March 18, 2013

Former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson pleads guilty to corruption-related charges

Cindi Hutchinson pleaded guilty Monday to asking a developer to do some work at her own home. She’d previously voted in favor of rezoning for projects that helped his company.

Former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Cindi Hutchinson pleaded guilty Monday in a felony case stemming from a developer arranging free home repairs for her — including installing a toilet and changing light bulbs.

Hutchinson’s voice was barely audible as she uttered “guilty” to each of the three counts: one of unlawful compensation and two of official misconduct. As part of the plea deal, Hutchinson agreed to four months in jail and five years probation, and will begin her jail term on April 15.

Prosecutors said that developer Steve Goldstrom arranged home repairs, including installing a fence and pavers, fixing her air conditioning and installing a surround system and lights by her pool between 2005 and 2010. Those free repairs, which she didn’t list on financial disclosure forms, occurred after she voted in favor of rezonings for La Preserve and Georgian Oaks, multi-family housing developments for Glenn Wright Construction, where Goldstrom worked as a partner in 2003 and 2004, according to the arrest affidavit.

After the residential work started, Hutchinson began to appear at the construction site and indicate her need for repairs and improvements at her nearby home, Broward prosecutor Deborah Zimet said during the court hearing.

Broward Circuit Court Judge Michael Robinson ordered Hutchinson to pay a $1,500 fine and gave the state two months to determine the amount of restitution. The total amount of gifts and services was $14,000. The Broward Sheriff’s Office investigated the case and the Broward State Attorney filed the charges.

Hutchinson, who was accompanied in court by her sister, declined to talk to reporters after the hearing and dashed off toward the stairs to avoid the media.

After the hearing, Hutchinson’s attorney Bruce Udolf described the plea deal as a “fair settlement” because sentencing guidelines called for about eight years in prison.

The plea deal “reflects the seriousness of the charge but also reflects mitigating evidence,” Udolf said.

Those mitigating factors include that Hutchinson’s votes took place years before she received the free benefits and that she and Goldstrom had become close friends, Udolf said.

The Hutchinson case grew out of an investigation of Glenn Wright, who received deposits to build homes that weren’t built. Subcontractors told investigators that they had been sent to work at Hutchinson’s home while she was a commissioner. Wright pleaded guilty to grand theft and received adjudication withheld in 2011. He was sentenced to three years probation.

Goldstrom was charged with perjury. He is expected to reach a plea deal involving lesser charges in April, said his attorney Martin Roth.

Hutchinson, who represented the city’s southern District 4, was term-limited out after three terms in 2009. Hutchinson had launched a bid for mayor in 2007, but dropped it in 2009 a few months before she was charged. Hutchinson has been registered with both major political parties: in 2007, she switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat.

Ultimately Jack Seiler, a former Democratic state legislator, won the mayor’s race. Seiler is mulling over a challenge to Republican Gov. Rick Scott in 2014.

Hutchinson, 56, joins a growing list of Broward public officials charged with corruption cases for using their office to enrich themselves — including a school board member who stuffed bribes in a doggie bag at a restaurant.

The most notable cases involve a trio of Broward politicos charged by federal authorities in 2009: former Miramar City Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman, County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion and School Board member Bev Gallagher. Eggelletion was released from prison last year; Gallagher was released March 8. Federal prison records show Salesman is scheduled for release in December.

Another School Board member is currently awaiting trial. In 2010, Stephanie Kraft was arrested on bribery and misconduct charges. Kraft and her husband, attorney Mitch Kraft, are accused of helping a father-son developer team get a $500,000 break on fees owed to the school district. The Krafts could face decades in prison if convicted.

Former County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin awaits trial next month. Broward prosecutors say she repeatedly voted to fund grants written by her husband Richard Rubin for the town of Southwest Ranches. He served about 10 months in federal prison for tax evasion.

Wasserman-Rubin turned down a plea deal that included two years of house arrest that would have meant she would lose her nearly $5,000 a month pension. Her pension has been frozen while the case remains pending.

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