By Kevin Deutsch
Tamarac City Manager Michael Cernech helped a corrupt father-son developer team carry out a conspiracy to extort Arnaud Karsenti—the founder of 13th Floor Investments—threatening to thwart Karsenti’s efforts to win City Commission approval for a development project, according to court records.
Cernech, 52, who lives in Parkland, is an alleged co-conspirator to convicted felons Bruce and Shawn Chait in the public corruption scheme, prosecutors said.
Cernech was arrested Friday and charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering under the RICO statutes, which was the result of the Chaits and Cernech attempting to pressure 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.
The Chaits, along with co-conspirators John Colonel, Harris Shapiro, and others—including Cernech—conspired to harass and extort 13th Floor Investments, threatening to “destroy the victim’s reputation and business,” records show.
The Chaits’ motive: Bitterness over a failed buyout deal they struck with 13th Floor in 2010 to purchase the Sabal Palm and Monterrey golf courses.
Instead of buying the golf courses from the Chaits, the 13th Floor subsequently bought them from the bank, which held a mortgage on those properties for less money than the deal 13th Floor struck with the Chaits. The Chaits had defaulted on their loan by failing to pay the property taxes on that land, and the bank foreclosed, after which 13th Floor bought the property.
“I knew that someday, it might take me a day, it might take me a week, it might take me a few years, but I knew one day the slate would be wiped clean,” Bruce Chait said of his efforts to undo the perceived wrong he suffered, according to FDLE, which secretly recorded the conversation.
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.
In the current case, a probable cause affidavit filed by FDLE Special Agent Monica Baldo describes a behind-the-scenes pressure campaign waged by the Chaits and their allies to extort 13th Floor. It includes a host of text message chats between Cernech and Bruce Chait, conducted in 2021.
“We need you to do your magic,” Chait texted Cernech on Feb. 25—the day of a Tamarac City Commission planning meeting—referencing backroom efforts to pressure Karsenti and 13th Floor.
After Chait and Cernech referenced the purchase of a boat, Chait wrote: “I need you to pull a rabbit out of a hat so I can keep it LOL.”
“Working on it!” Cernech replied, according to the affidavit.
That same day, after Bruce Chait texted Cernech, “you’re a magician,” he told the City Manager: “Tell me something good happened today.”
Cernech replied, “I have calls into Backman and Daley, haven’t heard back from them,” records show.
According to the affidavit, Scott Backman is Karsenti’s land use attorney, and State Rep. Dan Daley, D-Coral Springs, is corporate counsel for 13th Floor Investments.
Cernech and Backman met after the Broward County Planning Council’s February 2021 meeting, according to the affidavit. That same day, Karsenti texted Baldo—the FDLE agent who surveilled multiple meetings Karsenti took during the investigation—to let her know Bruce Chait had informed Cernech he “is filing a class action suit tomorrow” regarding contamination at a development property, records show.
Through the years, arsenic contamination has been found in the soil and groundwater at more than a dozen South Florida golf courses, the result of a variety of herbicides and pesticides being used over time.
Arsenic contamination impacts the health of the residents who reside near the golf course. Contaminated groundwater is the most common cause of arsenic poisoning. But it can also be caused by breathing air that contains arsenic. Long-term exposure to low concentrations of arsenic in the air and drinking water can lead to skin, bladder, lung, kidney, and prostate cancers, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The next day, Bruce Chait texted Cernech to say he had “just got a text from Arnaud…wants to meet Monday at Landlubber’s in Coconut Creek.”
When Cernech replied with a thumbs-up emoji, Chait wrote: “I think you have his attention. It should be very interesting.”
As Karsenti pushed forward with efforts to win approval for the project, the Chaits continued their extortion campaign and, with Cernech’s help, worked to jeopardize the project’s approval if they did not get paid, records show.
“Shawn [Chait] said you are totally amazing,” Bruce Chait texted Cernech on March 2. “You’re a total game-changer.”
“Surprised?” Cernech replied.
The next day, Cernech texted Bruce Chait to report: “He’s stalling…wait until they get a call from [Tamarac City Commissioner Marlon] Bolton…he’s their 3rd vote, they need him or it’s over for them.”
Chait replied: “Mike I don’t think there’s any more flairs to send up what’s your thoughts?”
“We still have the Bolton card to play,” replied Cernech.
On March 3, Cernech received a text with instructions: “Next time you talk to Backman tell him Alibaba gave us $500,000, which he’s getting credit for because he owed us $3.9 [million],” wrote Bruce Chait, using a slur for Karsenti.
“This douchebag Ali Baba needs to be blown out of the water,” wrote Chait.
“Yes he does!” replied Cernech, according to the affidavit.
Subsequently, Tamarac Mayor, Michelle Gomez, contacted Scott Backman, 13th Floor’s legal representative, and “admitted that if the Chaits did divulge any negative information (even false information) about the victim or his projects within the City of Tamarac, it would adversely affect the ability to approve any current or future projects submitted by the victim,” the affidavit states.
The negative information the Mayor referred to was for the developments which were built on the Sabal Palm and Monterrary golf courses which today are the Manor Parc and Central Parc developments.
When Backman was contacted by Mayor Gomez, 13th Floor had pending applications for land use plan changes and rezonings to build 397 homes on the Woodlands golf course.
Court documents have not specified exactly what Cernech had to gain from the Chaits, for his alleged assistance.
Cernech, who surrendered to the Broward Main Jail Friday, was being held on a $200,000 bond, prosecutors said.
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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.