Florida politicians of all stripes have long known that a well-worn path to campaign riches went through a connected Hollywood ophthalmologist: Alan Mendelsohn.
Always attired in expensive suits, Mendelsohn plied politicians with campaign cash and then traveled to the state Capitol seeking their votes.
A member of Gov. Charlie Crist's 2006 gubernatorial transition team, he built the Florida Medical Association into a political force and helped pioneer the use of so-called 527 political groups that have turned Florida campaigns into high-dollar, nasty slugfests.
Wednesday, he was indicted on federal corruption charges. The brazen, $2 million influence-peddling operation is laid out in vivid detail in the federal indictment: Prosecutors allege Mendelsohn even paid an unnamed elected official $87,000 from 2003 to 2006, using an intermediary to funnel the money.
Mendelsohn vows to plead not guilty to charges that he skimmed $350,000 from his political fundraising apparatus to pay a mistress, buy a love nest and bankroll his children's education.
Like many high-powered lobbyists, Mendelsohn thrived in the crosscurrents of money and high-stakes policy, which often unfolds far from the public eye. He and his family gave $59,000 in direct contributions to more than 60 current and former state legislators, but that's only the beginning. He funneled millions through three political slush funds and impressed Tallahassee's Republican brass with his ability to draw physicians toting checks to fundraisers at his home or office.
Politically savvy, Mendelsohn never registered as a lobbyist, but he lavished campaign money on Senate presidents and House speakers, the agenda-setters in Tallahassee, and then bragged about his influence with them.
The Mendelsohn indictment is the latest scathing condemnation of the Legislature's special interest-fueled culture, in which lobbyist money is the lifeblood. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, is indicted on public corruption charges.
"Lobbyists play a major role in who's going to get elected," said Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson, the Legislature's longest-serving member. "If (candidates) don't get money from lobbyists, they don't get money."
As Republicans seized power in Tallahassee in the 1990s, Mendelsohn quickly flourished as a go-to moneyman in Broward, a county with liberal politics and wealthy donors. At first, Mendelsohn had one major issue: making sure medical doctors had the exclusive right to perform certain procedures, such as post-operative eye care.
As his influence grew, though, Mendelsohn added gambling issues to his portfolio and marketed himself as an emissary to high-ranking Republicans. Tallahassee insiders say he relished power. "He was sort of like a rent-a-cop – whenever people donated money, he'd take on the issue," said one lobbyist. Mendelsohn also was one of the first to deploy 527 political groups in Florida, which allow candidates to ignore the $500 contribution limits and raise vast sums of "soft money." The accounts are piggy banks for everything from travel expenses to tearing down a campaign opponent on the TV airwaves.
Most famously, Mendelsohn used such an account to flood Broward airwaves and mailboxes during a bloody primary battle for a state Senate seat in 2008, elevating staunchly pro-doctor Democrat Eleanor Sobel above two other well-known candidates.
Another of Mendelsohn's prime benefactors was former Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. Mendelsohn contributed to Pruitt's campaigns and gave $50,000 to a political committee aimed at helping elect Pruitt's brother to a Central Florida House seat.
In turn, Mendelsohn won uncommon access to Pruitt and boasted about his influence with the then-Senate president, a coziness some associates said he exaggerated. Mendelsohn "just fell for the trappings for being a big man on campus," said Randy Neilson, a GOP operative close to Pruitt.
Still, when Mendelsohn's son appeared to have dim hopes of earning admission into a selective University of Florida College of Medicine program, Pruitt was there: He wrote a glowing recommendation on his behalf. So did the governor. Mendelsohn's son, Benjamin, was admitted, over the objections of a UF selection committee.
Pruitt said he accepted only legal contributions from Mendelsohn and has written hundreds of recommendation letters similar to one he submitted to UF President Bernie Machen. Pruitt, who abruptly resigned in August with a year left on his term, said he's done nothing wrong, and has not been questioned by the FBI or Department of Justice in connection with the Mendelsohn case. "I have never been contacted by any authority in this case," he said.
Around Tallahassee, Mendelsohn was known for a swaggering style, say legislators and lobbyists. As the gatekeeper to scores of high-dollar donors, Mendelsohn wasn't afraid to push back against legislators who didn't vote his way.
"It was about greed," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, whom Mendelsohn tried to oust from office by recruiting challengers.
Legislators are scurrying to distance themselves from Mendelsohn, even though for years they filed into his Hollywood home to pocket campaign checks.
"He stood out as far as raising dollars, absolutely. No question about that," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "But does he stand out in getting legislation, or stopping legislation? Some may have thought so, but I never saw that in Tallahassee."
Although Mendelsohn dropped out of sight last spring, he went out with a flourish. Last year alone, one of the committees the indictment alleges he controlled divvied up $500,000 to politicians.
From that pot, $50,000 went to a political committee that paid for Sen. Dave Aronberg to travel around the state recruiting Democratic candidates. Aronberg, D- Greenacres, said the case highlights the need for tighter campaign finance rules. "There's a lesson from this: we need to ban or severely regulate the unlimited soft money in this process," said Aronberg, now a candidate for attorney general.
Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at email@example.com or 850-224-6214.