Former Florida House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson was portrayed by prosecutors in federal court last week as a crooked Florida politician profiting off his influence and the public trust. Prosecutors claim Johnson took more than $1 million from special interests in a four-year period, much of it while he was in office.
The money came from various companies that were trying to sway votes through Johnson, who was put on trial last week in Pensacola on charges of tax evasion for failing to report more than $500,000 of the money. He wasn't, however, charged with public corruption, and that has some government watchdogs calling for more stringent political ethics legislation.
Federal prosecutors said in court that Johnson, a close friend and aide to the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, made a "corrupt agreement" with his wife, Judi Johnson, to "cash in on the system." Though the fact has escaped media attention in South Florida, two Broward County political heavyweights helped Johnson make his fortune: Jesse Gaddis, the transportation mogul who for decades has deluged political campaigns with money; and Tom Panza, one of Broward's most influential lobbyists and another veritable political cash machine.
Gaddis and Panza played separate roles in a case that has laid bare the ugly backside of Tallahassee politics, where legislation and an entire state commission were virtually purchased and where access to politicians, including Chiles, was paid for with incredible sums of under-the-table money.
Gaddis, who holds the exclusive ground-transportation contract at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, says he met Johnson many years ago and recognized him as a political force. Never shy about the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's spent over the years to gain sway in government, Gaddis is equally upfront about the $40,000 his companies paid Johnson in 1996.
Neither Johnson's nor Gaddis' business reported the payments to the Internal Revenue Service, according to court records. While Johnson was charged with tax evasion, none of the numerous companies that gave him money, including those owned by Gaddis, faces any charge -- though reporting of the payments is required by law.
"It's [Johnson's] problem, it isn't my problem," says Gaddis, adding that he has no idea why his companies didn't report the payments. "Anytime I give anybody anything, I write a check. They don't like it, that's tough shit."
Much of the $40,000 was for Johnson's promise that a controversial 1996 transportation bill wouldn't be vetoed by Chiles. It became law. The bill added ten seats to the Commission For the Transportation Disadvantaged, which oversees some $250 million in public money that goes to companies that transport the disabled, a business in which Gaddis has made millions over the years. All ten of the new seats were for businessmen like Gaddis, whose aim was to gain some control over the board and give his companies a better chance in bidding for contracts. Transportation officials say the commission has been deadlocked and full of infighting ever since the new seats were added.
"Ever since that coup, so to speak, we haven't been able to get anything done," says Don Wedewer, a long-time commissioner. "Everybody agrees that we have to change things." A vast political movement -- led by the Florida Transit Association and the Florida Association of Counties -- is out to strip the commission of all the new seats.
Phil Morgaman, Gaddis' right-hand man, testified last week that at least $10,000 of the money was given to Johnson to arrange a meeting with Doug Cook, the director of the state's Agency For Health Care Administration.
"You had to pay $10,000 to get a meeting with a public official?" U.S. Attorney Michael Patterson asked Morgaman in court.
"He was an exceedingly difficult person to get to talk to," Morgaman answered.
Connecting clients to state officials is a large part of what Panza, who counts Nova Southeastern University and the North Broward Hospital District among his clients, does for a living. And Panza is also no stranger to combining money and politics to gain power. In addition to giving thousands of dollars each year to local politicians' campaigns, election records show Panza is responsible for nearly $200,000 in political contributions to state politicians during the past three years alone. Another Panza client is nursing home giant Integrated Health Services (IHS). Since 1996 IHS has contributed $182,428 to the campaigns of state politicians, state records show. But what went unreported by both IHS and Johnson was $137,500 the company paid Johnson between 1994 and 1997, $25,000 of it in "consulting fees" while Johnson was still the Speaker.
When New Times contacted Panza -- who was on the trial's witness list but was never called to testify -- at his Fort Lauderdale office, he had nothing to say about Johnson or IHS. "I have no comment on that. Who let you through to me?" he asked, not waiting for an answer before abruptly hanging up the phone. In a subsequent response to a letter from New Times, Panza wrote: "I have no role in this situation, I was not involved in any way, directly or indirectly, nor did I have any knowledge of any payments made to Bo Johnson by IHS."
Testimony last week at the Johnson trial contradicts Panza's assertion that he wasn't at all involved. Former IHS executive Linda Chichester painted Panza as the middleman who hooked the company up with Johnson in the first place. She testified last week that she was introduced to Johnson on Panza's pleasure boat in 1994. After that initial meeting, Panza asked her to come to Tallahassee and meet with Johnson again, this time while he was leading a special legislative session on health care. "[Johnson] said, 'If you will pay me $25,000, I will help you,'" Chichester testified.
When told of Chichester's testimony, Panza replied, again in writing, that Chichester "may" have met Johnson through his law firm, but he reiterated that he never knew that Johnson was put on the IHS payroll.
When Johnson began getting IHS checks, key doors in the capitol began opening for IHS executives. Vice President Marshall Elkins testified that Johnson introduced him to Chiles, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, and other state officials. At the time IHS, considering a move of its headquarters to Florida, was seeking tax exemptions and other perks from state officials. Johnson also assisted in getting individual nursing homes licensed with the state and helped IHS obtain various tax credits, Elkins testified.
Johnson's questionable dealings with Panza's client and Gaddis' companies seem to be more a rule in the statehouse than an exception, says Ernest Bach, a lobbyist himself who sits on the board of Common Cause Florida, which scrutinizes campaign finance and political ethics. "Anybody who works in Tallahassee on a daily basis and has their eyes open sees the egregiousness and sleaziness of big money there," Bach says. "It just smacks you in the face. The people's voice is not heard -- it's only the corporate interests."
What many observers of the Johnson trial have found most alarming is that Johnson, even as federal prosecutors harp on his political crookedness, isn't charged with any specific act of corruption. It isn't known if the state is investigating Johnson. Legal experts say Florida's political-corruption laws are murky and often hard to prove. Bribery and unlawful-compensation laws seem simple enough: They hold that elected officials can't receive any money, other than their state salaries, for conducting government business or public duties. At the same time, Florida law allows the same official to work as a "consultant" and accept money from anyone, no matter how much business the client has with the government or what favors he might want from politicians. Legislators routinely get wealthy while working as consultants for businesses seeking influence in the capitol.
"There are really no limitations on what they do as consultants," says Bonnie Williams, the head of the Florida Commission on Ethics. By law Williams is barred from saying if the ethics commission is currently investigating Johnson's dealings.
"It won't stop until the laws change," Bach says of what he describes as rampant influence-peddling. Williams points out that there's a simple reason why those laws are rarely altered: "Because it would be the legislature that would have to do that."
Gaddis, for one, says as long as the system works the way it does, he'll keep doling out the big checks to get his point across.
"I'm 67 and I've been doing this since I was 28," he says. "It's the same as it ever was. Politics in Florida is almost like a blood sport. The sad part is that if you want to deal with your own government to get a fair shake, you have to pay for it."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address: Bob_Norman@newtimesbpb.com
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