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For Sale: Keys to the City

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Capellini accepted the job and, on March 25, 2002, sent a letter to his city's planning director, Jerry Ferguson. In the letter, Capellini informed Ferguson that his company, Atlantis, was working for Lanzo.

"[A] letter of approval agreeing to the plat [mapping] change is required from the City of Deerfield Beach," the mayor wrote on his company's letterhead. "Please place this item on the agenda for the next available meeting."

Was the mayor ordering the city official to help his client?

"I didn't take it as a directive but as a request from a businessperson," Ferguson offers.

Does he get similar letters from private interests?

"We get requests, but rarely do they specify the process that we should follow. That's not common, but I guess the mayor... well, I wouldn't want to speculate. But I've never felt strong-armed by the mayor to do anything."

Ferguson replied to Capellini that the city would first have to abandon its rights, or "flow easement," on the half-acre of lake. It was a process that would take 60 days and require approval from the City Commission.

Interestingly, the walkway was to be paid for by the city. The plan was for Deerfield to raise $500,000 in grant money and give it to Lanzo to build the project. In other words, Capellini was essentially paving the way for Lanzo — and Gallo, the designer — to receive a chunk of public money.

While Lanzo went through the permitting process, the mayor's intertwining business interests with Gallo deepened. On October 20, 2003, he and Gallo with two other partners formed a real estate firm called Pine Ridge Real Estate Enterprises.

Three weeks later, on November 10, 2003, county environmental officials sent a letter to Capellini's engineering firm stating that they needed documentation to show that the city had abandoned the flow easement. The mayor, however, never obtained permission from the commission. Doing so would likely have forced Capellini to publicly reveal his financial connection to the project. Instead of going through the proper channels, Capellini's ally, City Manager Deetjen, wrote a letter to the county stating that "the city understands, also it is fully aware and approves" of vacating the rights to the half-acre of lake.

The commission, of course, had approved of nothing. The question: Who told Deetjen to send that letter? The city manager says he doesn't remember. It's a claim he also relayed to the Sun-Sentinel for a story the newspaper published about Lanzo last month (an article that made only brief mention of Gallo, whose relationship with the mayor has never before been investigated by any newspaper). But the mayor admitted last week to New Times that an engineer who works in his firm named Shane Munson made the request.

Though this seems an example of the mayor's using the power of his office for private financial gain, Capellini says he sees nothing wrong with it. He also denies that he ever hid his financial involvement with Lanzo from the public. But city records seem to suggest otherwise.

Lanzo's site plan for the warehouses came before the commission on March 15, 2005. Before an architect in Gallo's firm began a presentation, Capellini got up and left the room. It was 8:45 p.m., according to the meeting's minutes. The commission voted to table the item until the next meeting.

Capellini, however, didn't return until after that vote, at 9:25 p.m. Contrary to Florida law, he didn't disclose his conflict of interest. When asked last week why he walked out of the room, the mayor says: "I had to go to the bathroom — hey, the important thing is I didn't vote."

Forty-minute bathroom breaks aside, state law dictates that all politicians file disclosure forms and officially abstain from votes where there is a conflict of interest. The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled that elected officials are not exempt from the law if they are temporarily absent during the votes. Meeting minutes, however, reveal that Capellini repeatedly had (as some of his commission colleagues describe it) a "convenient bladder" during a few key votes.

The mayor didn't show up at all for the next meeting, on April 5. Records don't show a reason for his absence, but again it kept him from disclosing the apparent conflict. In a glaring loophole, elected officials who miss entire meetings that include a vote on an issue that presents a conflict of interest are exempted from the abstention requirement.

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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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