While South Florida politicians are notorious for forging unethical bonds with high-rolling developers, Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini has taken it a step further.
He's become one.
And city records show that he's used the power of his political office not only to promote an office building project he's backing, but to direct city and county officials to make changes that have outraged a neighborhood.
Capellini's conflicts of interest involving his private firm, Atlantis Environmental Engineering, have already come under scrutiny (see last week's cover story, "For Sale: Keys to the City," June 1), but the latest controversy may be the most brazen. It revolves around the Deerfield Park Professional Center, an office complex now under construction near the city's large Natura retirement community, south of Hillsboro Boulevard. Residents are livid that virtually all the traffic from the planned 70,000 square-foot complex will be funneled onto their quiet neighborhood road.
And they blame the mayor.
Capellini's engineering firm oversaw the entire project, records show. And the mayor played dual roles while bringing Deerfield Park to life. As a private engineer, he represented the development before his own city and the Broward County Commission. And as mayor, he touted the project on the dais, once voted for its approval, and misled the public while he was at it, according to city records.
The mayor's actions prompted a group of senior citizens many of them aided by walkers, canes, and motorized wheelchairs to picket under the hot sun at the office site this past Friday, where they chanted over the rumble of construction and carried signs calling for Capellini's removal from office.
"This project will take a lazy residential street where people walk their dogs and wheel their loved ones to a commercial traffic area," says Ben Kough, a member of the Natura Homeowners' Association board. "The tragedy is that at no point did Capellini's role in all this cause him to say, 'Hey, wait a minute, maybe we ought to be concerned about the residents. '"
While financial details are scarce on the project, it appears that the mayor is profiting from his behind-the-scenes maneuverings. He and two partners including Marty Lamia, his former campaign manager have apparently taken ownership of one of nine buildings planned on the five-acre property. The $1.3 million building, at 200 Natura Blvd., is listed as sold in advertising, and the mayor formed a corporation, called 200 Natura LLC, at the address earlier this year.
Residents have taken to derisively referring to the office building, which currently has one concrete wall standing, as "Capellini's Castle."
The mayor didn't respond to repeated messages asking for comment. His partner, Lamia, fielded some questions but stopped cold when the building was mentioned. When asked for details on the apparent purchase of the building, he became evasive.
"How did we come to own a building? I'm not going to answer that," he said from his office at the mayor's Atlantis firm.
There are a lot of questions the mayor and his partners don't seem ready to answer about their involvement in Deerfield Park, beginning with the 2003 city commission meeting during which the plat a kind of rough draft and survey of the project was approved by the commission.
Lamia represented the project at the meeting and, with no discussion, the plat was approved by commissioners. Minutes of the meeting show that Capellini was among those who cast a vote in the project's favor.
Because the mayor's firm was engineering the project, his vote appears to be a blatant violation of Florida law.
But that was just the beginning. The original plat, which was also approved by the Broward County Commission, included a right-turn only entrance for the office park on Natura Boulevard, a four-lane thoroughfare. This was an important feature for residents, since it would have helped alleviate some of the traffic generated on their neighborhood road.
When the site plan came before the commission, however, the entrance had been removed from the design. Several Natura residents attended the April 20, 2004, meeting to complain about traffic. Capellini, then in his role as mayor, defended his project and contended that it was the county that dictated the entrances and exits.
What he didn't say was that it wasn't the county that deleted the entrance, it was the mayor and his partners. The city commission went on to approve the plan, with the mayor abstaining from the vote after his vocal defense of the project on the dais.
To kill the Boulevard entrance, Capellini still needed to get county approval for the change. And to do that, he needed a letter from his own city. On May 6, 2004, his partner Lamia wrote a letter to city planning director Gerald Ferguson on Atlantis letterhead asking for that change and several others. Two weeks later, Ferguson sent Capellini a letter stating that the city had "no objections" to the changes.
The mayor and Lamia then took Ferguson's letter to county officials.
"The only reason we even considered allowing them to remove the entrance was because of that letter," says David Danovitz, Broward County assistant director of development management. "We feel that is a city matter since cities generally know the needs of their neighborhoods better than the county."
After county staff approved the change based on Ferguson's letter, the Broward County Commission voted to accept the removal of the entrance during a June 29, 2004, meeting that was attended by Capellini and Lamia.
When questioned about these behind-the-scenes maneuverings, Lamia denied that removing the entrance was the mayor's idea.
"The county did that," he said.
Asked if that was true, Broward County traffic engineer Irene Cooper replied, "Absolutely not."
"We had many meetings and [Capellini and Lamia] said they didn't want to build the turn lane because it cost money and it would require dedication of some of their property," Cooper says. "Those are the usual reasons why people don't want to construct improvements."
The loss of the entrance may seem like a small thing, but it has galvanized the residents against Capellini and the project. That, however, hasn't affected the rising value of the land. A month after the site plan was approved by the commission, the land was sold to Plantation entrepreneur Randall Bast for $4 million. Property appraiser records show that it had been sold to a previous owner for just $1.4 million a year before. It isn't known if Capellini benefited from the substantial profit on the sale.
While owners have changed, one thing has remained constant: Capellini and Lamia have overseen the project from the start.
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The Natura case comes on the heels of an investigative report in New Times last week detailing other apparent ethics violations and the mayor's insider dealings with architect Bill Gallo, another business partner of Capellini's. In addition to working on city-regulated projects with the mayor, Gallo also does work for the city. Records obtained by New Times show the city has paid Gallo's firm about $80,000 during the past five years. The only known contract the firm had with the city was supposed to pay a maximum of $25,000.
State law makes it a felony for a politician to use his elected office for personal profit. Currently, the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne under federal laws that forbid public officials from depriving the public of "honest services."
While there is no known criminal investigation of the mayor underway, numerous citizens are clamoring for just that.
"He snuck around our backs because he has a financial interest in the office park," says 90-year-old Annette Heimowitz, who braved the hot sun during Friday's protest near her home in Natura. "And he shouldn't be allowed to do that."