HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Last fall, when three Hallandale Beach politicians – commissioners Keith London, Michele Lazarow and Annabelle Taub -- began complaining that they were being followed around during the bitter election season in Hallandale Beach, it might have been written off as paranoia.
"I felt violated, I felt intimidated," Lazarow said. "I felt bullied."
But then, London caught a man on video apparently following his car. Local 10 ran a check on the license tag of the man seen in the video, and sure enough, it came back to a private investigator named Victor Elbeze. But Elbeze and his boss at the time, Steve Cohen, who owns the Hallandale Beach firm General Investigative Services, denied following any politicians.
It was only after all three politicians discovered mysterious GPS trackers under their vehicles and turned them over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that a criminal investigation began. It’s illegal in the state of Florida to install a tracking device without permission. But still their political foes hinted they may have planted them there themselves as a stunt.
Now, nearly a year after election day, the State Attorney’s Office has charged Elbeze with illegal tracking after FDLE agents found his fingerprints on one of trackers. London said he was informed Elbeze admitted his role in the case and is cooperating with prosecutors. Elbeze’s attorney, Bruce Lyons, confirmed his client gave a sworn statement in the case and said he “told the truth.” Elbeze is set to be arraigned Nov. 20.
"He basically spilled the beans," said London, who is now vice mayor of the city.
Elbeze refused to comment on the case, but said he would when the legal proceedings are concluded.
"Who hired him is the question," Lazarow said.
Cohen, a shadowy Russian national who recently changed his name from Stanislav Doudnik, refused to speak on camera and wouldn’t say who hired his firm, citing client confidentiality. But he said he never ordered Elbeze, who has left his employ, or anyone else to do anything illegal.
"If someone did something wrong, they did it on their own," Cohen said.
The commissioners said a clue to who paid for the private investigator likely comes from campaign ads that aired at the time, which actually show surveillance video of Lazarow and London that appear to have been shot by a private investigator. The ads were financed by a political committee funded with roughly $375,000 from companies tied to the city's Diplomat Golf & Tennis Course, which has a controversial $450 million project being built in the city.
The Diplomat was backing candidates running against both Lazarow and Taub, with a special interest in Taub’s opponent, Bill Julian, who was then serving as the city’s vice mayor and was a supporter of the Diplomat project. Julian had been caught on audiotape admitting to agreeing to accept secret favors including 300 workers for his campaign from the Diplomat in exchange for his vote on the Diplomat project.
Diplomat principle Louis Birdman denied knowledge of the surveillance last year and didn’t return a call for comment for this story. The State Attorney’s Office criminally investigated Julian – whose loss in the election is often attributed to the Diplomat scandal -- but Assistant State Attorney David Shulson determined there was insufficient evidence to prosecute based on the “loose talk” on the Julian recordings.
The trio also point the finger at their chief political foe, Mayor Joy Cooper, who has admitted that she had a private investigator run a background report on Taub during the campaign through an orthopedics office own by her husband, Harry Cooper. But the mayor said that was not tied to Elbeze or Cohen and that she had no knowledge whatsoever of the illegal tracking. She refused to name the private investigator who ran the Taub report, calling it "private business."
"I worked the polls, that’s what I did," said Cooper, adding that she was glad an arrest was made in the tracking case. "I was in California during half of this adventure."