By Kevin Deutsch
The question of whether more than 200 properties purchased by Tamarac homeowners were contaminated by arsenic—and the buyers never informed of the carcinogen’s presence—is emerging as a key issue in the corruption case of former Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech, court records show.
Cernech, 53, of Parkland, is being prosecuted by Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody for allegedly helping a corrupt father-son developer team carry out a conspiracy to extort Arnaud Karsenti—the founder of 13th Floor Investments—as he sought to win City Commission approval for a project the defendants “falsely claimed” was contaminated by arsenic.
Cernech was arrested in August 2021 and charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering under the RICO statutes due to his working with convicted felons Bruce and Shawn Chait to pressure Karsenti into coughing up $3.4 million, prosecutors said. He was fired by the city days later.
In exchange for the payoff from Karsenti, the Chaits’ vowed to cease a years-long harassment and intimidation campaign they and their allies waged against Karsenti by publicizing false evidence claiming that multiple 13th Floor properties—including the Sabal Palm and Monterrey golf courses, on which 13th Floor built the Manor Parc and Central Parc developments—were environmentally tainted, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also allege Cernech and the Chaits exchanged text messages proving Cernech was involved in the conspiracy to extort Karsenti in connection with 13th Floor’s ongoing efforts to build 397 homes at the Woodlands, which, like Central Parc South, would be built on a former golf course.
If the developer didn’t pay up, Shawn Chait said in a conversation secretly recorded by investigators, a lawsuit would be filed alleging contamination on the Woodlands project site, sinking its prospects for approval.
State investigators “verifie[d] Cernech’s awareness that the Chaits and co-conspirators continuously threatened, and falsely claimed, the presence of dangerous levels of soil contamination on the property,” according to a press release issued by Moody’s office shortly after Cernech’s arrest, which did not specify the property.
“The Chaits and co-conspirators did this by filing lawsuits using straw plaintiffs as puppets for the sole purpose of getting the victim to pay. The Chaits used this false claim as leverage, knowing that the victim would not want to have his reputation tarnished—even through false accusations and bogus threats of lawsuits.”
But court records filed by the Chaits’ lawyers this month paint a different picture.
“Arnaud Karsenti says he was ‘threatened,’” the Chaits’ lawyers wrote in a motion seeking documents. “Did he feel threatened because Bruce Chait would reveal the truth — that the residential lots at Central Parc South have an unlawful level of arsenic?”
The defense filing seeks documents related to “the arsenic condition of the residential lots at Central Parc South,” the lawyers wrote, claiming prosecutors are refusing to obtain and turn over the records.
“The missing documents are essential…they relate to the arsenic levels on the 200+ lots at Central Parc South….there is no proof in the public record that the 200+ homebuyers ever saw these documents.”
The lawyers allege Karsenti’s company at the time prepared a property assessment report in 2013 that found elevated arsenic levels in the soil, leading him to work with county environmental regulators on mitigation efforts.
13th Floor has said its remediation project at the Central Parc South property complied with all laws and regulations.
Found in the soil and groundwater at more than a dozen South Florida golf courses over the years, arsenic contamination is the result of a variety of herbicides and pesticides being used over time.
Arsenic contamination can impact the health of the residents who reside near a contaminated golf course. Contaminated groundwater is the most common cause of arsenic poisoning, but it can also be caused by breathing air that contains arsenic.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in the air and drinking water can lead to skin, bladder, lung, kidney and prostate cancers.
Representatives for 13th Floor, which has denied any wrongdoing in connection with the arsenic issue, could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday.
Cernech, who pleaded not guilty, is currently free on a $200,000 bond.
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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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