State Prosecutors Look Into Commissioner Lieberman's Charity

So Tamarac political activist Patti Lynn was called in by the State Attorney's Office for an interview with prosecutors (not a grand jury, as I mistakenly reported a couple of weeks ago). She was summoned as part of the ongoing state attorney's investigation into the dirty developers Chait. The questions asked of her help confirm who exactly is under the microscope.

We know that Bruce and Shawn Chait, who owned developer Prestige Homes, allegedly paid off numerous public officials for their votes, including already convicted Joe Eggelletion and recently charged Tamarac Commissioner Patti Atkins-Grad. Lynn lost in her race against Atkins-Grad in 2006, which is one of the reasons she was called in for questioning.

Lynn told me she wasn't much help to the investigation because, even as she suspected foul Chaits and local public officials of foul play, she had no firsthand knowledge of it. She told me that Assistant State Attorney Jeannette Camacho asked her questions about the following current and former public officials: Stacy Ritter, Ilene Lieberman, Beth Talabisco, Marc Sultanof, and Diane Glasser. She said questions were also asked about shady Democratic operative Barry Harris.

You've read about all these players here (though for some reason, my writing on Sultanof's Honda and Talabisco's Mercedes were confined to a print column). The Sun-Sentinel did a weekend story on the Chaits that basically rehashed a lot of that reporting as if it were brand new, but it did have one bit of important new information: State prosecutors are reportedly investigating Commissioner Lieberman's involvement with her favorite cause, the Transplant Foundation in Miami.

Let's delve into this a bit, because it's not uncommon for local politicians to use the power of their office -- and the money of special interests -- to elevate themselves into becoming big-time philanthropists. And few public officials have gotten more mileage out of a charity with other people's money than Lieberman has with the Transplant Foundation.

Understand that there is no doubt that Lieberman has done good things with the charity and is passionate about her support of the foundation, which assists families through the transplant process. She knows what that experience is like -- her grown son from a previous marriage, Adam Lieberman, had a liver transplant in 1996, about the same time she won her commission seat. Adam survived, but her experience at his bedside at Jackson Memorial Hospital was less-than-ideal. She complained in articles of having to sleep on chairs, brush her teeth in the

"public bathroom," and live off cafeteria food. "I wouldn't wish any other family to go through what we did," Lieberman told the Miami Herald in 1998. "I saw things in the community that weren't right. We have to make it better for others."

One of Lieberman's more controversial ways to help the foundation was to raise huge amounts of money from the development, lobbying, and business crowd while running unopposed or without serious opposition and then donating hundreds of thousands of dollars of that money to the Transplant Foundation.

That may sound benevolent enough, but it's also a good way for a politician to use her position -- and money from special interests that want her vote -- to make her a big shot. Lieberman wasn't paid by the foundation, but she does have a golf tournament named after her because of it, the annual Ilene Lieberman's Broward/Palm Beach Golf Classic.

Held at her neighborhood Woodlands Country Club in Tamarac, Lieberman is queen of the tournament and hands out the trophies in a ceremony after it's over. The Transplant Foundation boasted recently that Lieberman's golf tournament has raised $260,000 over five years. Let's look at the sponsors who pay tribute to Lieberman with sizable contributions at tournament time:

Ruden McClosky; Florida Panthers Foundation; Republic Services; Bergeron Properties, Stiles Corp., Wheelabrator Technologies, Dewar's 12, Wackenhut Corp., United Real Estate Services Inc., City of Tamarac, CDS International Holdings Inc., the McDonald Family Foundation Inc.; Leiby Stearns and Roberts, PA; Larry and Cheryll Leiby; MWH; James A. Cummings General Contractors; City Furniture; United Homes; Jack & Beth Talabisco; Malcom Pirnie Inc.; Moskowitz, Mandell, Salin and Simowitz, PA; the Corradino Group; the Ferguson Group LLC; Lawrence Smith, PA; DMJM Harris Inc.; Goren, Cherof, Doody, Ezrol, PA; Alternative Home Health; Dipompeo Construction; Miller Legg; ACAI Associates Inc; IDI; ArgenVine Wines, Builders Notice Corp.; Craven Thompson and Associates; Sunshine Gasoline Distributors; Complete Building Maintenance; Dewhurst Associates; Hoffman Billskoog Construction; Horton, Harley and Carter; Itsaca Construction Associates Inc; GFC Crane Distributors; GL Homes; Roof Solutions; Vista BMW.

That's a hell of a list, folks, full of firms and companies that do business with the county, literally representing hundreds of millions of dollars in public business. (A side note: Jack Talabisco, the husband of the Tamarac mayor, underwent a heart transplant in 2006 and worked side-by-side with Lieberman, a neighbor and onetime political ally, on the cause.)

Now what Lieberman's work with the foundation has to do with the corruption investigation involving the Chaits isn't known. Did she trade her vote in favor of the Chaits' controversial housing development on two Tamarac golf courses in exchange for contributions to the foundation? We don't know. But there is no doubt that her raising of money from so many companies that she votes on opens up the opportunity for favoritism for those companies.

For instance, one of the companies on the list, Wheelabrator, is a subsidiary of Waste Management -- a firm that Lieberman, as the powerful chairwoman of the Resource Recovery Board, backs for a $1.5 billion trash "monopoly" that is causing great controversy in some Broward cities. 

This isn't new. The annual Mayor's Gala, which benefits charities, has been controversial for years (remember that last year's event at the Hard Rock, honoring Stacy Ritter, was funded in large part with a $50,000 check from Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein). All the lobbyists and other government leeches get to pay for the mayor's party, making him or her feel like royalty for a night.

Should we be concerned that the firm -- and all the businesses seeking public money listed above -- are helping to prop up Lieberman's burgeoning career as a philanthropist? We'll see what the investigation brings.