A Surprise Witness

"I don't know that there is anything this grand jury can actually do. I guess the whole idea is to make recommendations."

"Naturally."
"Here's a recommendation every lobbyist fears: Make them disclose their fees. We have some lobbyists in this town who demand a piece of every contract they win for their clients, and others whose fees are pegged to the value of the contract. Force them to disclose the obscene amounts of money they're making, and embarrass the companies that are paying those fees. Whenever this idea came up in the past, lobbyists objected, arguing that it's nobody's business what they make. And normally I'd agree with them. But things have gotten so bad in this county that if they want to play in the public arena and vie for public contracts, they had better be prepared to make public certain things about their business dealings. Nobody is forcing them to lobby the county. If they don't like the rules, let them twist arms elsewhere."

"Okay. What else?"
"The county might try enforcing some of the lobbying rules that are already on the books."

"Like what?"
"Lobbyists are supposed to register on every issue they work. But there are some folks who never register, yet nothing is ever done about them. Lobbyists are also supposed to provide detailed reports on how much money they spend each year on lobbying. Just about nobody does it."

"Well, if we can't get them to say how much they spent entertaining commissioners, how are we going to get them to say how much they made on a particular deal?"

"Exactly. It's pretty hopeless. But there is one thing that could be done that would really hit the lobbyist and the commissioner where it hurts, and you don't need the pretense of a grand jury to come up with it. You want to curtail the influence of lobbyists at county hall? Get rid of their power to raise money."

"How do you do that?"
"Easy. Pass a rule saying anyone who contributes money to a county commission candidate is barred from doing business with the county for two years. Bam! End of problem. County Commissioner Jimmy Morales introduced an ordinance passed last year that now prohibits corporate donations to commission races. That was a good first step, but it doesn't go far enough. We also need to keep the corporate officers of those companies from bundling together campaign checks for various candidates."

"Is that possible?"
"Sure. A few years ago the bond industry realized they had a similar problem on their hands. Firms that wanted to win bond deals from various cities and counties were funneling thousands of dollars to certain influential politicians in those cities. In some cases it wasn't even the firm's fault. Often it was the politician who was shaking down the companies for campaign contributions. Remember Joe Gersten?"

"Of course."
"He was the master of it down here. When he was chairman of the county commission's finance committee, his campaign coffers were often filled with donations from employees of New York bond firms. I once called one of the people in New York who donated to Gersten's campaign and asked why he thought Joey would make a good Dade County commissioner. He told me he didn't know who I was talking about. When I explained the situation, he admitted that his boss had told him to write a check to Gersten because the firm was doing business with Dade County at the time and Gersten had required that the company raise a certain amount of money for his campaign."

"Pretty sleazy."
"That sort of thing was happening all over the nation. So the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board stepped in and said that if a firm or its employees donate to a political race, then that firm can't do business there. In other words, no more pay to play."

"So if Miami-Dade adopted similar rules, lobbyists wouldn't be able to raise any money from their clients for commissioners."

"Exactly."
"They would have to win contracts based on the merits of their arguments and not on their ability to raise money."

"Wouldn't that be novel?"
"Any other ideas?"
"How about a recommendation that the public stop electing morons."
"Well, Mr. DeFede, now look who's asking for the impossible.

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