Article Courtesy of News-Journal
By Pat Rice
June 15, 2011
Significant questions remain in the case
against two former South Daytona officials federal investigators have
charged with taking bribes in exchange for reducing liens against a condo
Perhaps no one would like those questions
answered more than Ramara Garrett.
Garrett and other investors make up a
partnership called 3131 South Ridgewood LLC. The partnership in turn owns
the vast majority of the units at River Club Condominiums, located at 3131
South Ridgewood Ave. in South Daytona. Garrett is also owner of The
Waverly Property Group, the real estate company that is selling the units
at River Club.
Former Mayor Ron Clifton and former Special
Magistrate Jerry Mitchell are accused of taking $5,000 each as part of a
scheme to reduce liens against River Club Condominiums. According to
federal court records, both have agreed to plead guilty. Clifton also is
charged with accepting a $2,500 bribe for his help in reducing Volusia
County fines against the condo complex, as well as lying to federal
In an interview last week, Garrett said
neither she nor anyone connected to the condo complex had anything to do
with the scheme involving Clifton and Mitchell. Nor did the condo owners
benefit in any way from the actions of Clifton and Mitchell, she said.
She supplied documents that showed 3131
South Ridgewood LLC had made significant improvements to the condo
complex, and also had hired area attorney Jim Morris, who already was
helping them come to an agreement with the city of South Daytona to
significantly reduce liens against the property.
The situation has cast an unfair shadow on
the River Club condo's owners, who haven't done anything improper, Garrett
"We're a victim here, too, because of
whatever scam they (Clifton and Mitchell) were pulling," Garrett
said. "It's so frustrating."
Clifton and Mitchell have not responded to
repeated requests for comment from The News-Journal.
At the center of the federal government's
case against Clifton and Mitchell is an unnamed "purported
representative of investors interested in buying the River Club
Condominiums," according to a news release the U.S. Attorney's Office
in Orlando sent out June 3, the day the charges against the officials were
made public. A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office has declined to
name the purported representative, or to provide any other additional
details related to the case.
But Garrett believes that unnamed person is
Reached at his office last week by a
News-Journal reporter, Buchanan, 40, declined comment and hung up the
phone. He is currently a planner for Brevard County. Between 2000 and
2006, he worked for the cities of Deltona, Daytona Beach, South Daytona
and Holly Hill. In South Daytona, he was the city's planner from 2003 to
In 1989, Buchanan was found guilty and
sentenced to eight years incarceration by a court-martial of the U.S. Army
for receiving, transporting and selling stolen property, as well as
conspiracy and selling firearms without a license, according to city
records and U.S. Army officials. In 2004, then-Gov. Jeb Bush granted
Buchanan clemency, which restored his civil rights except for one
restriction: He could not possess a firearm.
Garrett said Buchanan first made contact
with her with an email on Feb. 15, 2010. She had no idea who he was,
although he implied they'd already met.
"HI!" Buchanan's email began.
"I believe we've met in the past." He stated that he had handled
"entitlement work" for various developers in Volusia County, and
he attached a lengthy biography to the email.
He also wrote, "Recently I was
assisting in getting issues with the River Club condos in South Daytona
resolved with the city of South Daytona. I also brought in the general
contractor that wrote up the building for needed repairs. I was mainly
involved because I have a buyer interested in making a bulk unit purchase.
My client has purchased a number of properties in Volusia County
"I would like to meet you for drinks
and see if any of the units are still available from the new owner for
purchase," Buchanan's email ended.
Garrett said she declined to meet with
Buchanan at that time.
"He was always very determined to
meet," Garrett said. "It was very creepy to me."
Garrett and the other investors in 3131
South Ridgewood LLC had purchased 39 of the 47 units at River Club condos
in 2009. In making the purchase, 3131 South Ridgewood LLC became
responsible for $241,000 in South Daytona code enforcement liens and
$500,000 in Volusia County tax liens that had been racked up by the condo
complex's previous owner, Avinash Gupta, city records show.
