Florida's top court has taken away Michael Satz's favorite excuse, so the Broward State Attorney will have to find a new reason to let corrupt officials slide.
For years, Satz's public corruption unit has been giving free passes to politicos based on its strict interpretation of Florida's unlawful compensation statute, which prohibits government officials from profiting from their public duties. His prosecutors have found strong cases against officials (see the files of Bill Griffin and Peter Sheridan for a couple of recent examples) but refused to bring charges because they didn't have direct evidence that a corrupt deal had been struck.
This evidence was, of course, almost impossible to obtain in the backroom world of gentle elbows, winks, smiles, and nods. By the old standard, Satz's office would essentially need to uncover a tape recording of a politician and, say, a developer plotting to subvert the democratic process for it to convict. Or a written kickback contract. Or, perhaps, a heartfelt confession. This prerequisite essentially exempted government officeholders from prosecution under the unlawful compensation law, which is a second-degree felony punishable by up to ten years in prison.
Satz's stance on corruption was ridiculous. And wrong. The Florida Supreme Court, in a very important but little-reported decision, ruled last month that prosecutors can use circumstantial evidence to prosecute politicians. They don't need to prove a deal was struck -- only that money changed hands and a favor was delivered.
Requiring proof of an explicit deal "imposes too high a burden on the state and would prohibit prosecution of all but the most blatant violations," wrote Justice Raoul Cantero in the 16-page opinion issued April 22. "Public corruption has become sophisticated enough... to expect that public officials soliciting or accepting unlawful compensation ordinarily will not be so audacious as to explicitly verbalize their intent."
While the decision -- which stemmed from a Miami-Dade case involving a rogue cop named Fernando Castillo -- has surely made trough-feeding politicians nervous from here to De Funiak Springs, it's also shaken up Satz's office. When I asked public corruption prosecutor John Hanlon about Cantero's opinion last week, he said, "We talk about it all the time, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It's all we talk about."
But Satz and his boys shouldn't have been surprised. A 12-year-old appeals court decision involving a defendant named John Gerren also stated that such cases could be proven "indirectly through the use of circumstantial evidence." Satz -- who has prosecuted only two elected Broward officials in 27 years -- might be familiar with the case, since his office convicted Gerren, a former head of the Sawgrass Expressway Authority.
The Supreme Court decision should finally end his sorry excuses once and for all. If he doesn't prosecute the next obvious corruption case, he certainly can't cry "no proof of quid pro quo."
And I have the perfect test politician for Satz in this new legal environment: Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom.
I wrote about Wasserstrom's double-dealing in a Hollywood sewage contract last month [see "Ooh That Smell," April 15], and within that brewing scandal are the makings of a good unlawful compensation case. Here is a quick summary that comes from city records and an interview with Wasserstrom:
Last year, a sewage company called Schwing Bioset persuaded Wasserstrom -- who is the law partner of Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti's son Stacey -- to help garner business in Broward County. The commissioner met with the company's executives and arranged for his uncle, Arnold Goldman, to become employed there. The company would in turn pay Wasserstrom for "legal work" done for his uncle in connection with Schwing Bioset, and the commissioner would also represent the firm before other South Florida cities. Stacey Giulianti, as part of the firm, also stood to make a buck.
Wasserstrom has been a most effective Schwing Bioset representative in his own town. In February 2003, he arranged a meeting between company officials and Hollywood public works administrator Whit Van Cott during which he helped persuade Van Cott to back the firm.
Though Wasserstrom, Mayor Giulianti, and Van Cott all favored Schwing Bioset, a city committee of sanitation officials and experts ranked another company called Florida-N-Viro first, mainly because its offer was about $15 million less than Schwing Bioset's $27 million price.
When it was time for the commission to approve the Florida-N-Viro contract, Wasserstrom recused himself, as did Mayor Giulianti. But that didn't stop them both from urging, on the dais, their fellow commissioners to ignore the staff recommendation, along with the $15 million cost difference, and choose Schwing Bioset. The powerful duo, helped along by a passionate plea from Van Cott, prevailed; the commission voted 3-2 to reverse the rankings. The city is now finalizing a deal with Schwing Bioset.
The case against Wasserstrom has it all -- personal profit, betrayal of public trust, millions of dollars wasted. It's clear that he used his official position to help push a contract for Schwing Bioset, and there is no doubt that he stands to profit personally from his handiwork. Wasserstrom told me in an interview last month that he hadn't yet been compensated but admitted that he had outstanding bills to be paid by Schwing Bioset and expected to profit more in the future. Those bills and promises are all a prosecutor needs.
