Crime & Politics
Ron Book is facing the toughest lobbying campaign of his career, more challenging than anything he ever did for Wayne Huizenga or Ralph Sanchez or Metro-Dade County or any of his other prominent clients. Book must try to sell the public on his own integrity.
It's not the first time he has found himself scrambling to put the proper spin on his own image. But this is different. This is going to be far more difficult. Because now Ron Book is a convicted criminal.
In the past, he's simply been known as an influence peddler. Today, however, he is an attorney who knowingly violated Florida's campaign finance laws -- not once or twice, but on dozens of occasions over a number of years, in a systematic and willful manner.
Book's colleagues in the lobbying business were not shocked. Years ago they recognized a disturbing malady that would periodically overcome Book and others like him, a sudden collapse of the ethical standards upon which the lobbying profession is precariously balanced.
They called it the "Ronnie Book Syndrome."
People are said to suffer from the Ronnie Book Syndrome when their zeal overtakes them, when their frenetic lobbying leaves no room for sober reflection, when winning becomes so important that right and wrong lose their meaning. Arrogance, overconfidence, and a sense of infallibility are symptoms of the disease. And once infected, the victim will always carry the virus, forever susceptible to another outbreak. Like malaria, it becomes a permanent feature of the afflicted individual.
In Book's case, each time he fell prey to the syndrome he claimed he had learned a valuable lesson. But some would say those lessons were quickly forgotten. In late 1985, he came under investigation for allegedly helping to bribe an Opa-locka politician. Book had been caught on police surveillance tapes telling the official: "I'll see that you get paid for your time. . . . I'm there for you. I'm there for whatever you tell me I got to do. How more direct can I be?"
The next year Book was arrested for allegedly overstating (by nearly $10,000) the value of his car, which he said had been stolen. That insurance-fraud case dragged on for almost three years, and when it was finally settled -- with Book pleading no contest to a misdemeanor -- the judge withheld adjudication, which meant that Book Ended up with no criminal record.
But he has one now -- compelling evidence that the Ronnie Book Syndrome is tenacious. Having been scandalized in the Eighties, barely escaping the decade without a criminal conviction, and knowing that police and prosecutors were just waiting for him to trip up again, Ron Book chose to blatantly violate state law by funneling more than $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions to at least a dozen of his political cronies in state and county government. He did this not in a single campaign season, but year after year, over and over again.
This past September 21, Book pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges and was fined $2000. He also agreed to donate $40,000 to charity as an additional punishment. But rather than express remorse at having cynically subverted the public trust, Book asks for sympathy and says he should be given some credit for being man enough to plead guilty and admit his mistakes: "Anyone who says the decision to stand up and accept responsibility was an easy one, I tell them: 'Get in my shoes, get in my clothes and feel it.' I have been pained and I have been hurt. It hasn't been easy. Not at all."
The fact is that Book confessed to his crimes not as an act of contrition, not out of a sense of shame, and not because he understood that what he did was wrong. No, Ron Book confessed because the investigation into his criminal activities was about to be exposed in the media.
Even after being confronted with overwhelming evidence of his guilt, Book for months had attempted to manipulate the legal system to his advantage. Prosecutors say Book and his high-priced attorneys abandoned the effort only after they learned that a local television station was about to reveal that Book was under criminal investigation. "He was fighting two battles," says Dennis Bedard, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted Book. "First he was fighting a legal battle against us. But just as important to him, he was fighting a public-relations battle as well. Once this became public, if this had dragged out, it potentially could have destroyed his ability to work as an effective lobbyist."
The abrupt guilty plea and limited media coverage afterward seem to have left the 42-year-old Book intact. None of his clients have dropped him, although Dade County has yet to make a decision. "I don't have any problem with Ron Book as a person," says County Commission Chairman Art Teele. "I have found things that I admire about Ron Book and I find things, quite frankly, that I am embarrassed for about Ron Book. Like all of us, he has defects, and in his case that defect gets down to judgment. Ron Book processes more information and more transactions than the average ten people combined. And when you are processing that fast, you tend not to see things that people who are processing much slower would see. It gets down to a moral-compass issue."
