Justice Revised

A new court ruling will make it harder to sit on corruption cases

Florida's top court has taken away Michael Satz's favorite excuse, so the Broward State Attorney will have to find a new reason to let corrupt officials slide.

For years, Satz's public corruption unit has been giving free passes to politicos based on its strict interpretation of Florida's unlawful compensation statute, which prohibits government officials from profiting from their public duties. His prosecutors have found strong cases against officials (see the files of Bill Griffin and Peter Sheridan for a couple of recent examples) but refused to bring charges because they didn't have direct evidence that a corrupt deal had been struck.

This evidence was, of course, almost impossible to obtain in the backroom world of gentle elbows, winks, smiles, and nods. By the old standard, Satz's office would essentially need to uncover a tape recording of a politician and, say, a developer plotting to subvert the democratic process for it to convict. Or a written kickback contract. Or, perhaps, a heartfelt confession. This prerequisite essentially exempted government officeholders from prosecution under the unlawful compensation law, which is a second-degree felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.

Satz's stance on corruption was ridiculous. And wrong. The Florida Supreme Court, in a very important but little-reported decision, ruled last month that prosecutors can use circumstantial evidence to prosecute politicians. They don't need to prove a deal was struck -- only that money changed hands and a favor was delivered.

Requiring proof of an explicit deal "imposes too high a burden on the state and would prohibit prosecution of all but the most blatant violations," wrote Justice Raoul Cantero in the 16-page opinion issued April 22. "Public corruption has become sophisticated enough... to expect that public officials soliciting or accepting unlawful compensation ordinarily will not be so audacious as to explicitly verbalize their intent."

While the decision -- which stemmed from a Miami-Dade case involving a rogue cop named Fernando Castillo -- has surely made trough-feeding politicians nervous from here to De Funiak Springs, it's also shaken up Satz's office. When I asked public corruption prosecutor John Hanlon about Cantero's opinion last week, he said, "We talk about it all the time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's all we talk about."

But Satz and his boys shouldn't have been surprised. A 12-year-old appeals court decision involving a defendant named John Gerren also stated that such cases could be proven "indirectly through the use of circumstantial evidence." Satz -- who has prosecuted only two elected Broward officials in 27 years -- might be familiar with the case, since his office convicted Gerren, a former head of the Sawgrass Expressway Authority.

The Supreme Court decision should finally end his sorry excuses once and for all. If he doesn't prosecute the next obvious corruption case, he certainly can't cry "no proof of quid pro quo."

And I have the perfect test politician for Satz in this new legal environment: Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom.

I wrote about Wasserstrom's double-dealing in a Hollywood sewage contract last month [see "Ooh That Smell," April 15], and within that brewing scandal are the makings of a good unlawful compensation case. Here is a quick summary that comes from city records and an interview with Wasserstrom:

Last year, a sewage company called Schwing Bioset persuaded Wasserstrom -- who is the law partner of Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti's son Stacey -- to help garner business in Broward County. The commissioner met with the company's executives and arranged for his uncle, Arnold Goldman, to become employed there. The company would in turn pay Wasserstrom for "legal work" done for his uncle in connection with Schwing Bioset, and the commissioner would also represent the firm before other South Florida cities. Stacey Giulianti, as part of the firm, also stood to make a buck.

Wasserstrom has been a most effective Schwing Bioset representative in his own town. In February 2003, he arranged a meeting between company officials and Hollywood public works administrator Whit Van Cott during which he helped persuade Van Cott to back the firm.

Though Wasserstrom, Mayor Giulianti, and Van Cott all favored Schwing Bioset, a city committee of sanitation officials and experts ranked another company called Florida-N-Viro first, mainly because its offer was about $15 million less than Schwing Bioset's $27 million price.

When it was time for the commission to approve the Florida-N-Viro contract, Wasserstrom recused himself, as did Mayor Giulianti. But that didn't stop them both from urging, on the dais, their fellow commissioners to ignore the staff recommendation, along with the $15 million cost difference, and choose Schwing Bioset. The powerful duo, helped along by a passionate plea from Van Cott, prevailed; the commission voted 3-2 to reverse the rankings. The city is now finalizing a deal with Schwing Bioset.

The case against Wasserstrom has it all -- personal profit, betrayal of public trust, millions of dollars wasted. It's clear that he used his official position to help push a contract for Schwing Bioset, and there is no doubt that he stands to profit personally from his handiwork. Wasserstrom told me in an interview last month that he hadn't yet been compensated but admitted that he had outstanding bills to be paid by Schwing Bioset and expected to profit more in the future. Those bills and promises are all a prosecutor needs.

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