Mayor Al Has to Go, Bad

Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini's bladder must have struck again. Or, as Capellini put it in a recent news release, his "urological habits" may have led him away from the City Commission meeting over which he was presiding.

It was September 7, 2004. Capellini sat on the dais at Deerfield City Hall as his partner, Marty Lamia, approached the commission. Lamia was representing Atlantis Environmental Engineering.

That's the mayor's company.

Atlantis was representing land owner Ivan Bruce Wexler, an investor from Chicago with a bit of a shady past. He was indicted in Operation Greylord, the famous federal investigation into the Windy City's judicial system. Wexler, who was then an attorney, pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes in 1988. He did a short stint in prison and, after being suspended by the Chicago Bar in 1992, hasn't practiced law since.

Wexler planned to build 32 townhouses on land he'd purchased on SW Third Avenue in Deerfield Beach. The land, about 214 acres, is known in bureaucratic circles as the Pine Sands Plat. Wexler wanted an extension on a site plan that had been approved by the commission a year before. And the mayor's company was doing his bidding.

Before the vote, Capellini got up and left the room. After the rest of the commissioners approved the extension, he returned to the dais.

The mayor's failure to announce publicly his conflict of interest and abstain from the vote — rather than simply leaving the room temporarily — is yet another in a growing list of Capellini's apparent violations of Florida law. And the Pine Sands Plat represents another glaring conflict discovered during a continuing New Times investigation of Capellini's business dealings (see "For Sale: Keys to the City," June 1; and "Mayor Al Engineers Another Deal," June 8).

A look at public records reveals that the mayor hid his role in the townhouse project more than once and made hundreds of thousands of dollars on the land, which today remains vacant.

"We are making completely new plans," Wexler said during a phone interview from Chicago last week. "The whole idea was to do low-income housing, but now there's no place left to build down there. The price of the land went up so high, we've changed everything. Instead of building low-income housing, we're putting up $500,000 condos."

When the subject of the mayor's involvement in the development came up, Wexler said he doesn't talk much with Capellini. Instead, he says he talks mainly with the man who put him in touch with the mayor in the first place, whom he identified only as "Sam."

"We used the mayor's plans at first, but we may or may not use him as an engineer now," Wexler says. "Why are you asking so many questions about Capellini?"

Wexler eventually hung up the phone, refusing to answer any more queries. The mayor too has refused to comment. But records from the Broward County Property Appraiser's Office help tell the story.

The Pine Sands Plat was initially owned by a group of Jehovah's Witnesses who hired Capellini in the mid-1990s to help plan a church and housing development. In 1996, the project came up before the City Commission.

And Capellini, who'd been mayor for about three years, seems to have done the right thing. He announced at the beginning of the January 2, 1996, meeting that he had a possible conflict of interest and then abstained from the discussion. He even handed the gavel to then-Vice Mayor Kathy Shaddow. She handed it back to the mayor after the plan was approved by the remaining four commissioners.

In 1998, Capellini's involvement with the Pine Sands Plat deepened. On February 28 of that year, he purchased roughly 214 acres of the land from the Jehovah's Witnesses for $100,000, according to land records.

He transferred the land that April to a company called Sand Pines Ltd. for $130,000. The company's address, according to the warranty deed, was the same as that of Atlantis Environmental Engineering, the mayor's firm.

Capellini is the only principal who signed the deed. Just four months later, the land was transferred from Sand Pines Ltd. back to Capellini's name for $100. The reason for the brief change in ownership isn't known.

The mayor then set out to develop the land. In 1999, he partnered with architect William Gallo to come up with a development plan. Gallo Architects & Development came before the commission on January 25, 2000, with a plan to build 100 tax-subsidized, low-income housing units for the elderly on the mayor's property.

This marks the earliest known business relationship between Capellini and Gallo. It would bloom into a mutually profitable partnership that persists to this day and has caused numerous conflicts of interest for the mayor. The mayor's hiring of the architect at that time also casts more doubt on his June 2000 vote to hire Gallo as "vision architect" for the city. Since he clearly had a business association with Gallo before that vote, which paid the architect tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money, it would seem Capellini should have abstained.

The tangled web of partnerships doesn't end there. After the Gallo plan fell through, Capellini sold the land to Wexler and a minor partner named Mark Kengott for $400,000 in March 2002, garnering a healthy profit over the $100,000 that he had paid for it four years earlier.

Though he sold the land, Capellini remained financially tied to the project as an engineer, and he and Wexler came up with the plan to build 32 townhomes.

That project initially came before the City Commission on January 7, 2003. Interestingly, the mayor didn't announce any conflict of interest during the meeting. When a motion was made to table the item until the following month, he voted against the motion. Again, since his engineering firm was tied to the project, it appears he should have abstained from the vote and filed a conflict-of-interest form with the city clerk.

The plan came before the commission again on February 4, 2003. This time, Capellini left the room, apparently another example of his peculiarly timed "urological habits." The commission, while the mayor was absent, voted to approve the plan.

The following year came the vote to extend the plan for another year, with the mayor again making an unexplained bathroom break.

Capellini isn't answering questions about Pine Sands Plat. But the mayor did hire Boca Raton public relations firm TransMedia Group. The company issued a news release on the mayor's behalf last week in which the mayor responded to the initial New Times story on his conflicts of interest.

"Yes, I admit to having business relationships with architects," he was quoted as saying. "Occasionally I may even have dinner with them. I'm an engineer by profession and engineers and architects work together. Hello? But any time Mr. Gallo brought a matter before the City Commission, I made it a point to declare a conflict and not vote. New Times says I have a 'convenient bladder' as I always excuse myself when Gallo brings a matter before the commission. I call it just Mother Nature calling."

In fact, the mayor failed to declare conflicts with Gallo's firm on several occasions. Capellini also claimed that the story contained distortions, though neither the mayor nor his PR firm has pointed out any factual errors or asked for a correction.

"I urge the press to look at a bigger picture," the mayor beseeches the public in the news release, "for that's what I do every day to earn my modest salary as the mayor of one of the best run cities in Florida, even if I have to do [sic] say so myself."

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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