Tue, Sep 20, 2022
By Bob Norman, FLCGA News
Running the water district that serves Parkland and Coral Springs has become an incredibly lucrative government job, a place where the official who manages it has made great sums of money in jaw-dropping ways.
Among the personal windfalls for North Springs Improvement District chief Rod Colon is the pocketing of a $240,000 Realtor’s commission on the sale of a $4 million parcel of his own agency’s land, an FLCGA News investigation has found.
As then-deputy district manager of NSID, which provides water services to 40,000 residents and business clients in northwest Broward, it was already part of Colon’s job to conduct the land sale. But he was added as the Realtor shortly after he received his broker’s license from the state. Records show the parcel was listed for 13 days and that Colon received a single offer for the land.
David Gray, who was president of NSID’s board at the time, said he objected to Colon’s profiting from the public agency but didn’t have the power to stop it.
“I was shocked about the whole concept,” said Gray. “It wasn’t okay. In my mind it was unethical.”
Shortly after Colon collected the six-figure commission in 2017, he formed a company in his Plantation home that soon snapped up $16 million in construction contracts from his agency over the next few years.
Colon, who is now NSID’s top manager at an annual public salary of about $150,000, insists the real estate commission and lucrative construction contracts were all above-board.
“If people want to say, ‘he took advantage of a loophole,’ I don’t care. People can say that,” Colon told FLCGA News. “But don’t say it’s illegal.”
Colon’s “loophole” is a provision in the Florida Ethics Code that exempts special taxing districts like NSID from the law that prohibits public employees from securing contracts with their own agencies. The exemption, however, says that all other ethics laws apply and that any conduct that frustrates the intent of the ethics code would be considered unlawful.
Caroline Klancke, executive director of the Florida Ethics Institute, pointed to another provision in the ethics code that might apply.
“There is a prohibition against misusing your public position,” said Klancke, an attorney who formerly served as general counsel and deputy executive director of the state ethics commission. “It prohibits all public officials from misusing their position to gain a special private benefit. There is not an exception to that.”
Klancke said public officials who cite the exemption would be wise to obtain a written analysis from the Commission on Ethics. Colon didn’t take that step. Instead he obtained guarded approval from an NSID-hired attorney to obtain the contracts in 2017. In his letter, attorney Michael Joblove warned Colon that he remained subject to the laws that forbid public employees from “corruptly” using their official position for personal gain.
Since FLCGA News began its investigation of the district this year, the Florida Ethics Commission and Florida Attorney General’s Office have received several complaints about the district’s unusual business practices. The current status of those complaints is not a matter of public record. However, we have seen no evidence that any state authority is seriously investigating the matter.
“He planned it”
When Gray, who served as president of the NSID board from 2011 to 2016, tried to stop Colon from securing the real estate commission, he was outmatched.
“It was bizarre to find out how much power an unelected guy who manages the (water) plant has,” said Gray. “He controls who’s going to be on the board. It was amazing to me.”
Gray said he initially approached Colon about selling 25 acres of district-owned land on Loxahatchee Road in Parkland in 2015 because it was no longer needed. The parcel was purchased in 2011 for $2.6 million.
“I instructed Rod to find a buyer for the land,” said Gray, who works as construction director for local homebuilder GL Homes.
Several months later, the subject arose at a March 2016 board meeting.
“Instead of getting a proposal to sell the land, we got a contract to hire a Realtor,” Gray said.
Then came another surprise.
“[The contract] actually stated that [Colon] was going to be the Realtor,” Gray said. “I didn’t even know he was a Realtor.”
Colon listed his brokerage firm as the K Company Realty, which allows its Realtors to take full commissions in exchange for relatively small monthly and transactional fees.
|Colon’s state real estate licensure|
Despite his reservations, Gray joined the board’s other two members in voting to approve the contract. He said he quickly regretted doing so. Later, he learned Colon had received his real estate license just one month earlier.
