While Nedezda Stepanovic says that while she served as executive director of the Broward County Democratic Party, Chairman Mitch Ceasar explained to her how he makes his money.
"He said, 'When I get people elected into a city, those people owe me, and they owe me by giving me the city lobbying contracts,'" Stepanovic recalled. "I said, 'What is that?' He said, 'Each city needs to have lobbyists, and if I help them get elected, I get those contracts.' I said, 'How are you guaranteed that?' He said, 'That's how it goes.'"
Another former Democratic executive director who worked under Ceasar, Donna Greenberg, described a similar conversation, only she said Ceasar called it "the game."
And there is no doubt that the game has been very, very good to Ceasar. Over the years, he has made hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayers' money from contracts in which he was supposed to use his influence to help curry favor of the Democrat-controlled county government for the cities.
The 56-year-old Brooklyn-born Nova Law School graduate has had contracts in Miramar, Hallandale Beach, Davie, Wilton Manors, Deerfield Beach, and other cities. But his bread and butter is in Tamarac, where he has long ties and founded the now-defunct Tamarac Democratic Club some 35 years ago.
It was there that Ceasar played a rather devious behind-the-scenes role in the
now-notorious 2006 election, according to Greenberg, who was working with Ceasar at the time as the party's executive director.
Ceasar quietly backed Beth Talabisco and Patricia Atkins-Grad over Democrats who were running against them, said Greenberg. Of course, it's not good form for the leader of a party to choose sides among the party faithful, but Ceasar supported Talabisco over Democrats Mae Schreiber and Karen Roberts and backed Atkins-Grad over his arch-enemy, Patti Lynn, a dedicated Democrat who complained of corruption inside the party.
Greenberg, who was running the party at the time, said that when a mysterious PAC put out $21,000 worth of attack ads out on Roberts and Schreiber the weekend before the election, Ceasar acted as if he was outraged by it. But she said that Barry Harris, one of Ceasar's chief cronies and an area leader, said that Ceasar had himself approved the attack.
We know now that the attack was orchestrated by Harris and financed by dirty developers Bruce and Shawn Chait, who had two subcontractors finance the ads. The PAC is now at the center of a criminal investigation of Mayor Talabisco, who won the election.
"I didn't know at the time, but I found out [that Ceasar was supporting Talabisco]," said Schreiber, who was one of the targets of the attack ads. Schreiber, along with her husband, Joe, a former Tamarac commissioner, has known Ceasar for years. "Nothing is secret here. I heard it from the grapevine. At the time, I said, 'That's ridiculous -- I don't believe it.' I think Mitch Ceasar is only out for Mitch Ceasar. All he has to do is say one word and it gets done. People think he's a god."
After the election, Greenberg said that Ceasar explained the importance of getting both Atkins-Grad and Talabisco elected.
"He said that now that he had Atkins-Grad and Talabisco in there, his lobbying contract with Tamarac would be renewed," she said. "I asked him about it, and he said, 'That is how the game works.' He said he was guaranteed the contract now. That was pretty bad."
Sure enough, Ceasar's contract was renewed in Tamarac, one of the last cities that still employs his services. But with Atkins-Grad suspended from office after being charged with crimes of corruption over her dealings with the Chaits and Talabisco under investigation for the PAC, he could lose his support there too.
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Never have close former Democratic officials spoken on the record of Ceasar's personal boasts about the corrupt cycle that keeps public money flowing into his bank account, but questions about his practices have dogged Ceasar, who has chaired the party since 1996, for years. From a 2003 Miami Herald article:
"[I]nterviews and public records in three other cities Ceasar represents reveal similar complaints: that he lobbies the public officials he represents on behalf of private clients, exaggerates his achievements, provides scant detail about his work, and brings in few new grants... Yet Ceasar continues to win raises and new contracts, raising questions about whether the mostly Democratic city officials who vote to hire the party chairman are looking out for their municipalities or their political hides. Ceasar could help them raise campaign money -- or recruit candidates to run against them."
It's so obviously dirty, but in Broward County, nobody has managed to stop Ceasar. An attempt in 2008 led by former Congressman Peter Deutsch came close, but numerous Democratic sources say that Ceasar cheated his way to victory.
Next in the Ceasar series: Another former party executive director tells how Ceasar retained power by breaking the rules -- and how she lost her job for trying to follow them.