FORT LAUDERDALE — Deerfield Beach City Commissioner Sylvia Poitier was arrested and charged Wednesday with four misdemeanor counts of allegedly falsifying official records.
Prosecutors are accusing Poitier of failing to disclose her involvement with, and family ties to, a non-profit organization, the Westside Deerfield Businessmen Association (WDBA), when she voted on issues related to the organization that came before the Deerfield City Commission.
“On September 19, 2007, Sylvia Poitier falsified the Form 8B by intentionally omitting the fact that a conflict of interest involving her brother, a creditor to the WDBA, existed,” reads count one of the arrest affidavit.
Florida law requires public officials to announce and fully disclose potential conflicts of interests. Potential conflicts must be publicly declared and a state-required form, titled, “Memorandum of Voting Conflict for County, Municipal, and Other Local Public Officers,” has to be completed and submitted. The state mandated memorandum is commonly referred to as a Form 8B.
The charges against Poitier center on her involvement with the WDBA, a non-profit affordable housing organization. The WDBA is the city of Deerfield Beach’s designated Community Housing Development Organization, receiving city, state and federal funds to construct and rehabilitate dwellings for low-income residents.
Poitier’s daughter, Felicia Poitier, is president of the WDBA. Dan Poitier, a cousin by a former marriage, is the executive director.
In March 2006, Poitier allegedly solicited and helped secure a $46,024.86 loan from her brother, Lionel Ferguson, for the WDBA.
The money allegedly went towards delinquent tax liens on six WDBA properties. Ferguson was to be paid $977.89 per month, plus with interest over a 360-month period to satisfy the debt, prosecutors say. Ferguson, as well as Felicia and Dan Poitier, gave statements to investigators.
“Felicia Poitier confirmed that she and her mother, Sylvia Poitier, discussed asking Lionel Ferguson for a loan to assist with paying back taxes on the properties owned by WDBA,” the arrest affidavit says. “Felicia Poitier then stated that she and Sylvia Poitier called Lionel Ferguson and he agreed to loan WDBA the money. Felicia Poitier advised that she and her mother called and met with Ferguson to finalize the loan and the paying of the delinquent taxes on the properties.”
During five different commission meetings where grants for the WDBA were discussed or voted on, Sylvia Poitier either denied or failed to disclose the financial arrangement between her brother and the WDBA, the arrest affidavit says.
The criminal investigation 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.
Each count Poitier is charged with carries a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail.
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 that criticizes
politicians’ behavior 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 in an interview on Tuesday. “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.”
Stevens then began to investigate the charities and non-profit organizations that received funding from the program. His review found several problems and raised 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.
Stevens' blog is filled with derogatory comments against 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.
Stevens rejects any suggestion that he targeted her because of her race.
“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.”
Poitier was 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 Prince Poitier 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, respectively, to be 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 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 re-election overwhelmingly this March.