A few years ago a political consultant told me, "Jim, write down the following letters: N-T-B-K. Stick that right next to your computer and keep it there."
"Okay," I said, "but what's it stand for? Something new on the menu at Burger King?"
"N-T-B-K: Never trust Bruce Kaplan," he replied. "As long as you follow that advice, you'll never get burned by him."
While rummaging around my desk the other day, I came across that slip of paper and it made me chuckle. Nostradamus couldn't have foretold the future any better. Since taking office as a Dade County commissioner, Bruce Kaplan has proven himself about as upright as a Kissimmee trailer park. This past December I wrote a story chronicling some of Kaplan's misadventures -- from his sleazy campaign against Conchy Bretos to allegations that he was part of a ring trying to smuggle computers into Peru without paying necessary tariffs to his work promoting phone-sex franchises throughout Latin America.
The article also revealed that he was under criminal investigation for allegedly providing false information on a mortgage application he used to buy his home in Miami Beach. Citing sources familiar with the case, I reported that there were "discrepancies" between his application and the financial disclosure forms he files each year as a county commissioner. Kaplan denied he had done anything wrong.
After the story ran, several people said the alleged criminal conduct seemed like pretty trivial stuff. So Kaplan may have fudged a little on his mortgage application, they argued. Who among us isn't above tweaking a few numbers to give ourselves the best possible chance of getting our dream home? Some even suggested that the State Attorney's Office was being vindictive and was simply out to get Kaplan. I actually began feeling a bit sorry for the man.
Then I came across that note with the letters N-T-B-K.
Last week I obtained copies of several sworn statements given to prosecutors as part of their ongoing criminal investigation of Kaplan. These documents show that Kaplan's alleged efforts to mislead his mortgage company were far more nefarious than fudging a few numbers or telling a couple of little white lies to lending company officials. According to the testimony, Kaplan engaged in a systematic campaign of deceit worthy of Humberto Hernandez.
Key to the government's investigation are certain documents the commissioner submitted with his mortgage application that relate to his work for Mark Bradbury, a millionaire businessman whose various companies include Caribbean Telephone and Topaz Capital. Kaplan's main duties with Caribbean Telephone involved persuading government officials in Panama, Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia to allow the company to develop phone-sex operations in their countries.
Under his agreement with Bradbury, Kaplan would be paid a commission for the services he helped initiate. According to the sworn statements taken in the criminal investigation, however, Kaplan wasn't very successful, his income far from secure.
Mortgage companies are reluctant to loan money to people whose earnings are unpredictable, which may be why, in 1994, Kaplan allegedly went to great lengths to hide the fact that he was not receiving a regular paycheck when he asked to borrow $330,000 from Margaretten & Co., Inc.
Kaplan's loan application included a letter dated September 29, 1994. Addressed to Margaretten, it advised the lender that since 1991 Kaplan had participated in "an executive deferred income plan" through a firm called Topaz Capital Company. The letter stated that Kaplan recently withdrew $27,000 from the plan. Prior to the withdrawal, his account balance was $82,000. The letter was signed "Brad Bargman, plan administrator."
Prosecutors subpoenaed Bargman and provided him immunity from prosecution. In a sworn statement taken February 21, 1997, Bargman, who was employed by Mark Bradbury as a company vice president, told Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino that Kaplan himself had prepared the letter.
Q: What was the executive deferred income plan that he was referring to here that you signed?
A: I'm not sure. Mr. Bradbury said I could sign whatever [Kaplan] gave me. I didn't know what understandings the two of them had so I just went ahead and signed it.
Q: You in fact had no knowledge of any executive deferred income plan?
Q: You had no knowledge that he had withdrawn $27,000 from such a plan?
Q: You had no knowledge of any account balance that Mr. Kaplan had within such a plan?
A: No plan. No.
Q: Were you the plan administrator?
Q: Were you the administrator of any plan?
Q: Did you question at this time when you saw that you were signing as a plan administrator a plan that you knew didn't exist, that you had no reason to know existed? Did you question Mr. Bradbury about that, say why am I signing that as plan administrator, I don't know of any plan?
A: I just trusted the both of them. I work with Mr. Bradbury, Mr. Kaplan, the lawyer of the firm. I just trusted the two of them that whatever I would be signing would be legitimate.
