A high-rolling Miami developer came to Pembroke Park and left with a prized piece of public land. For their trouble, taxpayers stand to lose more than $3 million on the deal.
The little Broward County town still doesn't even know what hit it.
Back in 2002, Pinnacle Housing Group agreed to buy seven oak-covered acres of public land near Town Hall on Hallandale Beach Boulevard with the promise to build affordable housing for working families.
But the company delayed the project, called Pinnacle Oaks, for more than two years as it tried to obtain public financing. Pembroke Park helped by contributing $30,000, which allowed the company to get a $300,000 grant from Broward County. Pinnacle finally bought the land last December for $1.8 million, the price negotiated in 2002. Company executives assured the town it still planned to build affordable housing there.
Instead, just four months later, the firm abandoned the project and put the land on the market for $5.9 million. Pinnacle is currently in negotiation to sell the acreage to a condo developer, says a chagrined Pembroke Park Mayor John Lyons, adding that his town has no legal recourse against the company. "Even though Pinnacle promised at every meeting they would put affordable housing on the site, it wasn't written in the contract," he says. Pinnacle President Michael Wohl didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
But Wohl and his partners didn't pull it off by themselves; they hired some of the most powerful political players in Broward County to help grease the wheels. The story behind the Pembroke Park debacle -- call it the anatomy of a fleecing -- involves two county commissioners, one of their husbands, and a passel of lobbyists.
It begins with real-estate broker Ira Cor, who specializes in government deals. Pinnacle hired Cor -- who has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to local political campaigns over the years -- to help broker the land deal with Pembroke Park.
A well-placed source told New Times that Cor also filled another role. The source, who was privy to internal discussions between the company and government officials, said the real-estate broker procured a lucrative lobbying job for Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman at Pinnacle. When asked about the source's claim, Cor confirmed it.
"That is true," Cor said. "I was looking for someone that knew the law. It was something that had nothing to do with the county, and I asked her if she would give [Pinnacle] professional guidance. When you hire people to help you in government, you hire people who know what the rules are. The rules set you free. She knows what the rules are."
After the company hired her, Lieberman recused herself from voting on matters related to Pinnacle but voted several times to approve Cor-related projects at the county, where he's helped to broker numerous land deals. Lieberman flatly denied in an e-mail that Cor got her the job. "Ira Cor played no role in my employment with Pinnacle," she wrote. "I no longer work for that company and will not answer any further questions on that subject."
A day after the e-mail, Cor contacted the newspaper and said he'd been mistaken. He alleged that he'd become confused and was thinking of his $1,000 donation to Lieberman's 2004 Mayor's Ball. Yet, when confronted with his earlier statement, he again admitted that he recommended Lieberman to Pinnacle executives. "I wish I had only spoken of things that directly related to me," he lamented.
Lieberman wasn't the only Cor friend with financial ties to Pinnacle. Richard Rubin, a business associate of Cor's, said he evaluated land for Pinnacle at the Pembroke Park site as well as other locations for about $150 an hour. He added that he billed the work to the legal and lobbying firm that employed him at the time, Shutts and Bowen, which contracted with Pinnacle. Rubin said he quit doing work for Pinnacle when he left Shutts and Bowen in February 2003.
Rubin also happens to be the husband of another county commissioner, Diana Wasserman-Rubin.
"It's a small world, isn't it?" Rubin said when asked about his connection to Pinnacle.
Unlike Lieberman, Wasserman-Rubin didn't recuse herself from voting to approve Pinnacle housing projects and to give the firm millions of dollars in county grants and tax-exempt bonds during the past few years. Wasserman-Rubin denied that her husband's work for Pinnacle was a conflict of interest. "My husband wasn't paid by Pinnacle," Wasserman-Rubin said in her defense two weeks ago. "He was paid by Shutts and Bowen."
The commissioner did more than just vote on Pinnacle projects -- she also met with Wohl, the Pinnacle president, in County Hall in January 2003. Wasserman-Rubin introduced Wohl to county staff and helped the company obtain a $300,000 grant from the county for the now-defunct Pinnacle Oaks project (see "Our Mayor, the Lobbyist," October 21, 2004).
