Governor's call to investigate public corruption includes Lee, Collier counties

The government corruption probe Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Supreme Court for this week could pry into courthouses in Lee County and Collier counties.

Southwest Florida is familiar with public corruption. Investigations, indictments and prison terms have taken down county commissioners in both counties, though it’s believed recent high-profile arrests in Broward and Palm Beach counties more likely spurred the governor’s request.

Stadium Naples was the largest public corruption case in Collier history. It was rooted in ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen’s plans for a $100 million golf stadium in North Naples, a scheme that involved three county commissioners, a former county manager, three developers, a convicted hedge fund manager and a real estate attorney.

Nine — including the three commissioners — pleaded to felonies, the last in 2004.

Vicki Lopez-Wolfe was a Lee County commissioner. She served two 18-month terms in the early 1990s, one as a county commissioner and the second in a federal prison. Lobbyist Sylvestre Lukis was her boyfriend then — they later married — and was tried with her. He was acquitted.

More recently John Scanlon, a Fort Myers Beach fire commissioner, was suspended by Crist when he was charged with possessing marijuana and cocaine. He was reinstated when the charges were dropped. Cape Coral Councilman Mickey Rosado was removed by the governor in January 2007, charged with a felony for operating as a broker with no license.

He was the first of 31 public officials Crist has suspended since 2007.

In announcing his request Wednesday, Crist referred to “a recent rash of crimes committed by public officials in south Florida (that) has produced a crisis of confidence” among voters.

Governor’s spokesman Sterling Ivey said the office has learned that the grand jury would meet for a year, and could add six months if needed.

The Supreme Court would empanel a grand jury by having its clerk issue summonses to potential jurors. A statewide prosecutor would guide the grand jury.

The request targets the 11th, 15th, 16th, 17th and 20th Judicial Circuit. The 20th includes Lee and Collier.

Samantha Syoen of State Attorney Steve Russell’s office said they have not heard from the governor or the Statewide Prosecutor’s Office.

“At this point we haven’t been contacted,” she said.

Syoen referred to the recent string of corruption arrests on Florida’s east coast. Three Palm Beach County commissioners have been arrested and the superintendent of Monroe County schools was removed from office by Crist.

Joe Mazurkiewicz, a Cape Coral political consultant and member of the Florida Transportation Commission, pointed to the east coast as well.

“There’s been a multi-agency task force working for three or four years and it’s brought down a myriad of public officials,” he said. “But that horse has left the barn. Why saddle him up now?”

Cape Coral Mayor Jim Burch said he has no idea what the request is about.

“I certainly hope it’s nothing to do with Cape Coral,” he said. “Unfortunately there was a reference to two from Lee County. I certainly know of no reason why they would pick Lee County, or Collier County for that matter.”

Collier Commission Chair Donna Fiala had heard nothing about the governor’s request.

“They can examine me all they please,” she said. “I would guess everyone on the Collier commission feels the same way.”

Fiala said she would never do something she doesn’t want her family to know about.

“I believe it’s always important to make sure we’re transparent. People are watching,” she said.

“If it had come out of some federal jurisdiction you’d say that all that fishing the FBI’s been doing maybe developed something,” said Lee Commissioner Frank Mann, an elected official since the 1970s. “But maybe these guys talk to each other.”

The FBI requested e-mails from four top Lee County officials in March. Key words in the FBI request seemed to point toward the ongoing effort to build a new spring training home for the Boston Red Sox. The FBI is still looking, agents say, but they won’t say for what.

Mann said it strikes him as “atypical” for the governor to request a grand jury.

“It kind of given it a political color that would cause some people to be suspicious of motives,” he said.

Crist is a candidate for U.S. Senate.

“It does make you scratch your head on the political implications,” Mann said.

Bonita Springs City Manager Gary Price was succinct.

“Don’t do anything wrong,” he said. “You don’t have to worry.”

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