Suddenly, Justice? | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Suddenly, Justice?

In the exit polls from last week's midterm elections, more American voters pointed to one issue as a significant factor in their vote than any other.

It was an issue that has hurt us around the world, on the national stage, and here at home. And it caused 75 percent of all voters to question the competence and judgment of President Bush and the Republican Party.

No, it wasn't Iraq.

It was corruption. And that's music to my ears. If you pick up this newspaper, you've read a lot of harrowing tales of local corruption. For my part, I've been pounding away at crooked politicians and government officials in this space for a good five years.

And the law, until last month, hadn't done a damned thing about it.

So when I recently did a series of stories about Deerfield Beach Mayor Al Capellini — who used the power of his office to help his engineering firm's clients and had shady dealings with a former cocaine kingpin — I had little hope that Broward State Attorney Michael Satz would bring justice to the seaside town.

Sure, Satz's office began an investigation into Capellini. He had little choice but to investigate our findings (as well as a Sun-Sentinel report that included other revelations about the mayor). Several city commissioners have been subpoenaed and interviewed by prosecutors.

Rumors now are swirling that Satz has Capellini running scared. The mayor recently put his house up for sale, listing it at $698,000, with marble floors, a "state-of-the-art" kitchen, and a two-way fireplace. Sources say he is also selling his private business, Atlantic Environmental Engineering.

One theory going around City Hall is that Capellini will resign his office and head to South America, where he has invested in real estate and often travels. I called the mayor and managed to get out only one question: Is he selling his firm?

"Nope," he said before abruptly hanging up the phone.

If I'd spoken to the mayor two months ago, I probably would have told him not to sweat it. Satz, after all, has a history of letting corruption slide, and I've got five long years of work to prove it.

Don't get me wrong. I've had good results from those five years of writing about cronyism — saving public beach space, killing bad condo and building deals, kicking out a crooked Pompano Beach mayor, and hitting a Broward County commissioner with state ethics charges, among many other things. But I've been swimming against the corruption current.

Sure, the Federal Bureau of Investigation lurks in the background, but agents never make cases here (they seem to prefer Miami, for some reason). And Satz's office isn't shy about investigating, but it has been a paper tiger, putting forth tepid efforts, giving lip service about the importance of ethics in government, then letting the offenders walk.

Without any real deterrent — and by that, I mean hard time in jail — officials in Broward County don't have any real reason not to partake of the deeply imbedded culture of corruption.

Last month, though, Michael Satz woke up.

He broke out of a long hibernation on October 10 when his prosecutors arrested Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom on official misconduct and unlawful-compensation charges. The criminal investigation began two years ago after I exposed Wasserstrom's dealings with a sewage treatment firm called Schwing Bioset. After the charges came down, Wasserstrom was bounced from office by Gov. Jeb Bush.

It was the first time Satz's office had investigated and charged a government official since... well, before some of you were born. There was a campaign fraud case against former County Commissioner Scott Cowan back in 1998, but that was worked up by the Florida Election Commission.

And the Wasserstrom scandal isn't all that Satz has been up to lately.

On November 2, a source of mine who used to work at the North Broward Hospital District received a subpoena to appear before a grand jury later this month in another Satz corruption probe. That case involves Dorsey Miller, a former NBHD commissioner who was also the subject of a New Times investigation two years ago ("Minority Report," June 10, 2004, and "Minority Report II," July 8, 2004).

Miller, a top black Republican at the time with close ties to Gov. Bush and the president, used his clout on NBHD's minority business committee to steer district contracts to a company called American Medical Depot, which is owned by the prominent Agrawal family, immigrants from India who have built a fortune in South Florida. At the same time, AMD was paying Miller thousands of dollars each month as a "consultant."

That was some of the more blatant corruption I ran across while investigating the district, a tax-assisted public health system that is the sixth largest of its kind in the country. But any hint of bringing justice to Miller seemed faint at best when I wrote that story, which was prompted by sources inside the district who said the State Attorney's Office was investigating the commissioner but was going to let him off.

At the time, I called prosecutor John Hanlon, who confirmed that he didn't think there was enough to prosecute. That kind of defeatism was typical of Hanlon, who recently left Satz's office to work for Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne at double his old pay (after he took part in the SAO investigation of the BSO crime-reporting scandal that cleared the sheriff last year).

He told me that William Scherer had convinced him there wasn't a case. I couldn't believe my ears. Scherer, some of you will know, was then the district's general counsel and was knee-deep in the shenanigans going on there himself.

So I started pulling records and built a case in this newspaper. In the June 10, 2004, story, I wrote: "The evidence that New Times has gathered from district sources, county records, interviews, and the state attorney's own investigation... may be too much for Satz to ignore."

Gov. Bush, to his credit, certainly didn't ignore it or my other findings regarding the district. He not only didn't reappoint Miller but cleaned house at NBHD, knocking off a majority of the board members and ousting CEO Wil Trower and Scherer as well.

But Satz's investigation into Miller dragged on for months. Hanlon called me about six weeks ago and asked if I had anything other than what appeared in my story to show criminal wrongdoing at the district. I told him there was enough there already for an open-and-shut case.

Hanlon sounded skeptical, but Satz apparently decided to take a middle-of-the-road approach: He's going to let a grand jury decide. Fair enough. Take it to the people. The proceedings, which are secret, should begin later this month.

First Wasserstrom and now Miller. What has gotten into Satz? Why has he suddenly begun to take corruption cases seriously?

"Absolutely nothing is different," his spokesman, Ron Ishoy, told me in an e-mail after I asked him the question. "Mr. Satz's public-corruption prosecutors, as they always have, continue to pursue any elected or appointed official who is suspected of abusing the public's trust."

Statements like that from Satz's office used to ring hollow as an old rotten log on the forest floor. Now they should strike a small pang of fear in the heart of Capellini and any other politician who tries to make a buck off the back of the taxpayers.

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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