Saturday, March 24, 2018

Hallandale Beach mayor accepted illegal checks from Russians, prosecutors say

Joy Cooper knew the value of her political power.

On a summer day in 2012, the Hallandale Beach mayor met in her City Hall office with two men she thought were wealthy landowners from California as well as a close acquaintance, South Florida attorney and lobbyist Alan Koslow.

The landowners — FBI agents working undercover — would help finance Cooper’s re-election run. In return, she would push their construction project through the city commission.

Koslow showed the mayor a proposed donation and asked if it was a "good number."

"No," Cooper said. "Add a zero."

"Three zeros. Is that fine?" Koslow responded. "Yes," she said.

Cooper went on to win re-election in November 2012, after soliciting and receiving thousands of dollars that state prosecutors now say were illegal campaign contributions. Cooper, 57, who had served as mayor since 2005, was suspended by Gov. Rick Scott on Friday after she was charged with campaign finance violations, official misconduct and money laundering.

Cooper was released on a $12,000 bond Thursday as she awaits trial. Her defense attorney said the state’s case — turned over by the FBI to Broward prosecutors last year — was flawed because it was ultimately built upon the cooperation of Koslow. He’s now a fallen attorney who pleaded guilty to an unrelated federal money-laundering charge in 2016 and helped investigators make the case against Cooper.

Cooper’s attorney, Larry Davis, said he was "extremely disappointed" that the Broward State Attorney’s Office relied upon Koslow, whom he described as "a disgraced and disbarred convicted felon."

In a statement, Cooper promised to "vigorously fight these allegations in court."

A day after her high-profile arrest, details of Cooper’s alleged corruption have emerged in an arrest affidavit filed by state prosecutors in Broward County Circuit Court. Many of her words and actions were documented with undercover audio and video recordings.

The document outlines a chapter of the FBI’s 2012 probe of political corruption in South Florida, and how undercover agents posing as developers hired Koslow as their attorney to target Cooper. It also reveals a seemingly improbable tale of how $8,000 stuffed into a Dunkin’ Donuts bag was converted into campaign checks written by several Russian donors.

The tale started in May 2012 when undercover agents created a fictitious real estate company and hired Koslow to represent them and reach out to Cooper to find a development site in Hallandale Beach. Koslow, who worked for the prominent Broward law firm Becker & Poliakoff, was unaware that his new clients were FBI agents.

In July, Koslow introduced the agents to Cooper in the mayor’s office at city hall. They discussed a development project and her upcoming re-election campaign, as Cooper boasted she could ensure two other votes on the five-member city commission.

But, according to the affidavit, Cooper wanted a substantial campaign donation for her support — a figure with three zeros.

Later that month, the mayor met with Koslow and they agreed on a $10,000 contribution from the developers in two installment payments.

In August, the developers, Koslow and Cooper met at her Hallandale Beach home to discuss the arrangement. Then, Koslow met alone with the developers to receive the first payment.

The undercover agents posing as the developers gave Koslow — still unaware of their true identities — a Dunkin’ Donuts bag filled with $100 bills totaling $8,000. They agreed that Koslow "would channel these funds" to Cooper and two of her allies on the city commission, according to the affidavit.

Koslow, aware of the $500 limit on local campaign contributions, told the agents that he would use their funds and his connections to two Russian organizations to have them write checks to Cooper’s campaign.

In September, the mayor met Koslow at a fashion show organized by the Hallandale Beach Chamber of Commerce. There, she collected 20 campaign checks totaling $5,000.

"That’s fantastic," Cooper told Koslow, acknowledging that the donations came from a bunch of Russians living in the United States.

In her campaign treasury report, Cooper listed the donors as "teachers" and one "retiree."

A month after her 2012 victory, Cooper met with the undercover agents and Koslow, according to the affidavit.

"You guys have been great," Cooper said at the Flashback Diner in Hallandale Beach, unaware that the developers were FBI agents. She pointed out, however, that one of the donor’s checks bounced.

According to the affidavit, two of the check donations — totaling $1,000 — were made to the campaign of then-Commissioner William Julian. There is no evidence that Julian knew the source of the money.

At the end of the investigation, in October 2012, Cooper was still unaware she was targeted by the FBI. And it took more than five years for her to be arrested.

The reason for the long delay: After the November election, the undercover agents began targeting Koslow, who agreed to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal gambling and drug proceeds. Koslow collaborated with a South Florida woman in writing checks to the agents in exchange for the cash. The agents gave Koslow and the woman a small cut of the dirty money.

After a series of transactions, the agents revealed their identities to Koslow in August 2013 — but didn’t arrest him. The longtime Broward attorney began working undercover himself, assisting the FBI agents in their investigation of other politicians and lobbyists.

Koslow, however, would finally cut his plea deal in August 2016. He was sentenced to a year in prison on the money-laundering conspiracy conviction. The following year, Koslow, 63, gave a critical statement in the investigation into Cooper’s alleged misconduct, according to the affidavit. He attested to "his participation" in the alleged campaign finance scheme.

In a statement to her constituents, Cooper vowed to "vigorously fight these allegations in court."

With Cooper’s suspension from the mayor’s office pending the outcome of her criminal case, Vice Mayor Keith London will serve as acting mayor.

Ironically, after Cooper beat London for the mayor’s post in 2012, she crowed to the Sun Sentinel: "Good always prevails. Didn’t your mom tell you that?"

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