Broward County Commissioners Face Questions About Shady Deals
We learned Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin is under criminal investigation by the State Attorney's Office for her dealings in the Town of Southwest Ranches.
And Commissioner Stacy Ritter's name has surfaced in yet another state investigation involving developer Bruce Chait. Along with his son Shawn, Chait has already been charged with bribery, unlawful compensation, and perjury. He allegedly paid off former Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion in exchange for his vote on a controversial housing project in Tamarac.
Yes, it's exciting times at County Hall, and all three of these stories were broken on my blog, the Daily Pulp, but I won't mention that (again). Here's the skinny on the three developments.
The crux of the suspicion concerning Keechl is the rental of his little bungalow at 612 NE 26th St. in Wilton Manors to his campaign.
It would appear that Keechl and Adcock are a bit upside down on the property. The 1,200-square-foot home/office sold for $92,000 in 2001. They bought it for $455,000 near the top of the real estate bubble in 2006. Today, it's appraised at just $232,300.
Thankfully, Keechl and Adcock have a rock-solid renter who, like clockwork, pays the hefty sum of $3,100 a month on the property.
The renter? It's candidate Keechl, who is running unopposed. He made the converted office his campaign headquarters and cuts the check each month from his giant war chest of more than $330,000.
It would seem that such an arrangement might be construed as the mayor personally benefiting from his campaign — a no-no — but Keechl, through his law firm, said he checked it out and determined it was legal so long as he's paying fair market value for the property. He said the same thing about his $4,000-plus trip with Adcock to San Francisco, saying the high-class travel was to attend a gay leadership conference. He also defends thousands of dollars being spent on lunches, dinners, wine, gasoline, and petty cash dispersals.
The truth is that campaign law is pretty loose when it comes to that kind of spending so long as he can prove he was meeting with a potential supporter. Most candidates, however, don't engage in such high living on their campaigns for the sake of appearance. Keechl went all out, though, and where I believe he is vulnerable is on the rent he's paying himself and Adcock. From realtor's listings and other resources, it appears to be high — perhaps as much as $1,000 a month too much. That could open the door into an investigation that could spell big trouble for the mayor.
Ritter told me last week that she accepted a golf cart from developer Bruce Chait, the developer who has been charged in a state bribery case involving Eggelletion.
Remember that Ritter supported Chait's housing project in Tamarac and voted, as a commissioner, to approve it on August 22, 2006. Chait's firm, Prestige Homes, won the county's approval for the project, which was to be built on two golf courses, Monterrey and Sabal Palms. Before her vote to approve the project, Ritter didn't disclose that she had received the cart, which she claimed was worth less than $500. Her father, Ed Portner, was mayor of Tamarac at the time and was also a crucial supporter of the project.
After I asked her about the golf cart allegation, Ritter confirmed Chait had given her a golf cart from one of the golf courses he'd purchased to build townhomes. She initially indicated that the cart was an in-kind contribution from Chait when she was running for office but then said she couldn't remember if it was a contribution or if she paid for it.
"It might have been an in-kind contribution, it might have been a personal check, but it was under $500," Ritter said during a lunch break at last week's County Commission meeting. "I just don't remember. I absolutely got it from [Chait], but I was not in office at the time."
I'm not buying that the cart was worth less than $500. You can't get a cart that runs for that price. Sources have told me that the cart was in great condition when she received it.
Ritter told me she couldn't recall when she received the cart but said it was definitely between her exit from the Florida Legislature in 2004 and her election to the County Commission in 2006. During that time, she was running for both the state Senate, a bid she dropped, and the County Commission.
Chait contributed $2,000 total — including the maximum $500 apiece from himself, his wife, his son, and Prestige — to her Senate campaign. Those contributions were either spent during the Senate campaign or rolled over to her county campaign. Chait was pushing his housing project at the time. Ritter said her acceptance of the golf cart had nothing to do with her elected office or her vote for the project.
She used it for riding around in her neighborhood in Parkland, though she claimed that now it is "old and broken-down." She said she received it after the Chaits bought the golf courses and liquidated its assets, including golf carts.
"I know I got it from the Chaits from the old golf course," Ritter told me. "I don't know if I personally paid for it. I was a private citizen. I was not in elected office. They were getting rid of the golf course stuff, and I live in a community where there are a lot of golf carts, even though it's not a golf community."
She said she never received anything of value from the Chaits other than the golf cart and the campaign contributions.
