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All-American Al

Former state Sen. Alberto Gutman hits rock bottom today when he goes to jail for Medicare fraud. But everyone expects him to somehow bounce back to prominence. Isn't that the American way?

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


photo
[Photo: (AP /Alan Diaz)]
Florida State senator Alberto Gutman, left, leaves federal court with his wife Marci, right, in Miami Thursday May 27, 1999. Gutman and wife Marci were allegedly part of a group that faked claims for home medical treatment that was never provided.
MIAMI -- Someone who likes Alberto Gutman once said his political skills matched up well with Rasputin.

If you admire the way Gutman could put the screws to a lobbyist, the "mad monk" is a good comparison.

But the image is all wrong, too, because no one, whether they love him or hate him, ever fails to mention just how personable he was.

A little Rasputin, yes. But a lot of Reagan, too.

It was an unbeatable combination on the campaign trail. Eight elections and eight wins.

Teflon? He won even when he was under federal indictment.

That's how much people loved him. The old Jewish ladies he danced with at the social halls on South Beach and the Cuban men whose bingo machines he fixed, they all loved Gutman, maybe even more than their own grandchildren. At least Al visited.

Today this nice young man is going to prison for two years.

For all the terrible things ever said about Gutman's opponents, none of them ever faced 32 counts of Medicare fraud, money laundering and witness tampering. None of them ever used the names off their own voter rolls to steal money from Medicare.

For nearly the entirety of his 15-year career in the Legislature, Gutman operated under a cloud of suspicion. Sometimes it was more than just suspicion. And yet to get him out of office meant waiting for him to plead guilty in the middle of his fraud trial last October.

From the tapes
In these excerpts from the FBI's audio- and videotaped recordings, Al Gutman shares his strategy for answering questions from the authorities with Maricela Maury, who unbeknownst to Gutman, was working with the feds to build a case against him:
Now it's a presidential election year and candidates are clawing at each other for the mantle of reformer, as if they think ethical government is what voters demand. And yet in Miami they say that if Gutman could ever run again, he would win.

So, Al Gutman is corrupt. What does that make the rest of us?

* * *

photo
As a Jewish man born in Cuba, Alberto Gutman had a wide constituency. The National Rifle Association featured him in this ad in Southern Living magazine in 1987.

The Gutman file:

Alberto Gutman, 41, former Republican state senator from Miami.

The charges: 32 counts of Medicare fraud, witness tampering, money laundering and conspiracy. Charges reduced to 26.

The accusation: Gutman and his wife, Marci, pocketed approximately $2-million in bogus Medicare claims; the entire conspiracy, involving 23 other defendants, netted some $15-million.

Gutman said: He had been targeted by "a cadre of rotten thieves and liars," even though he had signed a secret plea deal with federal prosecutors in October 1997.

The plea: After his fraud trial started, Gutman pleaded guilty to one count of Medicare fraud. The agreement called for two years in prison and a fine of nearly $100,000.

For all the people Gutman met during his career, few of them know much about his background.

They know he came from Cuba, but not exactly when (1965; he was 6 years old). They know he is Jewish, that he lived on Miami Beach and that he went to high school there, but not who his friends were or what his father did (one thought he ran an electronics store on Flagler Street). They know his wife's name is Marci and that he has two daughters, one of whom needs a wheelchair, but they're not sure why (cerebral palsy).

Part of the reason is the nature of politics. Gutman's value or threat to people was as a politician; everything else was beside the point.

The other part was he didn't make much of an impression on people before he found his calling.

One high school teacher described him as part of the "proverbial polyester middle." His senior photo in the 1977 yearbook shows him with a center-part haircut, the emblem of teenage conformity. He missed the group photo for the Junior Optimists Club, his only extra-curricular activity.

He is said to have worked on the 1980 state House campaign of Michael A. Friedman, his social studies teacher, but Friedman doesn't remember Gutman.

"I must have done something wrong," Friedman said of Gutman's political career. "He's a reactionary conservative and I'm an enlightened liberal."

Gutman's career break came in 1982, the year political reapportionment created an unnatural state House district -- half South Miami Beach with its elderly, predominantly liberal Jewish population, and half Little Havana with its Cuban-American conservatives. That was the year Miami's Cuban community emerged as a voting bloc to be reckoned with.

In April 1984, just 25 years old and with no political experience, the Republican Gutman ran for what had historically been a Democratic seat. But he had two things going for him.

