The One That Got Away

While scandal rages in Hollywood, Whit Van Cott waits for his payday with a rod and reel.

Whit Van Cott is far away from the turmoil and scandal gripping the City of Hollywood. These days, the city's former utilities director's life is all about wahoo, Bimini twists, and mutton.

In Key Largo, where Van Cott is relishing his early retirement, he spends most of his time at the Upper Keys Fishing Club. He's become such a mainstay at the club that fellow members elected him secretary.

And apparently this year's chili cook-off was a big hit.

Christopher Smith

"Many members indicated it was a good time and we should have more functions like the Chili Cook-off in the future," Van Cott wrote in the April newsletter, adding that at the most recent meeting, there was a successful seminar on knot-tying where "the Bimini twist, spider hitch and terminal tackle knots were presented."

Ah, a rod and reel in one hand, a bowl of chili in the other, and an abundance of well-tied knots. What more could a retired bureaucrat want? And the fishing, in case you're curious, simply can't be beat. Just this past April 2, Van Cott pulled in a 44-inch, 20-pound wahoo while trolling with a pink-and-white Alien lure just off Molasses Reef.

That's the good life, people.

Good thing he retired from the city last summer at age 58. Otherwise, he would have to navigate not warm Atlantic waters but the treacherous political mess brewing in Hollywood, where former Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom is facing felony corruption charges for allegedly selling out his public office to a sewage company called Schwing Bioset. Mayor Mara Giulianti is also in the middle of the quagmire, since her son Stacey also profited from the deal (though the State Attorney's Office chose not to prosecute her).

It's a mess that Van Cott undoubtedly helped make — and it looks as if he too still plans to profit from the Schwing Bioset fiasco, only after the storm blows over. He admits that he hopes to do consulting work for Schwing once Wasserstrom's case is resolved.

While employed at the city, he certainly did his part to help Schwing reap big profits from Hollywood. As Wasserstrom set up a financial shell game to benefit from the city's hiring of Schwing, it was Van Cott who made sure the company was chosen by the commission.

He went to extreme lengths to get it done. For instance, after a city committee rated another firm, Florida N-Viro, higher than Schwing Bioset, Van Cott threw out the entire process and started over, skewing it in favor of Schwing.

This despite the fact that Schwing's bid was $15 million more expensive than the competition.

He also assured the commission that the city had worked out a deal with the Seminole Tribe to accept the treated waste on its land in the Everglades — a claim that later turned out to be untrue.

To understand how ardent Van Cott was in his support of the corrupt company, let's flash back to the City Commission meeting of June 16, 2004. Commissioner Beam Furr had just asked to rescind the vote to hire Schwing to treat and haul the city's human waste.

Van Cott, after he had lied and cheated for Schwing, was none-too-pleased that Furr had the temerity to want to look at other companies. At that meeting, the public utilities director's face reddened and his voice quivered as he threatened to quit if the Schwing deal were put on hold.

"I believe the confidence of this commission has left me...," he said. "I don't know that I can continue to do this. I can't pull rabbits out of hats. You have gotten the very best of me during the last nine years. My real question is if you still have confidence in me as a utility director, because if you don't, I am leaving. OK?"

He spoke to the commission as if it were composed of children and he were a scorned headmaster.

"Maybe you need to get burned to really understand what you're doing... There's rumors I'm going to be working at Bioset. Sorry, no way. There's rumors I'm corrupt. Sorry, no way... I don't want to get emotional, and I'm breaking one of Whit's rules. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to go out for another [bid], you'll do it without me. I have given these people [at Schwing Bioset] my word. They have been patient."

He seemed near tears. Then, in a swift mood change, he became wrathful toward his bosses:

"You should do it. You should do it. But you will reap what you sow. And it won't be me at the helm. I promise you... I've had too many migraine headaches. I've had too much, and I'm done... If you don't have confidence in me, I'm outta here."

It was one of the most extraordinary and dumbfounding performances by a public official at a City Hall meeting in recent memory. When he sat down, the room fell into a kind of stunned silence.

Giulianti, another strong proponent of Schwing Bioset, soothed him. "They haven't caught you in nine years and they haven't caught me in 16 years doing anything illegal," she told Van Cott.

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