Coming up on April 15 is a local conference on political corruption that will have among its speakers dubious former state Sen. Steve Geller, Broward County Judge Ken "Mr. JenJen" Gottlieb, and lobbyist/fake ethics champion Norm Ostrau.
With folks like that on board, there should be no shortage of corruption experts. Geller's political nemesis, Sue Gunzburger, who soundly defeated him in his run for County Commission, will also be on board. Broward County's future county attorney, Joni Coffey, will be a speaker as well. Others:
Joe Centerino, Miguel De Grandy, Gail Dotson, Maurice Ferre, Shirley Gibson, Eric Hendon, Gerald Kogan, Ben Kuehne, David Levy, Robert Meyers, Tony Musto, Miriam Ramos, Irene Secada, Katy Sorenson, Merritt Stierheim, Alicia Valle.
The conference is being held at St. Thomas University and is being run by that school along with the Daily Business Review and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics. Its title is "When Politics and Law Collide: A Symposium on the Interplay of Ethical Standards in the Public Arena."
Some of the panel topics are unintentionally comical:
-- South Florida's Climate of Corruption: Better Weather Ahead?
-- The Appearance of Impropriety: Undermining the Confidence of the Public
-- Judges and Other Politicians: Learning From Each Other
-- What Hat Do I Have on Today? Lawyers, Lobbyists & Elected Officials
They should have a special panel dedicated to Ilene Lieberman. They might call it "Michelson and Lieberman: What's My Name Today?" Or one for Stacy Ritter and Russ Klenet: "Husband and Wife: Earning From Each Other."
No, seriously, the more talk on this topic the better.
-- Speaking of fake ethics champions, the following is a piece of correspondence sent to my office by a source claiming to be a former legislative staffer. It smacks of the truth, so I've decided to publish it. Perhaps it should be passed out as reference material at the St. Thomas ethics conference.
There are no names in the document, except for House speakers that were provided for a time frame ('80s and '90s). There are no names of alleged perpetrators, which is probably for the better.
TO: Bob Norman, The Broward Palm Beach New Times
Am traveling on business w/ an open evening. So, we'll try this one more time. You seem to be the only journalist who actually cares about exposing political corruption.
During the 80's/90's I was a legislative staff member who watched in disgust as several FL legislators embezzled large amounts of both taxpayer and
campaign funds. In Tallahassee, during Legislative Sessions, legislators often shared suites with others, so I observed many. (Speakers during my tenure were Ralph Haben, Lee Moffit, James Harold Thompson, Jon Mills, Tom Gustafson & T.K. Wetherall.)
Shameless Hypocrisy: Pious public preaching was done about "ethics" by the worst offenders. Staff members were commanded to use public funds to pay assorted personal bills. Categories such as "office furniture & equipment" hid a multitude of sins since "furniture & machines" were often moved to a legislator's personal business or home. Wives would use "their" keys to help themselves to supplies and equipment.
"Travel." Not only did lawmakers charge their purely personal trips to their legislative accounts, they also "let the State pay for" their family members, especially adult children, airline tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, etc. A state Senator, who always claimed he was not like so many of his crooked colleagues, charged to taxpayers, frequent long trips in his Recreational Vehicle, filled with family, to state parks, for "research."
Meals: Numerous often very pricey restaurant tabs were picked up by taxpayers. Legislators would take their entire extended families plus friends to 4-star eateries, use their legislative credit card, then instruct us to "just claim it was a business meeting."
Phones: Before low cost cellular units, legislators had car phones rented with billable minutes. Monthly Bell South Mobility bill were over $200 ($2,000 a year). Ninety percent of calls were purely personal. One self-declared "Mr. Ethics" charged not one but two car phones (one for his wife) to the legislative office. To cover his tracks, he had the bills sent to his home, then brought them to the legislative office.
Postage: Legislators and wives walked off with roll after roll of stamps and brought their personal packages in to be shipped, sometimes overnight ($80 in one case) at legislative office expense. The wife of an "ethics" preacher was a prolific abuser.
Miscellaneous: One self-named "Mr. Law & Order" used campaign funds to pay a realtor's commission fee for a property he bought then instructed staff to claim on the report that the realtor had done a "campaign poll" for him. They all used both legislative and campaign accounts like their personal checkbooks, charging grocery and home improvement bills, pricey family gifts and more to taxpayers. It all added up.
***In all those years, not one person, even from taxpayer and civic watch dog groups even asked to see the financial records. If they had, it would have taken less than 10 minutes of viewing the receipts (not the reports they produce themselves) to see how much blatant thievery was going on.
Reporting Requirements. Candidates and lawmakers are "required" to report contributions, regular and in-kind, plus gifts from lobbyists, PACs, corporations and individuals. All on the "honor system," numerous items were under-valued or left off ("how is anyone ever going to know?"). Also one self-declared "ethics champion" reported every little gift he got (smokescreen) but not the big ones. They also got around the reporting requirements by "paying" for a portion of what they received so they could claim it was not completely free and therefore not a gift. Example: one had use of a rental car in Tallahassee for $300 less per month anyone else would pay. It was not not reported on his gifts list.
Free Campaign Labor. Legislative staff were ordered to fill out all the campaign reports even though the candidates, their spouses or a friends, were listed as treasurer. We were also commanded to arrange and participate in political meetings, phone banks, precinct walks, mailings and sign postings all for no compensation (the State's paying you"). Most of us were willing to help on our personal time, but we were often angrily told that we were to work on political activities all day in the legislative office and to "just shut up" because, Mr. Ethics proclaimed, "everybody does it."
In general, while I did know some genuinely honest lawmakers, it was the least ethical ones who preached the loudest about "honesty." They sponsored/co-sponsored ethics bills then often sabotaged their own proposals behind the scenes. Those are the same ones who made assorted back room deals with "just-a-pal" lobbyists. They got (and get) away with it because no one is watching closely.
Where is Common Cause and Florida TaxWatch? Who's checking the receipts on the expense accounts of highly placed public employees?
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