MIAMI -- Until his indictment, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez was one of Florida's most powerful and influential municipal pols, running the state's fifth largest city like a Chicago ward boss. A Cuban immigrant who had found success in American real estate, he wheeled and dealed as his ever-expanding domain was carved into subdivisions and shopping malls in Florida's real estate boom.
When the feds showed up last April with a 78-page indictment charging that he had extorted almost $1 million from developers in exchange for favorable zoning approvals, Martinez took it all in stride. He left office, as Florida law requires, but he continued his activities so flagrantly that his successor howled that Martinez was running a "government in exile" from his house.
Martinez's forthcoming trial is but one of a seemingly endless run of corruption melodramas playing out in south Florida these days. At the rate things are going, Dade County is well on its way to becoming the Cook County of the 1990s.
Half of the elected city government officials in Sweetwater, a suburb of 10,000 north of Miami, were indicted for extortion in real-estate zoning deals. Three, including Mayor Irain Gonzalez, were convicted in May.
Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud has been under federal and state investigation for, among other things, taking $35,000 in supposed legal fees from an insurance subsidiary of CenTrust Savings Bank after the bank's chairman, David L. Paul, sought zoning approval to build an oversized teak dock for his 94-foot, $7 million yacht. The payment was discovered in the federal investigation of Paul after CenTrust performed one of the more spectacular collapses in the savings and loan crisis.
Among the most intriguing of several lesser probes are:
A judicial-ethics investigation into a Dade County Circuit Court judge living rent-free in a $700,000 penthouse apartment.
Examination of a Miami city commissioner's business dealings with a convicted drug dealer.
Investigation of a Dade County commissioner's cozy relationship with a developer who flew him to New Orleans for brunch two days before a key zoning vote.
"Sure, other cities are corrupt, but down here they might as well take the oath of office on a calculator," said John Rothchild, a local author and observer of Florida's foibles. "It's no accident that Al Capone chose this as the one place he could retire with dignity."
Several years ago, Rothchild wrote a book about Florida's tangled history, wryly recounting corrupt real-estate transactions and get-rich schemes by some of Florida's most imaginative forefathers.
Rothchild described unscrupulous land deals cut in the early part of the century, when Florida was a swampy frontier, that established a way of doing business that has been passed down for decades.
He titled his book, "Up For Grabs," and many here think not much has changed.
Bob Joffe, an independent pollster and another observer of Florida's ways, agreed.
"Even after everyone who bought a lot got down here and discovered they'd bought swamp land, they built on it anyway and turned around and sold it to somebody else," he said. "This is Florida's history."
Florida's endless real-estate booms, its transient population and exploding growth created an environment for shenanigans at the local level. One former prosecutor, a transplanted northerner, said he found corruption so pervasive that it seemed to ooze out of the muck in the Everglades.
Take the Suit Case, which made headlines in the mid-1980s. Sergio Pereira, the well-tailored former Dade County manager, was known for his taste in fine clothes, the story goes, and bought his suits from a cut-rate clothier known for dealing in stolen goods.
The grand jury that indicted him for grand theft reported that "a bargain is a bargain, but a steal is not a deal." The charges were dropped on a technicality but not before Pereira became a south Florida legend.
Perhaps only in south Florida could a suburban mayor indicted three times survive long enough to be in office for a fourth indictment. John Lomelo, mayor of Sunrise in Broward County, was acquitted three times on state charges, but his undoing came in 1984 on a federal conviction of mail fraud.
"The kinds of people who run for a $6,000-a-year post as a member of a city or county commission are interested in having their egos stroked or making connections that will allow them to make money in other ways or both," said Joffe, whose polling firm, Mason-Dixon Florida Poll, monitors most of Florida voters' opinions of politics and government. "You don't get squeaky-clean reformers."
The reformers toil endlessly and with little success. Last spring, for example, they pushed a reform package onto the ballot only to watch voters overwhelmingly defeat it. The theory was that, if the $6,000-a-year Dade County commissioners were transformed into full-time professional commissioners, they would be immune to temptations that may get a low-paid elected official into trouble.
But the voters balked at the price tag. A salary of $51,600, the cynics said, was too much to pay people regarded as scoundrels.
The ever-growing list of state and federal investigations and indictments is the next-best evidence that south Florida is ready to change old habits. Acting U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen keeps score the way a broker watches his stocks.
"Indictments of federal, state and local employees jumped," he said in a recent report on his accomplishments, "to 37 in 1989, up from only 12 in 1987 and seven in 1988." He also talks of ending "an attitude of resigned acceptance" of public corruption.
Over on Miami Beach, the unfolding investigation of Mayor Daoud's financial dealings is playing better than the daytime soaps.
Since spring, Daoud's constituents have read a lot about their mayor and money. The plot revolved around the controversy over CenTrust banker Paul's teak dock. It was too massive, too garish even for the Miami Beach crowd.
Daoud voted with the majority to grant a variance permitting it and, nine days later, he received two checks from two corporations controlled by Paul. Daoud did not cast the deciding vote and, after denying wrongdoing, stopped speaking to reporters.
But subplots about the mayor's dealings spin out rat-a-tat-tat, full of juicy details about cash gifts from wealthy socialites on whom civic honors were bestowed and campaign contributions that allegedly paid for improvements to Daoud's house.
The story took a new twist recently when the mayor acquired a small arsenal from gun suppliers bidding to win a $153,000 contract with the city's police department. One firm sold Daoud two semiautomatic handguns at reduced prices just before he voted on the contract and sent him a third pistol two months after it won. A competing firm sold Daoud a Glock pistol, serial number 007.
Daoud's attorney, Alan E. Weinstein, acknowledged that the mayor has been under investigation. "I believe when it is concluded, it will reflect that at no time did he engage in any criminality or inappropriate conduct whatsoever," Weinstein said.
He declined to comment about the $35,000 Daoud received from CenTrust in "legal fees."
"No campaign contribution ever given to Alex was inappropriately converted by him," Weinstein said. "If you get a private gift from a private citizen, unrelated to the job, so what?"
Perhaps most revealing of all in this avalanche of news about Daoud is the lack of public outcry. A petition recall drive was begun but abandoned.
"The amazing thing," said Rothchild, who lives on Miami Beach, "is that the City Council can't even bring itself to ask him to resign. The local attitude is, 'Hey, a man's got to make a living.' "