Bob Norman's Pulp

Exclusive: Feds Eyeing Lobbyist Ron Book, Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority

In Broward and Tallahassee politics, influence peddling comes in countless forms. Here's one currently under investigation by the federal government:

A powerful lobbyist, seeking to curry favor with a state senator and benefit a major client, helps to secure the senator's boyfriend a job at the development firm the lobbyist represents. The boyfriend also happens to be a Housing Authority honcho who goes on to oversee two new multimillion-dollar publicly financed projects with the very developer who hired him.

This is one scenario that sources say the FBI is currently investigating as part of a major probe that involves recently convicted GOP fundraiser and lobbyist Alan Mendelsohn, who had deep ties to numerous politicians, including former Gov. Charlie Crist, former Senate President Ken Pruitt, embattled Congressman David Rivera, and state Sen. Eleanor Sobel. The same federal investigation also involves several figures from the massive Mutual Benefits Corp. Ponzi scheme, including MBC fraudster Joel Steinger, who is awaiting trial on federal charges himself.

Here are the players in the scenario:   

The lobbyist: Ron Book, who represents a host of governments, including Broward County, and private clients, including the Miami Dolphins, as perhaps the most powerful lobbyist in Florida

The senator: Muriel "Mandy" Dawson, a controversial Democratic legislator who was term-limited from office in 2008. She has longstanding close ties to Book and was implicated in federal court records with having received $87,000 in secret payments from Mendelsohn through her former Senate aide, Veronica Blakely.  

The boyfriend: Scott Strawbridge, director of development and facilities at the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority. Strawbridge began dating Dawson in 2006, and they have since broken up.

The firm: Miami-based Carlisle Development Group, which built the $16 million Housing Authority project at Dixie Court and is slated to demolish and redevelop Dr. Kennedy Homes, the historic public housing development on the south side of Broward Boulevard. That project calls for another $21 million in federal funds. Heading Carlisle is Lloyd Boggio, the former principal of the Cornerstone Group, another major player in the government-subsidized affordable housing industry.

Inside, see what Book and Strawbridge had to say about the allegations.

When Book was asked if he helped secure Dawson's boyfriend a job with any of his clients, the mega-lobbyist immediately denied it.

"I never hired the boyfriend, that would be a misstatement of any fact," he said.

When asked if he caused a client of his to hire Strawbridge, he answered: "No not ever. There was a time at which [Strawbridge] worked in the affordable housing world. It was a long time ago and he did work for someone that I represented but not through any involvement of me in any way, shape, or form."

Book claimed he couldn't even remember the name of the client that hired Strawbridge. Another allegation that has surfaced is that Book financed a home in Tallahassee for Dawson, an accusation Book flatly denies.

His close relationship with Dawson, however, is a matter of public record. In 2005 he was one of three lobbyists (including Mendelsohn) who ponied up $2,500 to help finance a trip for Dawson to South Africa via the Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators. The Senate reprimanded Dawson -- who was also charged criminally in 2002 for prescription pill fraud as a result of addiction -- and removed her from the Ethics and Elections Committee. 

"Mandy had whatever personal issues and I knew Mandy before she was in the process," said Book. "I haven't talked to her and don't know where she is."

Public records indicate Dawson is now living with her parents in Daytona Beach. I was unable to contact her for this report.   

In the course of my investigation, I learned that the Book client that had hired Strawbridge was the Carlisle Development Group, which had hired the lobbyist to help it gain multi-million dollar public housing contracts with various governmental bodies, including the Broward County Housing Authority. Currently, Book's representation of the firm is a matter of great controversy in North Miami, where Carlisle is vying for a contract to redevelop Biscayne Landing. Book has been lobbying council members on behalf of the firm despite the fact that he's also the paid lobbyist for North Miami, the Miami Herald reported earlier this week.

When Strawbridge, , a former Fort Lauderdale contractor who has fought to preserve historic city sites like the Stranahan House, was questioned yesterday about his employment with Carlisle, he denied that Book got him the job. "I never got a job from Ron Book," Strawbridge said. "The FBI knows that and now you know that too. ... I never met Ron Book, I spoke with him once on the telephone."

Strawbridge said he doesn't remember what the two discussed on the phone, but acknowledged the phone introduction was made by Dawson, his girlfriend at the time.

He describes a tangled web of employment, admitting that there were concerns about a potential conflict of interest. He said he got the job with the Housing Authority before he began dating Dawson in 2006. After he and Dawson began dating, he got the job as a consultant for Carlisle Development Group and "worked with both entities helping them form a new business venture."

While Carlisle employed Strawbridge, the firm won two bids in competition with other firms worth roughly $40 million with the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority, at Dixie Court and Dr. Kennedy Homes. On its website, Carlisle touts its completed work at Dixie Court. The Dr. Kennedy Homes project -- which will replace 45 cottages with 132 apartment units -- has been met with controversy and has yet to break ground. 

Strawbridge said that while he worked with Carlisle on Housing Authority project, he was also paid by the firm for consulting work on the Royalton Hotel renovation project in Miami. Carlisle transformed the Royalton into housing for low-income people and the recently homeless.

"It was kind of a simultaneous thing," Strawbridge said. "I was then working as an independent consultant with both [the Housing Authority and Carlisle]. I was acting as the owner's rep for the Housing Authority interfacing with Carlisle. I was acting in the interest of the Housing Authority. What happened is Carlisle needed my help and I ended up becoming engaged with them in a project called Royalton. We took a 1920s hotel and turned it into transition housing for homeless people."

He said that Housing Authority attorneys cleared him to work for Carlisle.

I went to the Housing Authority and said, 'I already pledged my allegiance, so how do we do this?'" he said. "They put together some kind of document that allowed it."

The matter was never brought to the attention of the Florida Commission on Ethics for an opinion, he said. While he alluded to communication with FBI agents, he refused to provide details. He said he and Dawson ended their romantic relationship in 2008 and that he never gave her anything of value connected to his job with Carlisle.

"I don't know what to say about these allegations except that they are astonishing to me," said Strawbridge. "All along, the reason I've been helping the Housing Authority is that I live in Fort Lauderdale and folks involved in running the agency happened to know that I was available. ... Did I make a mistake by knowing all these poeple at the same time? Yeah. But I was already engaged in that job before I ran into Mandy and she's my only connection to Ron Book."

The federal investigation, according to numerous sources, is continuing.

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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