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Palm Beach County's Culture of Corruption

July 22, 2007, Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach County's Culture of Corruption, by Joel Engelhardt.

Warren Newell fit well in the culture of political corruption that saturates Palm Beach County. Like others around him brought down by federal investigations, the former county commissioner did wrong and arrogantly maintained his innocence. Indeed, he seemed almost incapable of believing that what he had done was wrong.

In his own way, however, Newell stuck out. He was not as belligerent as former County Commissioner Tony Masilotti, who played political bully to neutralize opponents and defang criticism. He wasn't as ineffective as former West Palm Beach City Commissioner Jim Exline, although both were among their boards' least visible members. He wasn't a lightweight trying to play the part of heavyweight, like former West Palm Beach City Commissioner Ray Liberti, who strong-armed business owners for cash-paying clients.

Of all those charged in the scandals of the past year, Newell may have had the most in common with West Palm Beach zoning lawyer Bill Boose. Both brought a certain swagger and knowledge of the minutiae of government. Both used their skills to get things done - Boose for clients; Newell, ostensibly, for the public. Both were willing to do whatever was necessary to serve their interests, even if that meant breaking the law.

Call it the politics of self-interest. For every appropriate stand against bad highway planning or lake pollution, Warren Newell now appears to have had a hidden agenda. He didn't flaunt his membership on not one but two bank boards. He played down his partnership in the SFRN engineering firm, particularly after he broke a 1992 campaign pledge to sell his interest. He claimed to be motivated by the overlooked public demand for access to the water when he led the successful 2004 referendum to preserve public marinas.

No doubt, Newell was egged on by friends in the marina business who helped him to understand the pressures they faced from development. But he made no public mention - or even, according to fellow commissioners, private acknowledgement - of his personal ties to the owner of the Palm Beach Yacht Center who wound up, at Newell's insistence, with $14 million of the $50 million bond issue. Newell knew better, apparently, than to reveal that he kept his boat there, that he had run up a $35,000 debt at the marina and that he served on the board of a local bank with one of the center's owners. That's not forgetfulness. That's swagger.

But it's not easy to prove. The crimes of Newell, Masilotti, Exline and Liberti are not crimes of passion. Except in Liberti's case, where he tried to force business owners to sell to a client, there was no aggrieved party, at least not one who could testify. The victim in these cases was the public. And the public was not privy to the crime.

That's why the public is unlikely to see charges in the Masilotti case against brothers Jeff and David Lee or Enrique Tomeu, all of whom went along with Masilotti's schemes to profit illegally. They went along to get what they wanted - a land sale to a public body, in the case of the Lee brothers; a zoning change, in Mr. Tomeu's case. Both sides in each deal won. If the Lees or Mr. Tomeu felt victimized by Masilotti's insistence on personal profit, they didn't make a public show of it. That was the price of doing business in Palm Beach County. They helped Masilotti to get what they wanted. Both sides were enriched. There were no victims. There were no aggrieved witnesses.

The best way to force a plea deal from a Masilotti or a Newell is to show him evidence that could convict him at trial. Without the threat of testimony from someone inside the deal - the Lee brothers or Mr. Tomeu, in Masilotti's case - a public official never would accept a prison term. Documents can be misconstrued, but not if parties to the documents are there to say what the documents really mean.

Once that promise of testimony is secured, the case depends on it. Prosecutors cannot turn around and charge the witnesses. The question the public must ask is: Who did the greater wrong? The developer who met the demands of a politician to get what he wanted, or the politician who betrayed his oath of office for personal profit? Sending a politician to prison in disgrace sends a message that is meant to be unforgettable.

Boose worked for Masilotti without charge and sat in on conference calls in which Masilotti threatened to use the power of his office to get the terms he demanded. Through complicated land transactions, Boose helped hide Masilotti's role. Another lawyer, Harvey Oyer, sat in on the same conference calls, representing the Lee brothers.

So why has Boose been charged while Mr. Oyer has not? Prosecutors aren't saying, but the best bet would be that Mr. Oyer cooperated. The charges show that Boose did not, saying he "intentionally misled and made material false statements to" FBI and IRS agents. Boose accepted a plea deal last week and awaits sentencing. His refusal to cooperate may prove more costly to him than his work for Masilotti.

The difficulty of bringing these cases helps to explain why there have been so few over the past 20 years and why the investigative team assembled by U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta - FBI agents, IRS agents and assistant U.S. attorneys - deserves so much praise. The team has had plenty of help from Palm Beach Post staff writer Tom Dubocq, who traced information from Newell's and Masilotti's divorce files to indictable offenses. A similarly politically charged state grand jury investigation of corruption in West Palm Beach yielded stern warnings, no indictments and a report whose redacted portion remains hidden from public view six months after the report's release.

The federal presence has revealed to the public the obscene potential for corruption among Palm Beach County's political elite. It has exposed in one broad sweep the casual self-serving political culture in which Newell, Masilotti, Exline, Liberti and Boose thrived for years. It has made itself necessary. The public now must rely on that federal presence to make sure that the swagger does not return.

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