Veteran Broward County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion is well-known for his love of golf, but did he sell out his public office for the game?
It's a question state investigators are asking themselves as they look into Eggelletion's expensive membership at the Parkland Golf & Country Club. The State Attorney's Office confirmed the investigation last week.
Eggelletion's weakness for the links is legendary, but it was surprising that he would join the Parkland club, which is 20 miles from his home and cost him in excess of $10,000. There were plenty of golf courses for him to play closer to home, including one of his favorites, Inverrary.
More than a year ago, a source told me that a development company called Prestige Homes paid for Eggelletion's membership at the country club. It was an explosive allegation, because the commissioner had strongly supported and voted for Prestige Homes' controversial plan to build a housing development on two golf courses in Tamarac. Such a deal would violate a slew of state and federal corruption laws.
At that time, I called the company's owner, Bruce Chait, and he told me there was no truth to it.
It was Chait, however, who apparently wasn't telling the truth. The State Attorney's Office confirmed last week that it is investigating Eggelletion's relationship with the developer. Sources say that a representative of the company paid the country club in cash for Eggelletion's membership and that an employee at the course thought it was so unusual that he or she made photocopies of the cash.
Although the exact date of the country club transaction isn't known, it occurred in the general time frame that Eggelletion was supporting Chait's development in Tamarac. Prestige's plan to build 728 housing units on the Monterey and Sabal Palm golf courses outraged residents who lived in the Mainlands, a huge condo development for seniors that surrounds the courses.
There was a lot not to like about the project. For one, it was destroying so-called "green space" that the commission was spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect. But residents weren't concerned so much about the environmental implications of the project; they were outraged because all those new homes were going to create huge amounts of traffic and demands on the already strained water system.
To assuage the condo boards and residents, Chait, who operates the company with his son Shawn, agreed to pay off the Mainlands' recreational lease and give the condo board an extra $200,000 in cash for its support. In all, the payoff totaled well over $1 million. Chait also managed to secure the support of the Tamarac City Commission, including current Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter's father, Ed Portner, who was then vice mayor of Tamarac. Both father and daughter gave their full support to the dubious project.
But hundreds of residents still vehemently opposed it. In fact, dozens of them took a bus to County Commission chambers to protest the development on December 12, 2006, the day Chait asked the commission for a zoning change to allow the development.
"Make no mistake, if this project goes through, you're totally going to ruin the lives of 1,300 families that live in this project," said protester Keith Wargo, whose parents lived in the Mainlands. "If you look at the map, this Monterey Golf Course is totally surrounded by other lands and the turnpike. There's absolutely no way that you can get traffic in or out of there."
Before his vote, Eggelletion spoke fervently in favor of the project, repeating that Chait had "stepped up to the plate" to build a barrier wall and affordable housing as part of the deal. (Chait is now reneging on building affordable housing, saying that it's no longer economically feasible and that the county "extorted" him to agree to it.)
"I believe that what is being offered here today in the long run is going to be in the best interest of the residents of Tamarac," Eggelletion said before he cast the vote.
The commission, after much discussion and debate, voted 5-2 to support the project. Among the yea votes was Eggelletion, who was then mayor and whose district includes the Monterey golf course.
Tamarac activist Patti Lynn says she knew which way Eggelletion was going to vote long before that day. She'd visited with him before the vote and found that his mind was not only made up but that he was also rather belligerent about it.
"I went to speak to Joe Eggelletion about this project, and he had absolutely nothing constructive or reasonable to say about it," says Lynn, who is now running for City Commission in Tamarac. "I was asking him serious questions, and he says, 'How come you've never come and talked to me before? If you were so concerned, you should have been here for things that are more important.' I couldn't believe what I was hearing from this guy."
Add Eggelletion's support on the dais and the golf club membership and you have what appears to be the ever-elusive quid pro quo. I left detailed phone messages for Eggelletion that he didn't return. When I called Chait two weeks ago, he said he didn't know what I was talking about before he abruptly hung up.
I hear the general explanation offered to state investigators is that the developer — either Chait or his son — delivered the cash to the country club for Eggelletion because the commissioner didn't have enough time to do it himself.
Hard to believe any jury would ever buy a story like that. It's far-fetched from the beginning. First you have to accept that Eggelletion, who is not a rich man, was willing to spend a lot of money to join a golf course that's an hour roundtrip from his home.
Next you need to believe he would pay the membership in cash. Who has $10,000 or more in cash lying around?
And if you can somehow rationalize all that as credible, you now need to accept that the only person he could find to deliver the cash for him was a developer with a controversial project that he was publicly supporting.
It all defies credibility. But Eggelletion has gotten past ethical problems in the past. When he used his county-issued credit card to buy thousands of dollars worth of personal items, he simply apologized and paid the money back. He's also survived investigations involving his extracurricular lobbying work for a trash company and developer.
When it was learned that he fathered a child out of wedlock, the mother alleged that Eggelletion first seduced her when she was a teenaged student of his at Dillard High School. Again, he managed to survive the scandal.
You just have to wonder when Eggelletion will run out of second chances.