An Ethical Variance

Even by the raucous standards of the Hollywood City Commission, real-estate attorney David Mankuta's bellicosity at the May 19 meeting was astonishing. Mankuta later apologized, but he may end up even sorrier yet.

His behavior revived charges that, as a member of a powerful city real-estate board, he had a conflict of interest when he voted in 1996 to extend the use of a temporary parking lot for a client he and his firm were privately representing. Critics say his belligerent advocacy for another client at last month's meeting was part of the same pattern of ethically clueless conduct.

Mankuta had heard that a group of beachfront residents were pressing the city to deny his client, Antonio Patullo, the right to lease a 2000-square-foot space at 301 S. Surf Rd. to Frenchie's Cafe, the rowdy Quebecois dance hall. Frenchie's has been looking for a new home since the city recently demolished its former quarters at Johnson Street and the beach. But the neighbors were horrified at the prospect of Frenchie's blaring music and intoxicated dancers in the middle of their quiet residential stretch on the south end of the Broadwalk. Three dozen zealous opponents were raring to testify at the meeting last month.

Before they could speak, Mankuta hustled to the microphone and argued that any official consideration of the issue was improper because it wasn't on the agenda. When Commissioner John Coleman started to respond, the middle-aged lawyer rushed to the microphone again, slammed his leather portfolio down with a loud crack, glared at Coleman, and barked, "Let's go, pal," as if challenging Coleman to a fistfight. Mayor Mara Giulianti threatened to have the police give Mankuta the heave-ho before he finally sat down.

Mankuta's behavior was particularly surprising because he's a current member and former chairman of the Board of Appeals and Adjustment, the body that grants valuable exemptions, known as variances, from zoning rules. He was appointed by the city commission and is in his second three-year term. Coleman and several neighbors who opposed the relocation of Frenchie's to Patullo's building say it is highly inappropriate for a member of the board which rules on variances to represent a client who may soon be applying for one.

But this wouldn't be the first time. During Mankuta's tenure on the appeals board, his partner, Wilson Atkinson, twice persuaded the board members to grant Patullo parking variances to open a restaurant at 301 S. Surf Rd. Mankuta declared a conflict of interest and recused himself from voting both times, as required by state law. Yet Mankuta has voted on at least two variance requests involving another client of his law firm.

The Board of Appeals and Adjustment is one of many unpaid citizen boards that are little-known to the public but make important decisions about real-estate development. Business interests know how important it is to get the "right" people appointed to the board. Thus seats are carefully controlled by the city commissioners, who rely on campaign contributions from development interests. Not surprisingly, many appointees are attorneys, realtors, and architects who have overlapping business relationships with the developers who come before them seeking favorable decisions.

That's why the State of Florida's code of ethics requires public officers, including citizen board members like Mankuta, to refrain from voting on any measure in which they have a conflict of interest. But it's largely an honor system. They are supposed to declare a conflict and step aside on any vote that would affect their private economic interests or those of the entity by which they are employed or retained. Likewise they cannot hold any job or contract that creates a continuing conflict between their private interests and public duties. But only 14 officials in the state last year were found to have violated conflict rules -- which shows how narrowly drawn and seldom-enforced the code is.

John Coleman has a strict view of conflict of interest. "If you're in the business of making deals with developers, you don't have an arm's-length relationship, and you shouldn't be on the [appeals] board," he says.

Not everyone agrees. Having knowledgeable people from the real-estate industry on such boards is extremely important because they don't waste time searching for information, says Louis Orosz, a Davie zoning consultant who has served on two Broward County real-estate boards. Still, he acknowledges that many people seek to get on the boards because it "unquestionably" helps their private practices. "You get to be known as someone who has the contacts and knows what's going on," he says.

Mankuta's record demonstrates the potential for problems. In two variance cases involving his law firm's client George Zinkler, owner of Martha's Restaurant on North Ocean Drive, and Zinkler's associate Gus Boulis, Mankuta did not recuse himself during appeals board votes. Both variance requests, one in 1996 and one last year, were strongly opposed by community residents at the north end of the Hollywood beach. Mankuta voted in favor of Zinkler and Boulis both times.  

