Palm Beach: The New Capital of Florida Corruption

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Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post / Zuma

Former Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty

Florida's Palm Beach County turns 100 this year, and one can forgive residents for feeling particularly nostalgic. Their once exclusive slice of South Florida used to be known primarily as the Kennedys' winter playground and a retiree haven for wealthy Northeasterners. But ever since the chad-infused chaos of the 2000 presidential recount, the largest county (by land mass) east of the Mississippi River has begun to rival Miami as the Sunshine State's capital of corruption and political mischief. It had to endure the sexual scandals of two consecutive congressman, first disgraced Representative Mark Foley and then his successor, Tim Mahoney, who lost his re-election bid in November after admitting to having multiple extramarital affairs and paying hush money to one of his former mistresses. And Palm Beach was the winter home of alleged Ponzi scheme leader Bernard Madoff, who found many of his allegedly bilked investors in the area.

So when U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta held a press conference in West Palm Beach on Friday to announce corruption charges against 18-year county commissioner Mary McCarty, he couldn't have summed up the collective feelings of the county's scandal-weary citizens any better. "Today I have a sense of déjà vu," Acosta remarked. (See TIME's top 10 scandals of 2008.)

In just the past two years, four city and county commissioners have been convicted of federal corruption charges, and McCarty could well join her former colleagues in serving time.

Even after the previous prosecutions, McCarty's stings the most. The onetime intern to House majority leader Tip O'Neill was viewed as one of the most powerful politicians in Palm Beach County. She served as the county's Republican Party chair earlier this decade, and offered her office space in the county's governmental center to GOP attorneys during the Bush-Gore recount. She was a go-to fundraiser for nonprofits and political campaigns, and a mother hen to the affluent cities on the southeast coast.

McCarty is alleged to have schemed with her husband to direct bond underwriting contracts from governments to his offices at investment banks Raymond James and Bear Stearns. The couple also allegedly received at least $10,000 in hotel discounts at the Sunset Key Guest Cottages in Key West from owner Ocean Properties Ltd., which was chosen by the county commission (and Mary McCarty) to build a downtown West Palm Beach hotel next to its convention center. McCarty faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison, while her husband could get as much as three years.

The once powerful pol submitted her resignation on Thursday, the same day, as it turned out, that dozens of elected officials from across the county gathered at a previously scheduled event to promote honest government and take a new ethics pledge. McCarty wrote in a memo that she expected to plead guilty next week and admitted that she had engaged in "criminal acts — something for which I should be prosecuted and for which I bear full responsibility." She did not say anything about the alleged role of her husband, who has not commented on being charged with misprision of felony for taking part in and not reporting his wife's crimes.

Only two years earlier, McCarty had described her bitter rival on the county commission, Tony Masilotti, as a "bad apple in the bunch" after he resigned shortly before pleading guilty to honest services fraud. Her sudden fall is symptomatic of a culture of graft that has plagued Palm Beach over the years. As the county's population mushroomed to 1.3 million people, so did the egos and perceived invincibility of the county commission, a board with the power to dole out millions of dollars in taxpayer grants to tight-budgeted cities whose mayors and commissioners regularly sought their endorsement. While entrenched in power, they alienated the general public and took a haphazard view of development — a common South Florida practice that's indelibly tied to helping those companies and private interests that supported them. "You could see it almost every commission meeting. You could watch the suits in the room, the eye contact, the facial expressions," said local environmental activist Joanne Davis. "It was disgusting. And I would hear them just berate the public, myself included."

Many residents are shaking their heads at the continuing revelations, which come as Palm Beach County's real estate values have plummeted, foreclosures have soared, tourism has stagnated and nonprofits brace for the fallout from all the wealthy benefactors who were Madoff victims. Said former Boca Raton Mayor Steve Abrams, who has known McCarty for 20 years and is seeking to fill her vacancy: "Never a dull moment in Palm Beach County. It all seems to have come about ever since our infamous 2000 election. Maybe that cursed us or branded us as a notorious county."

The only certainty in the county is that more politicians in the area will be accused of bad behavior. "I wish I could say this is the last one, but I fear it isn't," Acosta said. The FBI set up a full-time corruption squad in West Palm Beach in 2007, and Acosta announced on Friday that the U.S. Attorney's Office recently bought an extra floor of space in the building it is housed in. The way things are going, they'll need it.

See TIME's top 10 crime stories of 2008.

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