To borrow a line from the Bard of Avon, “I come to bury the Sun-Sentinel, not to praise it.” Over the last week, the paper of record for Broward county has abandoned its duty, to its readers and its reporters, to stand up to politicians and their cronies. Last Saturday, the Sun-Sentinel endorsed the re-election of highly controversial Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness. A few days later, the newspaper made national headlines when POLITICO revealed the Sun-Sentinel pulled a story regarding alleged corruption in Hallandale Beach.
On Wednesday, WPLG investigative reporter Bob Norman exposed a recording of Hallandale Beach vice mayor Bill Julian admitting his vote for a condo development in exchange for a favor. “What they don’t know is they’re buying the food bank a frigging van that I couldn’t tell anybody,” Julian said. Norman said an attorney for the developer “secretly promised him that they would buy the Hallandale Food Pantry, Julian’s pet project in the city, a new van.”
According to Julian, the attorney, Debbie Orshefsky promised to back his re-election campaign. “Orshefsky tells me, before this, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll have 300 people out in the street for you when you run for office,'” the vice mayor said on the phone.
After listening to recording, Julian admitted to accepting favors in return for his vote. Norman reported, “Julian immediately admitted that he had agreed to accept those gifts during negotiations in a meeting with one of the project developers, Michael Meyers, and Orshefsky, a partner in the Holland & Knight law firm and one of the most prolific development attorneys in South Florida.” Julian admitted he asked for the van to be given to the food pantry.
“People are going to think that I’m taking bribes,” Julian said. “They are going to say, ‘Wow, Bill, after all these years, he turned out to be another criminal.'”
One would assume the South Florida Sun-Sentinel would be all over this story. Normally, local television reporters don’t cover the Hallandale Beach beat. These local government stories are covered by Sun-Sentinel reporters and Hallandale Beach bloggers like David Smith.
SUN-SENTINEL KEEPS REPORTERS AWAY FROM HALLANDALE BEACH MEETING
As it turned out, the Sun-Sentinel did not want to cover the Hallandale Beach scandal. First, Buddy Nevins of Broward Beat reported the paper pulled a Hallandale Beach story from its website. Then, the story made national headlines. POLITICO reported the paper “killed” the story. Marc Caputo said killing the story was “A move by the newspaper’s leadership that appears to be part of a pattern of censoring controversial stories, according to multiple sources inside and outside the Fort Lauderdale newsroom.”
Sources told Caputo that reporters were forbidden to attend Thursday’s Hallandale Beach Commission meeting by publisher Howard Saltz. At this meeting, two commissioners were threatened with arrest for speaking about the Julian scandal. Mayor Joy Cooper ended up cutting the meeting short. Bob Norman and Channel 10 got the whole mess on video.
“Saltz kills stories in the classic way: He nitpicks them to death,” said one source familiar with the newsroom discussions of the story. “So here he was saying, ‘oh, this is just an allegation. We don’t have all the facts. It’s not responsible to put this out there. We don’t have comment from Julian.’ And then what happens? They stop [reporter] Susannah [Bryan] from covering the meeting the next day and getting comment from Julian.”
Buddy Nevins told Caputo, “I keep hearing that stories are being killed from time to time and no one knows why….The reporters feel they shouldn’t rock the boat.”
Shouldn’t the Sun-Sentinel reporters “rock the boat” when an elected politician admits on audio and video to accepting gifts in exchange for his vote? Isn’t this the duty of a public watchdog? Why didn’t Saltz send every single reporter to Hallandale Beach to cover this story?
“AND ABSENT A BETTER CASE TO FIRE THE INCUMBENT–WE ENDORSE HOLNESS”
In its surprising endorsement in the Broward County Commission, District 9 race, the Sun-Sentinel editorial board actually wrote the following: “and absent a better case to fire the incumbent — we endorse [Dale] Holness. What? Is this a joke?
We know times are tough at TRONC and the Sun-Sentinel, but we’re pretty sure they have access to the internet. Plus, they should have access to old copies of their own newspaper. Hell, the editorial board could just call up their own reporters.
They needed a “better case” to fire Dale Holness?!?
