Private eye's role in Riviera petition focus of hearing

Builder Dan Catalfumo was so concerned that Riviera Beach residents might gather enough signatures to put his $280 million makeover of the Ocean Mall before voters that he hired a local firm of private investigators started by ex-CIA agents to keep an eye on their activities.

On a Sunday last October, investigator Richell Breakwell traveled to Singer Island, where Catalfumo wants to build his project and the hub of his opposition. There, Breakwell went to three businesses, where she asked for the petitions and signed them under an alias, according an affidavit prepared by the former CIA operations support officer.

The city wants to use Breakwell's information in its legal battle with the Public Beach Coalition, which sued Riviera Beach to get three petition questions on the March 13 ballot. Her affidavit shows the petitions are invalid, attorney Brian Joslyn said.

His project includes building shops, restaurants and a 28 story Marriott  hotel/condo.

But the coalition, which was the focus of Catalfumo's secret snooping, charges that Breakwell's covert operations went too far, violating Florida election laws.

"It is criminal activity," coalition attorney John Jorgensen said Thursday before Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley of Breakwell's behavior.

Jorgensen told Kelley that Breakwell's use of a fictitious name and signing multiple petitions violated the state's election law. Kelley reserved ruling on Jorgensen's motion to have Breakwell's affidavit tossed out of court.

Kelley did promise to rule on the overall case by Feb. 8. That's the deadline for all ballot questions to be submitted to the supervisor of elections in order for them to appear on the March 13 ballot.

The coalition seeks to have voters decide whether to repeal the council's Oct. 4 decision to change its city charter, extending the lease on its 11-acre beach from 50 to 99 years. The other two questions ask voters to keep building height on the beach to five stories and limit use on the land to tourism and recreation.

Both sides sued each other in December after the city council voted to lease Catalfumo the city's beach for 50 years, with a clause that upped the lease to 99 years if the petition drive failed. The project also includes razing the 33-year-old Ocean Mall and building 60,000 square feet of shops and restaurants and a 28-story Marriott hotel/condos.

If voters approve the ballot questions, Catalfumo couldn't build his project because of the height limitations, and the land use would prevent the sale of condos.

Contacted after Thursday's hearing, Joey Eichner, senior vice president of Catalfumo Construction and Development, acknowledged that the company hired CTC International, a West Palm Beach firm started by former CIA personnel. However, Eichner said Catalfumo officials were unaware that Breakwell's actions bordered on violating state election laws.

"We only hired them to monitor and observe the process to ensure that it was done correctly," Eichner said.

The fact that Breakwell was hired by Catalfumo has yet to come out in court. The city, in its request to have her affidavit admitted into evidence, said it didn't hire Breakwell, and didn't know who had.

"Whether it's criminal or not doesn't mean what she said isn't true," Joslyn told Kelley.

Eichner said the company took the steps of hiring CTC International Group because the coalition was spreading erroneous information about its Ocean Mall project.

The company felt the group was attempting to use scare tactics such as exaggerating where the Marriott hotel would be built in order to get residents to sign the petitions.

According to CTC International's Web site, Breakwell spent 21 years in the CIA as an operations support officer. She did stints in Europe and Africa, providing intelligence support.

According to her affidavit, Breakwell said she went to the Grator Gator Food Mart, the Sands Hotel and the Singer Island Health and Fitness Center on Oct. 15. At each Singer Island business, Breakwell said she asked for the petitions and signed them without anyone asking whether she was a resident of Riviera Beach or for any identification.

Jorgensen argued that state law doesn't require for signers to provide any of that information. The validity of the petitions, however, is at the heart of city Clerk Carrie Ward's decision to reject nearly 3,000 signatures gathered by the committee.

Based on her decision, the council voted to reject the petitions, which prevented the questions from being on the ballot. The city sued the coalition in order to have a judge review its actions, but Riviera Beach's lawsuit also attempts to stretch the legal proceedings beyond the February deadline.

Time is also a factor for Catalfumo. City attorney Pamala Ryan told Kelley that if Catalfumo gets his site plan approved by the council before the election, the petition effort is moot, she said.

That prompted Jorgensen to make a plea to Kelley for a quick ruling in the case.

"This is an election case and time is of the essence," Jorgensen said. "Delay is victory for them."