One was that incumbent Hal Spaet had been stopped for driving under the influence; he wasn't drunk, but his epilepsy medication combined with prescription barbiturates made him seem that way.

The other thing had nothing to do with Gutman's qualifications for office.

"He was a Jewban," says Tom Fiedler, editorial pages editor of The Miami Herald.

Jewish and Cuban. Jewban.

In this new district, it was political gold. He was Alberto or Albertico in Little Havana. He was Yiddish-speaking Albert on South Beach.

He was All-American Al to anyone whose background he couldn't guess.

What everyone remembers, even 15 years later, was the viciousness of the general election, which many expected Spaet would lose.

That's why the smear tactics seemed so gratuitous.

Just days before the election, anonymous fliers appeared attacking Spaet as a drug-user. The fliers were never tied to Gutman's campaign; Gutman even suggested that Spaet had put them out himself so he could smear Gutman.

Similar fliers turned up in every one of Gutman's subsequent elections. Every one of his opponents it seemed was an agent of Castro, a drug addict or some other kind of deviant. How convenient.

* * *

In February 1987 he posed for an ad for the National Rifle Association, smiling, his shirt unbuttoned to his chest, holding a .380 Beretta handgun.

"The NRA has this image of being the old Southern hard-core guys from the past. I'm a young guy. I'm Jewish. I was born in Cuba. They were looking for somebody that was different, and I am different," Gutman said, explaining his appearance in the ad.

"It makes me feel important. I never expected to be in a national ad. That's big, big numbers."

In 1990, he convinced the Legislature to put $15-million into the budget to buy Royal Trust Tower, a failed office building in Little Havana that the county property appraiser said was worth no more than $9-million.

The building belonged to Jack Weiss, whose company had contributed office space and money for Gutman's re-election campaign. Even Republican Gov. Bob Martinez recoiled at such an obvious turkey and vetoed it.

Gutman built reservoirs of good will back in the district. He doted on his older constituents even when he wasn't running.

"He'd take the leaders out to Sabbath dinner at Wolfie's on Friday nights," says Miami Beach elderly activist Stanley Shapiro. "He didn't need to do that."

Gutman was elected to the State Senate in 1992, ran unopposed for re-election in 1994 and was named chairman of the Senate's Health Care Committee.

A month prior to that appointment, Gutman collected a $500,000 fee for brokering the sale of a troubled HMO owned by the family of Bruno Barreiro, a friend and political protege of Gutman's.

He resigned his chairmanship during an ethics inquiry. But a small fine, no admission of wrongdoing and no official censure from his colleagues meant Gutman escaped unscathed. If anything, it enhanced his image as untouchable.

In 1996, his colleagues chose to make him chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. It was perfect public relations for someone who had always billed himself as tough on crime.

All the while, Senator Law and Order was busy sticking up the federal government.

* * *

Beginning in 1991, Gutman and his wife participated in what prosecutors described as one of the largest Medicare frauds in U.S. history.

It worked like this:

A company called Mederi of Dade County, Inc. was a home health care provider that subcontracted with smaller companies to provide the actual care. Mederi administrators created more than 100 fake subcontractors, submitting millions of dollars of false claims.

Gutman wanted in on the action. Thus was born Reliable Home Health Care, Inc. Business was so good he created another, Real Nursing Care Inc.

He used voter rolls from his 1988 state House campaign and later his 1992 Senate campaign to come up with patient names.

Someone from Real or Reliable would call the person, asking if he or she wanted some cleaning done. The phone solicitor would get a Social Security number and later photocopy a Medicare card.

A doctor would provide fake treatment plans for the patients' cardiopulmonary disease or diabetes. Nurses would write up elaborate notes, pretending they had visited the homes.

"Then they would start banging Medicare," says Jose Bonau, assistant U.S. Attorney. "When we interviewed these patients they were healthy as an ox."

What Gutman didn't know was that the owners of Mederi had begun cooperating with the feds. Over the next several years, as he and his wife pocketed an estimated $2-million in fraudulent claims, Gutman was recorded on hours of wiretapped conversations.

On Oct. 20, 1997, two FBI agents picked him up, an unlit cigar clenched in his teeth and a wad of $7,500 in his pocket. He was going to use the money to pay the attorney's fees of a woman he feared was working with the FBI.

Confronted with an array of fraud, money-laundering and witness tampering charges, Gutman agreed to wear a wire to catch other corrupt legislators. On Oct. 31, he signed an agreement to plead guilty effective the following June.

