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Ilene Lieberman: From Political Godmother to Star Witness

Historical artifact: An invitation for a fundraiser Ilene Lieberman held for Talabisco to kick off her 2006 election.
Historical artifact: An invitation for a fundraiser Ilene Lieberman held for Talabisco to kick off her 2006 election.

 

I think it's safe to say we now know the primary reason Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman was, quite literally, out of commission ​recently for several weeks: She was distraught over her involvement in the State Attorney's corruption investigation leading to her sworn testimony that implicated a former friend, Tamarac Mayor Beth Talabisco.

The mayor was suspended by the governor yesterday after she was hit with bribery, unlawful compensation, and official misconduct charges for allegedly trading her vote to approve a controversial housing development in exchange for $21,000 in political committee contributions from the developers of the project, Bruce and Shawn Chait.  

Lieberman, at this point, is the star witness in the case. It's not known what level of immunity she received for the testimony. Reliable sources have told me that the criminal investigation -- and ultimately her cooperation against Talabisco with prosecutors -- sank her into a deep depression and breakdown, causing her to essentially drop out of public life and 

miss numerous commission meetings (she has only recently returned).

The criminal case against Talabisco isn't airtight, but thanks to Lieberman, it floats. To understand her importance, you must understand her significance in Talabisco's life at the time.

She wasn't just a friend and mentor; she was basically Talabisco's political godmother.

Lieberman saw talent and political promise in the statuesque and well-polished Talabisco, a trusted neighbor and friend and chosen successor. And in Lieberman, Talabisco found someone who could open all the right doors -- and raise for her obscene amounts of campaign money.

When Talabisco began her campaign for mayor in 2005, Lieberman held a fundraiser at her home that raised more than $20,000 in four hours. Much of it came from lobbyists -- like George Platt, Ron Book, and Dennis Mele -- who depended on Lieberman's vote on the County Commission. 

And Talabisco crushed her mayoral opponents -- Karen Roberts, Mae Schreiber, and the lesser-known Elayne Weisburd -- in the fundraising department. She raised more than $76,000, which was more than all three of them combined.

Still, the race was a dead heat. According to Talabisco's arrest affidavit, the Chaits financed a poll showing Talabisco was tied with Roberts and Schreiber. That's when it was decided that the campaign needed a late infusion of cash to fund a barrage of negative ads. 

There is no doubt that the Chaits secretly financed the political committee that was responsible for those eleventh-hour ads, soliciting $21,000 from two of their development firm's subcontractors.

There is no doubt that those ads helped Talabisco win the seat in March 2006.

And there is no doubt that Talabisco voted for the Chaits' controversial housing project just eight days after her election.

And there is no doubt that Talabisco met Chait at the home of her campaign manager, Beverly Stracher, where the plan to form the committee for the negative ads was discussed.

That is all bedrock circumstantial evidence suggesting that Talabisco and the Chaits struck a corrupt deal. The state, however, doesn't have definitive proof. There is no damning undercover recording or confession.

Shawn Chait told prosecutors that Stracher did most of the talking at the meeting. The arrest affidavit includes no testimony from Stracher, who was working both sides of the deal as Talabisco's campaign manager and a "consultant" for the Chaits' firm, Prestige Homes. Stracher's attorney, Eric Schwartzreich, has said his client is cooperating with prosecutors, but I have seen no official sign of it.

Make no mistake, Stracher -- whom the Chaits say they paid more than $100,000 cash for her shady services -- is at the heart of the corruption in this case. Interestingly, Lieberman hired Stracher last year, after the criminal investigation was under way, to work as an aide in her county office. 

That's right, the obviously corrupt Stracher is collecting a paycheck on the taxpayers' dime to work for Lieberman. Welcome to Broward County.

But the state clearly needed something else to seal the deal against Talabisco. And in Ilene Lieberman, they found it.

In addition to her fundraising support, Lieberman played an active role in Talabisco's campaign. According to the affidavit, Lieberman "reviewed and approved" the negative ads rolled out by the Chait-financed political committee.

She wasn't concerned about the ads -- but she testified that she was concerned about Talabisco's involvement with the Chaits.

She told prosecutors in a sworn statement that she spoke with Talabisco about the potential implications of her involvement with the Chaits, specifically that if she voted for the Chaits' development so soon after they funded the committee, it could constitute a voting conflict in violation of Florida law.

Lieberman's solution for the problem was typically devious of the commissioner -- she essentially told Talabisco that she should delay the vote for the project into the future so the improper quid pro quo wouldn't be so obvious. The arrest affidavit describes Talabisco's response: "Talabisco told Lieberman that she was still going to vote because she had made a commitment."

In terms of establishing Talabisco's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, that's the most important line in the affidavit. 

But there's more. The affidavit says that even before the conversation with Lieberman, Talabisco had asked the Chaits to delay the vote for the very same reason. But the Chaits were in a hurry. If the vote was delayed, a key state approval would expire. They refused to move the date.

To further establish her guilty mindset -- which goes to intent -- Talabisco loaned her campaign another $20,000 to put out positive ads in which she touted the fact that she'd returned the Chaits' political contributions.

Remember, this was the single biggest issue in the town, and hundreds of residents were outraged that the city was even considering the Chaits' dense housing project on two golf courses.

Those disingenuous ads show that Talabisco wanted to conceal her involvement with the Chaits -- and if there is a trial, I think they'll have a great impact on a jury.

But Lieberman's turn on the stand will be the most significant. The question: What did Lieberman get in return for her testimony?

Lieberman is all wrapped up in the Chait scandal. Remember, she voted for their project too. And her husband, outgoing Sunrise City Attorney Stuart Michelson, worked for the Chaits. Michelson represented the developers in a code enforcement matter and represented Shawn Chait to at his initial deposition with prosecutors in the criminal matter in 2007.

That was back when it was confined to the golf membership the Chaits had purchased for Lieberman's colleague on the county commission, Josephus Eggelletion. Shawn Chait lied through his teeth at that deposition, claiming he had only delivered the cash for the membership because Eggelletion didn't have the time to do it himself.

The Chaits also donated $25,000 to the Transplant Foundation, the charity on which Lieberman sat on the board and hosted a golf tournament in Tamarac.

We likely won't know until the discovery is released in Talabisco's case what type of immunity Lieberman may have received for testifying against her former protégé. But the two had already had a personal and political fallout.

After that 2006 election, Talabisco backed a hefty and controversial tax on a select few businesses to fund redevelopment. Lieberman's husband, Michelson, represented the businesses before Tamarac in the dispute.

Michelson once told me that Talabisco never forgave him or his wife for that. Such is the way of politics in Tamarac. The schism only deepened over time. And in politics, sometimes payback -- even if it comes under great distress -- is a bitch.


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