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Crist's "Culture of Corruption" is an Old Story

With Broward politicians and contractors in hot water over bribery allegations today, it's not surprising that Governor Crist has called for a statewide corruption Grand Jury. According to the Sun-Sentinel:

Citing an apparent "culture of corruption" taking root in South Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday called for a statewide grand jury to take a sweeping look at honesty-in-government in Florida.

The panel will have the authority to indict public officials and make recommendations for changes in state law, the governor said.

"Today we take a stand to root out public corruption," Crist said, adding his action sprang from "an unsettling string of crime, unconscionable violations of the public trust by public officials, predominantly in South Florida."

The culture of corruption is nothing new. This week's New Times feature story details what happened when one West Palm Beach nonprofit developer was solicited for campaign contributions to grease the wheels for planned affordable housing project. The end result? A grand jury convened in 2006 on the question of whether West Palm Beach was a "pay to play" city. Snippets from the Grand Jury report after the jump.

Snippets from the "Pay to Play" Grand Jury Report, West Palm Beach, 2006

Pay to play

One of the questions addressed by this Grand Jury is: Is the City of West Palm Beach a "pay to play" city?

The question posed in another way: Is it the understanding among developers and businesses that in order to successfully conduct business with the City of West Palm Beach, the developers and businesses must make large financial contributions or other considerations?

The evidence is as follows:

Campaign contributions
Developers and businesses perceive that the City of West Palm Beach is in fact a "pay to play" city. Developers take actions consistent with this conclusion, including the contribution of substantial sums of money to the campaign account of Mayor Lois Frankel. Contributions are made at times significant to approval of or consideration of projects or matters before various boards and the City Commission in West Palm Beach.

Campaign contributions in increments of $500.00 were made by wealthy large- scale developers to the political campaign account of Mayor Lois Frankel. These contributions came from individuals, companies, and legal entities which were found to be connected to the developers. The total campaign contributions connected to a given developer varied from $5,000 to $21,000. Here are some examples:

Rendina: On June 14, 2005 28 checks attributed to developer Bruce Rendina totaled $14,000.00; On June 15, 2005 an additional 12 checks totaling $6,000.00 were connected to Bruce Rendina. Checks on various other dates brought the total to more than $21,000.00.
Huizenga: On June 21, 2005, the West Palm Beach City Commission voted and approved future land use amendments and rezoning which increased allowed density and height (in planning board case number 1445 and 1445A). This action largely increased the value of certain property owned by developer Huizenga; On June 25, 2005, twenty $500.00 checks associated with Huizenga were deposited into Mayor Frankel's campaign account, totaling $10,000.00.
Rincon Properties LLC: This landowner donated $5,000, all of which can be directly attributed to the one landowner. Amounts included one donation by a corporation and another by the same corporation under a fictitious name. This means one company donated $1,000.00, twice the legal limit. If an eight-story development goes up on Flagler Drive near this property, the landowner stands to make $50 million, as the value of the property is estimated to increase by that amount.

Kenco City Center Development: Kenco was a loser in the City Center project, apparently concluding in the process that West Palm Beach is a "pay to play" city. In connection with its next project, Kenco made $10,000 in political contributions2. On June 30, 2005, twenty checks from Kenco and other entities associated with Kenco were contributed to Mayor Lois Frankel's campaign account totaling $10,000. This was approximately one month before the company was to go before the Plans and Plats Review Committee, a preliminary process for Commission approval of a development. The reasonable conclusion is that this large contribution was made to insure the success of the subsequent project. Such actions are consistent with an acquired understanding of the "pay to play" perception by developers.
Cypress Realty Group: This developer made a $5,000.00 political contribution to the mayor's campaign account late in 2006. These contributions were collected from family, employees and employees' spouses. Cypress Realty received administrative staff approval regarding North Olive Place in December 2006 which was a critical deadline. If approval had not been received by December 31, 2006, the entire project would have been subject to a new and unknown city master plan. (Refer to the Chamber of Commerce section for more financial contribution information of this company.)

The timing of these financial contributions occurred in conjunction with the developers' presentation of projects to the city, the City Commission and the mayor at various stages of the approval process. Some contributions were made in anticipation of submission of development projects. Some contributions occurred within days of votes before the Commission, or on the same day that the City Commission voted. Others were made while decisions, approval, or votes were pending on development projects.

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Gail Shepherd
Contact: Gail Shepherd

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