Homestead’s Steve Bateman is now the third mayor of a Miami-Dade municipality snared in a corruption scandal in one month. Embarrassing? You bet, but don’t shrug it off as local politics as usual and walk away. The cases illustrate why a culture of corruption flourishes in South Florida (Broward, Monroe and Palm Beach counties are not immune) and how it may be brought under control.
The common denominator in the case of Bateman, Sweetwater’s Manuel “Manny” Maroño and Miami Lakes’ Michael Pizzi, is money, allegedly obtained illicitly. A judge and jury will decide culpability, but their tales of wrongful behavior deserve a closer look.
Part of the problem requires toughening ethics laws. Pizzi was mayor in one city and city attorney for another, which by itself seems wrong. Bateman was hired at $125 an hour to act as “advisor and construction manager” for a nonprofit that needed help with certain permits from his city and the county. Maroño and Pizzi allegedly took money under the table to champion federal grant applications to their various cities.
Double-dipping on public jobs should be banned. Public officials acting as “consultants” should be required to disclose any such connection to the public or face a stiff penalty. Mayors and other elected officials should not be allowed to peddle their wares to other governments for a fee, period.
Companies have an obligation to keep the system clean, too.
Lobbyists serve a useful purpose in helping public officials understand complex issues. Their advocacy is protected by the First Amendment. But really — don’t company executives know it’s plainly wrong to hire a public official “to make the wheels turns faster”? That’s the allegation in the case of Bateman.
Voters have a responsibility, too. Bateman’s nine years in office were marked by police investigations, at least one other arrest and a bar fight with a predecessor.
He yelled at staff in public and often came across as a bully. All of this should have been a sign that he was unfit for office. Yet he was twice elected mayor and thinks he can run for reelection.
The larger problem is public apathy. When local elections are decided by 16 percent of registered voters, the result is a feeling that the public doesn’t care, which leads to a lack of accountability.
Ultimately, the remedy for greed and hubris among public officials is greater public scrutiny of their activities. Pizzi and Maroño were caught in an FBI sting operation. Bateman was reeled in by local prosecutors from the office of State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Prosecutors should keep at it. There’s a long way to go in cleaning up public corruption in Florida and, as these cases amply and sadly demonstrate, we seem to be going in the wrong direction.