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State to conduct audit of “unethical” Broward water district

State lawmakers voted Thursday to conduct a wide-ranging audit of the North Springs Improvement District, the troubled public agency that provides water and sewer services to roughly 40,000 residents in northwest Broward County.

Following a unanimous vote, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee directed the Florida Auditor General to investigate NSID’s finances, contracts, hirings, and land purchases at the taxpayer-assisted utility, which is run by District Manager Rod Colon and overseen by an elected three-member board of directors.

The probe was initially requested by state Rep. Dan Daley (D-Coral Springs) in response to an ongoing FLCGA News investigation that has found apparent profiteering, bidding irregularities, and cronyism at the agency.

Among several FLCGA findings cited by Daley in a January 11 letter to the committee was the award of $16 million in NSID contracts to a company owned by Colon and a $240,000 real estate commission paid to the same public official on the sale of a district-owned piece of land.

Colon didn’t address the commission during the hearing; it was a district-hired lobbyist Mark Delegal, of Tallahassed-based Delegal Aubuchon Consulting, who spoke on the district’s behalf. Delegal claimed the “so-called articles” by FLCGA News were “nothing more than a blogger.””

The attack on the messenger didn’t keep committee members from grilling Delegal about the findings of the investigation by FLCGA News, which is produced by the non-profit Florida Center for Government Accountability and has partnered with numerous public radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers (the Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald among them).

Leading the inquiry was Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami), who asked pointed questions about the real estate commission paid to Colon.

“Did your client or Mr. Colon pay himself a brokerage commission on the sale of any property in that district? You don’t dispute that, right?” asked Pizzo. “Did he get a $240,000 brokerage commission for brokering a piece of property on the district that he was in control of?””

When Delegal admitted Colon had indeed reaped the real estate commission windfall from the sale of district-owned land, Pizzo appeared to be visibly stunned.

“I just think it smells bad and so we’re gonna take a look at it,” he said. “That’s what this committee’s for.””

Pizzo also honed in a $4 million contract to build a stormwater pumping station awarded by NSID to Colon’s company, Intersol LLC. All three supposedly independent bids submitted for the project were connected to an engineer and former board member Vandin Calitu, who’d been hired by Colon as project manager for Intersol.

Delegal admitted that Calitu was tied to all three bids and conceded that it may have been an “an unseemly thing,” but claimed it wasn’t unusual.

“This engineer was apparently pretty talented,” Delegal said. “He got two other people to slide his name into the bid.””

Representative Mike Caruso (R-Palm Beach), who serves as the alternating chair of the committee with Pizzo, said the bidding issue alone was enough for him to vote in favor of auditing NSID.

“[I]t seemed unethical that the engineer for all three bids was the same guy who knew all the inside information on it and … could write it up in a way that the one he wanted to win won,” said Caruso. “That’s my problem with it. It smells bad. It’s not independent. This guy had a conflict of interest.”

Pizzo said the award of the $4 million contract to Colon’s company violated the public trust.

“I would advise a friend or foe against it at all costs,” said Pizzo, an attorney, adding that such a deal “discounts the public’s trust.””

Delegal pleaded with the committee.

“I suspect some of you have been the victim of blogs,”  he said. “If every time some blogger…”

“About me, they’re all true,” interjected Pizzo.

“No they’re not,””said the lobbyist. “… And I would say they’re not true, if even they were. But just because some blogger lights something up, is that now the threshold by which we sic the powers of government in a full-fledged audit investigation?””

Delegal also claimed that Colon’s profiting from his own agency was legal due to an exemption in the Florida Ethics Code that allows public officials at special districts like NSID to contract with their own agencies.  However, that exemption makes it clear that all other ethics laws apply and that any deals made outside the “spirit” of the ethics code would be deemed in violation.

“But sir, why is this committee taking a look at an issue that is specifically authorized in Florida law?” Delegal asked.

“Because you know what, Mr. Delegal? By the time this committee’s done meeting this session, I don’t think that’s gonna be authorized in Florida law,” answered Pizzo.

It was a reference to bills sponsored by both Daley and Rep. Christine Hunchofsky (D-Parkland) to end the exemption, which has been described by Colon himself as a “loophole.” Pizzo also intimated that the NSID case would serve as an example of abuses at special districts in Florida.

“I think we’d like an actual look at a real life example of some of the things that go on,” he said.

The committee voted unanimously to authorize the audit, which is expected to last for several months. Delegal promised that NSID would fully cooperate with the Florida Auditor General, which has no enforcement authority, but can refer its findings to the Florida Commission on Ethics and, in cases of suspected criminal activity, the Attorney General or State Attorney’s Office.

“We respect what the process is,” said Delegal. “And we will respect and prepare for the audit.””

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.