The Broward State Attorney's Office railroaded Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom. Not because the recently convicted politician was innocent of official misconduct (the jury knew he was guilty as sin) but because so many other obviously corrupt politicians are skating by without threat of punishment.
You can't help but wonder: Was Wasserstrom a scapegoat for State Attorney Michael Satz? Satz, after all, is a politician too, currently running for reelection in 2008, beholden to the same political machine that generates so much corruption. All of that may help explain his historic reluctance to prosecute corruption cases, which has garnered him a great deal of criticism in recent years.
Perhaps part of the reason he went forward with the Wasserstrom prosecution was to placate critics while doing little to shake up the establishment on which he relies.
The theory is supported by whom Satz didn't indict in the case: Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti, a close Wasserstrom ally. The mayor's son, Stacey, was set to profit from the foul sewage deal at the heart of the scandal, making the mayor nearly as guilty as Wasserstrom. But Satz's office gave her immunity, for which it received little in return but Giulianti's defensiveness and claims of computer breakdowns that made retrieving key evidence impossible.
Giving a free pass to a mayor while slamming a less influential commissioner? That, as they say, is backasswards. But the Hollywood mayor is just one of several local politicians profiting from their public office who seem to be escaping Satz's attention.
I now give you the Terrible Trio, three eminently indictable Broward pols who are trampling the taxpayer's trust with, if not immunity, a good deal of impunity:
• Beverly Gallagher. Although Gallagher, the Broward School Board chairwoman, talks a lot about helping children, the real benefactors of her reign have been a pair of lobbyists, Neil Sterling and Barbara Miller.
Sterling and Miller have teamed up to form what might be described as a vertical monopoly of influence at the School Board. They run campaigns, raise huge amounts of money for candidates, then get them to vote for their heavyweight clients, including school builder James Pirtle and consultant Bernard Zyscovich, who are involved in hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of board projects.
Miller has run Gallagher's campaigns, and the lobbying pair has raised huge amounts of money for her. In turn, Gallagher has shamelessly advocated for Pirtle and Zyscovich on the dais, even when it seems to be squeezing out competition for board projects and makes no sense to taxpayers. That, unfortunately, is politics as usual. And it's legal.
But Gallagher has crossed the line. Shortly after she was elected to the School Board in 2002, she got a cush, elbow-rubbing job as "executive director" of a scholarship fund at the Community Blood Centers in Lauderhill. The CBC also does business with the School Board and — wouldn't you know it? — Sterling is its lobbyist.
Sources told me last year that Sterling procured the job, so I asked Gallagher about it in a phone interview, prompting her to break down in tears, admit that Sterling got her the job, and promise to quit. She said it was going to be tough, though, since she wasn't getting any alimony from her ex-husband, Fort Lauderdale attorney Thomas Gallagher.
"But how am I going to pay my mortgage this month?" she asked me. "How am I going to put my kids through college? And how will I get another job? If I ask my other friends, like George Platt... I can't do that either." Platt, of course, is another well-known lobbyist who works at the School Board.
Well, that was last June — and Gallagher is still working at the Sterling-connected blood bank. According to her most recent financial disclosure, the job netted her about $38,000 in 2006 (the chairwoman also received $35,000 from the School Board and nearly $12,000 in alimony).
By all appearances, it seems a crime on par with Wasserstrom's. But as far as can be ascertained, Satz's office — the only agency that can root out corruption in Broward other than the invisible FBI — hasn't investigated the case. Maybe it cuts too close to home for the top prosecutor; Barbara Miller, after all, is one of Satz's top campaign advisers and has run his campaigns in the past. Miller is also one of Mayor Giulianti's key confidantes.
It's a small world in Broward politics.
Instead of being prosecuted, Gallagher is partying it up. It's election time again, and last week, the political elite threw a reception and fundraising kickoff for Gallagher. Care to hazard a guess where the shindig was held? Neil Sterling's million-dollar home on Bayview Drive in Fort Lauderdale, of course.
Gallagher sent out invitations from her AOL account, listing her "friends" hosting the event — and giving her big bucks — at Casa Sterling. It's a funny thing about elected officials: As soon as they get into office, they suddenly have a bunch of rich and influential "friends." And some of them, like Gallagher, actually seem to believe that the lobbyists and developers truly adore them rather than just want to suck their blood like the civic vampires they are.
