Monday, December 31, 2007

Rock mining, the Everglades and public corruption, by gimleteye

When a first-rate investigative report is published that expands the view of corruption and Florida politics, I take it as an extraordinary gift. So it is, with the Palm Beach Post: "Rock, paper, politics: How deals made landowners rich and put officials in prison".

Eyeonmiami in the past year has been sharply critical of the rock mining industry in Miami-Dade for its various assaults against the public interest; south Dade rock mining in Biscayne Bay wetlands, rock mining to provide fill for two new nuclear reactors at Turkey Point, violations of federal law in West Dade that put the drinking water supply of 2 million Miami-Dade citizens at risk of cancer-causing benzene, and rock mining as a transportation fig leaf to plow more suburban sprawl into West Kendall.

For the most part, the mainstream media has failed to pick up the stories underlying one of the largest, wealthiest, and most secretive industries in Florida.

So it comes as a gift, in the final days of the 2007: the Palm Beach Post and writers including (former Herald) writer Tom Dubocq peel the layers back on a story that puts the Growth Machine under a microscope: Palm Beach Aggregates and owner Enrique Tomeu, wrapped up in a pretty picture of public corruption that sent Palm Beach county commissioner Masilotti into exile.

The story has been sitting out there for almost a decade and is the key to understanding why restoration of the Everglades has soared from its initial price tag, in 2000, of $7.8 billion to close to $20 billion, today.

When government managers complain in the press about the "high cost" of buying land to save the Everglades, understand that the per acre floor price was established by the deal for Palm Beach Aggregates' land in West Palm Beach. As the Palm Beach Post shows, it stunk to high heaven.

The Palm Beach Aggregates deal with the state of Florida, to use a rock mine for "water storage", occurred early in the first term of former Governor Jeb Bush. The per acre cost-- close to $200,000 per acre paid by the state to this private corporation--was the highest cost the state had ever paid for a parcel of land for environmental restoration purposes.

There were all kinds of rationales, at the time: whatever, it was an order of magnitude higher than any previous land purchase for environmental restoration purposes.

As a sale to establish a "comparative" value, (in other words, a value for which other private land owners could legitimately lay claim to, in negotiations with the state and federal governments) the Palm Beach Aggregates deal was a devastating blow to Everglades restoration.

Why did Jeb! authorize this deal? The Palm Beach Post is clear: Tomeu and his companies contributed lots of money to Republican interests. (It is an interesting choice, the word Tomeu uses to describe the zoning changes for his property he obtained from the Palm Beach county commission: "entitlements".)

In the meantime, one of the side-bars of the Palm Beach Aggregates story is the influence peddling of development interests through county commissioners and charities they represent. It is an old story and resonates here in Miami-Dade county, where de facto chair of the county commission, Natacha Seijas, is employed in a no-show job at the YMCA.

At any rate, a big thank you to the Palm Beach Post and Tom Debocq. If I was giving out the award, you would get a Pulitzer Prize.

What is needed is a comprehensive, forensic examination by a state or national newspaper of land deals with the state of Florida in the past decade, cross-referenced by ownership and campaign contributions.

The question also needs to be asked: why have Florida environmental organizations been quiet and complacent while the biggest restoration project in the United States was being torpedo'd by growth and corruption even as it was being held forth as a model to the rest of the world?

Donations to local charities seen as conduits to influence


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Over the years, the line between private charity and public votes had grown blurry in Palm Beach County.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty routinely co-chaired charity balls, selling $5,000 and $10,000 tables to the same developers who needed her votes. Commissioner Burt Aaronson endorsed a transfer of public parkland in his district to private developers offering space for a religious school in their plans for a strip shopping center. Commissioner Addie Greene openly traded her vote on Scripps' biotechnology campus for $5 million to aid minority business owners.

Special report:
Rock, paper, politics

How gravel pits become government-run reservoirs -- making Enrique Tomeu (above) and his partners rich and revealing the close connections between Palm Beach County's elected officials and the people they do business with.

But it was Sam Klein's sudden interest in rescuing sea turtles that drew the attention of federal prosecutors.

In the weeks before a critical vote to allow 2,000 houses on Palm Beach Aggregates' property, Klein joined Commissioner Karen Marcus on a tour of the Loggerhead Marinelife Center of Juno Beach. "I'm not much of an environmentalist," he once said. But after he toured the center in her district, he followed with an anonymous $50,000 donation.

Soon after, Marcus joined in votes that raised the value of Klein's land by $200 million.

In late 2006, federal agents took notice. No charges were filed, but their questions left County Attorney Denise Nieman in a quandary. Suddenly, commissioners' charities were being viewed through the prism of the federal "honest services" law, a 28-word corruption-busting statute used to extract resignations and guilty pleas from Commissioners Tony Masilotti and Warren Newell. County attorneys met one-on-one with commissioners after Marcus was approached by federal prosecutors. To avoid trouble, they advised, commissioners should change how they operate.

Nieman huddled with John Kastrenakes, the assistant U.S. attorney who had filed the case against Masilotti. There was only one guaranteed way to avoid the appearance of impropriety. "Just stop doing charity work," she recalled Kastrenakes telling her.

Nieman had been with the county attorney's office 20 years, her only employer since law school. During her tenure, the office had complied with much looser state and local ethics rules. Never before had the "theft" of a commissioner's honest services - a federal crime carrying a maximum five-year prison sentence - been a consideration.

