What's a Little Medicare Fraud Between Friends?
Let's begin with the cold facts:
Coconut Creek Commissioner Jim Waldman is running for the state House in a district dominated by senior voters.
He is also a longtime business partner of a convicted Medicare fraud artist named Bradley Hertz. Hertz was convicted of fraud in federal court in 2000 for filing false reports to defraud Medicare of $7 million over several years. He was accused of wrongfully billing boat trips, parties, and other expenses to the government.
Waldman served as a registered agent for the company at the center of fraud allegations, Interim Healthcare of Hollywood Inc. He was never charged with a crime, and the government never tied him to any unlawful activity.
Hertz pleaded guilty and was sentenced in 2001 to a year and a day in prison and forced to pay $150,000 in fines and restitution. To settle a federal civil fraud case, he paid the government an additional $1.6 million.
Rather than distance himself from his felonious associate after the crimes were revealed, Waldman's involvement with Hertz only grew. He helped defend Hertz in the civil fraud case, and he admits that he attended a going-away party on a yacht before Hertz went to prison.
Government sources close to the case confirmed that federal investigators were aware of the party. Hertz was so brazen that he posted pictures from the party on a personal Internet site. Another source provided me with some of the photos, one of them showing Waldman and Hertz mugging for the camera in matching blue-and-white Hawaiian shirts.
Carousing on a boat with a felon is one thing, but records show that Waldman also mingled money with the Medicare scammer after the conviction.
One of Hertz's investments was the popular O'Hara's Jazz Cafe & Swing Street Bistros in Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale. Waldman says Hertz invested about $300,000 in the clubs through a company called Brankee Investment Corp.
Well-known O'Hara's owner Kitty Ryan sued Hertz in 2002 claiming that his Medicare fraud conviction violated their contract. Ryan refused to comment, but Waldman had an explanation:
"Kitty Ryan tried to abuse the situation with Mr. Hertz and obtain all the money he had invested with her."
Just a month before the suit was filed, Waldman, who was then mayor of Coconut Creek, was installed as president of Brankee, according to state corporate records. Hertz's name was removed from corporate filings.
In other words, it appears that Waldman was serving as a straw owner for a felon.
He says all he profited from the Brankee deal was about $10,000 worth of shares in the clubs that Hertz gave him for legal work. The case was eventually settled out of court. Waldman says Hertz was basically bought out by Ryan for what he'd put into the clubs.
Today, Hertz is a major real estate investor who owns at least 20 houses in Broward County. And he and Waldman are both officers in a company called U Need A Limo Inc., which lists its address at a site owned by Waldman boss Arthur Keiser, a private-college mogul.
Another officer in the limo company is political operative Jose "Pepe" Lopez, president of Broward's Latin Chamber of Commerce and a veteran Waldman ally.
Most recently, Waldman, who is running in the Democratic primary for the District 95 state House seat against Amy Rose, accepted $2,000 in campaign contributions from Hertz and his assorted companies.
OK, those are the basic facts. Somehow, none of this has ever been reported in any newspaper before. I stumbled across the Hertz angle while reporting Waldman's ties to Republicans. I asked Waldman about his ties to Hertz.
"Brad Hertz has been a personal friend of mine for years, and the fact that he pled guilty doesn't necessarily mean that he was guilty," he said. "Brad Hertz is somebody who paid his debt to society, and he should be afforded all the rights a person has in that society."
Maybe, but it sounds like Waldman is taking a brisk dip in denial. When I learned of Waldman's ongoing relationship with Hertz, it only intensified my perception that he's a politician strictly ruled by money over principle, that he sees public service only as a game of cash and power. Why else would he risk his reputation by remaining so cozy with the millionaire Hertz, who has schmoozed with many politicians over the years?
It also made me wonder about his judgment. He casually dismisses the guilt of a man who was convicted of Medicare fraud. Waldman is running in a senior citizen-rich district that includes Wynmoor Village and Palm Aire condo developments.
Didn't Waldman know that his ties to Hertz might create a horrible problem for him if it were ever publicly exposed?
Of course he did, and he basically told me so. He was willing to take that risk. He says it was for friendship. I bet the money didn't hurt either.
But it was just an association, right? Waldman was never tied directly to the fraud. Was I making too much of it?
I called Jack Shiffrel, area leader for the Democratic Executive Committee in Waldman's town of Coconut Creek, and asked him what he thought. Shiffrel, by the way, is a supporter of Waldman's opponent, Rose.
After I reeled off the facts about the federal case and Waldman, Shiffrel said only: "Let the people of Wynmoor decide, let the people of Margate decide, let the people of District 95 decide."
Interesting idea. On a lark, I also called Harvey Beaber, head of the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club. Beaber, who succeeded the late political powerhouse Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella in the post, doesn't live in the district, but he lives in the gigantic retirement community of Century Village and has his finger on the pulse of Broward's oldsters. I thought he might have something interesting to say. All I told him was that Waldman had a business relationship with a convicted fraud artist.
"Oh boy, you're going to get me in trouble," Beaber began. "I'm a former cop from New York, so I would be very leery of someone like that. I couldn't take a chance on recommending anybody like that."
Didn't sound good for Waldman. I also called Ruth Bromberg, a resident of Wynmoor who will celebrate her 80th birthday this Friday. A former New York City school teacher, Bromberg is a spirited woman and active Democrat who speaks her mind. When I so much as mentioned the state House race, she immediately told me that she was no fan of Rose and was voting for Waldman.
Then I told her the reason for my phone call. She listened to the facts and said it made an immediate impact on the way she felt about the race.
"I wish there was somebody I could wholeheartedly support, and I don't see it anywhere," Bromberg said. "I do feel less than 100 percent supportive of Jim Waldman because of that. I don't like anything of that sort. What are my alternatives? Maybe I won't vote at all."
When I mentioned the going-away party for Hertz on the yacht, Bromberg said, "I wish I would have been invited I bet the martinis tasted great."
Then I called Randy Rudolph, president of the Palm Aire Democratic Club, which is also located in Waldman's district. He told me he hadn't made up his mind who to support. After I told him about Waldman and Hertz, he sounded a little closer to a decision.
"I think that will make a big difference with the people in Palm Aire when it comes out," Rudolph said. "In politics, you have to be clean. You can't preach one way with one side of your mouth and then do something else when people aren't watching."
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