Prestige Politics

The younger Barreiro "is a very nice, well-intended, but naive fellow," Ferre goes on. "He is not an evil person. The problem is he doesn't always have his own mind on things. He's a clean kid who goes around with people who aren't so clean, and that too has to make you stop and think."

Joe Geller, chairman of the Democratic Party in Dade County, echoes Ferre's assessment. "Bruno seems ill at ease with his responsibilities," Geller says. "He seems to me to be somewhat ill-suited for the job of politician. He's a pretty shy person. That may be a nice personality trait for a friend, but it is not an asset when your job is speaking out on behalf of the people. There have been a number of ethical questions raised about his conduct over time and the people he's around."

When people talk about the sleazy crowd Barreiro hangs out with, they are usually referring to State Sen. Alberto Gutman. The Miami Beach Republican and his noxious band of political mischief-makers played a key role in getting Barreiro elected -- and Gutman made sure Barreiro never forgot it.

In 1992 when Barreiro, a Republican, was first elected to the legislature, his family owned a small, financially struggling medical center in Little Havana known as Clinica Fatima. The HMO, which Barreiro's family had operated for more than two decades, was unable to maintain a $500,000 cash reserve as required by state law. The problem had persisted for so many years that state regulators were threatening to bar them from signing up any new patients until the financial troubles were corrected.

After Barreiro was elected, he was appointed to the House committee overseeing health-care legislation, while over in the Senate Gutman was named chairman of the powerful Senate Health Committee.

Within months of Barreiro's election, two cronies of Gutman surfaced and bought a controlling interest in the clinic for $580,000. State officials then certified the clinic to accept Medicaid patients. As a result, over the next year the clinic signed up hundreds of new Medicaid patients. The value of the business rose dramatically.

Eighteen months after Gutman's associates took over the clinic, they sold it to a subsidiary of one of Florida's largest HMOs, Physician Corporation of America (PCA), for ten million dollars. Gutman acted as the broker for the deal -- despite the fact that he had no experience handling such transactions -- and was paid a $500,000 commission.

Gutman wasn't the only big winner in the deal. Barreiro's father still owned fifteen percent of the company when PCA bought it. And PCA was forced to buy out a three-and-a-half-year "service contract" Barreiro Jr. held with the clinic. Although in 1995 the younger Barreiro told the Miami Herald his annual salary under that contract was $24,000, he said last week he was paid "about $200,000" for his service contract as a result of the PCA deal.

Gutman and Barreiro were sharply criticized for the transaction. Many people thought the two men had used their offices to work the lucrative deal. Particularly intense criticism was directed at Gutman, who as chairman of the Senate Health Committee that same year had blocked efforts by Gov. Lawton Chiles to toughen laws regulating Medicaid HMOs -- a reform PCA strongly opposed.

Looking back on the sale, Barreiro sees nothing wrong with the way it was handled. "Not really," he says, offering no elaboration. And Gutman, he asserts, has never controlled him. "That's an issue that a lot of people bring up," he says. "A lot of people have said that I'm controlled. Under no circumstance is that so. I've got my own mind."

Today Barreiro, a former University of Miami business major who dropped out after two years, says he earns a living through his own investment company, BABJ Investments, which manages his parents' money.

Janitza Kaplan is no fool. Those who know her say she is extremely bright and tough-minded. A native of Puerto Rico, she runs the South Florida office of the governor of Puerto Rico. Before that job she worked as a marketing analyst for various companies. She is 34 years old and has been married to Kaplan for eleven years. They have one child.

She claims she is not running as a front for her husband. "I understand where that idea might come from, but it is absurd," she says. "I'm my own person. I speak my mind. Bruce is Bruce and Janitza is Janitza. Bruce tried to talk me out of this, but I said we can't just let Bruno take over this seat, it would be wrong."

Kaplan has had her own problems. When the State Attorney's Office investigated her husband for mortgage fraud, she was also targeted by prosecutors because she too had signed the loan documents. As part of Bruce Kaplan's plea agreement, in return for accepting a conviction for the bogus financial disclosure form and resigning from office, the State Attorney's Office dropped its probe of the loan application. The state attorney's close-out memo in the case, however, also notes there was no evidence that his wife knew about the alleged attempts to mislead the mortgage company. Janitza Kaplan says she believes the effort by prosecutors to push her husband out of office was part of a "political vendetta."

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