Gallagher's list of pals is a who's who of everybody in Broward who ever wanted to make a dime at the public trough. There are lobbyists like Jim Blosser, Ron Book, Andy DiBattista, Bernie Friedman, W. Earl Hall, Alex Heckler, Jim Kane, Howard Kusnick, Dan Lewis, Mike Moskowitz, the aforementioned Platt, William Rubin (called "Billy" on the invite), and, of course, Sterling and Miller.
There are also builders and developers like Silvio Cardoso, Austin Forman, Charles Ladd ("Charlie"), Tony Mijares, Dwight Stephenson, Michael Wohl, and, of course, Pirtle.
That's just a sample. Also on the invitation are several phone numbers to call to give contributions to Gallagher's campaign, including her School Board number. It's illegal to solicit contributions from government buildings, so she might want to be careful about that bit of sloppiness.
Another name on her buddy list is lobbyist Russ Klenet, which leads us to the next name on the list:
• Stacy Ritter. A Broward County commissioner, Ritter is Klenet's wife. And because of her marital tie, she would be shaking in her boots if Satz were truly serious about prosecuting corruption.
Since Ritter's election to the County Commission, her husband and his new lobbying company, Dutko, Poole, and McKinley, have been linked to several companies doing business with the county for whom Ritter has voted, including airport manager URS, Vista Health Care, and voting-machine company ES&S.
Just last week, Ritter voted to buy $5.4 million worth of optical scanner machines from ES&S, which had come under fire for the performance of touchscreen machines the county is scrapping after only five years of operation. So she doesn't seem very nervous, but there might now be reason for her to be. Patti Lynn, a longtime community activist in Tamarac, filed an official complaint, based on coverage in this newspaper and the Miami Herald, against Ritter with Satz's chief corruption prosecutor, Tim Donnelly.
From my experience, Satz doesn't investigate political corruption without a complaint from a citizen, even if an open-and-shut case is laid out before the department in the public arena. But his spokesman, former Herald reporter Ron Ishoy, tells me I'm wrong on that score:
"Public-corruption prosecutors here have always pursued any viable tip about possible criminality no matter what the source. From even you, as we've shown, and from even me. In 1982, I wrote a story about an elected official supposedly offering a political job to someone if they got out of a political race. The SAO investigated and took it to the grand jury."
I don't know what happened 25 years ago, but it's true that Satz's office has investigated several corruption cases based on my coverage, including Wasserstrom. But I believe all of them were predicated on a citizen complaint. And, in the case of the third nefarious politician, who knows if one has been lodged or not?
• Al Capellini. Almost like a comic book villain, the mayor of Deerfield Beach has managed to escape justice at every turn. Consider, for instance, that Wasserstrom was convicted of two felony counts of official misconduct for failing to disclose the full nature of his dealings with sewage company Schwing Bioset. Capellini has taken it a step further, more than once failing to disclose his conflicts at all.
At times, rather than face a vote in which he has a conflict, he has gone to the bathroom, disappearing until a more impersonal matter comes before the commission. At other times, he didn't even bother with the bathroom trick and simply voted on matters that stood to benefit either himself or his private firm, Atlantis Engineering, which has done extensive work in his city.
His conflicts have been so myriad that it's impossible to go over them all here. But one particularly egregious violation of the public trust — and likely Florida law — involves his dealings in an office-building project in his city called Deerfield Park.
The mayor used his clout to push the Deerfield Park plan through his city and voted on its initial approval in 2003 — without disclosing the fact that his engineering company was overseeing the project. Then he secretly manipulated both his city and the county to remove an entrance designed to alleviate traffic for residents in the Natura retirement community and cut costs on his own project. That enraged residents, many of whom called for his ouster last year.
On top of this conflict and others, he partnered with a convicted drug kingpin named Sam Frontera, who has resurfaced in Pompano Beach, where he runs a music venue called Club Cinema.
Capellini is an excellent example of how abjectly scurrilous politicians, aided by a combination of voter indifference and prosecutorial laxness, survive in South Florida. And if Satz doesn't start doing his job, it might be time to kick another politician out of office — Michael Satz himself. He's running for his ninth term right now and, like Gallagher, picking up checks from lobbyists and other interested parties (state campaign records show Satz has raised $35,000 through May).
Maybe he thought the Wasserstrom conviction would be enough to assuage voters. If that's the case, we should all make it a point to prove him wrong next year.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.