Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca’s deep ties to a local charity is raising eyebrows among political insiders. Commissioner LaMarca’s wife, Eileen LaMarca is the executive director of The Crockett Foundation. According to its website, The Crockett Foundation claims to “help build character, develop leaders, and improve communities – one child at a time,” through afterschool programs focusing upon math, reading and technology. The foundation was started in 2002 by former FSU football stars Zack and Henri Crockett. But it’s the membership of the Crockett Foundation board that concerns local watchdogs.
In addition to his wife, Commissioner Chip LaMarca’s former aide, Ryan Reiter, sits on the Crockett Foundation Board. Reiter currently serves in a government relations position for Kaufman Lynn Construction. Recently, Kaufman Lynn has landed several lucrative government jobs, including the city hall project in Coral Springs and the amphitheater in the city of Miramar.
Another Crockett Foundation board member is local developer Dev Motwani. REDBROWARD previously reported how Motwani, a prolific Democrat Party fundraiser, contributed to LaMarca’s political campaigns. Even though Motwani raised big bucks for former Democrat Congressman Patrick Murphy, Republican Chip LaMarca named Motwani as his campaign treasurer in 2014. Mr. Motwani, a Fort Lauderdale Beach hotel developer, is trying to revitalize the aging Las Olas Riverfront development.
LaMarca is a regular at fundraising events for the Crockett Foundation. He has been photographed with Reiter and Motwani at Crockett Foundation events. Earlier this month, LaMarca attended a Crockett foundation event at a local Broward school.
According to Broward County records, Chip LaMarca has not filed any disclosure forms regarding fundraising for the Crockett Foundation. The County has guidelines regarding charitable fundraising by commissioners.
PAST INVESTIGATIONS INTO BROWARD COMMISSIONERS AND CHARITIES
In 2010, the Broward State Attorney’s Office investigated former Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman’s ties to a charity organization. As part of the investigation into the Chait bribery scandal, officials examined a large contribution to the Transplant Foundation by shady developers Shawn and Bruce Chait. Commissioner Lieberman served on the board of the Transplant Foundation. While raising funds from lobbyists and insiders for a good cause may be noble, reporter Bob Norman summed up the ethical issue.
Norman wrote, “That may sound benevolent enough, but it’s also a good way for a politician to use her position — and money from special interests that want her vote — to make her a big shot.”
In a sworn statement, convicted former County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion said, “the Chaits considered Lieberman…’close friends’ and thought Lieberman would vote for their project because, Eggelletion said, the Chaits ‘had contributed a substantial sum of money to a project she wanted. I think it was $25,000…'”
In 2012, Norman reported the Chaits gave more than $25,000 to the Transplant Foundation. He reported, “prosecutors subpoenaed those records as part of the investigation but filed no charges against Lieberman.”
Commissioner LaMarca No Stranger To Ethics Questions
Chip LaMarca is no stranger to ethics questions. In 2012, LaMarca wanted to serve as a
lobbyist “business development director” for a company owned by a political supporter. The company would privatize portions of government agencies including the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO). According to the Sun-Sentinel, LaMarca sought an opinion from a State ethics panel because the Broward’s Code of Ethics specifically bans county commissioners lobbying city officials in Broward. LaMarca told the Sun-Sentinel he did not consider his proposed job as “lobbying.”
In May 2012, the State said otherwise. The Florida Commission on Ethics ruled “some elements of Broward Commissioner Chip LaMarca’s proposed outside job would violate state law.”
In 2013, this reporter exposed the ethical questions surrounding a foreclosure case surrounding LaMarca. In May 2012, Wells Fargo Bank initiated court proceedings in an attempt to collect more than $385,000 from LaMarca. A Media Trackers Florida review of court records revealed how lobbyists, professional sports franchises, and the proliferation of campaign cash played a role in the case.
Questions about the political angles began when LaMarca hired legal counsel. LaMarca was represented by Steven Stoll and David DiPietro. A review of the LaMarca case files showed David DiPietro filed most of the documents. In 2011, DiPietro, also former legal counsel for the Broward County Republican Party, was appointed to serve on the North Broward Hospital District by Gov. Rick Scott.
Wells Fargo created potential conflicts of interest by hiring Scott Simowitz, of Moskowitz, Mandell, Salim and Simowitz, as its attorney.
The potential conflicts arose from the involvement of Michael Moskowitz, founder and managing partner of the firm. Moskowitz’s role as lobbyist raised the greatest concerns in this case. According to the Broward County government website, Michael Moskowitz is a registered lobbyist with clients such as Sheltair Jet Center and Sunrise Sports and Entertainment.
In August of 2013, the Broward County Commission approved a new lease with Sheltair Jet Center. The company operates the fuel facilities at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. The new lease allowed Sheltair to secure millions of dollars in new financing.
LaMarca and the Commission approved the deal. There is no record of Moskowitz discussing Sheltair with LaMarca. There is no record of LaMarca mentioning any potential conflict of interest.
At the May 14, 2013, Broward County Commission meeting, county auditors questioned the financial practices surrounding the operation of the county-owned arena in Sunrise. Specifically, the company hired to operate the arena overpaid the Panthers $4.2 million, failed to fund and maintain required reserve accounts, and failed to comply with financial reporting requirements of the agreement. Instead of demanding answers from Florida Panthers management, the County Commission voted to spend $4.2 million of tourist tax dollars to purchase a new high-definition scoreboard for the Panthers. LaMarca voted in favor of the expenditure.
There is no record of LaMarca discussing the matter with Moskowitz. LaMarca never mentioned a potential conflict of interest.
In October 2013, a court order granted mediation between Wells Fargo and LaMarca, appointing a “Joy Speechler” as mediator. Local lawyers believe the court website misspelled mediator Jay Spechler’s name as “Joy Speechler.” Spechler, a former Broward County judge, is a prominent mediator who frequently works with DiPietro.
