Homestead - South Dade

Former Homestead mayor, wife reaped $200,000 from favor seekers

Steve Bateman, left, and Ernesto Perez worked together when Bateman was mayor and Perez was expanding his chain of colleges.
Steve Bateman, left, and Ernesto Perez worked together when Bateman was mayor and Perez was expanding his chain of colleges.

As Homestead mayor, Steve Bateman spent years blurring the lines between his public position and his private profits. During his recent criminal trial — in which he was found guilty by a jury on corruption charges — some of the mayor’s backroom deal-making was exposed.

But only now, thanks to hundreds of pages of newly released investigative files, can the full story of Bateman’s secret activities be told.

Bateman, along with his wife, Donna, reaped more than $200,000 in payments from companies with issues before the city.

A Miami-Dade jury last month found Bateman guilty on two felony counts of illegal compensation, plus two misdemeanor counts. The case narrowly focused on the mayor’s $125-an-hour consulting gig for a healthcare company building a clinic in the city’s downtown. Bateman will be sentenced in the coming weeks, and he could spend years behind bars.

But before charging Bateman, prosecutors cast a wide net, probing the mayor’s various business dealings, and those of his wife. Investigators gathered hundreds of pages of sworn statements and bank records. The Miami-Dade Ethics Commission, which was heavily involved, has now released many of those documents.

Bateman’s job with Community Health of South Florida Inc. (CHI), which netted him more than $70,000, was the only issue that led to criminal charges, records show. But that was only one piece of a larger pattern of Bateman or his wife doing business with companies that needed approvals or favors from the city — and the mayor not disclosing it.

Consider:

▪ Three different city staffers testified that they were pressured by Bateman to give Dade Medical College what it wanted — and to do it quickly. The college wanted to buy two square blocks of city-owned property at a deep discount, and Bateman’s constant lobbying happened at roughly the same time that Dade Medical gave Bateman’s wife about $100,000 in payments. Bateman did not disclose his wife’s paid work for the college, as required by state ethics law.

Even though the for-profit college’s payments were written out to Donna Bateman, the checks were often hand-delivered to the mayor.

▪ Bateman repeatedly voted “yes” on zoning items that benefited prominent developer Wayne Rosen — and then hit him up for financial support, records show. Rosen told investigators that Bateman “said he was broke and needed some money.” About a year and a half later, Donna Bateman earned a $35,468 real estate commission from a sale in which she represented Rosen. The developer also sold the Batemans a Mercedes at a substantially discounted price, according to ethics investigators who looked into the transaction.

▪ Bateman traveled around in support of companies that were secretly paying him or his wife — while pretending he was just performing his official duties as mayor. Bateman trekked to County Hall on behalf of the healthcare company CHI; Bateman joined Dade Medical College’s owner in touring downtown Homestead properties that the college wanted to buy; Bateman flew to Tallahassee on a Dade Medical-chartered plane to lobby Gov. Rick Scott. The flight is the subject of pending ethics charges against the former mayor.

In an interview, Bateman disputed much of what is portrayed in the documents, including the $200,000-plus figure that he and his wife were paid. He denied having once scheduled a special meeting of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency to deal with Dade Medical College’s land purchase, though municipal records show he did exactly that.

The timing of the meeting — just a week after Dade Medical made its latest purchase offer — “short-circuited” the city’s efforts to negotiate a higher price, according to a sworn statement by City Manager George Gretsas.

Bateman insisted “there was no special meeting.”

With Bateman’s help, Dade Medical’s real estate affiliate ultimately got permission to buy the properties at a more than 60 percent discount from the appraised value. It was only because the college took too long to submit approved plans that the controversial deal expired in January, and the city kept control of the land.

Despite his recent corruption verdict, Bateman said he is still beloved by his city’s voters. Voters, he said, tell him he did a “great job,” and say they are “praying” for him. Bateman rejected the suggestion that he owes the city an apology.

“I didn’t do anything wrong … other than work too hard,” Bateman said. “I worked my tail off trying to make the city a better place.”

Homestead Councilman Jon Burgess sees things differently. Burgess said the extent of the former mayor’s misbehavior casts a dark cloud over everything he did while in office.

“We need to almost go back and do a full forensic audit of anything that was ever brought forward during his full tenure as mayor,” Burgess said. “There’s just so many things that have come to light.”

Bateman was elected to the $6,000-a-year mayor’s post in 2009, re-elected in 2011, and then removed from office following his arrest last year.

Those in the mayor’s circle were also questioned by investigators, and their statements are revealing.

Roxanne Jeghers, who is Donna Bateman’s boss at Royal Palm Real Estate Services, initially told county ethics investigators that Donna Bateman was the agent handling the proposed sale of 21 city-owned properties to Dade Medical College’s affiliate. It was Donna Bateman who prepared the sales contracts that city leaders would vote on, Jeghers said.

And Donna Bateman was in line for a five-figure commission, she said.

Jeghers said she listed herself as the agent on documents at Donna Bateman’s request. The mayor’s wife “wasn’t comfortable” putting her name down, Jeghers said, “because of the whole city thing.”