State ethics laws are quite narrow in defining a violation. They prohibit an elected official from accepting something of value if there's an understanding that it will influence their decisions, said Kerrie Stillman, spokeswoman for the Florida Commission on Ethics. For an ethics violation to exist, there must be a proved personal benefit to the official. If the charge is corrupt use of office, corrupt intent must be proved, too, Stillman said.

Kastrenakes explained that the federal law allows elected officials to be charged with corruption even if a direct bribe cannot be documented. Simple failure to publicly disclose a personal connection to a vote, even if the connection was a nonprofit, could be construed as defrauding the public.

"It is no less a crime to have one's vote sold for a contribution to the Boys Club than it is to pay it to you for a vote," Kastrenakes told West Palm Beach's ethics committee in January. "It's hard to swallow because these are laudable endeavors. ... To require a private gain for a vote is no less an extortion."

Nieman recalled Kastrenakes' reasoning: "He said there's nothing to prohibit the commissioners from working on behalf of charities, but you have to be mindful of what's going on around it. Are there votes coming up?" she said. "Then you have somebody saying, 'Gosh, that's interesting, you get this donation and a week later you're voting on this project?''"

Commissioner Jeff Koons consulted his own attorney and got the same disturbing answer. "My lawyer walked in and said 'You cannot ask money from anybody potentially doing business in front of the county,' which is, historically, everybody," Koons said. "It's a little frustrating. I was involved in a lot of charitable stuff, and now I've almost completely withdrawn."

Koons said he shared the advice with fellow commissioners. "Don't ever put that in writing to me, you hear me?" one replied angrily. Koons won't say who, but he understands. "They feel if they are a commissioner, there are certain resources they can bring to the economically disadvantaged," he said.

But many in the business community had grown weary of the expectations that they support commissioners' pet causes. Clinton Glass, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, said he is glad there's been a culture shift.

"The volume of calls I get today is a whole lot less than before," said Glass, vice president of a commercial development firm. "I think it levels the playing field. The other thing I think it does is send a positive message to firms outside Palm Beach County that are thinking of relocating, that this is a fair place to do business."

Klein, who died in October, donated to many charities, some of them championed by county commissioners. Klein's ardor for their causes spiked from 2003 to 2005, a period when Palm Beach Aggregates needed commission votes to approve zoning for a power plant and 2,000 homes on its western county property. Besides $50,000 for the turtle rescue center, the Sam W. Klein Charitable Foundation contributed $20,000 to the Palm Beach International Film Festival, an organization founded by Aaronson. Klein personally contributed $50,000 to a political action committee founded by Aaronson, Floridians for Stem Cell Research and Cures.

Klein's foundation also donated $40,000 to the Best of the Rest Youth Fest, an annual event sponsored by Greene.

Greene organized the one-day basketball camp with help from Susan Summons, a former pro basketball player who organizes summer camps for needy children. Greene said she allowed Summons to use her county commission office in Delray Beach to solicit Klein and others. "I don't solicit contributions," Greene pointed out.

Klein was one of its biggest supporters, and Greene consistently voted in favor of Palm Beach Aggregates. But Klein's charity, she said, had nothing to do with his business interests.

"Let me tell you, this man loved children," Greene said. "He never missed any of our youth fests, until this year."

Without Klein's support, Greene worries that Youth Fest will end.

She's hoping he remembered her charity in his will.

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Geniusofdespair said...

I am glad someone on this blog is writing a hard hitting analysis...

Anonymous said...

What's the scoop on Olimpia boy Whilmer Bermudez who will challenge Little Boy Jorge Martinez for District 11 ?

Anonymous said...

Selling that pit to the people of Florida was the biggest scam of the decade. What was the owner of that pit going to do with it? Fence it in so no one drowns in it? Keep insurance on it for the rest of his life? Pay taxes on it for ever? Wasn't it nice of Gov. Bush to pay him millions of dollars for it.

Anonymous said...

Michael Pizzi made out like a bandit recieving over a 2 million dollar settlement with his citizens against blasting, then lobbied in tallahassee never to let anyone sue them again. Then he agreed to never speak out against them again! As an criminal attorney he was smart enough to have the records sealed, just to hide the fact that he screwed the rest of us. Not one claim has been paid by the rock miners under this process. Not one person has hade it through the administrative process after Miami Lakes Councilman Michael Pizzi sold us all out! This guy is a crook and we should file a class action law suit against him for the damages of our homes!

Senate BILL: SB 472

Effect of Proposed Changes:
The bill creates the Florida Construction Materials Mining Activities Act. The Act establishes an
exclusive administrative process within the Division of Administrative Hearing for recovery of
damages to real and personal property caused by construction materials mining activities. As
relates to claims, recovery or other similar procedure, this Act pre-empts the authority of
municipalities, counties or other local governmental entities to regulate matters relating to the
use of explosives in their respective corporate limits as provided under s. 555.25, F.S.
Other Constitutional Issues:
To the extent this bill may be construed to abrogate a cause of action in tort that existed at
common law or by statute prior to the adoption of the Florida Constitution, this bill may
raise a constitutional issue regarding right to sue and denial of access to the courts under
s.21 of article I of the Florida Constitution. However, the Legislature can abolish a
judicial remedy provided a reasonable alternative remedy, commensurate benefit or
overpowering public necessity for the abolishment is shown and there is no alternative
method for meeting that public necessity.