TAMARAC, Fla. – Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech was arrested on Friday after he was accused of trying to extort $3.4 million from a developer with false claims about the presence of dangerous levels of soil contamination on a property, prosecutors said.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents in Miami reported text messages showed Cernech’s co-conspirators in the extortion scheme described him as a “total game-changer,” “amazing” and “a magician.”
“The defendant conspired with convicted felons, using his position of authority to relay false information to the highest levels of city government to further this multimillion-dollar extortion scheme,” Attorney General Ashley Moody said in a statement.
State prosecutors identified the victim as the 13th Floor Investments d/b/a SPL Holdings and Cernech’s co-conspirators as father-and-son duo Bruce and Shawn Chait, John Colonel, and Harris Shapiro.
“The victim, in this case, was constantly harassed and his business and livelihood threatened ... Their actions were both frightening and appalling,” FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen said in a statement.
The Chaits felt they had been wronged by Arnaud Karsenti, the managing principal of 13th Floor Investments. Agents said the Chaits defaulted on a loan more than a decade ago, Karsenti acquired the note, foreclosed, and developed the land for residential housing.
State prosecutors said the Chaits and co-conspirators filed lawsuits using “straw plaintiffs” as “puppets” and sent anonymous letters to officials. Agents also have recordings with the Chaits’ admitting to orchestrating the attacks to get the victim to pay.
“Any of Mike Cernech’s efforts involving the Chaits or 13th Floor were done in the best interest of the City of Tamarac, and not to benefit himself or anyone else,” Attorney Larry Davis, who is representing Cernech, said in a statement.
Cernech is facing a charge of conspiracy to commit racketeering. His bond is set at $200,000.
Tamarac Mayor Michelle J. Gómez released a statement saying she was saddened to learn of the charges filed against Cernech.
“I know that my colleagues on the Commission will work together to maintain stability and keep the City moving forward. And I am confident that we can count on our employees to do so as well,” Gómez said.
Local 10 News Assignment Desk Editor Emily Hales contributed to this report.