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Crist Calls for Grand Jury to Look Into Public Corruption

Sparked by recent high-profile South Florida cases he said may be part of a “culture of corruption,” Gov. Charlie Crist called Wednesday for impaneling a statewide grand jury to investigate suspected criminal activity by public officials.

A Broward County Commissioner, School Board member and a former city official were charged with public corruption and money-laundering last month. A week later, eye doctor and Crist contributor Alan Mendelsohn was indicted in a fund-raising and lobbying scheme.

“This administration is serious about enforcing the laws designed to protect the public trust, and today we take a stand to root-out public corruption,” Crist said.

Crist’s request formally goes to the Florida Supreme Court, which is expected to comply. Statewide Prosecutor Bill Shepherd will lead the panel, whose investigation would span the year ahead.

Given that schedule, the statewide grand jury will issue its findings about three weeks before next year’s election. Crist is a candidate for U.S. Senate.

“Public service is no blank check for corrupt self-dealing,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd acknowledged, however, that the statewide panel will not play a role in the federal probes already underway in South Florida that are part of the impetus for the investigation. Instead, the governor’s office said the investigation will use the South Florida cases as a jumping-off point to pursue public corruption across the state.

Still, Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff said the approach looks designed to steer clear of the state capital, where the Republican governor’s party controls much of state government.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was charged by a state prosecutor with official misconduct last year for steering millions of dollars to a college in his Panhandle district and later getting a six-figure job at the school. But the toughest charges against Sansom were recently dismissed by a court.

The state GOP also has been under fire for what critics say is excessive use of political contributions on credit-card trips, meals and gifts.

“This is nothing more than a half-measure approach by Charlie Crist,” Jotkoff said. “He smiles at the camera to get the right headline, rather than getting our state on the right path.”

Similary, Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber pointed to anti-corruption ideas he and others have pushed in the past that got little attention from the governor or anyone else. Just this week, Gelber, a former federal prosecutor who focused on corruption cases, sent out an Email saying he was looking for a House sponsor for a bill that would let state prosecutors use a law similar to the tough anti-corruption statute used by federal prosecutors.

Gelber, who is running for attorney general, also noted he is pushing a constitutional amendment to make the public records law apply in more cases to legislators. More ideas from a grand jury aren't really necessary, said Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

Former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush also proposed a wide-ranging package of anti-corruption measures that emerged from a task force he formed in 1999, but little was approved by the Legislature.

“It is great to have more ideas, but what we really need is the political will to pass some of the ones that are already queued up,” Gelber said.

The ongoing Mendelsohn case already edges close to Crist and his U.S. Senate Republican rival, Marco Rubio.

Mendelsohn, a prominent Hollywood opthalmalogist, helped raise more than $100,000 from fellow doctors for Crist’s 2006 governor’s race, and hosted Rubio’s inaugural fund-raiser for the Senate run. Mendelsohn also was a member of Crist’s gubernatorial transition team.

Prosecutors say Mendelsohn steered $350,000 to himself from political organizations he controlled, and had his lobbying clients make $274,000 in payments to third-party organizations – including tuition for his children – on his behalf.

Crist wrote a letter of recommendation for Mendelsohn’s son, who was accepted into medical school at the University of Florida, even though he failed to take the school’s required admission test.

Former Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, also wrote a recommendation letter. The indicted doctor was a prominent contributor to the Florida Republican Party and GOP lawmakers, who control the state Legislature.

Crist deflected a question about his connection to Mendelsohn. Instead, Crist said his call for the investigation stemmed from broad concerns.

“What I can air out for you is the concern that this administration has for a number of cases,” Crist said. “It doesn’t center on any one case at all. Since I have been governor, unfortunately, I’ve had to remove 30 people from office. That’s almost one-a-month.

“It’s obvious to me, something’s wrong with the system,” Crist said.

The other corruption case rippling through South Florida has led to federal charges against Broward County Commissioner Joe Eggelletion, School Board member Beverly Gallagher and former Miramar Commissioner Fitzroy Salesman.

Eggelletion is accused of being involved with two South Florida businessman and a Bahamian attorney in laundering some $900,000 in assets through a Bahamian bank, getting about $23,000 in the scheme.

Gallagher was charged with accepting about $12,500 to steer school board business to undercover agents posing as construction company representatives looking to receive board contracts.

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