But Teele, who was a partner with Book in the early and mid-Eighties at the law firm of Sparber Shevin Shapo Heilbronner & Book, says he believes Book is so "uniquely talented" that county residents should continue to enjoy the benefit of his lobbying skills. "Hiring him obviously raises the kind of ethical questions, or public-confidence questions, that you have to balance against Mr. Book's effectiveness," Teele explains. "Ron Book is by any standard a very effective lobbyist and advocate in Tallahassee. And it has been my hope that he could continue to work with Dade County."
So far only one county commissioner, Katy Sorenson, has spoken out publicly against retaining Book as the county's official lobbyist. "I keep hearing the argument that he is effective," Sorenson says. "But why is he effective? Because he spreads money all over the place. If we are ever going to stop governments from operating that way -- from working in a system where money and campaign contributions are traded for political favors and votes -- then we have to say no to this kind of behavior. We have to say this is not acceptable in general, and it is certainly not acceptable from the person we hire to represent us in Tallahassee."
Most politicians, however, have rallied to Book's defense. The mayor of North Miami, for example, labeled Book's crime a mere "technical violation" and scoffed at the notion that the Ronald L. Book Athletic Field in North Miami should be renamed. Others have criticized the campaign finance law Book admits he violated. "This is a bullshit law," declares Ralph Haben, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who now works as a lobbyist. "I'm not saying it's okay to break the law, but to the people in the process, this is just not that serious an offense. Is it illegal? Yes. Is it wrong? I suppose it is, because it is illegal. But that whole law is ridiculous. Everybody in some way or another violates those laws, and most probably don't even realize they're breaking the law."
Dade Rep. John Cosgrove attributes the illegal campaign contributions not to criminal intent but to Book's near obsession with being helpful to people. "He has a very zealous attitude about pleasing everybody," notes Cosgrove. "I'm sure it was not an insidious or malicious effort on his part to avoid the law."
State Sen. Pat Thomas (D-Quincy), a long-time Book friend and former president of the Florida Senate, agrees with others that the lobbyist's reputation in Tallahassee will not be hurt in the least by this latest scandal. "It's hard to go through any campaign without committing some transgression," says Thomas. "It is sort of like stepping in quicksand."
Such laments are lost on prosecutor Dennis Bedard. "I expected that the public officials who deal with Book would downplay the significance of his conduct and try in some way to mitigate what he did," Bedard says. "But in a larger sense, it disheartens me because it perpetuates a cynicism that the public has about elected officials and lobbyists. There is a feeling among a very significant segment of the population that the members of the Florida state legislature, and elected officials in general, are, ethically speaking, only somewhat higher than the type of people you would find in a prison, but slightly below the folks you would see in a brothel. The reactions of politicians to this case do nothing but perpetuate that type of feeling by the public. And that is what is truly unfortunate about this matter."
During the annual 60-day legislative session in Tallahassee, Ron Book typically loses about twenty pounds -- not from anxiety or loss of appetite, but from running between committee hearings and meetings with lawmakers. "He's a blur," says fellow lobbyist Guy Spearman. "There isn't a wasted minute in Ron Book's life. He is always moving at breakneck speed."
The former high school track star carries at least two and sometimes three cellular telephones, as well as a digital pager. John Cosgrove says he has watched in amazement as Book, a cell phone in each hand, has held two separate but simultaneous conversations while at the same time trying to get the attention of another lawmaker passing by. "He is a very intense person," Cosgrove observes.
At the end of the day, while other lobbyists may adjourn to Clyde's, a bar near the capitol popular with legislators and reporters, Book retires to his hotel room to begin preparing for the next day. "I don't believe in going out drinking," Book remarks. "I don't believe in going out and partying. I don't entertain a whole lot of legislators at night. I get to the capitol first and I am basically the last guy out of there at night.