The editorial board wrote, “But Holness, a real estate broker, is not without controversy. In recent years, he has faced foreclosures, delinquent taxes and code violations on properties he owns. He largely blames the recession.” They said he made the “mistake” of meddling in other Broward county races. A mistake?!? As in, oops I didn’t mean to do that?
Come on Rosemary O’Hara, that’s it? That’s your due diligence? You could make a better case to give Holness the boot?
What about the Sun-Sentinel story two weeks ago showing Dale Holness used taxpayer money to send campaign newsletters? Brittany Wallman wrote, “Holness read from the piece at the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board candidate interviews. At the interview, Smith referred to the newsletter as ‘that sheet that he uses at every campaign rally … paid for by the county.”’ Wallman reported Broward taxapyers spent more than $5,000 on the newsletter.
Let’s get this straight, Holness admits to using public funds to bolster his campaign AT HIS MEETING WITH THE SUN-SENTINEL EDITORIAL BOARD and you still endorse him? In the endorsement you said, “In the end, we decided to endorse the incumbent because he’s been in the trenches fighting, with some success.” Yeah, he’s been fighting with the public money.
Did you talk to Sun-Sentinel reporter Lisa Huriash? In 2013, she reported Dale Holness was not paying his property taxes. Huriash reported, “Broward Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness owes almost $13,000 in unpaid property taxes on five apartments he owns in Lauderhill, records show.” Holness blamed the economy and this reporter for breaking the story.
“I believe we ought to be good stewards,” he said. “And I’m very conservative in my expenditures. In my personal life I don’t spend unless it’s important for my children.” Yeah, but he’s not a great steward of neighborhoods in District 9.
For that story you should have called up Sun-Sentinel reporter Megan O’Matz. In 2012, she reported how Holness treated his tenants. She wrote, “But for years Holness held title to a Fort Lauderdale rental property that became an unattractive wreck. He did not repair it. The house fell into foreclosure and city code violation fines began mounting — totaling $6,425 currently and still growing.”
“At the Fort Lauderdale house, it was Holness, one of the county’s top elected officials, who was owner for eight years. White boards now cover the windows. Bottles and other trash are scattered around the lawn. A screen enclosure over the backyard patio is shredded. Public notices from the city and bank representatives are taped to the front door and garage.”
This is the guy you said was in the trenches fighting for his district?
What about the questions surrounding whether Holness even lived in the district? This reporter found ample evidence Holness was lying about his residency.
In 2013 we reported Holness appeared to be thumbing his nose at residency laws regarding Broward County Commissioners. Very strong evidence indicated Holness lived outside the district he represents, though Article II, Section 2.01 A(3) of the Broward County Charter clearly states each commissioner “must be a resident of the particular district upon election.”
According to records from the Broward County Supervisor of Elections (SOE), Holness registered to vote within District 9 by claiming to live in a small, older 940-square foot townhome in the Royal Oaks townhome development at 2630 N.W. 52nd Avenue in Lauderhill. Property records from the Broward County Property Appraiser (BCPA) show Holmes owns the small home but does not list it as his primary residence for his homestead tax exemption. Broward tax collector records show Holness owes $2,586.86 in delinquent taxes.
A visit to the townhome showed it was being used as storage facility. When confronted by Bob Norman, Holness continued the charade. “My home … is at 2630,” said Holness, referring to the unit 2630 NW 52nd Avenue, one of several homes Holness, a landlord, owns in the neighborhood.” The property handyman told Norman that nobody lived in the unit. Norman described Holness’ home as “a small run-down housing unit in Lauderhill stacked to the ceiling with furniture and boxes. A realtor’s locked box hangs from the door knob. The refrigerator isn’t plugged in and its door is wide open.”
Don’t these stories make a compelling case NOT to endorse Dale Holness? Shouldn’t the residents of District 9 expect better from their public servants? Don’t they deserve better from their politicians and their newspaper?
2014 ENDORSEMENTS JUST AS BAD
Sadly, Rosemary O’Hara and the Sun-Sentinel editorial board have a poor track record when it comes to endorsements. Instead of acting as public watchdogs, they have tended to protect insiders and the status quo. In 2014, we exposed their shameful endorsement of then Judge Steven Feren.
