Embattled Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter staged a not-for-media-consumption town hall-style meeting Wednesday at a Tamarac condo community, seeking to sway constituents toward believing her explanation of the Mutual Benefits scandal. Not the version in newspapers and blogs. And it actually seemed to work.
As Bob Norman first reported in January on Daily Pulp, Ritter cast a vote in 2004 when she was a state legislator to pass a financial services bill that contained an amendment effectively protecting Mutual Benefits and similar viatical companies from regulation. This at a time when the company was suspected of fraud -- the massive scope of which would only come to light this past January, when a federal indictment alleged that 28,000 victims collectively lost some $837 million by investing with the company. Ritter's husband, state lobbyist Russ Klenet, was paid by Mutual Benefits to secure the amendment.
"My husband was lobbying for the viaticals industry," Ritter told the elderly audience in the Kings Port auditorium. "I'm the first to admit that viaticals are a sleazy industry," she continued. "But I had no interest in this company (Mutual Benefits) and neither did my husband -- other than getting a paycheck."
Yes, that little detail. But lawyers with the Securities and Exchange Commission seemed to think it was important enough to depose Klenet in 2005, when he testified to having collected $20,000 per month from Mutual Benefits, as well as $100,000 for the renovation of the Parkland home where Klenet and Ritter live.
After the jump, Ritter denies conflicts of interest, takes solace in Obama, and reiterates her endorsement of the penis enlargement procedures advertised in New Times.
Ritter went to lengths to impress upon her audience that, while she did vote for a bill that contained an amendment her husband lobbied for, she did not know of his role or of the language that was a boon to Mutual benefits. "This was a large, 300-page financial services bill," she said. "Somewhere tucked into the bill was an amendment that said the viaticals industry would be regulated by the insurance commission."
She continued. "One hundred and ten of my colleagues voted in favor of this bill. I was No. 111. I don't remember this bill. I don't think there was any debate about it."
And Ritter found it ironic that "the same Sun-Sentinel which is reporting about how crooked I am," which several years before had editorialized that "I couldn't get a bill passed if my life depended on it," was asking its readers to believe that "today I somehow managed to get a bill passed by the legislature for my husband."
Conscious that she was rambling, Ritter interrupted herself. "I'm sorry, this is very frustrating," she said. "Because people look at me like I'm heading off to jail."
Not this audience. An elderly man who was a long-time resident of Kings Point raised his hand and said, "Thirteen years ago, you became our adopted daughter here. We fell in love with you then. I've been here for 21 years, and I'm still in love with you."
Said an elderly woman in the audience: "There isn't a single part of me that would question your integrity. The media is just trying to survive, and they're doing it in a dirty way. I prefer to use toilet paper that doesn't have writing on it."
But while Ritter's explanations were enough for this had-me-at-hello crowd, they may not be as convincing to disinterested observers. Plausible deniability: That's the card Ritter is clinging to in her defense. And maybe that's the only onewithin reach. But her denials are fairly implausible, and even if they weren't, lacking full knowledge of her husband's work for Mutual Benefits isn't good enough.
For starters, no one told Ritter to marry a lobbyist, a union that on its face brought some messy conflicts of interest. But when she did marry Klenet and remain in public office, it became her ethical obligation to be both fully apprised of her husband's clients and vigilant for language in Florida bills that were beneficial to his clients.
From hearing her speak Wednesday, it's evident that Ritter chose another, less ethical and more perilous path: She was determined to stay ignorant about her husband's clients -- or at least in a position to claim to be.
"When Russ comes home at night, we talk about the same things you do," said Ritter. That is, the kids and all the other domestic stuff. Later, she added, "I don't work for anybody. My only salary was as a state legislator. I'm not a stakeholder in my husband's company. We have separate checking accounts, because in this marriage I decided to keep my money and take his when I need it."
That line got a chuckle from the crowd. But if the pair had separate checking accounts, Ritter still shared with her husband the profits of the Mutual Benefits lobbying enterprise. Speaking of her husband, she said:
"He had a conversation one day with Joel Steinger" -- the man federal prosecutors say was the unofficial (because of a felonious past) shot-caller of Mutual Benefits. "My husband said, 'You know what? It wouldn't be too terrible if you helped pay for our house renovations.' I didn't know this -- and I didn't like it because I didn't like (Steinger). I thought he was creepy. He made my skin crawl. But, again, I don't deal with anything in my husband's business."
And though Klenet said at his deposition that Steinger's bill for the couple's home renovation was $100,000, Ritter backed away from the figure Wednesday, saying that the receiver representing Mutual Benefits investors has been slow to produce receipts and that whatever Klenet said in his depo, "neither of us think it's that much" Rather, they wanted to name a high figure because, said Ritter, "you don't want to mess with the IRS."
The Broward mayor, who told the crowd that she has stopped reading the Sun-Sentinel, must not have seen this article, in which the paper cites financial records showing that Mutual Benefits spent over $117,000 with the interior designer who redecorated the couple's home.
While Ritter said that viaticals were a "sleazy" business and that Steinger was "creepy," it didn't stop her and her husband from vacationing at a home in Maine owned by Steinger's brother, a Mutual Benefits founder who has also been indicted. And it didn't stop Ritter from inviting Joel Steinger to her 2004 New Year's Eve party. All according to court documents.
This ugly case came at an inauspicious time for Ritter, who enlisted early with the Barack Obama presidential campaign and who in January was interviewed by his administration for an appointment. She told Kings Point residents that she expects to find out whether she got the job by April or May. Ritter thinks the U.S. President will take a charitable view of her situation. "If there's one person in this world who understands what it means to be dragged through the mud by the media," she said, "it's Barack Obama."
But though much of Ritter's Wednesday talk was spent maligning the media, Obama's campaign had promised unprecedented transparency, and so a reporter like me had reason to hope that Ritter would be willing to take a few questions.
As I approached Ritter, looking conspicuously reporter-esque with my notebook in hand, she demanded, "Who are you?" I introduced myself, knowing that the two words "New" and "Times" might not be an advantage. "I don't speak to New Times," she snapped, her eyes flashing. Maybe it was the leopard-print dress and the imposing mane of lacquered hair, but suddenly I felt like I'd been dropped into a cage in the Big Cats section of the zoo.
"Do you not have the decency to announce your presence when you came here?" she asked.
This, I'll admit, caught me off-guard. Having learned of the meeting at short notice, and having gotten lost in Tamarac besides, the presentation had already begun by the time I arrived. Seems it would have been rude of me to interrupt Ritter and the crowd of about 160 rapt listeners by loudly declaring my membership in the media. "That isn't the protocol," I told Ritter.
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She fired back: "All I have to say is what I've said before: New Times is only good for two things: fish wrap and finding a penis enlarger."
There would be no interview. I wished Ritter a good day and turned on my heel. As if to add insult to injury, on my way out of the auditorium an elderly couple looking my way had this exchange:
"Who's that?" asked the first.
"I think he works for the school paper," said the second.