Wait, Let Me Change Hats
When the City of Hallandale Beach bailed out a developer by wasting millions on a bad land deal, state Senator Steve Geller was there.
Geller, the Senate minority leader who represents Hallandale and Hollywood in Tallahassee, wasn't there to fight for taxpayers. He was trying to pry more of their money from the city for the developer for whom he was working in his private business as a lawyer.
Geller phoned Hallandale City Manager Mike Good last fall to try to convince him to give Geller's client, Coral Gables-based Cornerstone Group, a better price for a triangular 2.9-acre parcel next door to Hallandale's city hall and across the street from Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino.
The city should have been holding all the cards in this deal. Cornerstone had paid $6.6 million for the land in 2005, near the top of the real estate boom. It had planned to build a 13-story condo building called Park Vue, but the project collapsed, leaving the company to make payments on a piece of land that was losing value by the day.
Enter the city. Good came up with a plan in 2007 to buy Cornerstone's land and other nearby parcels for the sake of "open space." It was an ill-conceived idea from the start. The real estate bubble had already popped; land prices were beginning their plunge.
But Good plowed forward, and the city's elected officials followed him into what may turn out to be a financial abyss. The city, based on dubious appraisals, agreed to pay the developer $7.4 million for the land in September of last year, $800,000 more than Cornerstone had paid in the first place.
Geller, who has a legislative office in Hallandale's city hall, helped shepherd the deal through for his client.
"I think I had a discussion on price with the city manager where they said they were going to offer a certain price and then they offered a lower price," Geller told me. "My client wound up taking the lower price."
Perhaps that's true, but Geller also claimed that Cornerstone sold the land for less than it paid for it, an assertion easily contradicted by Broward County land records.
The city, meanwhile, is left sitting on a vacant piece of land in the middle of a land bust. Good closed on the land the same day the city bought the Tower Mobile Home and RV Park across the street for $10.4 million and another lot for $670,000. The city is now embroiled in a lawsuit with Tower tenants they are evicting, many of whom are poor and disabled (see "Trailer Trashed," March 27).
In all, the city has spent a total of about $20 million purchasing the land around city hall. As real estate values crash, Hallandale may be lucky next year if the land is worth half the inflated price it paid.
The purchase might be tolerable if the city had a more compelling reason to buy the land other than "open space" (it intends to expand a nearby park). But as it stands, the deal reeks of fiscal irresponsibility. It was financed with a $25 million bond for which taxpayers will be paying a total of about $40 million, including interest, through the year 2027.
Geller, who won't say how much he was paid for his work for Cornerstone, doesn't seem too worried about that. "I've represented Cornerstone for years on different matters," he said. "I would have liked to have gotten Cornerstone a better price."
Geller represents numerous developers, but don't call him a lobbyist.
"I am not a lobbyist," says the politician. "I'm a lawyer who specializes in zoning and land use."
To prove his claim, Geller points out that when he signs lobbyist registration forms for his work on behalf of developers, he crosses out the offending "L" word and replaces it with "attorney."
Yet over the years, he has touted projects he's represented in the press, arranged meetings between his clients and public officials, stumped for developers at public meetings, and made phone calls like the one he made to Good on the Cornerstone deal.
The law appears to be on the attorney's side. It's not illegal for a legislator to lobby cities that he represents as long as he doesn't strike corrupt deals involving his public office.
But that doesn't keep it from being sleazy. Geller's powerful position in Tallahassee certainly gives him an edge over other, um, lawyers who represent developers in Hallandale and Hollywood. He votes on budgets, property tax proposals, and other issues that deeply affect the city — and every politician and public official he's lobbied knows it.
For instance, Geller is an unrepentant champion of the gambling industry in Tallahassee, where he regularly sponsors bills to expand gaming's reach in South Florida. The city of Hallandale, of course, relies heavily on Gulfstream Park for tax revenues and growth.
It all conspires to give Geller great influence in the city, whether he crosses out the offending "L" word or not. But don't expect him to admit it. After we talked on the phone, Geller sent me an e-mail worthy of deconstruction.
"I think we're talking about 2 different pieces of property," he wrote. "I believe that you said that you were writing about the trailer park. I didn't have any client or make any fee on the trailer park property. I was talking about a different piece of property."
Of course, it had been clear what property we were talking about. Chalk that up to a feeble attempt to muddy the waters.
"On the other piece of property, any discussions that I had with my client, including fees, are attorney client privileged," he continued.
Invoking secrecy in a public land deal? Classy, Steve.
"We have some very different views here," Geller wrote. "...I have the highest ethics, and not only don't cross the line, I don't come near it. I practice in the area of zoning and land use. You could argue that any legislator that appears in front of a judge has an unfair advantage, since we set their salary and judicial budgets."
But this isn't about something that happened in a courtroom — it's about Geller helping set up a sweetheart deal for a developer.
"You believe that I have some sort of unfair advantage," he concluded. "I disagree. I refuse to help you paint me in an unfair light."
Fine, Steve. We'll let the facts speak for themselves.
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