Tamarac Officials Shaking as Corruption Investigation Heads Into Town
By all rights, Tamarac should be the most boring city on Earth.
The Broward suburb started, after all, as a retirement community and is still dominated by senior condo housing. It's named after a chain of car washes that were owned by city founder Ken Behring ("Car-A-Mat" spelled backward). Here's how the city was recently sold in a newspaper real estate special ad:
"Tamarac offers 649 acres of freshwater canals and lakes, a $250,000 roller hockey rink, nine private golf courses and an expanding industrial park with access to the Sawgrass Expressway."
Did they say a $250,000 roller hockey rink and an expanding industrial park? How could anyone possibly resist?
But some serious excitement is coming to Tamarac -- and a lot of politicians are very nervous as a result.
The drama is due to a decidedly dirty developer named Bruce Chait, who is cooperating with state prosecutors in a corruption investigation that boomeranged from the recent federal sting operation that brought down Broward County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion and former School Board Member Beverly Gallagher.
Chait, who has been charged with bribery, unlawful compensation, and perjury, is said to be spilling on a whole lot of officials.
Several local Tamarac polticians have lawyered up, say sources. State Attorney's Office investigators allegedly paid one commissioner, Patricia Atkins-Grad, a visit recently about her previous support for Chait's housing development.
Atkins-Grad, a realtor who advertised herself around town as "Positively Patte," refused to talk about
any of it last night. I phoned her, and when Atkins-Grad returned the call, I immediately asked her if she had hired a lawyer in light of the Chait investigation. She wouldn't answer, saying she couldn't talk because she was out to dinner. Funny, a yes or no to my question would have been quicker than her excuse. I asked her if she would talk about it later, and she replied in the negative. "Please, Mr. Norman, I have to go," she said. "Bye."
Then she hung up the phone. It was a far cry from the open reception she gave me when I interviewed her last October about another bit of Tamarac political ugliness. Fortunately, at that time, I had already figured that the corruption investigation was heading toward the Tamarac commission, and I asked Atkins-Grad about her support for Chait's project.
"Yes, I supported [Chait]," she told me at the time. "I was trying to get more tax money into our city... We need the tax money."
Atkins-Grad received $1,750 in campaign contributions from Chait and his company, Prestige Homes. She later returned the contributions (Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco also returned Chait contributions). I asked her point-blank at that time if the Chaits ever offered her a bribe of any kind and if she ever accepted one. She said nothing like that happened.
"I'm not unethical," she told me. "I'm the most ethical person I know, probably the most ethical person anybody knows."
I don't know of any specific allegations that have been made against Atkins-Grad, and although she has apparently come under the scope of the investigation, it's important to note here that no evidence has surfaced to indicate that she did anything wrong.
I tried to contact Mayor Flansbaum-Talabisco about the matter but was told she is out of town and unavailable.
But when it comes to Chait and his housing development, nothing would come as a surprise. The guy was paying politicians -- and their spouses -- left and right. When he started trying to get government approvals to build housing on the Sabal Palm and Monterrey golf courses, he paid off Eggelletion with a golf club membership in Parkland and cash totaling $25,000.
When he wanted a discount in a fee owed to the School Board for his development, he hired board member Stephanie Kraft's husband, Mitch, to help. Kraft then used her influence as an elected official to help Chait secure a $500,000 break. Kraft is also under investigation, according to sources. (Mitch Kraft was also on the payroll of School Board lobbyist Neil Sterling at the same time Stephanie Kraft pushed through a controversial multibillion-dollar health contract for one of Sterling's clients, Vista Health.)
Chait also gave Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter a golf cart while she was running for office. Ritter said it may have been an in-kind contribution, but it doesn't seem to have been reported. Ritter voted to approve Chait's project in 2008.
Chait also hired Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman's husband, Stuart Michelson, to do legal work for him last year. Michelson, who serves as Sunrise city attorney, told me that he did only minimal work and that it had nothing to do with his wife's vote in favor of the project in 2008.
And former Tamarac Mayor Joe Schreiber told me that Chait offered him $200,000 in cash if he would remove his wife, Mae, from the mayor's race in 2006. Schreiber didn't take the money.
It basically looks like Chait went totally rogue and was paying off everybody he could to get his project through the approval process. Although the Scott Rothstein saga hit Broward County hard on a number of levels, the Chait investigation will likely trump that in terms of local political fallout.
So who else did Chait throw money at? It's the central question of the corruption investigation and a source of great drama in the suddenly oh-so-exciting town of Tamarac.
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