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Cleared? Crist's Complicated Connection to the Con Man

The Miami Herald's Jay Weaver wrote this weekend of how the feds "cleared" George LeMieux and Charlie Crist in the ongoing corruption probe into con man Joel Steinger and his billion-dollar life settlements scam, Mutual Benefits. 

But you'd have to be a fool to think the Department of Justice is blind when it comes to big government leaders. It's a highly political office full of lawyers, after all. You can't expect fearlessness in a political corruption investigation that leads up to Crist.

And it does lead up to Crist, whether the governor actually did anything wrong or not. Joel Steinger, in a bid to kill a Florida attorney general's investigation and get regulators off his back, poured millions of dollars into Tallahassee. We know he hired local lobbyist Russ Klenet, paying him $20,000 a week, while Klenet's wife, Stacy Ritter, was serving as a state legislator. He poured tens of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of his key contact in Tally, Steve Geller, who was then the Senate minority leader. Geller was extremely close with the Steinger, a convicted felon and career criminal with Mafia ties. He also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a political committee that backed state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff. (For a detailed investigation of Steinger's political ties, click here.)

Steinger had special interest in the 2002 attorney general's race. In fact, sources say he was obsessed with stopping the investigation and that his ire focused on Statewide Prosecutor Melanie Hines and her lead assistant on the case, Lisa Porter. He wanted them gone, say sources, and thought the only way he could do it was to buy the AG's race.  

Democratic contender Buddy Dyer, now the mayor of Orlando, openly courted Steinger and received tens of thousands of dollars from Steinger and his associates. Steinger at some point hired GOP money man and eye doctor Alan Mendelsohn to help him gain sway with Crist, who ultimately won the election.

We don't know what exactly Mendelsohn did for Crist, but Klenet once testified in a deposition that Mendelsohn was "very helpful" to Steinger. And we know that Steinger paid Mendelsohn, former legislative director for the Florida Medical Association, handsomely for his work. In addition to whatever money he paid Mendelsohn, he bought the doctor a new BMW and paid for the Harvard University education for Mendelsohn's son, Josh, and the Pine Crest tuition for

Mendelsohn's younger son, Benjamin, according to well-placed sources.

And it's obvious that when Crist was elected AG in 2002, the tenor of the state investigation changed. Crist got rid of Hines and Porter was also taken off the case. In Hines' place Crist installed Peter Williams, a former head of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

While Hines was almost icily professional in regard to the Steinger probe, Williams was rather warm and fuzzy. Williams met personally with Steinger's attorneys and even met with Steinger himself. Williams personally helped craft an "agreement" with Steinger that precluded any criminal charges. (Interestingly, Crist last year appointed Porter, who was moved off the Steinger investigation, as a Broward Circuit judge.)

Just the very existence of the agreement, which I obtained, indicates just how soft Crist's AG's office was on Steinger, who had racked up hundreds of complaints from his often poor and elderly victims from whom he'd sometimes swindled life savings. Thankfully, the feds came in and took over the investigation and ultimately indicted Steinger on fraud counts.

Did Mendelsohn influence Crist to go soft on Steinger? That's a big question. But there's no doubt that during those years, Mendelsohn and Crist became very close politically at the same time Steinger and Mendelsohn were cooking up schemes.

When Crist was elected governor in 2006, he named Mendelsohn head of health care policy for his transition team. Then the governor really stuck his neck out for Mendelsohn in 2007 -- and one university official paid for it with his job.

This one involved Mendelsohn's younger son, Benjamin, who 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.

Crist's ill-advised favor to Mendelsohn created a UF scandal and ultimately cost Kone his job as dean.

Why was Crist doing Mendelsohn this favor? Obviously the entire relationship was built on money. In addition to any largesse coming from Steinger, Mendelsohn was a dogged, some say even obnoxious, fundraiser who could easily pull $50,000 for a candidate during a weekend fundraiser at his Hollywood home. The Florida Medical Political Action Committee announced in 2005 that Mendelsohn held a fundraiser during which 150 physicians raised more than $100,000 for Crist. Was Steinger involved in that fundraiser? We don't know.

The same year as Crist wrote that letter for Mendelsohn, 2007, the eye doctor was wearing a wire for the feds trying to implicate LeMieux, according to Weaver. LeMieux allegedly got suspicous, called Huck, and the FBI was called.

That may have occurred, but things have changed radically since then, according to sources. Mendelsohn has lawyered up and refused to play ball with the investigation, which is continuing full-throttle. And it was Steinger himself who got the ball rolling.

When Steinger was hit by the feds, he turned federal informant on the public corruption side of things. He apparently saw bagging some big politicos as his get-out-of-prison card. Steinger, in fact, wore a wire to implicate Mendelsohn.

Confused yet? You have a con man making claims about corrupting public officials. You have a political bag man, Mendelsohn, who has stopped playing ball and may be ready to fall on his own scalpel. And on the other side you have big politicos who may or may not have crossed a line. In the middle you have leaks going to the press with their own version of "move on, nothing to see here."  

I think the feds are still trying to unravel this mess and I don't think anyone can be properly cleared, though it's certainly possible that Crist broke no laws with Mendelsohn in regards to Steinger (I never felt that LeMieux was all that tied up in it; though Roger Stone apparently didn't agree). Right now, though, it's all about following the money. And hopefully at some point we'll all know where it led.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

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