Corruption and Nothingness

Are they crimes or simply matters for philosophical discourse? Our state attorney wrestles with the question.

Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, whose bald head and square jaw could have been chiseled from stone, refuses to admit defeat. Sitting in a conference room near his office on the sixth floor of the Broward County Courthouse, wearing a crisp blue dress shirt and a tightly knotted yellowish tie, he says the courtroom losses his prosecutors have suffered in public corruption cases haven't made him at all gun-shy.

You almost buy it, since it's so easy to imagine a firearm at Satz' side. Though he's never been in the Army, he has a military bearing. In appearance, demeanor, and voice, the trim and fit chief prosecutor is a bit reminiscent of Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. He's not about to admit he's licked; his code wouldn't allow it.

But I don't believe Satz, and I tell him so. In his 26 years as Broward's chief prosecutor, he's tried to convict some 21 elected officials in corruption cases and has succeeded in only three. And one of those victories involved a Palm Beach County politico. So, all in all, he's averaging a conviction of one Broward politician every 13 years. And that's in a county where crooked politicians are as common as cankerous fruit.

John Countryman grapples with justice
Miami Herald
John Countryman grapples with justice

Since the last politician to go down was former County Commissioner Scott Cowan (who treated his campaign account like birthday money from a rich uncle) in 1999, elected officials can breathe easy. Satz isn't due for another score until 2012.

The many losses have effectively paralyzed his once-ineffective public corruption unit. What once was a respectable failure is now an absolute joke. Prosecutable cases disappear amid a flurry of self-doubt and legal defeatism. "It's human nature," I tell him. "When you've been beaten at something one too many times, you tend to stay away from it."

"It's not a question of losing cases," he shoots back. "That doesn't mean anything to me. If you lose some, that doesn't mean you stop. We make a decision based on legal standing and a good-faith basis. You and I may go out for a couple of beers and talk about these things and agree with each other on these cases. And we probably do agree. But your burden isn't probable cause. Your burden isn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You just write another column. We can't indict someone and then fall on our sword."

Sitting at Satz' right side is prosecutor John Countryman, who ran the public corruption unit until recently and remains Satz' chief investigator of public officials. He's a thoughtful, intelligent man. Too intelligent, maybe: He seems to think his way right out of a lot of prosecutions. When we talk about cases that he's declined to prosecute, he seems a bit tortured. He wrings his hands and winces as he talks about the difference between unethical behavior and crime. He must prove quid pro quo -- "this for that" -- and those three Latin words seem to be the bane of his existence.

To Satz' left is Ron Ishoy, the state attorney's fiercely loyal public information officer, who frets around his boss like a mother hen. "A lot of people think he's like this man behind the curtain," Ishoy tells me out of Satz' earshot. "But he's just shy. All he cares about are these cases. This is his life."

I met with the trio last Thursday because I have a distinct interest in Broward public corruption cases, especially an open investigation involving two men whom Satz has cleared in the past: Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin and high-rolling developer Michael Swerdlow. Last year, these fellows joined forces behind the International Swimming Hall of Fame project in Pompano Beach. Swerdlow is the developer, Griffin its chief government proponent. The mayor orchestrated a plan to let Swerdlow take over precious public beach and the city pier for the massive project on the already overpopulated and fragile barrier island.

The case serves as a true test for Satz: Does he have the guts to prosecute a mayor (unpopular though he may be) in an obvious corruption case?

The question is whether Griffin received unlawful compensation when he took a job in March 2002 with Turner Construction -- a company that was bidding to build the swimming hall even as Griffin was spearheading the project through Pompano City Hall channels. Helping him get the job was Swerdlow and the developer's long-time associate, Bill Keith, a private engineer who contracts with the city and is also involved in the swimming hall.

I confess to having a stake in the outcome, since my reporting sparked the investigation, which is being handled by public-corruption prosecutor John Hanlon and investigator Jimmy Green. Griffin's acceptance of the Turner job no doubt violates the Florida Code of Ethics, but those are civil, not criminal, laws and are enforced by the virtually toothless and often incompetent Florida Ethics Commission.

But I believe Griffin's gig is clearly a reward from Swerdlow and Keith and constitutes unlawful compensation, which is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The mayor illegally accepted that job, misusing his public position and abusing the public's trust. Even worse, he was doing it while robbing beach space from the people to give to Swerdlow.

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