For years, a small group of top Florida political leaders quietly prodded the federal government to be more aggressive in rooting out political corruption in the state capital.
The bipartisan group, led by Florida’s senior statesman, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, got a polite thank you from the Department of Justice, and nothing more.
“Very few prosecutorial and investigative resources are dedicated to scrutinizing activities of our largest units of state government,” Graham told former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Dismayed by a flood of special interest money flowing through Tallahassee, Graham was joined by Coral Gables lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Roberto Martinez, a Republican adviser to two Florida governors; former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux of Lighthouse Point, a Republican lawyer who was chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist, and Democrat Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a former federal prosecutor and legislator who ran for state attorney general in 2010 on a platform that included a new anti-corruption unit in Tallahassee.
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The four former officials cited shortcomings by the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern District of Florida that serves two dozen mostly rural counties with vast military bases and two major state universities and is based in Tallahassee, the seat of government and center of political deal-making in the nation’s third most populous state.
“Great strides have been made in addressing public corruption in the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida over the past few years as a result of the enhanced concentration of resources and commitment,” the four leaders wrote in their final letter in 2013. “We believe Floridians would be well served if similar investigative and prosecutorial resources and commitment were dedicated to the Northern District.”
But nothing came of it.
Pamela Marsh, who was U.S. attorney from 2010 to 2015, said in an interview that Graham’s plea came at a stressful time of budget cuts, furloughs and a hiring freeze when some prosecutors in her office were being offered incentives to retire early.
“My office was getting smaller, not bigger,” said Marsh, now in private practice in Tallahassee. “It was just a very tough situation.”
Marsh said the budgets of U.S. attorneys are tied directly to the sizes of the areas they serve, and that the Northern District is much smaller than the other two in Florida, in Miami and Jacksonville, which also have vastly greater territory.
“It could get better,” Marsh said, “but there is a desire to do these cases.”
Marsh’s successor, acting U.S. attorney Christopher Canova, declined an interview request.
Canova’s spokeswoman, Amy Alexander, said the Northern District employs 22 assistant U.S. attorneys, compared to 168 in Miami and 81 in Jacksonville. She provided a list of public corruption cases prosecuted by her office that included a sheriff, four county commissioners, a school superintendent, and a county attorney — all in 2010, 2011 or 2012.
Graham, who left office in 2004, was a three-term U.S. senator, two-term governor and state legislator who was first elected from Miami-Dade in 1966.
He said the biggest single change in Tallahassee has been the overwhelming influence of special interest money, which he said justifies closer scrutiny of state government, including the Legislature.
“It’s gotten more serious as the amount of money in politics has so dramatically increased,” Graham said, “and that’s the essential circumstance that leads to corruption.”
Graham said he and his allies want a face-to-face meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to push the idea again.
Martinez, who was a Miami prosecutor in the 1980s and U.S. attorney in Miami in the 1990s, said public corruption cases take much longer to build and require more time and money than other cases.
He recalled that when the FBI started a public corruption unit in Miami in 1984, none of the agents spoke Spanish.
“I don’t believe we have systemic corruption,” Martinez said. “Do we have incidents of corruption? Sure. But it’s not as if our system is corrupt.”
The most recent memorable public corruption investigation in Tallahassee was started by a state prosecutor, not the federal government.
The case against former House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin, involving allegations of misuse of $6 million in state money, collapsed in 2009 when a judge blocked the testimony of a key prosecution witness after ruling that the state failed to show proof of a conspiracy. Charges against Sansom and a co-defendant were dropped.
Leon County State Attorney Willie Meggs, who brought the case against Sansom, is retiring this year after a 32-year career.
One of his top prosecutors, Jack Campbell, is running to succeed his boss, and he said that with limited staff, street crime will remain a higher priority than public corruption.
“They [the feds] are more selective in their prosecutions than we are,” said Campbell, who has been a state prosecutor for 15 years. “They don’t have to do a petty theft case. I do.”
The budgets of the state’s 20 elected state attorneys are set by the Legislature.
More than 1,800 lobbyists were registered to lobby the Legislature in 2016, or nearly a dozen for each of the 160 members of the Legislature.
The state’s largest corporate interests now routinely employ “teams” of up to two dozen lobbyists who can launch a full-court press to pass or kill legislation.
Election campaigns for seats in the Legislature now regularly exceed $1 million and many legislators also control unregulated political committees that can collect checks of any amount (those committees did not exist in 1966 when Graham spent $15,000 in his first campaign).
Gelber, who served in the House and Senate from 1998 to 2010, cited yet another problem: term limits.
By shortening the careers of legislators, Gelber said, term limits have shifted power and institutional knowledge to the world of lobbying, which he described as “a shadow government of complete mercenaries.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet.
Three recent high-profile public corruption cases in Florida came from units in Miami or Jacksonville, not the smaller North Florida office.
CORRINE BROWN: Long-time member of Congress from Jacksonville and chief of staff are accused of using a fraudulent charity as a personal slush fund. Both have pleaded not guilty.
REGGIE FULLWOOD: State lawmaker from Jacksonville charged with diverting campaign funds for personal use and failing to file tax returns. He has pleaded not guilty.
OPA-LOCKA: A three-year FBI probe of City Hall financial improprieties has led so far to criminal charges, state takeover of city finances and death of a city official who drove his car into a tree.
Source: Herald/Times Research