This summer, the Supreme Court of the United States, in an act that has gained wide praised for its fairness, decided that Gov. Bob McDonnell had been wrongly convicted. He had broken no law and the Court was rightly concerned that if anti-corruption laws were applied so broadly, it would have the effect of deterring good people from running for public office. The worst example of such egregious prosecution was the railroading of an innocent city commissioner, Keith Wasserstrom. He was a pillar of his community who had stood up to local party bosses and paid a heavy price. What follows below describes one of the most terrible scourings of a totally innocent man. His community also suffered, losing a true advocate and leader. Let us hope that the McDonnell vindication will undo the injustice that was done unto him.
Wasserstrom was a noble public servant by any definition of the term. As a city commissioner in Hollywood, Florida, he was known as extremely accessible and was the biggest advocate for the needs of all members of the community. His devotion as a family man and father can be seen by how his young children took a lead role in advocating for him throughout the ordeal. He was a successful, yet fair and helpful business attorney, but a family man above all else. Within the non-profit community, he was known not only for his charitable donations but also for the time and energy he spent giving advice and encouragement to worthy causes.
Hollywood’s city attorney of the time, who had approved Wasserstrom’s actions throughout, has all but termed the prosecution a lynch mob. He rightly decries the shameful stacking of charges that caused the jury to erroneously conclude that Keith Wasserstrom “must be guilty of something,” even as the judge threw out the main charge.
The McDonnell decision was a necessary step in curbing a plague that has ensnared far too many innocents and has cast asunder the fundamental and most necessary right of people not to be convicted absent clear and verifiable proof of their having committed a crime. The Wasserstrom case speaks to this even more and is the very definition of prosecutorial overkill and misconduct.
In short, Wasserstrom recused himself from a vote, albeit one that the City Attorney had deemed to pose no conflict. He filled out the recusal form, citing the City Attorney’s finding that he would not have benefited from the vote. He did the same on the follow-up form.
In other words, he acted above and beyond the law as an honest city official. For this, he was charged with corruption (a charge that the judge found to be ludicrous and threw out) and with filing false forms, the original and its mandatory follow-up. And in an unprecedented move, the Broward State Attorney cited those as separate felonies. Indeed, even the prosecutor referred to their angling in this case as “novel.”
The forms were filed truthfully. The facts therein were reviewed and approved by the City Attorney, who found Wasserstrom’s recusal unnecessary altogether. Yet even had this not been so, the maximum penalty for filing those forms falsely is stated on the form itself, a $10,000 fine. The State Attorney disregarded this too.
That’s the short story. Here’s the long story. I’ll leave it to any fair-minded reader to judge if this is the most unfair case they’ve ever heard of or simply the most ridiculous:
Commissioner Wasserstrom was hired as a lobbyist for a recycling company, Schwing Bioset. In his contract, he was specifically excluded from receiving any compensation whatsoever for any of the company’s dealings with the City of Hollywood. He never asked for such compensation and never received it.
So when the company submitted their proposal to the City of Hollywood, the City Attorney advised Wasserstrom that he could indeed vote. He chose not to. He even filed a form stating that he was recusing himself from the vote since he’s a lobbyist for the company. Following the City Attorney’s advice to the letter, he clarified that this recusal was despite the fact that he would gain nothing, whether or not the Commission voted to the company.
In short, he was overcautious in following the law. Yet as the only religious Jew to hold elective office in Broward County, Florida and as the only elected Democrat to support then Governor Jeb Bush’s reelection, the Broward Democratic machine in charge of all aspects of county government, including the State Attorney’s office (one that had never before brought political corruption charges against anyone), decided to make Keith Wasserstrom their first pinata.
At first, it looked like they had failed (although the charge itself had indeed injured Wasserstrom beyond repair). When the prosecution completed their case, before the defense had said a word, the judge threw out the main charge and was about to dismiss the entire matter. Wasserstrom had acted as any decent public servant did. He’d recused himself from the vote and filled out the appropriate forms.
The prosecution demanded that the jury at least be allowed to decide on an ancillary charges of “filing false forms,” (more accurately, not listing every remote possibility and presenting a form the length of War and Peace). Specifically, they argued that Wasserstrom, by saying that his recusal had been in spite of the fact that there was no personal gain involved, had made a false claim. There was, according to them, the possibility that other cities would be more likely to use Schwing Bioset because Hollywood had.
This argument was ludicrous. Many other cities had already contracted Schwing Bioset before. Moreover, recent court decisions have made clear that corruption must be real and tangible, not some hypothetical/possible benefit, let alone one that no right thinking person would even consider. However, the fact that this argument was wrong beyond belief didn’t mean it didn’t work.
