By Kevin Deutsch
The Tamarac City Commission voted during an emergency meeting Tuesday to fire City Manager Michael Cernech, who was arrested Friday for his alleged role in a scheme to extort more than $3 million from a local developer.
The Commission voted 4-1 to terminate Cernech with cause, with Mayor Michelle Gomez the lone dissenter. Gomez said she preferred Cernech be suspended without pay, believing his outright firing Tuesday would lead to costly litigation.
Her colleagues said they wanted to make a clean break with Cernech, 52, who prosecutors said conspired to commit racketeering with several co-conspirators, including corrupt father-and-son developer duo Bruce and Shawn Chait.
“We need to establish a precedent…that this is completely unacceptable,” said Commissioner Mike Gelin. “It tarnishes every high-level employee here.”
Commissioner Marlon Bolton said he did not trust Cernech to govern the city’s finances.
“Would the residents want him or trust him to be back at City Hall?” said Bolton. “I do not think so.”
Commissioner Debra Placko called the decision to fire Cernech “gut-wrenching…I have agonized over this for many, many days.”
“We need to make a clean break so our city can move forward,” said Placko. “We can’t have someone on suspension.”
Cernech was charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering under the RICO statutes, which resulted from the Chaits and Cernech attempting to pressure Arnaud Karsenti, the Managing Principal of 13th Floor Investments, into coughing up $3.4 million in extortion money, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In exchange for the payoff, the Chaits’ vowed to cease a years-long harassment and intimidation campaign they and their allies waged against Karsenti by publicizing false evidence—including lawsuits— claiming the Sabal Palm and Monterrey golf courses on which 13th Floor built the Manor Parc, and Central Parc developments were environmentally tainted, records show.
Other co-conspirators in the case include John Colonel and Harris Shapiro, records show.
The Chaits have a history of criminal corruption in Tamarac and Broward County, partaking in an earlier bribery scandal. Multiple Tamarac officials were implicated and arrested, and a county commissioner was sent to prison.
Cernech is currently free on a $2oo,ooo bond and being monitored with a GPS device, court records show.
As a condition of his bond, Cernech is legally barred from contact with his co-defendants and can only leave his home to transport his children, the records show.
Cernech’s contract with the city stipulates he be paid a total of $366,426 in compensation if terminated without cause.
The commission’s vote terminated Cernech “with cause,” and city officials said they would not pay him his compensation as a result.
But Cernech’s contract does not address what happens in an event such as Tuesday’s firing. That means litigation is likely, said City Attorney John Herin, Jr.
Gomez said she feared Cernech’s firing Tuesday “would create a bigger financial situation for the city than the one we are trying to block.”
The commission Tuesday also named Kathleen Gunn as Tamarac’s Acting City Manager.
Gunn, formerly Tamarac’s Assistant City Manager, previously held that position in Miramar and Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s a great honor,” Gunn told commissioners.
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- Kevin Deutsch is an award-winning crime journalist and author. A graduate of Florida International University, Kevin has worked on staff at The Miami Herald, New York Daily News, and The Palm Beach Post.
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