The Mayor's Private Dick

Deerfield Beach Commissioner Steve Gonot didn't know he was being watched.

When Gonot attended a League of Cities convention in Orlando last August, he had no idea a private investigator was shadowing him and capturing him on videotape.

The politician didn't sense the prying eyes at another convention a couple of months later in Daytona Beach either, but they were there, watching, trying to catch him in a compromising situation.

Someone put a tail on the commissioner, and Gonot says it wasn't until recently that he found out who'd ordered the surveillance: Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini, his colleague — and chief rival — on the dais.

Capellini hired a Coral Springs-based private investigation firm this past fall to follow the northern Broward city's commissioner in hopes of catching him in an unethical act, according to Gonot and his attorney, Kevin Tynan.

After the mayor's investigators followed Gonot to the two conventions, Capellini complained to the State Attorney's Office that Gonot had conducted private business while traveling, even though he billed the trips to the city. Capellini provided the agency with a video of the surveillance.

State Attorney's Office spokesman Ron Ishoy confirmed that his agency is investigating the matter, which is just the latest twist in a long-standing grudge match between Capellini and Gonot.

The two men now share two things: They are both running for mayor, and both are under investigation.

Gonot believes the mayor crossed the line by having him followed.

"When you don't know you're being videotaped, God knows what you're doing," the miffed commissioner says. "I could have been scratching myself or God knows what. I always remember Dontrelle Willis picking his nose during a baseball game. I don't think I picked my nose, but you don't know what you're doing. It is an invasion of privacy."

Gonot says his garbage has also been searched in the middle of the night.

If the commissioner doesn't sound worried about the alleged criminal activity contained on the video, though, it's because he isn't. He says that Capellini — who is also under active criminal investigation by prosecutors — is only out for revenge.

"They've spent a lot of money in trying to destroy me," Gonot says. "But when I learned he'd filed a criminal complaint against me, I really wondered what they were saying I'd done."

Gonot says the State Attorney's Office first informed him of the investigation in February. His attorney, Tynan, then met with prosecutors and was shown the complaint letter authored by Capellini's attorney, Jonathan Rosenthal.

Tynan says he was also informed that Capellini had hired Riley Kiraly, a private investigation firm, to follow Gonot last fall to the League of Cities convention in Orlando and the Florida Redevelopment Association convention in Daytona.

The mayor didn't respond to my phone messages.

Accompanying Rosenthal's letter, Tynan says, was a DVD with videotape shot by Riley Kiraly investigators. Tynan says the State Attorney's Office allowed him to view the DVD, which he says consisted mainly of Gonot's standing in front of a vending booth at the conventions.

The booth was for a company called PMG Associates, which is owned by Gonot's brother, Philip Gonot. PMG does consulting work for numerous local and state municipalities, including the City of Coral Springs, Miami-Dade County, and the state Department of Transportation. Steve Gonot isn't on his brother's payroll but works for him as a contractor on a job-by-job basis.

Capellini's allegation is that Gonot was conducting private business at the conventions and therefore should not have charged the city for the trips. In essence, he's accusing the commissioner of fraud.

Gonot concedes he spent several hours at the booth during the conventions but says he wasn't paid by his brother to be there. He was only alone at the booth for a few hours, he says, and even then, he was "networking" as city commissioner.

The commissioner also says he discussed the matter with local and state ethics officials after the second trip and decided to pay a portion of those expenses — about $200 — out of his own pocket. In total, he billed about $2,650 to the city for the travel.

"I never once saw it as doing something I shouldn't have been doing," Gonot says. "I wasn't on PMG's payroll, and I wasn't billing PMG for being there. My main reason for being at the conference is to network. I went to the redevelopment convention to try to find a new CRA director for the city, and I worked on that while I was there."

He had a sworn interview with prosecutors earlier this month, Gonot says, adding that the State Attorney's Office subpoenaed him and extended him immunity in the process, making it unlikely he'll be charged in the case.

But that's not the only criminal case open against Gonot. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating an allegation, so far unsubstantiated, that he laundered $5,200 in campaign money through a friend, Joe DePrimo.

That complaint was filed by Chaz Stevens, an activist and blogger in the town. Gonot says he gave the money to DePrimo for office furniture and two laptop computers for his campaign and did nothing wrong.

Gonot certainly has his share of troubles right now, but one wonders if Capellini's rather Nixonian tactic of spying on his colleague will backfire. Americans tend to place a high value on privacy, and his surveillance of a fellow public servant will likely do him little good with voters in March, when the mayoral election takes place.

Even Gonot admits that it looks as if this election is going to be one of the nastiest in local memory. If history is any guide, then he's sure to be right.

The two sides have been at war for years now. Commission meetings have been armed with extra security after shouting matches and threats were exchanged. Capellini's allies tried to recall Gonot from office in 2006, and Gonot led a movement to oust former city manager Larry Deetjen from his position.

Deetjen, a close Capellini friend who is also being investigated by prosecutors, had become so paranoid before he finally left the city last year that he had his office bugged and equipped with surveillance equipment (talk about Nixonian).

The conflict has settled down a bit after Deetjen's exit, but with the election still ten months away, there is plenty of time for more fireworks.

That's assuming, however, that Capellini makes it to the election. The State Attorney's Office is investigating the mayor on allegations of political corruption (many of them first reported in an investigative series I did in 2006). Assigned to the case is Catherine Maus, who successfully prosecuted ex-Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom last year.

Capellini's alleged misconduct involves using his position in the city for private profit through his engineering firm. He also did some dubious work for convicted cocaine kingpin and money launderer Sam Frontera, who owns Club Cinema, a popular dancehall and concert venue.

It all makes you wonder: Exactly what would those private eyes discover if they trailed the mayor for a couple of months?

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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