At an October 2013 commission meeting, LaMarca and seven other Broward County Commissioners voted to approve a new financial arrangement with a local children’s art museum. Several years ago, the Commission gave $3 million to help build a new facility for the Young At Art (YAA) children’s museum. In exchange for a 40-year lease, the museum promised to repay the money over 11 years.
With nearly $2 million in past due payments, YAA announced it would miss another payment deadline. The County Commission voted to allow Young At Art to refinance the deal and make its payments over 40 years rather than 11. In the days before the vote, Mindy Shrago, Executive Director/CEO of Young At Art, visited commissioners. The Commission visitors log shows Shrago met with LaMarca on October 21, 2013 at 4:00pm.
Mindy Shrago is the wife of former Judge Jay Spechler. LaMarca never mentioned a potential conflict of interest before casting his vote on the refinancing measure.
NEW ISSUE SURROUNDS BROWARD HEALTH INVESTIGATION
Last year, a new scandal erupted over LaMarca and his “lobbying” or lack thereof. According to published reports, Federal and State agencies are investigating criminal wrongdoing at Broward Health. Last October, REDBROWARD reported lawyers for Independent Review Organization (IRO) believe the controversial $71 million dollar contract between Broward Health and Zimmerman Advertising may have violated the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute. The IRO report is the second fact finding body troubled by the multi-million dollar deal involving former Broward Health Chairman David Di Pietro, the late Broward Health CEO Nabil El-Sanadi and Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca.
According to the IRO, just one month after becoming the new Broward Health CEO, Dr. Nabil El-Sanadi met with Jordan Zimmerman. Three months later, Broward Health paid Zimmerman Advertising $2.1 million dollars for “marketing services.” The report states, “Nine days after the contract was entered into, Zimmerman hired Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca as its Vice President of Community Relations.”
Based upon interviews and other sources, the report states, “[I]t appears attorney and Chair of the [Broward Health] Board of Commissioners David Di Pietro desired to increase the $2.1 million contract.” One interviewee told investigators that LaMarca was a client of Di Pietro.
The report reveals investigators were troubled by the June 2015 fundraiser for Judge Nina Di Pietro held at Zimmerman Advertising offices. “The IRO is concerned that physicians, apparently while engaged in Focus Arrangement contract or renewal negotiations with [Broward Health], were apparently donors to her campaign.” Judge Nina Weatherly Di Pietro is the wife of David Di Pietro.
Two months later, LaMarca met with El-Sanadi and Broward Health CIO Doris Peek at a Fort Lauderdale Waffle House. The IRO reported the same information contained in the Berger Singerman review previously reported by REDBROWARD. According to both reports, Peek stated LaMarca pushed for an expansion of the Zimmerman contract. She told the IRO, “LaMarca advised them that his role was to develop new mutually-beneficial opportunities for [Broward Health] and Zimmerman.”
According to Peek, “LaMarca implicitly threatened Dr. El-Sanadi with termination if he did not agree to expanding the contract.” In The Berger Singerman report, Peek claimed LaMarca said, “I put you here, and I can take you out.”
By October 2015, the IRO report states the relationship between Jordan Zimmerman and El-Sanadi became “strained.” Numerous delays kept the new Zimmerman contract from coming before the Board. According to the report, two commissioners took issue when El-Sanadi pulled the contract from a board meeting agenda. When El-Sanadi pulled the item from the agenda, “Di Pietro and Board Commissioner Maureen Canada became ‘very upset.’”
Last year, REDBROWARD revealed the close ties between Maureen Canada and Chip LaMarca. In 2006, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigated Chip LaMarca’s role at a local electrical construction firm. The FDLE report exposed close ties between Chip LaMarca and the family of Broward Health Commissioner Maureen Spieker Canada.
It appears Di Pietro and Canada were upset over El-Sanadi’s attempts to place performance measurements in the new Zimmerman Advertising contract. Interviewees told IRO investigators, “Di Pietro and Canada were opposed [to] anything that could delay the amendment and/or expansion of the contract or to the inclusion of the performance measurements.”
The IRO states El-Sanadi’s insistence on performance measurements would eventually doom the Zimmerman deal. The Board made one additional $1.5 million advertising buy in December 2015. The original contract would end and, “Shortly thereafter, LaMarca resigned his position with Zimmerman.”
El-Sanadi would commit suicide in January 2016.
The report states, “The assertions of specific ROI and ‘accelerated growth’ and ‘incremental growth’ in the Zimmerman proposal raise serious concerns regarding AKS (anti-kickback statute) prohibitions.” The AKS prohibits soliciting, receiving, offering or paying any remuneration (including any kickbacks, rebates or bribes) in return for referrals of individuals for federal healthcare program services. The reports states, “While the statute is an intent-based statute, the scope of the statute is so broad that financial arrangements, including compensation and ownership arrangements, which are normal and commercially reasonable in other contexts, may in fact be a federal crime when implemented in the context of persons or entities who are in a position to refer patients to a health care provider or entity which bills Medicare, Medicaid or any other Federal or state payor program with respect to such patients.”
Finally, the IRO states it, “Believes the attempted transaction may implicate the AKS because it could result in the referral of government-funded beneficiaries and because the payment options were based on ROI. As a result, we will leave the determination for the the appropriate federal and state officials to investigate, if they deem it necessary.”
Will Chip LaMarca recuse himself from voting on issues involving Kaufman Lynn and Motwani’s Merrimac Ventures? Has he already voted on issues? Have lobbyists made donations to the Crockett Foundation? Have local businesses with items before the County Commission donated to the Crockett Foundation? Stay tuned.