Hallandale Beach’s controversial $1.2 million purchase of land owned by a former congressman’s charter school company was riddled with mistakes but was not a criminal offense, says an independent auditor hired by new City Manager Renee Crichton. Even so, the auditor’s findings have two city officials and one former administrator dodging and weaving to explain away their mishandling of the deal.
In addition to the auditor’s report, the Broward County Office of the Inspector General is conducting a separate investigation of this and other land purchases by the city amid accusations of mismanagement and possible corruption.
The land, a 1.9-acre parcel owned by former Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch’s charter-school company, was supposed to be purchased with money from Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA’s board, made up of the city’s five commissioners, voted to buy the land in 2011. But instead of CRA money, city administrators used the city’s own general revenue to pay for the land. The auditor faults these officials for acting without approval of the City Commission to use city money and title the property in the city’s, not the CRA’s, name.
The three administrators — former City Manager Mark Antonio, CRA Director Alvin Jackson and Finance Director Patty Ladolcetta — were “primarily responsible for the payment transaction,” said the auditor, former West Palm Beach internal auditor Imogene Isaacs. The administrators gave Ms. Isaacs some very lame excuses for their mistakes. Mr. Antonio says he remembers discussions about using city funds but couldn’t recall any actions taken. Mr. Jackson says he had been CRA director for only 10 months and so did not yet understand the financial account numbers. Ms. Ladolcetta said she couldn’t remember how the wrong funds came to be used but that Mr. Antonio signed off on the deal and she accepted his approval.
So, based on such vague and flimsy explanations, Ms. Isaacs judged the land deal “improper” but not criminal. She and other auditors recommend that the Hallandale Beach City Commission institute a series of internal controls in its budgeting processes to prevent a repeat of the land-deal fiasco. The City Commission should also decide whether the mishandled land purchase should have been made by the city or the CRA, designate which source should have funded the deal and which entity should get title to the property.
Meantime, the allegations of mismanagement and corruption involving questionable city loans and CRA land deals being investigated by the Broward Inspector General still leave a dark cloud over the city’s administration.
At least one person wants to disperse that dark cloud. To her credit, City Manager Crichton told the City Commission in a memo that she hired Ms. Isaacs because she was striving for “integrity and transparency in my operations.” The auditor’s findings and recommendations are a small step toward that much-desired “integrity and transparency” in how Hallandale Beach does business from now on.