Peter Deutsch has been giving it to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas good. For the past few months, the Pembroke Pines congressman has been playing the Elliot Ness -- or Eliot Spitzer, if you prefer -- of the U.S. Senate race. Both Democrats, of course, are running for the Florida seat being vacated by presidential not-gonnabe Bob Graham. But the noble Deutsch doesn't just want to beat Penelas; he wants the SOB in prison, where the youngish almost-supple mayor would surely be raped on a daily basis.
After learning in July that Penelas accepted questionable campaign contributions from a health care company, Deutsch filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Since then, the congressman has been trotting around Florida calling Penelas everything from a criminal to a wimp (which, of course, is political slang for bee-yatch).
Them's strong words. But the ploy backfired on Deutsch during a Lake County Democratic fundraiser in August. The country club affair was supposed to be a polite gathering of fellow Democrats. Instead, Deutsch went off on Penelas like Katherine Harris on a bottle of glittery purple eyeliner.
"We tried to get him to shut up, but he went on and on," recalls 74-year-old Jerry Veldof, a Democratic club president who was in attendance. "I told him rather vociferously to sit down. He was way out of line. I would never support his candidacy after that."
Those poor shortsighted Lake Countians. They missed the beauty of Deutsch, whose name Veldof kept mistakenly pronouncing as Douche. Our representative is no douche -- he's just dogged. Blessed with a rather neanderthalic appearance, he's like the Frankenstein monster of campaigning, only without those annoying sympathetic qualities. And he has every right to ride his high horse. When it comes to campaign cash, he's above reproach.
Just browsing through his contributors on the FEC website confirms his saintly status. Deutsch raised more than $3.3 million, a lot of it from big New York financiers and businessmen. He has some serious contacts, like the three Nakash brothers who own Jordache (each gave $666, so let's get those satanic conspiracies flying, people). The aforementioned Spitzer, the crusading New York attorney general, is on the list too. Though Spitzer's accomplishments in corruption-busting have been slightly overblown, his endorsement -- and his $1,000 -- is just plain golden.
I was a bit taken aback, however, when I stumbled on contributions from the Winnicks of California. That would be the family of Gary Winnick, the former CEO of Global Crossing, which was involved in a huge corporate scandal last year that was second only to Enron's.
Winnick's wife, Karen, gave $4,000 to Deutsch in August, and her three sons contributed $2,000 each for a grand total of $10,000.
Deutsch, of course, knows all about the Winnicks. Hell, he's the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which has investigated Global Crossing, Enron, WorldCom, and other great big cheating companies. During a September 2002 hearing about Global Crossing titled "Sham Transactions Designed to Boost Revenues," our congressman spoke Spitzeresquely about the Winnick mess: "These scandals have been devastating not only to employees, retirees, and shareholders but to our nation's economy. Congress must work to reverse this trend of corporate malfeasance."
So what did Winnick do that was so bad? Well, Global Crossing quickly became the leading fiber optics company in America, in part because it engaged in Enron-style accounting tricks to puff up revenues. Just before the balloon burst and it went bankrupt in January 2002, he and a few other insiders cashed out about $1.3 billion in Global Crossing stocks. While they made off rather nattily, thousands of employees and investors were financially devastated.
During one subcommittee hearing, Deutsch heard a woman named Lenette Crumpler, who lost her modest life savings when Global Crossing went bankrupt, tell it like it is: "Robber barons such as Gary Winnick of Global Crossing... have shown their ugly faces in corporate America. They have literally stolen the wealth of the working middle-class Americans, their own employees, right out from underneath their noses before they even knew what hit them."
So what in the world was Deutsch thinking when he accepted $10,000 from the robber baron's family? I'll tell you what he was thinking: About poor Mrs. Gary Winnick, that's what.
"When I received that money, which was arranged through a third party, I thought about whether I should accept it," Deutsch told me. "I had a judgment call to make, and I decided that not accepting the money wouldn't be fair to Karen Winnick. Guilt by association wouldn't be fair to her."
I agree. Just because Karen Winnick is living in an obscenely lavish $90 million house in Bel Air paid for by Global Crossing booty doesn't mean she should be singled out for her scant connection to her, um, husband. And just because the three sons are business partners of their dad's doesn't mean they have a darn thing to do with the corporate fiasco either.
And let's also not forget that Deutsch is a hero when it comes to corporate reform -- a hero to the corporations, at least. Back in 2001, he helped crush a bill that would have made it illegal for accounting firms to serve as consultants to the companies they audit. Had that bill passed, the Enron fraud might have never happened. But Deutsch had good reason for his vote: He'd been given good money from the accounting industry -- more than $130,000, in fact.
The truth is that the congressman is a very forgiving man to those who give him money. For instance, he's also compassionate toward Mahendra Gupta, a long-time Deutsch supporter whose name I also stumbled on while going over the campaign list. Deutsch accepted $4,000 in contributions from Gupta, a health care entrepreneur, in April.
The fact that a jury convicted Gupta of Medicare and mail fraud in 1999 didn't stop Deutsch from taking the money. Gupta billed more than $15 million to Medicare in charges to "outside" companies that he himself owned and hid that fact from the government, according to a federal indictment.
Deutsch knows all about Medicare fraud -- he used to hold town hall meetings on the matter and talk about how important it was to crack down on the cheaters. So there had to be a great explanation for why he'd take money from one of the alleged fraud artists. Thankfully, I'm here to report there was: Gupta, it turns out, is the congressman's friend. And everyone knows it's rude not to accept cash from a friend, right?
"I know Mr. Gupta personally, and he has been a supporter for years," Deutsch explains. "And the guy was acquitted."
U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Ryskamp -- best-known for once belonging to a discriminatory country club in Coral Gables -- did overturn the jury conviction in 2001, claiming insufficient evidence. The jury system apparently wasn't good enough for Gupta. But the U.S. Attorney's Office remains certain about his guilt and has appealed King Ryskamp's decision. New hearings were held this past September 25, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue its ruling soon.
But Deutsch has already decided that Gupta is innocent. "He built a business that provided really good services," the representative says. "You know, there are times that the government goes after people irresponsibly -- and you can't hold that against someone."
I was a little taken aback by the congressman's defensive tone. Here he was attacking the integrity of the U.S. Attorney's Office to defend a campaign contributor. Deutsch seemed to suspect I was writing a less-than-favorable column about him. Preposterous. At one point, Deutsch told me I had a fact wrong and huffed, "Tell Penelas to get better researchers!"
I've never communicated in any way with the Miami-Dade mayor in my life, but here goes: Penelas, get better researchers.
As for the Gupta situation, I called Assistant U.S. Attorney Leif Johnson, the lead prosecutor on the case, but he never rang back (which is so typically irresponsible of him).
The point here is that Deutsch is a good loyal congressman -- especially to those citizens who give him lots and lots of money. And he'll need every penny of Senate race-leading stash to win the seat. Right-wing Republican Bill McCollum is currently leading the polls. And watch out -- the aforementioned Harris, of Election 2000 fame, is considering a run too. And since her makeover and ascent to Congress, she no longer looks as much like Tammy Faye's slightly sluttier sister. Now she looks like Tammy Faye's almost respectable cousin.
Let's face it, the rural folks of central and northern Florida aren't exactly champing at the bit to elect a Bronx-born Broward County Jewish fellow like Deutsch. The rednecks out there will try to slap the liberal moniker on him too, but that really doesn't apply, as his hawkishness on Iraq and dovishness on corporate greed shows. Still, it'll be a tough row for him to hoe when it comes to winning the votes of those guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.
But root for him. It's about damn time we had an ethical man in the U.S. Senate.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.