In addition to their alleged bribing of Eggelletion (who is accused of receiving $25,000 from the Chaits, including a golf club membership, in exchange for his vote on the project), the developers also hired the husband of Broward School Board member Stephanie Kraft. After the hiring, the School Board reduced a $500,000 mitigation fee that Chait's company faced. School Board records reveal that Kraft used the power of her office to help push for the fee reduction. That case is under federal investigation, according to numerous sources.
If you want irony, Ritter was the commissioner pushing the hardest at last week's commission meeting for the creation of an ethics czar position. The commission asked attorneys to draft a referendum to form the position of inspector general. "The public needs to know we are serious about doing something about the perception of misconduct and that we are trying to do the right thing," Ritter told the Sun-Sentinel. "The public unfortunately thinks we are all corrupt, and if we can do something to fix that image, we should."
Finally, we have the State Attorney's Office's ongoing criminal investigation of Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin. Prosecutors have subpoenaed records involving the dealings of Wasserman-Rubin and her husband, Richard Rubin, in the Town of Southwest Ranches.
Sources have said numerous subpoenas have been issued in the state attorney's investigation of Wasserman-Rubin, which has been ongoing for at least two years and likely dates back about six years to the town's founding.
Back in 2004, Wasserman-Rubin voted on a county green space grant for Southwest Ranches. The problem was that the grant was written by her husband, who had been paid obscene amounts of money by the city for his services. He raked in about $1 million from the tiny town, including $429,000 in one 14-month period. What did he do? He wrote grant proposals, many of them to the county.
Critics said he was paid the big money because he had the pull on the commission with his wife to guarantee a windfall from the county.
I first reported in 2005 that Wasserman-Rubin had voted on her husband's grants. Those stories led to a complaint with the state ethics commission (filed by New Times reader Ray McKinney). Wasserman-Rubin was found guilty and fined $15,000, or less than 2 percent of the money her husband made on the deal.
Moreover, Wasserman-Rubin was part of a clique of politically connected profiteers who raked in windfalls by gaining virtual control over the town and exploiting its large swaths of open land. It was the financial raping of a small town. There was plenty of money to go around, and several of the couple's friends got into the act.
One was Ira Cor, a real estate broker and felon who showed up on an FBI yacht during an undercover sting in 2008. Cor is most famous for his leading role in a huge land boondoggle involving the Broward County School Board and a plot of Southwest Ranches land he was trying to sell. The county bought it for $4.3 million before realizing that it was swampland, unsuitable for a school. Richard Rubin was also involved in that deal.
Cor orchestrated a lot of strange land deals for the town, reaping obscene payments. He raked in more than $750,000 in taxpayer money on land deals and grants. Cor had an ace in the hole with Wasserman-Rubin too — he hired Richard Rubin as a sales associate at his real estate brokerage. And yes, Wasserman-Rubin voted on Cor's Southwest Ranches land deals on the County Commission too.
At the top of the heap of those getting rich on Southwest Ranches was former Town Manager John Canada, a former county official who was also bringing in a huge payday. Well, not just Canada but also his wife and daughter. A private contractor with the city, Canada hired his wife, Pat, as the town's finance director and his daughter, Shari, as town clerk. Townspeople joked that they'd been taken over by Canadians. Together they split a contract with the town that paid off $655,000 in 2005. As you read these figures, consider that the entire town had an annual budget of just $6 million. It was an absolute raid.
Canada's family hold on the town was nepotism and violated the rules of good government. But the town's attorney, Gary Poliakoff of the Becker & Poliakoff law firm, allowed it to happen. Poliakoff and son Keith, who's the deputy town attorney, are reaping profits. They charged the town $175 an hour for up to $200,000 a year for legal work, and on top of that, they garnered hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra fees on other legal matters.
The Poliakoff firm is also a major lobbying force in Broward, often representing private firms before the County Commission and cities like Hollywood. Well-known lobbyists Bernie Friedman and Alan Koslow work for Becker & Poliakoff. And Friedman served as Wasserman-Rubin's campaign manager.
It's some ugly stuff, and it's about time the State Attorney's Office took it seriously. A lot of it happened five years ago, after all, and it has been more than two years since Wasserman-Rubin was fined for it by the ethics commission. Canada was run out, as were Rubin and Cor. The Poliakoff firm somehow remains employed as the town's attorney.
It seems that a fire has been lit under Broward State Attorney Michael Satz since the feds came in and rattled his turf with the arrests of Eggelletion, Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher, and others. It's a welcome development, and if Satz, who has held his position since 1976 (yes, since America's Bicentennial), plays his cards right, he could transform his legacy in a dramatic way.
Read Bob Norman's column first on the Daily Pulp blog at BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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