A federal judge struck a blow against the scourge of public corruption last week in sentencing former Sweetwater Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño to 40 months behind bars. The former political leader of a proud Miami-Dade municipality meekly accepted his punishment and seemed resigned to his fate after pleading guilty for his role in a corruption conspiracy.
Maroño is only the latest in a very long line of public officials in South Florida who have been snared in corrupt schemes of one kind or another designed to enrich themselves at public expense or increase their political power, or both.
In this case, Maroño was caught in an FBI sting operation in which he accepted thousands of dollars in kickbacks in exchange for supporting sham government grant operations.
What sets this sentencing apart was federal Judge William Zloch’s stern admonition to both the confessed wrongdoer and the prosecutors who handled the case. The magistrate denounced the plague of public corruption in South Florida, calling it a “cancer,” and pointedly challenged the prosecutors over a prison recommendation at the low end of the sentencing guidelines.
“Would you agree that public corruption has become commonplace in our society?” the judge asked the prosecution team. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer agreed, but defended the proposed 37-month deal worked out with the ex-mayor’s defense attorneys because Maroño had readily admitted to his crimes, hopefully sending a warning to other corrupt politicians to come clean after they’re caught.
Even so, the judge added three months to the sentence. Maroño’s defense attorney, Kendall Coffey, himself a former U.S. attorney for South Florida, said the sentence was a powerful disincentive for other political figures tempted to use their positions to line their pockets.
“Federal prison sends an incredible message to politicians,” said Mr. Coffey. “They’re scared to death of it.”
Maybe so, but we’re with Judge Zloch on this one. Greasing the palms of office-holders is frequent enough in these climes to be considered a colorful local custom generally accepted by a complacent public inured to the cheating ways of those in positions of power.
But that may be changing. The judge seemed to be expressing an opinion gaining greater public support, or so we dare hope. Certainly his exasperation reflects the view of an increasingly frustrated citizenry outraged by the routine chicanery of public officials throughout South Florida, from Palm Beach to the Keys.
The array of fraudulent schemes and crimes in which some of South Florida’s high and mighty have indulged runs the gamut of public corruption. Vote fraud, cooking the books, favoritism in contracts, pay-to-play politics, nepotism, false billing — no corrupt plot is deemed off limits, no matter how brazen or outlandish. The plague has infected county commissions, school boards, city halls and the arena of public administration, both among uniformed and civilian employees.
The only antidote is an aroused citizenry, along with prosecutors unafraid to make public corruption a priority, no matter whose toes get stepped on, and other public officials who set an example of clean public service.
On Thursday, Maroño struck a contrite pose, said he had made a mistake and was ready to accept his responsibility. Correction, said the court: It was no mere mistake. It was a crime.