That statement to ethics investigators was on July 17, 2011. On March 7, 2013, when Jeghers was questioned again — this time with criminal prosecutors sitting in — she had changed her story.

Jeghers denied that the mayor’s wife had been the real estate agent on the city property deal. And Jeghers insisted that Bateman had never been entitled to any sales commission.

Jeghers’ about-face might have hampered prosecutors’ ability to press criminal charges in that part of the case. The transcript of the interview shows that investigators were shocked at Jeghers’ new version of events.

“Mrs. Jeghers, you have to be truthful with us here,” investigator Karl Ross told her.

“I’m being truthful with you,” Jeghers responded.

“You have to be 100 percent completely truthful, or you’re exposing yourself to some serious risks,” Ross said.

Reached by phone, Jeghers said investigators had misunderstood her first interview with them.

Bateman “was never the agent on the property,” Jeghers said. In the end, there was no commission paid to anyone because the sale wasn’t finalized.

What’s undisputed is that Bateman was the real estate agent on a private piece of Homestead land, formerly a McCrory’s department store, that Dade Medical bought. Bateman represented the college at exactly the same time that Dade Medical’s real estate arm was pursuing the city-owned land. The roughly $1 million real estate transaction, in April of 2011, netted a $36,187.55 commission for Donna Bateman, according to records.

A year later, as the college was working to get Homestead officials to sign off on its plans for the city-owned land, Dade Medical hired Donna Bateman as a real estate “consultant” — at the rate of $5,000 a month. Dade Medical officials, in speaking with investigators, acknowledged that Bateman was hired without any formal written contract. Dade Medical Chief Financial Officer Chris Gressett told investigators that this arrangement wasn’t necessarily unusual, as the college had done it with other consultants.

But when asked to identify other consultants who had received similar deals, Gressett said he couldn’t remember.

Dade Medical co-CEO and general counsel Jonathan Janeiro did not return phone calls regarding the Bateman matter. College owner Ernesto Perez did not answer his cell phone, and Perez’s criminal defense attorney, Michael Band, did not respond to questions sent via email.

Perez faces pending criminal charges himself for allegedly lying about his criminal past on government forms. He is accused of failing to disclose two prior arrests, including one for second-degree sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl. In that Wisconsin case, Perez was sentenced to six months in jail, after pleading no contest to misdemeanor charges of battery and exposing his genitals to a child.

Last month, Perez agreed to pay $2,000 in Miami-Dade county ethics fines for unregistered lobbying of city officials in Homestead and Coral Gables.

Perez is known for his strong political ties. In 2011, Perez and his associates contributed at least $7,500 to Bateman’s mayoral campaign, adding thousands more in 2013. When the college owner sat down with investigators in the Bateman case, he was represented by the law firm of Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo. The Miami Herald previously reported that Trujillo sponsored a controversial measure in Tallahassee that benefited the college — at the same time Trujillo’s sister-in-law was getting free tuition at the school.

Perez told investigators that Donna Bateman had been “instrumental” in helping him assemble real estate in Homestead, where the college had big plans.

“It’s a very small town where she knows a lot of people,” Perez said. He said paying Bateman $5,000 a month was “miniscule” compared to the potential benefit to the college if he was able to do the massive expansion of his Homestead campus that was planned.

During questioning, Perez struggled to provide concrete examples of what work Donna Bateman did to earn her consulting fee. He mentioned one property that the mayor’s wife helped him make an offer on — but that potential deal went nowhere, and records show that the seller didn’t take Perez’s offer seriously.

When it came to delivering the $5,000 checks, which were paid for at least a year, Perez said he would often hand them to Steve Bateman because he saw the mayor more often than he saw Bateman’s wife.

The checks were written out to Donna Bateman, however. Banking records show she then transferred thousands of dollars to her husband by writing a series of checks.

When it came to Donna Bateman’s real estate commissions, records show that the lion’s share of her earnings came from clients who had business before the city — more than $71,000 between Dade Medical College and Rosen, who needed city approvals for a charter school.

Rosen told investigators he hired Donna Bateman, yet when questioned by a reporter, Rosen denied that he had hired the mayor’s wife. Records show Bateman listed as Rosen’s real estate agent on a transaction that earned her $35,468 on July 2, 2013, although it was ultimately the seller, and not Rosen, who agreed to pay the commission.

Asked if the Batemans were trading votes for money, Rosen said, “that had nothing to do with it.”

Burgess, the Homestead councilman, said that Donna Bateman had worked for nearly two decades in banking. It was only when her husband was mayor, he said, that she became more active in real estate.

“She left an 18-year banking career to become a [real estate agent], in the worst market ever,” Burgess said. “Who in their right mind would do that?”

Donna Bateman did not return a call seeking comment.

The former mayor said he saw nothing wrong with his failure to disclose Donna Bateman’s real estate consulting work.

“Why does the city of Homestead have to know where my wife works?” Bateman said. “That makes no sense at all.”

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