Cheating for Dollars

Who knew the commissioner was such an expert on Port St. Lucie wetlands?
Colby Katz

Let's say you're a deep-pocketed Miami developer. Let's say also that you want Lauderdale Lakes to choose you to build its $125 million "downtown" project, the largest public development in the city's history.

First thing you do, of course, is throw money at a couple of lobbyists to sway city commissioners to pick your company. But there's a snag. The do-gooding city forbids lobbyists from taking part in the selection process and makes breaking that rule a "fatal flaw." Hire a lobbyist and you're eliminated from contention. Bureaucrats call it a "cone of silence." Without a lobbying edge, you're pretty sure somebody else will be chosen to build the plum project, and your dreams of vaster wealth will be squashed.

What do you do? What do you do?

Well, if you're smart and properly amoral, you cheat. You hire the lobbyists anyway, get the votes you need to secure the project, and watch how nobody in power has the guts to do anything about it.

That's the way it happened in real life, anyway. Despite a lobbying ban, the Miami development firm United Homes International hired at least two lobbyists to help it win the project to build the massive residential and commercial project in the center of Lauderdale Lakes. The City Commission voted 5-1 for United Homes even though city staff had ranked other developers higher.

One of the company's hired guns is of special interest: Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, who just last week finally admitted to the world that he was on United Homes' payroll. In the financial disclosure form he is required by law to submit to the state, the commissioner scribbled, in an almost childlike hand, that he was paid $10,000 by United Homes.

This fact, apparently, was news to the Sun-Sentinel, which ran a big banner headline about it -- "Eggelletion was paid by builder" -- in last Wednesday's local section.

It was old hat to city officials, though. They've known for months that United Homes hired Eggelletion and Vinnie Grande, another lobbyist with close ties to Lauderdale Lakes. Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Hazelle Rogers, one of Eggelletion's most trusted allies in the city, confirmed that the county commissioner was lobbying for United Homes, and at least one of Rogers' colleagues, Barrington Russell, acknowledged that Grande called him on behalf of the company before the October vote. Grande, a lobbyist who sometimes works for the city, admitted that he was hired by the Miami developer to lobby for the project.

I included these facts when I wrote about Eggelletion's extracurricular activities seven months ago (see "The Lobbyist," December 16). The commissioner, however, was coy about his employ. "I work for a company, and I perform services for that company," he said when asked directly whether he worked for United Homes.

There were a lot of reasons for Eggelletion to dodge the question, not the least of which was the lobbying ban. He also represents Lauderdale Lakes as a county commissioner, and his lobbying of the city would seem an obvious conflict of interest. He started his political career there some 15 years ago and holds tremendous influence over two of the city's seven elected officials, Rogers and Llevoyd Williams, both of whom regard Eggelletion as a political mentor who helped get them started in politics.

And even as he was being paid by United Homes, Eggelletion has used his position in county government to push to give public money to so-called affordable-housing developers, including the company that gave him $10,000.

The city, to its credit, tried to make sure that such lobbying abuses never occurred again. Shortly after the New Times article appeared, the city passed new ordinances mandating that lobbyists register with the city and forbidding elected officials like Eggelletion from lobbying within two years of holding office. Only Rogers and Williams voted against the measures, arguing that they were targeting their ally at the County Commission (which, of course, they were).

Even as they were fixing the problem, city leaders curiously refused to acknowledge that United Homes had violated the rules by hiring lobbyists in the first place. And Community Redevelopment Director Gary Rogers continues to work with the company on the project, which is still in the design phase. After the New Times article was published, Rogers said there was no "proof" that Eggelletion ever worked for the company.

To understand his mindset, check out this e-mail exchange between Rogers and Tim Hernandez, a principle at New Urban Communities, a Delray Beach firm that vied for the downtown project against United Homes.

"Is the [city] going to go ahead and award the contract to United Homes in light of the article that appeared in New Times before Christmas?" New Urban Vice President Hernandez wrote to Rogers on January 3.

"We do not operate on the basis of media allegations," Rogers replied. "My board has selected a developer for the project based on their own impressions, I see no benefit in speculating about how they reached their decision on selected developer."

"Thanks for the update," Hernandez sent back. "But what happens if the 'media allegations' turn out to be true?"

"Whose 'truth' are we talking about here?" Rogers returned. "Without facts that can be substantiated by the party making the allegations, we go forward..."

"Unless the New Times articles were wrong... the cone of silence was violated," Hernandez persevered.

"I will not speculate on this topic," Rogers concluded.

That basically sums up the city's response to United Homes' cheating ways. But since Eggelletion admitted in writing that he was paid by United Homes, I thought Rogers' attitude might change. So I called him to see what he was going to do about it. "Well, we don't know that he lobbied for our project," Rogers said with (presumably) a straight face. "He may have been representing United Homes elsewhere."

Right. That would be quite the coincidence. But Eggelletion, who doesn't chat with me anymore, for some strange reason, says so himself. The Sentinel interviewed him on the phone while he was living it up on the public dime in, no kidding, Hawaii. He was there to attend the National Association of Counties convention. Tell me that America's public servants don't know how to do it.

Anyway, Eggelletion told the newspaper that all he'd done for United Homes was assess whether property in Port St. Lucie was protected wetlands or not. He claimed it had nothing to do with the $125 million construction plum.

And if you believe that, I have some wetlands in Port St. Lucie to sell you. The idea that United Homes would just happen to hire the county commissioner to work three counties away at the exact same time as they were vying for a huge contract in his district doesn't fly. And the evidence points in the other direction. For instance, developer Milton Jones, who vied for the Lauderdale Lakes project with New Urban Communities, says he had tried to hire Eggelletion to help him win the downtown project as well. Eggelletion first agreed to help him for a fee, but then he called and said he'd been hired to do the same job for United Homes at a higher price. Though Jones indicated that the fee Eggelletion discussed with him was much higher than the $10,000 payment listed on Eggelletion's disclosure form, he refused to publicly reveal the figure.

In other words, Eggelletion was selling his political influence in Lauderdale Lakes to the highest bidder.

I was also told by an extremely reliable source who has worked with United Homes that Eggelletion was hired specifically to help secure the votes of Rogers and Williams on the commission for the Lauderdale Lakes project. That information was given to me on double-supersecret background, so I can't reveal who said it, other than the fact that it definitely wasn't Karl Rove. But the source would be questioned if a decent investigation were done, and I don't think he or she would lie about it.

At least one city commissioner, David Shomers, is having a hard time buying Eggelletion's excuse. "Why would United Homes hire him to work on an issue involving wetlands outside Broward County?" the commissioner wondered. "It doesn't make any sense."

Shomers says he's going to ask the staff to investigate whether the lobbying rules were violated. But Shomers, who is the only commissioner who didn't vote for United Homes, says that even if the city finds wrongdoing, he's not sure anything would, or should, be done.

"We're yoked up with United Homes in the biggest project in this city's history," the commissioner says. "We're on a tight schedule, and there is a lot of pressure from the citizens to get moving."

The reasoning is perfectly pragmatic -- and also encapsulates why lying and cheating pays in the public realm here in beautiful Broward County. You break the rules and, even if you are caught, nobody has the guts or fortitude to do anything about it.

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