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Canada to the Rescue!

Whew, for a minute there I thought Diana Wasserman-Rubin was really in trouble.

But now former Southwest Ranches Town Manager John Canada is coming to her side and promises to testify on her behalf at her corruption trial.

What's next? Is Ponzi schemer Joel Steinger going to come to the defense of the embattled Stacy Ritter? Will Democratic cabal leader Mitch Ceasar step up for Patricia Atkins-Grad? Will developer Michael Wohl come to the aid of his former employee, Ilene Lieberman-Michelson?

It's great news since the good people of Southwest Ranches have wanted to see Canada on the stand for many years now.

But before we get too deep into the Canada thing, let's look at what Wasserman-Rubin herself said to the Sun-Sentinel: "Neither one expected anything like this to happen in our lifetime. We're hard-working people. We give to the community."

Diana, the reason you never expected anything like this to happen was because you were so deeply ensconced in Broward's culture of corruption. Why else would your husband have partnered up with a felon like Ira Cor? You didn't give -- you took. You and your husband pulled in more than a million bucks on the taxpayers' dime by gaming the system.

Now you want people to feel sorry for you? You bring up your Parkinson's for sympathy? Here's what you need to do: Get down on your knees, beg for forgiveness, and tell state prosecutors -- and the people of Broward County -- the whole truth. It'll cleanse your soul and maybe shear a couple of years off your sentence too.

As for Canada, consider that he was fired from his obscene job as the private manager of Southwest Ranches after an internal audit found that he owed the town $178,000 for taking money for unfilled positions. That sum actually seemed ridiculously low considering that John Canada and Assoc. ran the tiny town for a whopping $688,080 a year. 

While Canada, former finance director for Broward County, lorded over the town, he and Rubin and their ex-con buddy Cor fleeced Southwest Ranches out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and jimmied the county for millions in bond money. And Canada made sure there were no internal checks on his tricks. Serving as his finance director was his wife, and the town clerk was none other than his daughter. It was, in short, one of the most outrageous reigns in the history of this ethically bankrupt county.

It was determined that Canada had violated ethics laws with this arrangement, but no charges were filed because it was a private company (for those keeping score at home, Canada's ethics attorney was Ilene Lieberman's husband, Stuart Michelson). To read more about Wasserman-Rubin's character witness, look inside. 

The following is for post-graduate students of Broward corruption only. It comes from the Cash Cow investigation published in 2005. Featured in it are Alfred Fisikelli, Fred Cox, and Holly Hugdahl, three Southwest Ranchers who were instrumental in exposing Canada, Rubin, Cor, and the Poliakoffs. Enjoy:


[T]he town government has become little more than a shell game. And they want to bring something to their little western outpost that has been missing for way too long: a little law and order. Fisikelli and his comrades in arms have a grave mission, but that doesn't mean they lack a sense of humor. It's evident in the name they've given themselves: "Ranchers for Better Government... and World Peace." In addition to the former vice mayor, there are about a dozen other hard-core reformers, most notably Holly Hugdahl, a freelance government consultant who serves as the group's financial expert. There's also organizer Fred Cox, a former Federal Reserve Bank employee and avid equestrian who recently hurt his back when he was thrown from a horse. Serving as the group's unofficial historian is Marcia Larkin, who was an enthusiastic town booster before realizing the experiment was going terribly awry. In trademark tongue-in-cheek fashion, Cox states one of the group's basic gripes: "The Canadians have taken over the town."

He's not talking about invaders from the north. To understand what he means, you need only peruse a list of town employees. At the top is John Canada, the administrator. The clerk is one Shari Canada. And a Pat Canada serves as finance director.

Shari is Canada's daughter, and Pat is his wife. It's called nepotism, and it's against the law. Florida forbids public officials from employing a relative in "a position in the agency in which the official is serving or over which the official exercises jurisdiction or control."

John Canada, however, considers himself a private official, since the town contracts not with him but with the company he formed to run Southwest Ranches, John Canada & Associates. In effect, Canada's argument is that a private contractor hired to act in place of a governmental body is immune from the state's ethics laws.

It is a dangerous and apparently unprecedented notion. Bonnie Williams, long-time executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics, says she's never heard another municipality make a similar case. "Nothing is ever cut and dried, but it's reasonable that the town should abide by the conflict-of-interest laws and that the arguments the town may have against it are spurious," the ever-circumspect Williams said. "If someone filed a complaint in this case, it could be decided once and for all."

