The Last Iconoclast

Edward Wasserman, departing editor in chief of the Daily Business Review, ruminates on public corruption, ethnic politics, and the Miami Herald

If his unsettled professional affairs posed a threat to his happy home life, Wasserman didn't show it. He laughed easily and exuded an unpretentious self-confidence.

Elsewhere in the nation, and during other eras, individuals pursuing illegal enrichment did so in the private sector -- from organized-crime syndicates to individuals robbing banks. In Miami the preferred target for illegal enrichment seems to be public money, from Medicare fraud to rigged contracts with public agencies to political patronage. Why is the public trough such a popular feeding spot in Miami? Does a culture of corruption exist here?

The boss at the Daily Business Reviewdesk he leaves behind this week
Steve Satterwhite
The boss at the Daily Business Reviewdesk he leaves behind this week
June 1997: Wasserman and staffers Susan Postlewaite and Dan Cook, who exposed Port of Miami mismanagement, used a billboard to put it in the Herald's face
Steve Satterwhite
June 1997: Wasserman and staffers Susan Postlewaite and Dan Cook, who exposed Port of Miami mismanagement, used a billboard to put it in the Herald's face

My own sense is that there is a broad continuity between the private and public sectors in people's ethical conduct. If you want to look at why your public officials are in a get-rich-quick mode and trying to profit inappropriately from office, you have to look at the way business is conducted here. This is a rootless, transient, Sunbelt community. People come here to make money and live well. They don't come here to build the Athens of the Americas. They don't even come down here with the idea of building companies and leaving them to their kids. They come down here to build bank balances.

[At the Review] we talked about doing a project on the transactional economy, where even institutions are basically slow-motion transactions. You build an institution with an eye toward selling it, so what you're really doing is assembling an asset in the hopes of liquidating it. It's just a deal that unwinds after two, three, or four years rather than building an institution with goals of dominating a market or delivering a new service to the people at a lower cost.

I don't think there is that impulse here. The impulse is to accumulate liquid wealth. So the value of a reputation isn't the same as it might be in a better-rooted community. People's memories are short.

I guess Blockbuster and Wayne Huizenga is a prime example. [Huizenga sold Blockbuster in 1994 for more than eight billion dollars.] You think he's building an empire, and then you realize he's just looking for the next big deal.

Maybe this has metastasized, and this is now the mindset of early 21st-century America. Maybe we just saw it trotted out and test-driven down here before anywhere else. But I think it's a peculiarity of the Sunbelt, and of Miami. So when you look at public officials, you're going to see a broad continuity in the way private business is also conducted.

My brother is a political scientist, and I remember after the Lewinsky stuff broke with Clinton, he said, “You know, in the private sector they'd never let anyone get away with covering this up.” And I said, “You've got to be joking. They do this all the time. You've got to get someone on videotape to own up to that kind of wrongdoing. If they can do a secret payoff to the secretary who was groped by the CEO, they do it.” So the idea that the public sector is more rife with corruption is phony. I think you have to look at the broadest slice of the way people think it's appropriate and ethical to live their lives.

So you're saying broader self-examination has to take place before things are going to change in the public sector?

Particularly in a setting where most of your public officials are only part-timers. Of course they should be full-time. You don't run a county of this size with people making $6000 a year. If you paid them $75,000 a year, would that eliminate the temptation of corruption? Of course not. That's not real money around here; it's not what these people are looking to make. But I think with a part-time situation, you're basically inviting people to sustain themselves by assembling conflicts of interest.

Is endless commercial development simply a foregone conclusion in Miami-Dade County?

I think this community has been very slow to recognize there are objective limits to development, and as a result we go forward on different planes. Every time there's a new development proposed, there's tremendous opposition. It's very, very difficult to get new developments approved in this community. At the same time, public funds are spent to induce companies to relocate here, tax abatements are given to companies to get them to come down here, bring more jobs, and bring more growth. So there's a schizophrenia on the subject of growth. A lot of our economy depends on increasing numbers of people coming in. You build them homes, provide them with retailing outlets, which provide jobs and services, economic activity, and some measure of prosperity.

But the continuing proliferation of tax-funded inducements to get companies to relocate here -- this has been a great source of concern in our coverage, and we've covered it pretty intensely over the past ten years, starting with Palm Beach County, which had a series of disasters when they gave money to companies that essentially went out of existence soon after they relocated to Palm Beach County. Now the State of Florida has its own inducement plan, Broward County has it, municipalities in Broward have it, and now Miami-Dade County has an inducements plan to give tax breaks or out-and-out grants to create jobs.

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