Flashing badges, federal agents descended on Florida's Capitol this week to question at least six senators and staff members about indicted political player Alan Mendelsohn and former Sen. Mandy Dawson of Fort Lauderdale.
A former Dawson aide also is talking with authorities in the Justice Department's case against Mendelsohn, a Broward County fundraiser extraordinaire accused of transferring $87,000 to an unidentified former state lawmaker.
"You already know I'm cooperating. Talk to my lawyer," said ex-aide Venica Blakely, 36, who sources say served as the intermediary funneling the payments to the unnamed lawmaker.
Dawson could not be reached for comment.
Mendelsohn, a Hollywood eye doctor, faces fraud charges that include using three political action committees and a corporation to transfer 10 payments totaling $87,000 to the intermediary, who passed them to an unnamed "public official'' between 2003 and 2006, according to a fraud indictment filed in September.
State and federal records show payments of $25,000 and $5,000 were made from Mendelsohn's PACs to Blakely during that period. Records also show that Blakely was paid $3,179 as a consultant to Dawson's political campaign in 2004.
Mendelsohn has pleaded not guilty to a 32-count indictment. Federal prosecutors said they plan to add more charges and defendants before the case goes to trial in May in Fort Lauderdale.
The 51-year-old ophthalmologist, who raised more than $2 million to influence Florida legislators, is also accused of fraud for claiming that he had used his money and clout with Gov. Charlie Crist and other high-ranking Florida officials in a bid to thwart investigations into a Fort Lauderdale life insurance company.
On Wednesday, Crist said the presence of federal investigators in the Capitol "doesn't surprise me." He said neither he nor his staff have spoken with them and said he thought they were "trying to build a case, would be my guess. I would be shocked if they weren't."
In the last three days, investigators from the Internal Revenue Service and FBI and a Department of Justice prosecutor questioned at least seven senators - including Senate President Jeff Atwater - and at least three Senate staff members.
"They asked how Alan Mendelsohn interacted with and lobbied the Legislature," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, who spoke with agents on Monday. "And I said I didn't really know for two reasons - one, he was never registered to lobby so he didn't lobby me, and two, he's from Southeast Florida and I'm not."
A chiropractor, Jones had clashed with the Florida Medical Association - and Mendelsohn specifically - over a scope-of-practice battle between ophthalmologists and optometrists.
Jones said the investigators pointedly asked about Dawson, who was so close to Mendelsohn that he once pushed her around the Capitol in a wheelchair when she was injured.
Dawson was chairwoman of the Senate Health Policy Committee in 2007 and 2008.
Mendelsohn was interested in the committee because he was a top fundraiser and had been treasurer of the FMA's political action committee.
Legislative sources say former Dawson staffers are among those interviewed by federal agents.
Other senators interviewed by federal agents included Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres; and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa. Both Fasano and Aronberg served on health committees.
Republican Sen. Durell Peaden of Crestview, who also was interviewed, said he was surprised when the agents showed up at his office. Though the investigators had set up meetings with other lawmakers, Peaden said he didn't know they were coming.
"It's unexpected. They show up and it's like suddenly you have guests for Christmas," said Peaden, the chairman of the Senate's health budget committee.
"This is my first experience with all this stuff. I'm too old for it," Peaden said.
Mendelsohn's rise in the legislative world came through his use of political attack committees, dummy corporations and big-dollar fundraisers held at his Hollywood home. Over time, he transformed himself from an eye doctor concerned about the finer points of medical legislation into a hired gun and political player in the state Capitol, according to the indictment and those who knew him. His connections went all the way to the top, including Crist, whom he closely supported until a recent break.
Mendelsohn defrauded a dialysis lab, an insurance company selling "death futures," a casino and a credit counseling company by promising to deliver on legislation if they gave money to his PACs, the indictment says.
Jones said the investigators asked questions about Mendelsohn's involvement with Mardi Gras Race Track & Casino. Mendelsohn had lobbied for the casino; Jones is chairman of the Senate committee that oversees gaming. Jones said he told investigators he didn't know what Mendelsohn did for gaming interests.
The Mendelsohn investigation is one of several recent high-profile cases involving political figures in Florida.
Last spring, former House Speaker Ray Sansom was indicted by a state grand jury for his role in steering a disproportionate amount of budget money to a community college that then gave him a job. Sansom has pleaded not guilty; some charges have been dropped.
Broward lawyer Scott Rothstein was charged last week with federal racketeering. He was a major Crist and Republican Party fundraiser who's accused of using his political ties to help further a Ponzi scheme.
Dockery, who served on Dawson's committee and is running for governor, also spoke with the agents Tuesday in Tallahassee. She wouldn't disclose much. But she did confirm they mentioned Dawson and Mendelsohn, and she said they also asked about other current and former lawmakers.
"It's going to get pretty interesting around here," Dockery said, smiling.
Staff writer Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.