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
Mendelsohn's role in Mutual Benefits' legislative effort is still mysterious. Klenet testified in a deposition that Steinger hired Mendelsohn and that the eye doctor was "very helpful" in raising campaign contributions for Mutual Benefits, especially among Republicans. Mendelsohn, who raised big money for governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, recently resigned his position at the medical PAC and remains under investigation for his role in the Mutual Benefits scandal.
The bill passed with only a couple of contrary votes. According to a source close to Steinger, Klenet called his boss with the good news. A jubilant Steinger thanked Klenet and also asked that he thank his wife, Ritter. She supported the amendment, as did Geller, Bogdanoff, Aronberg, and all the other Tallahassee pols Steinger showered with money.
The passage of the amendment was a big victory for Steinger. But a major problem remained: Those plodding but pesky investigators were still on his tail.
One of Steinger's main weapons against state investigators was Antonacci, whose previous role as state deputy attorney general gave him remarkable access to the bureaucracy. A slew of powerful Steinger lawyers also kept tabs on the investigation, including Hogan and Ben-Veniste. The latter, in fact, corresponded with the Statewide Prosecutor's Office so much that investigators set aside a special Ben-Veniste folder to keep track of it.
Despite the pressure from the influential lawyers, or perhaps because of it, the state office and Steinger's people were initially not very cozy. When Dr. Mitchell was arrested in 2001, for instance, the Miami Herald reported that "Mutual Benefits has offered to cooperate in the investigation." This riled Chief Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Lisa Porter and her own assistant prosecutor, Cheryl Aleman, and they sent an angry letter to Steinger attorney John Hogan.
"How exactly was Mutual Benefits offering to cooperate in the investigation?" they wrote. "... To date, Mutual Benefits has not produced for interview in our office a single one of the Mutual Benefits employees on the list we provided in May... In fact, even when our office went to the lengths of obtaining a search warrant for needed documents, Mutual Benefits actually engaged in the unprecedented action of mounting a 'full court press' in an effort to block our warrant."
One of Steinger's strategies is to pay the lawyers' fees for all his associates who get in trouble, in effect buying their silence, and he did just that for Mitchell. But a break came in the Mitchell case in July 2002 when Mitchell called investigators, telling them he was ready to talk.
A state investigator furiously took notes as Mitchell related how Steinger shredded medical documents, rewrote charts, and instructed doctors at the AIDS clinic to "push" drugs. From the investigator's notes on July 26, 2002: "Joel made him sit down and sign charts. Today he refused and now they are suspicious of him... [Mitchell] is taking a chance. He has before-and-after charts and can prove Medicaid fraud that happened last year... They keep rubbing in his face how much they are paying the lawyer and say another $100,000 and it's all your fault. He can hand us Joel."
This was just the kind of corroborating evidence investigators wanted to cement a case against Steinger. In exchange for Mitchell's cooperation, the state charges were dropped and Mitchell was handed over to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which was conducting a grand-jury investigation of Mutual Benefits and Steinger. The feds determined that Mitchell, at Steinger's order, falsified 6,000 life expectancies while employed at Mutual Benefits and charged him with fraud.
Steinger became consumed by Porter and her boss, Statewide Prosecutor Melanie Hines. "He was obsessed with getting rid of those two women," says a source who was close to him at the time.
To really have influence at the Statewide Prosecutor's Office, Steinger needed the attorney general's ear, and he didn't have it with Bob Butterworth, the AG at the time. When election time came in 2002, he backed Dyer strongly but also hedged his bets with Mendelsohn, the Republican fundraiser with strong ties to Crist.
Crist won the race and immediately replaced Hines with Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco director Peter Williams. The switch wasn't out of the ordinary, and there's no evidence that Steinger had anything to do with Crist's decision — but sources say he privately took credit for it.
And there is little doubt that Williams was warmer to Steinger's lawyers and lobbyists than Hines. In fact, he met personally with Antonacci less than two months after taking the position. Antonacci wrote Williams a letter after the February 27, 2003, almost pleading with him not to bring a case against Steinger or the company.
"The company has consistently worked with the Legislature to assist in changing and making improvements in viatical legislation to protect policy owners and investors," Antonacci wrote. "... It also is significant that Mutual has consistently given back to the community by contributing generously to charitable organizations which affect patients suffering from AIDS. We are greatly concerned that an ill-advised prosecution would serve to put Mutual out of business, which would bring great harm to numerous innocent individuals."
In August, Antonacci and Ben-Veniste met with Williams and agreed that, should charges be filed against Steinger, he would be allowed to surrender at the Broward County Jail and post a $115,000 bond. On October 29, 2003, Antonacci arranged for Joel Steinger and the statewide prosecutor to meet personally to discuss a "global resolution to the pending investigations," as Antonacci put it in a memo.