A south Florida mayor with close ties to Governor Rick Scott has pleaded guilty to public corruption for participating in a scheme involving the theft of federal grants earmarked for his tiny working class city.
The plot involves a small-town mayor, Manuel Maroño, with big-time political ties to prominent Republicans. In fact, Maroño was a rising star in the party and played a key role in Scott’s transition team in 2011. The disgraced politician even launched a “business development” firm called 7 Strategies after the governor’s 7-step plan to create 700,000 jobs in 7 years.
But everything went downhill in early August when the feds indicted Maroño and a longtime mayor pal of a neighboring city for operating a brazen scheme to steal federal grants that were supposed to help their respective towns. The mayors teamed up with two prominent lobbyists, one of whom worked for U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart when the Republican lawmaker was a state legislator.
Large sums of cash were exchanged in envelopes and hidden in notebooks during covert meetings in cars and at local eateries, according to federal prosecutors, who claimed in separate complaints that the lobbyists went around recruiting corrupt politicians to participate in the scheme. In all, tens of thousands of dollars were exchanged with hefty cash bonuses for making introductions to other public officials willing to participate in the kickback and bribery operation.
Both mayors abused their power to enact measures to help fake companies get federal grants made available only upon the official request of local municipalities, authorities say. Maroño collaborated with both lobbyists and pocketed more than $40,000 in bribes, according to his federal complaint. The money was supposed to help the 13,000 constituents in his working-class town of Sweetwater, which barely spans a square mile.
Upon getting indicted Maroño paraded around town confidently guaranteeing that his innocence would quickly vindicate him. At his side was his mother, a Sweetwater councilwoman, who led a media campaign professing her son’s innocence. This week, however, the former mayor marched into a federal court in Miami and pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January and faces five years in prison.
An ethics complaint has been filed against Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, for abusing the power of his office to financially benefit a chain of medical clinics that represent the single biggest chunk of his vast fortune.Scott, who was embroiled in a federal fraud investigation before moving into the governor’s mansion earlier this year, assures there is no conflict because his wife controls his $62 million investment in the walk-in clinics. A few days before taking office in January, Scott transferred his shares to his wife precisely to avoid any conflict of interest.Here is where it gets a little hairy for the Republican lawmaker who never held public office before this year. The healthcare policies he’s pushing would translate into hefty profits for hisFlorida chain of 32 urgent-care centers known as Solantic Corp. Scott co-founded Solantic in 2001 and was involved in its operation until last year, according to the newspaper story that connected the dots this month.Concentrated in the middle part of the state and along the east coast, Solantic clinics provide the medical version of one-stop shopping. Patients can get stitches, physicals and immunizations or they can receive treatment for a sprain or virus. The drug testing of all state workers, switching Medicaid patients to private Health Maintenance Organizations and downsizing public clinics that Scott is pushing will likely benefit Solantic.Another area of concern is that, as governor, Scott appoints the officials who head the state agencies that license, inspect and investigate complaints against healthcare providers such as Solantic. The woman who co-founded Solantic with Scott, chief executive Karen Bowling, dismisses the possibility that state regulators will be influenced by Scott and says inspection complaints are handled under a formal and public process anyways.Incredibly, Florida has no provisions banning elected officials from promoting policies that financially benefit family. Considering Scott’s past, this should be unsettling to residents of theSunshine State. After all, he was ousted as chief executive of a major hospital chain amid a huge federal billing fraud investigation that cost the company $1.7 billion in penalties. Scott walked away with $10 million in severance and $300 million in stock, part of which he used to start Solantic.