A Secretive Slush Fund Has Big Plans in Sunrise

I have seen the future of the swampy western edge of Broward County.

And if my vision is correct, the future holds a new "city" called Oz in the BankAtlantic Center's parking lot. The terrible office and hotel development will creep into the Everglades and give Sunrise the distinction of Garbage Capital of South Florida.

No crystal ball or tarot cards were necessary to see these things. And all I had to do was look at the dollar bills that flowed into a mysterious "electioneering communications organization," or ECO, which is really just a legalized political slush fund.

ECOs have no contribution limits, and the people behind them are often shielded behind figureheads or straw men. Most ECOs have perversely patriotic and wholesome-sounding names, and this one is no different. It's called "Liberty and Justice for All," and it was formed last year by prominent Tallahassee lawyer/lobbyist Mark Herron, who is best-known for representing public officials accused of ethical violations.

I asked him about the organization's birth.

"I just had an idea about the name and decided to start it," he told me.

"What, you heard the Pledge of Allegiance?" I asked him.

"No, I was reading the Constitution, OK?" he said, laughing. "I just thought it was a good name for an ECO that would be involved in judicial races."

Early on, money donated to the ECO was indeed used in a Hillsborough County court race, thanks primarily to a $15,000 contribution made by big Democratic donor Charles Brink of Tampa. I asked Herron about Brink.

"I don't know who he is, to tell you the truth," Herron said. "I just got the check and put it in the bank."

Welcome to the world of ECOs – it has all the secrecy of Mafia dealings, complete with bag men. During my interview with Herron, he seemed to have sworn his oath to omerta.

He wouldn't, for instance, say why Liberty and Justice for All changed its focus from judicial races to a seemingly two-bit commission contest in Sunrise between incumbent Don Rosen and challenger James DePelisi. Specifically, the ECO raised money from developers and lobbyists to fund attack ads aimed at DePelisi.

All indications are that Sunrise Mayor Roger Wishner, a big Rosen ally, was involved in ginning up the cash. It makes sense. Wishner, after all, knows Herron from his days in the state Legislature and was deeply involved in Rosen's campaign.

I asked Herron if Wishner was involved.

"I do not believe that is accurate," he said. "I have not spoken to Roger Wishner about it."

What about Rosen?

"I don't know who Don Rosen is, other than he's a candidate in Sunrise," Herron told me.

You get the picture. It's like talking to Vinnie the Fish.

Wishner was worse than Herron. When I asked the mayor about the ECO, he paused on the phone for a few seconds before saying, "No comment." Not long after that, he hung up on me.

Rosen was worse than Wishner. He hung up the phone before I even got to the question.

Yeah, we got a real upstanding group of public servants in Sunrise.

But they don't need to blab, because in Sunrise, it's the money that talks. Campaign cash buys votes, plain and simple. Look at the controversial Everglades Corporate Park project. It's an unneeded and unwanted office and hotel development planned to be built on the edge of the Everglades west of the Sawgrass Expressway.

Yeah, that's right there in the River of Grass, for which we're currently spending billions in an attempt to clean up and preserve its natural beauty.

Wishner and Rosen, who have touted themselves as populist candidates, had no business voting for this monstrosity. But both men received thousands in campaign contributions linked to the development and its lobbyist, Dennis Mele of Ruden McClosky. Based on that cash, I predicted they would both support the project on my blog, the Daily Pulp.

When a controversial zoning measure for the project came before the Sunrise Commission last week, Wishner and Rosen both voted for it. Of the five commissioners, only Sheila Alu had the decency to oppose it, saying it was an ill-advised project that could harm the Everglades.

Lesson learned. Follow the money in Sunrise and you can see the future. And more and more of it was flowing into that city's politics.

Beginning in late February, as the March election came near, the Sunrise money started pouring into Liberty and Justice for All. Wishner, or whoever was behind the ECO, raised about $40,000 that was put into direct mailings and a television ad targeting DePelisi. Rosen narrowly won the race by a 5 percent margin.

Now let's break down that money. A cool $5,000 came from the Florida Panthers Hockey Club, which is owned by generic-drug impresario Alan Cohen. Cohen also has a controlling interest in the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, where the Panthers play. And right now, he's pushing a grand plan to turn the arena's 139-acre parking lot into a huge hotel, office, residential, and retail development based around the arena, nearby Sawgrass Mills, and a planned new theater district.

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