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2 Florida mayors, 2 lobbyists accused of extortion in FBI sting

Is public corruption rampant in Florida's small towns? The FBI seems to think so, considering that it has been investigating Florida mayors and lobbyists for two years after receiving a single, confidential tip. This week, that FBI sting operation resulted in two South Florida mayors and two lobbyists being charged with conspiracy to commit extortion in their official roles after they allegedly accepted kickbacks in return for shepherding supposedly fraudulent federal grant applications through the system and lying about it.

The Miami Herald article linked to below contains a detailed report of the FBI sting and reaction to the extortion arrests, which involved the mayors of Sweetwater and Miami Lakes -- along with two lobbyists who allegedly helped the mayors obtain AmeriCorps grants meant for their towns in exchange for kickbacks. The mayor of Miami Lakes, who is also the town attorney for Medley, is also accused of applying for a grant for that town.

The mayors were arrested without warning Tuesday morning, each at their mayoral offices. That same day they were brought before a federal magistrate, instructed not to contact any of a long list of politicians and lobbyists who may be brought as witnesses, and granted bond. The Miami Lakes' mayor's bond was $100,000; Sweetwater's mayor's was $250,000.

When officials are accused of public corruption, one of the crucial challenges for their defense is pushing through the media frenzy that typically follows the accusations. Indeed, the local and even national media have already pounced on the men -- analyzing their backgrounds, interviewing their friends and coworkers, and even reporting in a way that could taint the jury pool.

While these allegations are attention-grabbing enough to be a crime novel, these aren't characters in a book. These are two up-and-coming public servants and professionals who may not be guilty.

In fact, some of the behavior the FBI engaged in might reasonably be considered entrapment. The Herald reports that other public officials were targeted in the corruption probe but "wouldn't bite."

Could these cases be examples of government overreach? That question may largely depend on the identity of the confidential tipster who turned federal eyes toward Florida in the first place. As you may have heard, Reuters news just broke a major story revealing that the Drug Enforcement Agency has been secretly tipping off law enforcement across the country and directing them to hide the DEA's involvement, because the original source of the information might involve violation of the defendants' constitutional rights.

As we read news reports, we should take into account that the accusations are often far more fascinating than the eventual truth. We need to suspend our judgment until all the facts are in.

Sources:

  • The Miami Herald, "Miami Lakes and Sweetwater mayors 'stung' by FBI for taking alleged kickbacks," Jay Weaver, Christina Veiga and Joey Flechas, Aug. 6, 2013
  • Reuters, "Exclusive: U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans," John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke, Aug. 5, 2013
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