Business on the Edge | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Business on the Edge

It wasn't so much the sight of the backhoe rolling down Broward Boulevard that raised the hackles of Lee Hillier, district manager for the Plantation Acres Improvement District (PAID), as much as the man riding shotgun on top of it.

"Shit, Davis is on that backhoe," he remembers thinking.

That would be Jim Davis, an elected supervisor at the taxpayer-financed PAID, which oversees water drainage on the edge of the Everglades. Hillier suspected that the backhoe was owned by the district. He knew it was going to be delivered to Davis' personal property, but he couldn't figure out why the supervisor would be riding the taxpayers' machine on the boulevard.

So he followed Davis and the backhoe north on 118th Avenue to the supervisor's expansive property, where he has a horse-boarding business. Then Hillier watched Davis and the unknown driver of the tractor spread a mound of dirt across a horse ring.

Hillier couldn't get PAID Chairman Nick Perris on the phone. He says he watched Davis operate the backhoe for an hour before Perris finally called and told him to find out what was going on.

Davis worked another 20 minutes before he got off the machine to greet Hillier. The official confirmed that the backhoe was district property, and he introduced the driver as Doug Holt, owner of the company that sold it to the public. Davis then told Hillier that he was simply "training" on the machine.

"It stank to high heaven," Hillier says now. "It was the district employees who needed the training, not Jim Davis. Davis had no business using it for personal reasons."

That incident, which occurred on December 27, 2004, marked the first major skirmish in the war between Hillier and the entrenched Good Ol' Boy network at PAID. Since that day, Hillier has uncovered rampant cronyism and apparent Sunshine Law violations by Davis and other supervisors. It all came to a head after Hurricane Wilma, when $125,000 in federal cleanup money fell into PAID's lap. Hillier claims that Davis and another supervisor, Ron Adams, tampered with the bidding process and pulled their public muscle for personal friends.

His muckraking has been impressive but also extremely hazardous to his career in public service. Davis and Adams, after all, are basically his bosses. On December 14, Hillier was suspended with no reason given. In a preemptive move, he went to the Plantation Police Department last week and accused Davis and Adams of criminal wrongdoing.

As wild as things have become, this kind of climax was easily predictable in the fall of 2004, when Hillier was hired for the $48,000-a-year job. This is the same man who, as a Plantation city councilman, proved a thorn in the side of former Mayor Frank Veltri and exposed the seedy side of the city's politics at every turn. In 2001, the established power elite went after Hillier with all cylinders. He was defeated at the polls.

At PAID, Hillier stumbled onto a political patronage system a bit less sophisticated than the one he found at City Hall. Like most of the 1,300 special taxing districts in the state, PAID, with a budget of about $1 million, has operated with little scrutiny from the public since it was founded in 1964.

Until now. Any façade of decency at PAID was blown down in the wake of Hurricane Wilma. The October 24 storm filled crucial drainage canals in Plantation Acres with tree branches and other debris. In the middle of November, the district accepted bids from three tree companies to clean them up, with the work subsidized by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Three companies put in bids. One, Phil's Expert Tree Service, had a track record at the district. The other two companies were out-of-town newcomers, Brooks Quality Tree Service, of Orlando, and a Gainesville concern called C&C Grind.

At a district meeting November 17, Supervisor Davis pushed hard for Brooks, explaining that the company had done work in his own yard. The company, however, had come in with the ridiculously low bid of $24,000 while the other two companies estimated about $125,000.

The supervisors voted to go forward with Brooks, despite the obvious price discrepancy. Then Supervisor Adams, a good friend of Davis', made a motion for the district to make C&C the backup company if Brooks fell through.

In fact, when Hillier explained the true scope of the work to owner Donald Brooks, he dropped out. Why? Because all he had known about the job before bidding on it had come from an informal conversation with Davis.

Davis acknowledged as much. "I said to Brooks, 'I sit on the Plantation Acres Improvement Board; would you like to bid on the canals?'" Davis explained. "I said, 'Walk up and down the canals.' I didn't even go with him when he did it. And then he put in a bid."

None of this sat well with Hillier. The bid itself specified that companies should direct all questions to the district manager, not to an elected supervisor with a tie to the business.

If Davis' rather intimate involvement with Brooks was bad, then Supervisor Adams' relationship with C&C Grind, which ultimately won the contract, was worse. C&C Grind was aligned with a tree removal subcontractor named Dennis Sacco, who happens to be a longtime family friend of Adams'. I asked Richard Cummings, Gainesville resident and owner of C&C, how he learned about the bid. "I just came into the area looking for work and showed up at a meeting [PAID] had," Cummings explained.

I asked Cummings if Sacco had told him about the bid. He denied it, though he said that Sacco had given him directions to the PAID building. I told him I found it hard to believe that he went to the PAID meeting on a whim.

