Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Politics

State Rep. Richard Steinberg resigns over stalker-like text messages

Under Secret Service investigation for sending stalker-like texts to a federal prosecutor, Democratic state Rep. Richard Steinberg on Friday abruptly resigned his Miami Beach seat.

"The events of the past week have been difficult for my family, for me and for everyone involved," Steinberg, 39, said in a written statement. "After much consultation with my family, my friends and my colleagues in the Democratic caucus — and after some time for quiet, personal reflection — I have decided to resign, effective today, from my position as a member of Florida's House of Representatives."

Steinberg's resignation came just as the Republican Party of Florida was planning to call for his ouster. "He should have the decency to resign from office," RPOF spokesman Brian Hughes said at the same time Steinberg was drafting his written statement.

The decision was a relief for his fellow House Democrats, who already command less than a third of their chamber and could ill-afford such a high-profile distraction, which became an Internet sensation when the Miami Herald broke the story two days ago.

It's unclear how soon Steinberg's House seat will be filled, but Gov. Rick Scott may have to decide whether to call a special election.

Throughout the summer, Steinberg used a disguised Yahoo! account with the screen name "itsjustme24680" to send text messages to Assistant U.S. Attorney Marlene Fernandez-Karavetsos.

Over months, Fernandez-Karavetsos told investigators, the texter sent suggestive messages, calling her "sexxxy mama" and asking about her infant son. Fernandez-Karavetsos, who knew Steinberg through professional services, repeatedly asked the person to stop and identify himself.

"Considering we're both married parents, probably best I not answer that at this point," the texter, Steinberg, wrote back.

Fernandez-Karavetsos, 37, is married to George Karavetsos, also a federal prosecutor and chief of the Miami U.S. attorney's narcotics section. Steinberg married his wife, Micky Ross Steinberg, in 2008. They have one child.

Finally, Fernandez-Karavetsos complained to the U.S. Secret Service, which traced the anonymous messages back to Steinberg's home and phone. Secret Service is only investigating the case because it involves a federal prosecutor. If any charges are brought, they would be filed in state court.

After the Herald obtained the affidavit for a search warrant to examine the information in the Yahoo! account, Steinberg quickly acknowledged he was the perpetrator, expressed sorrow and asked for forgiveness of the victim, whom he had known for 15 years.

The story went viral. The liberal-leaning Huffington Post, which picked up the Herald story, produced a slide show that placed Steinberg in the company of other disgraced politicians: former New York congressman Anthony Weiner, former Florida congressman Mark Foley, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, New Jersey Democrat Louis N. Magazzu and former New York congressman Christopher Lee.

The revelations about Steinberg came as a shock to those who know him.

Soft-spoken and kind-hearted, he didn't fit the stereotype of a stalker.

Steinberg is a former Miami Beach commissioner whose father, Paul Steinberg, was a state senator from 1972 to 1982. He won the House District 106 seat, filling a vacancy left by former House Minority Leader Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

In 2001, at the age of 28, Steinberg became the second-youngest to be elected to the Miami Beach commission. He later became the city's youngest vice-mayor.

A review of voting records since Steinberg's 2009 freshman session in Tallahassee shows that he cast at least five votes to increase penalties on stalkers and sexual predators who use texting or electronic media during their crimes.

Last week, Steinberg cast a committee vote for HB 1099-Stalking, which expands the definition of "aggravated stalking" to include threats (and implied threats) made via electronic messages (e.g., texts, emails).

The bill also expands the definition of "threat" to include any activity that "places another person in reasonable fear for his or her safety or safety of his or her family members." Aggravated stalking is a third-degree felony that carries a five-year maximum prison sentence, while stalking is a first-degree misdemeanor that can lead to a year of prison time.

Had he stayed in the House, Steinberg would have had to cast floor votes on those stalking measures and another one — thereby drawing more attention to the story.

"With the support of my family, my friends and my colleagues, I will remain home to attend to my and my family's personal affairs," Steinberg said in his written statement Friday. "As I did earlier this week, I want to once again, very directly and sincerely, apologize to everyone I have hurt. I hope that you will respect my and my family's privacy."

Republicans held their fire in the immediate aftermath of the news about Steinberg, who left Tallahassee on Thursday. The 60-day lawmaking session is scheduled to end March. 9.

But on Friday, the state Republican Party's spokesman, Hughes, was preparing to call for Steinberg to leave.

"For those turn this behavior into the punchline of another 'oh, that Florida…' joke, Steinberg has contributed to a negative opinion of the best state in the nation," Hughes said. "For those who think Steinberg has committed a crime, every minute he remains in the Florida Legislature is the ultimate hypocrisy."

The Democrats officially had a no-comment policy, but some spoke out anyway. Rep Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he felt badly for Steinberg — and even worse for Steinberg's wife and for the prosecutor who received the texts.

"There's concern for the victim and any untoward insult or suffering she or her husband may have gone through," Rouson said, adding he didn't speak directly to Steinberg on the phone.

"We texted," Rouson said. "Ironic, huh?"

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Toluse Olorunnipa and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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