A Secretive Slush Fund Has Big Plans in Sunrise

I have seen the future of the swampy western edge of Broward County.

And if my vision is correct, the future holds a new "city" called Oz in the BankAtlantic Center's parking lot. The terrible office and hotel development will creep into the Everglades and give Sunrise the distinction of Garbage Capital of South Florida.

No crystal ball or tarot cards were necessary to see these things. And all I had to do was look at the dollar bills that flowed into a mysterious "electioneering communications organization," or ECO, which is really just a legalized political slush fund.

ECOs have no contribution limits, and the people behind them are often shielded behind figureheads or straw men. Most ECOs have perversely patriotic and wholesome-sounding names, and this one is no different. It's called "Liberty and Justice for All," and it was formed last year by prominent Tallahassee lawyer/lobbyist Mark Herron, who is best-known for representing public officials accused of ethical violations.

I asked him about the organization's birth.

"I just had an idea about the name and decided to start it," he told me.

"What, you heard the Pledge of Allegiance?" I asked him.

"No, I was reading the Constitution, OK?" he said, laughing. "I just thought it was a good name for an ECO that would be involved in judicial races."

Early on, money donated to the ECO was indeed used in a Hillsborough County court race, thanks primarily to a $15,000 contribution made by big Democratic donor Charles Brink of Tampa. I asked Herron about Brink.

"I don't know who he is, to tell you the truth," Herron said. "I just got the check and put it in the bank."

Welcome to the world of ECOs – it has all the secrecy of Mafia dealings, complete with bag men. During my interview with Herron, he seemed to have sworn his oath to omerta.

He wouldn't, for instance, say why Liberty and Justice for All changed its focus from judicial races to a seemingly two-bit commission contest in Sunrise between incumbent Don Rosen and challenger James DePelisi. Specifically, the ECO raised money from developers and lobbyists to fund attack ads aimed at DePelisi.

All indications are that Sunrise Mayor Roger Wishner, a big Rosen ally, was involved in ginning up the cash. It makes sense. Wishner, after all, knows Herron from his days in the state Legislature and was deeply involved in Rosen's campaign.

I asked Herron if Wishner was involved.

"I do not believe that is accurate," he said. "I have not spoken to Roger Wishner about it."

What about Rosen?

"I don't know who Don Rosen is, other than he's a candidate in Sunrise," Herron told me.

You get the picture. It's like talking to Vinnie the Fish.

Wishner was worse than Herron. When I asked the mayor about the ECO, he paused on the phone for a few seconds before saying, "No comment." Not long after that, he hung up on me.

Rosen was worse than Wishner. He hung up the phone before I even got to the question.

Yeah, we got a real upstanding group of public servants in Sunrise.

But they don't need to blab, because in Sunrise, it's the money that talks. Campaign cash buys votes, plain and simple. Look at the controversial Everglades Corporate Park project. It's an unneeded and unwanted office and hotel development planned to be built on the edge of the Everglades west of the Sawgrass Expressway.

Yeah, that's right there in the River of Grass, for which we're currently spending billions in an attempt to clean up and preserve its natural beauty.

Wishner and Rosen, who have touted themselves as populist candidates, had no business voting for this monstrosity. But both men received thousands in campaign contributions linked to the development and its lobbyist, Dennis Mele of Ruden McClosky. Based on that cash, I predicted they would both support the project on my blog, the Daily Pulp.

When a controversial zoning measure for the project came before the Sunrise Commission last week, Wishner and Rosen both voted for it. Of the five commissioners, only Sheila Alu had the decency to oppose it, saying it was an ill-advised project that could harm the Everglades.

Lesson learned. Follow the money in Sunrise and you can see the future. And more and more of it was flowing into that city's politics.

Beginning in late February, as the March election came near, the Sunrise money started pouring into Liberty and Justice for All. Wishner, or whoever was behind the ECO, raised about $40,000 that was put into direct mailings and a television ad targeting DePelisi. Rosen narrowly won the race by a 5 percent margin.

