Michael Sitz

Broward's top prosecutor loves to protect corrupt public officials. He just struck again.

So last week, I told Tim Donnelly, head of the Broward State Attorney's Office public corruption unit, that his office seemed pretty much useless.

And Donnelly came back with: "Well, it seems like when we do prosecute public officials, nobody notices."

Which public officials had his office prosecuted?

Gerard Weber: Satz's experiment
Gerard Weber: Satz's experiment

"The sheriff of Charlotte County," he answered.

It's true. Last year, Donnelly was assigned by the governor's office to investigate Sheriff William Clement on official-misconduct charges related to secret campaign contributions. Clement was sentenced to seven months in jail in March.

So let's get the word out: Beware ye corrupt politicians in Charlotte County! Broward prosecutors won't hesitate to cuff you like the dirty dogs you are. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It's really good to know that Donnelly's been getting some out-of-county exercise, since his crack unit hasn't lifted a prosecutorial finger in Broward for years. You can't blame Donnelly, really, since he just follows orders. The real director of this disgrace is, of course, his boss, State Attorney Michael Satz. Or, as I like to call him, Michael Sitz, as in, "on cases."

The numbers on Sitz speak for themselves: He's successfully prosecuted only two elected officials in Broward during 27 years on the job. It's been more than four years, or a full term in office, since he even charged one -- and that was former County Commissioner Scott Cowan in a case first worked up by the Florida Elections Commission. Even there, Sitz went easy, giving Cowan a break by charging him with misdemeanor offenses rather than felonies.

To put Sitz's futility in perspective, look at Miami-Dade County, where they take the subject a little more seriously. Their state attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, has also been criticized for being soft on public corruption, yet she's filed criminal charges against numerous public officials in recent years, including four out the last five county commissioners to leave office. In addition to that, a special Office of Inspector General has led to more than 100 corruption arrests in six years. Oh, and it has a 100 percent success rate.

Yet Sitz shows no sign that he might soon stand up for justice. Last month, he chose not to prosecute Gerard Weber, former lab director for the water department of the City of Pompano Beach. Weber and his boss, William Flaherty, covered up a dangerous chlorine outage in their city back in 2002. After being ignored by city supervisors and the Broward County Health Department, two city workers -- Nicholas Hoffman and Chris Fox -- talked to New Times, and the subsequent series of stories exposed major problems at the water plant. This led to the reorganization of the city and the termination of Weber and Flaherty.

It also prompted the Broward State Attorney's Office case, which was assisted by the Department of Environmental Protection. The basic facts: In September 2002, Hoffman tested for chlorine in the Palm Aire neighborhood and found none. Hoffman reported his findings to Weber, who discarded the results and entered numbers on a Broward County Health Department report showing acceptable levels. Weber claimed that he conducted new tests later that evening and found perfectly normal chlorine readings. Weber also indicated on the health department report that a bacteriological test showed the sampled water was clean.

There were, obviously, several problems with Weber's story. First of all, he couldn't have conducted the bacteriological tests, which take 24 hours, in the time frame he reported to the state. Second, city workers were ordered to flush Palm Aire fire hydrants the very next morning. The only reason to conduct such flushing is to try to bring good, chlorine-rich water through the system. Had Weber actually found acceptable levels of chlorine in the water, the flushing would make no sense.

Third, city workers found little to no chlorine in the Palm Aire water for ten solid days after Hoffman discovered the problem. The only test that showed acceptable levels during that time came from Weber's dubious sampling. Further, Weber and Flaherty never notified the health department or the public about the chlorine problems, which could have led to potentially harmful bacteria in Palm Aire's drinking water.

After a year on the case (apparently it takes quite a long time to clear public officials), esteemed nonprosecutor Alesh Guttmann, a Sitz veteran, closed it with an August 9 memo that was a little more than two pages long. Guttmann sets the general tone in the first paragraph: the nonprosecutor gets the name of the subject of his investigation wrong. He calls him Gerald Weber instead of Gerard.

Guttmann didn't investigate Flaherty for official misconduct, so that nasty loose end was nipped in the bud. Why, it might have led to City Manager Bill Hargett, who also hid the major problems at the water plant, and then to... let's not speculate how horrible it could have gotten. The important thing is that the highest levels of government in Pompano were saved the indignity of investigative sunlight. Whew.

But Sitz's office got plenty of help. Weber ran the city lab so poorly that the state decertified it, which gave authorities access to a mountain of evidence that his work was sloppy and unreliable. And the water plant superintendent at the time of the incident, Steve Scully, said in a sworn statement that he believed Weber falsified the report.

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