State Senator Joe Abruzzo Orders Two Shady Audits, Opponents Cry Foul [Updated]

Over the last few months, Delray Beach has been torn up by a debate over the Arts Garage, a popular multi-purpose space in the city's downtown area. The issue is whether a law firm should be allowed to outbid the non-profit on the high-end real estate. If you've been plugged in to back and forth, you know it's been nasty.

But the latest twist might take the blue ribbon for chicanery. Arts Garage supports say the other side is flexing political muscle in retaliation.

Specifically, State Senator Joe Abruzzo ordered a state audit recerntly of the Delray Beach Community Redevelopment Agency - the Arts Garage's funder. It's no coincidence, some say, and the proof is that this is the second suspicious audit involving Abruzzo.

Update: Sen. Abruzzo called us back Friday morning with comments and clarifications on the issue. More below.

"I think it's politically driven," Delray Mayor Cary Glickstein tells New Times. "I think people that don't support the Arts Garage and know that it's wildly popular here in town think in some twisted way, 'We'll just tap the CRA for supporting it.'"

Abruzzo didn't return New Times' call for comment. But his explanation for who's sitting in the driver's seat of the audit has changed. Originally, Abruzzo said the request came from State Senator Jeff Clemens - which raised the question why Clemens would want a state-sponsored snooping of the Delray CRA's books, when the city isn't even in his district? Abruzzo later copped to the truth, admitting he asked Clemens to file the request for an audit. [See update]

"[I]n 25 years [the CRA] has not been audited," Abruzzo told the Sun-Sentinel. "That is grounds enough to be audited."

Not so, says Glickstein. A third party audits the Delray CRA every year. He calls Abruzzo's move a "misuse of office."

"In my opinion he's misrepresented facts to both his own committee as well as the public," the mayor says.

But this isn't the only audit Abruzzo has aimed recently. He's also ordered an examination of the Palm Beach County Commission on Ethics. As the Palm Beach Post pointed out this week, the audit was announced days after Abruzzo's legislative aid Philip Massa was not awarded a six-figure job with the commission.

Again, Abruzzo claimed there weren't any motives driving his actions. Via the Post:

Abruzzo said he had asked for the audit Feb. 13 -- more than a month before his aide's job prospects were decided. And that his motivation for the audit was based on unspecified "multiple concerns" he had about the ethics commission.

"Was it politically motivated? I have no way of knowing," the commission's chairman Manuel Farach tells New Times. "This is highly unusual. Obviously, we're happy to have anyone come in and look at what we do."

Glickstein echoes the sentiment: let them look, no one is hiding anything. But the real problem here is that an audit is a big undertaking. Not only does it eat up tax player funding, but slows the work of the agencies under examination. If there's no solid reason for an audit, that's time and money best spent on the original mission.

Delray has sent a public records request to Abruzzo's office. They want to see communications between the senator and his colleague Clemens regarding a CRA audit. The city ended its relationship with a law firm - Weiss, Handler & Cornwell - that also employees Abruzzo. Glickstein says an ethic complaint against the senator is possible.

"I don't know if the city wants to look into that," he explains. "State senators are certainly not above reproach in how they conduct themselves."

As for the Arts Garage, the decision on whether the city will let the non-profit keep its space or sell to a law firm will be decided next Tuesday. Supporters are already planning to show up at the city commission meeting in order to press the point through numbers.

Stay tuned.

Update: Sen. Abruzzo called New Times this morning. He wanted to clarify that he'd been involved with the CRA audit from the beginning. Sen. Clemens and Abruzzo both received the same letters containing information that sparked the audit. Abruzzo brought Clemens in on the matter because the latter had been a mayor. Abruzzo presented the audit request to the committee, and later took full responsibility for the audit because Clemens didn't know the specific issues involved in Delray.

Abruzzo declined to comment on the reasons behind the audit until the examination is complete. "If I decide to engage politically, Mayor Glickstein will clearly be able to distinguish the difference," the senator told New Times.

Regarding a possible ethics complaint, he had this to say: "I have a strong feeling I will be filing that under 'nice try'. The audit will proceed as scheduled."

Also, Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith backed Abruzzo this week on the audits, encouraging him to not "back down."

Follow Kyle on Twitter @kyletalking. For tips, send an e-mail

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson