Mortgaging His Future

But prosecutors reportedly felt that charging Kaplan under federal statutes might raise legal issues concerning jurisdiction. Rather than complicate any possible prosecution, federal authorities deferred to the state, which in the past year has shown an eagerness to make its own public corruption cases.

Prosecutors have at their disposal an array of options. Rather than charging Kaplan with a felony, they could seek misdemeanor charges against him for making false statements on his financial disclosure form. They could also choose to bring civil instead of criminal charges and merely seek a fine.

The mortgage-fraud case grew out of a series of Kaplan-related investigations the State Attorney's Office conducted in the past year. Initially prosecutors were reviewing allegations that the commissioner had misspent money raised during his 1996 re-election campaign, sources familiar with the case say. Those allegations could not be substantiated, but in the process of reviewing Kaplan's financial records, prosecutors stumbled upon the mortgage issue.

Bruce Kaplan has been a Teflon-coated enigma since his controversial election to the county commission in 1993. He ran one of the sleaziest campaigns in recent memory, tarring his opponent, Conchy Bretos, with one falsehood after another. Among other things, he suggested she was anti-Semitic. Kaplan, who is Jewish, even went so far as to distribute campaign literature quoting his own mother comparing Bretos's campaign to the rise of the neo-Nazi movement in South Florida. The campaign material also quoted Kaplan's mother as saying, "Apparently Bruce's opponent thinks being Jewish is a bad thing." (After the election, Kaplan admitted that his anti-Semitic attack was groundless.)

At the same time he was branding Bretos a Jew-hater on Miami Beach, Kaplan was mounting a smear campaign against her on Spanish-language radio in hopes of destroying any support she might have in Little Havana. Kaplan and his campaign managers portrayed Bretos as both a lesbian and a Castro-sympathizing communist. In a last-minute radio attack, Kaplan falsely accused Bretos of wanting to end public housing, to "throw elderly people out of their homes" and "get rid of elderly meals programs." (After the election, Kaplan was asked to provide proof of his assertions regarding Bretos. He had none.)

Also during the 1993 campaign, Kaplan questioned whether the county had too many employees on its payroll and made several pointed comments about Bretos's position as executive director for the Dade Commission on the Status of Women. "I have the honor of sitting next to one of these employees who serves no other function than collecting a paycheck," Kaplan said during one of their debates.

Three months after the election, Bretos was fired from her county job. She claimed that Kaplan pressured county administrators to get rid of her. The governor appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations, and nearly two years later, in April 1995, the prosecutor concluded that although Kaplan did raise questions about Bretos with her superiors, there was no proof he asked them to fire her.

Kaplan didn't fare as well after a June 1995 investigation by the State Attorney's Office into allegations he violated Florida's Sunshine Law by holding private meetings with two of his fellow commissioners to discuss the selection of a new county manager. State law prohibits commissioners from meeting in secret to discuss county business. Kaplan agreed to pay a $500 civil fine. "There was a lapse in judgment, for which I take responsibility, in meeting with my two colleagues without giving the press or the public prior notice," Kaplan declared at the time.

Although he claimed he had accepted responsibility for his conduct, Kaplan still tried to stick taxpayers with the bill -- more than $16,000 in legal expenses he had incurred during the probe. The county commission approved Kaplan's request, but after a public uproar he agreed to pay his own legal fees.

In another sordid chapter from his career as a public servant, Kaplan in 1994 wrote to American Airlines executives suggesting they hire him to represent them as a lobbyist and government liaison in Latin America. The request was highly unusual and probably unethical. At the time Kaplan made his pitch to the airline, he was a member of the commission's powerful aviation committee, which was overseeing the county's plan to spend one billion dollars to build a new terminal at Miami International Airport for American Airlines.

Officials for American were reportedly dumbfounded by Kaplan's request. One commissioner at the time privately told New Times that Kaplan appeared to be shaking down the airline for a payment in order to support the airline's expansion plans. Indeed, several weeks after American rejected Kaplan's proposal, the commissioner berated the airline and criticized the proposed expansion. Kaplan later said his attack had nothing to do with the fact that the company wouldn't hire him. "I call them like I see them," he declared. "I will be critical of anybody."

In June 1996 the Miami Herald reported that Kaplan was under investigation in Peru for his role in an allegedly illegal computer-import operation. According to Peruvian customs officials, in 1993 and 1994 Kaplan was part of a group that tried to smuggle computers into Peru without paying the proper taxes. According to authorities, the smugglers would cram a shipping container full of computer equipment and then declare that the container was less than half full.

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