CONNECTING FLORIDA GIVES BACKING TO AAF, BUT THE ORGANIZATION IS A GHOST

Publish Date: 
Monday, June 22, 2015 - 10:00am

A group that describes itself as citizens who support All Aboard Florida is little more than a ghost.

Connecting Florida, which uses a Stuart address and claims to be a nonprofit organization, has sent out emails and fliers in the past year and created a website and Facebook page, extolling the economic benefits of the passenger railroad that All Aboard Florida plans to build between Orlando and Miami.

But finding this group, its offices or any employees and volunteers is nearly impossible. It seems to exist only in cyberspace and leaflets.

All Aboard Florida’s plan to run 32 passenger trains daily through the Treasure Coast, but not to build a station, has upset many residents and government leaders who worry about potential noise, traffic delays, environmental impacts and decreased property values.

In April, Connecting Florida mass mailed a printed flier, and last month it emailed a newspaper column applauding the planned rail line.

The printed mailer bashes Indian River and Martin counties for spending public money to sue All Aboard Florida. It also echoes All Aboard Florida’s claim it will boost the regional economy and upgrade the state’s transportation system.

Having a pro-All Aboard Florida citizens group in Martin County, a hotbed for train critics, has raised questions — and piqued some people’s curiosity.

Connecting Florida shows up on no online registries such as Sunbiz.org, which lists licensed businesses, or Guidestar, which tracks nonprofit groups. And it has no office at the address shown on fliers and emails: 2100 S.E. Ocean Blvd., Stuart.

Neither the office building’s property manager nor the tenants interviewed have ever encountered Connecting Florida or anyone claiming to be affiliated.

“People come in looking for them a lot,” said attorney Jeff Kirsch, who shares a second-floor office with another law firm. “You’d think if it was on the up-and-up, they would be happy to have people look them up.”

MYSTERY DEEPENS

All Aboard Florida spokeswoman Lynn Martenstein said she’s familiar with the group.

“I do know Connecting Florida,” Martenstein said in an email. “It’s a group of Floridians who have educated themselves and support the AAF project.”

Yet when asked if it was affiliated with All Aboard Florida and if she knew how to contact the group, Martenstein wouldn’t reply or respond to additional questions.

To further the mystery, a certified letter — sent by a reporter to the address used on Connecting Florida’s email and regular mail — was returned by the Postal Service. A certified letter requires someone to sign for it.

The Postal Service online tracker noted an “insufficient address,” meaning no recipient could be found to sign for the letter.

NAI Southcoast, which manages the building, has been unable to find the phantom tenant.

“We still don’t have a clue but are looking into it again,” said Boyd Bradfield, Southcoast president.

Connecting Florida’s website is registered to a Lisa Rosenbaum. Bradfield said he never heard of her, and no online searches link anyone by that name to Connecting Florida. A month ago, the website’s administrative phone number rang to a toll-free number for a heart-rate alarm vendor. That’s now changed, and callers get a business directory service.

The recent fliers were bulk-mailed from Orlando with a permit owned by Abbott Communications Group, a Maitland direct-mail company, according to the Postal Service. Abbott executive Mark Ritter did not return calls seeking comment.

LEGAL BUT QUESTIONABLE

There are no federal laws against using a fake return address, postal inspector Blad Rojo said.

Kirsch argued that slapping a bogus address on mass mailers might be legal, but it’s not right.

“It’s deceptive,” Kirsch said.

A nonprofit that never filed a tax form would not show up on Guidestar. The group would run afoul of the Internal Revenue Service only if it received untaxed money, said agency spokesman Michael Dobzinski, noting it could print all the pamphlets it wants.

Passenger-rail critic K.C. Traylor, who founded Florida Not All Aboard, and Stuart City Commissioner Troy McDonald did separate searches at the Ocean Boulevard building for Connecting Florida and found no sign of the group.

Traylor suspects it’s a shell organization for All Aboard Florida, but says she can’t prove it.

The group cropped up a year ago, right after she organized her first rally against All Aboard Florida, Traylor said.

“Nobody can trace this company,” Traylor said. “It shows how unscrupulous whoever is behind them is.”