Desperate to get started on a long-stalled construction project in Homestead, a nonprofit health clinic company turned to a “consultant” to “make the wheels turn faster,” one employee told prosecutors.
That “consultant” was Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman, who on Wednesday was arrested on charges he pressed the company to secretly and illegally pay him to push the project through Miami-Dade County’s red tape.
In the end, prosecutors say, Bateman doomed himself, documenting the illicit payments in a detailed invoice to the nonprofit agency, Community Health of South Florida Inc. (CHI) — 29 hours of work, billed at $125 an hour.
Although he was in line to make as much as $120,000 over the year-long contract, he had collected less than half of that by the time he was arrested.
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Bateman didn’t just bill CHI, which provides health services to poor people — he overbilled, according to documents. Bateman invoiced CHI eight hours for a meeting with county Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his staff. The meeting lasted only an hour, and Gimenez had no idea the Homestead mayor was there on behalf of CHI.
“He comes to me as the mayor of Homestead. He doesn’t come to me as a lobbyist from Homestead,” Gimenez told prosecutors, according to an arrest warrant released Wednesday.
Bateman, 58, was handcuffed early Wednesday at his home in the 3100 block of Fairway Drive — becoming the third Miami-Dade mayor to be arrested in the past month. His arrest capped months of damning news stories about Bateman’s dealings, and delivered relief to Homestead’s leaders.
“Today is a good day,” said Homestead City Council member Judy Waldman. “Justice has been served.”
Jon Burgess, the former vice mayor, became acting mayor.
Bateman’s charges: two felony counts of unlawful compensation, plus three misdemeanors relating to violations of the county’s ethics code.
When police and investigators from the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office came knocking, Bateman refused to emerge for about 20 minutes.
“He said he was taking a shower,” said investigator Bob Fielder.
Later, clad in a red jump suit reserved for high-profile inmates, Bateman appeared in court from jail via closed-circuit television.
He was granted a $21,500 bond and, when he was released from the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center late Wednesday, clad in street clothes again, he made a dash for the Mercedes-Benz that was waiting for him.
First voted in as mayor in 2009, then reelected two years later, Bateman had been running for reelection in the South Miami-Dade city of over 63,000 residents.
“He is shocked by having been arrested with no advance notice. He appreciates the community support as he works for his vindication,” said Bateman’s defense attorney, Ben Kuehne.
Gov. Rick Scott suspended Bateman from office, as he had done earlier this month with Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, both accused of taking kickbacks in exchange for supporting a federal grant.
“It’s another sad day for the people of Miami-Dade County and an even sadder day for the great people of Homestead,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said at an afternoon news conference.
Bateman has been facing public scrutiny since June, when the Miami Herald reported that the mayor had pushed for a plan by Dade Medical College to build a school on city-owned land — while at the same time having his assistant steer the real estate referral to the mayor’s wife.
Miami-Dade prosecutors and investigators from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust are still investigating the Dade Medical College deal.
In early July, a joint investigation of the Miami Herald and WFOR-CBS4 revealed that Bateman had leveraged his public office to secure the consulting arrangement with CHI.
Miami-Dade County gave CHI $1.89 million to build the Children’s Crisis Center in the 700 block of West Mowry Drive. But the project has been stalled because no more connections are available at the city’s sewer water pump station.
For environmental reasons, the federal government has prohibited any more connections to Homestead’s pump station. The company could build its own septic tank, but that would add to its costs.
Homestead had authorized building a new pump station, but the project was stalled amid county officials’ concerns about the project’s design.
Last fall, Bateman met with CHI’s president and CEO, Brodes Hartley, and agreed to support efforts to get federal and other grant money for healthcare programs in South Miami-Dade.
Then, on Feb. 1, the company retained Bateman as “an advisor and construction manager” for CHI projects. The compensation: $125 an hour plus a $300 monthly vehicle allowance. Although the number of hours was not specified, the nonprofit set aside $120,000 to pay Bateman for his work for the next year.
Hartley told prosecutors that while CHI initiated a January meeting, Bateman was the one who pressed for the consulting gig.
“He came to talk to me about his ability and his experience as a contractor to assist us in moving our projects forward,” Hartley told prosecutors, according to the warrant.
One high-ranking CHI supervisor told prosecutors that Bateman was hired “to make the wheels turn faster” in obtaining the approval of permits from both Miami-Dade and Homestead.
The nonprofit also hired an assistant for Bateman, Frank May, and agreed to pay him $40 an hour to help the mayor “oversee and manage numerous CHI construction projects.” May, a close associate of the mayor, has done contract work for the city, billing Homestead taxpayers to write speeches, ghost-write newspaper columns and even supply jokes for Bateman.
Hartley and company officials spoke to investigators as witnesses under subpoena, which grants them immunity. “The focus here is really on the elected official,” Fernández Rundle said.
Homestead’s city engineer also told prosecutors that Bateman began to pressure him constantly about getting the sewer permit deal closed.
“He said [Bateman] was becoming frustrated and impatient about the situation,” according to the warrant.
And the warrant alleges that it was Bateman’s idea to meet with Mayor Gimenez that month. Bateman later told City Council members the meeting was to discuss “issues that the county needs to step up and take care of.”
Hartley admitted that he “didn’t try to stop” Bateman from lobbying on behalf of the company, said the warrant by Fielder, ethics investigator Karl Ross and prosecutor Isis Perez.
Miami-Dade prosecutors obtained internal company records showing that Bateman billed for 29 hours of consulting work on the pump station issue in February, including his interactions with Gimenez as well as the city’s engineer — all done, at least outwardly, in his capacity as mayor.
He earned $3,625. In all, Bateman was paid tens of thousands dollars more for working on other projects for the company.
“We believe that enriching oneself by using the power and prestige of an elected public office not only enrages the community, but most importantly, it violates the law,” Fernández Rundle said.
Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga and Herald writer Benjamin Brasch contributed to this report.