The fact that he had done nothing wrong on any level didn’t stop the prosecution, who had stacked on charges, including a laughable addition, that he had caused the mayor to file a false form as well since she had cited that his recusal was what it was, over caution. The jury, not knowing that the main count had been tossed (they were simply told not to consider it and at least one witness to the trial believes strongly that the jury may have been under the impression that a plea had been reached), was left to consider one of the most complexly concocted prosecutorial schemes. “He must be guilty of something,” they figured, irrespective of the fact that a form is meant to state facts and real conflicts, not to become a guessing game of potential benefits that will likely never arise and indeed never did.
The main charge wasn’t even sent to the jury. The jury also decided that the mayor’s forms, which also mentioned that Wasserstrom would not benefit from the vote, were no the fault of Wasserstrom, even if they weren’t true (which, again, they were).
This should have been the end of the story. It wasn’t.
The cruel and false assumption of “he must be guilty of something,” an assumption that has caused tens of thousands to be wrongfully convicted of all kinds of crimes, shamefully prevailed. The jury figured that Wasserstrom, after all, could have included the possible benefit that the prosecution had mentioned. Nobody ever does this or even thinks along those lines. That was irrelevant. The prosecution “certainly didn’t bring the case for nothing.” And so an innocent man who had recused himself of a vote and filed the proper forms had his life destroyed.
Questions for Society
How does one prosecute someone who so clearly did nothing wrong? Easily, if one cares little for the law, other than to twist and turn it into a weapon of vengeance. (It should be noted that when outgoing President George H. W. Bush issued a pretrial pardon to Casper Weinberger in 1992, he openly condemned the use of politically motivated and unfounded prosecutions, decrying them as a new way of “achieving” that which could not be achieved at the ballot box. Similar allegations have been made of the right in the case of Gov. Don Siegelman. Either way, it is a cruelty that endangers society as a whole, and it needs to stop.)
Broward County prosecutors had built a case on a house of cards. Commissioner Wasserstrom did indeed recuse himself from any vote concerning Schwing Bioset and the City. He also filled out the appropriate recusal form, as well as the follow-up form. As per the City Attorney’s opinion, he specified that his recusal had been done only in an abundance of caution, because even though he worked for the company, he would gain nothing from the vote even if he hadn’t recused himself. To say otherwise would have been technically false. Keith Wasserstrom told the truth.
If he hadn’t told the truth, the penalty for filing false information on the form is clearly stated at the bottom. It’s a maximum $10,000 fine, as mentioned above. Keith Wasserstrom got 40 days in prison for filing it truthfully. His law license and practice have been lost throughout this 10 year ordeal.
Wasserstrom’s true statement, that he would receive no compensation from the vote (from which he recused himself!!) was presented as untrue because if the City of Hollywood were to contract Schwing Bioset, this fact could be used by the company to gain a contract with the neighboring City of Hallandale. The fact that such a future contract is mere speculation was irrelevant. So was the main fact, that no reasonable person would consider this a form of direct compensation or even think to mention such a convoluted and hypothetical outcome on a government form. The fact that the law clearly states that any benefit must be direct and certain in order to constitute corruption (a principle of law that predates the McDonnell decision) was also overlooked, quite unlawfully so.
All that was relevant was that Wasserstrom is a religious Jew, a national security hawk among Florida Democrats and that he had openly supported Republican Jeb Bush in the previous gubernatorial election. Nothing else mattered.
And so the new definition of “government corruption”: A public official who recuses himself from a vote, takes no money for it, fills out the appropriate recusal form, stating that he would gain no money either way, and never does. “But he must be guilty of something,” said the jury. Yes, of ticking off Florida Democrats.
Governors have been prosecuted for awarding their friends contracts and pocketing the money. Thankfully, no governor has ever been prosecuted for being hired by a company after leaving office. Had any been, nobody in their right mind would ever run for governor again.
If a city commissioner votes to sponsor free milk in city schools, his lawn becomes less likely to be littered with the empty soda cans of neighborhood students. Neither of these “benefits” constitute conflicts of interest. Twisting the law in order to destroy said commissioner would make all weary of entering public service.
Implied in the SCOTUS decision was the recognition that juries have tended to view any public official as guilty simply by nature of their profession. This sentiment has become ripe for prosecutorial abuse and over-prosecution, a tyranny that degrades the justice system and puts society at risk by using the courts to settle scores. It’s the opposite of morality. In short, all lose when society engages in overzealous cruelty and when the presumption of innocence is taken away from people based on their lawful profession.
Everyone decries the lack of sincere, energetic and motivated public servants today. The Wasserstrom case highlights why many such people stay away from such service with a ten foot poll. For his family, it’s a tragedy. For his city, it’s a loss. For society, his case constitutes an absolute obligation to demand better.