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By Kyle Swenson
The following is a copy of a letter I sent last week to Chief Justice Gerald Kogan of the Florida Supreme Court.
I am writing to you in the hopes of preventing a great tragedy. On your calendar is Supreme Court Case No. 90,805 -- The Florida Bar v. Ronald Lee Book. Ronnie (please indulge the informality; I want you to get to know him the way we know him down here) is a prominent lobbyist and attorney who was caught in 1995 funneling in excess of $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.
After his attempts to manipulate the legal system and avoid responsibility for his actions failed, Ronnie pleaded guilty in September 1995 to four misdemeanor charges and was fined $2000. He also agreed to donate $40,000 to a local charity. That's a mere pittance for Ronnie, whose high-profile clients pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have him represent them.
As the case file in front of you shows, the Florida Bar launched its own inquiry into his actions in October 1995. As an attorney, Ronnie violated numerous sections of the Bar's canons of ethics and rules of professional conduct. Two months ago Ronnie and the Bar struck a deal whereby his license to practice law would be suspended for 75 days. The Bar forwarded that recommendation to the Supreme Court last month, and the ultimate decision on punishment now rests with you and your fellow justices.
I beseech the court to reject that recommended punishment. Ronnie is an extremely sick man and cannot be held accountable for his actions. If you and your fellow justices suspend him for just 75 days, I fear it will only exacerbate his sense of alienation and eventually force him into a new round of criminal activity. Who knows what this megalomaniac with a rap sheet is capable of? Bribery? Extortion? Toppling the government of some small Caribbean nation? I beg you, put aside the file for a moment and let me tell you the sad story of a man called Ronnie.
This is not the first time he's been in trouble with the law. In 1986 he was arrested for trying to bilk his insurance company by inflating the price of his stolen Mercedes. He eventually pleaded no contest to a related charge of submitting a falsely notarized affidavit. In 1985 he was investigated, but never charged, for allegedly offering a bribe to an Opa-locka city commissioner. Ronnie was caught on a hidden microphone telling the commissioner: "I'll see that you get paid for your time. I call the shots for my client. He'll follow what I ask him. I'm there for you. I'm there for whatever you tell me I got to do. How more direct can I be?"
Your Honor, the question you must ask yourself is why would Ronnie do these things? Why would he repeatedly risk his freedom and his livelihood by needlessly trying to skirt the rules?
The answer: the Ronnie Book Syndrome. Named after the man himself, by those who know him best. People are said to suffer from this malady when their zeal overtakes them, when their frenetic lobbying leaves little room for sober reflection, and when winning becomes so important that right and wrong lose their meaning. Arrogance, overconfidence, and a sense of infallibility are often cited as symptoms of the disease; once infected, the victims are plagued for the rest of their lives. As an observer of politics, I've studied this syndrome for years and believe I have come up with its root cause: self-loathing.
There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of people in South Florida who are disgusted by Ronnie. One month they see him trying to weasel millions of dollars in tax breaks from the state legislature for Wayne Huizenga, the next he's championing a plan to snitch on illegal immigrants who show up at the county's homeless center.
Can't you see? He's making people hate him. He knows that what he does for a living has no merit and that he is no more than a sleazy backroom operator who produces nothing of worth or value. And so to punish himself he does incredibly stupid things that will bring him disgrace and embarrassment. This is a very sad case, indeed, Your Honor.
There are those who wish to compare him to Mike Tyson, claiming that he routinely bites the figurative ear of justice and spits it out bloody onto the canvas of society. The former assistant state attorney who prosecuted Ronnie two years ago for making all those illegal campaign contributions told me last week he wishes he had pushed to have Ronnie thrown in jail and that he hopes you will disbar him.
But I ask you, who is really at fault? Can we blame Ronnie for being the despicable person he is when each infamous act only serves to increase his client list? Even after Ronnie admitted that he tried to illegally influence and subvert more than 40 elections, Dade County hired him to be its lobbyist in Tallahassee. And so did countless businesses and interest groups.