"I hate to lose," he continues. "I hate to lose. I learned that when I ran track. I will work as hard as a human being can work. I will work 24 hours a day to accomplish what I need to accomplish."
Book's attraction to politics began early. When he was just thirteen years old, upset that the park in his North Miami neighborhood was not lighted at night, he picketed the mayor's house. The park got lights. Flush from the success of that fight, he organized a teen group called "Youth for Progress," and became politically active in local races, handing out leaflets for a variety of candidates, including Gwen Margolis. "He loved politics," recalls Margolis, now a Dade County Commissioner. "He really enjoyed it. While he was in high school, he hung signs for me in my first statehouse race, and he has helped me in every campaign since."
He attended the University of Florida, where he continued his interest in running, a solitary, inwardly competitive sport well suited to his personality. When necessary, Book can work with other lobbyists as part of a team, but he prefers to operate alone. The message is clearer when one person delivers it, he says. And he never has to share the glory of winning.
Book received his bachelor's degree ultimately from Florida International University and a law degree in 1977 from Tulane in New Orleans. Returning to Florida, he immediately went to work for Alan Becker's 1978 campaign for state attorney general, but when Becker lost in the primary, Book joined up with Bob Graham, who was running for governor.
So persistent (some would say annoying) was Book that he quickly became one of Graham's top fundraisers, an accomplishment that greatly impressed the candidate and his staff, and when Graham won, Book was offered a job with the new administration.
He began as a special assistant for legislative and cabinet affairs, which had him lobbying the legislature in support of the governor's initiatives. Reporters dubbed the 25-year-old a whiz kid. Soon he was made director of the office, and eventually was given the senior title of special counsel to the governor. Observes veteran Sen. Pat Thomas: "In North Florida vernacular, Ron Book is as smart as a tree full of owls."
At the least Book was smart enough to realize that being a glorified bureaucrat had its limitations, especially given his experience and growing political contacts. So after less than four years with Governor Graham, Book opted for the private sector and landed at the fast-rising law firm of Sparber Shevin. He became an instant rainmaker as clients clamored for the boy wonder with the solid-gold connections. His name was added to the letterhead and his salary was reported to be $200,000 per year.
By 1985 he was married, and he and his wife Patricia already had the first of three children. Life couldn't get much better.
And it didn't.
In 1985 little was known publicly about Alberto San Pedro except that each year during the Christmas season he would host a lavish party at the Doral Hotel in Miami Beach in honor of Lazarus, his favorite Santeria saint. Politicians, judges, and law enforcement officers were among the multitudes who attended the annual bash. Details of San Pedro's life may have been sketchy, but he was generally understood to be a successful real estate developer who lived in a Hialeah mansion with eight bathrooms and bulletproof windows.
If that last detail didn't cause San Pedro's guests to wonder about the true nature of his business, apparently neither did his 1971 conviction on murder-conspiracy charges stemming from a plot to rip off a group of drug dealers who turned out to be undercover cops.
For Ron Book in 1985, Alberto San Pedro was merely another client. Book reportedly had been introduced to him by Donald Dugan, a local public relations man and San Pedro confidant. The ex-convict had for years been trying to have the murder-conspiracy conviction expunged from his record. He had already completed his sentence, but he still sought an ex post facto pardon just in case he might someday want to run for public office (the felony would have prevented that).
Both Dugan and San Pedro believed Book was the perfect advocate to bring the matter before the state's parole board and Book's old boss, Gov. Bob Graham. Indeed, San Pedro needed all the help he could get. In a report analyzing his request, the state's corrections department noted, "A highly sensitive police contact indicated that this individual is one of the top ten cocaine dealers in Dade County. He has his own organization and is known as El Padrino (the Godfather). He is very violent. Informants are afraid to talk about him because they know he will kill them."
As Book worked on the pardon, he, Dugan, and San Pedro crossed paths on another project. A company called Southern Combustion Technologies had hired Book to lobby the Opa-locka City Council for approval to construct a ten-million-dollar hazardous-waste recycling plant.
