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Catering to Corruption

I've got ten unformed things I'm working on right now, so I thought I'd share with you some notes from the State Attorney's investigation that is threatening to turn the political world in Broward County upside down.

Let's start with "Nervous Nelly," AKA Patricia Atkins-Grad, the suspended Tamarac commissioner who has already been charged with bribery and unlawful compensation in the case involving dirty (and scot-free!) developers Bruce and Shawn Chait.

What's interesting about Atkins-Grad isn't so much that she became a member of the rude, snobbish, and entitled political royalty. That happens all the time with Broward elected officials (take Ken Keechl, for example). No, it's the speed at which she did it.  

This is a woman who allegedly arranged her first bribe within days of first being elected to office. And she it came in the form of a $4,374 election party paid in cash by the Chaits, who testified that even they thought the event was a little pricey. But hey, she voted for their controversial housing project nine days after being elected, so what's an extra grand or two?

When she got the go-ahead from the Chaits to throw the party, Atkins-Grad called Diamante's Banquet Center in Tamarac -- and promptly made like a big shot, letting them know that she was special.

"She kept asking for discounts and... she mentioned, you know, her title and all that, and she gave me an attitude," said former Diamante's catering sales manager Monica Avila in a sworn statement with prosecutors. "I didn't want to

deal with that."

"So she let you know she was a commissioner in Tamarac?" asked Assistant State Attorney Jeannette Camacho.

"All the time," answered Avila. "All the time."

Just to let you know, it's illegal for public officials to pressure anyone for a better deal based on their official title. Atkins-Grad isn't charged with that.

"What was her tone of voice in reference to getting discounts for her party?"

"Rude with attitude," answered Avila. "Like very demanding. Like you need to make sure you know who I am or who you're dealing with... Rude from the beginning. High maintenance. Like, I don't know how to say it in English, but those people who want to be like all that, you know?"

And what a nice party the rude, demanding, and high-maintenance Atkins-Grad got for 100 guests (though not that many showed up): a two-hour open bar with call-brand liquor and domestic beer and a menu of franken croutes, stuffed cabbage rolls, stuffed mushrooms, chicken sesame, mini-beef Wellington, swedish meatballs, assorted cold canapes, petite potato pancakes, and fried shrimp.

But that wasn't all for Atkins-Grad, a realtor whose husband works as a longtime property assessor at the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office. She decided she needed a $50,000 mystic-blue BMW 525 model but couldn't afford it. So, according to Shawn Chait, they arranged for him to pay the $2,300 cash down payment on the car.    

Boy, was she grateful. Bruce Chait testified that she stopped him on the way inside a commission meeting. "I had something on the agenda, and I was walking in, and she was walking in, and she grabbed me and took me outside and said, 'I just want to thank you for the car. If it wasn't for you, it wouldn't have been possible.' And I said, 'Hey, no problem.'"

Atkins-Grad put her specialized "PATTE 1" plate on the new car and got her papers -- one of which had written in big letters across the page "NOTHING OWED!" -- from the dealer.

Yep, she must have felt like a queen.

-- I'm a little late with this, but Gypsy con artist Gina Marks was sentenced yesterday to 18 months in prison for conning a lot of innocent people out of $500,000, which she is being forced to repay as restitution.

This one is close to me -- I started investigating Marks four years ago, and that helped to lead to this conviction. But the hero is private investigator Bob Nygaard, who was hired by the victims and put the case together. "You started the ball rolling with your articles about her over the past few years and I've done something about it, successfully investigating her criminal activity and getting her convicted now for a second time," Nygaard wrote me a couple of days ago. "This time she will be paying three victims back full restitution $503,670.92 AND she will be going to prison."

What keyed me onto Marks was that she wrote a book under the  name "Regina Milbourne" called Miami Psychic that was published by HarperCollins (specifically its ReganBooks division, run by the rather notorious Judith Regan). After a tip, I discovered Milbourne's true identity and found that she had been accused of con jobs in California and Fort Lauderdale. I had already investigated her father, John Uwanawich, so I knew that this was the real deal and that the publishing house had been conned like everyone else.

But the funny thing was that HarperCollins didn't pull the book off the shelves. It basically stuck its big New York head in the sand.

Then the victims started coming forward to me. Read here and here. This woman was cold-bloodedly ripping off folks who were already down on their luck and desperate (who else would entrust their life savings to a damned psychic?). People who had lost big money and felt embarrassed and devastated called me in tears. I referred them to authorities, and at times, I had detectives calling me and asking for advice. You have to understand -- most cops have no idea how to deal with Gypsy frauds despite the fact that they're especially prevalent in South Florida. For some reason, the State Attorney's Office didn't seem interested in the case either.

Some of the victims got restitution, but Marks kept slithering away from justice -- until Nygaard got on the case. BSO gave him good cooperation, but he had to shepherd both cases he worked through the process. It's good to finally see some real justice, but if I could see into the future, I'm pretty sure Marks will be out and doing the same thing as soon as she gets out 18 months from now.

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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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