Why Did They Lie?

Issue 115 Acevedo FKAA for web

Why did they lie?

It was a simple matter: Whether Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority board member Melva Wagner was still living in the Keys or whether she had moved out of her house [in foreclosure] on Summerland Key and settled up the coast, in Naples.

What meant so much to FKAA that its attorneys would go along with a deceptively complicated story about a homestead declaration and claim, so recklessly, that Wagner was still a bonafide member of the FKAA Board of Directors?

It has been a grueling year for the Aqueduct Authority. The public has rallied against FKAA’s plan to dump treated sewage into nearshore waters via shallow wells on Cudjoe Key, against suspected bid-rigging for a major sewage grinder pump contract, against blatant nepotism, against the creation of imaginative job titles for old buddies, against the infamous $100K Club, and two weeks ago, we reported that an ex-FBI agent exposed data manipulation in FKAA’s production of water consumption records and called for an independent audit of the agency’s billing practices.

The FKAA board of directors is the final decision maker for the agency. There are five members representing districts that mirror the five Board of County Commissioners’ districts. In theory, under Florida Statute Chapter 76, each board member is chosen by the Governor of Florida. Melva Wagner was appointed by the Governor on August 11, 2011.

“In fact,” jokes one insider, “FKAA is completely controlled by ‘He who shall not be named,’ the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz.” That would be Robert Dean, literally Key West’s undertaker, of Dean-Lopez Funeral Home.

As Chairman, Mr. Dean presides over a board that is in charge of administering a $51 Million budget and many more millions in government grants. The sewer project for Cudjoe Regional alone has been estimated at over $180 Million. And, as is the case with all five-member voting boards, all it takes is a “gang of three” to retain absolute control. For the opponents to the “gang of three,” however, all it takes is getting rid of one of them. That is where Melva Wagner’s fate became a multi-million dollar issue.

The financial and political stakes are huge.

In 1999, the state legislature ordered the creation of centralized sewer treatment systems for the entire Florida Keys. The massive project promised to be enormously expensive and it fell under FKAA’S jurisdiction.

But as FKAA’s estimates for regional wastewater infrastructure came to light with staggering price tags, residents began to suspect that FKAA was deliberately over- inflating the costs. The repayment of colossal debt, they feared, would result in astronomical utility bills.

That’s when the war broke out.

A 2005 press release evidences the level of mistrust between residents and their elected officials on the one hand and FKAA on the other.

“Marathon,” wrote the Board of County Commissioners, “is a glaring example of strained partnership, where FKAA’s sewer RFP is over $180,000,000 to sewer Marathon, Marathon’s City RFP comes in at $70,000,000.”

“Little Venice: Originally FKAA estimated this project would cost $6.5 M (…) the cost near completion: $14.6 M.”

Key Largo literally declared independence from FKAA.

“Key Largo revolted against FKAA,” wrote the BOCC, “that culminated in death threats, wasted millions of dollars and time.”

Finally Key Largo lobbied the Florida legislature and obtained the right to form its own sewer board to take control of Key Largo’s wastewater.

What happened next is pretty amazing. In 2005 State Representative Ken Sorenson sponsored a bill that would require board members at FKAA to be elected by Florida Keys voters instead of appointed by the Governor. The bill was readily adopted in both the House and the Senate, but as Keys’ residents celebrated their victory, then Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, vetoed the bill.

Outraged, Sorenson wrote, “The FKAA is deadly afraid of a democratic election which would destroy their obscene personal financial contracts (out of public funds) which would never be tolerated by an elected board.”

Later, new blood on the FKAA board was pushing for reform. Mary Rice and Rose Dell with the support of Executive Director Jim Reynolds began to slash at the $100K club. They pushed for installation of electronic water meters. (The old mechanical ones were reportedly counting a fraction of the water used by some big commercial consumers.) The changes were met with opposition from insiders like Harry Bethel. He got the push and resigned. So did Kathryn Ovide, who was earning more than $100,000 a year overseeing the agency’s secretaries and human resources department. The “reform,” however, was short lived.

By August 2011 Robert Dean had regained control. Rose Dell had been replaced by Melva Wagner; Elena Z. Herrera-George by Brian Barroso. “They began undoing all that Jim Reynolds and the board had accomplished,” said a person in the know, “Jim saw the writing on the wall. He too resigned.”

Renewed Public Outrage

When Reynolds resigned in November of 2011, the new board immediately appointed Kurt Zeulch, the FKAA’s General Counsel, as Executive Director and brought back Bob Feldman as General Counsel. The process caused renewed public outcry. The decision had been taken abruptly without public discussion or a search for the best candidate for the two top positions.