“I was so upset about it that I immediately called to have the vote rescinded,” Gray said. “I told it to [Colon’s] face, ‘You are not going to do this. We are going to reverse this.’ I thought it was a no-brainer.”
At the next meeting, Gray made a motion to rescind Colon’s listing agreement. It died for lack of a second.
Colon said he doesn’t remember Gray instructing him to sell the land. He said he suspects Gray had that discussion with Doug Hyche, the district manager at the time. Colon said it was Hyche’s idea to hire someone to broker the land deal.
“I asked if my brokerage firm could do it,” Colon said. “I had a license, so that means I was qualified. Would any other Realtor in the world know more about the [land sale] than me?”
Gray said Colon ruled the district, not Hyche, who retired in 2019 and could not be reached for comment.
“I dealt with Rod,” Gray said. “I never dealt with Doug.”
Multiple former NSID employees echo Gray’s observation, telling FLCGA News that Colon was the power behind the throne.
Colon said the perception was a result of Hyche’s management style, which he characterized as delegatory and “genius.”
“Some people work better at home,” Colon explained. “Doug was one of those people who do a damn good job and didn’t need to be here to do it.”
“One of the best parcels of land”
Colon listed the parcel at $5 million in March 2016, according to MLS records, just 23 days after receiving his real estate license.
“25 acres of government owned land that would need to be rezoned for other use,” read the cash-only listing. “Heavy residential development in the area. One of the last parcels of land in Northern Broward.”
The property was listed for just 13 days before Brian Tuttle, a local developer, agreed to purchase it for $4 million. When Colon presented the offer to the board, he emphasized that the sale price was $1.4 million more than what NSID had paid.
“This is the only offer I have received at this time and is a relatively good profit,” he said, according to the meeting’s minutes.
When asked by a board member if he’d approached larger home-building companies, Colon said “no one else submitted an offer.”
Colon told FLGCA News that he “marketed the hell out of” the land. But when asked where exactly it was advertised, he had no answer.
“I don’t know, I have to look,” he said. “We did market it. I reached out to everyone I could possibly think of.”
He denied he obtained his real estate license to cash in on his agency’s land sale. “It wasn’t just for this [NSID land sale],” he said of the license.
The April 2016 meeting proved to be Gray’s last stand. After failing to stop Colon’s real-estate commission deal, he resigned as NSID president. He said with board elections coming up in June of that year, he stood no chance of retaining his seat after challenging Colon.
“[Colon] controls who’s going to be on the board,” said Gray.
NSID elections are little noticed by the public. Each homeowner gets one vote, but large landowners, often developers, get one vote per acre. Gray said those landowners amass large numbers of votes, over which Colon exerted influence by proxy.
Colon denied that. He conceded that proxy votes can dominate the elections, but said those landowners make up their own minds on how to vote. In 2016, the dominant force was large home builder Lennar, he said. An email for comment sent to the homebuilder was not returned.
“I don’t control anything, [the landowners] do,” said Colon. “They had all the power.”
A slow legislative step
The Florida Legislature last year passed a bill that will bring NSID into the general election and eliminate the undue power of large landowners, giving all voters an equal say. But the law doesn’t take full effect until 2030. Colon said he plans to retire in 2028.
Rep. Dan Daley, who sponsored the bill, said NSID hired heavyweight lobbyists to fight reform attempts leading to the slow-motion compromise.
“Once they realized I wasn’t going away, they were willing to negotiate with me,” Daley said. “I don’t want to say fiefdom, but that’s what a lot of these entities have become, and [their boards] get elected by the largest landowners.”
|Dan Daley, campaign photo|
After Gray’s resignation, board member Mark Capwell became president. Colon had known Capwell for years. He’d also employed him.
Capwell was vice president of R&A Asset Recovery, a Colon-owned company, when he joined the board in 2012. Capwell resigned from R&A six months before becoming NSID’s president.
In an interview, Capwell downplayed his past business relationship with Colon.
