Put down your margarita for a second and imagine a South Florida without bad guys. No scumbags, hucksters, shysters, megalomaniacs, sleazeballs, or assholes. Nothing but peaceful existence, marked by occasional strong weather. Rolling tides and the buzz of insects and not a dollar to be made. Almost paradise.
That place may have existed, sometime back in the 19th Century. Then Napoleon Bonaparte Broward started carving out vast fields of real estate from the soggy swamps. Ever since, schemers have been quick to sell off every bit of Florida they could claim and then some. Soon enough, South Florida was the con-artist capital of the world. Still is.
This year, we saw the Broward Sheriff's Office and Donald Trump replacing law and politics with glitzy show. Langerado and the Miami Dolphins promised great shows but failed to deliver. Political climbers like Allen West distracted us from real issues with scare tactics. And lax enforcement by a vast, underfunded bureaucracy — the Department of Children and Families — allowed one of the most tragic child-abuse cases in history. Here, then, are the 12 worstest of our worst, those who used 2011 to promise us sunshine and traded it for an undrained swamp.
1. Allen West
The congressman uses his national platform for a war fought with hate.
U.S. Rep. Allen West is a Tea Party darling who defends tax breaks for the wealthy and called U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz "despicable." But that's not why he's on this list. No, the congressman from Plantation is frightening because voters handed him a national political platform, and he uses it to spout hatred.
In 2004, West was forced to resign from his post as an Army lieutenant colonel because he fired a pistol into a barrel that was currently being occupied by an Iraqi detainee's head. Military investigators called this aggravated assault, but to some people, it made West a hero.
The congressman says America is at war against a "totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology, and it is called Islam." When a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations tried to question him at a town hall meeting, West cut him off. "You attacked us," West said.
A decade after 9/11, West caters to America's ugliest fears about Muslims. On the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, he didn't talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden or mention al Qaeda. He talked about continuing the war on "Islamic totalitarianism."
History will not remember West's opinions on Medicaid privatization or tax breaks. It will remember him as a politician who tried to pass off religious hatred as normal political discourse.
2. Rick Scott
There's a reason they call him Gov. Skeletor.
Running the company that committed the largest health-care fraud in American history might send some people to prison. Rick Scott ended up in the governor's mansion.
Since taking office in January, Slick Rick has angered people from all walks of life — police officers, teachers, advocates for the disabled. Violating the U.S. Constitution appears to be his favorite hobby. With the support of the Republican-led Legislature, he tried to privatize most of the prisons in the southern part of the state and drug-test welfare recipients. Both measures are temporarily on hold after Florida judges found them unconstitutional.
But Scott has succeeded in other efforts: making it harder for felons to regain their voting rights, privatizing Medicaid (pending approval by the feds), and killing a state program that buys land for public parks. In December, he announced a proposal to slash $2 billion in Medicaid funding. He says the money saved would help restore some of the dough he previously slashed from public schools. Yet hospital officials say it would be devastating to institutions that serve poor patients. Robbing health care from poor people to help school kids. Scott is a regular Robin Hood.
3. Jeff and Chris George
The brothers built a pill-mill empire at the expense of addicts.
Back in 2007, Jeff and Chris George were 27-year-old fraternal twins with criminal records and a desire to get rich. According to a federal indictment, a renegade doctor helped them start a $40-million pain-pill business, pushing South Florida's adult-candy industry into high gear.
Patients in search of highs from the prescription drug oxycodone scrambled for spots in line outside the George brothers' five clinics. According to prosecutors, the brothers ran modern-day assembly lines: At one clinic, one of Jeff's old pals was set up in a mobile unit behind a strip club, where he made the necessary MRIs, pictures of organs that would "prove" a patient was truly injured and thus justify prescriptions for the strong, addictive pills. Inside, doctors would rubber-stamp prescriptions, earning the clinics about 50 grand per day.
The businesses dealt mostly in cash. The Georges' mother stashed about $4.5 million in her attic in Wellington, and Chris alone was said to have $40 million in assets. The brothers spent on houses, a shopping mall, and expensive watches.
But the Georges seemed to have little concern for the people who'd made them so rich. When he heard that a car full of customers from Tennessee was hit by a train on the way home from a clinic, scattering pills all over the accident scene, Chris allegedly griped to one of his managers, "You got to be an idiot to get hit by a train." Authorities say that the related death toll is staggering: 56 people overdosed due to pill sales at just one of the clinics.
When one of their former employees opened his own clinic, the Georges allegedly fired a gun next to his head and tried to hire a hit man to murder him. When an informant flipped on the brothers, Chris George texted her a pic of his new tattoo: a rat with a noose around its neck.
