Former Broward power broker Mendelsohn gets prison

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Paula McMahon and Peter Franceschina

Published June 8 , 2011


FORT LAUDERDALE A federal judge delivered a tough warning to corrupt politicians and those who enable them as he sentenced former Broward power broker Dr. Alan Mendelsohn to four years in federal prison Wednesday.

The Hollywood eye doctor had asked for compassion and a light sentence of house arrest and community service for his role in a lobbying and political fundraising fraud.

Federal prosecutors suggested a term of two years in prison, arguing that Mendelsohn's influence-peddling had corrupted the political process and undermined public confidence in government.

But U.S. District Judge William Zloch expressed distaste for Mendelsohn's crime and criticized the pay-to-play culture of Florida politics that Mendelsohn detailed when he pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit wire fraud, filing false tax returns and lying to FBI agents.

Zloch said Wednesday that the gravity of Mendelsohn's crimes demanded a tough sentence that would punish the offender and deter others. Elected officials who cross the line must be held accountable as well as those who offer and pass along bribes, he said.

"Corruption in society is like a cancer it spreads its tentacles," Zloch said. "Corruption has become so common that its gravity is lost to many."

Zloch questioned Mendelsohn, a Republican, about how he could have done the things he did, when he was such an admired and respected figure.

"It was very wrong to have engaged in this conduct," Mendelsohn replied. "It was very wrong."

Mendelsohn, 53, kept his composure in a courtroom that was packed with family and friends. A rabbi murmured prayers under his breath in the back row and the crowd spilled out into the lobby, craning their necks to hear through the open door.

After the judge announced the stiff prison term, Mendelsohn almost imperceptibly shook his head.

"Oh, my God," his wife, Caryl, exclaimed while his two daughters and two sons, all young adults, wept.

Mendelsohn will remain free until he must surrender to prison authorities on Jan. 6. He must pay a $100,000 fine and also make good on his income taxes.

Mendelsohn admitted he paid $82,000 to then-state Sen. Mandy Dawson through an intermediary, so the Fort Lauderdale Democrat wouldn't vote against legislation he supported. He also admitted siphoning $330,000 from political action committees that he controlled, and failing to report more than $600,000 in taxable income from his lobbyist and medical work. 

The money was used to pay for private school fees for his children, credit card bills, a home theater system, and a house purchase and payments for his mistress, prosecutors said.

Dawson, who has since married and lives in Daytona Beach, could not be reached for comment.

At his peak, Mendelsohn directed hundreds of thousands of dollars into political campaigns, mostly Republican. He served on then-Gov. Charlie Crist's gubernatorial transition team in 2006 and was chief fundraiser for the Florida Medical Association's political action committee.

Only Mendelsohn and his daughter, Rebecca, 19, spoke on his behalf to the judge.

Rebecca Mendelsohn said she expects to undergo a kidney transplant with her big sister as the donor in the next few months. About half of the people in the audience cried when she asked for compassion so her father could care for her during her recovery. "He means the world to me and he's been truly remarkable," she said.

Mendelsohn told the judge the consequences of his crime were "life-shattering." He said he spent the last six months cooperating with state and federal investigators to try "to greatly reduce" the state's culture of corruption.

He portrayed himself as nave and blamed much of his misconduct on Russ Klenet, the lobbyist husband of Broward County Commissioner Stacy Ritter.

Mendelsohn testified that Klenet approached him and told him that Klenet's clients would contribute generously to Mendelsohn's committees. Klenet "on his own initiative" had his clients give gifts to Mendelsohn that Mendelsohn said he never even hinted he wanted. Klenet, he said, also told him that lobbyists often took such gifts and that they did not have to be reported to authorities. Klenet has denied all of Mendelsohn's allegations.

Prosecutor Mary K. Butler, of the U.S. Department of Justice's Public Integrity section, discredited many of Mendelsohn's explanations, noting that his crimes began more than a year before the death of his father, which he had said derailed him. She also said he only began cooperating more than a year after he learned his daughter needed the transplant.

Butler told the judge that the other people alleged to have been involved in the scheme "will have their day."

Mendelsohn and his associate, Steve Hull, had falsely claimed that, in exchange for bribes, they could use their influence with politicians as high-ranking as Crist to torpedo a criminal investigation of accused Ponzi schemer Joel Steinger, prosecutors said. Hull has cooperated with investigators and has not been charged.

Prosecutors said Mendelsohn made the wrong choices when he was approached by people who helped corrupt him. 

"What he should have done is what everyone should do call the FBI and help us clean out the whole town," Butler told the judge. Instead, she said, Mendelsohn lied for a day and a half when he was first questioned about his crimes in 2007. His belated cooperation has made it more difficult for prosecutors to charge others because the statute of limitations has run out for much of the wrongdoing he revealed, prosecutors said.

Mendelsohn ignored reporters' questions as he walked out of the courthouse, holding his wife's hand. His attorney, Alvin Entin, said, "We don't agree with the judge's decision and we're going to appeal."