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
Meanwhile, Northwood Renaissance had been backed into a corner. There would be no city approval for affordable apartments. In December 2005, the nonprofit, with no hope of breaking ground on Village Center, had to give up its hard-won $10 million in state tax credits.
With city leaders against them, Northwood Renaissance board members decided in July 2006 to fight back. Flick had run into state Rep. Mary Brandenburg at an affordable-housing luncheon. Knowing that Brandenburg was on Frankel's newly empaneled ethics committee, he asked her, as a committee member, to meet with Northwood Renaissance's board to talk about what he saw as a pattern of interference and downright hostility from the city.
Over the course of a two-hour lunch at its offices, Northwood Renaissance detailed perceived ethics violations to Brandenburg. At the end of the presentation, they say, Brandenburg told them they should meet with the mayor. They needed to make a "significant contribution" to Frankel's reelection campaign to establish "good will" with the city. "You've got to pay to play," she told Murray, Flick, and Fox.
Politicians have a sharp memory for contributions, Brandenburg advised them. According to board members, Brandenburg turned to Flick and said: "I remember exactly when and where you gave me a $50 check. I know precisely which neighborhoods support me and which ones don't."
According to Flick, Brandenburg offered to set up a meeting between Flick and Frankel, noting that Flick should bring his checkbook. He should plan on making a contribution of $500.
"I don't think the mayor will meet with me," Flick told Brandenburg in confusion.
Brandenburg promised she'd arrange a meeting.
Northwood Renaissance reported the meeting with Brandenburg to the State Attorney's Office, and a few days later, Flick got a call from the FBI. Agents asked Flick to set up a meeting with Frankel. They wanted him to wear a wire. Flick says he declined. Brandenburg called Flick several times to set up the meeting, but he didn't return her calls.
Palm Beach County State Attorney Barry Krischer convened a grand jury in fall 2006 to look into Northwood's allegations. The jury also investigated complaints by citizens' groups and developers alleging links between campaign contributions and developer approvals. Over six months, the jury heard testimony from Northwood Renaissance, neighborhood activists, developers, and publicists who claimed they had been pressured for contributions.
In February 2007, the grand jury released a report that detailed developers' bundled campaign contributions to the mayor and city commissioners, one of whom, Ray Liberti, was by that time in jail on corruption charges. The report discussed hidden contributions and pointed to ethical breaches within the mayor's ethics committee. And it found that city staff had "acted unethically by targeting residents, causing inconvenience, financial losses, and loss of property."
The findings showed a clear pattern of contributions made to the mayor's campaign by developers. Frankel hadn't done anything illegal, but the report detailed an atmosphere in which developers knew what was required to grease the wheels of projects at City Hall. In a way, Brandenburg had been giving Northwood Renaissance excellent advice.
Part B of the report dealt with Brandenburg's meeting with Northwood Renaissance. It found Northwood Renaissance's version of their meeting "compelling and credible" and questioned the truth of Brandenburg's testimony.
In 2007, Northwood Renaissance filed a lawsuit against the city alleging that city officials drove the Village Center project into the ground. "When I accepted a position on this board," Fox says now, "I never, ever imagined that I'd get caught up in this kind of political whirlwind."
A spokesperson at the mayor's office says it's not appropriate for Frankel to comment because of the pending litigation. Brandenburg also said she wouldn't comment.
Kim Briesemeister is at the end of her fifth year as director of the West Palm Beach CRA. Her offices in the new City Center are bright and expansive; her staff of seven bustles efficiently through days of planning meetings, fielding phone calls, helping businesses in Northwood finance façade renovations, offering advice on business loans, and working to attract new retail and restaurants to Northwood Village. Staffers are planning a streetscape project on 24th and 25th streets.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, CRA Redevelopment Administrator Grace Joyce and Marketing & Event Coordinator Sharon McCormick-Keiley drive through the Northwood neighborhood. They point to streetscaping in the industrial district and a wall to keep schoolkids from randomly crossing the railroad tracks. They name new businesses moving into storefronts on Northwood Road. Joyce stops her SUV at intervals to wave or chat with residents: a couple running a daycare center, a man watering his lawn.
Ask many of the merchants on Northwood Road how they feel about Briesemeister's CRA and you're likely to see faces light up.
Star Robinson's bakery, Hello Cupcake, opened on Northwood Road in July. Red velvet, Boston cream, and chocolate cheesecake cupcakes line the shelves. Robinson says the CRA's McCormick-Keiley approached him after she tasted one of his cakes at another event. "They were like my fairy godmother," says Robinson. "They helped me find the location and qualify for support. They spent $600 on my grand opening. Newspaper ads. Radio ads."