Donald Dugan was also apparently working on behalf of Southern Combustion, and in November 1985, he approached Opa-locka's vice mayor, Brian Hooten, and offered what Hooten believed was a bribe for his vote on the project. Hooten immediately reported the offer to police and agreed to wear a listening device. During his next meeting with Dugan, Hooten asked him how he had become involved with the Southern Combustion project. Dugan replied, "It's through an attorney, Ron Book."
On November 18, 1985, Dugan, Book, and Hooten met at a Denny's in Hialeah. After a few minutes, Book reportedly asked Dugan to leave the two of them alone. Book proceeded to tell Hooten how important the Southern Combustion project was to him. "There were innuendoes and secret words," Hooten recalled in a Miami Herald article describing that meeting.
Two days later, on November 20, Book himself approached Hooten in the parking lot of Opa-locka's city hall and asked if they might speak privately. Book invited Hooten to sit with him in his brand-new Mercedes.
The lobbyist, however, did not know that Hooten was still wearing a listening device and that members of the Metro-Dade Organized Crime Bureau were monitoring the conversation nearby.
Hooten told Book that if he voted for the unpopular project, it could cause him trouble in the next election, both in votes and campaign contributions. According to transcripts of that meeting, Book replied, "I don't want to cheat you. What do you want me to do?"
"I gotta take time off from my own business, my own people," Hooten said.
"I'll see that you get paid for your time," Book responded. "I call the shots for my client. He'll follow what I ask him. You need to tell me what I need to do. . . ."
Hooten continued to talk about his business until Book interrupted and said, "I'm willing to make a commitment."
"Yeah, I understand that," Hooten said.
"Do you hear me?" Book asked.
"Everybody is gonna want something," Hooten continued. "I'm not saying that you're going to have to give everybody something."
"I'm there for you," Book stressed. "I'm there for whatever you tell me I got to do. How more direct can I be?"
On November 22, Dugan, whose telephone lines had been tapped by investigators, talked to Alberto San Pedro and complained about how Book was handling Hooten, that he was being too cautious. Dugan said Book is "probably afraid to say anything" and that he has "just been talking, talking with no nothing."
The exact nature of San Pedro's involvement in the Southern Combustion project remains unclear, but according to the wiretaps, he told Dugan to take charge. "Don't let Book give him [Hooten] the money," San Pedro ordered. "You give him the money."
Two weeks later, on December 3, 1985, Dugan visited Hooten at the vice mayor's home and laid out $4000 cash in what police alleged was a bribe to secure Hooten's vote for Southern Combustion. Hooten was to keep $2000 for himself and pass along the remainder to another council member and certain city staffers. Dugan promised that after the vote Hooten would receive another $3000 in cash.
In the meantime, Alberto San Pedro's request for a pardon was moving ahead. During a telephone conversation between Dugan and a Tallahassee attorney who was also representing San Pedro before the parole board, the attorney said, "Apparently Ronnie has gotten Graham to come across. The way it was put to me, the only friend [San Pedro has on the parole board] is Graham, and apparently that's in deference to Ronnie."
At a December 1985 hearing, Graham did say he was inclined to grant San Pedro's request for a pardon. Parole board members postponed the hearing, however, and before it could be rescheduled, San Pedro was arrested under a sweeping indictment alleging drug trafficking and bribery of public officials.
In February 1986, the Miami Herald broke the story that Book and Dugan were under investigation for allegedly bribing members of the Opa-locka City Commission. Hooten told the Herald he had no doubt that Book knew what Dugan was doing when he delivered the $4000. (Nearly a decade later, Hooten remains firm in his belief. "Ron Book was the engine," he said in a recent interview. "Dugan was his gofer.")
On August 6, 1986, Dugan was arrested and charged with bribery. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years' probation and 500 hours of community service. Today he maintains that Book knew nothing about his attempts to bribe Hooten: "My problems were created by myself, period."
