserman-Rubin didn't recuse herself from voting to approve Pinnacle housing projects and to give the firm millions of dollars in county grants and tax-exempt bonds during the past few years. Wasserman-Rubin denied that her husband's work for Pinnacle was a conflict of interest. "My husband wasn't paid by Pinnacle," Wasserman-Rubin said in her defense two weeks ago. "He was paid by Shutts and Bowen."
The commissioner did more than just vote on Pinnacle projects -- she also met with Wohl, the Pinnacle president, in County Hall in January 2003. Wasserman-Rubin introduced Wohl to county staff and helped the company obtain a $300,000 grant from the county for the now-defunct Pinnacle Oaks project (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist," October 21, 2004).
She also wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for the company that Lieberman used in her Pinnacle lobbying campaign. On February 26, 2003, Lieberman took the letter to a Pembroke Park town meeting, where she urged the commission to approve spending the $30,000 for Pinnacle. Flanked by company officials, Lieberman told the five members of the board that they'd made a "wise move" in choosing the company and assured them the town wouldn't lose the money.