DEERFIELD BEACH – Another South Florida politician is being charged with public corruption. This time it is Deerfield Beach City Commissioner Sylvia Poitier, the target of a criminal investigation for several years related to her business dealings and her votes to award city grants to organizations that were close to her.
READ THE ARREST AFFIDAVIT
According to sources, prosecutors with the Broward State Attorney’s Office are charging Poitier with five misdemeanor counts related to a loan her brother, Lionel Ferguson, gave to the Westside Deerfield Businessmen Association (WDBA) and forms she completed related to the loan.
WDBA is a non-profit organization that provides low-income housing in the city. Several of Poitier’s relatives serve on the WDBA board, which the city designated as its Community Housing and Development Organization.
Poitier did not return calls from South Florida Times or respond to e-mails sent to her city commission e-mail account seeking comment. She has reportedly been telling family members and close friends that she has retained an attorney to represent her in the case. She is said to be making arrangements to turn herself in this week.
The case against Poitier, 75, a history-making politician, was finalized several weeks ago, sources say.
Ron Ishoy, spokesman for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, confirmed that criminal defense attorney Johnny L. McCray Jr. has informed prosecutors that he is representing Poitier in the matter. Ishoy declined comment on the status of the investigation.
“Thank you for your inquiry,” Ishoy said in an e-mail to South Florida Times. “We're not in a position to respond.”
McCray could not be reached for comment.
The wide-ranging probe was conducted jointly by the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Broward State Attorney’s Office. Assistant State Attorney Spencer Multack headed the investigation, with BSO Detective Brian McDonald as the lead investigator.
Poitier came under scrutiny following the arrest of former Deerfield Beach City Commissioner Steve Gonot and former Mayor Al Capellini in December 2008 on separate and unrelated corruption charges.
Gonot and Capellini are awaiting trial. Deerfield Beach resident and activist Timothy “Chaz” Stevens initiated the investigation involving them.
Stevens is the publisher of My Acts of Sedition, a political blog in which he offers criticism of politicians while questioning their public duties and private business affiliations.
Stevens began posting information about Poitier on his blog and called into question her votes to provide city funding to non-profit groups, raising the possibility of a conflict of interest for the commissioner.
His complaints to prosecutors resulted in the investigation.
“When I got involved, I was paying attention to Capellini and Gonot,” Stevens said. “When they got arrested, I started to notice that Commissioner Poitier had this thing called the Community Outreach Program, where she handed out money to whoever she wanted.”
“No one could explain to me how this came about and why the rest of the commissioners allowed it,” Stevens said. “There was no method or requirement in order the get the money.”
Stevens then began to investigate the charities and non-profit organizations that received funding from the program. His review found several problems and even more questions.
City officials reacted by hiring Kessler International, a New York-based forensic auditing firm, to conduct an audit which turned up more problems. Armed with the information Stevens provided and the audit findings, prosecutors intensified their investigation.
“The State Attorney’s Office has not contacted me and they don’t speak to me,” Stevens said. “They probably don’t approve of my style but if turns out my hunches were right and she is guilty, she needed to be held accountable. If she is not guilty, then I will issue a public apology.”
Stevens' blog is filled with insults aimed at local figures. Residents in the predominantly black district Poitier represents are not pleased with his postings about the political matriarch.
Poitier, who is adored by her constituents, is still viewed as the lone champion of causes important to the district. They blame fellow commissioners, the media, former supporters and Stevens for her problems.
“She is the only black person [on the commission],” said supporter Hezekiah Jones. “She is doing the best she can and they don’t like it.”
Steven balks at that, saying he has endured threats because of his activism but insisting race is not a factor in his postings.
“I get threats all the time,” he said. “Just this week my dog was poisoned and its makes you wonder if it’s related. It’s not easy trying to keep government honest and accountable.
“Her color means nothing to me. I’m a member of the NAACP and I’ve dated black women. People view me as a middle-aged white guy going after this black woman and that’s unfair because I simply want honesty in office and accountability.”
Mayor Peggy Noland and her city firefighter husband, as well as the other city commissioners and employees, are routine targets of Stevens’ complaints to prosecutors and blog postings.
“Last time I checked, Commissioner Joe Miller, Capellini and Gonot were not black, they are our elected officials, just like Poitier,” Stevens said.
Poitier is the first black elected to the Deerfield Beach commission, taking office in 1973. Even though she knew most of the residents in the district, her campaigns were door-to-door affairs. She and her late ex-husband drove through neighborhoods with a bullhorn, urging blacks to go to vote.
Her election followed that of Boisy Waiters Sr., who served on the Dania Beach city commission from 1966 to 1972. Waiters and Poitier were the first and second blacks ever elected in Broward County. Poitier served on the Deerfield Beach commission until 1985, including one year as mayor, until then Gov. Bob Graham appointed her to the Broward county commission.
Poitier made history again when she ran for the county seat in 1986 and became the first black elected to the Broward county commission. She served until 1998, when she was defeated by current Commissioner Kristen Jacobs. She then ran successfully for the Deerfield Beach commission again in 2005 and won reelection overwhelmingly this March.