The Little Thief

Bruce Kaplan was not widely known when he first ran for county commissioner. He had never run for office in South Florida, his law practice had garnered him little attention, and he had no big-name backers supporting him. Surprisingly, though, he did have money.

On July 31, 1992, eight months before the election was held, Kaplan filed his first campaign-finance report, revealing a war chest of $25,000. This was an impressive number for a newcomer, and it outdistanced his rivals at the time: Sidney Weisburd, a former Miami Beach City Commissioner; and Conchy Bretos, executive director of the Dade County Commission on the Status of Women.

At that time, no one questioned the source of Kaplan's money.
Now we know.
Kaplan helped finance his first commission race through unreported campaign contributions and money illegally funneled from the trust account of one of his law clients, according to bank records and sworn statements obtained by New Times and confirmed by prosecutors. It was both a fitting start for the unethical campaign that lay ahead and a harbinger of Kaplan's amoral tenure on the commission itself.

But more distressing than Kaplan's alleged actions is the fact that both the Florida Bar and the Dade State Attorney's Office have known about them for more than two years, yet neither agency has taken any action against the commissioner.

In the summer of 1992, Kaplan was an attorney with few clients. His primary benefactor was Mark Bradbury, a Canadian citizen who operated several companies, including Topaz Capital and Caribbean Telephone. In addition to being the attorney for Bradbury's companies, Kaplan was also hired to persuade government officials in Latin America to allow Bradbury's firms to develop phone-sex operations in their countries. Under his agreement with Bradbury, Kaplan would be paid a commission for the services he helped initiate.

Kaplan, however, aspired to be more than a phone-smut peddler and decided to run for a seat on the Dade County Commission. Although a neophyte in local politics, Kaplan understood that it was extremely important for his initial campaign-finance report to show he had plenty of money in the bank for a long race. In politics, early money can do many things: It can give an unknown such as Kaplan instant credibility; it can scare off competitors; and perhaps most important, it can help a candidate raise even more money.

The problem for any political rookie, of course, is raising that early money. Kaplan's personal finances were no help at all. Profits from the phone-sex operation were slow to arrive, he was living in a modest apartment in Miami Beach, and he still had $16,000 in student loans to pay off when he decided to run.

The one place where Kaplan could find plenty of money was in his attorney trust account. Lawyers commonly maintain bank accounts, in their own names, in which they hold money on behalf of their clients. Attorneys use the funds to pay bills and cover expenses for those clients.

Kaplan established his trust account at United National Bank on Biscayne Boulevard in July 1991. According to bank records and documents gathered by the State Attorney's Office, by June of the following year he had accumulated $36,941 in the account, $25,000 of it belonging to Bradbury's Topaz company. The rest was being held on behalf of a corporation called VMG, which was owned by one Victor Gutierrez, a South American businessman who was involved in local real estate development.

Eager to get his commission campaign off to a fast start, Kaplan asked Bradbury if he could borrow some money from the Topaz account. Bradbury would later tell prosecutors the loan was a "gentlemen's agreement" and was never committed to writing. According to Bradbury, Kaplan was responsible for paying Topaz's bills and was free to borrow any remaining money.

On June 29, 1992, according to bank records, Kaplan transferred all the Topaz money -- $25,000 -- from the trust account to his political campaign account. This left the trust account with a balance of $11,941 -- all of it belonging to his other client, VMG.

Three weeks later, however, Kaplan, as the attorney for Topaz, received a bill for $7000 from Conwol Investment, Inc., a company conducting research for Topaz in Colombia. According to a sworn statement Bradbury gave prosecutors, the bill from Conwol was not unexpected; Kaplan should have anticipated it. He also should have realized there was no money left to pay it.

At this point Kaplan had two choices. The first was obvious: He could return $7000 from his campaign coffers to the trust account to cover the Conwol bill. But the timing could not have been worse. If he withdrew the money before July 31, he would be forced to report having raised only $18,000 instead of $25,000.

So Kaplan went with Plan B.
On July 16, 1992, he wrote Conwol a check for $7000 from his attorney trust account. On the memo line was this typewritten notation: "On behalf of Topaz."

By issuing that check, Kaplan was paying Topaz's bill with VMG's money.
After Kaplan paid Conwol -- and billed VMG $2795 in attorney fees for unrelated matters -- only $2146 was left in the trust account, even though VMG should have had more than $9000 in the bank. But rather than correcting the situation immediately after the July 31 campaign-finance reporting period ended, Kaplan did nothing until September, when VMG president Victor Gutierrez sought to withdraw his money.

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