A year later voters overwhelmingly (70%) supported a referendum calling for elections rather than Governor appointments to fill FKAA board positions. But again voters were outmaneuvered: Representative Holly Raschein sponsored a supporting bill in the 2013 legislative session, successfully pushing it to a unanimous vote in the House. In the Senate, however, Dwight Bullard dropped the ball. Bullard apparently stood by while then Senate President Don Gaetz sent his companion bill off to “die” in Senator Thrasher’s Rules Committee. Thrasher never even placed it on the agenda.

When asked this week why Senator Bullard never tried to push the bill, his office simply responded, “It was just one of those bills that died without any action.” [Don Gaetz is the Senator who was accused of Medicare fraud in his management of Vitas Hospice Services, the largest provider of hospice services in the country.]

So keeping Melva Wagner on the board of FKAA may have seemed so important to General Counsel Feldman and Executive Director Krik Zeulch because no one can be sure whether or not the Governor will replace her with someone who will continue to protect the ways of the secretive and top heavy institution.

In February 2015, after board member Brian Barroso withdrew his application for reappointment while the target of a state attorney and ethics commission nepotism probe, 74-year old John Parks, an old friend of FKAA Board Chairman Robert Dean, was the FKAA top officials’ favorite. But on February 17, 2015, Governor Scott appointed Key West attorney, Cara Higgins to the board.

Board meeting minutes reveal that Higgins complained when Zeulch and Feldman recently settled a public records request lawsuit without coming to the board for approval.

Higgins also emailed attorney Feldman with proof that Melva Wagner did in fact appear to be living in Naples, showing that not only had Wagner changed her homestead exemption to the Naples address in January, but she had also changed the address for her two business licenses with the state department of professional regulation, her church affiliation, and her address with the department of corporations. Higgins also found that Wagner had joined various civic groups in the Naples area. All of which was information that was readily available and that clearly contradicted Feldman’s statement to the press:

Feldman claimed: Ms. Wagner’s husband had mistakenly moved the family’s homestead exemption to their investment property in Naples. Ms. Wagner had not been aware of the mistake and the exemptions would soon be reversed and put back in order.

Under FKAA bylaws that require residency in the represented district, Melva Wagner could not legally serve on the board for what, according to public records, may have been a nearly eight month period.

Interestingly enough, Chairman Dean himself, who was appointed as the Key West area district board member, in fact, lives outside his district as well, in Key Haven. Monroe County Property Appraiser records show that Bob Dean claims a homestead exemption on his Key Haven home; however Cara Higgins is the Governor’s appointee for the Key Haven area.

FKAA’s apparent lack of transparency may well have turned the agency into its own worst enemy. In 2012, not long after his controversial hiring as the Executive Director, Zeulch rehired Kathy Ovide, making her once again a member of the $100K club earning $120,723 a year as the manager of customer service.

The board also created a new auditing position that paid $49,816 a year plus benefits and hired board member Barosso’s sister Christy Martin for the job. Martin, with only one year of community college education, has since been promoted to assistant customer service director and earns $91,104 a year plus benefits.

Similar shady hiring practices brought in Randy Acevedo, the disgraced former Monroe County School Superintendent.

Recently the agency spent nearly $24,000 on outside counsel to defend against a public records request lawsuit filed by a Keys fisherman who is opposing the shallow injection well permit for the Cudjoe Regional wastewater plant.

FKAA published the public notice announcing the issuance of the DEP’s initial Cudjoe Regional construction permit in a Broward County newspaper instead of in a Monroe County publication as required by law. (A judicial hearing on whether that move renders the permit void is scheduled for later this month.)

FKAA was caught using an Army Corp of Engineers logo on an informal in-house environmental impact assessment and pretending it had been issued by the ACOE for the Cudjoe Regional project.

And this week FKAA’s lead counsel pretended board member Melva Wagner still lived on Summerland Key even though the claim could not have resisted a ten-minute “google investigation.”

The race is now on for the seat left open by Ms. Wagner resignation.

Stay tuned.

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18 thoughts on “Why Did They Lie?

