The ex-public official mentioned in the Alan Mendelsohn federal indictment as having received $87,000 in secret payments from the lobbyist has been identified as former Democratic state Sen. Muriel "Mandy" Dawson, according to sources extremely close to the federal case.
Mendelsohn was also one of three lobbyists who improperly helped fund a trip by Dawson to South Africa in 2005 that led to a public reprimand for the senator and her ouster from the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.
Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Dawson, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, is the former chair of the Senate Health Policy Committee while Mendelsohn, who was indicted on federal corruption charges last week, was the Republican legislative director for the Florida Medical Association. It was former Mendelsohn ally and Senate President Ken Pruitt who crossed party lines to make the extraordinary appointment to Dawson, whose career is spackled with trouble.
I couldn't reach Dawson -- who left the Senate last year due to term limits -- for comment, but the Sun-Sentinel confirmed today that she has been contacted by federal agents. The newspaper didn't identify Dawson as the alleged recipient of the $87,000, but she denied ever accepting any money from him.
Yet she is definitely the ex-public official mentioned in Mendelsohn's indictment, according to sources. That doesn't mean she's guilty of a crime. Here's what the indictment says about the $87,000: "From at least November 2003 through 2006, Mendelsohn caused approximately $87,000 in payments to a third party, who, agreeing to serve as an intermediary, passed the payments on to the then public official."
The indictment goes on to say that the payments were made from a private company and three political action committees to the public official and that the payments were "falsely characterized in the books and records" of those entities "as payments to the third party intermediary for consulting services."
One source involved in the case revealed that the intermediary who actually supplied the money to Dawson was
Venica Blakely, who received money from Mendelsohn's PACs and who worked as a consultant on Dawson's 2004 campaign.
This is where it gets really interesting. In 2006 Dawson was appointed as chairwoman of the Senate Health Policy Committee, the Sentinel reported today. And she was appointed to the post by former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a long-time Mendelsohn ally who crossed party lines to give her the position (Mendelsohn and Pruitt are Republicans, Dawson is a Democrat). From the newspaper article:
"The way that a Senate president selects a committee chair is to put the best talent we have in the places where we feel they have the greatest expertise," Pruitt said. "Senator Dawson's expertise in health care was well known."
Dawson, though, also had a history of missed votes during her 10-year career and her tenure running the Senate's health policy was troubled. In 2007, the year Dawson took over the health committee, she missed more than one-third of the Senate sessions and skipped an entire three-day special session on property taxes. She sponsored an expansion of the popular KidCare health program for children, but it died when she went missing during a key juncture in the negotiations. Dawson's fellow Senate Democrats were furious.
The Sentinel actually went easy on Dawson, failing to mention a 2000 public reprimand from then-Senate President Toni Jennings for chronic tardiness and absences. Suffering from spinal problems and arthritis, she also battled an addiction to pain killers and in 2002 she was charged with prescription fraud. She agreed to go to drug rehab for a year to avoid prosecution. Then in 2005 she was again put on the hot seat after it was discovered she'd asked nine lobbyists to help pay for the trip to South Africa. Mendelsohn was on of three lobbyists who ponied up $2,500 for Dawson's trip (another was Ron Book -- yes, he is everywhere).
Last Friday, Pruitt denied he had received the $87,000. Pruitt, who has received legal contributions from his former associate Mendelsohn, was obviously telling the truth. Several sources say federal agents investigated Pruitt's connection to Mendelsohn and Mutual Benefits' Joel Steinger, but to date no evidence has surfaced to indicate wrongdoing.