One year after his arrest plunged Homestead into turmoil — and capped a string of headlines about South Florida politicians getting busted for corruption — former Mayor Steven Bateman heads to trial Monday insisting he did nothing wrong.
The allegation: that Bateman took a secret and illegal $125-an-hour consulting job with a healthcare company while using his mayoral position to help grease the wheels of government to complete construction of the chain’s new clinic.
His defense: Bateman’s gig as a Community Heath of South Florida “consultant” was perfectly legit and, yes, completely separate and distinct from his duties as mayor.
“I had to wear two hats,” Bateman said Friday. “I think I did a good job separating the hats, and we’ll prove that.”
Bateman, 59, is charged with two felony counts of unlawful compensation, plus three misdemeanors relating to violations of the county’s ethics code.
Jury selection begins Monday before Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Robert Luck.
First voted in as mayor in 2009, then reelected two years later, the former boxer was known in Homestead for his sharp suits, combative style at city hall, and frequent scrutiny from police and ethics investigators.
His most-recent woes stretch back to mid-2013, 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.
The probe branched out to look at Dade Medical College President Ernesto Perez, who was later arrested in a perjury case and is still under investigation on suspicion of campaign finance violations.
Police arrested Bateman for the CHI case in August 2013, in the thick of his campaign for reelection of mayor of the south Miami-Dade city of more than 63,000 residents. He was later charged in a separate case, accused of illegally using campaign funds to throw parties for campaign staffers.
He did not go quietly, even after Gov. Rick Scott suspended him. After his arrest, Bateman referred to the charges as “just another hurdle to jump before the election” — and he campaigned aggressively.
At one point on the campaign trail, Bateman and his supporters waved signs at motorists along Krome Avenue. “I am 100 percent innocent,” he said at the time.
Not long after, Bateman insisted the charges were part of a political campaign to smear him. He lost the election.
Bateman certainly was targeted in a sense — after his arrest, City Manager George Gretsas acknowledged that two council members had fed investigators for years with details about Bateman’s questionable dealings. Bateman had clashed with officials and staff members over the years.
“No one has more power than the other on that dais. And we don’t have a strong-mayor government. I think a lot of people in the community felt that he was acting as if he were a strong mayor when he wasn’t,” said Councilwoman Judy Waldman.
His arrest shook Homestead.
Current Mayor Jeff Porter, who had previously served on Homestead’s council but was not in office when Bateman was jailed, said it took a toll on the town’s reputation.
“The credibility of the city was shaken pretty hard,” Porter said. “You’re less likely to do business in a community where there is always some speculation. There was this sense of a problem in city hall, and that was really the talk of the town.”
His arrest also came just after two other South Florida mayors — Manuel Maroño of Sweetwater and Michael Pizzi of Miami Lakes — were arrested in a federal sting, accused of accepting illegal payments in exchange for supporting a sham grants program.
Maroño pleaded guilty and is doing prison time. Pizzi, however, took his case to trial and won, earning an acquittal by jury last month.
Bateman has some reason to be confident — his lawyers are Ben Kuehne and Michael Davis, who also defended Pizzi.
“I feel confident about my own case,” Bateman said. “We did nothing wrong. We said from day one we did nothing wrong.”
The case revolves around CHI’s proposed Children’s Crisis Center, slated for the 700 block of West Mowry Drive. The project has been stalled because no connections were available at the city’s sewer water pump station.
In the fall of 2012, 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.
A few months later, the company retained Bateman — who owned a construction company and earned only $6,000 a year for his mayor’s job — 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.
The company’s president, Hartley, told prosecutors it was Bateman who pressed for the consulting gig. Hartley admitted that he “didn’t try to stop” Bateman from lobbying on behalf of the company, according to a warrant prepared by prosecutor Isis Perez, who will try the case.
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.
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 arrest warrant.
Bateman, in one meeting, also pressed Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez on the pump station issue.
Miami-Dade prosecutors obtained internal company records showing that Bateman billed for 29 hours of consulting work on the issue in February 2013, 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 of dollars more for working on other projects for the company.
But according to a defense motion to dismiss, CHI “representatives never requested that Bateman meet with any public official on its behalf” and the company executives never knew of the mayor’s intent to meet with public officials on the issue.
Hartley, in a deposition, claimed “he would not have paid Mayor Bateman if he knew he was serving CHI in his capacity as Homestead Mayor.”
Judge Luck has yet to rule on the motion to dismiss.