Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis was all smiles when he recently visited the activists attacking Commissioner Ben Sorenson in television commercials. In a series of commercials airing on WTVJ/NBC6, Sorenson is attacked over his opposition over plans by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) to build a sixteen story building dubbed “Trantalis Tower.” The massive project, featuring more than 600 micro-units, is located in Fort Lauderdale District 2 which Sorenson represents.

The latest commercial urges residents to contact Sorenson in order to stop an affordable housing crisis. Even though Sorenson is a leading advocate for the homeless, he drew the ire of AHF after he listened to the concerns of nearby residents. In addition to complaints over the size of the development and traffic issues, local residents are concerned over AHF’s lack of transparency over potential residents of “Trantalis Tower.”

The ominous sounding “Meet The Faces Of Fort Lauderdale” ad claims Ben Sorenson “turned his back on those who need his help the most.” Yet, the people in ad are not the ones “who need his help the most.”

One of the “Faces Of Fort Lauderdale” we meet is local attorney Sean Ford. In his free time, Sean Ford is the Broward co-director of New Leaders Council (NLC). Another “face” belongs to local paralegal/law student Vanessa Villaverde. According to the NLC website, Villaverde is a member of the 2019 NLC Fellows class.

IS NLC THE POLITICAL ARM OF AHF?

Last month, REDBROWARD exposed the role NLC played in a meeting held at Fort Lauderdale City Hall. For a candlelight vigil at City Hall, AHF filled two buses with employees of AHF, members of affiliated groups and even young Democrat Party leaders. The made-for-television vigil was orchestrated by AHF legislative affairs director Ebonni Bryant. In a post-meeting Facebook message, Bryant thanked several fellow members of the New Leaders Council (NLC) for their support.

Bryant is a former NLC official.

Stephanie Rosendorf, another NLC member, used her official Broward County e-mail address to spread word about the candlelight vigil. Rosendorf is the aide for Broward County Commissioner Nan Rich, a supporter of the AHF tower project.

According to the NLC website, the group is “the hub for progressive Millennial thought leadership.” NLC claims its training program “equips our leaders with the skills to run for office, manage campaigns, create start-ups and networks of thought leaders. NLC leaders take their activism back into their communities and workplaces to impact progressive change.”

Following the vigil, Ben Sorensen held a meeting to discuss the AHF project. Chadwick Maxey, the director of the NLC Broward chapter, spoke at this meeting. Claiming he was troubled by the lack of affordable housing south of the New River, Maxey gave alleged information on rental properties from the Apartments.com website. Even though he never revealed his affiliation with NLC, Maxey sat with Ebonni Bryant, Sean Ford, Vanessa Villaverde and other NLC members at the meeting.

During his failed January 2018 campaign for Fort Lauderdale City Commission, Chadwick Maxey received two campaign contributions from Jason King, the former AHF lobbyist/legislative affairs director. In a January interview with the Sun-Sentinel, Mayor Dean Trantalis called Jason King his “plus 1” and said King introduced him to AHF CEO Michael Weinstein.

Despite strict Federal regulations prohibiting political activity, it appears AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) forged close ties to NLC over several years. REDBROWARD obtained photographs showing numerous NLC events being held at AHF headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

According to the Council of Non-Profits, “In return for its favored tax-status, a charitable nonprofit promises the federal government that it will not engage in ‘political campaign activity’ and if it does, IRS regulations mandate that the charitable nonprofit will lose its tax-exempt status.” The IRS does allow a 501 (c)(3) to engage in issue advocacy and voter education measures. According to the IRS, “certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.”

Questions regarding Michael Weinstein using AHF funds for political gain have been raised in California.

In 2016, The LA Weekly reported AHF “spent more than $22 million on a pair of statewide ballot measures it authored — as well as more than $1 million on local ballot measures.” Experts claimed such expenditures by charitable groups were not the norm. “It is unusual for a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to spend multiple millions of dollars,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “Even large organizations like the ACLU don’t have funds set aside for campaign purposes that can match the money major corporations or unions put into a campaign.”

Garry South, a political consultant working for AHF, told the LA Weekly there was nothing odd about the group spending millions of dollars on laws forcing porn actors to wear condoms.

“I don’t think it’s unprecedented,” South said. “501(c)(3)s have the ability, under federal law, to spend money on advocacy, and many of them do. This is not unusual or unprecedented at all.”

While AHF support of condom laws, drug price legislation and housing initiatives may fall squarely under the “voter education” exemption of Federal tax code, the group’s ties to NLC may drag the group into partisan politics.

TRANTALIS ALL SMILES AT RECENT NLC VISIT

Despite the controversy over the AHF project, his close ties to the former AHF lobbyist and the role the NLC is playing in attacks on a fellow Commissioner, Trantalis attended last month’s NLC meeting. In pictures posted on Facebook, Dean Trantalis is all smiles as he receives an official NLC coffee mug from Chadwick Maxey and Sean Ford. Vanessa Villaverde watches the presentation from the front row.

Did Dean Trantalis discuss the AHF project with NLC? Did Trantalis defend Ben Sorenson from the NLC-aided attacks? Why is Dean Trantalis playing politics when the City faces so many pressing issues?

Published by Tom Lauder

Covering South Florida Politics Since 2010...As Seen On: POLITICO, The Huffington Post, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, WPLG LOCAL 10 (ABC MIAMI), The New Times

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