The longtime mayor of Pembroke Park has repeatedly blurred the lines between official town business and her personal endeavors, using town employees to do work for her law firm and a campaign staffer to post from the town’s Facebook page, the Broward Office of the Inspector General said in a report released Thursday.
Ashira Mohammed, the mayor of the small South Broward town since 2011, committed both ethical and electoral misconduct that “went to the very heart of state prohibitions that regulate a public officer’s conduct while in office and during a campaign,” the inspector general’s office said in a 157-page final report.
According to the inspector general’s office, Mohammed committed multiple violations that could have criminal implications. Investigators found that, by having a campaign employee post as the mayor from a town social media account, Mohammed violated the state’s “Little Hatch Act,” which regulates the political activity of public officials, a first-degree misdemeanor.
The report also says Mohammed failed to properly resign her position as mayor under Florida’s “resign to run” law before she ran as a Democrat for Florida House District 101 in the August primary. By submitting campaign qualifying papers to the state swearing she had properly resigned, Mohammed “willfully swore a false oath” related to an election, a third-degree felony, the report says.
Broward Inspector General John W. Scott lacks the authority to bring criminal charges, but his office can refer its findings to other agencies. The report says the investigation, which found “probable cause” that Mohammed violated election and ethics laws, will be referred to the Broward State Attorney, the Florida Elections Commission and the state’s Commission on Ethics “for whatever action those agencies deem appropriate.”
Mohammed, through an attorney, challenged the investigation’s findings in a response included in the final report. The response says the inspector general’s office used witness testimony that was “unreliable,” and that the report makes conclusions “based on assumptions as to certain facts, which are unwarranted based on the actual evidence adduced, and are contrary to objective reality.”
“The report has inaccuracies large and small,” Mohammed’s attorney, Joe Geller, told the Miami Herald after the final report was released Thursday morning. “It’s based on suppositions people made that don’t have actual knowledge or direct knowledge of what they’re talking about.”
The report says the inspector general’s office made multiple attempts to interview Mohammed, but she didn’t respond until after the deadline they provided and then failed to respond to a follow-up inquiry.
In her response, Mohammed’s attorney called on the inspector general’s office to recall a preliminary version of the report that was sent to town officials Aug. 19 and arrange an interview with Mohammed.
“I don’t understand why that offer would not have been accepted,” Geller said Thursday.
Mohammed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The town responded to the findings by implementing a policy that limits the number of employees with access to the town’s social media pages. In addition, the town “committed to review its employee code of conduct and expressed its intent to update its Personnel Policies and Procedures Manual,” the inspector general’s office said.
This isn’t the first time Pembroke Park has been a target of a harsh inspector general report. In 2018, the agency found that the former town manager and two other town officials “engaged in gross mismanagement, misconduct, or both” in the procurement of an engineering contract over the course of 16 years.
Improper social media post
As part of the broad probe, investigators looked at Mohammed’s arrangement for a paid staff member from her campaign for Florida House of Representatives to post as the mayor from the town’s Facebook page. This violated the Little Hatch Act, investigators said, as part of an effort by the mayor to use town resources “to increase her online presence and thus influence votes and affect the outcome of her campaign.”
Investigators focused on a particular post that a campaign worker for Mohammed shared from the town’s official Facebook page on April 8, which featured an advertisement for Mohammed’s campaign.
“I just want to say Thank You,” the post was captioned. Below the caption was a graphic thanking members of the community and including Mohammed’s campaign seal.
On April 30, the inspector general’s office saw the post and made a public records request to the town to find out who administers the town’s Facebook page and who made the post in question. That same day, Mohammed emailed the town attorney unprompted, saying that the person who made the April 8 post had “immediately removed” it and that Mohammed had told her not to post political material from the town’s Facebook page again.
But investigators said the mayor’s email to the town attorney was “not entirely forthcoming.”
The campaign staffer told investigators it was Mohammed who provided her the campaign flier to post on Mohammed’s social media platforms, and that the mayor never told her not to post it from the town’s Facebook page. When the mayor later called the staffer to tell her she shouldn’t have made the post, the staffer responded by deleting it. Mohammed then responded, “No, don’t delete it,” and said that next time the staffer should “just leave it,” according to the report.
