Crist Cronies Are the Law in Broward County
Around the State
As more political skeletons emerge from Gov. Charlie Crist's closet, one remains buried -- and fully employed -- in the Broward County Sheriff's Office.
Nearly five months after Sheriff Al Lamberti was presented pictorial evidence of his undersheriff, Tom Wheeler, kibitzing with Ponzi king Scott Rothstein, an internal investigation has yet to reach a conclusion about misconduct.
"When the Rothstein case surfaced last year, Sheriff Al Lamberti directed BSO’s Internal Affairs Division to do an investigation of all things Rothstein-related," said Jim Leljedal, media relations director for the Sheriff's Office.
"Col. Tom Wheeler’s interaction with Rothstein is part of that overall investigation, but Wheeler is not the 'subject' of the investigation. The investigation is ongoing, so we cannot discuss specifics."
Both Lamberti and Wheeler have ties to Crist. And Rothstein, a heavy contributor to Crist's campaigns, kept cropping up in their midst with free jet rides.
Crist appointed Lamberti sheriff in 2007 after Sheriff Ken Jenne was convicted on corruption charges. Jenne was released from federal prison in 2008.
Crist previously appointed Wheeler to two state jobs when Crist was education commissioner and attorney general.
Eerily, Wheeler's run through the Department of Education and Attorney General's Office closely followed the path of yet another Crist crony, Jay Burmer.
At the Department of Education, Wheeler landed a job as educational policy director for the Department of Education in South Florida.
Wheeler, who has a criminology degree, listed no experience in education policy on his resume. He started at a salary of $75,000 -- the same amount paid to Burmer, a career advertising executive, whom Crist put into a similar education post in the St. Petersburg area.
Two years later, newly elected Attorney General Crist made Wheeler director of law enforcement relations and elevated the position to senior management. Burmer was appointed the AG's director of fraud prevention.
Wheeler subsequently became an administrator at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where he worked on security during Crist's gubernatorial campaign and as a security consultant on his inaugural committee.
All three men -- Crist, Wheeler and Burmer -- attended Florida State University. Crist and Wheeler were fraternity brothers at Pi Kappa Alpha.
While Crist considers convening a special legislative session to crack down on corruption in Florida politics, his associates keep turning up in questionable situations -- on the ground and in the air.
Burmer's shadowy $316,000 consulting job for the Republican Party of Florida under another Crist crony, ousted Chairman Jim Greer, was the subject of a Sunshine State News article last month.
Shane Strum, now Crist's chief of staff, took a courtesy ride aboard Rothstein's private jet to the Republican convention in Minneapolis. The 2008 jaunt was detailed by Sunshine State News last week.
That same year, Wheeler was shuttled to at least two football games, courtesy of Rothstein -- one of the state's most notorious racketeers. The disbarred Fort Lauderdale attorney pleaded guilty earlier this year to five counts of fraud in a Ponzi scheme that bilked Floridians out of an estimated $1.2 billion.
Wheeler's plane trips with Rothstein were revealed by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel last January. The paper reported that Rothstein flew Wheeler to Miami Dolphin and Florida Gator football games in 2008.
Wheeler did not disclose the flights on his financial forms, and his boss, Lamberti, initially suggested that his appointee might not fall under the reporting requirement. But after he was presented with a picture of Wheeler and Rothstein together, Lamberti agreed to open an internal investigation.
That was back on Jan. 4. As of Monday, Lamberti would say only that the investigation is "ongoing."
Wheeler did not respond to a request from Sunshine State News seeking comment.
It remains unclear what, if anything, Rothstein expected from his traveling companion Wheeler. Currently in federal custody awaiting sentencing, Rothstein was not reachable.
But federal prosecutors think they see an unsavory connection. They have accused Rothstein of working law-enforcement officials and others while bilking investors.
"'Ponzi' scheme funds were used to provide gratuities to high-ranking members of police agencies in order to curry favor with such police personnel and to deflect law enforcement scrutiny," federal officials stated in a 34-page report relating to Rothstein's Dec. 1 arrest.
If Crist wants to get serious about corruption, the federal case against Rothstein suggests a close look at the Broward County Sheriff's Office may be warranted.
In January, Lamberti said he had no evidence that Wheeler's relationship with Rothstein went beyond the two jet trips or that Rothstein got anything in return.
"I think people are being unfair to Tom Wheeler," Lamberti said.
When confronted with a similar Rothstein connection, Lamberti was quick to discipline another top officer in the department who consorted with Rothstein. Lt. David Benjamin, who had been under scrutiny for running an outside consulting business that might have had ties to Rothstein, was immediately transferred to a different job.
The sheriff, who said Crist did not influence his decision to hire Wheeler in December 2007, rejected the assertion that allegiance to the governor by him or by Wheeler was in any way influencing the investigatory process.
"Nobody is bigger than the agency, not even me," Lamberti told the Sun-Sentinel.
Wheeler listed the governor first among his references and was hired as executive director of professional standards at a salary of $158,000 a year. He now makes $166,000 as undersheriff.
Crist's office has not commented on the Wheeler matter.
Reach Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.