Mortgaging His Future

In one incident, an inspection of the container revealed that it was loaded with 729 boxes of hard drives, monitors, and other computer equipment -- not the 200 boxes that had been declared. The real value of the merchandise was $781,833, not the stated value of $67,250, customs agents determined.

Kaplan was present when the container was opened. According to a sworn statement by one witness, the commissioner became visibly nervous. Customs impounded the container and through a subsequent investigation determined that at least three other similar shipments had passed through undetected.

Police Col. Jose Leon Arredondo, chief of Peru's customs fraud unit, told the Herald last year there was no doubt that Kaplan was part of the scheme. "He was the one who brought the papers to clear the container from customs," the colonel said. "He was part of an organization dedicated to defrauding the state."

Kaplan denied any wrongdoing, and the charges against him were eventually dropped. Last week New Times contacted the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Lima but could not determine why the charges were dismissed. Attempts to contact Peruvian customs officials were also unsuccessful.

Even when he's not tangling with prosecutors, Kaplan can't seem to escape controversy. In September he decided to remove his appointee to the county's film advisory board, Peggi McKinley, because she had advocated support for keeping in Dade an international music conference whose sponsors do business with Cuba. Kaplan's rebuke of McKinley, which was approved by the county commission, sparked a protest over her First Amendment right to express her views. Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen dubbed Kaplan the "prince of pandering," arguing that his assault on McKinley was a crude way of trying to curry favor with a vocal and excitable faction of the Cuban-American community.

Last summer Kaplan sponsored an ordinance to provide protection to gays and lesbians in Dade County. At the time Kaplan drafted the legislation, he was privately weighing a possible run for mayor of Miami Beach. Kaplan's gay-rights ordinance was therefore seen by some as a cynical attempt to ingratiate himself with the Beach's politically powerful gay community. The commission, however, never passed the ordinance, as Kaplan was unable to line up the necessary support.

In most American cities, a politician who derives part of his living through the phone-sex industry, who has been implicated in a smuggling operation, who admits spreading contemptible lies about political opponents, and who was caught conducting government business in secret and expected taxpayers to pick up the tab for his legal bills would probably be considered unelectable.

Not here.
Indeed, Kaplan's latest alleged indiscretion seems trivial compared to other political land mines he has artfully sidestepped. Also working in his favor is the fact that even if the allegations are true and can be proven, the fraud could be viewed as a victimless crime because no individual was specifically harmed by his actions. By all accounts, Kaplan has been making his mortgage payments and the loan remains in good standing.

The larger issue, of course, is the honesty and integrity of elected officials. Already this year the public has seen former Miami City commissioner Miller Dawkins and former Miami city manager Cesar Odio go to prison on corruption charges, and the new Miami City Commission chairman re-elected after being indicted for money laundering and bank fraud. The dead are casting ballots, and the city's new mayor has turned Dinner Key into a manic soap opera.

County government has its paving scandal at the water and sewer department, a toilet seat fiasco at Miami International Airport, and rampant (possibly criminal) mismanagement at the seaport.

This week one of Kaplan's fellow commissioners, James Burke, is expected to be indicted on federal corruption charges for soliciting bribes. Once charged, Burke will almost certainly be removed from office by the governor.

If Kaplan is charged with felony mortgage fraud, he too would be removed. (The governor still has the right to remove him if he is charged with a misdemeanor, but the prospect becomes more remote.)

If, however, he is charged by prosecutors with a civil violation and agrees to pay a fine, Kaplan would remain a commissioner, thereby ensuring the continued employment of several state investigators.

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