The city of Homestead, whose former mayor is on trial on corruption charges, opened an investigation this past weekend into the activities of one of his closest and most colorful allies.
Joe Laurer, who was appointed to the city’s pension board by then-Mayor Steve Bateman in 2011, was accused this month by the Securities and Exchange Commission of fleecing investors by way of a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
The SEC filing — just as the ousted mayor was heading into trial on felony charges of unlawful compensation — is the latest window into the twisted political affairs of Homestead.
While sitting on the General Employees Pension Board, which safeguards and invests $60 million in retirement funds, Laurer ran a company called Abatement Corp. Holding Company Limited, registered in the Turks and Caicos. The SEC says Abatement took in millions of dollars but did not invest those funds as promised. Instead, money from new investors was used to pay returns to earlier investors — a classic Ponzi scheme, a la Bernie Madoff or Scott Rothstein, albeit much smaller.
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Hundreds of thousands of dollars of investor funds were diverted to benefit Laurer personally, the SEC complaint said.
Now, Homestead’s Police Department is looking into whether the city’s pension funds could have been breached, and whether any city residents were victimized by the Ponzi. From his seat on the board, Laurer pushed to discredit the company that managed the funds, records show.
The man with the answers — who went by the alias Josef Von Laurer and signed his emails “Dr. Joe” — won’t be shedding any light on the matter. He died May 15.
Laurer and the mayor were residents of the same neighborhood, members of the same country club and were extremely close politically, with each doing the other’s bidding, internal Homestead emails show.
In email dispatches to various staffers, Laurer identified himself as an “advisor to the mayor” and once offered his services as a paid consultant aside from his unpaid duties on the pension board.
He also lobbied the city manager for at least one friend to land a job with the city and attempted — as leasing agent — to broker a deal to have Homestead rent out part of the Keys Gate Golf and Country Club as its temporary city hall. Homestead had to abandon its former headquarters because of “sick building” syndrome.
Bateman, for his part, maneuvered unsuccessfully to get Laurer a job as the city’s internal auditor, emails show.
“It was almost like the mayor was trying to make him an intricate part of our city government,” said Councilwoman Judy Waldman. She said she reviewed Laurer’s resume for the auditor post “but but there was nothing there that fit the criteria.”
When Bateman wanted a charter amendment changing Homestead to a strong-mayor form of government, Laurer formed the Committee for a Better Homestead to lobby on behalf of the switch.
Bateman was arrested before that campaign could bear fruit. He was charged with using his mayoral position to finagle a job with a healthcare outfit that needed favors from the city.
The day after Bateman was taken to jail in handcuffs, Laurer waved a pro-Bateman sign at a hastilly arranged “honk and wave” rally in the city. Interviewed by a reporter CBS4 reporter, Laurer declared Bateman was being railroaded and identified himself as an employee of the mayor.
Bateman, free on bond as his trial nears its conclusion, declined to comment directly on the Ponzi scheme allegation. But, through his lawyer, Ben Keuhne, Bateman indicated that he never employed Laurer, and that Laurer “appeared to be well qualified to serve the city in a volunteer capacity.”
He also noted that the City Council unanimously approved the appointment of Laurer to the pension board.
In his voluminous city resume, Laurer touted 50 years of experience in the financial services industry and said he was, among other things, a former campaign manager for Sen. John Warner, R-Va., an advisor to former Virginia Gov. John Dalton and an aide to former presidents Samuel Doe of Liberia and Belisario Betancur of Colombia.
Laurer was also the father of the female World Wrestling Federation grappler known as Chyna, from whom he had long been estranged, according to her Wikipedia profile. She accused him of taking out $40,000 worth of student loans in her name without authorization.
Jon Burgess, who has served on the City Council since 2007, said that when Bateman left office, Laurer basically disappeared.
“He was appointed by somebody who did away with background checks,” Burgess said. “Perhaps we need to go back to that, and make sure we know the ins and outs of who sits on our boards.”
Homestead City Manager George Gretsas, not a fan of Bateman, said Laurer was an example of the “scoundrels and jackals” the mayor brought into the government “for his own personal gain at the expense of the citizens of Homestead.”
Said current Mayor Jeff Porter: “We’re still seeing a lot of repercussions from the previous mayor.”