A whole lot of people in Broward County who have seen the damage done by Ponzi-scheming lawyer Scott Rothstein are now asking one question: When are we going to see more arrests?
In perpetrating his $1.2 billion scam, Rothstein certainly had help. There is a slew of suspects, including bank officials, law enforcement types, and several people from his former law firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler.
Last week, I asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Kaplan, one of the main prosecutors working on the Rothstein case, if those pining for arrests would be satisfied anytime soon.
"Right now, I gotta deal with one case at a time," Kaplan told me with a smile.
Kaplan stood outside the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale at the time, having just spent an arduous day at the corruption trial of former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman.
The ex-commissioner — who is charged with bribery, extortion, and honest services fraud — hasn't gotten the attention of Rothstein. But Salesman's trial is just as important. The FBI spent four years investigating corruption in Broward and has bagged several arrests so far, including Salesman, former Broward County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion, and ex-School Board member Beverly Gallagher. Eggelletion and Gallagher pleaded guilty, and both are headed to prison. Salesman took the fight to the feds, with a trial that began last week and continued as of presstime Tuesday.
A loss in the Salesman trial would be a severe blow to the continuing efforts to bring corrupt politicians to justice. Or at least that's the way it's perceived. The feds don't take losses easily, especially when it comes to public officials, a fact that might explain why the cases have been such a rarity in Broward County during the past several decades.
At times during the trial, though, the gravity of the situation has been lost. Salesman's lawyers, Jamie Benjamin and Daniel Aaronson, spent a couple of days last week trying to focus the jury on anything but the evidence that the government is presenting that Salesman sold out his elected position in Miramar.
The defense lawyers focused on the small talk contained on numerous hours of FBI tapes, little discussions about parking tickets, driving school, and airport mishaps. And they spent hours concentrating on sex talk, including banter between undercover agents and Salesman involving a "camel toe contest" between beauty pageant contestants.
Aaronson hammered away at the small talk as he cross-examined FBI agent Patrick Wren, who went undercover with independent FBI operative Patrick Lochrie in the investigation as a construction contractor looking for government business.
"He would joke about his sex life," Wren testified about Salesman.
"You would joke about your own sex lives?" Aaronson asked Wren.
"There was a lot of banter," Wren said.
"Were there times you and Lochrie brought up sex talk before Mr. Salesman did?" Aaronson asked the agent.
And so it went for two days. Even as revelations about Salesman talking about a "pay to play" culture came across on FBI tapes, even as it was revealed he took cash for introducing agents to his political friends, the defense tried to keep the jury focused on the little things. It's all part of Salesman's entrapment defense strategy, which claims FBI agents befriended him so they could persuade him to take bribe money, or "consulting" money, as the defense would have it.
Aaronson keyed in on Lochrie, who is Irish, at times pointing out his penchant for telling sweeping stories about his world travels. The lawyer homed in on Lochrie's stories about Iran, where the independent operative, who is reportedly in Dubai right now, talked about women there. He told Salesman that although sex was illegal there out of wedlock, all you had to do was say "I marry you" three times to a woman, spend the night with her, then say "I divorce you" three times in the morning to be done with it.
From the defense's standpoint, these stories not only indicate entrapment but are also meant to embarrass the government.
Prosecutor Kaplan told Judge Cohn that he too could pull out plenty of sexual comments made by Salesman. "We can show all the off-color things that Mr. Salesman did," he said. "It's a mutual thing."
Of course it is. Any undercover agent will tell you that the nature of the conversation is usually determined by the target. Like good salesmen, undercover agents reflect the personality of those they are investigating.
Agents learned from the original witness in the case, alleged gang member Alden "Alpo" Budhoo, that Salesman tried to procure prostitutes, according to federal records. And the agents saw for themselves that Salesman was preoccupied, maybe even more than most men, with the opposite sex. Salesman talked of going to the nudist Hedonism resorts when he visited his home country of Jamaica. So the "off-color" talk is a reflection of Salesman's personality, according to the government.
