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Politics at heart of criminal investigations swirling across Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist often laments "this culture of corruption in South Florida," but increasingly it's Tallahassee that looks like a central focus of multiple criminal investigations swirling about Florida.

In recent weeks, prominent legislators have hired criminal defense lawyers, while high-ranking and low-ranking GOP staffers have been summoned to grand juries meeting across the state. Among them: Crist's former top money-raiser, Meredith O'Rourke; former state GOP executive director Jim Rimes; and indicted ex-House Speaker Ray Sansom's former fundraising aide, Melanie Phister, who at age 25 charged nearly $1.3 million on her state party credit card.

Veteran observers of the state's political process can't remember a time when so many officials have been caught up in criminal investigations.

"I don't think we've ever had it at this level,'' said longtime lobbyist Ron Book.

Amid the most tumultuous and unpredictable election year Florida has seen in decades, the names of at least a dozen political figures have popped up in five major federal investigations probing the pay-to-play culture of corruption in Florida:

• Alan Mendelsohn, 52, a Fort Lauderdale eye doctor and GOP campaign fundraiser, is indicted on federal fraud and influence-peddling charges.

• Scott Rothstein, 47, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and campaign donor at the center of a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme, pleaded guilty in January to multiple federal charges of racketeering, money laundering and fraud.

• Sansom, 47, charged with grand theft in state court for secretly putting $6 million in the budget, is being looked at by federal officials in North Florida for his use of a GOP credit card and his role in creating a $113 million private prison.

• Jim Greer, 47, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, is under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and a statewide grand jury for a secret contract benefitting a corporation Greer created with then-RPOF executive director Delmar Johnson. Greer is also under investigation by federal officials scrutinizing his use of Republican Party credit cards.

• FBI and IRS agents are fanning out across Florida in an escalating investigation of the way party officials and legislators used American Express cards for private purchases.

In a sign of how aggressively the Justice Department is pursuing reports of corruption in Florida, it has assigned Mary K. Butler, the lead prosecutor in the Jack Abramoff case, to look at Mendelsohn's case, and longtime lobbyist and political operative Steve Hull has been given immunity from prosecution for cooperating with federal authorities.

Each of the three leading U.S. Senate candidates has at least some exposure in federal and state investigations: Democrat Kendrick Meek of Miami pushed for millions of dollars for a developer who faces criminal charges and who hired Meek's mother and helped Meek's chief of staff buy a home; top Crist money-raisers have been charged with crimes, while Greer, his hand-picked state party chairman, is the target of probes; Republican candidate Marco Rubio, among 31 Republican politicians and operatives who are facing FBI and IRS scrutiny, has the IRS looking at his use of state party credit cards.

The avalanche of criminal investigations began in early 2009 with the indictment of former House Speaker Sansom after he accepted a $110,000-a-year job at Northwest Florida State College on the very day he became speaker. A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald investigation showed how in the previous two years, Sansom steered $35 million to the school.

A Tallahassee grand jury indicted Sansom along with college president Bob Richburg and Jay Odom, a West Florida developer and major contributor to Sansom and the Florida Republican Party. The three are charged with grand theft and conspiracy to commit grand theft in connection with a $6 million appropriation Sansom allegedly slipped into the state budget for the college to build a hangar for Odom's corporate jet business. The three could face trial later this year.

As part of the Sansom investigation, State Attorney Willie Meggs obtained records detailing Sansom's lavish charges to a GOP American Express card totaling more than $173,000.

The credit card charges sparked federal investigations of Sansom and Greer, the GOP chairman who had been living a life of luxury with chartered jets, four-star hotels and chauffeured limousines charged to his party card.

Now Greer is out of a job and has retained a criminal defense attorney and a lawyer to sue party officials who ousted him.

Federal investigators are interviewing party operatives who worked with Greer and combing through GOP records with an eye toward potential tax charges. Anyone who obtained personal benefits from the cards and failed to report them to IRS could be in trouble. A Pensacola grand jury looking at Sansom's credit card charges is also investigating Sansom's role in budgeting money for the new Blackwater River private prison in Santa Rosa County.

In South Florida, two of the state's biggest fundraisers face a laundry list of federal criminal charges in unrelated indictments.

Mendelsohn, an ophthalmologist who served on Crist's transition team and staged a 2009 fundraiser for Rubio, raised millions for state campaigns. He is accused of diverting more than $600,000 to his own use, to pay private school tuition for his children and expenses for a mistress.

Mendelsohn often boasted of his ability to influence state officials with money. The indictment accuses him of giving more than $87,000 to a former public official who was not named.

At one point trying to convince authorities that he had bribed Crist, Mendelsohn made a wired phone call to former Crist chief of staff George LeMieux, now a U.S. senator. Apparently suspicious, LeMieux had aides report the call to the FBI, leading to Mendelsohn being charged with lying to the FBI in addition to accusations that he defrauded campaign donors.

Crist said Wednesday he was unaware of Mendelsohn's claims until he was contacted by reporters after the doctor was indicted. Crist said he thought Mendelsohn "seemed like a nice guy, he's a doctor and gets some credibility for that.''

Fort Lauderdale lawyer Rothstein has admitted bilking investors in a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Some of the money taken from investors was used as campaign donations to Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and dozens of legislators and both political parties.

In 2008 at a birthday party for the governor, a number of donors paid $5,200 to get their names on candles placed on a fancy chocolate cake. Rothstein donated $52,000 to the GOP to get his name in big letters. After he was elected governor, Crist appointed Rothstein to the Judicial Nominating Commission that nominates judges in Broward County.

Much of the money has been returned to a receiver appointed to oversee Rothstein's assets. Rothstein is cooperating with federal investigators and faces sentencing in June. He could receive up to 100 years.

The sheer number of public corruption investigations under way appears unprecedented in Florida, and several observers blame the amount of money that dominates the political process.

"The money has become obscene,'' says Ken Plante, a former state senator who has lobbied legislators for more than 30 years. "Somehow we have got to turn this thing around. It may take a constitutional amendment.''

CORRECTION: The campaign of Marco Rubio did not get donations from Scott Rothstein. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on that point.

Politics at heart of criminal investigations swirling across Florida 05/28/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 3:42pm]

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