The Broward State Attorney’s Office has issued subpoenas to Hallandale Beach officials — including Mayor Joy Cooper — in connection with a criminal investigation into the alleged misuse of city funds by a nonprofit group, the Palm Center for the Arts.
BrowardBulldog.org obtained one subpoena served on the city clerk asking her to produce the transcribed minutes and tape recordings of a March 17, 2010 commission meeting, a copy of a $5,000 check issued by the city to the Palm Center and any correspondence between the nonprofit group “and/or founder Dr. Deborah Brown” regarding that check.
City Clerk Sheena James is to appear at the State Attorney’s Office with the records and to testify at 8 a.m. June 24. The subpoena is signed by Assistant State Attorney Deborah Zimet.
The subpoena and the audit committee’s inquiry stem from a yearlong investigation by the Broward Inspector General’s Office that found city officials had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in Community Redevelopment Agency funds.
The CRA is funded by a portion of the property taxes collected within its boundaries.
Inspector General John Scott’s office said it found “probable cause” that Brown, the Palm Center’s founder and director, had engaged in criminal misconduct and asked the State Attorney’s Office to investigate.
Hallandale Beach officials have denied any misspending of CRA funds and defended how those funds were handled. They have also challenged many of the Inspector General’s findings, including criticism that the city wrongfully funded nonprofit groups, paid for fireworks displays and provided loans to businesses.
Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, a Palm Beach County Democrat who is chairman of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, and Rep. Lake Ray, a Duval County Republican who is the vice chairman, began asking questions on Thursday after being contacted by “a concerned citizen.”
Abruzzo and Ray sent a certified letter to Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper. Copies were sent to Florida Auditor General David Martin, Broward’s commissioners, Broward County Inspector General John Scott and Hallandale Beach City Manager Renee C. Miller.
Citing the report by Scott’s office, the legislators asked Cooper to respond to accusations that Hallandale had improperly co-mingled city and CRA funds and justify more than $2.2 million in questionable spending.
Abruzzo and Ray’s letter says that if the city fails to provide “specific authority” under state law, or if the expenditures were not included in the city’s CRA plan, Hallandale may have to restore the money to the CRA trust fund.
The legislators also suggested that city commissioners, who sit as the CRA’s board of directors, seek a new Attorney General’s opinion regarding what constitutes allowable expenditures.
Abruzzo and Ray also want to know if the city is complying with recommendations by Broward’s Inspector General, including whether the city has established policies to comply with state law and ensure the CRA operates independently.
Cooper said she has informed the committee that lawyers for the city and the CRA will respond to their questions.
“I reaffirmed my position and that of our attorneys that expenditures by the CRA are within the authority of the statute to address slum blight, crime and economic development,” she said.