Politicians in Sunrise have plenty of mud to sling
Sunrise is a pretty dark place today.
This city on the edge of the Everglades is in the midst of a political war — and the air is so full of vitriol now that it's hard to tell which side is in the right, if any.
The conflict involves lawsuits, controversial legal decisions, allegations of homestead fraud, and at least one snooping private eye. Last week's council meeting was consumed by a controversy over who would fill the vacuum left by outgoing Mayor Steven Feren, the autocratic and secretive politico who is leaving the dais for a judgeship.
The worst (or best) of the dirt was dredged up recently by a private investigator funded by the city to tail James DePelisi, a perennial City Council candidate who plans to run for a seat in March.
DePelisi, a 41-year-old investment adviser, filed suit last year against two commissioners, Roger Wishner and Sheila Alu. The suit claimed the commissioners defamed DePelisi by saying that he had used anti-Semitic tactics during his unsuccessful run for office last year against Commissioner and Deputy Mayor Wishner.
Sunrise is footing the bill for the defense of the DePelisi lawsuit, and City Attorney Stuart Michelson hired a private investigator to follow DePelisi for a week.
When I told DePelisi that he'd been followed by a P.I., he laughed.
"It wouldn't surprise me," he said. "I hope they don't have pictures of me in my birthday suit. If that's how they want to do things, then voters should decide if they agree with it. I think they hang themselves with a large noose that way."
Surveillance is a dubious if often-used legal tactic. But some of the information gained from the investigation is already being used as political ammunition against DePelisi.
DePelisi was found to reside primarily not in a Sunrise home he owns with his 79-year-old mother but in a house owned by his wife, Hope Schoengood, in Boca Raton.
DePelisi scoffs at the allegation.
"It's impossible that they learned that I lived in Boca Raton, because I live in Sunrise and have lived in Sunrise since 1989," DePelisi counters.
He claims he lives in the Sunrise house with his mother, his pregnant wife, and their 2-year-old son.
But nothing plays out that simply in Sunrise politics.
When I pressed DePelisi, he conceded that he and his wife sometimes stay in the Boca Raton house for a couple of days at a time as a "getaway." And in a deposition taken this past April in the defamation suit, his wife provided a different story.
"I live in Boca, and he resides in Sunrise," Schoengood testified.
"Is that how it's been during the course of the marriage that you don't live under the same roof?" Michelson asked her.
"Yes," she answered.
Schoengood's answers could have legal implications: She has a state homestead exemption on the house in Boca, while her husband, DePelisi, holds a homestead exemption (with his mother) on the house in Sunrise.
"As long as my wife doesn't abandon the house, she is allowed to keep that exemption," DePelisi says. "She can live in Sunrise or Brooklyn. It doesn't matter."
Actually, the Florida Constitution forbids a "family unit" from holding two homestead exemptions. Because the exemption on the Sunrise house is in his mother's name, though, the situation might be just murky enough to be legal.
The snooping by the city might be unseemly, but DePelisi opened himself up for it by filing the dubious defamation case. And it's not his first. In 2006, he filed a similar lawsuit against elderly Sunrise resident Marvin Langendorf, who allegedly called DePelisi a "scam artist" at a City Commission meeting.
The roots of Langendorf's allegation come from a 1998 case that seems to back up the assertion — and calls into question DePelisi's fitness for public office.
DePelisi sold securities for a company called kidZtime, which the Colorado Attorney General's Office later dubbed a "$47 million multinational investment scam."
Working as a salesman for the company, DePelisi called people on the phone in Missouri to induce them to invest in kidZtime, even though neither he nor the securities he was selling were registered in that state. The state issued him and others involved with the company a cease-and-desist order in 1998 to halt their "fraudulent and unlawful actions."
It turned out that kidZtime, which was supposed to create nonviolent children's programming, was a scam, according to authorities. Numerous states took action against kidZtime. Colorado even filed criminal charges against company leaders, resulting in numerous theft and fraud convictions.
