Suspended Tamarac City Commissioner Patricia "Patte" Atkins-Grad rejected a plea offer from prosecutors shortly before jury selection started Tuesday in her trial on public corruption charges.
Broward prosecutors offered her two years in state prison in exchange for a guilty plea to two felony charges of unlawful compensation and official misconduct.
The stakes are high for the 66-year-old politician. If convicted of all eight felony charges after the trial, sentencing guidelines call for a minimum of 8 1/2 years in prison and as long as 15 years, prosecutor Deborah Zimet told Broward Circuit Judge Bernard Bober.
"Yes," Atkins-Grad replied when her attorney Kenneth Malnik asked if she understood the plea agreement she was turning down.
Dressed in a cream-colored sweater set, Atkins-Grad appeared calm and wrote notes as she waited for the jury pool of about 50 people to arrive.
Almost every person on the panel put their hand up when the judge asked if serving as a juror might be a hardship, and more than 20 were dismissed. Among the reasons they were let go was because they had serious childcare problems or their employers wouldn't pay them.
One woman was released from serving because she had prepaid tickets to go on a cruise with her grandchildren. "I'd rather be here," she joked, saying there are "too many screaming kids" on cruises.
Jury selection will resume Wednesday and could take another day or more.
Once the jury is picked, the trial is expected to take about six days, though that will be spread out over the next few weeks. Opening statements and testimony are expected to start on Tuesday afternoon.
Atkins-Grad has pleaded not guilty to charges that she requested and accepted $6,300 worth of improper gifts from Coral Springs-based developers, Bruce and Shawn Chait. Prosecutors said she took the "gifts" in exchange for casting favorable votes for the Chaits' proposed development of several hundred homes on land in Tamarac near Florida's Turnpike and Commercial Boulevard. Many local residents opposed the plan because of the impact it would have on local residents and services. The homes have not been built because of the economic downturn.
Atkins-Grad was arrested in June 2010 on charges that she received illegal payments from the Chaits and failed to disclose them as required by state law. According to the charges, she let the developers pay $2,300 to lease a BMW for her and $4,000 for her election victory party in 2006.
Atkins-Grad is the first of several local politicians charged with taking cash or gifts from the Chaits to go to trial. The charges include two counts each of bribery and unlawful compensation, three counts of official misconduct and one count of conspiracy to commit unlawful compensation.
Malnik has not given any hints about what Atkins-Grad's defense will be, but prosecutors said they will call the Chaits to testify against her.
Bruce Chait, 64, and Shawn Chait, 39, are serving four years of probation after pleading guilty to unlawful compensation in August 2010. They admitted paying for a golf club membership for former Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, who pleaded guilty to a related crime and was released after serving about two years in federal prison.
Though the Chaits told prosecutors they paid tens of thousands to local politicians, they only pleaded guilty to paying for Eggelletion's golf club membership.
It's not certain yet exactly who will testify in the trial, but the prosecutor read aloud a list of potential witnesses or people whose names may be mentioned in testimony. Included on the list were the Chaits, Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco, Vice Mayor Diane Glasser, former Broward County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman, Parkland Mayor Michael Udine, former Tamarac City Manager Jeffrey Miller and current City Manager Michael Cernech.
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