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Sunday, May 27, 2018
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This casino town has a dark side — conspiracies, ‘corruption’ and calls for a takeover

Under bright lights, the thoroughbreds wrangle for position, trying to stay within the lines of the track. Despite the millions of dollars riding on their shoulders, they sometimes stray off course. And sometimes they buck.

Across the street from Gulfstream Park, the site of last week’s richest horse race, the real show takes place every first and third Wednesday inside Hallandale Beach’s City Hall, where schoolyard fights among commissioners are common, conspiracies spread on social media and the arrest of a sitting mayor has sparked calls for a state takeover.

"It’s like we are in high school right now," said Aracely Garcia, who for the past two decades has lived in this city of about 40,000 just north of the Miami-Dade County line. "We need people who think about the citizens, our citizens."

The latest chapter in the coastal community: Longtime Mayor Joy Cooper, 57, was arrested and charged on Jan. 25 with money laundering and campaign finance violations after an FBI sting found she had accepted illegal Russian campaign donations, federal agents say. The next day, Gov. Rick Scott removed her from the nonpartisan office. Cooper denies any wrongdoing.

Now her ponytailed arch nemesis, Vice Mayor Keith London, 56, has taken her seat, more than five years after Cooper beat London using those illegal Russian campaign donations, at least according to state prosecutors and the FBI. Cooper’s arrest means there are only three commissioners out of five left, after Commissioner Anthony Sanders resigned last August amid accusations that he received kickbacks from a nonprofit the city helped fund.

RELATED: Hallandale Beach mayor accepted illegal checks from Russians, prosecutors say

Of the three commissioners left, one — self-proclaimed "whistle-blower" Anabelle Taub, elected in 2016 — has called for Scott to intervene and appoint someone to run the city.

"If there was a way for him to come in here on a clean slate, I would be the first one to resign," said Taub, 41. "Not because I did anything wrong, but because I think the city needs a fresh start."

A special election to fill Sanders’ seat will be held March 13, and another one will be held later this year to elect a new mayor, city attorney Jennifer Merino said. If Cooper is cleared of all charges, she would be eligible to return as mayor.

From the outside, Hallandale Beach is the ideal city. It’s flush with funds from its two casinos, Gulfstream Park and Mardi Gras. Snowbirds come here to retire. Luxurious condos line its coast.

But inside the commission chambers, dysfunction and drama have plagued the city in recent years. The decorum residents have come to expect from their elected officials — who make $35,000 per year, according to the city clerk’s office — has been replaced with feuding that some say is getting in the way of city business.

London says there will be "transparency and open government" under his watch.

"There’s two ways of looking at this," London said. "Looking to the past and looking to the future."

FIRST DAY BACK

On Wednesday, during Hallandale Beach’s first commission meeting since Cooper’s dethroning, two residents approached the dais and accused the city of corruption, albeit without evidence. Upset about the shutting down of a neighborhood swimming pool, they said they’ve grown more frustrated with what they call "high school" behavior among their elected officials.

Garcia, who attended the meeting with her children, said she doubts the legitimacy of past city actions and hopes the state can step in to clean house.

"We’re going to write a letter to the government and I’m going to go knock on the doors and [ask residents] to sign a petition to investigate everything, all the things that are going on in Hallandale," said Garcia, originally from Ecuador. "I pay my taxes and I think I’m entitled to do it."

Her daughter, 15-year-old Victoria Figueroa, was equally disgusted.

"It’s disgusting the way they speak toward each other," said the Fort Lauderdale High School freshman. "My friends at school are better than [how] they act in here."

Taub, a first-term commissioner who has flirted with resignation, said she wants the state to investigate what she believes to be "dirty" politics. Last week, she wrote a letter to Scott’s office asking for a state intervention in exchange for her resignation.

"I am truly worried about the years of greed and backroom deals by all the current or past city commissioners," she wrote in her letter. "If there isn’t an immediate intervention and close supervision or a take over by the Governor’s office in our city, I shudder to think what will happen to the 40,000 residents."

Her colleagues on the dais, however, say that Taub refuses to provide any evidence of wrongdoing and that she is playing to a small base of critics.

"It’s unbelievable to me what is happening," said Commissioner Michele Lazarow, 50, often mentioned by Taub in scathing posts on social media. "It is like high school. It’s sad."

Lazarow, who called herself "the idiot" who advised Taub to run in 2016, said Taub is "picking up the baton" of disruption that Cooper left behind.

"She’s putting everything on Facebook, causing hysteria, trying to get people to hate us," said Lazarow, who was elected in 2012. "Policy doesn’t get made on Facebook. Policy gets made on the dais in city hall."

"I’m not a psychologist, but she’s crazy," London added. "I don’t know the clinical definition."

PREVIOUS PROBLEMS

While Cooper’s arrest has cast a spotlight on the city, Hallandale Beach is not unfamiliar with negative publicity:

• In 2012, the year FBI agents targeted Cooper, London was accused of violating an antiquated state law, specifically Florida Statute 798.02, prohibiting a man and a woman from living together out of wedlock. The accusation came up when he ran for mayor against Cooper. He lost, then was reelected as commissioner in 2015. "I believe the residents of Hallandale are much more concerned with the 15 percent increase in their sewage fees and fire assessment fees than my marital status," London said at the time.

• Just weeks before the city’s 2016 election, London, Lazarow and Taub found GPS trackers under their cars and blamed it on Cooper, who denied the charge and questioned whether her accusers attached the trackers as a political stunt. Private investigator and French national Victor Elbeze was eventually charged by prosecutors last year, according to the Sun Sentinel.

• Also in 2016, London and Taub used city paper to photocopy campaign checks, and were promptly accused by Cooper of abusing the "public trust."

• In August, then-Commissioner Sanders resigned following accusations from the Broward Inspector General that he funneled about $1 million to a nonprofit that paid him kickbacks. He has not been charged.

• Also in 2017, Cooper, then mayor, was accused of being intoxicated at a city commission meeting after heavily slurring her words. She said it was "Montezuma’s revenge." The police chief confiscated her keys, and her husband was called to take her home.

London and Lazarow see the recent series of events in the city as an opportunity to flush out the rot they said has festered inside the commission chambers. They reject what they call distractions orchestrated by Taub.

"I really think this is a new day," Lazarow said.

With a special election in March to fill Sanders’ seat, voters will choose between former Commissioner Bill Julian, who was recently cleared of allegations that he accepted favors from a developer for his vote, and businessman Mike Butler. Lazarow and London have publicly backed Butler, while Taub refuses to support either.

Julian was cleared after a 14-month investigation and after losing his seat last year to Taub, but his past alliance with Cooper isn’t likely to help his campaign. In 2012, Cooper solicited $1,000 for Julian’s campaign coffers ahead of his reelection bid, according to prosecutors. Cooper promised FBI agents posing as land developers that she, Julian and Sanders could ensure a favorable outcome to their purported project, the feds say.

There is no evidence that Julian knew the source of the contributions, according to the FBI.

To George Gonzalez, a professor of political science at the University of Miami, Hallandale’s troubles reflect the broader ecosystem of local politics.

"Corruption is virtually built into the system," he said, noting how South Florida’s mix of cash-rich developers and politicians running for personal gain can often lead to misconduct.

"People have lost all faith and all belief in the politics at the local level," Gonzalez said. "It’s a joke."

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