A Commissioner Under Oath: The Lieberman File

Suspended Tamarac Mayor Beth Talabisco was arraigned today and pleaded not guilty to corruption charges involving dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait. 

Talabisco may not have been forced to stand in court if it hadn't been for the testimony against her by Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, who went under oath in an interview with prosecutors on December 2, 2010. Lieberman was given immunity from the investigation for her testimony -- even though her husband, Stuart Michelson, had been hired by the Chaits after her own vote on the County Commission for the project and the developers contributed $25,000 before the vote as well.

First, the date is interesting. Prior to her testimony, Lieberman had shown up to the previous County Commission meeting on November 16. After she testified, Lieberman missed meetings on December 7, December 14, January 4, January 11, January 25, and February 1 (though she participated telephonically at some of them). She didn't return until February 8, after her absences had caused much public debate. 

​This would tend to support the theory -- promoted by political sources -- that Lieberman missed those meetings due to stress over her cooperation (though she claimed health issues at one point).

Her involvement in the case appears to be limited to the Talabisco case. Prosecutors asked her nothing during her sworn interview about her own husband's own work for the Chaits or that $25,000 donation they made to her charity. 

The State Attorney's Office alleges that Talabisco struck a deal with the developers to approve their controversial housing development in her city in exchange for $21,000 they secretly put into a 527 political committee that was used for a late-hour attack ad campaign against her two opponents in 2006.

Lieberman is a key witness in the case -- but her testimony indicates she's a lousy witness -- contradictory, evasive, and vague. 

Talabisco on her way out of jail with her husband, Jack, left, and lawyer Larry Davis.
Talabisco on her way out of jail with her husband, Jack, left, and lawyer Larry Davis.
​She said under oath that she was Talabisco's "mentor" at the time of the 2006 election and was involved in helping her run her campaign. Emails obtained by prosecutors indicate that Lieberman personally approved the attack ads. 

A copy of Lieberman's sworn statement, however, shows that Lieberman totally contradicted herself on a key point, namely if she had ever even spoken with Talabisco about her vote for the Chaits' project or their help in her campaign. 

"Did you talk to Beth [Talabisco] about the [527 political committee]?" Camacho asked Lieberman.  

"No," she answered. 

"Did you and Beth ever have a conversation to the effect that the Chaits were the ones putting money in the 527?" Camacho repeated. 

"No," answered Lieberman. 

"Did you and her ever talk about it?" Camacho asked the commissioner for a third time. 

"No," she said. 

At that point, Lieberman's attorney, Bruce Zimet, asked Camacho, "Can we just have a second?"

Inside, see how Lieberman answered those same questions after a "brief recess." 

When they returned, Camacho asked again about conversations that Lieberman had with Talabisco about the 527 committee. And boy, had the commissioner changed her tune. 

"Yeah," Lieberman began. "We had some discussions about issues with the 527, about specific opponents and what, you know, what might be good issues to use." 

They then spoke about the nature of the political committee, with Lieberman saying it was necessary to distance Talabisco from the attack ads because otherwise "it would seem, you know, very self-serving on [Talabisco's] part." 

In other words, it was sleazy politics 101, but that's a given. Why did Lieberman initially deny it not once but three times? When she came back from the recess, had she decided to tell the truth or had she decided to tell a lie?  

Reading the 40-page statement, it becomes clear that Lieberman is evasive and vague with Camacho and investigator Angelo Pazienza at every turn. She's reluctant to say much of anything and seems intent to lay everything off on a dead man, the late Norm Abramowitz, a former Tamarac mayor and county commissioner who played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Chaits' efforts.

The questioning continued. 

"Knowing that they're the ones putting the money in the 527 and a vote is coming up so quickly, did you discuss that with Talabisco?" asked Camacho. 

"Yes," answered Lieberman. "You know, we discussed at that this was an issue that was best on the back burner for now, you know, not to come forward." 

That's quite an admission from an elected official: Lieberman admits that she counseled her friend (at the time) to try to delay the vote so the conflict of interest wouldn't be so obvious.

But once again, Lieberman wasn't forthcoming that she had ever really spoken with Talabisco about the fact that her vote would consitute a conflict of interest. 

"Did you guys ever discuss the fact that since there's a 527 and the vote's coming up whether or not she had a conflict?" Camacho asked. 

"No," said Lieberman. "You know, she was very difficult to discuss those things with." 

"What do you mean by that?" 

"You know, she had her own opinions on this issue and, you know, she was in close contact with Norm [Abramowitz]. I think she spoke to him more than she spoke to me. And so, you know, that was her commitment." 

Camacho plowed forward, asking her if she believed that Talabisco had a voting conflict. 

"Yes," Lieberman answered. 

"Did you ever tell her yourself, 'I believe you have a conflict?'" 

"It wouldn't be my position to tell her." 

At this point, Pazienza told Lieberman, "That isn't what she asked you." 

"Hold on," Camacho continued. "My question is not just as a commissioner but you're also her friend. Because back then, you all were very close." 

"Yeah," Lieberman agrees. 

"I'm not asking you as Commissioner Lieberman; I'm asking you as her friend, would you have talked to her about how close it was and whether or not she had a conflict?" 

"I'm sure I would have talked to her about how close it was... that it may create a conflict," Lieberman answered. "But it wasn't my call to make." 

"And I understand that," said Camacho. "And that was my question. As her friend, based on everything I know how close you all were back then, one can only assume you guys are going to talk about that." 

"Yes," Lieberman agreed. 

"And you're going to give her your opinion. What she does is her call, but you're going to give her your opinion. Do you guys did have that conversation?" 

"Yes," Lieberman answered. 

"What did you tell her?" 

"I told her that I thought she had a conflict in what was happening between, you know, the 527 and the vote that was coming up." 

"When you told her she felt she had a conflict, as best as you can recall, what was her position?" 

"She was still going to go ahead with it." 

"Why?" asked Pazienza. 

"Do you know why?" asked Camacho. 

"Because she had made a commitment, she said," answered Lieberman. 

"To who?" asked Pazienza. 

"To Norm Abramowitz." 

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