In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Colleagues happy Bateman got busted

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

You know the scenario. A South Florida politician gets pinched in a corruption probe. Next day, his fellow pols troop down to City Hall and strike mournful poses for the TV cameras. They feign shock and regret, and confidence that their esteemed colleague will soon clear up this terrible misunderstanding and return to public service.

Except in Homestead. After the less-than-esteemed Mayor Steve Bateman was busted last week, the customary press conference at City Hall veered wildly off script. They may as well have popped champagne corks and broken into song.

City Councilwoman Judy Waldman, for example, did not sound so very surprised by the mayor’s arrest. “I’ve known things were wrong for over three years,” she told reporters a few hours after Bateman’s arrest. “So it’s been a long time coming.”

Vice Mayor Jon Burgess did not sound so very regretful. He likened the mayor’s underhanded deals to “a cancer.” Burgess said, “There were innuendos that things like this were going on and then of course, as they came to light you start seeing things and putting pieces together in your mind that yeah, that did happen.”

Then there was City Manager George Gretsas. City managers, of course, are notoriously circumspect about legal problems encountered by their elected employers. Especially their mayors. The usual formula would require Gretsas to mumble that he and the staff could only attempt to soldier on without their beloved mayor.

Beloved, in this case, may not be the right adjective.

“The evidence is pretty clear that from day one city policies were not followed, procedures were not followed, city laws were not followed, abuses of power took place with this individual. Staff was bullied. People had special favors done for them,” Gretsas said. “It was pretty clear from day one of this individual’s reign here his attempt was to turn this into a strong-mayor form of government and utilize his position to line his pockets.”

The only note of regret struck by the city manager and council members at Wednesday’s press conference was their lament that it took four years to nail Bateman. “It took a lot longer than we had hoped,” Gretsas said.

It was as if Homestead’s insurgents had managed to depose a tyrant, with a little help from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office (If this failed, the City Council might have called on President Barack Obama to lob a few cruise missiles at the mayor’s office). Gretsas told reporters that the incriminating information had been supplied by Bateman’s colleagues at City Hall. It wasn’t just an arrest. It was a coup.

‘SO MUCH MORE’

That Bateman was hauled off to jail didn’t surprise folks down in Homestead, though some might not have expected him to get rung up on these particular charges. The dethroned mayor is accused of failing to disclose his work as a paid consultant for a healthcare operation looking to build a clinic in Homestead. Bateman, according to investigators, pushed city and county bureaucracies to approve the necessary permits as if he were the mayor working for the civic good, rather than a $125-an-hour secret lobbyist. (The nonprofit also hired, at $40 an hour, Bateman’s assistant, whose various duties included joke writing — a job description that doesn’t often crop up in South Florida political corruption investigations, despite an abundance of comic material.)

For the past few months, the Miami Herald and CBS4’s Jim DeFede had been hounding Bateman over another hinky conflict of interest. Bateman had pushed Homestead officials to sell municipal property to the developer of a for-profit medical college. Bateman’s wife, meanwhile, was working as the developer’s real estate agent.

The Miami Herald’s Jay Weaver and Patricia Borns summed up the mayor’s surreptitious efforts. “Public records suggest Bateman badgered Homestead government staffers and manipulated the process in a bid to help [Ernesto A.] Perez purchase the municipal properties in the historic-but-lifeless downtown area at a fraction of the appraised value — while steering Perez’s real estate transaction to his wife.”

They reported that Perez “won a bargain-basement option to buy 3.5 acres in the downtown area; Bateman’s wife got a lucrative business referral; and the mayor received at least 15 $500 contributions to his 2011 mayoral campaign from Perez and his associates.”

The Perez stories set off a criminal investigation. Lots of folks at City Hall expected Bateman to get busted. They just weren’t sure which dodgy deal would be his undoing. “I think there is so much more,” Councilwoman Waldman told reporters on Wednesday, almost wistfully. “I encourage the state attorney to keep looking and keep investigating.”

DOG WITH A BONE

Perhaps the folks at City Hall are worried that it will take more than a couple of piddling felony charges to get rid of the combative Bateman. The day after he was arrested and removed from office by Gov. Rick Scott, the unrepentant mayor was leading a sign-waving “Steve Bateman for Mayor” roadside rally two blocks from City Hall. On Friday, he made it official and filed his paperwork to run for reelection.

Bateman has had a few other problems, however, that might give voters pause come November. Last year, the Miami Herald’s Christina Veiga reported that the mayor’s wife was able to purchase a nifty used Mercedes-Benz S430 for a sweet $13,000 from a major Homestead developer. Then there was that ethics case (and a $500 fine) back in the 2009 mayoral campaign, after then-Mayor Lynda Bell accused Bateman of violations.

And there was a bar fight — more like a shoving match — at the Peachtree Lounge in 2004 with former mayor and former county manager Steve Shiver. (No one could say the best man won. In this match-up of sleazy wheeler-dealers, there was no best man to be found.) Nothing much came of the tussle, though the encounter gave us an indication of the affection Bateman commands from his fellow politicians.

The Herald’s Veiga and Ben Brasch, describing other hijinks from Bateman’s past, crafted one of those paragraphs that could have been lifted from a Carl Hiaasen novel: “Other incidents included an investigation into a woman’s claim that Bateman, her landlord, pushed her against a wall and tried to shove his hands down her pants. And a boating-while-drunk charge in which he refused to take a breath test. In that episode, his female companion, when asked if she was carrying any ‘weapons,’ raised her shirt and flashed her breasts.”

Such great satirical material, with his slicked-back hair, truculent bluster and $40-an-hour joke writer — no doubt Carl would keep Bateman around for a few more chapters. It’s his colleagues who seem happy — make that euphoric — to be shed of him.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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