Lawsuit claims BSO detective accepted vacations, payments from businessman
Other deputies allegedly took money in off-the-books gift certificates
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – On any given day, deputies with the Broward Sheriff’s Office can be found working a special security detail at the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano Beach.
The service is paid for by Festival Flea Market Mall owner Daniel Shooster, who also happens to be a member of the Broward Sheriff's Advisory Council and one of Sheriff Scott Israel's top campaign donors.
Shooster is responsible for at least $37,000 in contributions to Israel's campaign, political committee, and legal defense fund in the past few years. An Israel campaign ad even plays on a loop on the flea market’s electronic billboard on Sample Road.
There's no doubt that Shooster has a close relationship with the BSO, but a lawsuit filed in Broward County circuit court this week alleges that some deputies became cozy with the businessman.
The lawsuit, filed by the the flea market's former chief financial officer, Harlene Zweig, contains allegations that Shooster provided deputies improper gifts that violate BSO policy and had been doing so for years.
The lawsuit also alleges that Detective Robert Rutkowski accepted vacations and payments from Shooster "off the books" while routinely conducting errands and doing other jobs for the businessman.
"Officer Rutkowski would pick up the mail at his house in Boca Raton and bring it back to the Festival," Zweig said. "He would escort (Shooster) to the bank and also on other errands. He would drive (Shooster) and his wife to the airport when they went on vacations."
Zweig, who said she left her position at Festival in November due to work conditions, alleges in the suit that Rutkowski received a lot more than gift certificates from Shooster.
She said the detective went on numerous vacations to Las Vegas and the Bahamas with Shooster and that he came to her about paying him extra money for the work he was doing, which the lawsuit alleges includes cleaning out a warehouse. Zwieg said she told him that he would have to put the detective on the Festival payroll and give a W-2 tax form.
"Dan said that that couldn’t be done, that Officer Rutkowski would get in trouble if that happened," she said, adding that at one point Rutkowski complained to her that he was upset because Shooster was calling him in to run errands while he was on duty.
Zweig said Shooster later told her that he was paying Rutkowski out of a personal Bank of America checking account. Zweig, who worked side by side with Shooster for more than 20 years, said she repeatedly warned Shooster that the gifts were in violation of policy and possibly Florida law but that he ignored her advice.
"He just kept doing it," she said.
Zweig's attorney, Michael Moskowitz, alleges in the lawsuit that the certificates, some of which he said were in the hundreds of dollars and were at times exchanged for cash, constitute a violation of the law and of BSO's policy that forbids deputies from receiving anything of value connected to detail work. The lawsuit does not name any additional deputies.
"Taking gifts automatically creates an appearance of impropriety," Moskowitz said. "What's expected in return? That's the key question."
That question hasn't been answered conclusively, but the BSO confirmed it is now investigating the allegations in the lawsuit.
Rutkowski did not return a phone message, but his attorney, Alvin Entin, acknowledged that the detective did run errands and do large jobs on the side for Shooster, including asphalt work, but denied that he ever did any of the work while on regular duty. He said the errands were predominantly done while the detective was on the special detail.
Entin also said Rutkowski did go on vacations with Shooster, for which the businessman may have picked up the cost, and that he received pay from Shooster as well. Entin said Rutkowski "may not" have gotten required permission from the agency to do the work and acknowledged that his client may have violated BSO policies, but insisted he broke no laws because he never took money to conduct any official duties.
The lawsuit does allege that unnamed deputies ran checks on BSO databases for Shooster but doesn't accuse Rutkowski personally of doing that.
When questioned about it, Shooster said he couldn't discuss it because his attorney has advised him not to. He did say that Rutkowski is a dear friend and pointed to the fact that Zweig's lawsuit is a counter-claim to a lawsuit he filed earlier this year against Zweig's husband, Murray Zweig, in a business deal gone bad, indicating that the allegations were made in retaliation.
Zweig acknowledged that her lawsuit was made in direct response to Shooster's lawsuit, saying she decided to fight against the wealthy flea market owner, who was her boss for so many years.
In addition to the whistleblower allegations concerning BSO, she argued Shooster created an intolerable work environment and is demanding more than $1 million in damages.
The lawsuit also alleges Shooster spoke of his close relationship with Sheriff Israel, who refused an interview request on the lawsuit, saying Shooster "would brag that he couldn’t get a traffic ticket because of his relationship with BSO."
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