Ethics Complaint Political Payback for Trimmed Broward County Budget?

Fred Messer. Photo Credit: WPLG ABC MIAMI

An ethics complaint filed against Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief may be political payback for her vote against budget increases for the Broward Property Appraiser’s Office, a Media Trackers Florida investigation discovered.

Three weeks ago, Fred Messer filed an ethics complaint against Sharief alleging she failed to list sources of income and properties on her financial disclosure forms. Messer, a Pompano Beach private investigator, filed the complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics and the Broward State Attorney.

Messer said he decided to investigate Sharief’s finances because he was “angry” by reports a business owned by Sharief overbilled Medicare by $220,000. A closer look at Messer’s ties to the Broward County Property Appraiser’s Office, however, shows the Medicare overbilling issue may merely be a smokescreen for Messer carrying out a bitter political grudge against a county commissioner for voting to limit taxpayer dollars going to the Broward Property Appraiser’s Office.

Each county must raise and allocate funds for its property appraiser’s office. However, the state Department of Revenue has the authority to approve each county property appraiser’s budget. After the Broward County Commission voted to approve a $16.9 million dollar budget for the Property Appraiser’s office, Parrish appealed to Department of Revenue officials in Tallahassee. The Department of Revenue determined Parrish should receive an $18.7 million dollar budget. Parrish hired attorney Bill Scherer, who filed a writ of mandamus asking the court to order the county to pay the full amount. Sharief and five other commissioners then voted to appeal the Department of Revenue’s decision to the state Cabinet.

A Media Trackers Florida investigation found close ties between Messer and key allies of Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish. Messer’s complaint was notarized by Jamie Herrington, a legal secretary at the Kopelowitz Ostrow law firm. After initially saying she notarizes so many documents she may not remember, Herrington told Media Trackers Florida that Messer arrived at the law firm saying he was “a friend of Ron Cacciatore.” Cacciatore is the Director of Professional Standards and Compliance for the Broward County Property Appraiser.

Herrington said she verified Messer’s identification and notarized the documents. Then, Herrington added a carefully worded disclaimer:  Her notarizing Messer’s complaint had “nothing to do with the firm and had nothing to do with firm business.”

Cacciatore, a longtime Broward political operative, has co-hosted campaign fundraisers with Scott J. Weiselberg, an attorney with Kopelowitz Ostrow. In June of 2010, Cacciatore and Weiselberg hosted a fundraiser for Charlie Crist’s U.S. Senate campaign. In July of 2010, they hosted fundraisers at the Kopelowitz Ostrow offices for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel.

Broward County Property Appraiser Lori Parrish denied any firsthand knowledge of Messer’s ethics complaint against Sharief. She said she saw Messer on television and was unaware of the nature of his relationship with Cacciatore. Parrish said she has a history of handling matters directly and not “back-dooring” things.

Media Trackers Florida attempts to reach Fred Messer were unsuccessful. The number he provided on the complaint appears to be a fax line. Cacciatore and Weiselberg did not respond to requests for comment.

In October, state auditors determined South Florida Pediatric Homecare, a home nursing company owned by Sharief, overbilled Medicare. According to a published report, the state claimed South Florida Pediatric Homecare “overcharged for services provided to multiple patients treated at the same location; overcharged for services that lacked proper documentation; charged the state higher registered nurse rates when a licensed practical nurse actually performed the services; and, billed taxpayers for services without a doctor’s authorization.”

Sharief, who admitted no wrongdoing, must pay more than $800,000 in fines and overcharges.

A month later, Messer told a television reporter that news of the Sharief investigation left him “almost traumatized, I was so angry.” Messer said he decided to investigate Sharief because she was “screwing over the poor.”

“If she’s doing that with the government, what is she doing with Broward County?” Messer asked.

Messer discovered Sharief failed to list numerous properties she owned on her required financial disclosure forms. Messer alleges discrepancies in Sharief’s reported income as well. Last week, her fellow Commissioners elected Sharief as Broward County Mayor.