FORT LAUDERDALE — A politically connected eye doctor who was a prominent fundraiser pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal conspiracy charge, admitting he filed false tax returns, lied to FBI agents and diverted tens of thousands of dollars in contributions for his own use.
During a plea hearing, Dr. Alan Mendelsohn said he got caught up in a Tallahassee pay-to-play system in which politicians reward those who funnel money to the right places and punish people who refuse.
Mendelsohn, who lobbied legislators on various health issues, told U.S. District Judge William Zloch of one instance in which he paid $82,000 to an associate of former state Sen. Mandy Dawson, a Democrat who had demanded repeatedly that Mendelsohn "hire" the aide.
"Otherwise, we had the great fear of being retaliated against legislatively," Mendelsohn told the judge, adding that such practices are common in state government.
Zloch responded that it was "a pretty sorry state of affairs with respect to what goes on in the statehouse."
A listed number could not be found Thursday for Dawson, who formerly represented part of Broward County. In 2009, she said she had been interviewed by the FBI, but Dawson has not been charged with any crime.
Mendelsohn, a 52-year-old Hollywood ophthalmologist, faces a maximum five-year prison sentence but could get less than two years under federal sentencing guidelines. He will remain free on $100,000 bail until sentencing Feb. 17.
Mendelsohn had faced more than three dozen charges, but they were dropped in return for his guilty plea to the conspiracy charge. He admitted diverting for his own use more than $700,000 directly from contributors and from three political action committees he controlled. They money went for such things as luxury cars, support for a mistress, private school tuition for his children, credit card bills and gifts.
In addition, Mendelsohn has repaid the Internal Revenue Service more than $196,000 in taxes and penalties over the false income tax returns. Prosecutors said he underreported taxable income by about $600,000.