By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Steve Mann was on his way to work one morning last November, when a golden-brown Mercedes sports car caught his eye. "I noticed it because I've always liked cars, and it's not the type of car you see every day, especially in those colors," Mann recalls. The car, which he described as a Mercedes 500-SL, stopped just ahead of Mann alongside a construction Dumpster near the Astor Hotel, at Washington Avenue and Tenth Street on Miami Beach.
Still fascinated with the car, Mann watched as the driver got out and began tossing stacks of New Times newspapers from the passenger seat of his Mercedes into the Dumpster. Mann peered into the container; on the covers of the papers, he noticed, was a photograph of a balding, bearded man with sad eyes. He looked up at the Mercedes driver, still furiously unloading papers into the trash. It was, he realized, the same person.
"I am certain it was Ron Book," Mann says. "He was only four or five feet away from me. I looked right at him. I made eye contact with him, and I thought at the time that it was funny that the guy who was on the cover was dumping the papers into the Dumpster."
Indeed, Ron Book had graced the cover of the November 9 issue of New Times. The high-powered lobbyist and long-time confidant of many of the state's most powerful politicians had been profiled in a story entitled "Crime & Politics," which chronicled the darker moments in Book's career, including his involvement with crime boss Alberto San Pedro, allegations that he had attempted to bribe an Opa-locka city councilman in 1985, his arrest for alleged insurance fraud in 1986, and his conviction late last year on criminal charges after he was caught funneling thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions to at least a dozen candidates.
"He didn't look too happy," Mann says, remembering the morning of November 10, when he says he saw Book discarding copies of the paper, "so I didn't say anything to him."
Apparently, though, Book wouldn't have had time to talk.
About 30 minutes after Mann's sighting, Louis Methot was standing at the sink in his kitchen washing the breakfast dishes when he looked out the window and noticed a brown Mercedes sports car pull up in the alley behind his apartment building, on Washington Avenue near Sixteenth Street. The car stopped next to a Dumpster just under Methot's window, less than 60 feet away.
A man got out of the car and opened his passenger-side door, and Methot could see that the vehicle was filled with copies of New Times. The man began tossing the papers into the Dumpster, Methot says, then walked around to the trunk of the Mercedes, opened it, and began throwing away stacks of the newspaper that were stashed there.
"I also had a copy of the paper in my apartment," Methot says. "And I looked at the picture on the cover, and then I looked at the person throwing away the newspapers, and it was the same person, Ron Book. It was definitely Ron Book."
It is hard to think of an image more pathetic than that of a man so self-absorbed that he would launch a futile effort to destroy copies of a newspaper that criticized him. But it is not an altogether unrealistic picture of Ron Book, whose clients include Dade County, the cities of North Miami and North Miami Beach, the hospice giant VITAS, Ralph Sanchez and the Homestead Motorsports Complex, and a slew of Wayne Huizenga's companies, including the Miami Dolphins, the Florida Marlins, and the Florida Panthers.
Many have argued that it is Book's obsessive, arrogant nature that gets him into trouble. Some of his colleagues in the lobbying business even have a name for this malady -- they call it the Ronnie Book Syndrome.
In September, in a plea bargain with prosecutors, Book pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges stemming from his scheme to circumvent the state's campaign finance laws. Rather than play by the rules and limit his donations to $500, Book donated secretly to various candidates through half a dozen secretaries who worked for him. In all, more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions were discovered, spanning several years.
After he was caught, Book paid a $2000 fine and agreed to donate $40,000 to charity as an additional punishment -- a sum his lawyer recently suggested Book would use as a write-off on his taxes this year.
Apart from the public embarrassment of the scandal, there has been little impact on Book's business. After waiting two months for news of Book's conviction to die down in the press, the Dade County Commission voted to once again hire him to lobby on their behalf at the state legislature in Tallahassee.
But even his closest supporters said it would only be a matter of time until a recurrence of the Ronnie Book Syndrome. And along came Dumpstergate.
Independent of one another, both Steve Mann and Louis Methot called New Times on the morning of November 10 to report having just seen Book dump copies of the newspaper. At the time, neither man would identify himself. A week later, however, New Times announced that it considers the unauthorized removal of multiple copies of the paper to be an act of theft, filed a criminal complaint with the Miami Beach Police Department, and offered a $2500 reward to anyone who could provide information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for stealing the newspapers. Both men subsequently contacted the newspaper. (Mann and Methot do not know each other. Mann is a 26-year-old South Florida native. Methot is a 47-year-old Canadian.)