For Sale: Keys to the City | New Times Broward-Palm Beach


For Sale: Keys to the City

Something is rotten in Deerfield.

The City of Deerfield Beach is cracking open like a cantaloupe, one side led by Mayor Al Capellini and City Manager Larry Deetjen and the other by commissioners Steve Gonot and Martin Popelsky.

City Hall meetings are marked by shouting and chaos. Armed guards have been called in for protection. Forces led by the mayor and city manager are trying to recall newly elected Gonot on dubious allegations. And a political ally of the mayor, marina owner Todd Littlejohn, sued Popelsky just last week for defamation.

Why? Because Popelsky — who wants Capellini and Deetjen to resign so badly that he promises to follow suit if they do — reported to the Broward Sheriff's Office that he'd been told Littlejohn had made disparaging remarks about him involving threats of decapitation.

Then there have been the personal embarrassments. The 58-year-old divorced Capellini had a much-publicized imbroglio with a 36-year-old city lifeguard who claimed she was pressured by her supervisor to date the mayor. And most recently, there was Deetjen's blowup at the Palm Beach County Airport, during which he was accused by an airport parking employee of making racist remarks.

It's gone from the ridiculous to the absurd — and would almost be funny if the fiscal health and sanity of this heretofore rather quiet seaside town of 67,000 people weren't at stake.

Beneath the lawsuits and antics and vitriol, though, are serious allegations. There have been murmurings for years that Capellini, a brash New York-born civil engineer who has been Deerfield's mayor since 1993, has abused his public office for personal gain. It's been almost all talk, however, talk that has been promptly swallowed up in the babble that has consumed the city.

A New Times investigation set out to determine if there was any substance to those claims, with a focus on Capellini's private firm, Atlantis Environmental Engineering. City records, numerous interviews, and a review of several years' worth of commission meeting minutes reveal a mingling of the mayor's public duties and his private business deals. The investigation found insider city dealings involving the mayor's engineering clients as well as cronyism, some apparently at the expense of the city's residents.

The findings also show that the mayor has at times hidden his involvement with clients, often with peculiar commission-meeting maneuverings that include Capellini slipping off to the bathroom during votes that helped clients.

More important, they suggest that the mayor may have violated state ethics laws and broken Florida's criminal corruption laws that forbid public officials from profiting from their public duties.

Much of Capellini's questionable conduct revolves around Atlantis Environmental Engineering and his business partner, Bill Gallo, a Harvard-educated architect and certified pilot who routinely represents clients before the Deerfield Beach City Commission. The pair's business ties involve a string of city projects and private partnerships, including mysterious land investments in Central America.

To understand how the mayor's public duties and private business may have collided, a good place to start is Arbor Green in western Deerfield Beach. It's a bucolic tennis club and townhouse project in the suburbs. And it's a place where Capellini and Gallo forged their first known financial bond.

The late-night, three-alarm fire was only tennis pro Gary Kesl's first stroke of bad luck.

The 1998 fire destroyed Kesl's Deer Creek Golf and Tennis Club, which was worth more than $1 million. One of South Florida's most highly regarded tennis instructors — Kesl has trained five junior Wimbledon champions and several collegiate All-Americans — he tried to rebuild on the nearly six acres of prime suburban real estate.

But the City of Deerfield Beach — often in the persons of Larry Deetjen and Al Capellini — kept getting in his way.

After the fire, the city allowed him to keep a trailer on the property so he could continue doing business. Then he began working with a major development firm, Pulte Homes, to construct condos on his property.

He says Deetjen and Capellini, who both lived in the nearby Deer Creek neighborhood, initially showed interest in the project and would stop by to talk about it. But their interest soon turned into antagonism, city records show. The mayor was quoted in community newspapers as saying that, before Pulte Homes could be approved, the city needed to get as much as possible out of the project. Deetjen chimed in with the notion that Pulte should allow the city to run a tennis club on the property.

Ultimately, Kesl's negotiations with the city went cold. On October 5, 1999, an agenda item was put before the City Commission to force the tennis pro to remove the trailer. It would force Kesl out of business — and the city didn't even notify him of the meeting. He learned about it from a published report.