Who played matchmaker between the City of Hallandale Beach and a businessman with a porn-filled portfolio?
Whomever it was, he did a whale of a job. Back in March, the city's Community Redevelopment Agency gave a $125,000 loan to Digital Outernet Inc., a billboard company run by the same man -- Steve Fecske who ran a website featuring adult film star Jenna Jameson.
Fecske is a Californian, but when he approached the city with his request for the loan, there was some local flavor on his executive board: Hallandale realtor Joe Kessel was listed as Digital Outernet's vice president of sales.
The same Joe Kessel who was also being paid through a vaguely worded consulting contract with the City of Hallandale Beach. Both Kessel and the City Manager's Office have refused to discuss what Kessel did in exchange for the $3,000 monthly payments that were to start in July 2008 and automatically renew in the following year.
It may be a mere coincidence. Or maybe Kessel is the one who helped Digital Outernet get a pile of cash without having to secure it with collateral.
In a March 2009 Sun-Sentinel article, the deal was said to be the "brainchild" of John Hardwick, another local man. Hardwick and Kessel are both board members of the city's Chamber of Commerce.
Hardwick did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
This week, I reached Fecske, who was quick to distance Digital Outernet from Kessel, whose corporate position was never made official. "There were some discussions [of Kessel joining the executive board], but they were never finalized," said Fecske.
Asked to be more specific about these discussions, Fecske said that Kessel had offered to sell advertising space on the company's digital billboards. "He made promises about bringing in advertising through his real estate agency, but that never materialized," says Fecske.
I asked Fecske whether he knew that Kessel was being paid by the city. "I had heard something about him working as a consultant to the city, but he didn't make it clear to us," said Fecske.
Did Kessel have a role in convincing the city to entrust its CRA money to Digital Outernet? No, says Fecske, who adds that Kessel "sat in on a couple of meetings with the city manager, but he never spoke."
Commissioner Keith London was the only member of the city's five-member CRA board to vote against the loan to Digital Outernet, having expressed concerns about Fecske's background and the city's violating the terms of its own CRA lending policy by not requiring Digital Outernet to furnish collateral.
Asked what the city's recouse is if Digital Outernet goes out of business, Fecske said, simply, "We aren't going out of business."
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But he also admitted that business wasn't going as well as he'd hoped -- and for that, he blames London, whose protests may have had something to do with Fecske's group having to reduce its request from the original desired amount of $240,000. And Digital Outernet didn't get the $125,000 loan it was promised but rather $75,000, according to Fecske.
Pressed to describe how the city would recover its investment if Digital Outernet fails, Fecske said that it might be able to seize the 55 digital screens the company bought at $1,000 apiece.
That didn't impress Commissioner London. "How much is a used TV worth?" he asks. The answer: not nearly as much as the city stands to lose if Digital Outernet goes bust.
Hallandale Mayor Joy Cooper told Juice this week that Kessel was being paid to recruit and entertain executives with potential business ventures. But if Digital Outernet is the kind of outfit Kessel was out recruiting, the question is whether he's worth the tax dollars he's getting paid.