Arrests of 3 Mayors Reinforce Florida’s Notoriety as a Hothouse for Corruption
Story by Nick Madigan
HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Even by Florida standards, the arrests of three suburban Miami mayors on corruption charges within a month were a source of dismay, if not exactly a surprise.
On Wednesday, Steven C. Bateman, 58, the mayor of Homestead, was arrested. He is accused of accepting under-the-table payments from a health care company that sought to build a clinic in town, the state attorney’s office for Miami-Dade County said. Mr. Bateman was turned in by City Council members and staff, said employees interviewed Friday at City Hall.
On Aug. 6, Manuel L. Maroño, 41, the mayor of Sweetwater and president of the Florida League of Cities, and Michael A. Pizzi, 51, the Miami Lakes mayor, were picked up along with two lobbyists. The United States attorney’s office has accused them of involvement in kickback and bribery schemes concerning federal grants.
Prosecutors said Mr. Maroño had received more than $40,000 in bribes and Mr. Pizzi $6,750. The defendants, who were targets of an F.B.I. sting operation, are charged with “conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right” and could face 20 years in prison if convicted.
Gov. Rick Scott suspended all three mayors while the criminal cases proceed.
“We bought the trifecta,” said Carla Miller, the ethics officer for Jacksonville and a former federal prosecutor. “It’s bad when three mayors get led out in handcuffs. What’s left of the public trust gets ground into little pieces.”
Not that such situations are unusual in Florida, which led the country in convictions of public officials — 781 — between 2000 and 2010, according to Department of Justice figures.
“Florida has become the corruption capital of America,” said Dan Krassner, the executive director of a watchdog group, Integrity Florida, citing statistics going back to 1976 and the “significant number of public officials arrested this year and last.”
Florida, and especially Miami and its environs, has long had a reputation as a place where the odd and the eccentric mix with the furtive and the felonious. Last century, organized crime figures from Chicago and New York set up lucrative gambling, extortion and loan-sharking endeavors in Miami Beach and elsewhere, and beginning in the 1980s, South Florida’s economy, culture and reputation were transformed by drug trafficking.
With so much money sloshing about, it was perhaps inevitable that a parade of officials would enrich themselves illicitly at the public trough.
One was Alex Daoud, who in 1985 became the mayor of Miami Beach and six years later was indicted on 41 counts of bribery. He served 18 months in prison, and has since written a memoir.
Last year in Miami Beach, City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, who was making $273,000 a year and had been mired in a web of investigations, was forced to step down after seven of his employees were arrested in a federal corruption investigation. His six-figure pension remained intact.
The arrests of the three Miami-Dade mayors followed news in July that the Securities and Exchange Commission had charged the City of Miami and one of its former budget directors with securities fraud, only a few years after the commission reprimanded the city for similar behavior. In May, a former mayor of Hialeah, Julio Robaina, and his wife, Raiza, were charged with failing to report income from high-interest loans totaling more than $1 million that they had made under an informal system involving friends and associates. The Robainas said they were innocent.
In 2011, in the largest municipal recall election in the country, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Carlos Alvarez, was removed from office after he gave large pay raises to close aides and then pushed for a significant increase in property taxes.
This year, the State Legislature approved two ethics bills and six that focus on government transparency and accountability — the first time in 36 years that state lawmakers had passed ethics legislation. Mr. Krassner and others think legislators could do more. But many people seem resigned to the prevalence of officials who appear oblivious to ethical boundaries.
“They get drunk on power,” said Katy Sorenson, who served on the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners for 16 years and runs the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami, which educates elected officials about ethics and related issues.
“There’s a certain psychology to some of the people who run for office here — they don’t think they’re going down the wrong track, but there’s a slippery slope,” she added. “There’s a lack of self-awareness, an immaturity, a brazenness, of feeling like a big shot. So when they’re arrested, they’re very surprised.”
The persistence of political malfeasance — often involving the stereotypical envelopes stuffed with cash, delivered with knowing nods — perplexes those for whom public service is a noble calling.
“Maybe it’s the heat,” said Ruth Campbell, 93, a former City Council member here and the curator of the Historic Homestead Town Hall Museum.
Mrs. Campbell, who has lived in town since 1942, was sadly aware of Florida’s reputation as a haven for corruption. “We like to be distinguished,” she said, “but not like that.”
Prosecutors said Mr. Bateman, among other things, had failed to disclose that the health care company, Community Health of South Florida Inc., secretly agreed to pay him $120,000 over a year to lobby on its behalf. By the time he was arrested, he had accepted $3,625, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
After the mayor’s arrest, a City Council member, Judy Waldman, told reporters, “I have zero tolerance for people using their public office to make money.” Ms. Waldman, who referred to Mr. Bateman only as “that individual,” said his activities on behalf of Community Health Care of South Florida were “just the tip of the iceberg,” and encouraged prosecutors to dig deeper.
Mr. Bateman’s lawyer, Ben Kuehne, told The Associated Press that his client was “shocked” by his arrest and had “served the community for many years in an honest, dependable manner.”
At City Hall on Friday, in a frame that contained photos of city officials, Mr. Bateman’s likeness had been concealed behind a paper copy of the city’s crest. But a day earlier, a group of his supporters rallied a couple blocks away, and Mr. Bateman, out on bond, showed up, shook hands and vowed to fight the charges.