"So what if Sacco did tell me about it?" Cummings said, becoming highly agitated with the line of questioning.

I asked Sacco about the bid.

"[Richard Cummings] called me and told me about it," Sacco said. "I didn't know anything about it."

As for Hillier's allegations, Sacco said Hillier was a "sick man" and swore vengeance against him, saying he is going to sue him. "I'm going to own his house, his business, and everything that he's accumulated over his life," Sacco said. "Nobody in Plantation Acres can stand the guy."

Adams himself acknowledged that it was he who told his buddy Sacco about the federal contract and that Sacco had then told Cummings.

The truth, or at least part of it, finally leaked out. I asked Adams if Sacco had ever done any work on his property. "I have never paid for Sacco to do any work on my property," he said.

"Have you ever not paid Sacco to do work on your property?" I asked.

"Well, he was at my house one day [after Hurricane Wilma] and tried to pull a stump out for me after the hurricane," he said.

So Sacco was doing Adams a favor at about the time Adams was hooking him up with the PAID contract. Perfect.

The insider dealing on the federal contract didn't end there. On December 2, Hillier was driving through the Acres and saw Sacco and his crew working on Davis' property, removing three large Norfolk Island pines.

It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon and Sacco was supposed to be working for the district, according to Hillier. Davis says he paid Sacco $900 in cash to remove the trees. I asked him if he thought about the fact that it would appear he was getting a favor from the PAID contractor.

"Absolutely no thought at all," he said.

At the time I spoke to Davis on the phone, he was with C&C Grind owner Cummings — trying to help him deposit a $62,500 district check from the USDA, he said. The other half of the money is expected to be paid this week, after Sacco and Cummings complete the job.

Hillier alleges that Davis was, in effect, stealing the taxpayers' money by taking up the contractor's time to work on his property. And he reported as much in internal documents.

As the tension built, PAID's chairman — who didn't return my phone calls — informed Hillier that he was being suspended until further notice. Hillier, who was still at the helm until the end of the workday, went to the small PAID building on the corner of Hiatus Road and Sunrise Boulevard to get his personal filing cabinet and records in order.

While he was sorting, Davis and Adams stormed into the building. Davis asked for the federal contract file. When Hillier retrieved it, Davis snatched it from his hand. Hillier, who is recovering from recent heart surgery, says that he tried to stop them from taking the file but that Adams got in his way.

"I couldn't get that document back without a physical altercation, and I wasn't going to do that in my state of health," Hillier says.

So he videotaped the two supervisors walking out of the building with the file. On the tape, Davis and Adams both speak on their cell phones while milling about in the sunny parking lot. Davis, holding the file under his arm, walks up to the camera.

"Mr. Hillier has been suspended until we have a board meeting on Friday night," he says. "By the way, Lee, we're having a board meeting at Friday night at 7 o'clock. Do you know that?"

"No, I don't," Hillier answers.

"Well, you do now."

Davis, who claims that everything he did was in the name of "security" and believed Hillier was going to destroy the file, had called the emergency meeting to terminate the manager. He said Chairman Perris had authorized him to take the file.

There's so much wrong with this scenario that's it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, Davis, Adams, and Perris all clearly violated state Sunshine Laws, which forbid elected officials from discussing public business outside of public view. If they wanted to oust Hillier, the issue should have been raised at a scheduled meeting.

The hooliganism by Davis and Adams at the district building also appears to be in clear violation of Sunshine Laws and the district's charter, which forbids anyone but the district attorney, engineer, and accountant from removing public records. The emergency meeting was ultimately canceled, though Davis says there will soon be a meeting to deal with Hillier.

Last Thursday, Hillier filed a formal police complaint. The next day, he had to go in for follow-up heart surgery. Without intervention by the state Attorney General's Office, expect Hillier to be hung out to dry while the little cabal at PAID will continue to flourish. It's called business as usual in Broward County.

In the meantime, nobody is in charge of keeping those canals flowing. And the district's work crew doesn't have the equipment to do it anyway — which brings us back to that backhoe.

The district paid $15,000 for the tractor last year at the urging of Supervisor Adams. Guess what? Adams admits he's a close friend of Doug Holt, the man who sold it to the district. Holt has done work on Adams' property, and the two men also attend the same church, First Baptist at Hillsboro, where they must teach a skewed view of the concept of Christian charity.

Holt's backhoe has been an utter disaster. Before the district even took possession of it, the transmission broke down, and taxpayers paid at least $1,500 to fix it.

I asked Adams if he arranged this sorry deal.

"That depends on what you mean by arranged," he said in Clintonian fashion.

Shortly after the district received the backhoe, it broke down again. Hillier says the official estimates for repairs are about $7,000.

"It's a lemon," Hillier says. "I've never seen a bigger piece of junk. It even had bald tires, and the battery didn't work." Almost as dysfunctional as the taxing district itself.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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