In June 1998, saying that Gutman had violated their agreement by not agreeing to plead guilty, federal prosecutors filed the charges they had held in abeyance.

Gutman, the chairman of the criminal justice committee, denied all wrongdoing.

"This is all about political targeting," he said. "It's all about dirty politics as usual."

* * *

In Miami, the indictment of a state senator is still news.

Not shocking news, but news.

The indictment came one day after the Police Benevolent Association named Gutman as Legislator of the Year. "What can you do," said PBA president John Rivera.

Even when the story came out that Gutman had been a snitch for the FBI his supporters stayed loyal. The police union endorsed him again. Rivera said local police know that federal prosecutors in South Florida are notorious for their witch hunts.

Stanley Shapiro, the elderly activist, echoed the sentiment from across Biscayne Bay.

"My mother always told me to judge others by the way they treat you," he said.

Didn't it hurt that Gutman cheated the elderly?

"I've never really given it any deep thought," he said.

Mary Ellen Miller, the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Republican Party, also is generous.

"Al is still very popular with local Republicans," Miller said. "They're not condoning it if there was something there."

If there was something there? If?

"Nobody is saying we wink and turn our heads at this," Miller said, "but it doesn't mean you regard the person as an ogre and forget all the good things."

The Chamber of Commerce has a committee on ethics. There is also a private group, the Alliance for Ethical Government, headed by Gerald Kogan, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court.

Kogan, a longtime resident of Miami, said the community is "sick and tired of picking up the newspaper every day and reading about a new scandal in government."

But the problem is deep-rooted, Kogan has learned. "We've had several people in the alliance who gave money to Al Gutman."

* * *

The 1998 election turned out to be the closest of Gutman's career. Maybe the indictment hurt him after all.

He lost at the polls to Augustin "Gus" Garcia, then executive director of the local Democratic Party. But Gutman eked out a 301-vote victory when a box of absentee ballots was discovered the day after the election. It was Gutman's good fortune that 75 percent of the ballots had his name on them.

Unchastened, Gutman cracked the whip back in Tallahassee. He called Don Slesnick, a lobbyist for the Florida Nurses Association, into his office.

When Gutman was indicted, Slesnick had just been named chairman of the "Ethics in Business Group" of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. Slesnick decided that he could not in good conscience support a candidate who was under indictment, so he contributed to Garcia's campaign.

This did not escape the attention of Gutman, who lobbyists say keeps a file in his head of every person who has given money to his opponents.

"He had no qualms about calling me on the carpet," Slesnick said. " "I've been a good friend to your clients.' He got his message across: "Don't think I don't know and don't think it won't matter.' "

* * *

On Oct. 26, 1999, the sixth day of his trial, Gutman pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud Medicare. Marci had already pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and been given probation.

A judge still must okay the deal Gutman has worked out with prosecutors. It calls for him to spend two years in prison, pay restitution of $98,174.59 and serve probation after he gets out.

He'll be 43 then. As a convicted felon he won't be able to vote or hold public office, but an act of the Legislature could restore his civil rights.

Bob Levy, a longtime lobbyist and Gutman supporter, doesn't think that's out of the question.

"Former members (of the Legislature) retain a high level of respect," he says. "Even tarnished former members."

"He's one of those people who will do his time, who will come back and work his way into the political scene," said Fiedler, the Herald editor. "He'll crop up in our news columns like Richard Nixon did as an elder statesman and over time what he did will recede."

That's the state of our political system, well into the third century of this great Democracy: our government is an ongoing exercise in situational ethics.

We let a politician buy our votes for cheap -- a new bingo machine, a dinner at Wolfie's -- so he can spend 15 years swinging deals that make him rich. We don't care as much because, heck, it's white collar crime and he was always nice to me.

But no one likes to be used, least of all the old men and women who come to the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center for their one hot meal a day, a little bingo and some low-intensity salsa.

These are the people who trusted Gutman most. They want to think their champion was badly treated because the complex fraud case baffles them. But when it is explained he admitted his guilt, that he used their names to commit his crimes, they understand how badly Gutman violated their confienza.

"He mocked the community," said Seferino Rodriguez, 79, wearing a snap-brim straw hat and guayabera. "He made lots of promises, but he wasn't sincere."

Knowing Al Gutman, he'll probably find a way to live with the shame.

-- Information from Times researcher Cathy Wos and The Miami Herald was used in this story.

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