We wrote, “As evidenced by their endorsements this week, the Sun-Sentinel editorial board has given up. And they want you to wave the white flag of surrender too. Instead of fighting the corruption, the lazy politicians and slimy consultants, the Sun-Sentinel editorial board wants you to ‘hold your nose’ and vote to keep things the same.”
In their endorsement of Feren, they called Feren the “underwhelming favorite.” They spoke about his reputation of being lazy and leaving working early. When asked if he takes Fridays off, Feren told them he’s just as likely to leave early on a Monday. “I’m just as likely to leave at 4 o’clock on a Monday or Tuesday as I am on a Friday,” Feren said. “Judges aren’t elected to punch the clock.”
Once again, the editorial board ignored the evidence showing Feren was not fit to remain on the bench.
RED BROWARD reported on Feren’s removal from juvenile court after the Fourth District Court Of Appeals ruled he was being unfair to juvenile defendants. The appellate judges feared Feren was pushing Broward’s youth, assuming the charges against them proved their guilt. Feren was punishing minors for proclaiming their innocence.
Then, there was the case of little Lilly Baumann. Two-year old Lilly went missing in May 2014 when she disappeared with her racist, conspiracy theory-loving, gun-toting mother. Lilly’s dad, Robert Baumann, begged for full custody of Lilly. He brought pictures of Lilly playing with boxes of bullets to Feren, hoping he would protect Lilly from her mother and her boyfriend. He showed racist YouTube videos posted by the boyfriend. Baumann gave Feren pictures of Lilly clad in Confederate gear among strangers.
Feren ignored Baumann’s plea. He told Lilly’s mom to buy gun locks. Two months after awarding joint custody to Megan Everett, she vanished with Lilly. She left a rambling letter discussing the evils of vaccinations, black history and Abraham Lincoln.
When Robert Baumann was at his most vulnerable, when he feared for the safety of his little girl, he believed Judge Steven B. Feren would protect him.
Broward voters ingored the Sun-Sentinel and Feren was defeated. Luckily, one year later, the FBI found Lilly Baumann.
WHO IS MAKING THE DECISION?
During this year’s Sun-Sentinel editorial board interviews, REDBROWARD received troubling phone calls about the process. Candidates complained that non-employees were attending the interviews. Others were told reporters sitting in on the interviews were not allowed to ask questions.
On August 16, editor Rosemary O’Hara responded to our questions about the interview process. She wrote, “I’m not sure I understand your question about who attended interviews? But the answer is depending on the race, it was myself, Gary Stein, Andrew Abramson, my husband Tom O’Hara (an FAU visiting professor, former newspaper editor and freelance journalist), and/or Randy Schultz, a former newspaper editor and freelance journalist. We also had reporters and editors attend some meetings, although they are not involved in deciding our endorsements.”
Did we miss “Bring Your Spouse To Work” day? Why are former editors sitting in on meetings? Do they have any frame of reference when it comes to Broward politics? Why are you ignoring the wisdom and first hand knowledge of your reporters? And what’s up with Randy Schultz?
Last we heard, he was wrapped up in political scandal in Palm Beach. Ace investigative reporter Jose Lambiet reported Schultz and one of his top lieutenants had a cozy relationship with the Palm Beach State Attorney. In 2011, emails obtained by Lambiet revealed an ultra-cozy relationship between State Attorney Michael McAuliffe and at least two of the newspaper’s figureheads.
“In one email dated Nov. 2, 2011, Rhonda Swan, one of the newspapers’ editorial writers, bypassed the proper channels and asked McAuliffe to get involved in a criminal investigation where she was named,” Lambiet reported.
In other emails, Randy Schultz, the newspaper’s Editorial Page Editor, “appeared to coach McAuliffe on how to write op-ed pieces published in the Post,editorials where McAuliffe refuted criticisms of his administration or advanced his political agenda.” Two years later, Schultz opted for a buyout from the paper.
So why is this guy involved in Broward politics?
Does anyone at the Sun-Sentinel have a cozy relationship with Dale Holness or Bill Julian?
Broward voters deserve editors that will empower reporters to ask tough questions. Reporters deserve editors that will back them up when they “speak truth to power.”
We deserve answers. We deserve better.