Book was never charged with any crime regarding Southern Combustion and the payoff to Hooten. That decision by then-State Attorney Janet Reno reportedly caused a major split in her office as several prosecutors involved in the investigation argued strongly that Book should have been criminally charged. Still, Book's connection to San Pedro would forever color the way police and prosecutors viewed him. And if there was suspicion during this period, it was only exacerbated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
According to a January 15, 1986, sworn statement by Metro-Dade Sgt. Thomas Tretola, FBI agents in Philadelphia had contacted Metro detectives to say that Book's name had surfaced in an investigation there. One of the FBI's informants was alleging "widespread corruption" within the Florida Department of Insurance, then headed by Bill Gunter. "The confidential source further alleged that Ronald Book was heavily involved in this corrupt activity and was one of the key people to be contacted for any potential bribery attempt concerning the Department of Insurance," Tretola wrote. Book and Gunter were long-time friends; the lobbyist had raised more than $100,000 for various Gunter campaigns over the years. At the time the report was made public, both Book and Gunter denied any wrongdoing, and no charges were brought against either man.
The peculiar events of late 1985 prompted investigators to take a special interest in Ron Book's affairs, including the reported theft of his brand-new Mercedes 500 SEL, stolen from a parking lot at Miami International Airport on December 10, 1985.
Book had owned the car -- the same one he and Brian Hooten sat in outside Opa-locka City Hall -- less than a month. It was a gift from Miami Grand Prix promoter Ralph Sanchez, who Book represented as an attorney and lobbyist. The Mercedes was a "gray market" car, meaning it had been manufactured for use outside the United States and required upgrades after being imported. Such modifications sometimes make it difficult to place a precise dollar value on a car.
But determining a price didn't seem to be a problem for the dealer, Rennsport Autohaus, a Coconut Grove dealership owned by Antonio Jose Garcia. In early November, Ralph Sanchez had reportedly called Garcia to tell him Book would be trading his current car for a new Mercedes and that Sanchez would pick up the difference between the trade-in and the new car.
A month later, after the Mercedes was stolen, Book submitted an insurance claim stating that the sale price was $53,000. Following a tip by Metro-Dade police that something odd may be occurring with Book's insurance claim, two investigators from the state Division of Insurance Fraud went to Rennsport and asked to see all documents relating to Book's Mercedes purchase. When a secretary approached with the paperwork, the investigators -- John Askins and Ed Dahl -- quickly snatched it, slapped a subpoena in her hands, and walked out with the file.
Inside they found the original invoice for the car, dated November 5, 1985, which stated its sale price as $44,000. They also discovered a letter dated December 26, 1985, from Book to Antonio Jose Garcia: "Please remember to send me the Bill of Sale we discussed." At the bottom of the letter, in Garcia's handwriting, was a note to one of his assistants: "We have to do new bill."
Next in the file, Askins and Dahl found a new invoice, backdated to November 5, 1985, stating the purchase price of the car as being $53,000. Book had submitted to his insurance company a copy of this inflated invoice as proof of how much he paid.
On May 23, 1986, Book was arrested at his law office in downtown Miami. The headline in the Herald the next morning read, "Noted Lawyer Arrested"; the article was accompanied by a photograph of Book being led away in handcuffs by Askins and Dahl. The lobbyist was charged with second-degree theft and three counts of filing a false and fraudulent insurance claim, each of which were third-degree felonies. Book was also charged with misdemeanor perjury for filing a sworn statement he knew to be false. The case was assigned to Assistant State Attorney Larry LaVecchio, the same prosecutor who at that time was handling the Opa-locka bribery investigation.
Book and his attorneys argued (and argue to this day) that there was never any fraud against Book's insurance company, and that the $53,000 figure more accurately reflected the replacement cost of the car. Book and his attorneys worked aggressively to have the case thrown out of court, and even tried to assign blame to others.
As a defense against the misdemeanor perjury charge, for instance, Book contended that his secretary had violated the rules governing her status as a notary public by failing to swear him in before he filled out and signed the claim. If he hadn't been duly sworn in, Book reasoned, he couldn't have committed perjury on the claim form. The judge agreed and dismissed that one misdemeanor charge.
