Broward County employee used position to help steal $1.6 million, deputies say

An 11-year employee at the Broward County Records and Treasury Division was arrested Thursday on multiple felony charges.

Roberto Martinez, 46, is charged with 102 felony counts of numerous charges including organized fraud, money laundering, ID theft, uttering forged instruments and official misconduct.

Martinez refused to speak to Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman Thursday morning, running through County Hall to evade the camera, about an hour before he was arrested in his county office. 

Martinez is accused of engaging in an organized scheme to defraud $1.6 million in county surplus funds along with five co-conspirators operating through several bogus companies. 

Martinez ran the office that was in charge of selling homes whose owners had failed to pay their taxes, commonly known as tax deed sales.

Surplus money from those sales — money not taken by tax certificate holders, creditors, etc., are supposed to be returned to the previous owners.

According to an arrest report, Martinez used his county position to divert that money to his co-conspirators through forged power-of-attorneys.

In all, there were 20 victims of the $1.6 million fraud scheme that operated for about a year and a half, according to Broward sheriff’s Detective John Calabro and BSO records. 

“It is obvious that (Martinez) provided (his co-conspirators) information,” Calabro said. “It is obvious that he participated in the fraud. They filed powers of attorney in each case and Mr. Martinez was in charge of reviewing the paperwork. He authorized the issuance of the checks. The investigation uncovered about $1.6 million in losses to numerous former owners of homes in Broward County.”

The county has already been hit with lawsuits from at least two victims. 

Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the county cooperated fully in the investigation and has already changed the way it handles such sales to protect the public.

“It’s hard to imagine (that) he did this,” she said. “But, you know, one person should not put such a shadow on what 6,000 other great people do at the county.”

Sharief said that when the county learned of the investigation, Martinez was transferred to a position where he would have no ability to handle any more county money until his arrest.  

She said the county has already instituted a new system of checks and balances in the tax deed sales office.

“We implemented some other procedures to make sure this never happens again,” Sharief said.

The scheme is believed to have started on or around May 1, 2014, and is believed to have continued through about June 30, 2016.

Calabro said Martinez, whose county salary was $42,000 a year, is being held at the county jail in lieu of a $915,000 bond. 

Warrants have also been issued for five others who are accused in the case, including Marc Eugene, Patricia Eugene, Dim Villarson, Denis Eugene and Gawens St. Victor.

Calabro said some of the accused co-conspirators have already hired attorneys and they are expected to be rounded up by authorities on Thursday and Friday, with some possibly turning themselves in. 

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Florida Senate passes long-awaited medical cannabis bill

The Florida Senate on Friday passed a long-awaited medical cannabis bill.

“It lays the foundation upon which we can build,” Democratic state Sen. Darryl Rouson said. 

But even elected officials who voted for the bill complained that it was severely lacking, including a controversial ban on smoking the dried flower in favor of edibles and vaping.

“If they want to smoke it, they should be able to smoke it. The train has already left the station on this,” Democratic state Sen. Kevin Rader said. 

The bill adds 10 licensed growers to the seven that currently exist, but many say that’s too few and that the “seed to sale” vertical integration model will hurt competition and lead to high prices for patients.

“I fear that what we’ve done here is driven the price of medical marijuana up to a place where many people are going to seek filling their prescriptions through the black market,” Republican state Sen. Tom Lee said.

Attorney Michael Minardi said lawsuits are already being drafted to challenge the law as he prepared for this weekend’s Southeast Cannabis Conference & Expo at the Broward County Convention Center.

“This is a constitution amendment and it overrides any legislation,” he said.

Patient Irv Rosenfeld receives his medical marijuana from the federal government and will be allowed to continue smoking, but he wants that right for Floridians and said the marijuana market needs to operate on free trade principles to work for patients.

“Competition, OK, brings the price down, plus it gives you better medicine because every dispensary’s going to have different strains,” he said. “So, it gives the patient the best chance of getting relief for the problem they have. So, we’re not going to have that opportunity, not with the way the state passed the law.”

Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign the bill, which guarantees that one of the new licenses will go to a black-owned company.

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Fort Lauderdale mayor under fire for controversial guest invited to Prayer Breakfast

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler is coming under fire from his own party for having a controversial guest at his upcoming annual prayer breakfast. 

At this week’s Fort Lauderdale city commission meeting, Seiler took issue with LGBT activist Michael Rajner.

Seiler was rankled when Rajner brought up the fact that the head of the group, Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, was the keynote speaker for the mayor’s upcoming Prayer Breakfast

“His character well exceeds the character of a man you’re standing up to at the Prayer Breakfast, who has vilified the LGBT community,” Rajner said during the commission meeting.

Rajner shared more of his thoughts on the matter with Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman outside the commission meeting.

“It’s the equivalent of taking the stage with David Duke,” Rajner said. “It’s sad that the mayor just won’t admit to how harmful this is and how offensive it is to the gay community.”

Focus on the Family has a history of anti-gay policies, including stances against gay marriage and adoption, and for controversial conversion therapy.

“It is so damaging,” Rajner said. “They have literally talked about how we are a threat to society.”

Rajner is far from alone. The Broward Democratic Party called the development  “deeply disappointing and extremely troubling,” saying fellow Democrat Seiler’s “willingness to share the stage with this figure is a disappointing development which calls into question his belief in this value system.”

Wilton Manors Commissioner Julie Carson, who is Broward County’s first lesbian elected to office, said the invitation was unacceptable.

“If this had been Jack Seiler’s private prayer breakfast, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation, but this is the mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, and creating hate and ideas that cripple so many people is just not good for us,” Carson said.  

Seiler defended the Prayer Breakfast, saying he didn’t choose Daly’s involvement and that it would be rude and disrespectful for him to cancel his speech.

“Over the years, this Prayer Breakfast has brought our community together, united individuals of different backgrounds, unified houses of worship of different faiths, and had an incredibly positive impact on our city,” Seiler said in a statement. “It would be incredibly rude, arrogant and disrespectful to over a thousand Prayer Breakfast attendees to cancel my speech because of rumors and speculation about what another speaker may or may not say next Friday morning.”

Seiler also pointed out that he didn’t choose Daly to speak, and that the decision was made by a host committee.

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