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Public official received $16 million in contracts from his own agency

The ghost government is tucked behind steel gates on a dead-end road in a quiet suburban Coral Springs neighborhood.

Known as the North Springs Improvement District, the agency provides water and sewer services to roughly 40,000 residents of Coral Springs and Parkland, collecting roughly $17 million a year in taxes and fees to do so.

Small taxing districts like NSID are ubiquitous in Florida. They collect hundreds of billions of dollars between them, yet receive precious little attention, hence their ghost-like profile.

A brighter spotlight might have been helpful in 2017 when NSID’s elected three-member board voted unanimously to build a stormwater pumping station in a rural and flood-prone residential area at the upper northwest edge of Broward County, called the Wedge.

That $4 million contract was awarded to a company called Intersol LLC. It was quite a score for a home-based company with no track record of commercial or government construction work.

More surprising, Intersol was owned by a top NSID official: Rod Colon, then its deputy district manager. Records show Colon was Intersol’s sole officer. His Plantation home was its corporate address.

The $4 million contract was but the first major job Colon’s company won at the agency. During a two-year period, Colon’s company received roughly $16 million in contracts for everything from installing water pipelines, to building aquifers, to designing wells. If ever the board discussed the propriety of awarding such contracts to a top employee, meeting minutes don’t reflect it.

Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public employees from doing business with their own agencies. But Colon says the rules are different for special taxing districts.

“We’re quasi-governmental,” Colon told the Florida Center for Government Accountability when reached by phone. “We can do things that other governmental entities can’t do.””

Colon on the dais.

Later, Colon underscored; “Everything I made was legal.”

There does, in fact, exist a little-known provision in the Florida Ethics Code that exempts officers and employees of special districts like NSID from the prohibition against having contractual relationships with their own agencies.

However, the exemption says all other ethics laws still apply and any conduct that runs contrary to the code’s “intent” would be deemed a conflict of interest.

When potential conflicts arise, public officials are encouraged to request an opinion from the state’s Ethics Commission. NSID instead obtained a letter from a private law firm, Miami-based Genovese Joblove and Battista, which gave Colon a conditional go-ahead.

The November 2017 letter cited the exemption, but also cautioned that the arrangement not “create a personal benefit to Rod’s business to the exclusion of others.” Attorney Michael Joblove wrote that Colon is still beholden to the state ethics rule that forbids public employees from “corruptly” using their official position to secure a special benefit for personal gain.

In the phone call, Colon stressed that the district engages in a strict competitive process. But our investigation found a system rife with irregularities, inconsistencies, and mounting debt, leaving open the question:

Is this really legal?

The rise of Intersol 

In bid documents for the $4 million contract, Intersol is portrayed as an experienced player on South Florida’s construction scene, performing projects “from municipal and government, to commercial and residential.” The documents listed several projects the company said it had completed, with photos of the finished work.

But our investigation reveals that Intersol had no such track record. A month before the $4 million bid was submitted, Colon described Intersol as a “real estate” firm in financial statements he was required to file as a public official. Public records show the company had flipped a couple of residential homes.

Colon’s name appeared in the bidding documents only once, on a form that identified him as company’s president. The form shows the incorporation date as June 16, 2012, which is erroneous. State records show it was formed on June 16, 2015, just two years before the bid was submitted.

Intersol’s bid also boasted of having a knowledgeable and experienced team, though it had no licensed contractor at the time of submission and listed only one “key personnel” member: a Romanian-born engineer named Vandin Lucien Calitu, project manager.

The 51-year-old Calitu was no stranger to the district, either.  A former NSID board member, he too has previously won millions in district contracts. In his resume, Calitu wrote that he began working with Intersol in 2014, though the company wasn’t formed until 2015. He also said that while employed with Intersol he worked on “countless projects throughout Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties.

But three of the four projects mentioned in the bid documents as having been done by Intersol were also listed in Calitu’s resume under the name of a previous employer, Century Building Restoration USA.

One of them was a relatively minor $300,000 NSID water tank modification that Intersol claimed was completed in 2014, a year prior to the company’s formation. District records show the contract was awarded to Century in 2009. Calitu’s resume says he began working for Century in 2012.

A “terrible” bidding process

Intersol was up against two other companies for the $4 million stormwater pump job. Calitu worked for both of those firms, as well.

According to board meeting minutes, Calitu also represented the second-ranked firm, Virtual Design Group, which just a few months before had been awarded a $7.8 million contract to construct an “employee operations center.”

Colon, far left, leads a recent NSID board meeting.

Incredibly, state licensing records show that at the time, Calitu also was the engineer for the third-ranked company, Hallandale Beach-based Cornerstone Engineering Group. Contacted by phone, Cornerstone owner Joseph Ciurdad said Calitu “took the lead” on the NSID bid.

“Cornerstone was not involved with that … it was done with [Calitu’s] companies,” Ciurdad said. “I’m not sure how you got Cornerstone involved with that. You should get in contact with Vandin (Calitu).”

Calitu refused to answer any questions when reached on the phone.

“I have nothing to say,” he said before hanging up.

