Saturday, July 14, 2012

Monroe County voters want corrupt officials prosecuted

By John L. Guerra

Do you think your local, county and state officials are corrupt?
Is that nice employee at the Housing Authority, the Sheriff's Office, or wastewater treatment plant skimming money from the organizational till?
Is the meter maid accepting $20 bribes from car owners who walk up as she writes them a parking ticket?
Is the housing inspector giving a pass to his friends and family in the construction business while making it impossible for you to finish the addition you're building on your house?
When you go to pick up your dog from the animal shelter, is the counter person pocketing the $150 fee you just paid to get Fido back?
If you live in an average American city, chances are someone is grabbing public money for personal use.
Corruption seems to be a kind of institution in the Keys. In spite of the promise of public humiliation and jail time, there's always one more government official waiting in the hallway outside the grand jury room.

Is anyone watching the store?

At the Monroe County School District, former Adult Education Coordinator Monique Acevedo not only rang up hundreds of thousands of dollars in groceries, clothing, jewelry, furniture, and other goods on her school district credit card, she stole tens of thousands of dollars in cash from adult students hoping to earn state beauty licenses. The evening beauty school would accept only cash from students hoping to learn hair styling and manicure skills. Though scores of students paid up to $1,900 for classes, the line item in the annual school district budget for "Adult Education fees collected" were followed by empty accounting columns. In other words, the budget was prepared every year with no indication that money was ever collected from all those students.
The empty columns were there for the district's Finance Director to discover if she so desired. The proof was there, too, for the Florida Auditor General's Office, the state agency that reviews each school district's budget for fraud every year.
In the months before she was caught, Ms. Acevedo gave a special presentation before the School Board about all the money generated by her Adult Education Department beauty school classes. During the presentation, she told board members that the fees from the classes generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school district. She said that with a straight face, without a trace of irony. A recording of that meeting shows Board member John Dick expressing disbelief, but the truth was not learned for some time.
Now that she's well into her eight-year sentence for fraud in a Florida prison, the district is still trying to find its feet in the sand.
What if the newspapers reported all of the financial mischief in the school district--with the poor children literally robbed of publicly funded school books, clothes, dental care, and other benefits--and the Office of the State Attorney decided not to prosecute?
In the public call for justice, what if the state attorney decided that enough damage had been done to the district? Let Ms. Acevedo resign (she did) and let the school district clean its own house, some in the community suggested. After all (a state attorney could have decided) a long, penetrative investigation would only hurt the morale of well-meaning school employees and destroy the public faith in its school system.

U.S. Attorney prosecuted cases in the past

Many of the public corruption cases before Dennis Ward became Monroe County State Attorney were handled not by that office on Whitehead Street but investigated from the Miami FBI office and prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney, Ward's supporters argue.
Glen, a good friend who was born and raised in Key West, told me the Keys have changed in one respect in recent years: Now when there's a case of public corruption, the public learns the details of what happened. The public gets information about cases that once were dealt with quietly.
Ward, who got in trouble for greeting a juror (in full view of the courtroom, not in secret) and who neglected to keep up with continuing state bar association education requirements, is getting pummeled for these mistakes by his campaign opponents.
Ward's mistakes shouldn't be ignored, but given their proper weight. The judge declared a mistrial in that assault case and Ward apologized for breaking courthouse ethics.
Ward has since completed his bar education requirements. He was temporarily suspended from the bar, as were more than 800 other attorneys statewide, state bar officials said. Those same state bar officials consider it a minor administrative matter. Ward was rightfully criticized after his suspension became public, but I don't consider it a vote-breaker by any means.
Though former State Attorney Mark Kohl is hoping to win his seat back from Ward in November, I believe Kohl has had two terms to fight corruption in the Keys and Ward's supporters believe Kohl showed timidity in his pursuit of government criminals. Voters will have a chance to decide whether that criticism is fair. Kohl's supporters can point to Kohl's conviction of Louis LaTorre, the former head of county social services who recently began serving his 42-month sentence for DUI with serious bodily harm. LaTorre  had been free since 2008 appealing his conviction.

Ward should be re-elected

I am voting for Ward; he ran for his office on the promise to prosecute corrupt Keys officials. That is just what his office has done.
I first met Ward at the Studios of Key West one evening during his first run for office. As we stood outside the studios during an open house there, he introduced himself and as we talked, he told me he wasn't going to shy away from prosecuting dishonest local politicians. It was a safe promise to make; at the time there were no corruption cases on the horizon. So, Monique Acevedo is in prison; her husband, Randy, earned three felony obstruction convictions and is on probation. Norma Jean Sawyer, who ran the Bahama Conch Community Land Trust but misspent money meant to help poor and elderly residents in Bahama Village, also was convicted under Ward's service. The public had been pounding the table for someone to do something about the BCCLT problem for a long time.
Former Mosquito Control Director of Operations, Mike Spoto served 90 days in the Monroe County Detention Center for theft of cell phone services paid for by taxpayers. Kohl declined to prosecute Spoto, but Ward reopened the case after  he was elected.
Now Ward's assistant prosecutors are warming up in the bullpen for Lisa Druckemiller, the former Monroe County Technical Services Director charged with illegally selling about 50  iPhones and iPads that were slated for official use. A grand jury Tuesday indicted her for those alleged crimes.

Prosecutors are solid team
Ward's aces are Chief Assistant State Attorney Manny Madruga, assistant State Attorney Mark Wilson, and other assistant prosecutors who convinced juries to convict in criminal cases. Building strong cases and presenting simple but solid arguments to juries, Ward's prosecutors have helped Ward deliver satisfaction to a public tired of corruption in the Keys.
Ward faces fellow Democrat Catherine Vogel in the Aug. 14 primary; the winner of that race faces Kohl, who is a Republican, on Nov. 6. Vogel, who defended former Schools Superintendent Randy Acevedo in his obstruction trial, has criticized Ward's style for years. She argues that Ward tries his cases in the press when he should remain silent. Vogel believes his public comments in the run-up to Randy Acevedo's trial hurt her attempts to build a defense. She asked a judge to regulate Ward's statements to the press during Acevedo's prosecution, but the judge rejected her motion.
As long as a prosecutor agrees to release recordings, files, notes or other investigative documents to the press, I don't think the state attorney needs to comment anyway.
It's not that complicated, though. Ward is a fighter and Keys residents need someone who understands that corruption is expensive, destroys the public faith in its government, and hurts the morale of those who get up every day and do the right thing.

This opinion column first appeared in John Guerra's blog, at