As a result of the 1996 vote, which took place when he was chairman of the appeals board, Mankuta is now facing a formal complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics alleging that he violated rules. Steve Welsch, president of the Beach Defense Fund, a resident group, charged this month that Mankuta was Zinkler's attorney of record on another matter when he voted to grant Zinkler a variance extending his use of a temporary parking lot. Welsch's proof is a September 16, 1996, letter to the city code-enforcement board, signed by Mankuta, asking that a hearing involving Zinkler be rescheduled.

Then on October 17, 1996, Zinkler went before the appeals board seeking the parking lot extension. The four-person board initially split on a motion to deny the variance, with Mankuta voting against the denial, according to the board minutes. Welsch says Mankuta pressed hard for a second motion -- to approve the variance with several conditions. That passed 3-1, with Mankuta voting yes. Welsch says he informed city officials before the meeting that Mankuta would be voting on a matter involving a client and thus had a conflict. But there is no mention in the minutes that Mankuta or any other board member discussed this before the vote.

Welsch first filed a complaint about the incident with the Florida Bar in 1997. But the bar group promptly wrote back, stating that it was a city matter. He then submitted the complaint to Hollywood city manager Sam Finz but never got a response. Mayor Giulianti defends Mankuta as "an honorable attorney." She refuses to consider Welsch's complaint, she says, because Welsch is "untruthful and unethical" and has previously accused her of corruption. "I don't want to know about it," she says.

Angry about the city's inaction and Mankuta's behavior at the commission meeting last month, Welsch filed a new complaint this month about the alleged 1996 conflict with the state ethics commission, along with another complaint to the Florida Bar and the city. "Some people might say, 'Well, if they say they don't have a conflict of interest, you have to trust them,'" Welsch says. "But they haven't demonstrated a reason for us to trust them."

Mankuta contends that there was no conflict of interest because he didn't start representing Zinkler until after the parking lot variance was granted in October 1996. "That allegation is unfair," he protests angrily. "I don't know why anyone thought I was representing Martha's. Whenever my firm has represented someone appearing before the board, I announce my problem and don't sit on that matter."

But he told a different story to the Florida Bar in 1997. In a letter responding to Welsch's complaint, he said his partner had been representing Zinkler in the code-enforcement case and that he asked for the rescheduled date because his partner was out of town. In his letter Mankuta also argued that the code-enforcement matter was unrelated to the issue before the appeals board.

Helen Jones, spokeswoman for the ethics commission, says she can't comment on the merits of the complaint because the commission must examine the specific facts. But if Mankuta's partner was representing Zinkler at the time of the board vote, she says, that is a possible conflict under state law. Mankuta apparently was aware of this general principle, since he recused himself in similar situations, including the Patullo case.

Mankuta had another possible conflict when he voted last year to approve variances for construction of a parking garage on North Ocean Drive and to reject the Beach Defense Fund's petition to overturn the city's approval for the project. The garage, which was never built, was intended to serve patrons of Boulis' SunCruz Casino gambling boat as well as customers of Martha's Restaurant. Boulis was an officer of the company building the garage. Before the March 19, 1998, appeals board meeting, Welsch says he informed city officials of Mankuta's potential conflict. At the meeting Mankuta declared that his firm had had limited dealings with the developer in the past but did not have any at present. According to the minutes, the city attorney advising the board said the relationship as explained by Mankuta would not bar him from voting.

But Mankuta admits that he was representing Zinkler and Martha's Restaurant at the time. Zinkler clearly stood to benefit from Mankuta's vote approving the garage variances. Plus, Zinkler's interests were closely tied to Boulis, whose company was the formal applicant for the variances. The Martha's property is owned by Boulis, who leases it back to Martha's, which subleases a portion back to Boulis' operation, according to the city's pending lawsuit against SunCruz Casino to remove the gambling boat.  

Mankuta refuses to comment further on Welsch's conflict-of-interest charges. And he sees no conflict or appearance of conflict in his representation of Patullo, as long as he steps aside at the appropriate time. "If the [Patullo] matter comes to my board, then I will recuse myself," he says. "But I think we can work this out with the city."

Mayor Giulianti scolded New Times for even questioning Mankuta's dual role. "You don't understand government," she said.

But John Coleman thinks the Mankuta affair reaffirms the unofficial Hollywood motto: "I scratch your friend's back today, you scratch mine tomorrow."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:

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