But Canada doesn't stop there. The Florida Constitution forbids anyone from holding two distinct offices within any municipality. Yet John Canada & Associates, a single entity, is serving as both town manager and town clerk, two distinct offices. In other words, Canada checks and balances Canada.

This apparent law-breaking, however, may seem like only a minor transgression compared to Canada's colossal compensation. When he retired as the $125,000 budget director of Broward County to become the town's first administrator in 2000, his inaugural contract paid about $350,000 a year. Canada was doing quite well considering the small size of the town and the fact that, other than a single clerk, he was the company's only employee. (He hired his wife and daughter and a few additional employees, sans benefits, in 2002). By contrast, the average town administrator in the United States makes about $92,000, according to the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). For a small town like Southwest Ranches, ICMA reports that the average pay is in the $60,000 range. Canada's windfall seems even more inflated when you consider that he was almost certainly making more than his former boss, Broward County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, who oversees a $2.5 billion budget and nearly 2 million residents. Desjarlais earns about $200,000 annually.

This year, the Southwest Ranches administrator's already rich plum got even sweeter. The council canceled the final year of his contract, which was supposed to pay $378,000, and replaced it with a four-year deal. In 2005, he'll receive $655,000, with healthy raises scheduled through 2008, when he's slated to bring in a whopping $759,000. For that giant pay increase, he agreed to hire a new assistant town administrator and two more employees. In other words, he has received nearly $280,000 in extra pay to hire three people (again without providing pension or benefits).

So how much is Canada really making? Well, he won't say -- and his secrecy is another clear violation of the laws of Florida, specifically the "Government-in-the-Sunshine" statutes. He won't even provide the information to the council. Last year, Town Councilman Don Maines, a guarded critic of the administration, asked the administrator to reveal his employees' salaries. "I said we should have the right to what he is paying out," Maines explains. "It would help to know what it really costs to run the town. But he basically told us that it's none of our business."

Canada, who has been publicly criticized in the past for failing to return phone calls, didn't respond to requests from New Times for interviews. But when questioned at a recent town hall meeting about his refusal to turn over the information on his employees, he said simply: "It's not public information because we're not a public corporation."

The Florida Supreme Court, however, has ruled otherwise. In an unrelated case, the court determined that any private company that "performs the public function in place of the public body" falls under the Sunshine statutes.

Pat Gleason, general counsel for the Florida attorney general, says it's clear that Canada is violating the law. "It's all public record," Gleason says. "If a private corporation is standing in the shoes of the government, then they must adhere to public records. It's unusual for that kind of situation to occur. Most of the time, the private entities are aware of their responsibilities under the law."

Canada also defended his nepotistic practices. "In traditional government, you can't [hire relatives]," he acknowledged. "But these are not traditional employees. We run our business just like any other business."

That, however, wasn't the original plan for Southwest Ranches. The town charter, which effectively stands as the supreme law for the town, has nothing in it about a company running the place. Rather, it states that an administrator should be hired not on a contractual basis but for an "indefinite" amount of time. In other words, Canada's own contract, which covers a specified number of years, violates town law. Charged with making sure the town follows the law is Gary Poliakoff, who is known not quite affectionately as "Big P" by the Ranchers for Better Government. "Little P" would be his son, Keith. Neither father nor son, however, works for the town. Their 120-member legal and lobbying firm, Becker & Poliakoff, actually holds the contract. Gary Poliakoff, who made his fortune representing neighborhood and condo associations, has been deeply involved in the town since well before its inception. As a leader of one of the most influential law firms in Florida, he was one of the few people in the Ranches who had any idea how to assemble a municipality. He wrote the charter, and his firm contributed to several council campaigns, most notably those of Fink, the town's first mayor, and Johnny Dollar, the first vice mayor, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2002. Fisikelli, the maverick ex-councilman, didn't receive any funds from Becker & Poliakoff and says he didn't want them.

"The town became a clique, and I was invited to join the clique," the former vice mayor says. "But I told them I wouldn't join. The whole scheme was based on the fact that there was a lot of money to be made on the town. Money changes people. It makes people lie, and I can't get behind that."

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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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