Responding to a "rash of crimes'' by public officials, Gov. Charlie Crist announced Wednesday that he wants to empanel a statewide grand jury to root out corruption.
Crist's call for a grand jury comes on the heels of multiple public-corruption cases last month in South Florida, culminating with the arrest of fundraising powerhouse Alan Mendelsohn, a Hollywood eye doctor and onetime Crist supporter. But Crist said he's not issuing the call solely because of Mendelsohn's case.
"Since I have been governor, unfortunately, I have had to remove over 30 people from public office," Crist said. "That's almost one a month. And it's obvious to me that something's wrong with the system."
Crist's request for a statewide grand jury is just that, a request. The Florida Supreme Court must approve the petition. The statewide grand jury isn't limited to any part of the state and can examine almost any case or aspect of the law it wishes for the next year.
The most recent major public corruption indictment, handed up by a federal grand jury last month, charged political player Mendelsohn with 32 counts of fraud and wrongdoing and accused him of attempting to sell his access to lawmakers — including Crist.
Mendelsohn, who has pleaded not guilty, had even claimed he could bribe Crist, a charge that prosecutors investigated and declared false. Mendelsohn this year held a fundraiser for Crist's fellow Republican and rival for U.S. Senate, Marco Rubio.
Still, Mendelsohn's political ties with Crist ran deep. Mendelsohn held fundraisers at his home for Crist's 2006 governor's race. And the governor wrote a personal letter asking the University of Florida's medical school to admit Mendelsohn's son.
Asked to explain his relations with Mendelsohn on Wednesday, Crist declined.
"What I can air out for you is the concern this administration has for a number of cases," Crist said when asked about Mendelsohn. "It doesn't center around one case at all."
Separately, three Palm Beach County commissioners have been imprisoned in recent years in corruption cases. And Monroe County's school superintendent was also removed from office for alleged wrongdoing.
In a separate investigation, Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher and former Miramar City Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman were all charged in other alleged corruption schemes.
In April, former House Speaker Ray Sansom was charged with manipulating his power over the state budget to benefit a campaign contributor and a Panhandle college that then gave him a job. Crist refused calls for a state investigation into Sansom, who was charged by a Leon County grand jury.
The common tie is money, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause, a good-government advocacy group.
"To run for office, you have to raise so much money, too much money," Wilcox said, "and the ones who want to give it are special interests whose bottom line is to influence public policy."
Wilcox said that, with such big money at stake, it's inevitable that questionable activity surfaces.
Crist has set fundraising records, pulling in $6.7 million in contributions since announcing his U.S. Senate candidacy in May. He is scheduled to appear Oct. 30 at an Arizona fundraiser with that state's former governor, Fife Symington, who was convicted in 1997 on federal fraud charges. His conviction was overturned, and former President Bill Clinton later pardoned him.
Robert Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who teaches ethics, said Crist's move to appoint the statewide grand jury is pure political theater designed to make him look tough on public corruption.
"You have a governor who's running for the U.S. Senate and he doesn't want to appear soft on crime," Jarvis said. "It's a way to take a political hot potato and throw it into someone else's lap.
Statewide grand juries into public corruption are nothing new in Florida. In 1999, a grand jury issued a report calling for numerous reforms.
Four years later, the Legislature finally passed an anticorruption law pushed by current state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and former federal prosecutor who's now an attorney general candidate. This year, Gelber is again sponsoring legislation to make Florida's public-corruption laws as strict as the federal government's. Gelber can't find a House sponsor.
"A call for a grand jury is basically meaningless until the Legislature gets serious about reform," Gelber said.
"The Legislature is really tough on crime — unless it's public corruption."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.