Broward Commissioner LaMarca Faces Foreclosure, Conflicts of Interest

Broward County commissioner Charles “Chip” LaMarca is facing foreclosure on his Broward County home, court records show. In May of 2012, Wells Fargo Bank initiated court proceedings in an attempt to collect more than $385,000 from LaMarca and his wife. A Media Trackers Florida review of court records reveals how lobbyists, professional sports franchises, and the proliferation of campaign cash have played a role in this case.

Court records show LaMarca failed to make payments on a line of credit issued by Wells Fargo bank in June of 2006. Bank statements show LaMarca stopped making payments in August of 2010, just before winning the 2010 county commissioner election. As the lone Republican on the Broward County Commission, LaMarca often touts his fiscal responsibility and business experience. LaMarca is running for re-election in 2014.

When Palm Beach columnist Jose Lambiet broke the news of the foreclosure in July of 2012, LaMarca said nobody’s perfect. “I’ve been on the phone with the bank and I’m hoping they’ll work with me,” LaMarca explained to Lambiet. LaMarca said he pays “religiously for his $240,000-first mortgage and property taxes.” LaMarca, owner of a construction company, blamed his financial problems on the sagging economy. “We took out a second mortgage on the house to put money in the construction business,” he said. “In 2006, the business was headed in the right direction but things became very difficult.”

As a Broward County Commissioner, Chip LaMarca receives a $92,097 annual salary. Financial disclosure forms filed with the State of Florida show LaMarca received $26,000 from LaMarca Construction Corporation in 2011 and 2012. Documents filed with Broward County show LaMarca Construction paid him more than $35,000 since the foreclosure case was filed in May of 2012.

Some began to question the political angles of this foreclosure case when LaMarca hired legal counsel. LaMarca and his wife are represented by Steven Stoll and David DiPietro. Both attorneys are active in Broward County Republican politics.

In January of 2009, LaMarca, then the chairman of the Broward Republican Party, named Stoll as the party’s legal counsel. In 2010, Stoll and several local police officers were arrested as part of a federal investigation into mortgage fraud, dubbed “Operation Cop Out.” The United States Attorney dismissed the charges against Stoll in October of 2011.

A review of the LaMarca case files shows David DiPietro filed most of the documents. In 2011, DiPietro, also former legal counsel for the Broward County Republican Party, was appointed to serve on the North Broward Hospital District by Gov. Rick Scott. In 2012, DiPietro chaired Mitt Romney’s Broward County campaign.

But DiPietro is best known for his work with nebulous political action committees. These electioneering communications committees (ECOs) launch shadowy attacks on political candidates. In 2011, DiPietro announced he was creating a new ECO.  He tweeted “Just finalized the organizational paperwork for ‘A Better Broward’ ECO- its goal will be to get Republicans elected in Broward.”

Florida Division of Elections records show DiPietro controls several political committees. His “A Better Broward” ECO raised $86,000 in 2012.  Nearly all of that money was given to other political committees. He controls “The Committee to Protect Broward” which spent more than $41,000 during the 2012 election cycle. DiPietro operates “Broward Citizens for a Strong Judiciary,” which raised $41,000 in 2012. His “Mile Marker 1” ECO received tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from other committees while his “A Better Florida” committee reported no contributions.

Wells Fargo has its own potential conflicts of interest in the LaMarca foreclosure case. Wells Fargo hired Scott Simowitz, of Moskowitz, Mandell, Salim and Simowitz, as its attorney. The firm’s website says Simowitz is “the head of the lender representation and foreclosure department, which includes the title and bankruptcy departments within the Firm.”

The potential conflicts arise from the involvement of Michael Moskowitz, founder and managing partner of the firm. Moskowitz, the Democratic State Committeeman from Broward County, is the father of Florida State Rep. Jared Moskowitz. Both have been active in Broward County Democratic Party politics for years. Michael Moskowitz’s role as lobbyist raises the greatest concerns in this case. According to the Broward County government website, Michael Moskowitz is a registered lobbyist with clients such as Sheltair Jet Center and Sunrise Sports and Entertainment.

In August of 2013, the Broward County Commission approved a new lease with Sheltair Jet Center. The company operates the fuel facilities at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. The new lease allowed Sheltair to secure millions of dollars in new financing. According to an airline industry publication, the new deal signaled an expansion of Sheltair’s business.

“The three-phase development project includes 134,806 sq ft…of premier hangar and office space on more than 11 acres…of land on the west side of the airfield.This is the first general aviation facility to be constructed on the west side of the airport in more than a decade and has direct access to the new 8,000-foot runway currently under construction,” the airline industry publication reported.

LaMarca and the Commission approved the deal. There is no record of Moskowitz discussing Sheltair with LaMarca. There is no record of LaMarca mentioning any potential conflict of interest.

At the May 14, 2013, Broward County Commission meeting, county auditors questioned the financial practices surrounding the operation of the county-owned arena in Sunrise. Broward County hired Arena Operating Company, Ltd. (AOC) to operate the arena. AOC is owned by Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, LLP., which also owns the Florida Panthers Hockey Club, Ltd.  The auditors found Arena Operating Company did not comply with several financial provisions of the agreement.

Specifically, AOC overpaid the Panthers $4.2 million, failed to fund and maintain required reserve accounts, and failed to comply with financial reporting requirements of the agreement. Instead of demanding answers from Florida Panthers management, the County Commission voted to spend $4.2 million of tourist tax dollars to purchase a new high-definition scoreboard for the Panthers. LaMarca voted in favor of the expenditure.

There is no record of LaMarca discussing the matter with Moskowitz. LaMarca never mentioned a potential conflict of interest.

Now a new twist in the LaMarca foreclosure case raises questions about potential mediation. On October 2, a court order granted mediation between Wells Fargo and LaMarca, appointing a “Joy Speechler” as mediator. Local lawyers believe the court website misspelled mediator Jay Spechler’s name as “Joy Speechler.” Spechler, a former Broward County judge, is a prominent mediator who frequently works with DiPietro.

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, LaMarca and seven other Broward County Commissioners voted to approve a new financial arrangement with a local children’s art museum. Several years ago, the Commission gave $3 million to help build a new facility for the Young At Art Museum.  In exchange for a 40-year lease, the museum promised to repay the money over 11 years.

With nearly $2 million in past due payments, Young At Art announced it would miss another payment deadline. The County Commission voted to allow Young At Art to refinance the deal and make its payments over 40 years rather than 11. In the days before the vote, Mindy Shrago, Executive Director/CEO of Young At Art, visited commissioners. The Commission visitors log shows Shrago met with LaMarca on October 21, 2013 at 4:00pm.

Mindy Shrago is the wife of former Judge Jay Spechler. LaMarca never mentioned a potential conflict of interest before casting his vote on the refinancing measure.

By law, the mediation between LaMarca and Wells Fargo must take place within the next 40 days.

Moskowitz, Di Pietro, and LaMarca did not respond to requests for comment.