The move infuriated investigators, who saw it as a cowardly attempt by Book to protect himself by endangering his secretary, who could have been criminally charged with misuse of a notary seal.
Instead of arresting the secretary, however, prosecutor LaVecchio filed a new charge against Book -- "uttering a forged instrument." In his hasty effort to avoid responsibility, prosecutors argued, Book had admitted he sent the insurance company an affidavit he knew hadn't been properly sworn. Moreover, the new charge wasn't a misdemeanor, it was a felony.
The legal wrangling continued for more than two years. Initially Dade Circuit Court Judge Ralph Person tossed out the entire case against Book because he agreed that the $53,000 figure represented the cost of replacing the Mercedes. The Third District Court of Appeals then overturned Person's ruling and reinstated the charges.
On December 5, 1988, Book finally pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count of submitting a falsely notarized affidavit. Judge Person withheld formal adjudication, which meant Book would have no criminal record from the affair.
LaVecchio had urged Judge Person to declare Book guilty. "This crime is not a random or senseless act," LaVecchio told the court. "It was carefully planned." But Person refused, and even seemed to express sympathy for Book by stating that the prosecution had been a costly and embarrassing affair for Book to endure. "Mr. Book has been the subject of a great deal of punishment already," Person declared.
Book and his defense attorney, Donald Bierman, declared victory. "This plea is not an admission of guilt," Bierman announced. "The agreement was made to place this unfortunate matter behind Ron Book. He wants to continue life without a shadow."
By the time the insurance fraud case was settled, Book had already left the law firm of Sparber Shevin to open his own lobbying business, a one-man shop that would give him complete control over his future.
Despite several years of bad publicity, Book seemed poised for a comeback as the Eighties drew to a close. The swagger had returned to his walk. A self-assured cockiness once again infused his personality. In a 1987 Miami Review article entitled "The Persecution and Resurrection of Ronald Lee Book," the lobbyist cast himself in the role of victim. "The only thing I ever wanted to be is president," Book told the Review. "That's what this thing has cost me probably -- the ability to run for public office. It hurts because I've always wanted to serve. The truth is it makes me want to cry.
"I learned a lot from this experience, in spite of it," he continued. "From the beginning of this whole mess, people said two things: One, you learn who your friends are. Two, you learn a lot about life you thought you never needed to know."
Book certainly didn't lose many friends during this period, especially among politicians. And if there was a life lesson he learned, it very well could have been this: The road to redemption is paved with campaign contributions.
George Raisler knew he was in deep trouble. Across the table from him sat two investigators from the state's Division of Insurance Fraud. Officially they considered him a suspect, but unofficially they knew he was the operator of one of the largest insurance-fraud rings in South Florida history. By staging automobile accidents and filing false claims, Raisler's group allegedly had defrauded insurance companies of millions.
He'd been cooperating with state and federal agents for several months in hopes of lessening whatever charges might eventually be brought against him. And on this day in early September 1994, Raisler was once again grasping for any bit of information his interrogators might consider useful, and more importantly, redeeming.
After a long pause, Raisler admitted that he wasn't even sure if what he was about to tell them was illegal. It certainly didn't have anything to do with phony auto accidents. But it did seem suspicious to him. Raisler said that his partner, Greg Webb, was living with a woman, Debbie Stipp, who worked as a secretary for some bigshot attorney. The attorney had asked Stipp to write a bunch of checks to various political candidates, and then the attorney reimbursed her. Raisler knew this, he told investigators, because Greg Webb had told him.
He said the attorney's name was Ron Book.
As Raisler spoke Book's name, a broad smile spread across the face of John Askins, one of the two investigators questioning Raisler. "It was like deja vu," Askins recalls.
With his earlier investigation of Book for insurance fraud still clear in his mind, Askins immediately called the State Attorney's Office. Like Raisler, he wasn't entirely familiar with Florida's elections laws, but he quickly discovered there were two possible offenses. First, it is illegal to make a contribution through another person; and second, the maximum amount an individual can contribute to any candidate is $500 per election. Both offenses are misdemeanors.