Calitu’s involvement in all three bids is problematic, said Ben Wilcox, an ethics watchdog with the non-profit group Integrity Florida.

“That’s terrible,” said Wilcox. “He would have inside knowledge [about all three bidders].””

Colon meanwhile refused to answer follow-up questions about any of his company’s dealings with the district, including the criticism he’s received on social media.

“For myself, I’m not going to comment,” he said. “I have filed a slander lawsuit and that’s how I’m responding to it.”

Colon sues Facebook critics 

Indeed, Colon and Calitu filed a pair of defamation lawsuits in October after an anonymous Facebook poster accused them of corruption.

On their behalf, attorney Douglas Reynolds of the Tripp Scott law firm filed a “John Doe” defamation lawsuit against the Facebook poster, whose pseudonym was “Ed Connely.” It said the poster falsely accused Colon and Calitu of “criminal activity including orchestrating a bid-rigging scheme.” A separate lawsuit targets a woman who shared and commented on the posts.

“I’m suing anybody who reposted it or anybody who commented on it,” Colon told FLCGA News.

The lawsuit says defendant Eileen Maltese urged people to forward the Facebook posts to local government officials. Among the comments listed in the complaint:

“Rodney Colon and his gang should be in prison!!!”

“It’s been rumored for years that he is corrupt … I hope to see him in handcuffs soon!

“They’re liked [sic] a mafia stealing from the taxpayers and getting away with it year after year, after year, after year.”

Maltese’s husband is a former employee of NSID. She characterized the lawsuit as the “definition of a SLAPP suit.” The acronym stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Such suits are meant to harass people into staying silent. “I think it’s ridiculous,” she said.

Both lawsuits are pending.

Debt and a new development

To pay for its many construction-related projects, NSID has issued tens of millions of dollars in tax-exempt municipal bonds in recent years. District records show the taxing district currently owes $82 million on the bonds. To pay down the debt, NSID has levied special assessments on property owners — about $4 million this year alone.

Colon, an avid bodybuilder whom sources say runs the district with an iron fist, has bigger plans. Under his command, NSID purchased the Heron Bay Golf Course for $32 million with plans to sell 70 acres for commercial development. “We’re hoping for a Mizner Park type of feel,” he told the Parkland Talk news website last year.

The plan has prompted vocal protest in the affluent Heron Bay neighborhood. In November residents formed a group called Citizens Against Golf Course Redevelopment and sued NSID to try to stop a “sprawling 529,000 square-foot commercial complex” almost literally in their backyards.

They say Colon’s plan violates a deed restriction that forbids commercial development until 2027.

“In November of 2020, NSID sought to buy 150 acres of the Heron Bay Golf Course for $15 million to create a preserve, which is perfectly allowable,” the group’s attorney, Joseph Garrity, said in a press release. “Just four months later, in a backroom deal doubling the cost to taxpayers, 70 acres are added to the purchase for commercial development. The Florida Legislature did not grant the NSID the power to be a commercial developer.”

The group’s president, Robert Tankoos, said the lawsuit is about stopping “government organizations and officials from abusing their power and failing to represent their constituents.”

NSID claims the purchase of the land wipes away the deed covenant and is moving forward with the plan. On November 6, it approved a $4.5 million contract for landscaping and other jobs on the golf course property. The recipient was a company called VLC One Inc. The initials reflect those of its owner: Vandin Lucien Calitu, the former NSID board member who also worked for Colon’s company.

VLC One also received a $500,000 contract to perform design services at the site, all of it to be funded by a $5 million municipal bond sold by the district. The district is holding a meeting today at noon to name the Heron Bay project’s developer. A selection committee made up of Colon and two district employees has recommended East Coast Builders.

Colon orders FLCGA News off NSID property.

East Coast is a former subcontractor for Colon and Calitu and itself has been awarded millions of dollars in district contracts. In its initial proposal to build the Heron Bay project, the company identified Calitu as its project manager. Its most recent proposal lists another project manager.

Approving the deals has been NSID’s three-member elected board of directors. After a nine-minute meeting on January 5, FLCGA News asked board president Vincent Moretti if he believed it was legal for Colon’s company to receive millions in work from the district.

Moretti, who owns a plumbing business and has served on the board since 2008, looked at Colon, who tried to stop the questioning. The buffed-up, flat-topped Colon demanded that the reporter either leave the building or be arrested for trespassing.

“The meeting is over, you have to get off the property … or you’re going to be arrested for trespassing,” Colon warned. A police officer echoed his words.

Reminded that he was a public official, Colon countered, “I’m not a public official.

The only resident in the audience was Tankoos, the president of the citizen’s group suing the district. Tankoos said he’s often the sole person in attendance and that he has watched Colon’ s power go seemingly unchecked.

Tankoos would like to see authorities investigate NSID’s dealings.

“There’s virtually no accountability,” he said. “The people who care about responsible government should be stepping in and looking at what’s going on, but they don’t seem to be doing a damn thing.”

About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

Executive Director’s note: The investigative series on the North Springs Improvement District won Honorable Mention in the 2023 Esserman-Knight Journalism Awards.