This exchange, investigators said, revealed the mayor’s “corrupt intent.”
“These circumstances showed that the mayor was cognizant that the post was improper and appreciated her role in its appearance on the town’s Facebook page,” the report says. The post constituted a violation of state ethics laws, the inspector general’s office concluded.
In her response to the findings, Mohammed said the “thank you” post on Facebook was “inadvertently and erroneously” posted to the town’s page, and that it wasn’t improper “but for the erroneous inclusion of the mayor’s campaign logo.”
“No campaign message or political exhortation was included with the text, only the logo containing the candidate’s name and the office she was seeking,” the response says. “This one-time inadvertent mistake was certainly unauthorized but was a never-repeated unintentional error.”
Mohammed also challenged the suggestion that other posts made to the town’s Facebook page by a campaign staffer were an attempt to promote her campaign.
“It appears that the OIG believes that any public official who is a candidate for office can never inform the public as to any of their accomplishments in office, or express their views in any manner, in any official capacity, lest the public decide that they agree with the public official and conclude that they want to see the official elected to office again,” the response says.
Mohammed, an attorney and a Pembroke Park commissioner since 2003, finished third among three candidates in the Aug. 18 primary for a seat vacated by Shevrin Jones, who is running for Florida Senate. Mohammed got 30% of the vote, trailing West Park Vice Mayor Brian Johnson (33%) and former Miami-Dade County public administrator Marie Woodson (37%), who will face Republican Vincent “Vinny” Parlatore in November.
Failure to properly resign
Under Florida law, public officials must resign their current positions at least 10 days before the first day of the qualifying period to run for another office. In Mohammed’s case, she was required to submit her resignation letter to the town clerk’s office by May 29 and send a copy to the governor and the Department of State.
But she never submitted a resignation letter directly to the town’s clerk-commissioner or deputy town clerk, investigators found, and the documents she did submit were received after the deadline. The deputy town clerk, Marlen Martell, emailed Mohammed on May 29 around 6 p.m., saying Mohammed needed to submit certain documents if she planned to qualify for the state legislative race.
The mayor didn’t respond, according to the report, but told Martell on a May 31 phone call that she had left copies of her resignation letter in the assistant town manager’s mailbox at town hall. When Martell retrieved those letters the next day, she saw that one was addressed to “Governor Rick Scott” (who is no longer Florida’s governor) and the Florida Division of Elections — but not to the town clerk as was required, the report says.
The town’s copies were also never date-stamped, investigators said. And the two letters Mohammed sent to the state, though dated May 28, were postmarked June 1 and received June 4, according to the report.
“By not timely submitting a written resignation to the clerk-commissioner or deputy town clerk, the mayor engaged in misconduct and jeopardized her run for state office,” the report says.
As a result, investigators also said Mohammed “willfully swore a false oath” when she submitted campaign qualifying papers to the state on June 10 by swearing that she had properly issued her resignation. Willfully swearing a false oath in connection with an election is a third-degree felony, the inspector general report notes.
“Our investigation showed that, when the mayor executed this oath and filed it with the state, she knew or would have known but for willful blindness that she had not resigned pursuant to the resign to run law,” the report says.
Now the question remains: Should Mohammed still be in office today?
Mohammed’s resignation letters provided an effective date of Nov. 4, the day after the general election, which is the last day she could legally leave office under state law. But candidates who fail to properly follow the state’s resign to run law are required to resign immediately.
The topic has been hotly contested in Pembroke Park in recent weeks. On Aug. 26, Town Attorney Christopher Ryan emailed Mohammed, copying the town clerk and manager, and told the mayor to resign immediately.
“By failing to timely notify either the Clerk-Commissioner or Deputy Town Clerk of your resignation from the office of Town Commissioner, you were required to resign immediately from the office of Town Commissioner if you intended to run for State Representative,” Ryan wrote.
