But the doctor was linked to more than just powerful politicians -- Mendelsohn also served as a lobbyist and fundraising bag man for fraud artist Joel Steinger, the convicted felon behind the billion-dollar Mutual Benefits Ponzi scheme, according to sources and court records.
It's yet another example of how Steinger exploited the easily corruptible leaders in Washington, Tallahassee, and Broward County, where he is tied to a number of local politicians.
In an August 24, 2007 deposition, Mutual Benefits lobbyist Russ Klenet said Mendelsohn was "very helpful" to the fraudulent company.
"He raises a tremendous amount of money for primarily Republican candidates for office in Florida, and he was very helpful," Klenet said under oath. "We raised a lot of money; Mutual Benefits raised a lot of money through Dr. Mendelsohn."
Mendelsohn, according to sources, also helped plan and execute the legislative strategy for Steinger, who desperately wanted protection from regulators so he could keep the Ponzi scheme alive. Key to that goal was keeping the company under the jurisdiction of the Department of Insurance rather than under the more stringent state Department of Banking and Finance. A bill doing just that was passed in 2004, despite the objections of then-Florida Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.
Sources say Steinger also used Mendelsohn to help gain sway with Charlie Crist when Crist served as attorney general before his election as governor in 2006.
Steinger, if anything, was adept at buying people who could get things done in the state capital. Mendelsohn was crucial, as was Klenet, whose wife, Broward County Mayor Stacy Ritter, was then a state legislator (who voted on the bill). Then there was the battalion of lawyers -- which includes former Watergate prosecutor, Clinton Whitewater defender, and 911 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste and Miami's David M. Goldstein, the right-hand man to mogul Alvin Malnik, who has longstanding ties to organized crime and was dubbed criminal mastermind Meyer Lansky's "heir apparent."
And Steinger sometimes found creative ways to pay his powerful surrogates. In the case of Klenet and Ritter, he paid $117,000 to renovate their Parkland home (in addition to paying Klenet hundreds of thousands of dollars). Sources say he also did interesting favors for Ben-Veniste, who often partied with Steinger when he was in Miami. In the case of Mendelsohn, sources say Steinger paid for his son's tuition at Harvard University.
When asked about that allegation in the deposition, Klenet
denied any knowledge of it. Mendelsohn didn't a phone call left at his office for comment.
Mendelsohn has a long history of influence in Tallahassee. As a fundraiser and legislative director for several medical associations, he has been able to raise millions of dollars from physicians and turn that cash into crucial votes. In 2001, he was behind a controversial legislative vote to force patients to turn to ophthalmologists like himself rather than optometrists for post-op care. Dubbed the "Battle of the O's," then-Broward County Republican Chairman George LeMieux defended Mendelsohn, saying he wasn't greedy, but rather "very passionate" about care.
LeMieux, of course, was Charlie Crist's top political advisor and would go on to become his chief of staff in the governor's office. Crist has been unapologetic about his friendship and support for the medical money man, whom he tapped to oversee health care policy for his transition team in 2006. More recently, Crist vouched for Mendelsohn's son -- and caught some controversy for it.
In 2007, Mendelsohn's son Benjamin wanted to get into a special University of Florida Junior Honors Medical Program, which combines undergraduate study with a medical degree over seven years. The problem: Benjamin Mendelsohn didn't get the backing of the medical selection committee that makes the recommendations for the program. He lacked the basic qualifications to get into the program, including a failure to take the Medical College Admissions Test and missing deadlines in the application process.
Not to worry. Crist wrote a letter on the young Mendelsohn's behalf, urging the dean of UF's College of Medicine, Bruce Kone, to accept him into the program. "I have known Benjamin and his family for several years and know that Benjamin's affiliation with the University of Florida will enhance the reputation of both Benjamin and the Medical Program," Crist wrote.
As if to show that money could buy not only the governor but also the legislature, Sen. President Ken Pruitt also wrote a letter for Mendelsohn. Kone followed Crist and Pruitt, broke with tradition, and allowed Benjamin Mendelsohn into the program. Incredibly, the dean claimed political influence played no role in his decision.
The saga was documented in the Gainesville Sun, which noted that the Mendelsohns -- both father and son -- personally contributed to Crist in 2006 and that the family's political contributions, almost all of it to Republicans, totaled $33,257 in that year alone. But those personal contributions are small potatoes compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars he raised at his Hollywood home from doctors for Crist and the GOP.
It's a stunning example of how Crist's influence can be purchased -- and how easily UF admissions can be manipulated by politicos. So how did UF respond to the allegations? By conducting an investigation the leak of information to the Sun rather than into the obvious corruption. It leaves a black eye on the Gator Nation.
The full extent of Mendelsohn's role with con artist Steinger and the Mutual Benefits is yet to be determined, but it's clear he used that same clout to further the Ponzi scheme. It's also not known if he used his clout to curry favor for Steinger with Crist. What is clear is that Mendelsohn, like everyone else linked to the scandal, should have known better.
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