Garrett said the condos needed significant
work, and ownership began making necessary fixes to the property. She said
they also hired attorney Morris in late February or early March 2010 to
help them negotiate a reduction in the South Daytona code enforcement
"Everything was done properly with the
city," Garrett said.
A couple months later, Garrett said,
Buchanan approached her again. Buchanan told her South Daytona's new
acting mayor, Ron Clifton, was impressed with the improvements 3131 South
Ridgewood LLC had made to River Club condos. Clifton became acting mayor
in March 2010 after the sudden death of then-Mayor Blaine O'Neal. Buchanan
invited Garrett and the other owners of condos to have dinner with
Clifton. Garrett accepted.
"The mayor wants to have dinner, I was
honored," Garrett explained. "That's the only time I ever spoke
to him (the mayor)."
The dinner took place May 21, 2010, at the
Daytona Club. Garrett said she was there with the other owners of 3131
South Ridgewood LLC. They met with Buchanan and Clifton. Garrett said
Clifton led the majority of the conversation, which centered around the
city's history with the River Club condos.
"Basically, it was just the
history," Garrett said. "As I recall, it was him (Clifton)
complaining about the problems with (the previous owner) and how the
property was looking a lot better. I think it was general, 'the place is
doing better, and keep doing what you're doing.' "
At no point was there any discussion of any
relationship of any sort between 3131 South Ridgewood LLC and either
Buchanan or Clifton, Garrett said.
In the weeks after the dinner, Garrett said
3131 South Ridgewood LLC, through attorney Morris, continued to work with
the city to come to an agreement to reduce liens against the property as
improvements were completed.
Garrett shared a June 7, 2010, letter from
South Daytona Assistant Community Development Director Helen C. Wert that
chronicled the significant improvements on the property. Of a city
"punch list" of 19 items needing attention given to the complex
in March, all but two items had been repaired.
"Excellent progress has been
made," Wert wrote to Morris. "Upon a final and approved
inspection for both items, an affidavit of compliance letter will be
issued by city staff. Then, a request for 'reduction of fine' hearing can
be requested by you and/or your client. We appreciate your efforts in
helping to resolve this code enforcement case."
Both Garrett and South Daytona City
Attorney Scott Simpson point out that significant reductions in such liens
or fines are common when new property owners make significant improvements
to property. Simpson, in a recent interview, said the reductions help to
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Attorney's
news release, on May 26, 2010, "Clifton met with the purported
investors' representative and discussed how to get the city of South
Daytona code enforcement liens reduced on the River Club condominiums. At
the conclusion of the meeting, Clifton suggested that the city of South
Daytona special magistrate for code enforcement (Jerry) Mitchell would
reduce the city liens to a minor amount, in exchange for a cash
On June 1, 2010, "the investors'
representative met Clifton and Mitchell at a restaurant in Port
Orange," according to the U.S. Attorney. The representative gave
Clifton and Mitchell envelopes containing $5,000 in cash each. "At
this and other meetings, the parties discussed the potential of further
payments in relation to the River Club condominiums, as well as additional
payments to Clifton, in exchange for his help in reducing the Volusia
County tax liens," the U.S. Attorney's news release states.
On June 28, Buchanan sent South Daytona
Director of Community Development John Dillard a letter "requesting
to be placed on the upcoming July agenda for the Special Magistrate for
the property located at 3131 South Ridgewood Avenue requesting a partial
reduction of fines and liens."
In a July 2 letter, Dillard responded to
Buchanan that before the city could consider a reduction of fines,
"all items related to the fine must be corrected and inspected by the
city. To my knowledge, there is still an outstanding issue with the
plumbing at this property."
Both the letters note that they were copied
to The Waverly Property Group, the company Garrett owns that is selling
the River Club condos on behalf of 3131 South Ridgewood LLC. Garrett,
though, said she does not recall receiving either letter. If she had, she
said they would have been passed on to attorney Morris, who was handling
their efforts to reduce liens from the city.