In 2010, agents raided and shut down the clinics. Months later, Chris George was arrested on gun possession charges. At a hearing, prosecutors let slip information about a massive investigation that was in the works. In August they delivered, with an indictment charging the brothers and 31 of their associates with a range of crimes from racketeering to fraud.
Jeff George took a plea deal. In state court, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in relation to a customer's death; the deal means he will not be charged with anything further by the state and will face a maximum of 20 years. He pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering.
Chris George also agreed to a plea deal. Like his brother, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit racketeering in exchange for his other indictments being dropped. He faces a maximum 20 years in prison and $250,000 fine when he is sentenced February 3.
4. The Florida Department of Children and Families
"Systematic failures" at the state agency led to the torture of two children.
Valentine's Day 2011: A 10-year-old girl was found beaten to death, her body tossed in a bag in the back of a pickup truck off I-95. In the front seat lay the girl's twin brother, alive but burned with toxic chemicals. Victor and Nubia Barahona were the latest victims of a broken child-welfare system.
The twins lived with their foster parents, Carmen and Jorge Barahona, for five years before the West Miami-Dade couple adopted them. Calls to the state child-abuse hotline alleged Jorge was sexually abusing Nubia, and the children were coming to school hungry and disheveled. Bruises appeared on Nubia's neck. Yet the Department of Children and Families approved the adoption in 2009.
Soon the Barahonas removed the twins from school and began instructing them at home, far from the prying eyes of teachers. On February 10, 2011, a therapist called the abuse hotline, claiming the twins were being bound by their hands and feet and forced to sit in a bathtub all day and night. A DCF investigator went to the Barahonas' home but couldn't find the twins. She decided they were not in immediate danger. Four days later, Nubia was found dead.
A state-appointed independent review panel cited "systematic failure" in DCF's protection of the children. DCF Secretary David Wilkins says the agency has now hired 100 more child protection investigators and has caseworkers visiting foster kids every month.
Jorge and Carmen Barahona have been charged with aggravated child abuse, neglect, and first-degree murder. If convicted, they could face the death penalty.
5. Bill Parcells
He built us a football team on the promise that it would win — and got the hell out when it didn't.
Actual dolphins cannot play football because they have flippers instead of hands. As for why the Miami Dolphins cannot play, the reason is a little trickier to pinpoint. It's tempting to blame the evolving doctor's waiting room of quarterbacks or head-smacking incompletions by star wide receiver Brandon Marshall. It's easy to blame recently fired head coach Tony Sparano, whose physical reserve, relentless gum-smacking, and medically necessary sunglasses just added to the impression that his mind was somewhere else while his team lost game after game.
Back in 2008, it looked like the start of a bright future for Miami. Arriving on the scene of a one-win 2007 season, former Dallas coach Bill Parcells took the title of executive vice president of football operations. He signed Sparano as well as two Chads — Pennington and Henne — as quarterbacks. This worked for a bit; they had an 11-5 record in 2008. But after that championship season, both QBs got injured and the team didn't follow the path to greatness that some had prescribed.
The decision point came in 2010, after two disappointing years and the switching of the Chads. Rather than ferret out a way to fix the team, Parcells stepped down, becoming a "consultant" for a month before heading off to an analyst gig at ESPN. Now he's free to watch and ruminate as the Dolphins try, more or less, to work with what little he gave them.
6. Pat Santeramo
He was supposed to be looking out for teachers, but now the union boss has resigned amid investigations into mismanagement of money.
Ain't karma a bitch? After years of railing against wasteful spending and corruption on the Broward School Board, Pat Santeramo is now engulfed in his own financial scandal. The longtime president of the Broward Teachers Union and the vice president of the American Federation of Teachers resigned from both posts this month under a cloud of criticism.
In the past three years of Santeramo's leadership, the union lost $3.8 million, according to an audit by the AFT. During that same period, union funds were allegedly used to reimburse members for donations to political campaigns, and Santeramo overpaid himself and top-ranking employees by a total of $89,000. The auditor kindly noted, however, that record-keeping at the union was so poor, "it is possible that the officers did not realize they were being overpaid."
Santeramo is now under criminal investigation by the Broward State Attorney's Office and the Broward Sheriff's Office. The Federal Elections Commission has launched a separate inquiry into the campaign donations, which were given primarily to former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers sent an administrator down to Broward to run daily operations and help get the union out of its current mess. Perhaps former School Board members Stephanie Kraft and Beverly Gallagher will have some advice for Santeramo on how to handle his new abundance of free time.
