The Mayor's Trial
In the court of public opinion, Parkland Mayor Bob Marks is charged with violating the people's trust. He stands accused of accepting financial favor from the biggest developer in his town, WCI Communities, and then voting on dozens of issues that benefited the company.
In effect, it is being alleged here today that the mayor struck a corrupt deal that fattened his very private wallet.
Mayor, your opening statement, please.
"I agree that a case can be made against me. But the problem is that when you're innocent, people are still going to think what they think may be bad. I can only tell you the truth, and it's going to be up to everybody else to believe me or not."
Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Now it's time for the prosecution's opening remarks, which will be presented by nouveau-activist Michael Hollander, a successful restaurateur and Parkland resident whose outrage has driven him to lead the charge against Marks. "The fucking guy is a crook. WCI wanted to pay off people like the mayor, and that's what they did. And if you let one guy fuck you, there's going to be more. You know how a whore is -- they'll fuck anybody."
With that bit of hardened human logic, our little trial begins. It's not set in some banal courtroom but right on the edge of the Everglades, in one of the few remaining open spaces left in northwest Broward County. The place is Heron Bay, a community with a PGA-caliber golf course and homes that go for $400,000 to $4 million. About 2,300 houses are there today; when the bulldozers and construction crews leave, there are expected to be some 3,700 dwellings with more than 10,000 people living in them.
Back in 1999, WCI decided that all those people needed a place to play, so the firm had a clubhouse, Heron Bay Commons, built. That's when the mayor got a piece of the action. His Pompano Beach-based company, ACT Janitorial Services, won the contract to clean the clubhouse in October of that year. Marks' firm answered to WCI, which managed the facility.
Here's the rub: WCI came before the mayor and the rest of the Parkland commission often for project approvals and fee waivers while Marks was on the Commons payroll. And Marks cast votes for WCI every time -- several of them in favor of the expansion of Heron Bay.
This past November, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, acting on an anonymous tip, began investigating the mayor's work at Heron Bay. After FDLE questioned Marks, the mayor promptly ended his contract with the development. But he claimed in subsequent articles in the Sun-Sentinel that he didn't do anything wrong. The crux of his defense has been that even though WCI ran the clubhouse and he billed the company for his services, Heron Bay Commons was owned by another entity that actually paid him.
It will be up to you, dear jurors, to decide if that defense drains your doubt. But before you do, it's incumbent upon this court to allow into evidence a fact that has yet to be publicly revealed: Official records show that a WCI executive played the lead role in hiring the mayor's company at Heron Bay. That would appear to be a financial favor, and for Marks, that could be a serious problem, since profiting from your public position is a felony in Florida.
But the mayor's former gig is just one example of the controversy surrounding Heron Bay Commons, an $8 million, two-story building with a heated swimming pool. It also has a small gym, tennis courts, and, as its coup de grâce, a second-floor conference room that has a veranda overlooking the pool and the Everglades in the distance.
Funny thing, though, WCI didn't pay for the clubhouse. Instead, the suckers -- er, I mean, citizens -- did. It was financed by something called the North Springs Improvement District (NSID). NSID was never meant to build private palaces; it's a special water and drainage district that has taxing authority. Its three-member board of supervisors is elected by landowners but receives little public scrutiny.
"WCI, which owned almost all the land in Parkland, got to build what it wanted, and the public pays the bills," says Parkland Commissioner Michael Udine, who was elected to office last year and lives in Heron Bay. "It's a neat little trick if you can pull it off. Why did a water and drainage district finance a private development?"
Good question. The only hint in public records comes from a November 2, 2000, board meeting. According to the minutes, which can be gleaned from NSID's website, former NSID Commissioner William Bell recalled during the meeting that financing the clubhouse was a "feel-good thing."
And, darn it, the clubhouse -- which provided an excellent showpiece to lure prospective homebuyers -- did make WCI feel good. NSID allowed WCI to manage the place, and company executives quickly turned the Commons into their own little playroom. They regularly enjoyed the conference room and the veranda free of charge. None of it was free for the residents, however. NSID assessed each home about $720 a year to pay for the clubhouse. In all, homeowners will pay $20 million over 20 years to pay off the $8 million bond used to finance the Commons.
There were two sets of rules at Heron Bay, one for the corporate corps and another for the citizenry. Residents didn't have the luxury of using the clubhouse for free. If they wanted to use the Commons for a party or function, they had to pay $50 an hour. And the poor peons were forbidden from renting it for business.
