Corruption and Nothingness

John Countryman grapples with justice
Miami Herald

Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, whose bald head and square jaw could have been chiseled from stone, refuses to admit defeat. Sitting in a conference room near his office on the sixth floor of the Broward County Courthouse, wearing a crisp blue dress shirt and a tightly knotted yellowish tie, he says the courtroom losses his prosecutors have suffered in public corruption cases haven't made him at all gun-shy.

You almost buy it, since it's so easy to imagine a firearm at Satz' side. Though he's never been in the Army, he has a military bearing. In appearance, demeanor, and voice, the trim and fit chief prosecutor is a bit reminiscent of Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. He's not about to admit he's licked; his code wouldn't allow it.

But I don't believe Satz, and I tell him so. In his 26 years as Broward's chief prosecutor, he's tried to convict some 21 elected officials in corruption cases and has succeeded in only three. And one of those victories involved a Palm Beach County politico. So, all in all, he's averaging a conviction of one Broward politician every 13 years. And that's in a county where crooked politicians are as common as cankerous fruit.

Since the last politician to go down was former County Commissioner Scott Cowan (who treated his campaign account like birthday money from a rich uncle) in 1999, elected officials can breathe easy. Satz isn't due for another score until 2012.

The many losses have effectively paralyzed his once-ineffective public corruption unit. What once was a respectable failure is now an absolute joke. Prosecutable cases disappear amid a flurry of self-doubt and legal defeatism. "It's human nature," I tell him. "When you've been beaten at something one too many times, you tend to stay away from it."

"It's not a question of losing cases," he shoots back. "That doesn't mean anything to me. If you lose some, that doesn't mean you stop. We make a decision based on legal standing and a good-faith basis. You and I may go out for a couple of beers and talk about these things and agree with each other on these cases. And we probably do agree. But your burden isn't probable cause. Your burden isn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You just write another column. We can't indict someone and then fall on our sword."

Sitting at Satz' right side is prosecutor John Countryman, who ran the public corruption unit until recently and remains Satz' chief investigator of public officials. He's a thoughtful, intelligent man. Too intelligent, maybe: He seems to think his way right out of a lot of prosecutions. When we talk about cases that he's declined to prosecute, he seems a bit tortured. He wrings his hands and winces as he talks about the difference between unethical behavior and crime. He must prove quid pro quo -- "this for that" -- and those three Latin words seem to be the bane of his existence.

To Satz' left is Ron Ishoy, the state attorney's fiercely loyal public information officer, who frets around his boss like a mother hen. "A lot of people think he's like this man behind the curtain," Ishoy tells me out of Satz' earshot. "But he's just shy. All he cares about are these cases. This is his life."

I met with the trio last Thursday because I have a distinct interest in Broward public corruption cases, especially an open investigation involving two men whom Satz has cleared in the past: Pompano Beach Mayor Bill Griffin and high-rolling developer Michael Swerdlow. Last year, these fellows joined forces behind the International Swimming Hall of Fame project in Pompano Beach. Swerdlow is the developer, Griffin its chief government proponent. The mayor orchestrated a plan to let Swerdlow take over precious public beach and the city pier for the massive project on the already overpopulated and fragile barrier island.

The case serves as a true test for Satz: Does he have the guts to prosecute a mayor (unpopular though he may be) in an obvious corruption case?

The question is whether Griffin received unlawful compensation when he took a job in March 2002 with Turner Construction -- a company that was bidding to build the swimming hall even as Griffin was spearheading the project through Pompano City Hall channels. Helping him get the job was Swerdlow and the developer's long-time associate, Bill Keith, a private engineer who contracts with the city and is also involved in the swimming hall.

I confess to having a stake in the outcome, since my reporting sparked the investigation, which is being handled by public-corruption prosecutor John Hanlon and investigator Jimmy Green. Griffin's acceptance of the Turner job no doubt violates the Florida Code of Ethics, but those are civil, not criminal, laws and are enforced by the virtually toothless and often incompetent Florida Ethics Commission.  

But I believe Griffin's gig is clearly a reward from Swerdlow and Keith and constitutes unlawful compensation, which is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. The mayor illegally accepted that job, misusing his public position and abusing the public's trust. Even worse, he was doing it while robbing beach space from the people to give to Swerdlow.