But after speaking with Mohammed’s personal attorney, Ryan changed course. At a Sept. 9 virtual commission meeting, Ryan said the mayor’s attorney told him that, because the facts were in dispute, the town would need to sue Mohammed and await a judge’s ruling for her to be removed from office.
The commission ultimately voted on whether or not to move forward with such a lawsuit and was deadlocked, 2-2, with the mayor recused from voting.
Pembroke Park isn’t scheduled for another municipal election until 2022. Mohammed was last reelected in March 2019 and could choose to run for mayor again if the town decides to call a special election to fill her seat.
Geller, Mohammed’s attorney, argued that the inspector general’s office is misinterpreting the resign-to-run law and the appropriate penalties for failing to follow it.
“Their notion that not complying with it constitutes misconduct is fundamentally flawed,” Geller told the Herald. “Based on their definition, a speeding ticket or indeed a parking ticket would constitute misconduct, and so would a simple failure to correctly submit your qualifying papers.”
Geller also questioned the report’s conclusion that Mohammed “willfully” swore a false oath.
“How can they say what she did or didn’t know?” he said.
Use of town employees for law firm work
The inspector general report also details several instances of Mohammed’s using town employees to help her with work for her personal law firm while at town hall, finding that she violated state ethics code.
Mohammed was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2011 and has worked in immigration, insurance, maritime and discrimination law, according to her campaign page.
One former employee who started working for the town in 2011 said she saw Mohammed use the town copier for documents related to her law practice. On “many occasions,” the report says, the deputy town clerk told that employee to leave work early so that the mayor could use the copy machine in the employee’s office.
After the employee was transferred from the clerk’s office to the administration department in 2014, the mayor asked her two or three times during work hours to make copies for her law practice, investigators found.
“She recalled copying laws out of the state Statutes,” the report says. “The mayor told her the copies were for a client on a case she was working.”
Mohammed disputed those findings in her response, saying the former employee was “disgruntled and ultimately discharged.” The employee was sent home, the response says, because she completed her weekly hours, not so that the mayor could use her office’s copy machine.
Another employee who worked in the town clerk’s office from 2014 to 2017 said she “frequently” saw the mayor doing work for her law practice at town hall. In one instance, the employee said, the mayor’s attempt to copy more than 200 pages of documents related to her law firm jammed a town copy machine.
The mayor “repeatedly” asked that employee to help her with tasks for her law firm, citing the employee’s past experience as a court reporter and working in a clerk of courts office, the report says. The employee completed those tasks during working hours without additional compensation.
The same employee said that, for a brief period, Mohammed met with clients for her law practice at town hall during working hours. This happened three or four times, the employee told investigators, mostly while the mayor was pregnant and then after she had recently given birth in 2015.
“Mayor Mohammed strenuously denies said allegations,” Geller said in the mayor’s response. “She asserts that she did not conduct private business at Town Hall, and that any incorrect assumptions to the contrary are speculative and wrong.”
At one point, the deputy town clerk suggested to the mayor that she rent office space in town hall and pay a business tax, but she didn’t do so.
As of August, Mohammed listed her town email address on her Florida Bar page, but it has since been changed to a Gmail address. The mailing address listed is Mohammed’s home address in Pembroke Park.
But at a commission meeting on July 27, Mohammed said her law practice “has never been in Pembroke Park,” adding that she has “never used staff to do anything on any personal level.”
“With this statement, the mayor clearly demonstrated that she understood the wrongfulness of putting employees to work on anything other than town business,” the report says, finding that Mohammed violated Florida’s ethics code.
Investigators added that Mohammed used a signature block on personal emails that included her title as mayor and the address of town hall, and used that signature while she conducted business for her law firm.
“We determined that Mayor Mohammed repeatedly and corruptly used the town’s resources to secure a special benefit for herself and her law firm,” the report says.
Mohammed’s response says the signature block was a one-time occurrence when she was out of town and sent an email from her iPhone, which had some of her mayoral credentials.
She denied using town equipment to copy documents for her law practice and said that, while she “occasionally” did some legal research for town residents who asked her for help, she then referred them to the appropriate agencies.
“Mayor Mohammed did not use the Town’s resources to benefit herself nor her practice,” the mayor’s response says.