Baring False Witness
It's pulling apart the already-torn town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. The political career of Mayor Oliver Parker hangs in the balance, as does the livelihood and possible health of the town clerk. The Broward State Attorney's Office has already begun an investigation. And at last week's town hall meeting, it led to infighting and an emergency trip to the hospital.
It could be a serious crime. Or just a very embarrassing mistake.
Call it The Mystery of the Minutes.
The allegation, in its simplest form, is that Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's official meeting minutes were illegally altered to assist the mayor in his lawsuit to stop the townspeople from recalling him from office. The evidence so far doesn't look good for Parker or the town clerk, Alina Medina, who is in charge of producing the minutes.
It's the latest wave in a veritable sea of controversy washing over the town. Parker is already an extremely unpopular figure for backing the Broward Sheriff's Office in its recent takeover of the long-standing volunteer fire department [see "Cuckoo for Coconuts," January 4]. That prompted the recall effort led by town activist Stuart Dodd, who is named in Parker's lawsuit.
The recall petition, which has already been signed by more than 15 percent of the town's voting citizens, alleges that Parker committed misfeasance when he voted in September to levy a $2 million special assessment on property owners for fire service.
Part of that money is being used to fund Emergency Medical Services, the recallers allege, and it's against Florida law to pay for EMS with such a special assessment.
Parker and his attorney, Stuart Michelson, answer that charge with the mayor's lawsuit, in which they claim that Parker did nothing wrong. Michelson is the husband of Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and a prolific defender of ethically challenged politicians. In the 11-page complaint he submitted on behalf of Parker, he points repeatedly to a passage from the September 14 town meeting minutes that appears to exonerate Parker.
To wit: "Mayor Parker asked if any fees were used for the purposes of paying for emergency medical services. [Town Finance Director Esther Colon] replied negatively."
There it is. Cut and dried. Before the vote, the mayor did his due diligence, asked the right question, and therefore did nothing wrong.
The problem: Tapes of the meeting don't back up that the exchange actually happened. The mayor didn't ask the question, and Colon didn't answer it. And at the time of this writing, nobody seems to know how the passage that now serves as the mayor's alibi came to be added to the official minutes.
Commissioner Jerry McIntee, a volunteer fire chief and one of many staunch Parker critics, discovered the discrepancy and filed a complaint with the Broward State Attorney's Office last week. "It's crystal-clear that it's not there," said McIntee, a retired police officer and D.A.'s investigator from Buffalo. "This is at the heart of the mayor's lawsuit. How did it get there?"
At last Tuesday's commission meeting, McIntee publicly confronted the mayor on the dais about his phantom question, prefacing his remarks by saying that what he was going to share with the town would "shake these walls."
McIntee established that it was the town clerk, Medina, then sitting at the far end of the dais, who was solely responsible for the production of the minutes.
After the commissioner then said that he had information pertaining to "potential criminal activity," an agitated Town Attorney James Cherof remarked that he felt like he was "sitting through the McCarthy hearings" and urged McIntee to stop and take his concerns to state prosecutors.
Medina, meanwhile, became defensive.
"I am not infallible," the town clerk offered before McIntee had outlined his allegation. "I could mistype something, not intentionally."
When McIntee quoted the question from the mayor to Colon on the September 14 minutes and said that the tape showed it never happened, Mayor Parker immediately defended himself.
"I remember asking that question, and I remember getting an answer... ," he said. "The video doesn't always catch everything... I remember specifically... "
"It's clear you didn't," McIntee said. "You're making it up."
"I didn't tell [Medina] to put it in there," the mayor protested.
As the two men argued, the 100-plus people in attendance clamored. "Why don't you take it outside?" one yelled.
"What fools these mortals be," another said as he exited the meeting.
After much Sturm und Drang, it was decided that each commissioner would review the tapes during the coming days to determine if the question was ever asked.
Soon after, Medina began complaining of chest pains and was taken by ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital. Medina took the following day off and came back to work on Thursday, when I asked her if her medical emergency was caused by the stress regarding the minutes mystery.
"Definitely," she replied.
I asked her if she'd reviewed the tapes yet, and she said she hadn't. I told her that I had watched a videotape of the September 14 meeting and it was clear that the Parker question was never asked or answered. Then I asked her the big one: Did the mayor ask her to add it to the official minutes?
"No," she answered, "and if he would have done it, I wouldn't have added it for him."
Then I asked her how, of all the mistakes in all of the world to make, she managed to make that one.
"I remember him asking the question," she said. "Whether it was done at that meeting, whether I cut and pasted it by mistake, I don't know. I was doing several meetings at the same time. I had lost my computer and lost several minutes, so everything had to be redone. I did a huge batch. I fell behind. I could very well have gone from one document to another."
Lost her computer? Now this was beginning to sound like the sewage corruption case in Hollywood, where several officials, including Mayor Mara Giulianti, couldn't hand over evidence to prosecutors because of suspicious computer problems.
That Medina fell seriously behind in her work is obvious, though. Minutes of meetings dating back to June were up for approval by the commission last week. Most governmental bodies are much more timely than that, finalizing the minutes within a couple of weeks. In fact, Florida law dictates that such records should be "promptly recorded."
I went to Colon, the town's finance director, and asked her if she remembered ever being asked the question by Parker. She told me she had no specific recollection of it.
"I need to review the tape," she said, adding later that she is "just a bean counter."
I then asked Mayor Parker about it.
"You have to understand, I asked [Colon], and she answered back, but she didn't come to the microphone," he said. "So it might not have shown up on the tape."
The place in the videotape where the question was supposed to have been asked, however, shows Parker taking a swig of water and mouthing no question at all.
I tried to ask the mayor about it, but he was already gone. He'd hung up the phone and didn't return my follow-up calls.
The city manager, Robert Baldwin, later told me that the mayor had reviewed the tape and, like McIntee, couldn't find the question. He said the mayor and his own office are both now in the process of reviewing several meetings' worth of tapes to see if it was asked on a different date.
"This is concerning, and I intend to get to the bottom of it," Baldwin said.
McIntee is blunt about what he thinks: The minutes were doctored.
"It would seem to me it would be impossible to make a mistake like that," he says. "If you don't see something or hear something, then it shouldn't go down on the paperwork. It's too dastardly a mistake to accept. This is the key to the mayor's lawsuit."
He pauses for a moment before adding, "There's something wrong here."
That's obviously true, but in the murky political waters of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, it's hard to be sure what it is.
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