Sunrise Attorney Has Twisted Role in Everglades Battle | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Sunrise Attorney Has Twisted Role in Everglades Battle

When you watch the BP oil lap up onto shore and decimate fragile ecosystems, don't ever forget why that oil rig was ever allowed to be built: cold cash. 

BP and other oil companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars greasing the political wheels with campaign contributions and have paid phony "consultants" (Hank Fishkind, anyone?) to spout nonsense about how safe it is.

Same goes for the Everglades Corporate Park planned in Sunrise west of the Sawgrass Expressway. The developer's lobbyist, Ruden McClosky's Dennis Mele, raised more than $15,000 for Mayor Roger Wishner's 2008 campaign and thousands more for Commissioner Don Rosen.

After taking the cash, the commission voted last year to create a new zoning status, known as B-7, designed to give Everglades Corporate the ability to ignore the city's development rules and build a bigger hotel and office park on the land that was originally meant to be a public park on the River of Grass.

The commission is set to vote Tuesday night on whether to grant the developer, Sawgrass Investors, the new zoning distinction. Those who oppose development on the Everglades will likely pack City Hall, but the truth may be that the developer won the battle with that B-7 vote last year. 

And that vote came with the help from a city official who has no known financial tie to the developer: City Attorney Stuart Michelson, husband of

Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman. 

At the April 28, 2009, meeting, Michelson pooh-poohed the notion that voting to create the B-7 zoning would lock the commission into actually granting it to the Everglades Corporate development. 

"That's a legislative decision that this board would make," said Michelson during the meeting. "They [the developers] have no right to it."

Michelson was just flat wrong -- and he has contradicted himself about it since.

After the commission created the B-7 zoning, it is in a position that it must present a "competent and substantial" legal argument to deny the developers. It's not a "legislative" decision anymore; it's a legal decision to be made in what is called a "quasijudicial" hearing -- and the developer holds the cards. 

What is Michelson saying now? Sheila Alu, the only commissioner to vote against creating the B-7 zoning, says he completely changed his tune. She says that both Michelson and another lawyer he hired on the issue, Tallahassee lawyer/lobbyist Bob Nabors, have both told her that either she vote to give the Everglades Corporate Park the new zoning status or face a lawsuit. Alu said that Michelson was so fervent about it in phone calls that he warned that she could be sued personally if she didn't vote with the developer.  

When I asked Michelson, who communicated with me in emails, why he would do an about-face on such an important development, he initially said I had been "misinformed" before writing: "It is a quasi judicial hearing. If only he'd said that during last year's meeting instead of misrepresenting the issue. Michelson, for whatever reason, was either flat-out lying or was just dead wrong about what he told the commission in April 2009. 

And Michelson's charge, Nabors, is singing the same tune. He confirmed to me that his position is that the Everglades Corporate developers have right to the zoning and that there is no "competent and substantial" evidence to prove otherwise.

Michelson seems happy to have Nabors backing him up. In one email to Alu, Michelson wrote that Nabors "is widely regarded in the profession as the dean of land use."

Sorry, Stuart, wrong again. Nabors, a former county and school board attorney himself, is widely regarded as a lobbyist and hired-gun government lawyer. The first mention I could find of Nabors in the media came in a 1985 Miami Herald article headlined "Connections Pay Off for State Bond Lawyers." The article mentions that Nabors was given state bond work shortly after he left the employ of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham. When Nabors, who strictly does work for governments, ran for state office in Brevard County in 1992, he was crushed at the polls, perhaps because of his involvement in a highly controversial land lease deal to build a government center there. "Was [Nabors] seen by voters as a major player in the quietly executed deal that culminated in the government complex?" asked the Orlando Sentinel after the rout.

In 2002, the same newspaper questioned Nabors' involvement in another controversial deal to use taxpayers' dollars to buy a private water utility. Nabors led the negotiations on behalf of taxpayers. "The deal that emerged from those talks, however, is riddled with too many unanswered questions, too many potential conflicts of interest and too little oversight by accountable public officials," wrote the Sentinel in an editorial.

Then the newspaper aims squarely at Nabors: "Attorney Bob Nabors is the authority's point man on the Florida Water Services deal. Mr. Nabors also holds a financial interest in the company that is paid to staff the authority. In addition, his firm serves as utility counsel to the authority and as bond counsel. As such, Mr. Nabors and his firm stand to make millions in fees -- but only if the deal goes through."

I asked Nabors -- who is flying down from Tallahassee to South Florida for Tuesday's commission meeting on the taxpayers' dime -- about these matters, and he said he didn't want to discuss them. 

This is the guy Michelson chose to represent taxpayers' in the Everglades Corporate Park fiasco. Between Nabors' controversial history and Michelson's contradictions, perhaps the commission should demand a third opinion before voting on anything.