It's a digression from the central facts of the case, and it's understandable why Benjamin and Aaronson want to steer clear of those facts. Salesman took thousands of dollars from undercover agents in exchange for helping an FBI front company get construction contracts in his city.
Just how deeply Salesman's apparent corruption affected the city came when Miramar City Manager Robert Payton testified last week. Payton, who started as a garbage man with Miramar 34 years ago, may not be charged with corruption, but he certainly enabled it. The manager of the city of 112,000 facilitated Salesman's alleged crime in a deal for a construction contract that stank from the beginning. But that didn't stop him from unilaterally handing the company a $35,000 gazebo project. It was a small job, but it was supposed to lead to bigger projects — and ultimately it did.
Payton knew the deal stank. He testified last week and all but admitted that he played ball with Salesman because he was keenly aware of the politician's influence.
During a meeting in his office at City Hall in April 2006 with Salesman and undercover FBI agents, Payton told undercover agents posing as contractors interested in obtaining city construction contracts that they wouldn't be getting a "freaking second look" if they "didn't know somebody." Salesman, meanwhile, had already told agents that Payton would do what he wanted because the city manager "owed" him because he helped get Payton his job.
When Kaplan asked Payton on the stand who that "somebody" was, the city manager didn't hesitate. "Commissioner Salesman," he said.
Earlier, when asked why he'd given the FBI front company the work, Payton testified that he did it for Salesman. "He brought a company in... and I wanted to give them a shot," Payton told the jury.
He said some commissioners had introduced him to various companies seeking business with the city, but they didn't stick around through the process. "This one seemed persistent," he testified.
"Did that seem unusual?" Kaplan asked him.
"Yes, it was unusual."
Payton testified that he didn't want to say "no" in front of a commissioner, which is understandable considering any commissioner could have influence in voting Payton out of the job he spent nearly a quarter of a century climbing the ranks to get.
So Payton handed a front company the gazebo contract. The manager was able to unilaterally award the contract because Miramar permits construction jobs under $50,000 to be awarded without public bids and votes. That doesn't mean that willy-nilly handing out of a job at the behest of a politician was right or good. It was not, and when the FBI came knocking on his door September 23, Payton said he was "devastated" and "scared" and quickly hired well-known criminal attorney Fred Haddad.
"Miramar was the third-fastest-growing city in the country," Payton testified of his state of mind at the time. "We had dozens and dozens of land transactions. I had no idea what was going on... I was overwhelmed."
He said after meeting with Haddad, the veteran lawyer told him, "You don't need me — go tell the truth."
Payton testified that the first time he met with federal prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's Office about the case, he was so flustered that they made no progress. "I was so nervous, I don't think I answered any of their questions," he testified.
The reason Payton was in the clear was that even though he facilitated the corrupt deal, he didn't take money for it. It was Salesman who got the cash. And one of the great revelations of last week's testimony was that Payton had concerns that Salesman might have been angling to profit on his commission job even before he became entangled with the undercover FBI agents.
Payton testified that Salesman had come to his office shortly after he was elected in 2001 and told him he planned to be a real estate broker. He came back a couple of weeks later and told the city manager that he wanted the city to buy several specific parcels of land for park space on the east side. Payton said Salesman described his own role as "like a consultant or brokerage" in the deal, words that Payton described as "alarming."
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He said that he asked Salesman if he understood he can't get money for what he was doing as a commissioner and that Salesman told him, "I would never do that."
Payton testified that Salesman was also "very passionate" about allowing a bar owner named Eddy Edwards to keep his establishment open until 4 a.m. instead of the usual closing time of 2.
Payton said he made it clear again to Salesman that he couldn't make any money off his influence as a city commissioner. The city manager testified that Salesman told him, "You must think I'm the dumbest mother-expletive in the world."
The jury's still out on that — and its decision could have a profound impact on Broward County for years to come.