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Mall Rat

When the subject of Vanella Plaza came up at a July 9 code-enforcement-board hearing in Plantation, chairman Tom Scalfani, sitting on the dais, asked the $1.4 million question: "Tell us what the deal is here. What's the story?"

City building manager Tom Hanrahan, who stood before the board, could only smile as he tried to answer. "Good question," he said. "This has been going on for ages, the violations on this shopping center. I think the board is aware of that. It predates many of us here."

Hanrahan told Scalfani that several building permits were still open on the plaza, which is located on the northwest corner of Broward Boulevard and East Acre Drive, and that the code violations hadn't all been corrected. Then he made a stunning revelation: "I took a report to Mr. Fadgen on the open permits since he's the resident of the business there -- Jerry Fadgen," Hanrahan explained to the board. "I took a report to him every week. I wanted to make this thing go away. Get it done. And to that point I wasn't successful -- yet. We did an overview of the total thing, and I reported to [Fadgen] that the permits were not final."

And with that, Jerry Fadgen was busted -- again. Fadgen, a city councilman who has been in office six years, isn't supposed to have anything to do with the shopping center, as per a Florida Commission on Ethics report issued back in 1997. The commission found that Fadgen's role as councilman conflicted with his duties at the strip mall, which has had a long-standing dispute with the city over code violations. By the time the ethics commission acted, however, Fadgen had already helped to reduce a $1.4 million city fine against the strip mall to a mere $15,000. Despite Fadgen's public promise that he would cease to represent Vanella Plaza, the ethics commission found probable cause in 1999 that he had violated ethics laws by working on behalf of the plaza. And today, as his meetings with Hanrahan prove, he continues to act as the property's paid accountant and unofficial manager -- behavior that, as he has repeatedly been told, constitutes a conflict of interest.

City activist and former councilman Lee Hillier, a long-time political foe of Fadgen's, attended and videotaped the July 9 code-enforcement meeting and says he's planning to file a complaint with the state attorney's office alleging criminal misconduct. "This is official malfeasance at its worst," says Hillier, who lost his bid for reelection earlier this year. "Fadgen is clearly violating the law, and the city is doing nothing about it."

Fadgen downplays Hanrahan's visits, claiming he's not violating the law because he's not a "decision-maker" for Vanella Enterprises, the company that owns the plaza. He insists the real boss is his (handpicked) successor, gas station owner Phil Demeo. Fadgen has also put both of his grown sons on the plaza's board of directors, though he admits they do little in exchange for their titles. Because Fadgen continues to handle the financial end of the strip mall, he says people often assume he is the man in charge. After denials on the matter last year to New Times (see "There's Something About Jerry," March 16, 2000), he now admits that he often collects rent checks and handles tenants' concerns in addition to his accounting work. Further, the company's principal address remains that of his accounting office, which is next door to his wife's photography shop in the plaza.

"Phil's office isn't in the plaza, and mine is," he explains. "Where is headquarters? Is it where the chief executive is or is it where the accounting office is? Often it's where the accounting office is, and that's where I am. But my function is not as an executive."

But state ethics laws concerning elected officials' business dealings don't seem to recognize this distinction. Florida Statute 112.313 forbids public officials from forming contractual relationships with businesses that are regulated by their own governmental body, or that create "a continuing or frequently recurring conflict between his or her private interests and the performance of his or her public duties."

The councilman's own history with the plaza began in 1988, when he moved his small accounting firm there. He struck up a friendship with the plaza's owner, Patrick T. Vanella, who happened to be letting the place fall to pieces. When city code inspectors complained, Vanella didn't listen. The fines began to pile up; by 1996 Vanella owed the city $1.4 million. That same year, Vanella died of cancer. Before he passed away, he made Fadgen, by then already a city councilman, president of the company that owned the mall and the personal representative of his estate until the year 2009, when Vanella's son is slated to take charge.

Fadgen, for all practical purposes, became the owner of the strip mall. He could set the rent for tenants (including his wife and himself), pay himself a salary, and run the place. But first he helped negotiate a reduction in the fine with his city, which was then run by his political mentor, long-time Plantation mayor Frank Veltri. In March 1997 the council (with Fadgen abstaining from the vote) reduced the fine to $15,000, with the stipulation that the strip mall would correct the violations by 1999.

That same year the Florida Commission on Ethics issued an opinion that Fadgen's dual roles as president of the shopping center and councilman presented a conflict of interest. "The council member's interests [in Vanella Plaza] are completely incompatible with those of the city," wrote the commission. Fadgen responded by publicly announcing his resignation as personal representative of the Vanella estate and vowing to remove himself from all "functions" of the corporation.

He broke that promise. In 1999 the ethics commission investigated him for a continuing conflict of interest and found probable cause that he'd violated the law. But the commission decided not to sanction Fadgen after the councilman's Tallahassee lawyer, Mark Herron, convinced commission members that Fadgen had taken over the strip mall for the "altruistic" purpose of helping his deceased friend.

Last year's New Times investigation found that Fadgen had dissembled and given false statements under oath to state investigators and to local newspapers. As Fadgen prevaricated, the strip mall's code violations went unrepaired. Under the rules of the plaza's agreement with the city, the $1.4 million could have been reapplied in March 1999, but city officials, who often report to Fadgen on the council, have yet to hit Vanella Plaza with any fine. Now, two years past the deadline, the strip mall has finally been renovated, but violations still exist. And as Hanrahan noted at the July 9 meeting, several building permits for repairs, some of which pertain to the agreement, remain open.

To Fadgen's credit the property has been updated and is no longer the eyesore it was for years. Yet hidden in the back of the plaza are piles of construction debris, tree branches, and garbage. And there is no garbage container in the Dumpster enclosure -- it's empty. Instead the plaza, in clear violation of city rules, uses residential "blue bags" to dispose of its trash. This saves the plaza from paying the Dumpster fees to the city and has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars.

But city officials don't seem to care. City attorney Don Lunny has insisted that he doesn't believe there is or ever was a conflict of interest. The current mayor, Rae Carole Armstrong, refuses to discuss the matter. She happens to be a former tenant at Vanella Plaza, and her own construction company, RCA Construction, was hired by Fadgen to do some of the improvements there.

The councilman's meetings with Hanrahan appear to be the most egregious violation to date: Once again he is dealing with city officials on behalf of Vanella Plaza. Hanrahan says he initiated the meetings with Fadgen, who acted as the representative for the strip mall during four of them. And because Hanrahan was relatively new to the Vanella Plaza saga, he says he didn't realize his revelation at the meeting might have implicated the councilman in ethics violations.

Fadgen maintains he has done nothing wrong. "[Hanrahan] just dropped a few things off with me," the councilman says. "It wasn't significant at all."

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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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