Michael Sitz

Gerard Weber: Satz's experiment

So last week, I told Tim Donnelly, head of the Broward State Attorney's Office public corruption unit, that his office seemed pretty much useless.

And Donnelly came back with: "Well, it seems like when we do prosecute public officials, nobody notices."

Which public officials had his office prosecuted?

"The sheriff of Charlotte County," he answered.

It's true. Last year, Donnelly was assigned by the governor's office to investigate Sheriff William Clement on official-misconduct charges related to secret campaign contributions. Clement was sentenced to seven months in jail in March.

So let's get the word out: Beware ye corrupt politicians in Charlotte County! Broward prosecutors won't hesitate to cuff you like the dirty dogs you are. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It's really good to know that Donnelly's been getting some out-of-county exercise, since his crack unit hasn't lifted a prosecutorial finger in Broward for years. You can't blame Donnelly, really, since he just follows orders. The real director of this disgrace is, of course, his boss, State Attorney Michael Satz. Or, as I like to call him, Michael Sitz, as in, "on cases."

The numbers on Sitz speak for themselves: He's successfully prosecuted only two elected officials in Broward during 27 years on the job. It's been more than four years, or a full term in office, since he even charged one -- and that was former County Commissioner Scott Cowan in a case first worked up by the Florida Elections Commission. Even there, Sitz went easy, giving Cowan a break by charging him with misdemeanor offenses rather than felonies.

To put Sitz's futility in perspective, look at Miami-Dade County, where they take the subject a little more seriously. Their state attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, has also been criticized for being soft on public corruption, yet she's filed criminal charges against numerous public officials in recent years, including four out the last five county commissioners to leave office. In addition to that, a special Office of Inspector General has led to more than 100 corruption arrests in six years. Oh, and it has a 100 percent success rate.

Yet Sitz shows no sign that he might soon stand up for justice. Last month, he chose not to prosecute Gerard Weber, former lab director for the water department of the City of Pompano Beach. Weber and his boss, William Flaherty, covered up a dangerous chlorine outage in their city back in 2002. After being ignored by city supervisors and the Broward County Health Department, two city workers -- Nicholas Hoffman and Chris Fox -- talked to New Times, and the subsequent series of stories exposed major problems at the water plant. This led to the reorganization of the city and the termination of Weber and Flaherty.

It also prompted the Broward State Attorney's Office case, which was assisted by the Department of Environmental Protection. The basic facts: In September 2002, Hoffman tested for chlorine in the Palm Aire neighborhood and found none. Hoffman reported his findings to Weber, who discarded the results and entered numbers on a Broward County Health Department report showing acceptable levels. Weber claimed that he conducted new tests later that evening and found perfectly normal chlorine readings. Weber also indicated on the health department report that a bacteriological test showed the sampled water was clean.

There were, obviously, several problems with Weber's story. First of all, he couldn't have conducted the bacteriological tests, which take 24 hours, in the time frame he reported to the state. Second, city workers were ordered to flush Palm Aire fire hydrants the very next morning. The only reason to conduct such flushing is to try to bring good, chlorine-rich water through the system. Had Weber actually found acceptable levels of chlorine in the water, the flushing would make no sense.

Third, city workers found little to no chlorine in the Palm Aire water for ten solid days after Hoffman discovered the problem. The only test that showed acceptable levels during that time came from Weber's dubious sampling. Further, Weber and Flaherty never notified the health department or the public about the chlorine problems, which could have led to potentially harmful bacteria in Palm Aire's drinking water.

After a year on the case (apparently it takes quite a long time to clear public officials), esteemed nonprosecutor Alesh Guttmann, a Sitz veteran, closed it with an August 9 memo that was a little more than two pages long. Guttmann sets the general tone in the first paragraph: the nonprosecutor gets the name of the subject of his investigation wrong. He calls him Gerald Weber instead of Gerard.

Guttmann didn't investigate Flaherty for official misconduct, so that nasty loose end was nipped in the bud. Why, it might have led to City Manager Bill Hargett, who also hid the major problems at the water plant, and then to... let's not speculate how horrible it could have gotten. The important thing is that the highest levels of government in Pompano were saved the indignity of investigative sunlight. Whew.

But Sitz's office got plenty of help. Weber ran the city lab so poorly that the state decertified it, which gave authorities access to a mountain of evidence that his work was sloppy and unreliable. And the water plant superintendent at the time of the incident, Steve Scully, said in a sworn statement that he believed Weber falsified the report.

But what does Guttmann's gut tell him? That old "Gerald" may not have done anything wrong after all. "Water coming through the pipes can be free of chlorine at one point and contain chlorine several minutes later as additional water and chlorine flow through the pipes," he wrote in the close-out.

The nonprosecutor failed to note the subsequent water tests that put the lie to Weber's account. "I do not believe that there is sufficient evidence to prove this allegation to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," Guttmann continued. "It would be impossible to disprove Mr. Weber's explanation."

Yes, that's why they call it a case, Alesh, if that is your real name. A case is based on the facts, and, in this one, all of them support the idea that the test was falsified. But why let protecting the citizenry get in the way of keeping a nonprosecution streak alive?

For good measure, Guttmann sullies the whistle blowers' credibility: "Both Mr. Scully and Mr. Hoffman had difficulty working with Mr. Weber; their objectivity is therefore questionable," he writes.

Yet he seems to believe every one of Weber's flimsy excuses. It's all in following with another Sitz practice -- pander to the powerful, and slander whistle blowers and those at the bottom. Just look at his homicide unit, which is famous for false prosecutions of two poor black men, Jerry Townsend and Frank Lee Smith.

But Guttmann saves the really priceless part for the end.

"Our investigation has highlighted significant shortcomings with the water plant laboratory," he wrote, adding that employees lacked proper training and that the lab's certification was pulled by the state because of poor procedures and oversight. "Even Gerald [sic] Weber... received no more than a bachelor of science degree."

This is classic Sitz. Spend taxpayer money on an investigation, fail to file charges, and act like you've done a public service by repeating what other investigations have already found. Bravo, boys, bravo.

And the fun is just beginning. The State Attorney's Office is sitzing on two corruption investigations right now that blow the Weber case out of the (chlorine-deficient) water. One involves North Broward Hospital District board member Dorsey Miller. Former FBI agent and current nonprosecutor John Hanlon has been working on that for months. Why so long? It takes tremendous contemplation to figure out an excuse not to file charges. Miller has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Miami-based firm called American Medical Depot, and he helped steer millions in business to the company.

Then you have the Hollywood sewage scandal in which Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom and his law partner, mayoral son Stacey Giulianti, stand to profit from a company the commissioner helped win a contract with his city.

Just the fact that Miller and Wasserstrom would take money from these companies shows how morally bankrupt Broward's political class has become under Sitz's laissez faire approach to corruption.

During my recent harangue of public corruption czar Donnelly, I told him to expect another call from me next year, after his office delayed the Miller and Wasserstrom cases until they were safely forgotten by the public, as is the pattern. I asked about Sitz's excuse for not prosecuting them. "I don't think it's a pattern, but you have a right to your opinion," Donnelly said, "and I'm sure it's shared by many people."

He's right. Every political activist worth his or her salt will tell you that Sitz is an abject failure. Columnists at the Sun-Sentinel and Miami Herald have also criticized his abysmal record on corruption. "But we don't operate that way," Donnelly continued. "We don't beat our chest and say we tore this official down."

Of course not. They make excuses for them and foster an atmosphere of sleaziness across the county. Unless, of course, the official is from Charlotte County -- then there's hell to pay.

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