U.S. District Judge William Zloch slammed a respected Broward County physician with a four-year prison sentence on Wednesday, sending a strong message against the corrupting influence of special-interest lobbyists who raise millions for politicians in Tallahassee — in exchange for favors.
Zloch told Dr. Alan Mendelsohn, 53, a politically connected ophthalmologist, that the hefty sentence was warranted because his pay-to-play misconduct was like a "cancer" with "tentacles" that thwarted good government from South Florida to the state capital.
Mendelsohn was the key figure in a public corruption and tax case that saw him secretly divert $700,000 from campaign donations and other income to himself, his family and his mistress. He did not report that money to the IRS.
Some of the donations were made after Mendelsohn, an unregistered lobbyist, bragged to special interests in major industries about his purported connections to then-Gov. Charlie Crist, lawyers on the attorney general's staff and state legislators. Mendelsohn served on Crist's transition team in 2007.
"Most notably, the corruption in this case strikes at the heart of the Florida Legislature,'' Zloch said. "Dr. Mendelsohn actually facilitated a corrupt democratic process in the Florida Legislature."
The judge was referring to admissions Mendelsohn made during his plea hearing in December, when he said he siphoned $330,000 from his political action committees, and funneled $82,000 to then-state Sen. Mandy Dawson after the Fort Lauderdale Democrat repeatedly pressured him to hire her associate. Mendelsohn said the associate served as a conduit for the 2003-05 payoffs to Dawson, whom the physician feared might oppose legislation for the medical profession.
At the plea hearing, he told Zloch that if influential insiders didn't pay political bribes in Tallahassee, they would be "toast."
On Wednesday, Zloch said the Justice Department's recommended prison sentence for Mendelsohn, between 2 and 2½ years, and his defense attorney's bid for probation with no jail time, failed to address the seriousness of his criminal behavior.
The judge, sitting ramrod straight on the bench, condemned Mendelsohn for orchestrating schemes in which political donors contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain legislative favors behind the scenes.
"A message must be sent to the public that corruption of this scope cannot and will not be tolerated," Zloch told a packed Fort Lauderdale courtroom, which included some supporters who gasped, "Oh, my God" when the judge issued the hefty sentence, along with a $10,000 fine.
Mendelsohn must surrender in early January to begin his incarceration. His attorney, Alvin Entin, described Mendelsohn in court as a "good person who made a tremendous misjudgment," and said that he plans to appeal the judge's sentence.
At Wednesday's hearing, Mendelsohn focused on his volunteer medical work for the indigent, his positive legislative efforts on behalf of the medical profession and his daughter's need for a kidney transplant.
He said the criminal case filed against him in September 2009 was "life-shattering."
"Words just can't describe the devastation," said Mendelsohn, who is married with four grown children.
"Who was responsible for this devastation?" Zloch asked.
"I was," Mendelsohn said. "I am really, really, truly sorry."
Mendelsohn pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by failing to report to the IRS $700,000 in income siphoned from his PACs, his lobbying clients and his medical practice. Mendelsohn, who raised money mainly from Republican donors, pleaded to a single conspiracy charge, which carried a five-year maximum sentence.
Mendelsohn spent the political proceeds on a mistress, as well as his children's private high school tuition, SAT tutoring, a luxury car and home renovations, according to court records. He also admitted lying to FBI agents.
Before the sentencing, Mendelsohn asserted he had suffered enough from his misconduct. Entin filed 350 letters from supporters seeking leniency for his client.
Justice Department trial attorney Mary Butler said that Mendelsohn showed no remorse and blamed Tallahassee's pay-to-play environment for his criminal conduct.
"He isn't accepting responsibility when he says 'Everybody else is doing it,' " Butler said. "That's just not going to cut it."
She said that when he was approached by a public official soliciting a bribe — she did not mentioning the politician by name — Mendelsohn should have called the FBI to "clean out the whole town."
"You have to have a moral compass," she said. "You have to follow the law."
Dawson, the former legislator, has not been charged with wrongdoing. She has declined comment when asked about the allegations. Dawson spent 16 years in the state Legislature representing portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties, serving six years in the House followed by a decade in the Senate. Term limits forced her out of office in 2008.
Mendelsohn, initially indicted in September 2009 on 32 fraud charges and later on five tax offenses, had been facing trial in January.
His conviction was the ending to a far-reaching influence-peddling investigation that stretched from South Florida to Tallahassee. It started when the self-made power broker boasted about his access to Crist and his inner circle, saying he could sway them to kill legislation and investigations that would hurt a Fort Lauderdale viatical insurance business called Mutual Benefits Corp.
After Mendelsohn claimed he could manipulate the governor, his former chief of staff George LeMieux, lawyers with the attorney general's office and Florida legislators, the Justice Department launched the five-year corruption inquiry into a dozen current and former public officials. Ultimately, the Broward physician was the only one charged with a crime.
While he was under federal investigation in 2009, Mendelsohn held a big fundraiser at his Hollywood home for then-Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio, the former state House speaker from Miami.
As part of his plea deal, Mendelsohn paid the IRS back taxes of $196,215 for 2003-06.