In an effort to help an old friend in deep trouble, the longtime mayor of Florida City, Otis Wallace, has dispatched a letter to residents of south Miami-Dade County asking them to help pay the legal expenses of Homestead’s former mayor, Steven Bateman, who was arrested last summer and accused of corrupt acts while in office. He was picked up again two months later on unrelated charges that he violated campaign finance laws.
“Steve has always been there for us; it’s time to be there for him,” Wallace wrote, calling Bateman an “all-around good citizen” who “tirelessly devoted his time, energy and creativity to the city he dearly loves.” Wallace asserted that his colleague had “touched the life of nearly every Homestead and South Dade citizen.”
More to the point, Wallace wrote that Bateman “adamantly maintains his innocence” as to the charges against him, and that he is “fighting for his freedom, reputation and good name.”
Bateman, 59, the co-owner of a construction company who was elected mayor of Homestead in 2009 and won reelection two years later, was removed from office after his arrest last August, the same month that two other suburban Miami mayors, Manuel Maroño of Sweetwater and Michael Pizzi of Miami Lakes, suffered the same fate. In January, Maroño was sentenced to 40 months in prison after being convicted of accepting thousands of dollars in kickbacks. Pizzi awaits trial.
It was Bateman’s own staff at City Hall who alerted ethics investigators to the activities that resulted in his arrest on Aug. 28 at his home. Bateman was reported to have secured a $125-an-hour consulting job with a company, Community Health of South Florida, that had business before the City Council. Authorities said Bateman did not disclose his deal with the company to city staff, council members or county officials while he advocated on the company’s behalf, as when he sought county approval for sewer improvements that would benefit the construction of a health clinic.
The counts against Bateman include unlawful compensation as reward for official behavior; exerting influence; exploitation of an official position; conflict of interest; and illegal lobbying. Bateman faces trial on those charges on May 27, although that will likely be delayed.
“Steve will be exonerated, but the process is long, arduous and costly,” wrote Wallace, who has been mayor of Florida City since 1984 and who has himself faced probes by federal and local corruption investigators, although he has never been charged. Wallace did not return two phones calls seeking comment about his letter, which urged residents to send their financial contributions directly to Bateman’s attorney, Benedict P. Kuehne, and provided the lawyer’s office address in downtown Miami.
“It’s a terrific idea to obtain resources to help level the playing field,” Kuehne said recently. The budget of the state attorney’s office “far surpasses any of the assets that an average American would bring to a defense case,” he said, and raising funds to fight a prosecutor’s case “makes the opportunity for vindication that much better.”
Kuehne, who grew up in Homestead, said he has been a friend of Wallace’s since their days at South Dade Senior High School. “I’m just thrilled that an outstanding public servant like Otis Wallace was willing to step up in a leadership capacity to help his former South Dade colleague,” Kuehne said. By the same token, he continued, “Steve Bateman has an outstanding record of service to his community, and many members of the community want to help pay that forward.”
Asked how many residents had responded to Wallace’s appeal for funds, and how much money had come in so far, Kuehne declined to say, although he volunteered that “many people have reached out to me personally to ask how they can help.” Kuehne noted that Bateman has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him.
On the day of Bateman’s arrest in August, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said during a news conference that “enriching oneself by using the power and the prestige of an elected public office not only enrages the community, but more importantly and fundamentally, it violates the law.”
When he was picked up again in October, accused of seven counts of spending campaign contributions illegally, Bateman’s reaction was “Whoop-de-doo!” — an exclamation apparently chosen to telegraph his view that the charges lacked seriousness. A status hearing in that case is set for May 16.
Bateman suggested that all the charges against him were part of a political vendetta. But he has often faced criticism on ethical grounds, as when he directed his staff to invalidate a supporter’s $10,000 electricity bill. Last month, the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust said it had found probable cause that Bateman violated ethics rules by failing to disclose a flight in a private plane to Tallahassee in 2012 as a gift from the for-profit Dade Medical College and its CEO, Ernesto Perez, who was seeking road improvements in Homestead that would benefit the college’s expansion plans in the city.