The sheriff's candidate called "Shak" says he wants to bring everyone closer together in Broward County.
But so far, Shahruck Dhanji, the first Muslim to run for the office, hasn't even been able to keep together his own political machine, which recently broke down into a sea of allegations that has sparked an ongoing investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Two of his former top aides — onetime Pembroke Park Vice Mayor Norm Price and Democratic Executive Committee member Nadezda Martinez — have abandoned ship, aiming a salvo of allegations at Dhanji about financial improprieties. The two charge that the candidate, in violation of state law, paid them for their campaign work through a nonprofit organization and his own private business.
Price says also that he was ordered to give one of Dhanji's most influential supporters, Plantation Democratic Club President Bill Kling, a check for $500 that was never disclosed in campaign filings. The implication, of course, is that Dhanji was buying Kling's influence among voters.
The allegations, if true, not only shine a light on the seamy underside of local party politics but could also be counted as criminal campaign violations. And they have left the 41-year-old Dhanji fighting for his reputation, his political life, and his freedom.
Wearing a dark suit and a flag pin, Dhanji told me last week in his Pompano Beach office that he's done nothing wrong. He said he believes he's being ambushed by political rivals and feels that he is being "symbolically raped."
"I sit before you today telling you square in the eyes that I have crossed no lines...," he said. "This nonsense will stop as I ascend to the position that I seek."
Dhanji, though he has no law enforcement experience, isn't a lightweight. He's an entrepreneur who has handled millions of dollars in investments and run a number of companies that engage in a wide range of businesses, from property management to mortgages to restaurants.
He was born in India and grew up mostly in Broward County. A polished speaker and family man with two daughters, he has at times outshined his opponents at campaign events.
He said the "nonsense" is politically motivated and won't keep him from beating challengers Scott Israel, Richard Lemack, Wiley Thompson, and Bruce Udolf in the Democratic primary. The winner of the next month's primary will square off against current Sheriff Al Lamberti, the only Republican candidate, in November.
It's true that rival camps have been spreading word about Dhanji's alleged misdeeds. But it seems apparent that Dhanji has made some large missteps in his campaign — and the $500 payment made to Kling seems the most serious allegation.
That charge comes from Price, a campaign adviser until the two men parted ways in January. Price, a former police officer who recently retired from a management job at the office of the Supervisor of Elections, says Dhanji told him to make the payment to Kling on November 21 of last year at a Broward Democratic Party meeting at the Deicke Auditorium in Plantation.
"Shak said he didn't have any checks on him and asked me to write a check for $500 to him," he says. "I wrote the check and gave it to Kling and the next day was reimbursed the $500 by Shak."
When reached on his cell phone, Kling was defensive and evasive.
"I don't want to talk about any money, and I don't know about any money," he said before ending the call.
Price, however, says that he has the original check made out to Kling and that his bank records show he deposited $500 in his Florida Capital Bank account the next day.
Dhanji, for his part, says he has no memory of any of it.
"I don't recall that ever happening," Dhanji says of the payment. "Nothing got done with my authorization. I don't know about anything like that, but I certainly didn't do it, nor did I tell anybody to do it."
"He's lying," Price says. "Why in God's name would I give Bill Kling $500 unless Dhanji told me to do so? I have no reason to do that. If there is a trial, I won't mind taking the stand."
The dispute doesn't bode well for Dhanji, who had counted Price as one of his most trusted advisers. "I used my name to get a lot of people to support him — which I totally regret now," Price says.
The two men met late last summer at a political event. Price says he negotiated a $750-a-week salary from Dhanji to work on the campaign. His job: introduce the candidate to various political groups and at times speak on his behalf. But Price says that he was rarely paid and that when he was, it wasn't from a campaign fund but from a nonprofit organization called the Human Relations Council of Florida.
Dhanji founded the council in December 2006 as part of what he says is his mission to end prejudice and discrimination. The council has been give official status by the state's Commission on Human Rights, a board on which Dhanji sits after being appointed in 2005 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
The council seems to have done little more than bestow proclamations on Dhanji's political supporters.
Price says his position as executive director seemed little more than an excuse not to pay him from campaign funds — which weren't available until November and included more than $60,000 in personal loans from the candidate himself. "My time, sometimes 15 hours a day, was spent on the campaign, not the council," says Price, who is still listed as its executive director.
Dhanji says Price, who has suffered serious health problems of late, has it wrong. He says that Price was hired strictly for his work on the council and that all the work he did on the campaign was on a volunteer basis.
"Norm's a good man, but Norm is probably — how shall I say this? — having lapses of memory," Dhanji says.
The council, however, has been undeniably ineffective. One of its recent projects was a raffle meant to benefit children who can't afford school lunches. Cooper City Commissioner John Sims, a Dhanji supporter and the council's "Director of Governmental Affairs and Ethics," urged citizens to participate in the raffle during a City Commission meeting last September.
But Price says the raffle was a total bust. No money ever made it to the children, and the first-place prize — a flat-screen TV — was won by the daughter of Nadezda Martinez, the other disgruntled former campaign worker.
Martinez, a former executive director of the Broward Democratic Executive Committee, says her daughter won the raffle fair and square — but she says Dhanji wasn't fair with her. She says that paychecks he paid her bounced and that, though she told him she should be paid from campaign funds, he insisted on paying her through a private business account connected to one of Dhanji's private businesses, Antrim Mortgage Funding.
"I kept telling him, 'Shouldn't you be paying me out of the campaign?' and he would say, 'No,' " Martinez recalls.
Dhanji says that he hired Martinez to be a loan officer at Antrim and that any work she did for the campaign was, as with Price, on a volunteer basis.
"Neither one was working exclusively for the campaign...," he says. "They were working in two capacities. They were volunteering to help with the campaign, and volunteers by definition don't get paid."
Martinez says she worked some in the office but had no idea what she was doing. "Almost all my time was spent building a political database for him and finding political clubs for him to speak at," she says. "It just got ridiculous, though, because his checks would bounce. I would have to walk him to the bank to get paid."
Dhanji conceded that he's been hit hard by the economic downturn. He was recently evicted from his business office in Florida, forced to relocate to smaller, more drab digs in Pompano Beach.
A Tallahassee housing development managed by one of his businesses, Counterbalance Investments, is struggling, and two recent investors in one of his business ventures recently demanded their money back — more than $200,000 total.
Though he hasn't heard from the FDLE, Dhanji is acutely aware of the criminal investigation. He insists he'll ultimately be cleared of any wrongdoing and will also win the race for sheriff.
"I'm not going to keep rolling over," Dhanji says. "I'm going to fight."