  1. great reporting naja and arnaud. and we wonder why the ‘top dogs’ stay ‘feeding’ at the trough of the ratepayor. just look at the cast of players….bethel past ghost of retirement pensions and grind them into the dirt maven…zeulch future ghost of retirement pensions and all the supporting bobble heads in the upward and over 100k crowd. what a freaking farce.
    the fkaa needs a real scrub down and a hot steam shower to rid the agency of all the parasites.
    and bethel so worried about the easing of grass laws in kw ‘because of the children’ he says.. ha what a sham. need he not be more concerned of the morality and ethics of lies and deception to line the pockets of himself and others so the children do not grow up to be the dregs of bethel past?
    and zeulch the past state lawgeek who was drummed errr voted out of office for being another top feeder low and behold pops right up in the catbird seat at fkaa on a wink n nod. this the great man of flam who never met a political prosecution he couldn’t handle until the ducks came along! now sucks at the public teet and looks for a ‘golden’ retirement pension.

    my hat is off to cara higgens for being the outstanding and upstanding truth teller I know she is. good work and shake up that nest of public trough feeding vipers I say.
    perhaps we will see our rates lower one day soon and importantly some long awaited justice.

  2. Great article on a complicated and secretive bubba bureaucracy! This is a shot through the bow for the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority.

    It will be interesting to watch as the FKAA takes on water. Will the rats scurry off the deck, or will they cling to the cheese like Melva Wagner and go down with the ship?

  3. Exquisite skewering, long overdue. Kudos to Cara Higgins.

    Rose Dell is a good friend of mine. Sitting at the counter in Coco’s Kitchen, run by Rose and her mother Coco, I heard Rose lament many times the uphill fight she was having against FKAA and its Board. Rose said she didn’t figure she would be reappointed by the Governor, and she wasn’t. I encouraged her to run for county commission, against George Neugent. She declined. She probably is a lot happier at Coco’s, and running a successful real estate business, Rose Dell & Associates.

    Bob Dean not only lives in Key Haven, outside the Key West city limits, he votes in Key West city elections, by alleging he lives in his business office in the city. This got mashed around a few years ago, and was reported in the various local mullet wrappers.

    I was at the FKAA Board meeting, when Dean told about 20 people living in the Cudjoe Regional Sewer District, that FKAA preferred gravity sewer systems, to grinder pumps, and if the County Commission would provide the money for gravity, FKAA would scrap the then design, which was heavy on grinder pumps, and install gravity wherever it was feasible. During ensuing citizen comments, I thanked Dean for saying that and urged him and the rest of the FKAA Board to issue a stop work order on Cudjoe Regional, until the County Commission provided the money for a gravity sewer system, using grinder pumps only where gravity was not feasible. Dean, and the rest of the FKAA Board, held silent, and they did not later issue the stop work order.

    Good luck getting FKAA to “transform” voluntarily. Perhaps it can be accomplished by force, in the circuit court. But probably not before a state administrative law judge. Asking a state administrative law judge to get FKAA to behave is about the same as asking Florida Department of Law Enforcement to discipline Key West police officers; about the same as asking the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to get FKAA to behave in Cudjoe Regional, or anywhere.

    Far better results would be achieved by nighttime abductions of FKAA Board members and officials, and keelhaulings in Hawk Channel.

  4. Why is it only the Blue Paper , which has become the best investigative truth teller in the Keys? You would at least expect the Miami Herald,with all its staff to look at this . They love these cheesey- Keysee stories, and this really ranks up there. Keep digging and thanks! Maybe Governor Scott will order a much needed FDLE investigation? Oh yeah , just like the one they did for Charles Eimers.. Better to call in the FBI for RICO charges and see if they stick.

  5. This is unbelievable. I knew some of this but to see it all put together is eye popping. To say there is corruption and nepotism is an understatement. Great job reporting.

  6. Brava, Cara! Refund the money, Melva! What are you doing there, Carey?!
    Resign, Robert Dean! Thank you Naja and Arnaud! You are stars.

    I’ve read it all as it unfolded, and I cringed. Knit together like this, it’s overwhelming. My stomach is churning; is this cesspit, this snake pit, where all the dreck in Key West has been driven to be contained? Can we get help from the Fed?

    The FKAA bums and thugs have multiple State connections I do not understand, but the corruption, perversion, waste, and betrayal of public trust definitely goes higher in this instance.

  7. There have been two instances in recent years of School Board members who moved out of the District but forgot to tell anyone. They, too, often collected their $30,000/yr. salaries by participating in meetings via telephone. The only difference is that no one went to the effort to expose this chicanery.

    It would be interesting to review the living “arrangements” of all board members of any entity in Monroe County.