On October 5, 1994, Greg Webb and Debbie Stipp were interviewed by Askins and two of his colleagues. Webb, too, had been cooperating with investigators in the staged-accident case, but now that the questions involved Ron Book, it was Debbie Stipp who did most of the talking.
She said she worked as an assistant manager for an Aventura company called Executive Acquisitions. The firm leased out office space and also provided secretarial and support services to a variety of clients, including Ron Book. Stipp confirmed what Raisler had told investigators earlier -- Book would ask her to write checks to various political candidates on her personal account and then reimburse her the same day.
She said Book had explained to her that this was necessary because he would often guarantee candidates a specific amount of money from friends and clients, sometimes as much as $5000 or $10,000. But from time to time, when the money was due, he wouldn't have collected the full amount. Rather than disappoint the candidate, Book personally would make up the difference and funnel the money through her.
As proof, she reached into her purse and handed investigators two checks Book had written her. One was reimbursement for a $500 contribution he had asked her to make to statehouse candidate Charlie Safdie; the other was to another statehouse candidate, Dana Maley, in the amount of $250. The checks from Book had been written September 23 and September 30, 1994, and she hadn't yet deposited them.
Stipp then showed investigators her personal checkbook, which included carbon-copy receipts of more than two dozen checks she had written to various candidates. The total amount came to more than $10,000. All the checks, she said, had been written at the behest of Ron Book. As for the candidates, most of them were unknown to her.
Stipp then told investigators this practice had been going on for years, and that she wasn't the only one Book had asked to write checks; she provided the names of five other secretaries in the office.
In return for Stipp's cooperation, investigator Askins promised to speak to prosecutors on her behalf regarding allegations that she played a minor role in the staged-accident ring. (She is not expected to be charged in connection with that case. To date no charges have been filed against George Raisler or Greg Webb, although investigators say they are imminent.)
Askins didn't hesitate in considering which prosecutor would be best suited to receive Debbie Stipp's information about Ron Book: He called Larry LaVecchio, the assistant state attorney who had been vexed by Book's conduct in both the Opa-locka bribery investigation and the stolen Mercedes insurance case. LaVecchio, in turn, recruited Dennis Bedard, another assistant state attorney from the office's organized crime unit. And with that, the latest criminal investigation of Ron Book was under way.
"It was the easiest case we ever worked," says Askins. "It was absolutely ironclad. We were sort of astonished at the irony of us having been the same agency that arrested Book previously, and now having apparently hit pay dirt once again. It's not like we targeted him. We were going after the staged-auto-accident ring and he just sort of fell into our laps."
It may have been an ironclad case, but a substantial amount of work still had to be done -- various bank records needed to be subpoenaed, politicians' campaign-finance statements required scrutiny, and Book's secretaries had to be interviewed. Even though the allegations had nothing to do with insurance fraud, the State Attorney's Office asked Askins and his colleagues to continue with the investigation. They had broken the case, and the principal witness, Debbie Stipp, was still providing them with information regarding the accident ring. To enhance the team's investigative power, agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) were also assigned to the case.
This past June investigators began serving subpoenas on other secretaries who had worked with Book, all of whom subsequently admitted their involvement in Book's scheme to subvert campaign finance laws.
From the outset, Book and his attorneys, Donald Bierman and Ted Klein, quietly tried to settle the case with the State Attorney's Office. "They wanted to resolve this civilly, with a civil fine, without any sort of a criminal case being filed against him," prosecutor Bedard recalls. "I disagreed with that and I told them very bluntly that as long as I was the prosecutor in the case, we were going to prosecute this criminally." (Bedard took control of the case after Larry LaVecchio left the State Attorney's Office to become a federal prosecutor.)
According to Bedard, Book and his attorneys responded by attempting to have him removed as the lead prosecutor. "They did not like the manner in which I was handling the case," says Bedard. "I didn't take it personally." They were in the process of appealing to Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle (a Democrat like Book) when, on September 20, they learned that WPLG-TV (Channel 10) was about to air a story on the Book investigation.