7. Donald Trump
America's most famous blowhard left South Florida with empty condos and misplaced enthusiasm.
Donald Trump didn't cause everything that's wrong with America — that would mean he actually followed through on something. But he's certainly a symbol of our troubled times. Trump's popularity shows that the American people are willing to blindly accept a man not for what he is but for what he says he is. Not because he's made our lives better but because he's the loudest, rudest voice in the gladiatorial sparklefest that has usurped our national discourse. Why do we worship a man whose real-estate deals, political future, and hairdo are largely false promises?
The Donald is not going to make us rich. And he's certainly not going to take a job so laborious and degrading as leader of the free world. In fact, he's going to keep doing the only thing he's good at: sticking his name on other people's massive projects and telling us, through every available media channel, that we're not as good as he is. Trump blustered onto the South Florida scene when he bought Palm Beach's opulent Mar-a-Lago estate in 1985. Since then, he's peppered our land with buildings bearing his name. There's the Trump Hollywood condominium, which sits mostly empty like an unfinished thought, a Potemkin village of beachfront arrogance. There's the Trump International Hotel, a monstrous building on Fort Lauderdale beach that was abandoned partway through construction and now faces foreclosure. Trump stripped his name from the building in 2010, ducking out when it looked like the project was going to fail.
Trump titillated the world when he announced this spring that he might, just might, be running for president. The media salivated to follow his every move. Eventually he gave up, plodding back to another season fake-firing people on The Apprentice. Finally, people started to realize that this man should get nowhere near credible politics. Most members of the Republican primary circus turned down invitations to a debate that Trump was scheduled to "moderate" December 27. Even Michele Bachmann, the embodiment of irrelevant posturing, had other things to do. Finally, Trump backed out of that promise as well.
8. Sylvia Poitier
Half-truths about city money she sent her brother's way land a commissioner in court.
When you see silliness and ineptitude around here, look deeper. There's a good chance it's just a blemish above a rotten core. Last year, we railed on this Deerfield Beach city commissioner's bungled handling of the city's annual Mango Festival, which spent $25,000 of city money on wasted food, a broken sound system, and a handful of disappointed guests.
Meanwhile, Poitier had more trouble cooking. In April, county prosecutors charged her with five misdemeanor counts of falsifying public information. The charges stemmed from a high-interest loan she arranged years ago from her brother to a city agency, the Westside Deerfield Businessman Association. Poitier's daughter and cousin already worked at the housing-related agency, and her brother Lionel Ferguson stood to profit nicely from his loan of $46,000.
That would have been perfectly legal (though decidedly sketchy) if Poitier had simply followed the rules and declared this conflict of interest when her turn came to vote on matters related to the agency. But she didn't. In fact, in May 2006, she proposed a shift of $100,000 in grant funding to the agency, then voted "yes" on her own proposal — all without uttering a peep about brother dearest.
The charges from April of this year don't involve that specific action. Instead, they name other occasions when she did abstain because of her daughter and cousin but failed to mention her brother. Apparently a half-truth isn't enough for Broward County prosecutors, and it shouldn't be enough for the people that Poitier and her colleagues across the county claim to represent.
When her trial began in mid-November, Poitier's supporters piled onto a bus to the courthouse and packed the room. "Good morning, Sylvia," they chorused. Mayor Jean Robb, who had rented the bus, told her, "I need you back in your seat on Wednesday." Not so fast: Poitier was found guilty on four counts. Her sentencing is in January.
9. Al Lamberti
The sheriff ignores the negatives of putting bikini-clad deputies on TV.
If the Broward Sheriff's Office deputy who's putting the cuffs on you is an attractive, busty woman in uniform, remember to smile. There may be cameras nearby.
In 2009, Sheriff Al Lamberti made a deal with Discovery Communications to feature BSO deputies on the TLC show Police Women of Broward County. The result is like a mashup of Cops and Real Housewives. It features the officers chasing down perps for drug-dealing, burglary, and rape — and also at home and off-duty. One episode showed Detective Andrea Penoyer in a pink bikini, sunbathing at the beach. It's nice for empowered women on the job to get some credit, especially in a male-dominated field. But critics of the show, including Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, say that its premise is salacious and that BSO's dalliance with celebrity is wholly inappropriate. "The show is nothing more than train-wreck television that exploits victims and arrestees alike for shock value and ratings," wrote Assistant Public Defender Gordon Weekes in a court document.
