Crime & Politics

The continuing success of lobbyist Ron Book: Perverse proof of how much lawmakers need lawbreakers

Ron Book is facing the toughest lobbying campaign of his career, more challenging than anything he ever did for Wayne Huizenga or Ralph Sanchez or Metro-Dade County or any of his other prominent clients. Book must try to sell the public on his own integrity.

It's not the first time he has found himself scrambling to put the proper spin on his own image. But this is different. This is going to be far more difficult. Because now Ron Book is a convicted criminal.

In the past, he's simply been known as an influence peddler. Today, however, he is an attorney who knowingly violated Florida's campaign finance laws -- not once or twice, but on dozens of occasions over a number of years, in a systematic and willful manner.

Book's colleagues in the lobbying business were not shocked. Years ago they recognized a disturbing malady that would periodically overcome Book and others like him, a sudden collapse of the ethical standards upon which the lobbying profession is precariously balanced.

They called it the "Ronnie Book Syndrome."
People are said to suffer from the Ronnie Book Syndrome when their zeal overtakes them, when their frenetic lobbying leaves no room for sober reflection, when winning becomes so important that right and wrong lose their meaning. Arrogance, overconfidence, and a sense of infallibility are symptoms of the disease. And once infected, the victim will always carry the virus, forever susceptible to another outbreak. Like malaria, it becomes a permanent feature of the afflicted individual.

In Book's case, each time he fell prey to the syndrome he claimed he had learned a valuable lesson. But some would say those lessons were quickly forgotten. In late 1985, he came under investigation for allegedly helping to bribe an Opa-locka politician. Book had been caught on police surveillance tapes telling the official: "I'll see that you get paid for your time. . . . I'm there for you. I'm there for whatever you tell me I got to do. How more direct can I be?"

The next year Book was arrested for allegedly overstating (by nearly $10,000) the value of his car, which he said had been stolen. That insurance-fraud case dragged on for almost three years, and when it was finally settled -- with Book pleading no contest to a misdemeanor -- the judge withheld adjudication, which meant that Book Ended up with no criminal record.

But he has one now -- compelling evidence that the Ronnie Book Syndrome is tenacious. Having been scandalized in the Eighties, barely escaping the decade without a criminal conviction, and knowing that police and prosecutors were just waiting for him to trip up again, Ron Book chose to blatantly violate state law by funneling more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to at least a dozen of his political cronies in state and county government. He did this not in a single campaign season, but year after year, over and over again.

This past September 21, Book pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges and was fined $2000. He also agreed to donate $40,000 to charity as an additional punishment. But rather than express remorse at having cynically subverted the public trust, Book asks for sympathy and says he should be given some credit for being man enough to plead guilty and admit his mistakes: "Anyone who says the decision to stand up and accept responsibility was an easy one, I tell them: 'Get in my shoes, get in my clothes and feel it.' I have been pained and I have been hurt. It hasn't been easy. Not at all."

The fact is that Book confessed to his crimes not as an act of contrition, not out of a sense of shame, and not because he understood that what he did was wrong. No, Ron Book confessed because the investigation into his criminal activities was about to be exposed in the media.

Even after being confronted with overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Book for months had attempted to manipulate the legal system to his advantage. Prosecutors say Book and his high-priced attorneys abandoned the effort only after they learned that a local television station was about to reveal that Book was under criminal investigation. "He was fighting two battles," says Dennis Bedard, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted Book. "First he was fighting a legal battle against us. But just as important to him, he was fighting a public-relations battle as well. Once this became public, if this had dragged out, it potentially could have destroyed his ability to work as an effective lobbyist."

The abrupt guilty plea and limited media coverage afterward seem to have left the 42-year-old Book intact. None of his clients have dropped him, although Dade County has yet to make a decision. "I don't have any problem with Ron Book as a person," says County Commission Chairman Art Teele. "I have found things that I admire about Ron Book and I find things, quite frankly, that I am embarrassed for about Ron Book. Like all of us, he has defects, and in his case that defect gets down to judgment. Ron Book processes more information and more transactions than the average ten people combined. And when you are processing that fast, you tend not to see things that people who are processing much slower would see. It gets down to a moral-compass issue."

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