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By Luther Campbell
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When the City of Hallandale Beach bailed out a developer by wasting millions on a bad land deal, state Sen. Steven Geller was there.
Geller, the Senate minority leader who represents Hallandale and most of Southeast Broward in Tallahassee, wasn't there to fight for taxpayers. He was trying to pry more of their money from the city for the developer — his client, Coral Gables-based Cornerstone Group.
Geller phoned Hallandale City Manager Mike Good last fall to try to persuade him to give Cornerstone a better price for a triangular 2.9-acre parcel next door to Hallandale's city hall and across the street from Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino.
The city should have been holding all the cards in this deal. Cornerstone had paid $6.6 million for the land in 2005, near the top of the real estate boom. It had planned to erect a 13-story condo building called Park Vue. The project collapsed, leaving the company to make payments on land that was losing value by the day.
So Good came up with a plan in 2007 to buy the land and other nearby parcels for "open space." Though land prices were plunging, the city, based on dubious appraisals, agreed to pay the developer $7.4 million for the land in September last year. That was $800,000 more than Cornerstone had paid in the first place.
But Good plowed forward and the city's elected officials followed him into what might turn out to be a financial abyss.
Geller, who has a legislative office in Hallandale's city hall, helped shepherd the deal through for his client. "If there was a question of price, you know, I may have had a discussion on that with the city," Geller tells New Times. "I'm trying to recall any details on this. I can't swear to this, but I think I had a discussion on price with the city manager where they said they were going to offer a certain price and then they offered a lower price. My client wound up taking the lower price."
Perhaps that's true, but Geller also claimed Cornerstone sold the land for less than the purchase price. That's contradicted by county records.
The city, meanwhile, is left sitting on a vacant piece of property in the middle of a land bust. Good closed on the deal the same day the city bought the Tower Mobile Home and RV Park across the street for $10.4 million and another lot for $670,000. The city is now embroiled in a lawsuit with Tower tenants they are evicting, many of whom are poor and disabled.
In all, Hallandale has spent a total of about $20 million purchasing the land around city hall. As real estate values crash, the city might be lucky next year if the land is worth half the inflated price it paid.
The purchase might be tolerable if Good had a more compelling reason to buy the property other than to expand a park. But as it stands, the deal reeks of fiscal irresponsibility. It was financed with a $25 million bond for which taxpayers will be paying a total of about $40 million, including interest, through 2027.
Geller, who won't say how much he was paid for his work for Cornerstone, doesn't seem too worried about that. "I've represented Cornerstone for years on different matters," he says. "I would have liked to have gotten Cornerstone a better price."
Geller represents numerous developers, but don't call him a lobbyist.
"I am not a lobbyist," says the politician. "I'm a lawyer who specializes in zoning and land use."
To prove his denial, Geller points out that when he signs lobbyist registration forms for his work on behalf of developers, he crosses out the offending L word and replaces it with attorney.
Yet over the years, he has publicly touted projects he's represented, arranged meetings between his clients and public officials, stumped for developers at public meetings, and made phone calls such as the one he made to Good about the Cornerstone deal.
The law appears to be on the attorney's side. It's not illegal for a legislator to lobby cities he represents as long as he doesn't strike corrupt deals involving his public office.
But that doesn't keep it from being sleazy. Geller's powerful position in Tallahassee certainly gives him an edge over other, um, lawyers who represent developers in Hallandale. He votes on budgets, property tax proposals, and other issues that deeply affect the city — and every politician and public official he's lobbied knows it.
For instance, Geller is an unrepentant champion of the gambling industry in Tallahassee, where he regularly sponsors bills to expand gaming's reach in South Florida. The City of Hallandale, of course, relies heavily on Gulfstream Park for tax revenues and growth.
It all gives Geller great influence in the city, whether he crosses out the offending L word or not. But don't expect him to admit it. After we spoke on the phone, Geller sent an e-mail that is worthy of deconstruction.
"I think we're talking about two different pieces of property," he wrote. "I believe that you said that you were writing about the trailer park. I didn't have any client or make any fee on the trailer park property. I was talking about a different piece of property."
Of course, it had been clear what property we were talking about. Chalk that up to a feeble attempt to muddy the waters.
"On the other piece of property, any discussions that I had with my client, including fees, are attorney-client privileged," he continued.
Invoking secrecy in a public land deal? Classy, Steve.
"We have some very different views here ...," Geller wrote. "I have the highest ethics, and not only don't cross the line, I don't come near it. I practice in the area of zoning and land use. You could argue that any legislator that appears in front of a judge has an unfair advantage, since we set their salary and judicial budgets."
But this isn't about something that happened in a courtroom. It's about Geller helping set up a sweetheart deal for a developer.
"You believe that I have some sort of unfair advantage," he concluded. "I disagree. I refuse to help you paint me in an unfair light."
Good idea. We'll just let the facts speak for themselves.