It began with a bold plan to build more than 700 homes on two old golf courses, making millions for the developers and boosting the tax coffers for Tamarac, a city that hadn't seen such a big proposal in years.
Now the father-and-son team of homebuilders who dreamed up the plan to develop the Sabal Palm and Monterey courses have become the common thread in some recent public corruption arrests and ongoing investigations by the Broward State Attorney's Office that have shaken the county.
Bruce and Shawn Chait, who are cooperating with state prosecutors, have reached a plea deal to resolve criminal charges that they paid off politicians to get their controversial proposal approved.
Former County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion is serving a prison term after confessing he took $28,200 worth of bribes from the Chaits. And Patricia Atkins-Grad was suspended from the Tamarac City Commission last month after state prosecutors charged her with accepting $6,300 from the Chaits for a party to celebrate her election and to lease a BMW. She disputes the charges against her.
Other city and county officials are under scrutiny because of alleged interactions with the Chaits, including Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco, former city Vice Mayor Marc Sultanof, county Commissioners Ilene Lieberman and Stacy Ritter and School Board member Stephanie Kraft, according to several sources with knowledge of the investigations. These officials, with the exception of Kraft, voted on the Chaits' proposals.
According to the sources, who spoke on condition they not be identified:
Prosecutors are looking into allegations that Flansbaum-Talabisco secretly received indirect help from the Chaits to attack her election opponents and that, in return, she voted in favor of their development. She is not accused of pocketing any cash or gifts for herself.
Prosecutors have subpoenaed records from the Transplant Foundation Inc., a nonprofit group that provides support services to liver transplant patients and their families. Lieberman is a board member for the organization and investigators are reportedly examining who donated to it, and why. Lieberman is not accused of taking any cash or gifts for herself.
The State Attorney's Office is investigating allegations that the Chaits paid for at least some of the cost of a personal vehicle for Sultanof.
None of these officials has been charged with a crime, and in some of the cases, the investigations are said to be in the early stages. Ron Ishoy, a spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, said he had no comment.
Efforts to contact Sultanof this week were unsuccessful despite phone messages left at his home. His attorney, Lewis Fishman, declined to comment.
Lieberman was out of state and had temporarily lost her voice due to illness. She responded by e-mail to some questions posed by the Sun Sentinel but did not answer all queries.
Lieberman wrote: "I have not been contacted by the state attorney's office, nor informed by the state attorney's office of any investigation relating to the Transplant Foundation … Should the state attorney have any question concerning any of my service on the Transplant Foundation or the County Commission, I will be more than happy to respond."
Lieberman said her work for the foundation is voluntary and that she receives no compensation. She is a strong supporter of the group and has spoken frequently about her son's liver transplants. Lieberman has hosted annual golf fundraisers for the organization for the past five years.
Donations to the foundation are not public record and charity officials contested the subpoena to turn them over, but a judge ordered them in April to hand over the records, sources told the Sun Sentinel. Jon Polenberg, president-elect of the foundation's executive board and also the attorney who attended the court challenge to the subpoena, said, "The foundation's policy is they can't comment on pending legal matters."
Regarding the investigation of Flansbaum-Talabisco, the Tamarac mayor told the Sun Sentinel on Thursday that "on the advice of my counsel, I can't comment." Her attorney, Larry S. Davis, declined to comment.
Flansbaum-Talabisco returned $2,000 of $2,500 in campaign donations the Chaits and their associates made to her campaign in 2006 when some residents complained political donations might influence later votes. But sources say prosecutors believe she secretly benefited from much larger sums from the Chaits that were used to smear her opponents, former Commissioner Karen Roberts and former mayoral candidate Mae Schreiber.
The mailings were sent out days before the March 14, 2006, election by an electioneering communications organization called Tamarac Residents for Good Government.
City, county and state campaign finance records reviewed by the Sun Sentinel show the committee was formed March 9, 2006, by Democratic activist Barry Harris. It reported receiving $21,000 in donations, $10,500 each from AllStar Electric Inc., of Miami, and Wholesale Flooring Center, of Coconut Creek.
There is nothing illegal about the electioneering committees, sometimes called 527s, but they are controversial. While political candidates are limited to accepting $500 donations, the committees can take in unlimited amounts of money. They sometimes also allow donors to be concealed until it is too late to make a difference in an election.
To sustain any criminal charges, prosecutors would have to prove that Flansbaum-Talabisco was involved in or had knowledge of the plan to smear her opponents or voted for the Chaits' development in return for the financial support. Former Commissioner Roberts told the Sun Sentinel that she did research at the time and found out the donors had links to the Chaits.
The committee reported it spent $19,400 on March 23, 2006, for mailings and paid $1,600 the same day to Harris for "consulting, election night activities, reimbursement, mail handling."
Harris could not be contacted by the Sun Sentinel despite phone and e-mail messages seeking comment. A man who answered the phone at Wholesale Flooring said the company changed hands three years ago. Efforts to contact the former director, Caryn Lucci, were unsuccessful. James Starkweather, of AllStar Electric, initially agreed to answer questions but terminated the phone call, and could not be reached for comment despite subsequent messages.
The investigation of Ritter is examining the circumstances under which her family accepted a golf cart from the Chaits before she was elected to the County Commission in November 2006. Ritter has told the Sun Sentinel that her husband, lobbyist Russ Klenet, asked for the cart, not her. Ritter said the gift was made in February or March 2006, when she was a private citizen, and it had no effect on her later votes in favor of the Chaits' projects.
State prosecutors are also examining allegations that School Board member Kraft communicated behind the scenes with district staff about the Chaits' Prestige Homes' request for a $500,000 reduction in impact fees it would have to pay. Kraft walked out of the board meeting when the vote on whether to grant the reduction was taken, but did not reveal that Prestige had hired her husband, Mitch, an attorney, to do work for the company. Kraft, who is not running for re-election, denies any wrongdoing.
Dave Bogenschutz, the Chaits' attorney, said this week that he couldn't comment on the continuing investigations. In June, he said: "This is not the end of the line for officials being charged with respect to this [the Chaits'] case."
The developers had attracted little attention before they proposed building the massive residential project on 153 acres in Tamarac, near Florida's Turnpike and Commercial Boulevard.
The company purchased the two golf course sites in Tamarac for a total of $9.225 million a few days apart in late December 2005 and early January 2006.
The controversial project has only become more contentious because of the filed criminal charges and the fact that work on the sites started and then stalled as the economy slowed and the housing market plummeted. Neighbors have complained that the partly developed sites are an eyesore and that dust and dirt from the sites are affecting their quality of life and property values.
In February, the Chaits put the land and their $5 million luxury yacht up for auction, but bidding was suspended after they decided the top offers were insufficient.
Paula McMahon can be reached at pmcmahon@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4533.Copyright © 2015, CT Now