And that's just the surface of this thing. A full investigation backed by subpoena power would only solidify the case.
So what is Wasserstrom's defense? Well, he doesn't return my calls, but the mayor has been in his corner. In response to my original article and subsequent stories in the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald, Giulianti wrote about the sewage deal in the Sun-Times, a small Chamber of Commerce-friendly newspaper in which she writes a weekly column called "Facets of the Diamond." Usually, it's typical city cheerleading, but on May 6, she turned it into a sanctimonious rant about the Schwing Bioset controversy. After admitting that Wasserstrom and her son were profiting from their relationship with the company, she wrote that "a third-rate reporter from a third-rate publication made a nasty story out of it, slandering Keith and me, twisting the facts. That caught the eye of some mainstream reporters..."
(That's really not fair -- I think even our worst critics would agree we're solidly second-rate.)
The mayor claimed that the Wasserstrom/Giulianti law firm wouldn't directly profit from the Hollywood deal. Her argument is that the money the firm is making from Schwing Bioset is coming through Goldman, a "third-party consultant," and he wasn't directly involved in the Hollywood process.
"I inquired whether Keith and/or my son would... gain any financial benefit if the City chose Bioset," she wrote. "I was told, 'Definitely not.' Because of Keith's position, the firm made certain it would not earn one cent."
Here the mayor is playing a wonderful little shell game. Which pocket, we're asked to consider, did Schwing Bioset use to pay the Wasserstrom/Giulianti firm? It's a cheap canard, since it's clear that the only reason Wasserstrom and Schwing Bioset became so chummy was the Hollywood sewage contract. And Goldman? My efforts to reach him at his Miami home haven't been successful, but everything points to the fact that he's nothing but a middleman hired to shield his nephew from authorities.
But Mayor Giulianti shows a near-sociopathic lack of contrition for the scandal. "This has greatly hurt and embarrassed Keith and me -- and we did nothing to deserve it," she wrote.
Giulianti also referred to an April 30 memo written by City Attorney Daniel Abbott, whose chief point was that since the mayor and Wasserstrom didn't vote on the matter, they didn't violate the state Code of Ethics.
While it's certainly true there were no voting conflicts, a case could be made that Wasserstrom both misused his position and received unauthorized compensation, which the code forbids. But who's talking about the Code of Ethics? Serious people don't bother with the code anymore because it's been used as a tool to decriminalize corruption. And that makes it worse than worthless. The code doesn't carry criminal penalties, and the state Commission on Ethics, which allegedly "enforces" it, has been notoriously light on public officials, routinely clearing egregious cases rather than fining officials or removing them from office.
Saying that Wasserstrom didn't violate the code is like pointing out that Charles Manson didn't make an improper lane change while driving to the Tate murders. It's a laughable smokescreen.
Here's how Giulianti ended her column:
"The only thing that smells worse than the sewer plant's sludge are the efforts of some political opponents and their friends at New Times, who are continuing their [tactics of] getting down in the sewer and slinging 'sludge'!"
Gotta love the exclamation point. Kind of the grammatical equivalent of brown splatter.
Now, I may be amused by this kind of give and take, but Satz has famously thin skin when it comes to tangling with other government officials. Many of them have helped him get elected, after all. The state attorney, in fact, may be so hard-wired to the political community that he's too conflicted to take the Wasserstrom case in the first place.
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You see, Satz and Giulianti are both local Democratic muckety-mucks who share the same political consultant and campaign manager, Barbara Miller. Any investigation of Wasserstrom will of course involve the Giulianti mother-and-son team, and it's reasonable to assume that Satz couldn't do that objectively.
Think about it: Satz enjoys the support of most of the elected officials in the county. Why would he want to foul up his own nest by putting one of them behind bars?
Rest assured that if Satz does investigate the Schwing Bioset matter, he'll come up with an excuse not to prosecute. It's in his nature; it's what he does. But maybe that's not fair. Maybe he'll suddenly start taking corruption seriously. Maybe he'll become a bigger man and clean up this county. It could become his legacy -- which would be much better than being remembered mainly for wrongful murder convictions (see the Jerry Townsend and Frank Lee Smith files).
All the state attorney has to do is listen to the Supreme Court.