A judge dismissed all criminal charges against suspended Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco on Wednesday, ruling there was no evidence that she received any personal benefit from a controversial father-and-son team of developers.
"This court finds that the undisputed facts do not establish a ... case of guilt against the defendant as to the crimes charged," Broward Circuit Judge Cynthia Imperato wrote in her decision. "There is no evidence that Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco benefited personally in any manner."
Prosecutors from the Broward State Attorney's Office said they immediately began the process of appealing the judge's ruling.
"With all due respect to the court, we disagree with the ruling. We believe there are significant facts in this case that should be presented to a jury," said Tim Donnelly, the head of the State Attorney's Office public corruption unit. "We are confident that we will prevail on appeal and continue this prosecution."
The suspended mayor was charged with unlawful compensation, bribery, official misconduct and conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation. She pleaded not guilty and always said she did nothing wrong.
Prosecutors maintain that developers Bruce and Shawn Chait secretly funneled money – $19,500 for attack ads and $7,700 for an opinion poll – through what was supposed to be an independent electioneering fund to help Flansbaum-Talabisco win the mayoral election in March 2006.
Prosecutors said the financial boost turned the closely tied race into a victory for Flansbaum-Talabisco. Less than two weeks after she won the election, she voted in favor of the Chaits' controversial plan to build hundreds of homes on the former Sabal Palm and Monterey golf courses.
The prosecution said that's when the crimes occurred because Flansbaum-Talabisco was legally required to disclose the Chaits' donations and her potential conflict of interest in voting.
The Chaits gave sworn statements saying that they hid their donations by having subcontractors who worked for them write donation checks, which the Chaits reimbursed.
The Chaits' proposed project was very controversial in the city and Flansbaum-Talabisco made a public show of returning donations the Chaits made in their names to her campaign while secretly and knowingly accepting their help through another fund, prosecutors said.
According to sworn testimony in the case, Flansbaum-Talabisco, her campaign manager Beverly Stracher and Shawn Chait all met at Stracher's home when Stracher instructed Chait on how to set up the so-called independent Electioneering Communications Organization, or ECO, to attack her opponents. The Chaits also testified that Stracher, who also worked as a paid consultant for them, put together the attack ads.
The Chaits are on probation after admitting they paid bribes to former County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, who is in prison on a related charge. The Chaits are cooperating witnesses against several former elected officials charged with accepting benefits from them. The judge's ruling has no effect on those pending cases, lawyers said.
It was not immediately clear on Wednesday if Flansbaum-Talabisco will be returned to elected office while prosecutors appeal the dismissal of the charges. If an appeals court rules in favor of prosecutors, the charges would be reinstated.
Gov. Rick Scott's spokesman, Lane Wright said that the governor was notified Wednesday that the charges were dismissed and has asked government attorneys to review the matter and advise him on the relevant law.
Flansbaum-Talabisco, 58, was suspended from elected office in March 2011 after prosecutors filed the criminal charges. Only Scott has the power to reinstate her to the remainder of her term, which expires in November 2014.
Flansbaum-Talabisco smiled, looked relieved and hugged her husband, Jack Talabisco, and her attorney, Larry S. Davis, when the judge announced her decision.
"I'm just so appreciative of the court's ruling and the support we've gotten from friends and family and the people in our community," Flansbaum-Talabisco said later.
Davis said he didn't want his client to talk about the facts of the case but that she was "very happy and relieved."
"We didn't think there was any crime committed and the judge found that Beth Talabisco was absolutely innocent," Davis said after the hearing.
Judge Imperato ruled Wednesday that Flansbaum-Talabisco received support from the Chaits because she supported their controversial plan.
The judge wrote that there was "nothing inherently illegal' about conducting polls or forming independent campaign funds such as the one that the Chaits set up to attack Flansbaum-Talabisco's opponents.
"The evidence that at times her support wavered is speculative and insufficient to show that she changed her position and voted for the project because her vote had been purchased by the Chaits," the judge wrote.
"There are times when candidates run for office on a single issue. The campaign funds they accept are from those that have the same position on that issue. This does not equate to the candidate selling their vote, and they are not prosecuted for unlawful compensation, bribery, or official misconduct because they maintain their position and vote accordingly."
Imperato ruled that that the facts showed the mayor knowingly received campaign funds from the Chaits but she said that "all of the evidence presented establishes the only benefit was to the [election] campaign and the ECO [campaign fund]."
The mayoral job paid $27,000 a year and $3,500 for expenses, according to city records.
Sam Goren, Tamarac's city attorney, said that if Flansbaum-Talabisco is reinstated to her elected office, it will have a "domino effect" on other commissioners. Mayor Pam Bushnell would return to her old District 1 commission seat and Commissioner Marion Swenson, who was appointed to fill Bushnell's spot, would be out of a job.
Tamarac residents had mixed reactions to the judge's decision.
"I think if she was taking contributions she should give up her position," said Mainlands 7 resident Eleanor McKechnie, who lives near the former Sabal Palm golf course, which is now vacant land. "If you take money, it is for personal gain [if] it goes in your campaign. If you do something wrong, you have to pay. My opinion is she should not get it [the mayor's job] back."
Others supported the suspended mayor and blamed her former campaign manager for the problems. Many considered her less culpable than other former elected officials who have been charged with receiving cash, cars, a victory party and other benefits from the Chaits to support the now failed project.
"Out of all the people arrested in Tamarac, Beth was the most innocent," said city activist Patti Lynn.
Lynn said she believes Flansbaum-Talabisco received a benefit because the injection of campaign cash turned around her race, but Lynn said she also thinks the suspended mayor received bad political advice.
"The people of Tamarac suffered and will continue to suffer as a result of those decisions that particular commission made, approving the project. But everybody else who was arrested did egregious things — they took things, Beth did not," Lynn said.
"Bummer," was the reaction from Mae Schreiber, who was one of Flansbaum-Talabisco's political opponents in the mayor's race. "All I know is the justice system in this world stinks."
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