Broward News

Cobo-Cop: Will Governor Bust Broward Hospital Commish?

It'll be weeks, at least, till we learn how Gov. Charlie Crist intends to respond to the politically explosive packet of material he received last week from the North Broward Hospital District. It's the report of a former assistant U.S. Attorney retained by the North Broward Hospital District Board to investigate reports of potentially criminal ethics violations by Commissioner Joseph Cobo. The investigator, Martin Goldberg, found several instances of "credible" evidence against Cobo. (An overview of the investigation can be found here.)

On Friday I spoke with Crist's press secretary, Sterling Ivey. He told me that the packet would likely be reviewed by the governor's appointments office. Though Ivey could not speak specifically to the Cobo matter, he indicated that appointees either have their files sent to the Florida Ethics Commission or not, in which case there's likely to be few consequences for that appointee. "If there are criminal acts, we could refer that to the local state attorney," Ivey said. "Though that usually doesn't happen from the governor's office."

No, if there are criminal acts, it's assumed that the local board would have furnished those materials to the State Attorney's Office. But Cobo's colleagues on the board decided against this route, expressing faith that if Cobo committed ethical lapses, as the investigator seemed to believe, he did so with "good intentions." Then they put the ball in Crist's court.

While making calls last week, a few sources suggested that in my post Thursday, I was too quick to dismiss the possibility that Crist would punish Cobo -- suspend him, or remove him from the board.

So I gave it more thought. And now I'm more convinced than ever that Cobo's going to get off easy. I'll explain why after the jump.

To Crist, Cobo's conflicts are old news. In 2007, Cobo was running the same private firm, Florida Medical Management Consultants, that he is today, and there was a clear risk of corruption; but Crist appointed Cobo to oversee the public health care giant anyway. For Crist to suspend or remove Cobo would be to admit that he committed his own error in judgment. Do you blame the fox for eating the chicken? Or the farmer who put that fox in charge of the henhouse?

Even if the file doesn't go all the way to Crist, then there's the same cognitive dissonance for whomever in the governor's staff recommended Cobo in the first place: Bury this case, lest it blow back.

If Cobo's alleged crimes were more colorful, it would be a stickier proposition. But Cobo is not accused of soliciting bribes, Blagojevich-style. There's none of the sex stuff that gets the television crews interested. He merely appeared to use his commissioner's status as a way to get an edge in his private work. In a state so numbed by corruption, it barely rates as scandal.

What's more, the package headed to Tallahassee tells two different stories, meaning its recipient gets to choose the one he wants to believe. There's the investigation; then there's the transcript from Wednesday's meeting. Approximately 40 speakers -- many of whom are high-profile enough to be recognized names in Tallahassee -- offering 90 minutes worth of testimonials for Cobo's character, along with a bevy of charges against the investigator: that he did an incomplete, dishonest investigation that was tainted by political motives. None really offered convincing evidence of this, but that's not the point.  Cobo just needed his supporters to cast a slight shadow of doubt about whether this report could be trusted. That's all the political cover Crist will need to justify taking no action.

The distinguished cast of character witnesses also conveys an unsubtle message to Crist: that by dealing harshly with Cobo he might damage his Republican alliances in one of the state's most populous counties. In advance of what has the potential to be a spirited primary campaign for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, Crist will need foot soldiers like the ones he has in Broward, especially when it comes to blunting the momentum that his opponent Marco Rubio might build in his home turf of Miami-Dade.

And that brings us to our last point: While facing a Cuban-American candidate like Rubio, it would be foolhardy indeed for Crist to throw a Cuban-American friend like Cobo to the wolves. Sure, Cobo's not the most high-profile member of that community, but the Cubans are a close-knit bunch, and they just might rally to Cobo's defense. At last week's meeting one major local figure, Jose "Pepe" Lopez of the county's Latin Chamber of Commerce, charged the other commissioners with "racism" in their treatment of Cobo. An ugly word Crist doesn't want anywhere near his campaign.

However annoyed Crist may be for the way Cobo has expressed his gratitude for being appointed to the district's board, still the governor's primary concern is that this affects his rapport with South Florida voters. If he removes Cobo from the post, it'll be more controversial (and more likely to be a future issue) than if he does nothing. At the very most, Crist's office may send the packet to the state ethics commission, but that outfit seems to only respond to the most flagrant reports of corruption, which this is not.

Cobo may get an angry phone call from the Crist people, if it hasn't come already, but he'll be able to survive this scandal with his commission seat in tact.

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Thomas Francis