Finkelstein — whose office is often tasked with defending the suspects whom Penoyer and her coworkers arrest — argues that the lady cops have financial incentive to make frivolous arrests because they look exciting on TV. Demanding to know how much the deputies were getting paid, Finkelstein went to court to force the contracts to be revealed. After more than a year of legal resistance, the production company finally released the documents this fall. Penoyer's first contract promised her $7,500 for the season, with the option of a 10 percent raise for subsequent seasons. An addendum allowed her to seek endorsement opportunities, as long as they didn't conflict with the show's sponsors.
"Law enforcement, consumed with new-found celebrity, has relegated [its] objectives to the whims of tabloid TV, whose coffers are filled through public titillation," wrote Weekes, alleging that "the Sheriff, who is up for reelection, has actively benefited from the celebrity associated with the show."
Citizens need a sheriff to carry out the duties of the law, not to entertain them. Lamberti should have thrown out this TV deal the moment it hit his desk.
10. Thompson Academy
This is what happens when the state fails to oversee juvenile lockups.
No matter how many scandals flare up over the years, Florida officials keep trusting private companies to care for the state's most troubled kids. Recently, a U.S. Department of Justice report found that Florida has a "failed system of oversight and accountability" for its juvenile lockups. But that hasn't helped the kids at Thompson Academy.
Last year, five former residents filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that they were sexually assaulted, beaten, and generally mistreated by employees at the privately run lockup in Pembroke Pines. One 14-year-old boy said he was twice forced to perform oral sex on a counselor; a 16-year-old alleged that a guard choked him and slammed him into a wall. Other kids claimed to have been undernourished and denied necessary medical treatment. But as juvenile delinquents, they had a hard time winning sympathy for their cause.
Pembroke Pines police officers investigated the sexual-assault allegations and declared them "unfounded." Attorneys for Thompson Academy argued that the encounters between the 14-year-old boy and the 23-year-old male counselor, if they occurred, were consensual — even though 14-year-olds cannot legally consent to sex in Florida. In May, before the case went to trial, both sides agreed to an undisclosed settlement. Thompson remains open, funded by millions of taxpayer dollars.
11. Rothstein’s Computer Nerds
They helped perpetrate one of the biggest frauds in Florida history for a mere four figures.
Plenty of people helped Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein orchestrate his massive Ponzi scheme, but we can't list them all here. Computer geeks Curtis Renie and William Corte made the cut because they taught us how astonishingly easy it is to buy a man's soul.
All it took was $5,000 each to convince the two 38-year-old information technology specialists to participate in the scam. In early 2009, they copied the website of TD Bank onto computers at the Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler firm, where they worked. Then they altered account statements to make it seem as if the firm had $300 million to $1 billion in deposits at the bank. Rothstein showed the fake data to potential investors, convincing at least three of them to invest more than $35 million in his scheme, according to federal prosecutors.
In fall 2009, when the Ponzi scam hit the news, Renie deleted the fake bank site and all the emails he could find referring to it. He and Corte pleaded guilty this fall to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. They were sentenced to 37 months behind bars. One can only pray these men have trouble getting a Wi-Fi signal in prison.
12. Langerado Festival Organizers
Those strange presales should've been a clue that the music fest would fail again.
What do you need for a successful music festival? Sunshine, open spaces, lots of people. Unfortunately for us, you also need good management. This year, the Langerado festival failed for what's probably the last time.
The festival, which started with a few shaggy jam bands plucking it out in Fort Lauderdale in 2003, grew into a weekend-long shindig that took over Markham Park near the Everglades and then, in 2008, shifted to the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. Fans could camp outside all weekend, commingling a blissed-out mood with South Florida's natural sublime jankiness. But over the years, the festival confused its core audience by drifting from its jam-band roots. In 2008, for example, it booked Vampire Weekend, an indie band with a world-music sound — which canceled at the last minute to appear on Saturday Night Live.
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In 2009, organizers announced that the festival would be held in Miami's Bicentennial Park. Though the Miami mayor's office heralded this as a "more accessible community-oriented event," attendees were pissed. Downtown Miami? No camping? The idea bombed, and the event was canceled. It didn't return in 2010 either.
So when organizers announced a return to Markham Park for 2011, they were met with caution and criticism. Some fans wanted the venue changed back to Big Cypress. Some were alienated by a bizarre presale deal in which people were invited to buy tickets for a lower rate but couldn't see the lineup until long after they paid.
This year's cancellation was announced over Labor Day weekend, when the fans who would have been angriest were out fishing, tanning, or packing their bowls. The official announcement placed the blame squarely on festival management company Boros Entertainment, but copromoter C3 Presents seemed to be distracted by putting on the much larger (and more successful) Austin City Limits festival.
Fool us once, Langerado. Maybe twice. Next time, we'll save our money for a trip to Texas.