If forcefully argued before a jury, the case would give Satz a rare conviction and up that paltry average. I, however, am just writing another column. Satz, whose opinion actually counts, wouldn't discuss the open investigation, but you can pretty safely wager that Griffin will skate. He doesn't require just a smoking gun when it comes to busting politicians; he wants a burning bullet too.

Satz, in matters involving government officials, is the prosecutorial equivalent of Jean Paul Sartre: He and his investigators dig, find scintillating facts and compelling evidence, then ultimately decide it is nothing. Countryman serves as Satz' right-hand man, a fellow existentialist prosecutor who serves the role of front man. Their most recent literary output illustrates just how inactive they've become when it comes to blatant corruption.

It's a 13-page closeout memo on Countryman's investigation of former Fort Lauderdale Assistant City Engineer Peter Sheridan, who had an $11,000 spa built in his home by a company called Recreational Design and Construction (RDC), which had public contracts that Sheridan was overseeing. In the memo, Countryman weaves a compelling tale replete with the history of the relationship between the engineer and RDC, which involved more than $1 million in contracts.

The real intrigue began in 2001, when RDC damaged a supporting wall at a community center in Lauderdale Manors. Sheridan rewarded the company's mistake with a change order, worth $500,000, to rebuild the entire building. The RDC windfall came at precisely the time the company was secretly building the spa at his house. Sheridan was also doling out small unbid jobs to the company and preventing city inspectors from checking out the work, according to Countryman's memo.

The prosecutor found that the spa construction was "very unusual" in that there was no written contract and Sheridan didn't pay RDC when it was substantially completed in September 2001. The prosecutor also found it suspicious that RDC employee Scott Greiner, who worked closely with Sheridan on Fort Lauderdale city contracts, oversaw the spa project even though he didn't normally do residential work and had never installed a hot tub.

In fact, no money changed hands until May 14, 2002, after former city employee and whistle-blower extraordinaire Elgin Jones had begun complaining about it to city officials -- and the very day it received its first media attention. The engineer's mother, Joan Sheridan, wrote the check.

RDC President Joseph Cerrone claimed that an invoice for payment was first drawn up on April 20 -- three weeks before the payment. But Countryman found that claim unbelievable as well. The invoice was addressed to Joan Sheridan but wasn't mailed. Instead, it was supposedly hand-delivered, so there was no postmark -- and no proof of a date. Cerrone and Joan Sheridan couldn't even get their stories straight. She said her son delivered the invoice, and Cerrone claimed that Greiner took it to her.

Countryman also accuses RDC of withholding a key document -- a report that proved the spa was completed in September 2001. Countryman found company officials' explanations for the omission "lame." He also noted that Greiner uttered words to the effect of "I don't recall" 66 times during a three-hour sworn interview.

The prosecutor found all of this "disturbing," "suspicious," and "probably unethical" but decided not to charge Sheridan or any of the RDC officials. Why? Those three magic words. "Although the events are highly suggestive of [a quid pro quo], the facts do not conclusively establish it," the prosecutor wrote.

And there it is. After weaving an impermeable quilt of circumstantial evidence that seems to prove unlawful compensation, Countryman and Satz ultimately decided they had proof of nothing.

In the name of Vince Lombardi's ghost, somebody needs to put some fighting spirit in these fellows. They're like the Dolphins in December. They might claim a small victory in Sheridan's resignation after the investigation was made public, but that's no real consolation. The engineer walked away with $60,000 in salary and vacation time. That's right: Sheridan made some free money as a direct result of violating the public trust.

Countryman, who is a thoroughly decent fellow, is fully aware that Sheridan got off easy, but he doesn't blame himself or Satz. He blames the law and says he wishes gifts like the one given to Sheridan were criminalized altogether, with or without quid pro quo. "It stunk," Countryman says. "There's no two ways about it. It was terrible."  

I've got one humble plea for Satz: Fall on your sword if that's what it takes. Or at least pull your sword from its sheath. You could have prosecuted Sheridan and sent a strong message to officials out there that if they enrich themselves at the public trough, they just might have to face trial and public shame. Instead, your message is: Go ahead and give corruption a try -- you just might make a killing.

And that doesn't bode well for anyone -- except ridiculously bad politicians like Mayor Griffin.

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