Politicians in Sunrise have plenty of mud to sling

Sunrise is a pretty dark place today.

This city on the edge of the Everglades is in the midst of a political war — and the air is so full of vitriol now that it's hard to tell which side is in the right, if any.

The conflict involves lawsuits, controversial legal decisions, allegations of homestead fraud, and at least one snooping private eye. Last week's council meeting was consumed by a controversy over who would fill the vacuum left by outgoing Mayor Steven Feren, the autocratic and secretive politico who is leaving the dais for a judgeship.

Commissioner Scuotto, outgoing Mayor  Feren, and Commissioner Alu at work
C. Stiles
Commissioner Scuotto, outgoing Mayor Feren, and Commissioner Alu at work

The worst (or best) of the dirt was dredged up recently by a private investigator funded by the city to tail James DePelisi, a perennial City Council candidate who plans to run for a seat in March.

DePelisi, a 41-year-old investment adviser, filed suit last year against two commissioners, Roger Wishner and Sheila Alu. The suit claimed the commissioners defamed DePelisi by saying that he had used anti-Semitic tactics during his unsuccessful run for office last year against Commissioner and Deputy Mayor Wishner.

Sunrise is footing the bill for the defense of the DePelisi lawsuit, and City Attorney Stuart Michelson hired a private investigator to follow DePelisi for a week.

When I told DePelisi that he'd been followed by a P.I., he laughed.

"It wouldn't surprise me," he said. "I hope they don't have pictures of me in my birthday suit. If that's how they want to do things, then voters should decide if they agree with it. I think they hang themselves with a large noose that way."

Surveillance is a dubious if often-used legal tactic. But some of the information gained from the investigation is already being used as political ammunition against DePelisi.

DePelisi was found to reside primarily not in a Sunrise home he owns with his 79-year-old mother but in a house owned by his wife, Hope Schoengood, in Boca Raton.

DePelisi scoffs at the allegation.

"It's impossible that they learned that I lived in Boca Raton, because I live in Sunrise and have lived in Sunrise since 1989," DePelisi counters.

He claims he lives in the Sunrise house with his mother, his pregnant wife, and their 2-year-old son.

But nothing plays out that simply in Sunrise politics.

When I pressed DePelisi, he conceded that he and his wife sometimes stay in the Boca Raton house for a couple of days at a time as a "getaway." And in a deposition taken this past April in the defamation suit, his wife provided a different story.

"I live in Boca, and he resides in Sunrise," Schoengood testified.

"Is that how it's been during the course of the marriage that you don't live under the same roof?" Michelson asked her.

"Yes," she answered.

Schoengood's answers could have legal implications: She has a state homestead exemption on the house in Boca, while her husband, DePelisi, holds a homestead exemption (with his mother) on the house in Sunrise.

"As long as my wife doesn't abandon the house, she is allowed to keep that exemption," DePelisi says. "She can live in Sunrise or Brooklyn. It doesn't matter."

Actually, the Florida Constitution forbids a "family unit" from holding two homestead exemptions. Because the exemption on the Sunrise house is in his mother's name, though, the situation might be just murky enough to be legal.

The snooping by the city might be unseemly, but DePelisi opened himself up for it by filing the dubious defamation case. And it's not his first. In 2006, he filed a similar lawsuit against elderly Sunrise resident Marvin Langendorf, who allegedly called DePelisi a "scam artist" at a City Commission meeting.

The roots of Langendorf's allegation come from a 1998 case that seems to back up the assertion — and calls into question DePelisi's fitness for public office.

DePelisi sold securities for a company called kidZtime, which the Colorado Attorney General's Office later dubbed a "$47 million multinational investment scam."

Working as a salesman for the company, DePelisi called people on the phone in Missouri to induce them to invest in kidZtime, even though neither he nor the securities he was selling were registered in that state. The state issued him and others involved with the company a cease-and-desist order in 1998 to halt their "fraudulent and unlawful actions."

It turned out that kidZtime, which was supposed to create nonviolent children's programming, was a scam, according to authorities. Numerous states took action against kidZtime. Colorado even filed criminal charges against company leaders, resulting in numerous theft and fraud convictions.

DePelisi was never charged with a crime. But the Missouri cease-and-desist order details DePelisi's tactics with two Missouri residents whom he promised lucrative monthly dividend checks in return for an investment in the company. During telephone conversations, DePelisi told victims that their investments were "in the future of our country through our children" and that "it was an opportunity to speak out against the pervasive violence on most children's television programs," according to the cease-and-desist order.

Records indicate he strung along the residents for several months, collecting additional sums of money before the victims realized they weren't going to see any returns. They invested tens of thousands of dollars but never received dividend checks, according to public records.

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