DePelisi was never charged with a crime. But the Missouri cease-and-desist order details DePelisi's tactics with two Missouri residents whom he promised lucrative monthly dividend checks in return for an investment in the company. During telephone conversations, DePelisi told victims that their investments were "in the future of our country through our children" and that "it was an opportunity to speak out against the pervasive violence on most children's television programs," according to the cease-and-desist order.
Records indicate he strung along the residents for several months, collecting additional sums of money before the victims realized they weren't going to see any returns. They invested tens of thousands of dollars but never received dividend checks, according to public records.
DePelisi blames not himself but the company. He says he is now licensed to do business in Missouri. As proof that he's a good citizen, he points to his role as president of a nonprofit called the Broward Crime Commission and to his job as adjunct professor at Broward Community College and Florida Atlantic University.
But I'm left feeling uneasy about the candidate, who says he hasn't decided which open seat he'll run for in March. He may be a perfectly fine fellow, but the contradictory statements regarding his residency and the kidZtime debacle seem to be red flags. A little too dodgy for comfort.
As bad a candidate as DePelisi makes, it's not like it gets much better at City Hall.
DePelisi is allies with his longtime friend, Commissioner Joey Scuotto. They are vying for power against the triumvirate now in power — Wishner, Alu, and Don Rosen.
Originally, it was believed that Wishner and Scuotto would square off for mayor in the March election after Feren steps down in January.
The city charter, however, dictates that the deputy mayor hold Feren's seat for 120 days before participating in a general election. Because the March election falls within that 120-day period, Wishner will hold the office until 2010. The mayoral election has been called off.
The trio in charge have done good things. They have passed new ethics laws, gotten rid of the dark force that was City ManagerPat Salerno, hired a seemingly competent police chief, and brought the internet into city government.
But last year, they orchestrated a questionable, no-bid, $432,000-a-year contract for city attorney Michelson. Only Scuotto voted against the contract — and it was Michelson who made the key ruling that ensured the mayor's chair went to Wishner over Scuotto.
It would have been preferable to have Wishner and Scuotto battle it out in a political race. But let's be clear — Scuotto's history as a commissioner doesn't indicate that he would make anything but a bad mayor.
Scuotto's shady relationship with the city's longtime garbage company, All Service Refuse, would seem enough to disqualify him from higher office.
While the garbage company enjoyed a lucrative and noncompetitive contract to pick up the city's trash, Scuotto milked an extremely questionable relationship with All Service, according to an exposé written by New Times' Thomas Francis two years ago.
Scuotto hobnobbed with company executives on a trip to Montana, his catering company was hired to work some All Service picnics, and two of his relatives snagged jobs with the garbage firm.
On top of that, he was tied at the hip to Feren and Salerno — both of whom were dreadful city officials.
In short, how can the citizenry trust Scuotto?
To date, Wishner hasn't been hit with scandal. That doesn't mean he's above reproach, though, and the installation of Michelson as city attorney without a competitive bid certainly doesn't reflect well on him or his allies on the commission.
That's especially true considering Michelson not only represents Wishner and Alu in DePelisi's lawsuit against the city but issued an opinion that helped make sure the city paid their legal bills.
The anti-Jewish allegations they levied against DePelisi hold no weight. All DePelisi did was ask voters at All-Catholic Church to vote in a fellow Christian — "one of their own," he told them. It may have been a distasteful and exclusionary sentiment, but it's a long stretch to call it anti-Semitic. DePelisi counters that his wife is Jewish and that his son goes to temple.
Throwing around labels like that is simply lowdown-and-dirty politics. At the same time, DePelisi's suit is petty and wasteful. But the man is dogged: A judge has already dismissed it, and DePelisi is appealing.
He may have his problems, but DePelisi can speak the truth too.
"There's some type of black cloud over Sunrise that gets people away from their altruistic intentions when they get into office," DePelisi told me.
The new power crowd led by Wishner and Alu seems to be falling under that dark cloud right now, but it's also a notch brighter than its opponents. So far.
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