  8. Superb article!
    FKAA management seems incapable of telling the truth.
    Further to your Board shuffle discussion-
    It was a big surprise when Zuelch became general counsel and Feldman retired to make room. Nobody seemed to know Feldman wanted to retire. Why bother? He never did much anyway. But how is that arranged without Sunshine violations?
    Did you read Jim Reynolds’ reappointment contract as Executive Director? It included a huge payout if he retired, got fired, or otherwise did not complete his term. It was outrageous, but presented and recommended to the Board by Zuelch.
    Then came the surprise replacement of Reynolds with Zuelch and Feldman’s return. Kerry Shelby as Deputy Executive Director would seem next in line for the top spot. No Board discussion, no search for candidates. How was that all arranged without breaking Sunshine Law?
    Have you noticed the continual litigation since Zuelch took over? Why is a lawyer the head of a water and sewer utility?
    And what happened that Colleen Tagle was suddenly demoted? The grapevine says her employment lawsuit settled generously because she had detailed knowledge of corruption. She told me she was prohibited from talking about her case as part of the settlement. I would like to see the Feds investigate FKAA. I can show them all they need for RICO but I’m sure there is a lot hidden.

  9. Let FKAA Board Chairman Dean claim the funeral home on Simonton as his residence. He just needs to give up the homestead exemption and pay back property taxes and penalties for his Key Haven house. Don’t people go to jail for property tax fraud? Bob and Melva could be cell mates.

  10. Florida and more specifically the Keys have a rich history of third world corruption and murderous pirate history. Our law enforcement, governance and even the damn water company are living up to the legend.

  11. The word is that Dean has also been voting in Key West elections. A nice case of voter fraud would do just fine as well. Where is the State Attorney’s Office on this?

  12. Another thing FKAA did was send a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection asking them NOT to publish the Notice of Intent for part of the Big Pine sewer system ( even in a Broward paper ! ) because they knew it would be challenged. Then there was also their crazy scheme to run pipes to Little Palm Island which they fortunately abandoned when it was challenged .

  13. There’s this article and the two letters to the Editor about how the BOCC and the FKAA are EXTORTING and discriminating against 3000 county residents and taxpayers and Misappropriating both Federal, state and County funds.
    And there’s also something weird going on here with these turd grinders. They Belong to Monroe County, but their Contractor(who can be replaced) FKAA, who was contracted to design, install, operate and maintain Monroe County,s sewer system is the entity that is demanding the easement. Is this legal??

  14. Could this be the beginning to the end of FKAA’s Bubba Dynasty? It only took a little break-in at a hotel to bring down Nixon. It only took a blue dress to stain the reputation and derail Clinton. Could Wagner’s little residency cover up lead to not only her downfall but also Dean’s?

    Speaking of Dean and all the other Bubbas who escaped Old Town for Key Haven in the late 70’s, how many of them are still voting in Key West elections while actually living outside the city limits and taking advantage of a Key Haven homestead exemption?That shouldn’t take too much investigative work to discover. Do they realize it is a 3rd degree felony? That would certainly shake up future voting results when a leg is knocked out from under what would otherwise be certain elections of their fellow Bubbas and special interests.

  15. The FKAA worker grapevine claims that Dean privately arranged for one of the guys to put a bypass pipe around one of his water meters so that he could reduce his bill by taking some unmetered water. Even if it was reported, nothing would be done anyway- except maybe to the guy with the shovel. But for now, that is just a rumor that has made the rounds. Some of Dean’s several properties have wild swings of consumption in their history. Maybe those have an explanation that is believable, who knows? His property on Big Pine sometimes uses tens of thousands of gallons per month, yet it was tax assessed the minimum of just1 EDU for wastewater. There are other unlikely wastewater assessments, like the very busy bar and restaurant that was assessed 1 EDU while the struggling bar with the least business was assessed 5 EDU. I was told the ridiculously low assessment is because the owner (or part owner or company officer?) is a Bubba with another bar in Key West, but have not had time to investigate. I did verify that the water consumption history does not support a 1 EDU assessment. My BS alarm immediately went off when I saw a busy bar and restaurant with a single family home assessment! Why didn’t the DEP question that when they saw it on the permit application? Mistakes (or corruption?) like this adversely affect the entire wastewater collection system design.

  16. If the National news outlets were as courageous, and committed to the truth as the staff at The Blue Paper, this country would be far less corrupt. Luckily, WFTV in Orlando is good about exposing local corruption, but it will never stop. When they asked a city council in the area, what they got for the $40,000 paid to a private company to promote tourism, it took a week before the news agency was directed to a small cardboard sign just placed on the top of the baggage claim at local airport. Before the appearance of the 40k dollar sign, nothing had been done. Most that get so involved emotionally over who will be the next president, fail to understand that we now live in a country that is corrupt on every level, top to bottom. When the world’s greatest historian Will Durant was asked about his political affiliation, he replied that he did not have one, because he had found that every government that has ever existed, in time, became corrupt.

    Great work again Arnaud and Naja Girard. THANK YOU!

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