The Mayor's Strong Arm

Sharpstein says that when Sanz was subsequently contacted by May directly and told that his company's future was now tied to his willingness to donate an additional sum to the Penelas campaign, Sanz refused. Shortly thereafter, Sharpstein alleges, the Department of Insurance broke off negotiations about the recovery plan, placed FESA under state control, and removed Sanz and his management company from the fund's daily operations.

"When David was solicited by Brian May for the Penelas campaign, it was at a crucial time, when the Department of Insurance was considering whether to accept his assessment plan," Sharpstein recounts. "And once David refused to pay, they pulled the rug out from under him, and [FESA] was forced into receivership. He becomes their enemy and they are now trying to indict him."

Evaluating David Sanz's credibility is difficult. Prior to his trouble with the FESA fund, he was portrayed in newspaper articles as a bold young visionary in the insurance industry. He is a member of the Broward Economic Development Council and on the board of directors of the Florida Education Foundation. In 1994 he gave $10,000 to a Miami City Ballet scholarship fund, and a year later "adopted" Pompano Beach Middle School, regularly donating items such as athletic equipment and uniforms.

Three years ago the Miami Herald published a flattering profile of Sanz, noting that he had begun his career in the insurance industry as a fraud investigator for an auto insurance company. "I got shot at, bitten by dogs, and chased," Sanz told the Herald. "I learned the tough side of the business. I found out later that I was hired because I was six-foot-three and a brown belt in judo. And at 230 pounds, they figured I could defend myself."

His current efforts to defend himself, however, inspire less confidence. Sanz can't remember important details about his alleged encounter with May, and at times he has contradicted himself. Initially Sanz told me he had donated $20,000 to the Penelas campaign. When informed that campaign records showed just $6000, he amended his statement, saying he had confused the number with contributions he'd made to Nelson's campaign for insurance commissioner in 1994.

Sanz's statement that Brian May tried to solicit an additional $20,000 from him is contradicted by one of his former attorneys, who says Sanz told him in 1996 that May was strong-arming his then-client for only $5000.

The one consistent aspect of Sanz's story is his assertion that Brian May used his position with the Department of Insurance to pressure him into donating to the Penelas campaign. And to Sanz's credit, there is corroboration.

The only thing Sanz and May agree on is that they first spoke to each other in 1994. May was running Nelson's statewide campaign for insurance commissioner and Sanz was interested in becoming more politically active. Fred Baggett, Sanz's Tallahassee lobbyist, told him that Nelson was probably going to win the race and that if he wanted to gain Nelson's ear, he had better donate to his campaign. Sanz claims he raised approximately $20,000 for Nelson, a figure Baggett confirmed during a recent deposition.

While Brian May was running Nelson's campaign, Sanz says he spoke to him regularly, and claims May instructed him how to get around state laws limiting campaign contributions to $500 per person. According to Sanz, May told him in 1994 that he could have his employees write checks to Nelson's campaign and then reimburse them. "Brian said you can always let them put it in their expense report or you can bonus it back to them," Sanz alleges. He now admits that "several thousand dollars" he donated to Nelson's 1994 campaign came from employees he later reimbursed.

Brian May adamantly denies this allegation. He says he never met Sanz during the Nelson campaign and talked to him only once on the phone. He insists he never solicited money from Sanz for Nelson's 1994 campaign, and certainly never instructed him how to circumvent state campaign finance laws. "Everything he is saying is absolutely not true," May says.

May acknowledges that after Nelson was elected, he did attend a private dinner with Sanz at Baggett's home in Tallahassee. In addition to May, Sanz, and Baggett, Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson was present, along with another of Sanz's attorneys, Michael Lozoff.

At one point during the evening, Sanz, May, and Lozoff stepped outside to talk privately. According to both Lozoff and Sanz, May lamented that Nelson really didn't know much about the insurance industry and said that if Sanz had any issues or problems, he could contact May directly. From that point on, Sanz says, he talked to May about insurance industry issues. Which is why, Sanz believes, May felt comfortable enough in 1996 to call him directly about contributing to the Penelas campaign.

"I never spoke to Sanz about Penelas," May reiterates. Furthermore, he claims, he wasn't even involved in fundraising for Penelas. Sanz, he says, is lying. "I didn't hear David Sanz making these allegations two years ago," he adds, "when the FESA problem first broke."

And here is another reason that the mayor's office is concerned. Sanz apparently did report to several people May's alleged solicitation on behalf of Penelas. And in an odd and suspicious twist, the insurance commissioner's office has been trying to block at least one of those individuals from confirming Sanz's story.

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