A public utility in northwest Broward County violated state law while doling out nearly $70 million in public contracts, according to a preliminary report issued by the Florida Auditor General.
The North Springs Improvement District (NSID), which provides 40,000 residents with water and sewer service in Parkland and Coral Springs, at times failed to use a competitive bidding process as required by law, didn’t provide adequate time for prospective companies to respond to solicitations, and didn’t always obtain legally required guarantees of performance from contractors, according to the report.
“They weren’t following state law,” said Rep. Dan Daley (D-Coral Springs). “And they weren’t following industry standards.”
It was Daley who initiated the state audit based on investigative findings published last year by the Florida Center for Government Accountability.
The Center’s investigation found that NSID district manager Rodney Colon started a makeshift company in his home that he used to snag more than $16 million in construction contracts for himself from his own agency.
Colon then had other companies he was overseeing at the district do the actual construction work on those contracts, an arrangement that raised serious ethical issues. Another glaring instance of Colon’s personal profiteering came when he obtained his state Realtor’s license and paid himself a $240,000 commission on the $4 million sale of an NSID-owned tract of land.
In addition to Colon’s self-dealing, a small cluster of companies and individuals received the bulk of the NSID construction contracts, sparking allegations of favoritism and worse. At the same time NSID hired numerous family members of those companies on the public dime in a blatant display of nepotism and cronyism.
While admitting his actions might be considered unethical, Colon insisted they were legal, based on a previously obscure exemption in Florida’s Ethics Code that allows employees at special districts like NSID to receive contracts from their agencies.
In a statement released to the Florida Politics website last week, NSID claimed the Florida Auditor General had “exonerated” Colon. Daley called that “spin” and noted that there was no such exoneration, only an acknowledgment in the report that the ethics exemption exists and “specifically” allows contracts to be awarded to district employees.
Both Daley and Rep. Christine Hunchofsky (D-Parkland) sponsored legislation to abolish the little-known exemption earlier this year but were stymied by certain special agricultural districts that rely on the exemption for technical reasons. In the end, Hunchofsky’s legislation required special district board members to get ethics training, but fell short of ending the exemption.
“The District and the district manager are taking a victory lap, but I don’t think this is a victory lap at all,” said Daley of the state audit’s preliminary findings. “It’s clear things were being done that are contrary to state law.”
The Auditor General’s report in fact criticized Colon’s self-dealings, specifically those involving a $4.1 million contract won by his makeshift company, Intersol, LLC, to build a stormwater pump station. The auditor noted that Intersol was ranked first in “past performance” by the district even though it had been in business for only two years. The report failed to mention that Intersol had never even completed a significant construction project prior to that award.
Echoing earlier findings of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, the report noted that the engineer for Colon’s firm, Vandin Calitu, previously was an NSID board member. But again the Auditor General omitted key information regarding the relationship between Colon and Calitu, as well as other red flags regarding the bidding process, including the fact that Calitu, while on Colon’s company payroll, represented all three companies that submitted bids for the stormwater pump station.
NSID was also criticized in the report for failing to obtain an appraisal on the public land sale that Colon used to snare the $240,000 commission for himself. The Auditor General further confirmed a finding by the center that NSID provided the daughter of the owner of one of the NSID favored contractors a job and criticized a lack of clear hiring policies at the district.
Colon and the district have 30 days to respond to the preliminary report before a final version is released. In the Florida Politics article, which read almost like an NSID press release, new board member Anthony Avello promised to improve the district’s performance.
Colon has a history of hiring the relatives of board members as well, and one long-time board member, Vincent Moretti, has secured work from NSID for his plumbing company, a violation of all ethical standards that has yet to be addressed by the state.
Despite that track record, Daley said he’s hopeful that Avello will break the trend of cronyism and rank profiteering at the troubled district. Avello didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Trident.
“I don’t think [Avello] is just a lackey for Rod [Colon],” said Daley. “I do think he’s pushing back on things. If anything I think the sunshine that has come from the audit is a good thing.”
About the Author: Bob Norman is an award-winning investigative reporter who serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Florida Trident and journalism program director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.