Now let's break down that money. A cool $5,000 came from the Florida Panthers Hockey Club, which is owned by generic-drug impresario Alan Cohen. Cohen also has a controlling interest in the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, where the Panthers play. And right now, he's pushing a grand plan to turn the arena's 139-acre parking lot into a huge hotel, office, residential, and retail development based around the arena, nearby Sawgrass Mills, and a planned new theater district.

He calls it the "City of Oz," and it's so large that Cohen is promising the development will create 13,478 new jobs. Here's the way he promotes the development on the Oz website:

"It's sunrise, and a fresh-baked scone beckons at the French bakery right outside your door. Your coffee is perfect because it is prepared by a local who knows you by name. Just a few feet from your residence is your office, and your commute is a stroll, no bus, no car, no taxi, no train. You will pass friends along the way. They will smile, wave and say hello... Tonight you might take in a Broadway show, or a professional hockey game or concert at the arena just around the corner. Your seats will be just where you like them, thanks to your resident concierge. Late night is every night in Oz, with sidewalk cafes, clubs, restaurants, bistros and even fitness clubs operating on your schedule. In Oz, the shopping is right at your doorstep."

Cohen has a vision, see?

And the money Cohen — who has recently been wining and dining county commissioners to push the project — has thrown into the political process virtually assures that it will be passed in Sunrise with the help of Wishner and Rosen. The cash says so.

What will be interesting will be to see how many breaks the commission gives Cohen if the project goes forward. This giant development will stretch the Sunrise infrastructure and will carry a lot of business risk. How much of that will taxpayers subsidize? That's an answer we don't have yet, but the campaign money provides a rather daunting clue.

Also on Liberty and Justice for All's contribution list is $5,000 from a much less glamorous source — an upstart garbage company called Ace Waste Resources. The owner of that firm is Jim Feeley, a longtime friend of Mayor Wishner's.

Feeley has a plan to build a garbage transfer station where trucks from all over South Florida will bring tons of garbage. The problem is that a garbage transfer station will do nothing for the citizens of Sunrise because the company that has the garbage contract with the city, Republic Industries, takes the refuse to a county incinerator.

Also, the current Republic contract forbids such a deal from taking place. I asked Republic Industries area president Bob Hely about the plan.

"I know [Feeley] has something in the works, but it's abstract right now," he said. "I don't have the details."

You can bet, though, that Wishner and Rosen are going to be following Feeley's lead, even if it means a lot of out-of-town garbage being hauled into Sunrise.

Another $5,000 came from companies controlled by developer Terry Stiles. What's interesting about these contributions is that they came a month after Wishner and Rosen voted to give Stiles Corp. the job to build the city's new $30 million public safety complex.

See how creative these guys can get? Most of the time, the contribution comes before the politicians provide the vote. Well, actually the builder contributed to the individual campaign war chests of Wishner and Rosen before the vote, so it was sort of a Stiles money sandwich. And it must have been delicious.

Others gave money to Liberty and Justice for All. Usual suspect Austin Forman chipped in $2,000. Lobbyist Neil Sterling threw in $500. Lobbyist Bill Laystrom and his law firm, Doumar Allsworth, chipped in $4,000.

And another ECO called the Common Sense Coalition gave Liberty and Justice for All nearly $15,000. That's right, one shady slush fund got a lift from another. The Common Sense Coalition was an ECO financed largely by members of the Fort Lauderdale law firm of Rothstein Rosenfeldt and Adler to produce attack ads against Sheriff Al Lamberti during his recent election.

Interestingly, folks connected to the same law firm — run by everywhere-man Scott Rothstein — were behind another ECO formed to attack Lamberti's opponents. Rothstein, a Republican, officially supported Lamberti.

Which brings us to another prediction for the future: There will be plenty more sleazy ECOs operating in Broward County, and each will have a story to tell.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman