By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
With less than a month to go before Election Day in 2002, Buddy Dyer was trailing Charlie Crist in the race for Florida attorney general. Dyer, who was then a state senator and is now mayor of Orlando, needed campaign cash to become the state's top lawman. So he went to a well-known criminal for help.
Joel Steinger was a convicted felon and had been hit with fines for breaking securities laws. He was the subject of numerous civil lawsuits during his life of running scams. And at the time, the office Dyer was running for, the Attorney General's Office, was investigating Steinger for his role in Mutual Benefits Corp., the billion-dollar fraud that authorities now say is one of the largest Ponzi schemes in Florida history.
Dyer ignored all of this. He needed money. And Steinger, swimming in illicit cash taken from duped investors, didn't disappoint.
Steinger pulled out all the stops for Dyer, culminating in an October 23, 2002, fundraising soiree at the exclusive Tower Club in Fort Lauderdale. Steinger's wife organized the affair, which included some impressive guests. On the host committee was Miami attorney John M. Hogan, a former Florida statewide prosecutor. State Sen. Steve Geller, the Senate minority leader at the time, was on the list, as was state Senate candidate Dave Aronberg, a former assistant attorney general. Famed defense lawyer Roy Black was also named on invitations, along with lawyer Norman Kent, once a leader in the Fort Lauderdale gay community. In attendance was Broward County land baron Ron Bergeron, who strode about in his trademark Western wear schmoozing with the politicians and lawyers. The guest of honor scheduled to attend the event: former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.
When the fundraiser was over, Dyer accompanied Steinger, Kent, and others to the Coliseum, a gay nightclub in Fort Lauderdale known for its elaborate drag-queen shows. Steinger had deep ties to the gay community; his Ponzi scheme depended on it. Dyer seemed uncomfortable as he addressed the crowd in his Southern drawl; he told someone there that it was the first time he'd ever been in a gay club.
In all, Steinger raised about $20,000 for Dyer, but that was just the chump change. Steinger poured at least $1 million into the political process during the 2002 election, including more than $600,000 going to the state Democratic Party itself. The party spread that so-called soft money around to all its candidates, including Dyer (who received more than $100,000). In all, law enforcement sources estimate that Steinger put $3 million into politics from 2000 through 2004.
In return for his electoral generosity, the con man was looking for cover. He needed the state Legislature to pass laws to get regulators off his back and, for obvious reasons, the AG's office in his corner.
Dyer, though, lost to Crist. But Steinger covered his bases there too, hiring Hollywood ophthalmologist Alan Mendelsohn, a renowned Republican fundraiser who would later serve on Crist's gubernatorial transition team. Mendelsohn's job was to gain sway for Steinger with Crist and the GOP, say sources.
Steinger spent even more money on lawyers and lobbyists than he did on politicians. He specialized in hiring attorneys who had ridden the revolving door from law enforcement posts to defending accused criminals. These lawyers — including Hogan, former Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Jon Sale, and former Florida Deputy Attorney General Peter Antonacci — use the expertise and influence they accumulated while working for law enforcement to help accused criminals like Steinger escape justice. Also on Steinger's legal team was famed lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a former Watergate prosecutor.
And the daunting truth is that Steinger's strategy was effective. If the story of Joel Steinger tells us anything, it is that the Florida Legislature is for sale to the highest bidder — even if it comes in the form of a convicted felon and known swindler. And the executive branch, designed to protect the citizenry from financial predators like Steinger, moves especially slowly when big-shot attorneys like Hogan, Sale, Antonacci, and Ben-Veniste are involved.
Even with all his money and powerful friends, his latest con game is so massive that it seems almost impossible he will find his way to freedom again. But the slippery Steinger has a knack for surviving so he can pull off his next scam.
Mutual Benefits was born of a scam.
Steinger got the idea for it from a girlfriend who had worked at a Fort Lauderdale company called United Benefits Group, according to Marlene Steinger, Steinger's cousin and former associate. United Benefits Group bought and sold viaticals, an industry already rife with fraud when Steinger entered it.
The business of viaticals, while maligned as morbid, actually can be both profitable and humane, at least in theory. To understand how viaticals are supposed to work, consider an AIDS patient with two years to live. The patient has a $100,000 life insurance policy and wants to enjoy at least some of that money. A broker buys the policy for, say, $25,000. The broker then sells the policy to investors for $50,000. The broker then sets aside that money to pay the premiums until the patient's death, whereupon the investor gets the $100,000 payout.