On July 8, although he wasn't on the
agenda, minutes indicate Buchanan showed up at a magistrate's hearing
Mitchell was conducting. Buchanan said he was there representing The
Waverly Property Group regarding the condo complex. Over the objections of
city officials, Mitchell reduced the liens against the condos from
$241,000 to $12,000.
Garrett said she found out about what
Buchanan and Mitchell had done about "an hour" after it occurred
from Morris, who was contacted by City Attorney Simpson. Garrett said she
immediately told Morris she had no knowledge of Buchanan's actions. An
email Morris sent to Simpson on July 9 -- the day after the fines were
reduced --supports that. "Waverly says they never knew," Morris
Garrett said the actions of Buchanan and
Mitchell floored her.
"Oh my God, I'm dragged in the middle
of this, and we did everything right," Garrett said. "We go
through all the proper channels and are represented well, and this idiot
comes along and involves us in this."
A "stipulation" was reached and
signed within a day or two by both the city and condo owners in which they
agreed that "3131 Ridgewood LLC did not authorize Stuart Buchanan to
make a request on its behalf to request a reduction in the code
fines." Mitchell's fine reduction was nullified. Shortly thereafter,
when repairs were completed at the condo complex, the city reduced the
liens on River Club condos to $32,000.
About a month after Buchanan showed up at
the hearing before Mitchell, he sent 3131 South Ridgewood LLC a
"letter of intent" to purchase any units for sale at River Club
condos. The nonbinding letter was dated Aug. 6, 2010.
Garrett, who supplied The News-Journal a
copy of the letter of intent, said it was filed away and never pursued by
3131 Souoth Ridgewood LLC because Buchanan's offer price for the condos
was too low. Garrett said she hadn't looked at the letter of intent for
months, and only reviewed it last week, after Clifton and Mitchell were
publicly charged with bribery and the U.S. Attorney named River Club
condos in its news release.
When she looked at it, Garrett said she got
On the letter of intent, Buchanan stated
that the buyer interested in purchasing the condos is "Marat Balegula."
Out of curiosity, Garrett typed that unusual name into Google. What popped
up were numerous references to a "Marat Balagula."
Balagula is a reputed member of the
so-called Russian crime syndicate. He served time in federal prison from
1992 to 2004 for a credit card scam and for a gasoline bootlegging
operation. Various news accounts have tied him to organized crime in New
York. He was released from a federal prison in Bastrop, Texas, in 2004.
The News-Journal could not ascertain his whereabouts, whether he is even
still alive or actually has any connection to this case.
"This was a jaw-dropper for me,"
Meanwhile, Garrett said, the River Club
condos have been selling steadily. Of the 39 condos 3131 South Ridgewood
LLC purchased, 24 of them have already sold. The other 15 are selling for
$99,000 to $150,000. The condo complex on the Halifax River includes a
boat dock as well as a fishing pier. Garrett showed photos of improvements
made to the property, and noted that as each unit has been sold, a portion
of the liens still owed to South Daytona has been paid as part of the
sale. Garrett said she's disappointed the U.S. Attorney hasn't more fully
explained who was behind the bribery. She said she has not been contacted
or interviewed by the FBI, which conducted the investigation, and to the
best of her knowledge, neither have any other investors in 3131 South
Ridgewood LLC. She added that the publicity related to the case has
unfairly impacted other owners of the condos. But she said it hasn't
affected their ownership of the property.
Mitchell is set to plead in federal court
in Orlando on June 29. A plea date for Clifton hasn't been set.
Garrett feels like she is viewing a puzzle
with missing pieces. Above all, she said no one connected to the condos
has done anything wrong.
"I don't understand it," Garrett
said in reference to Clifton and Mitchell. "I don't know what their
goal was. Unfortunately, I inadvertently became the victim of it.
"It's just very sad."