A Surprise Witness

The witness, having been duly sworn, appeared on Monday, April 12, 1999, before the grand jury investigating county lobbyists.

"Please state your name for the record."
"Jim DeFede."
"Now, Mr. DeFede," the prosecutor begins, "I see here that ..." The prosecutor hesitates, shuffles through a stack of papers. "Excuse me, sir. You're not on my witness list. May I see your subpoena, please?"

"Here you go."
"This is a subpoena for lobbyist Ric Sisser. You crossed his name out and wrote your own in its place."

"That's right. Ric is a big chicken. He didn't want to come anywhere near this place, so he gave it to me. When do you serve lunch?"

"Excuse me, sir, but you can't just come in here and waste this grand jury's valuable time."

"I'm wasting this grand jury's valuable time? Now, that's funny. I'm not the one leading a grand jury through an issue a pack of third-graders could figure out. Do you really need a grand jury to tell you that lobbyists in this community are out of control?"

"We're looking at more than just lobbyists."
"I know, I know. You're looking into all aspects of the way Miami-Dade County awards contracts. From what I hear, this probe has been going on for months. The county manager testified, and so did many other county bureaucrats. But in the end it's going to come down to a grand jury report on the influence lobbyists have over the system, right?"

"Well ..."
"It will be filled with lots of flowery prose decrying the public's loss of faith in their government, the unseemly specter of influence-peddling, and the perverse effect of money on elected officials."

"Yes, sir."
"Geez, that'll be earth-shattering news. Stop the presses! There's dishonesty in Miami-Dade County."

"Hey, quit snickering. This is going to be different. This will have impact because we're going to use really powerful language. We've already come up with 38 synonyms for the word crook and another 29 for the phrase two-bit political whore."

"Wow, that does sound serious. So this truly will be a scathing indictment of the system?"

"Damn straight."
"I have a better idea. How about some actual indictments of people abusing the system?"

"Well, uh ..."
"Okay, sorry. No sense asking for the impossible. So let's examine the system we have here in Miami-Dade County. Who is the most popular elected official in the county?"

"That's easy, Mayor Alex Penelas. He talks all the time about bringing ethics back into government. He is also very close to my boss, the state attorney. Penelas is one of the good guys."

"How do you think 'Good Guy Alex' got to be mayor? His entire political career, going back to when he was just a county commissioner, has been bankrolled by a handful of lobbyists looking for fat county contracts. Is your scathing report going to talk about the mayor and his cronies?"

"Well ..."
"Never mind. Let's try something else. Obviously it's easy to paint lobbyists as the bad guys, but the real problem is the politicians. Nearly every county commissioner, at one time or another, has allowed a lobbyist to use his or her name to solicit lobbying clients. That's how lobbyists get clients: They market their access to certain commissioners."

"How so?"
"Take my good buddy Ric Sisser. Over the years, that man has made a fortune from his friendship with commission Chairwoman Gwen Margolis. Every businessman in this town knows that the best way to get Gwen Margolis's attention on an issue is to hire Ric Sisser as their lobbyist. It was true when Gwen was a state senator in Tallahassee and it's still true today."

"Does Gwen know this?"
"Of course she does."
"What does she get out of it?"

"That's easy. When election time rolls around, Ric is expected to go back to all those clients and raise a lot of money for Gwen's campaign."

"That's awful."
"It certainly is. Of course it's not just Margolis. Nearly all the commissioners have their own unwritten arrangements with lobbyists. It's no secret."

"But how does that affect the way contracts are awarded at the county?"
"Eventually the business people who hire these lobbyists expect something in return for all this money they are spending on lobbying fees and campaign contributions. And if the lobbyist and politician don't deliver something, the businessman is going to find a different politician and lobbyist to spend money on."

"It's amazing to me how many county commissioners walk around town with 'For Sale' signs tattooed on their foreheads and then get offended when you ask them, 'How much?' Can we take a short break so I can use the bathroom across the hall?"

"It's out of order."
"I'm out of order? I'm out of order? You're out of order. We're all out of order!"

"Excuse me?"
"Sorry. Always wanted to do that. That was my Al Pacino impersonation. You know, ... And Justice for All. Great movie. Now where's the can?"

Thereupon a short recess was taken.
"Okay, we're back on the record, I guess, with Jim DeFede. So, Mr. DeFede, what should we do?"

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

"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."

"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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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede