Reporting Jim DeFede
South Florida Crime
HOLLYWOOD (CBS4) – When former Hollywood City Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom called me out of the blue several weeks ago, I have to admit, I didn’t immediately recognize the name. There have been so many politicians Broward convicted of wrongdoing in recent years it’s hard to keep track of them all.
In 2004, Wasserstrom, a rising political star in Broward County, helped steer an $18 million contract for a waste treatment center to a company he was financially tied to. He had encouraged the company to hire his uncle and he had made arrangements to cash in on business the company was expected to receive.
In 2007, a Broward jury concluded he had failed to fully disclose his financial ties to the company and convicted him of two counts of official misconduct. He spent 40 days in jail and lost his license to practice law for three years.
Since then, he has lost two appeals and vows that if the state Supreme Court doesn’t grant him relief he will take his case to federal court.
The reason he was calling me was a simple one.
“I guess I’m not doing so well in court,” Wasserstrom explained when we met as his home. “So I’m hoping to do better in the court of public opinion.”
In my experience there are two types of politicians: Ones who can readily admit when they made a mistake and those who can’t.
Wasserstrom falls into the latter category.
For more than an hour he tried to argue that what he did was not only legal – it was the right thing to do. If anything his crime was that he was being too honest.
He has no shortage of people to blame: The prosecutor who refused to examine the evidence. The judge who ignored the law. The jury which didn’t understand their obligations.
I told Wasserstrom I wanted to set aside the legal arguments he was raising in his latest appeal. I just wanted to talk about right and wrong. What angered many, I explained, was the notion that he used his elected position to advance his own financial interest.
“I agree, it’s a problem,” he said. “That’s why it’s a conflict of interest.”
But in Wasserstrom’s view there is nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest – either real or perceived – as long as you fill out the right forms and disclose it.
“The alternative is to not allow an elected official up there to speak, and that I believe would be worse,” he said, “because now the representative of this community would not have an opportunity to express his opinion about the matter.”
But whose opinion would the politician be expressing? Would he be expressing an opinion as the representative of the voters who elected him? Or would he be representing himself and his own financial interest? The public would never be able to tell.
Wasserstrom tried to explain that as long as the product he was selling was a good one, it shouldn’t matter if he was personally profiting.
“I believe I did everything that you want an elected official to do,” he said.
What about avoiding the conflict in the first place? What about not doing business with people who do business with the city?
“Okay, that’s a great argument however any really competent elected official at any level is going to be involved in business,” Wasserstrom offered.
Except in this case, I pointed out, the reason the company wanted to work with him was precisely because he was a Hollywood City Commissioner.
I asked Wasserstrom if cases like his cause the public to lose confidence in elected officials.
“No,” he said, “I think you have a problem in Congress where Congressmen are allowed to vote on insider information – that’s terrible.”
“That’s terrible, I agree with you that’s terrible,” I exclaim. “But it is also terrible when you as a Hollywood City Commissioner sits on the dais and advocates for a company you have a financial interest in.”
Wasserstrom stared at me with a blank look on his face. At that moment I realize I’m never going to be able to convince him what he did – on any level – was wrong.
“Based on conversations I’ve had with people out there, everyone thinks I got a raw deal,” he said.
Well maybe not everyone.
Hollywood activists Pete Brewer and Howard Sher understand precisely what Wasserstrom did and why it was wrong.
“He let the people down that elected him into office,” Brewer said.
Added Sher: He was using our city as a means to promote his own business.”
Brewer and Sher were the ones who first raised questions about Wasserstrom’s involvement in the deal. They think he got exactly what he deserved.
I asked the two men why they think Wasserstrom has such difficulty admitting he was wrong.
“He’s got to rationalize it in order to cover himself,” Sher said. “Otherwise the only other choice is to say, `I did wrong.’”
And maybe it is just that simple. A few weeks ago, Wasserstrom appeared before a judge to try and have his probation terminated early. He still has another two years to go.
The judge asked him if he was sorry for what he had done – and Wasserstrom refused to express any remorse. As a result, he remains on probation.