Other media outlets would be sure to follow, and would undoubtedly try to investigate more deeply. A prolonged period of bad publicity now seemed inevitable.
At 5:00 p.m., Bedard recalls, an hour before the story broke on Channel 10's evening newscast, Book's attorneys called to say he was prepared to plead guilty to criminal charges, just as Bedard had been proposing for months. Less than 24 hours later, Book appeared in court and pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors: two counts of making campaign contributions in excess of $500, and two counts of making a campaign contribution in the name of another person. Judge Catherine Pooler fined him $2000, and Book turned over another $40,000 to the State Attorney's Office to be distributed to various charities.
Book's dramatic change of strategy, and the speed with which he managed to get before a judge and enter a plea, caught some investigators by surprise. FDLE officials were upset because, they claim, they had not been properly notified in advance that a deal was being cut. If they had been notified, they would have objected to the charges and penalties as being too lenient. FDLE Commissioner Tim Moore says he has asked the U.S. Attorney's Office to review the evidence to determine if any federal charges might be applied.
According to law enforcement sources familiar with Book's case, the federal prosecutor who has been assigned to review the material is none other than Larry LaVecchio. (LaVecchio declined comment for this article.) Because some of the illegal campaign contributions were mailed to candidates, LaVecchio is believed to be examining the possibility of filing federal mail fraud charges against Book, charges already considered but discounted by Assistant State Attorney Dennis Bedard. (The Florida Bar is also reviewing Book's actions to determine if professional discipline is warranted.)
Bedard says he sympathizes with FDLE's frustrations. If he could have threatened Book with jail time, he would have pressed the case further. But he notes that the crimes are misdemeanors, and even though he might have been able to charge Book with more than 50 counts, jail time for a first offender would not have been realistic.
"In my own personal opinion, I think this should be a felony," Bedard adds. "It is a very serious offense for the following reasons: In the last 30 years in this country, money has played an increasingly important role in our political system. The influence of people who contribute money to politicians has increased enormously, to the detriment of the public. What these laws try to do is minimize the amount of influence these people have on the political process by preventing big contributors from donating large sums of money.
"And lets face it," he continues, "what Ron Book is trying to do here is to maximize the amount of political clout he can exercise over these politicians on behalf of his clients. And the way he does that is by contributing as much money as he possibly can -- legally or illegally -- to the campaigns of those candidates who, at a later time, will be asked to vote in a certain way that benefits his clients. He deliberately violated those laws for his own selfish good and for the good of his paying clients."
Not surprisingly, Ron Book's interpretation of events is considerably less harsh. "It's that rush to success," he ventures. "It's that drive to win, the drive to have that image of someone who meets his obligations and keeps his word. It wasn't as though I was trying to do something that was bad. I never thought about it being bad. I never thought about it being wrong. It was just easier, it was just quicker, it was more expeditious, it was sloppy, it was foolish, and it was a mistake.
"The bottom line is that sometimes you make commitments and the checks don't come in from clients and in the rush to keep my word that I would raise so much by such and such a date, I had people write checks."
But even in acknowledging his crime, Book has a way of making it seem almost noble. "I did it because I am a person of my word," he insists. "I think my word is important."
More important, evidently, than the law.
Now Book is left to ponder his future. "Integrity is important to me, in spite of the problem that just happened," he says. "Integrity means something to me. And I understand what the word means."
To demonstrate his understanding of integrity, Book points out that there are some clients he simply will not accept -- those, for example, who might use this phrase: We'll give you whatever you need to get there. "You say those words in my office, you're gone," Book says dramatically as he points toward his office door. "I'm not interested in representing you."
But how different are those words from the ones spoken by Book, and captured on police surveillance tapes, as he and former Opa-locka vice mayor Brian Hooten sat in the infamous Mercedes? "I'm there for you," Book told Hooten. "I'm there for whatever you tell me I got to do. How more direct can I be?
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.