She also wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for the company that Lieberman used in her Pinnacle lobbying campaign. On February 26, 2003, Lieberman took the letter to a Pembroke Park town meeting, where she urged the commission to approve spending the $30,000 for Pinnacle. Flanked by company officials, Lieberman told the five members of the board that they'd made a "wise move" in choosing the company and assured them the town wouldn't lose the money.
The board voted 3-1 in favor of Lieberman's proposal. (Commissioner Annette Wexler abstained from the vote because she too had been employed by Pinnacle.) Mayor Lyons now wonders if the town will ever get the money back. It couldn't be determined, prior to press time, whether the county has ordered Pinnacle to return the $300,000.
In fall 2004, Pembroke Park met with another Pinnacle-related indignity. The rural and wealthy town of Southwest Ranches unveiled an unorthodox plan to buy its way out of a state requirement to provide affordable housing. Rather than build subsidized apartments, the Town Council approved a plan to pay $900,000 to Pinnacle to help it finance the $1.8 million for the land on Hallandale Beach Boulevard.
Pembroke Park officials, however, felt that the town rather than the Miami firm should get the money. "When they said they wanted to give the money to the developer, I said, 'What the hell?'" Lyons recalls. "We wanted a piece of the pie. It just looked like everything was going Pinnacle's way."
Orchestrating the plan was a slew of the developer's devotees, including Cor and Rubin. Both have contracts with the Town of Southwest Ranches. And the world gets even smaller. Gary Poliakoff, town attorney for Southwest Ranches, also has a financial relationship with Pinnacle. His law firm, the massive and influential Becker & Poliakoff, lobbies for various Pinnacle housing projects in Broward County. Poliakoff didn't return calls from New Times, but when questioned about it last fall, he acknowledged there was an appearance of a conflict of interest and said he would ask that all parties agree to waive the conflict.
But that wasn't necessary. The plan died when Pinnacle, citing rising construction costs, abandoned the Pinnacle Oaks project in March.
While the labyrinthine public and private dealings involving Pinnacle and Pembroke Park raise serious conflict-of-interest issues, it seems the Broward State Attorney's Office has so far overlooked the entire mess.
When he investigated Lieberman earlier this year, prosecutor Bernhard Hollar confined his questions to the commissioner's involvement in the award to Pinnacle of a $22 million Broward County Housing Authority contract. The transcripts of the investigation, which was prompted by a New Times report, reveal that Hollar never mentioned the names of Cor or Rubin. And when he interviewed Lieberman on January 14, he didn't ask her how she had obtained the Pinnacle job, what exactly she had done for them, how much she had been paid, or other seemingly pertinent questions.
One housing commissioner, Joseph Cobo, told Hollar that a county commissioner had called him to support Pinnacle for the $22 million contract. Only it wasn't Lieberman. It was Wasserman-Rubin, who told him that Pinnacle was a "very reputable" company and to give it his "best consideration," according to Cobo.
Wasserman-Rubin told Hollar in a sworn interview in February that she didn't remember the phone call. Hollar never asked her if she had any financial connection to Pinnacle. Instead, the prosecutor seemed to have his own idea of why Wasserman-Rubin might have called Cobo.
"Were you even familiar with Pinnacle?" he asked.
"Yes, but I don't recall recommending...," Wasserman-Rubin began before Hollar interrupted.
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"But you were impressed with them," the prosecutor continued. "And they had done work in your district, and you have been satisfied with their work... Would that be a fair statement?"
"I don't have a problem with their work product, and I have seen their work product...," Wasserman-Rubin said. "I am going to leave it at that."
The prosecutor was apparently satisfied. He closed the investigation in May without sufficient evidence to prosecute Lieberman, who also said she didn't know about the Cobo call. But Lieberman tried to explain her colleague's relationship with Pinnacle: "Diane is very familiar with Pinnacle because they're building in her county commission district. She has her own relationship, as you know, from the work they've done in her district. She knows the quality of what they do."
Of course she does. It's a small world, after all.