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Rambo and the Phantom

CHRISTOPHER SMITH

There's going to be a very rough holiday season for at least two Broward County politicians this year.

One of them, Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman, has already been disgraced in the public eye (wildly pulling a gun at the Winn Dixie tends to do that for you). The other, Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini, is about to be.

We'll start with Mayor Cap, since it's what we in the journalism game call "breaking news." After more than a year of speculation, it's official: The Broward State Attorney's Office is conducting an extensive criminal investigation of Capellini. Deerfield City Clerk Ada Graham-Johnson sent a secret memo to city leaders on November 8, stating that her office had received a subpoena related to six controversial city projects, all of which deeply involved the mayor and have come under scrutiny.

While Graham-Johnson didn't specify where the subpoena came from, city sources say it came from the State Attorney's Office.

The projects listed on the memo bring back memories. During my investigation of the mayor last year, I found that Capellini had conflicts of interest in each one of them. Now, finally, State Attorney Michael Satz is seriously digging into the matter. A few of the projects under scrutiny by the SAO:

•The Deerfield Park Professional Center. Capellini's private firm, Atlantis Engineering, engineered this project and the mayor represented the project before his own city and the Broward County Commission. While working on the project, he also voted to approve the project on the city dais, an apparent violation of Florida law. On top of that, he took out a key entrance meant to relieve traffic for the residents, who were outraged, and then he misled the public by blaming it on the county.

•The Pines Sand Plat. Capellini had a financial stake in this piece of land. He made hundreds of thousands of dollars on the land but hid his involvement in it when plans came up for a vote. Rather than disclose his conflict, he went to the bathroom just as his commission colleagues began to discuss the matter, a ploy the mayor has used many times.

•Beach parking garages. Capellini used his position to help architect Bill Gallo, his frequent business partner, obtain business from the city.

The other three projects listed on the memo include the Arbor Green, the Deer Creek Golf and Tennis Club, and the Lanzo project — all of which involve similar shenanigans by Capellini (along with his former city manager Larry Deetjen, who now works in Illinois).

In her November 8 memo, Graham-Johnson instructed commissioners to produce all information they had on those projects, including "e-mails and attachments sent or received by members of the city commission, city manager's office, city attorney's office, and city staff."

An obvious question is why it took the State Attorney's Office so long to subpoena the records. I wrote about those six projects last summer (and the Sun-Sentinel did a piece on the Lanzo project as well).

The State Attorney's Office doesn't discuss ongoing investigations, but there are two possible reasons for the delay. First, a concerned citizen named Chaz Stevens filed a complaint with the State Attorney's Office last month, citing the New Times articles. Satz has always been less than aggressive when prosecuting corruption cases and usually won't touch them unless he gets a complaint.

Second, the jury's conviction of former Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom in September — the first in Satz's 30 years as the county's top prosecutor — may have emboldened the SAO's special investigations unit to act. Wasserstrom, after all, was convicted of two official misconduct felonies for failing to disclose the full nature of his conflict of interest with a sewage company. Capellini, with his notorious trips to the city hall toilets, has gone much further than that on numerous occasions by failing to reveal the conflict at all.

It's not surprising rumors are flying around the city that Capellini's days are numbered. But his chances are better than Miramar's Fitzroy Salesman, whose antics should disqualify him from ever holding public office again.

You know the story: Salesman became agitated in the checkout line of Winn Dixie two weeks ago, started hassling a customer in front of him, and then pulled out a pistol. The kicker, according to a Miami Herald report, was what the 50-year-old commissioner said before drawing his .45 and sending employees and patrons fleeing for their lives.

"Do you know who I am? I will shut this bitch down."

There it is. The pristine arrogance of an unworthy politician. A growling cur propped up to a position of power he never should have had in the first place.

As Capellini shows, the face of corruption in Broward County knows no color. But Salesman, who was also arrested (and later acquitted) of DUI charges in 2005, happens to be a member of a clique of black politicians who have all proven deeply deficient in their public service skills. If the fish rots from the head down, the clique rots from the head of Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, another politician who should have been shut down a long time ago. One of Eggelletion's many transgressions illustrates the insidious nature of his relationship with Salesman.

Joe, as Eggelletion's most often called, has a history of sleazy lobbying; back in 2002, he collected a "fee" of $15,000 from Waste Management just before he voted to give the garbage hauler a contract for the county. That offense alone — forget about his taxpayer-funded credit card expenses, the illegitimate son he refused to support, the allegation that he slept with at least one student while he was a teacher at Dillard High — should have been the end of his political career. But this is Broward County, where public apathy knows no bounds.

Eggelletion claimed he was paid by the company to lobby the Miramar commission for Waste Management. He lobbied two people, one of them his friend Fitzroy Salesman, who loyally cast his vote for Eggelletion's favored company, which nevertheless went down to defeat.

Eggelletion walked away from the mini-scandal largely unscathed and Salesman claimed he wasn't influenced by his buddy's nudge. And you wonder why he seems to think he's above the law?

A third member of the clique is Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Llevoyd Williams. Again, I could write a chapter here about Williams, but I'll limit it to this: He's under investigation by Satz's office right now, too. Williams runs something called Black Elected Officials, Inc. Broward Times reporter Elgin Jones found that the organization leached off the public dime, with its money seeming to go not for scholarships but for parties for members like Eggelletion, Salesman, and Williams.

Jones says the state of black politics in Broward is a "mess," and he attributes it largely to Eggelletion (Salesman, he says, is just a go-alonger).

Salesman may have knocked himself out of the political game with his shocking stupidity but Eggelletion is a bit more stubborn. He has survived scandal after scandal during his 15 years in public office.

"They stay in office long enough, they recycle themselves, and when they go through that recycling, they become part of the system, they become part of a vicious cycle," says Allen Jackson, a minister running against incumbent Eggelletion in next March's election.

In 2004, Jackson picked up 39 percent of the vote in a loss to Eggelletion for the same seat. This year there's a second challenger in the mix, Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner John Billingsley.

"The trouble comes when we think we are bigger than we are, rather than the servant we are supposed to be," Billingsley told me. "When we look at helping ourselves rather than the people, there's something wrong."

Either challenger would probably be a threat to Eggelletion, but together Jackson and Billingsley very well could split the opposition vote and pave the way for the commissioner's reelection.

And that prospect will surely make for a warmer holiday season for Joe.


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