Mark Bradbury was also granted immunity from prosecution and was questioned by investigators. On March 20, 1997, Centorino showed Bradbury a copy of Bargman's letter to the mortgage company.
Q: Was Mr. Kaplan ever on salary with your company?
Q: Was there ever any guaranteed wages, income that Mr. Kaplan was entitled to from your company?
Q: Is [the letter] a true statement?
Q: I think you have already said Mr. Kaplan has never had any executive deferred income with your company?
A: He has none.
Q: Signed by Brad Bargman as plan administrator. Did Brad Bargman have a title of plan administrator?
Q: Anybody plan administrator in your company?
Q: Did Topaz Capital Company or any other company that you were affiliated with ever have an executive deferred income plan?
Q: Did you ever have any discussions with Bruce Kaplan about his having an executive deferred income plan with your company?
Q: Was there ever a time when Mr. Kaplan or when your company had $82,000 or any amount of money in an account for Bruce Kaplan?
Q: In no sense is this a correct statement that he had any kind of a balance at your company?
A: No, he didn't have a balance, absolutely not.
Q: In reference to the $27,000 withdrawn from the plan, do you have any idea where the $27,000, where that number could have come from?
Q: Based on your prior testimony, it is my understanding that during the time Mr. Kaplan was employed with your company that you had extended numerous loans or payments to him in anticipation of future income.... Mr. Kaplan was thereby indebted to your company the entire time he worked for your company?
A: Yes, he was.
According to Bradbury, Kaplan simply fabricated everything. Prosecutors wanted to know why Bradbury would allow one of his employees to sign a letter filled with lies. "Essentially [Kaplan] asked me for permission to generate a letter to verify his income with the company, and as I recall, I think it was an urgent situation, needed to be done immediately," Bradbury explained. "I remember quite specifically that there was an urgency in the situation."
Because Kaplan needed the letter right away, and because Bradbury was in California at the time, Bradbury contacted Bargman at the company's Pompano Beach office and told him to sign whatever documents Kaplan gave him. Bradbury testified that he never discussed with Kaplan what information the commissioner would include in a letter. He said he assumed Kaplan would state that he was an employee of the firm and that he worked on commission. Bradbury asserted that he had no idea Kaplan was going to create bogus payment plans.
He said he trusted Kaplan.
Bradbury's sworn statements raise another serious problem for Kaplan. As a county commissioner, he is required to file financial disclosure forms every year. In 1994 he listed among his assets a "deferred compensation plan" valued at $80,000. If Bradbury is correct and there was no such plan, then Kaplan not only lied on his mortgage application but also on his financial disclosure forms.
Loan officers at Margaretten needed additional information from Caribbean and Topaz and asked Kaplan to have company officials fill out a questionnaire titled "Request for Verification." Centorino reviewed that document with Bradbury.
Q: It states his date of employment was 1989?
Q: Was that correct?
Q: He didn't work for you until 1992?
A: I didn't know him in 1989.
The Request for Verification asked specific questions regarding Kaplan's earnings from Bradbury's firms. Those questions carefully distinguished between money earned from commissions and money earned from salary.
Q: It indicates [Kaplan's] current gross pay, annual pay [for 1994] as being $120,000. Was that true?
A: Would have been fairly accurate.
Q: Again whatever his pay was based on commission?
A: Earnings, royalties, and commissions. In 1994 actually, higher than that.
Q: ... 1993 pay was $100,000, states that his pay in 1992 was $85,000. But it characterizes these amounts as base pay as opposed to overtime, commissions, or bonus. What you have told [us previously] these were purely commissions that he was working on, he does not have a base pay, any salary?
Q: These properly should have been classified as commissions?
Q: Would you put it under commission or base pay?
A: If I had seen it I would have put it under commissions.
Centorino noted that the form indicates Kaplan received a $20,000 raise in 1994 from Caribbean.
Q: Again if he was working on commission he wasn't getting raises and such, was he?
The form was signed by Sara Suarez, who identified herself as the company's personnel manager.
Q: Who is [Sara Suarez]?
Q: Her title is personnel, is that accurate?
Q: Do you have somebody who did personnel work for your company?
A: Brad, myself.