Every time WCI used the Commons, the mayor's company cashed a paycheck. ACT Janitorial was paid for setting up meetings and cleaning up after them. His fee varied from $37 to more than $75 per meeting. And that was in addition to his company's $1,600 a month in base pay. There was more: ACT also charged the clubhouse thousands of dollars for supplies ranging from toilet paper to trash can liners to towels. On the invoices the mayor's company sent to WCI, there were often extra costs tacked on without explanation, which over the years amounted to thousands of dollars. The mysterious charges were paid without question.
A neat little trick if you can pull it off. And another rabbit came out of the hat when Marks, who was first elected to the Parkland commission in 1988, rose to mayor in March 2003. That very month, NSID gave ACT a raise in its base pay, to $2,081 a month. Suspicious timing? You decide.
In all, the mayor's company did several hundred thousand dollars of business at Heron Bay. He submitted all his bills to Valerie Verger, the WCI employee who managed the clubhouse. Verger apparently made the identity of her employer no secret (WCI was listed on her business card), but the mayor claims he didn't know that the developer ran the Commons. "I thought she worked for NSID," he says. "Every time I talked with Valerie, we never discussed WCI."
But Verger -- who refused to comment on the matter -- definitely knew who Marks was. She contributed $25 to his successful mayoral campaign in 2003.
The mayor also claims WCI wasn't involved in his hiring. He says a Boca Raton-based company called Lang Management, which apparently managed the Commons for a short time in late 1999, gave him the job. Official NSID records, however, directly contradict Marks.
According to minutes from the NSID monthly meeting in October 1999, WCI executive Scott Davidson decided to hire ACT. Davidson -- who has appeared before Mayor Marks numerous times at Parkland City Hall to plead for favors and approvals -- told the three-member district board that WCI had gathered three bids and that ACT came in with the lowest offer. Davidson then recommended that the board vote to hire ACT, which it promptly did. When told that Davidson backed his company, Marks claimed more ignorance. "I didn't know that," he said.
The mayor says he knew at least one thing, though: NSID wrote the checks to his company. And he says he had no conflict of interest with the water and drainage district. "I don't know that I voted on any issue relating to NSID," he relates. "If there were any votes, I think I would have abstained."
It must be noted to the good people who will ultimately judge this case that his assumption of abstention was aberrant. In 2001, Marks did in fact abstain from a vote regarding NSID but never filed the required form explaining the conflict. This constitutes an apparent violation of ethics laws. Then in 2002, he voted to approve a maintenance agreement between the city and NSID. Marks said he didn't recollect that vote.
Such memory lapses by the mayor, who is widely regarded as an exceptionally smart and knowledgeable fellow, seriously irk Hollander. He argues that the Commons has all along been a scam for WCI and its cronies. "I'm from New York, so if you're going to steal and I'm going to be aware of it, then I want in on the action," he said as he drove around Heron Bay in his BMW last week. "Why do I get fucked?"
He pulled into Heron Bay Commons, strolled around the pool, and walked up to the pride and joy of the place, the conference room. With polished hardwood floors, a wet bar, and an expensive projection system, it's undeniably a comfortable place for a meeting. To the side were a few conference tables and chairs that the mayor's company used to set up for a fee. From the veranda, Hollander looked out on the Glades. "This is why I came here, and I want it back," he said, his arms outstretched as if to express the enormity of it all. "The mayor had an illegal contract. I want all that money back that was paid to him."
And he wants more than that. He wants the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is continuing its investigation, to charge the mayor with receiving unlawful compensation. But Hollander shouldn't count on that last part. Broward State Attorney Michael Satz's office is overseeing the probe, and Satz is infamous for going easy on public corruption.
Hollander and Commissioner Udine are making some headway nonetheless. After much prodding, WCI has agreed to repay at least $40,000 for dozens of free meetings over the years. Both men, however, say the company owes much more than that. NSID is supposedly looking into the matter, and negotiations are continuing. During its monthly meeting last week, NSID supervisors said they planned to end its contract with WCI and let another company run the clubhouse.
Marks, for his part, doesn't seem too concerned about any of it. He says he trusts that the people will see he's being unjustly accused. And judging from one recent night out for the mayor, he's not too concerned about appearances either.
On November 29, 2004, after FDLE had already questioned him, he attended an Elton John concert at Office Depot Center. There, he ate, drank, and socialized in WCI's private club in the arena, chumming it up with corporate executives whom he had claimed, just weeks before, that he had no idea were his bosses at Heron Bay.
Jurors, have you reached a verdict?
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