The One That Got Away
Whit Van Cott is far away from the turmoil and scandal gripping the City of Hollywood. These days, the city's former utilities director's life is all about wahoo, Bimini twists, and mutton.
In Key Largo, where Van Cott is relishing his early retirement, he spends most of his time at the Upper Keys Fishing Club. He's become such a mainstay at the club that fellow members elected him secretary.
And apparently this year's chili cook-off was a big hit.
"Many members indicated it was a good time and we should have more functions like the Chili Cook-off in the future," Van Cott wrote in the April newsletter, adding that at the most recent meeting, there was a successful seminar on knot-tying where "the Bimini twist, spider hitch and terminal tackle knots were presented."
Ah, a rod and reel in one hand, a bowl of chili in the other, and an abundance of well-tied knots. What more could a retired bureaucrat want? And the fishing, in case you're curious, simply can't be beat. Just this past April 2, Van Cott pulled in a 44-inch, 20-pound wahoo while trolling with a pink-and-white Alien lure just off Molasses Reef.
That's the good life, people.
Good thing he retired from the city last summer at age 58. Otherwise, he would have to navigate not warm Atlantic waters but the treacherous political mess brewing in Hollywood, where former Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom is facing felony corruption charges for allegedly selling out his public office to a sewage company called Schwing Bioset. Mayor Mara Giulianti is also in the middle of the quagmire, since her son Stacey also profited from the deal (though the State Attorney's Office chose not to prosecute her).
It's a mess that Van Cott undoubtedly helped make and it looks as if he too still plans to profit from the Schwing Bioset fiasco, only after the storm blows over. He admits that he hopes to do consulting work for Schwing once Wasserstrom's case is resolved.
While employed at the city, he certainly did his part to help Schwing reap big profits from Hollywood. As Wasserstrom set up a financial shell game to benefit from the city's hiring of Schwing, it was Van Cott who made sure the company was chosen by the commission.
He went to extreme lengths to get it done. For instance, after a city committee rated another firm, Florida N-Viro, higher than Schwing Bioset, Van Cott threw out the entire process and started over, skewing it in favor of Schwing.
This despite the fact that Schwing's bid was $15 million more expensive than the competition.
He also assured the commission that the city had worked out a deal with the Seminole Tribe to accept the treated waste on its land in the Everglades a claim that later turned out to be untrue.
To understand how ardent Van Cott was in his support of the corrupt company, let's flash back to the City Commission meeting of June 16, 2004. Commissioner Beam Furr had just asked to rescind the vote to hire Schwing to treat and haul the city's human waste.
Van Cott, after he had lied and cheated for Schwing, was none-too-pleased that Furr had the temerity to want to look at other companies. At that meeting, the public utilities director's face reddened and his voice quivered as he threatened to quit if the Schwing deal were put on hold.
"I believe the confidence of this commission has left me...," he said. "I don't know that I can continue to do this. I can't pull rabbits out of hats. You have gotten the very best of me during the last nine years. My real question is if you still have confidence in me as a utility director, because if you don't, I am leaving. OK?"
He spoke to the commission as if it were composed of children and he were a scorned headmaster.
"Maybe you need to get burned to really understand what you're doing... There's rumors I'm going to be working at Bioset. Sorry, no way. There's rumors I'm corrupt. Sorry, no way... I don't want to get emotional, and I'm breaking one of Whit's rules. But the fact of the matter is, if you want to go out for another [bid], you'll do it without me. I have given these people [at Schwing Bioset] my word. They have been patient."
He seemed near tears. Then, in a swift mood change, he became wrathful toward his bosses:
"You should do it. You should do it. But you will reap what you sow. And it won't be me at the helm. I promise you... I've had too many migraine headaches. I've had too much, and I'm done... If you don't have confidence in me, I'm outta here."
It was one of the most extraordinary and dumbfounding performances by a public official at a City Hall meeting in recent memory. When he sat down, the room fell into a kind of stunned silence.
Giulianti, another strong proponent of Schwing Bioset, soothed him. "They haven't caught you in nine years and they haven't caught me in 16 years doing anything illegal," she told Van Cott.
There was a good reason they were both worried about legalities. By the time that meeting took place, the State Attorney's Office was already investigating the city for the Schwing deal. And last month, to much media ballyhoo, Gov. Jeb Bush kicked Wasserstrom off the commission after prosecutors charged him with receiving unlawful compensation and official misconduct. Prosecutors also found that Giulianti broke the law but didn't charge her because she'd already been given immunity, and they claimed she'd been duped by Wasserstrom.
Van Cott was long gone by the time the charges came down. He quietly retired last August to settle on Ruby Drive in Key Largo with his wife, Patricia. But rumors linger that he was set to work for Schwing Bioset during his golden years.
According to former Schwing executive Sam Shepherd, who invented the Bioset treatment process and is now in litigation with the firm, Van Cott was, indeed, lined up to work for the company.
"Mr. Van Cott went to the city attorney [Dan Abbott] after he retired and said, 'How would it look if I went to work for Schwing Bioset?'" Shepherd says. "The city attorney said, 'Not good.' So Van Cott set up a company that could contract with Schwing Bioset, and he has already made contact with the city requesting data on its behalf."
A check of Florida corporations shows that, sure enough, Van Cott set up a firm called Utility Solutions Associates. Oddly, his name is misspelled twice on official documents, listed as "Whithead Van Cott" (his full first name is actually Whitfield) in one place and as "Vancott White" in another.
I called Van Cott at his home and asked him if his company had done any work for Schwing.
"I never did any work for them, no," he told me.
I asked him if it was true that he went to Abbott and asked him if it would be OK if he took a job with the company after he retired.
"I might have," he answered. "I don't really remember... The truth is, we met so many times over so many things, it's extremely difficult. I can't remember."
I took that as a yes. Then I asked him, again, if it was true that he had already done some work for Schwing. Shepherd said that Van Cott had helped Schwing try to get approvals from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, along with another Schwing consultant, Bob Riemers.
Van Cott admitted that he'd worked with Riemers but said he did it in his capacity as an official for Hollywood, not as a paid Schwing contractor. He said he still holds out hope, however, of some day collecting a check from Schwing Bioset.
"If I do, it will be sometime in the future," he told me.
His words echoed what he told prosecutor Catherine Maus during a deposition on November 16, 2005, that was recently released to the public.
"I'm not going to do anything with [Schwing] until this is settled and this is done," he told Maus. "And if it's exonerated and so forth, maybe I will consider doing work with them."
Even if he has been paid by Schwing or had a deal to be paid sometime in the future he can't be charged in the case now. The State Attorney's Office subpoenaed him to testify, giving him immunity from prosecution.
But that hasn't quelled the critics at City Hall, who believe Van Cott abused his office.
"That son of a bitch ought to be in jail," says Pete Brewer, a longtime Hollywood activist who helped expose the scandal two years ago.
Van Cott knows there are a lot of people in Hollywood who believe he's a scoundrel. But he says that hasn't changed his feelings about the city. As he told Maus, "My heart is still with the City of Hollywood."
Maybe so, but his fishing rod, those sweet 20-pound wahoo, and his new life are in dreamy Key Largo, far away from the madding crowd of the fractured city.
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