Joel T. Lazarus is a powerful guy. He isn't just a Broward Circuit judge; he's also a jury. And on Monday, he single-handedly did more to damage anticorruption efforts in his county than just about any man ever has.
Lazarus is the judge in the corruption trial against Keith Wasserstrom, a former Hollywood commissioner. Wasserstrom used the power of his office to help a sewage company to which he was allegedly financially tied get a lucrative contract in his city.
That much is uncontested fact — and the lurid details smell worse than the sludge involved in the city's contract. But after the prosecution and the defense rested Monday, Lazarus threw out the key felony charge against Wasserstrom, saying the unlawful-compensation case against him was "circumstantial."
In doing so, the judge not only subverted a fundamental American legal principle, the jury trial, but also the opinion of a much higher power — the Florida Supreme Court.
After Lazarus made the stunning move, I questioned the judge about it outside the courtroom.
"Did you make the decision to take this case out of the jury's hands lightly?" I asked him.
"Are you a judge or are you both the judge and jury?"
I kind of like to have fun with judge types, especially when they trash the public trust. This case was somewhat more important than most to me since I'd broken the story about Wasserstrom's connection to the sewage company in the first place. I got his attention, but Lazarus wasn't having it.
"I'm not going to answer these questions."
He started to walk into his office.
"Do you know about the Florida Supreme Court opinion that says that circumstantial evidence is enough to prosecute unlawful-compensation cases?"
"I felt there was insufficient evidence," he answered. "Are you saying that the Supreme Court said these cases could rely on circumstantial evidence?"
"The court said that circumstantial evidence is sufficient to prosecute corruption cases."
"That's your opinion."
"No, that's the Supreme Court's opinion."
He said "thank you," and as he walked off, it struck me that the judge actually must not have known about the ruling.
On April 22, 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that cases like the one involving Wasserstrom are nearly impossible to prosecute if direct evidence of a corrupt agreement is required. Demanding that prosecutors provide explicit proof of a nefarious deal "imposes too high a burden on the state and would prohibit prosecution of all but the most blatant violations," Justice Raoul Cantero wrote.
In other words, in the world of backroom deals involving cunning public officials, prosecutors need only to show that the politician corruptly used his office in a way that would contribute to his financial gain.
Here's how Cantero put it:
"Public corruption has become sophisticated enough... to expect that public officials soliciting or accepting unlawful compensation ordinarily will not be so audacious as to explicitly verbalize their intent."
Count Wasserstrom among those who lack that audacity, but his intent was made loud and clear at trial. Here are some key facts established at trial:
• In 2003, representatives of a sewage company called Schwing Bioset met with Commissioner Wasserstrom to try to get him to help them win a wastewater treatment contract with the city.
• After the meeting, Wasserstrom met with his uncle, Arnold Goldman of Miami, and encouraged him to contact the company and become a lobbyist for them. (Forget that Goldman was neither a lobbyist nor knew anything about the sewage trade. He was in the roofing business.)
• The company hired Goldman as a lobbyist. Then Wasserstrom and his uncle made a side deal to split half the money he made. Goldman, of course, had no entrée into governments, while his political nephew did. As Goldman explained on the witness stand, "There are people in this world who are connectors. Mr. Wasserstrom knows many people." And the uncle also admitted that he thought the sewage business was going to be "unbelievably lucrative" for the two.
• The contract specified that Wasserstrom wouldn't make any money in Hollywood. But after signing the contract, the commissioner manipulated his city to choose Schwing Bioset, even though it was ranked last by the city's evaluation committee and cost twice as much as the top-rated company, Florida N-Viro. He set up meetings between company reps and Hollywood officials, cajoled his fellow commissioners to vote for the company, and basically did everything he could to get the company the contract.
• Goldman testified that he and Wasserstrom believed at the time that securing the Hollywood contract was crucial for them to get other municipalities — including Fort Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Coral Springs, and Miami-Dade — to "piggyback" on the contract and thus get paid millions of dollars by the company. He testified that they considered the delay in securing the Schwing Bioset contract in Hollywood "detrimental" in their efforts to sell the company elsewhere.