That was the tantalizing question that emerged in the continuing investigation of Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini. For several weeks, New Times has been examining the business dealings of Capellini, leader of the seaside town of 67,000 people that has been in the grip of a raucous civic war. Small-town politics is often contentious, but the battling in Deerfield Beach has reached unusual heights, and the mayor has been at the center of it.
A civil engineer by trade, Capellini hasn't been shy about gaining employment with developers and architects who seek influence in his city. Previous articles have recounted numerous examples of Capellini's using his office as mayor to benefit his business interests. On at least two occasions, his private dealings have led to entire neighborhoods' becoming outraged over his seemingly unethical conduct. At times, he's also tried to hide those dealings with a curious maneuver: Rather than declare his conflict of interest, he conveniently slips off the dais for bathroom breaks when his projects come up for approval.
Capellini recently took the unusual measure of hiring a public relations firm to counter this newspaper's findings. While the mayor scoffed, however, more of his questionable business dealings came to light. And one of them involved a mystery man.
His name is Sam.
The name first surfaced in relation to a land deal. In 2002, Capellini sold a little more than two acres of land in Deerfield Beach for $400,000. The sale was interesting not only because of the profit it represented (Capellini had paid $100,000 for the land four years earlier) but because of the identity of the buyer.
The parcel was purchased by Chicago businessman Bruce Wexler, a former attorney known to operate on the fringes of Chicago's underworld. In the late 1980s, Wexler was a defendant in Operation Greylord, a landmark federal investigation into Chicago's judicial system. Wexler pleaded guilty to cheating on his taxes in 1988 and never practiced law again.
When New Times asked him about the land sale last month, Wexler mentioned in passing the name of his "partner" in South Florida, a man named Sam who had introduced him to Capellini and helped consummate the sale. Wexler refused to elaborate.
But Sam's identity soon surfaced: Wexler was referring to Sam Frontera, a former Chicago nightclub owner known in law enforcement circles across the eastern United States.
Until 1991, Frontera was a leader of a vast cocaine cartel that, according to federal agents, brought at least 40 tons of cocaine into the country worth about $500 million. He pleaded guilty to drug trafficking in 1992 for his role in the operation and could have been sent to prison for life. After snitching on many of his cohorts, he wound up serving only about four years.
Today, the 50-year-old Frontera is out of prison and running another enterprise: Club Cinema, one of the biggest new rock clubs in South Florida. He spent six years building his new operation in Pompano Beach. And serving as Frontera's general contractor for the club's multimillion-dollar renovations: Al Capellini and his private engineering firm.
Because Florida law forbids Frontera from holding a liquor license, the club's true backers are obscured by shell companies and straw owners, including the ex-con's 79-year-old mother, who lives in Michigan. The real money behind the club appears to be coming from a company linked to Frontera's old partner in Chicago, notorious slumlord, twice-convicted felon, and multimillionaire Louis Wolf.
In Chicago, Wolf owned the buildings holding Frontera's nightclubs through which millions of dollars in cocaine money was laundered, according to law enforcement sources.
The renovation work that Capellini's company, Atlantis Environmental Engineering, oversaw at the club was fraught with code violations and unlicensed workers. But the mayor managed to navigate the club's permits through the Pompano Beach Building Department, where he is a personal friend of the building chief.
And Capellini isn't the only South Florida heavyweight in Frontera's corner. Well-known Fort Lauderdale attorney and developer Ron Mastriana handled the dubious liquor licensing process for Frontera.
Mastriana readily admits his friendship with Frontera and says he knew of his pal's crime-filled past. Capellini, however, says he had no idea that his business associate had a background steeped in boatloads of cocaine and tens of millions of dollars in illicit drug money.
"If I had knowledge of that, I wouldn't have been involved," the mayor says. "In my business, we don't ask those questions."
If Capellini had bothered to ask, it wouldn't have been hard for him to learn about Frontera, whose exploits in both the entertainment business and the cocaine underworld have been getting ink in major newspapers in Chicago and Florida since 1985.
Then the mayor might have discovered he was facilitating a former drug thug's reemergence into South Florida club life.