“It was just a company,” he said. “I don’t think it made any money.”
NSID also employed Capwell’s then-wife, according to govsalaries.com. And during his tenure as president, Capwell’s son was hired at NSID and became a water plant operator.
“If his wife was hired, I don’t remember that,” Colon said. “His son is a great water plant operator, one of the best we have.”
Asked if hiring a board member’s relatives presented a conflict of interest for the district, Colon lost his temper with the FLCGA News reporter.
“You only want to f— with peoples’ lives,” he yelled on the phone. “What the f— is wrong with you?”
He repeated those lines multiple times before adding, “What’s going to happen when your life gets f—ed with? You’re not going to like it.”
Asked if that was a threat, Colon replied, “No it’s not a threat, but you’re not going to like it.”
Colon said that as a licensed private investigator, he had looked into the FLCGA News reporter and knew everything there was to know about him.
He vaguely threatened a lawsuit, which wouldn’t be his first. Colon has filed two defamation lawsuits in the past year, one a “John Doe” suit against an anonymous activist known as “Ed Connely,” and another against Eileen Maltese, the wife of a former NSID employee who criticized Colon in Facebook comments.
The true identity of Ed Connely remains a mystery, but Colon told FLCGA News he had uncovered who it was. He said he didn’t want to provide the name because he believed the activist had developed so many enemies that someone would physically harm that person and Colon didn’t want to see that happen.
A few weeks after claiming he knew the activist’s identity, the anonymous lawsuit was dropped in lieu of “further investigation.” The Maltese lawsuit remains active.
In a more recent phone interview, Colon abandoned his at-times combative tone and said he wanted to hire the same FLCGA News reporter to do research for his private investigation business after the coverage of NSID has died down “and nothing has happened because there were no laws broken.”
“Everything doesn’t need to be in writing”
Asked about his outside work, considering that his job was to sell the district’s land and oversee NSID’s construction work, Colon answered, “That’s a very good question.”
“With my experience, with the work I’ve done, I know this district inside out, better than anyone,” he said. “No one else could have come and did what we did. The district went ahead and saved money. That’s my opinion.”
But when it came time for Colon to report the real estate commission and the first several millions of dollars in contracts on his financial disclosure statements, NSID begged off. Less than a month before his 2017 financial disclosure form was due, NSID clerk Brenda Richard emailed the Florida Ethics Commission to ask that Colon be taken off the required filing list because he didn’t have purchasing authority above the required $15,000 without board approval.
The ethics commission granted the request. However, records show that as then-acting assistant treasurer of NSID, Colon had signatory powers with full purchasing authority. Colon told FLCGA News that although he had that power on paper, he couldn’t sign for NSID payments without the approval of the then-district manager, Hyche.
He said he didn’t know if that policy was in writing.
“I’m sure it was in writing somewhere, but if it wasn’t, it doesn’t matter,” Colon said. “It’s what I’m telling you. Everything doesn’t need to be in writing.”
Muted concerns from Parkland politicians
Local elected officials have largely remained tight-lipped about NSID’s business practices. When asked about Colon’s lucrative dealings, Broward Mayor Michael Udine, whose district includes Parkland, refused to comment directly.
|Broward Mayor Michael Udine wouldn’t speak on Colon’s actions directly.|
“No public official should be profiting from their position in any way,” Udine said. “Nobody should use their office in any way that [provides them special benefit].”
State Rep. Christine Hunchofsky, who like Udine is a former Parkland mayor, was a bit more direct.
“No public official should abuse their position in order to make financial gains,” Hunchosky said. “And the laws should reflect that. My office is reviewing the statutes.”
Hunchofsky said she intends to draft legislation that will strike down the ethics exemption, or loophole, that Colon cites as cover.
David Gray, the former NSID president, said closing that loophole should be a priority not only for Broward politicians, but for those across the state.
“Because you know if it’s going on here,” said Gray, “other people are playing the game somewhere else.”