It is never a good thing when you are running for a big-shot office like governor of Florida to have your name associated with a disbarred lawyer who is suspected of running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme and is sitting in a clink on federal charges of fraud and racketeering.
Not exactly an endorsement from Nelson Mandela moment.
So it's perfectly understandable that Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, is attempting to portray her contact with a walking mug shot, defrocked Fort Lauderdale attorney Scott Rothstein, as something less than a phone call center operator selling magazine subscriptions to strangers.
There is probably no sweeter honey pot of moola to be had in government work than to be a law firm hired to handle legal matters for the State Board of Administration — a stultifying title for a government agency, belying its financial powers in overseeing $136 billion in investments for more than 1 million current and future public employees. With potential legal fees in the tens of millions of dollars, this is the lottery meets Bill Gates meets the Sultan of Brunei.
Until Sink decided she wanted to be governor, Rothstein pretty much treated Democrats as if they were proselytizing Bible thumpers trying to sneak into North Korea. Over the past four years, Rothstein had given some $650,000 to Republican candidates and the state GOP. The Florida Democratic Party hadn't gotten so much as a bus token or a Starbucks gift certificate.
But after an August fundraiser for Sink at Rothstein's swanky house, which raised more than $40,000 for her campaign, the soon-to-be indicted lawyer also wrote a check for $200,000 for the Florida Democratic Party. Kismet. It's a wonderful thing. So is political juice.
No doubt Rothstein was keenly interested in good government and saw in Sink a brilliant visionary figure who would bring integrity, trust, competence and a Margaret Thatcheresque firm hand on the tiller of the ship of state — all to the benefit of Floridians without regard to social standing, race, or creed. Go ahead and roll your eyes. Everybody else is.
The timing of Rothstein's largesse could not be more prophetic since the SBA board consists solely of Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum (who also happens to be running for governor) and Sink.
In an amazing coincidence, within weeks of his $200,000 check, Rothstein's firm began a full-court schmooze to glom onto the SBA's business, landing on a list of law firms being considered for the agency's legal fee money trough.
And since Rothstein's law firm had virtually no securities law expertise, this would have been a bit like appointing Joe Pesci's faux lawyer character in My Cousin Vinny to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the months preceding Rothstein's generosity, Sink's chief of staff, Jim Cassady, wrote memos to SBA executive director Ash Williams at the urging of Rothstein associate Gary Farmer to help schedule an appointment to promote the firm's interest in handling SBA legal matters. Then came the fundraiser. Then came the check to the Democratic Party. Then came the inclusion on the list of firms being considered for the agency's business.
To her credit, Sink has been a leading advocate to reform the SBA. One crazy, insane, wacky, coo-coo notion Sink has advanced is to expand the board beyond herself, Crist and McCollum to include people who have in-depth knowledge of the complex world of securities issues, arguing it might be a good idea to have people on the board who actually know what they are talking about. Naturally, this has been a nonstarter.
Once Rothstein took up residence in the hoosegow, Sink and the state Democratic Party hastily started refunding the tainted campaign contributions as if they had come from the Taliban. And Sink has insisted she never discussed anything substantive with Rothstein beyond perhaps what lovely crab claws were being served at the fundraiser.
This would have some resonance if Sink were running for governor on the Little Bo-Peep ticket. But this is a savvy, smart woman who, as a former Bank of America executive, knows her way around money and power.
Sink certainly had to know a prominent political power broker who had never given so much as a wooden nickel to Democrats suddenly offering to throw her a fundraiser in addition to nearly a quarter million-dollar contribution to the state Democratic Party wasn't suddenly caught up in a civic epiphany of responsible governance.
Rothstein, who could read a political racing form as well as anyone else, knew Sink's chances of winning the governorship are quite good. This wasn't a campaign contribution. It was an investment. It was a down payment on future access. It was Florida politics at its most disingenuous.
It was business as usual — until the jangle of handcuffs scuttled what might have been.