Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter's involvement with a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme should finally wise Barack Obama up about his supporter, friend, and possible White House hire (that's the two of them pictured above at an Obama rally at the BankAtlantic Center last year). It's already an embarassment for the new Administration here in South Florida. Just to update on what we know: A fraudulent viatical company, Mutual Benefits Corp., hired Ritter's husband, Russ Klenet, and paid him $20,000 a month for his services. The company also spent $100,000 renovating the couple's Parkland house and the convicted felon who ran it, Joel Steinger, let Ritter and Klenet keep their boat at his waterfront home and use his house in Maine for vacations.
At the time Ritter was a state representative who voted on leglislation backed by her husband to limit the state's ability to regulate Mutal Benefits Corp. and other viatical companies that were ripping off investors. There's more to the story if you care to read about it.
It's a blatant conflict of interest and I'm not sure you'll find anyone who would claim that Ritter was giving the public "honest services" at the time. Neither she nor Klenet can credibly claim ignorance about the nature of the company: By the time Ritter voted, Mutual Benefits was already the subject of numerous complaints around the country and then-Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, a Republican, wanted to crack down on them.
Numerous Mutual Benefits executives and employees are already in prison and earlier this month, the feds announced four new indictments. One of them was former Mutual VP Steven Steiner, who with his partner invested as much as $2 million in Klenet's purchase of another viatical, Life Settlements International. Steiner is suing Klenet for his share of the $1.6 million that Klenet sold the company for last year.
It's not like this is new. Ritter and Klenet were embroiled with similar conflicts of interest after she became a county commissioner two years ago. State Attorney Michael Satz's office conducted a less-than-aggressive investigation and didn't file charges.
The recent revelation comes just days after Ritter took a much-publicized trip to Washington to interview for a job in Obama's White House. Ritter told the Miami Herald she's interested in jobs in the energy and commerce departments. Ritter and Klenet also hosted an Inauguration party and,before that, Obama campaign parties in Parkland that prompted the St. Pete Times to question Obama's alleged commitment to eschew the influence of lobbyists.
"Nothing is more important than your friends ... and I've got two friends right here who have been with me through thick and thin," Obama said. "They've been holding down the fort in Florida. I want them to come up real quick so I can thank them once again: Congressman Robert Wexler and Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter."
People seem to expect the world of Obama, but it doesn't seem like asking much of him to not surround himself with dubious lobbyists and elected officials. No matter how much help they may have given during the campaign.