Q: She was simply the receptionist?
A: Yes, she was the receptionist.
Q: Would she have been the appropriate person to sign any verification of employment?
A: No, but she did work for Bruce Kaplan, sat out in the open reception area, actually did a lot of Bruce Kaplan's work.
Bradbury explained that during the period in 1994 when Kaplan was applying for his loan, the commissioner would occasionally arrive at the office and need to have various documents signed; he would solicit help from whoever was available. Bradbury testified that he was unaware what the commissioner was up to, and only learned about it after the State Attorney's Office began its investigation.
Q: Did you ever enter into a written or oral agreement with [Kaplan's wife] Janitza Kaplan for her to be employed by Topaz or by Caribbean or any other company you were affiliated with?
Bradbury noted that sometimes Janitza Kaplan helped her husband around the office, but he never considered her to be one of his employees. That, however, did not stop the county commissioner from informing the mortgage company that his wife was on the payroll of another Bradbury company, International Telecom Group.
Q: One more form here, similar form, exactly the same type of form, Request for Verification.... This one states that Janitza Kaplan was a research analyst with International Telecom Group. And her date of employment was February of 1991. Her current gross pay was $62,000. That she had an increase in pay in February '94 of $5000. Next increase scheduled for February of 1995. Again you have already indicated she did not really work for your company, had no salary or base pay with your company?
Bradbury also told investigators that in 1994 he loaned Kaplan $40,000 to use as a down payment on the house. According to sources familiar with the case, when Kaplan was asked on the application form whether he had borrowed any money for the down payment, he stated he had not. Bradbury recalled that initially he didn't want to loan Kaplan the money.
Q: You refused to give him the money?
A: I originally told him I didn't want to give him the money.
Q: What happened subsequent to that?
A: His wife called me and she was pretty upset and had a conversation with me, stressed on me how nice it would be if I could do that.
Q: Did she threaten you in any way?
Q: Beg you?
A: No, it was just a phone call of desperation, frustration. Can you help my husband out?
Q: So based on that you decided to forward the $40,000 for the house?
A: Yes. I wired it to him because I was in California.
Q: Was there ever any question this was a loan and not a payment or nonrefundable payment to Mr. Kaplan?
A: It was a loan.
Q: Why did you decide to give it to him?
A: Because he had backed himself into a corner, already surrendered his current residence and was in the process of becoming a homeless person.
Sources familiar with the investigation say that prosecutors also have taken statements from officials at Margaretten Mortgage, who testified that had the company been told the truth about Kaplan's financial situation -- his lack of a salary, the fact that his wife wasn't employed by Bradbury, that the down payment was borrowed money -- the company would never have approved his loan application.
Kaplan stopped working for Bradbury in 1996, according to Brad Bargman, Caribbean's vice president. Centorino asked Bargman to evaluate Kaplan's tenure with the company.
Q: Do you have an opinion about whether he was [loaned] more than what he earned during the time he was with Caribbean?
Q: What was the reason why Mr. Kaplan ultimately was terminated by the company?
A: None of the deals were happening and it just -- Mark finally had enough.
Q: The bottom line, you didn't think he was a very good employee or person to be associated with the company?
A: Bad businessman, I would say.
Given the substantial evidence implicating Kaplan -- most of it collected nearly a year ago -- it is difficult to understand why Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and her staff still have not decided whether to charge him with mortgage fraud and providing false information on his financial disclosure forms. (Prosecutor Joe Centorino refused comment last week.)
For months rumors have been circulating that Rundle's office has been trying to negotiate a deal with Kaplan by which he would agree to resign from office in exchange for no criminal charges being filed. The gossip has prompted jockeying among people who would like to replace him, either as a gubernatorial appointee or via one of Dade County's trademark quickie elections. Kaplan has repeatedly denied that he will resign, but that little scrap of paper next to my computer makes me wonder.
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Kaplan knows that even if he were convicted, his chances of doing jail time would be slim. His real worry is the damage a conviction might do to his future as a lawyer, and whether he would face disbarment.
"I don't think he is a crook," Brad Bargman said during his sworn statement to prosecutors. "He is a very nice guy, real stupid, he got himself in a lot of trouble. He is an honest person, Bruce Kaplan."