FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – It's a special Broward Sheriff Office's unit that has nothing to do with fighting crime -- it's all about community, and it's expanded under Sheriff Scott Israel.
"It's about connecting with the community," said Israel.
Since his election in January, Israel has hired at least 11 community "liaisons" or "specialists" at BSO at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1 million in salary and benefits.
"These are liaison positions and these are people that are not only familiar with the community, but love the community," Israel said.
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But one of those hires, at an annual $45,000 salary, is a freelance reporter named Mike Colapietro. He's from New York, and his only tie to Broward appears to be that he co-wrote a book with political dirty trickster Roger Stone, who strongly backed Israel this past election season. The recently published book is a conspiratorial tale alleging that Lyndon Baines Johnson killed John F. Kennedy.
When asked about Colapietro, Israel said he didn't know who he was.
"So you weren't aware that Roger Stone's associate was hired for this position?" asked Local 10's Bob Norman.
"I might have been aware a person was hired," answered Israel. "Whether the person is an associate of Roger Stone (pictured, right, at a gay pride parade in New York) or not, I wouldn't necessarily know."
Colapietro is at least the second associate of Stone, the former political director of Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, hired by BSO since Israel took office.
Stone's long-time assistant, Dianne Thorne, was also hired as a "community specialist" at a salary of $60,000 a year. Thorne was the founder of the so-called "Miami Tea Party," which smeared Israel's opponents in the last election with misleading robo-calls. The Australian-born Thorne lives in Miami.
Stone, who started his political career conducting dirty tricks for Richard Nixon (and has a large tattoo of Nixon on his back), helped coordinate attacks on Israel's opponents and was involved with a PAC called Taxpayers for Integrity in Government that ran attack ads against former Sheriff Al Lamberti.
Thorne's stepson, Andrew Miller, who is another of Stone's cohorts, gave $120,000 to that PAC and is now affiliated with a pro-Israel website called the Broward Bugle.
In addition to Colapietro and Thorne, other community hires at BSO have included former newspaper reporter Elgin Jones, who routinely blasted Lamberti in print, and political fundraiser Stephen Greenberger and Democratic operative Harrison Grandwilliams, who both worked on Israel's campaign. Yet another campaign contributor and supporter, Bill Thixton, was hired in January with a $77,000 salary but has since left the agency ("It just wasn't for him," said Israel).
"They're not political folks," said Israel. "They're people I've met through politics that are deeply concerned with the community and deeply concerned about having my vision and mission come to fruition."
Israel said department-wide, the total cost of his hires is $4.8 million less than the cost of those who have left the agency since his election. But the sheriff also said he may have to lay off 200 to 300 employees in the face of a $30 million-plus budget shortfall.
"With these budget problems looming, why were so many people hired?" asked Norman.
"I'm not playing semantics but it's not hiring," answered Israel. "It's called team building, and we've built an incredibly successful team of men and women."
"If it comes down to it, who goes first, the deputies on the street or those community affairs people?" asked Norman.
"We're not anywhere close, we're not there yet," said Israel. "I'm not thinking about who yet."