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National Perspective | GOVERNMENT

Corruption Count Rising in Florida

June 18, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The handcuffed defendants have familiar faces. In recent months, the police "perp walk" on the nightly TV news has featured a virtual who's who of politicos and public officials.

So many South Florida officials have been arrested or forced to resign lately that friends are urging part-time Miami resident Madonna to run for office, a local radio station reports. "People are looking for a leader with no need to steal as much as he can," explained WHYI Producer Tina Malave. "It's getting embarrassing."

This year alone, five South Florida political figures have been charged with felonies or forced from office by alleged misdeeds, and several others are under investigation. The latest leadership crisis follows a ballot box scandal last fall in Miami in which so many fraudulent votes--including one from a dead man--were cast in the mayor's race that a court intervened to change the results.

"We have had it! We are outraged at what has happened in our beloved community," begins a letter inviting Latino business leaders to take part in a forum Friday on setting up a good-government watchdog group. "Once regarded as the crime capital of America, we are now perceived as its corruption capital."

Indeed, the toll of the indicted, suspended and imprisoned has been rising nearly as fast as the subtropical heat. Powerful state Sen. Alberto Gutman, a Miami Republican, was charged last week with 32 counts of Medicare fraud, money laundering and witness tampering. After being booked and released on bond, Gutman professed his innocence.

In a federal lockup awaiting trial in an $8-million mortgage fraud and money-laundering case is Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez.

Two Miami-Dade County commissioners are in trouble. Bruce Kaplan resigned after pleading no contest to charges of misstating his income in a disclosure statement. That plea was part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop a mortgage fraud probe if Kaplan promised not to run for reelection.

Commissioner James Burke is awaiting federal trial in a $350,000 bribery scheme involving California investment banker Calvin B. Grigsby. Grigsby, whose firm has underwritten major bond issues for Los Angeles and elsewhere in California, was indicted in January along with Burke after both men were videotaped in a San Francisco hotel allegedly discussing a payoff deal.

Grigsby also figures in a subsequent June 3 indictment in which he and former Miami Port Director Carmen Lunetta were charged with embezzling about $1.5 million in port funds to pay personal expenses, including golf fees, yacht upkeep and donations to the Democratic National Committee.

Miami has rebounded from hurricanes, high-profile crimes and riots--calamities that ill-serve an area so dependent on tourism. Now, criminal conduct by officials threatens the community's economic and social well-being, business leaders say.

"Our image, long tarnished by drugs and crime, can hardly stand any more battering," said Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman and chief executive officer of the Vincam Group, a human resources firm, in a letter to members of Mesa Redonda, the Latino business group. "To be now labeled a 'banana republic' is more than our pride and self-esteem can handle."

Florida International University sociologist Dario Moreno, in a CBS-TV "60 Minutes" broadcast, compared South Florida's political shenanigans to those of a banana republic. He attributes the area's woes to a combination of influences--including the remnants of an Old South "good ol' boys" network, Cuban-style patronage politics of the pre-Castro era and big city ethnic alliances.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce has proposed asking elected officials and government contractors to sign a code of conduct. "We are finally realizing that corruption is just not acceptable," said Chairman Jay Malina. "Enough is enough!"

Paul Philip, an ex-FBI agent hired by the county to monitor and teach ethics to public employees, said that when he started work six months ago, "most people had not a clue about conflict of interest." Commonly, he said, bribes were pocketed as tips.

"What we have here is a chronic disease called corruption, and the first step is to recognize it," he said. "It's painful, embarrassing. But we've got to do it. And then we'll turn this around."

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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