Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Schwinging It With Keith Wasserstrom
Uncle Albert explains he has been hired as a lobbyist for a company called Schwind that has a unique, environmentally-friendly process for treating wastewater sludge. (You already know this, by the way, because the only reason Schwind hired Uncle Albert, who had no previous experience as a lobbyist and is certainly not a sludge expert, was to curry your favor by giving a job to someone close to you). Uncle Albert has a business proposition for you. Uncle Albert wants to retain you as his lawyer to assist him in getting sludge treatment contracts for Schwind from municipalities and other governmental entities, starting with the City of which you are an elected Commissioner. (You already knew about this also, as Uncle Albert's role in this was largely scripted in advance by you and Schwind). Uncle Albert emphasizes that if you, as his lawyer, assist him in getting sludge treatment contracts for Schwind, he will be able to make a lot of money and, more importantly, you and your law firm will stand to reap handsome financial rewards.
Of course, being the great guy you are, you want to help Uncle Albert and you want to help the environment by propagating Schwind's process in as many municipalities as possible, including the City of which you are an elected Commissioner. In addition, you think of your law partner, your law firm's employees, and your wife and children, and how much all concerned would benefit from the handsome financial rewards to be gained if you are able to assist Uncle Albert.
But then it occurs to you: Wait just a minute! Yes, I am a lawyer and I could assist Uncle Albert, but I am also an elected City Commissioner. Might it not present an ethical problem for me to be a lawyer whose job it is to help Schwind get a contract from my City, regardless of whether Schwind getting the contract is in the best interests of the City, and, at the same time, to be a City Commissioner who is supposed to decide fairly and objectively whether awarding a contract to Schwind is truly in the City's best interest and gets to participate and vote in the decision whether to award a contract to Schwind?
Realizing this potential ethical dilemma, do you:
A. Tell Uncle Albert you're very sorry but, because you are concerned to avoid even the appearance of impropriety as both a lawyer and as an elected official, you will not be able to represent him as a lawyer to help Schwind get a contract from the City of which you are an elected Commissioner, and, because of your personal relationship and the conversations you have had concerning this matter, you are now going to abstain from participating in any way in the City's decision whether to award a contract to Schwind; or,
B. Make a deal with Uncle Albert that you will represent him as a lawyer to help Schwind get a contract from the City of which you are an elected Commissioner, but, instead having Uncle Albert agree to pay you for helping Schwind get a contract from your City, have Uncle Albert agree to pay you for Schwind getting contracts from other cities or counties that will be able to “piggyback” on your City's contract with Schwind, and, while you will abstain from actually voting for your City to award the contract to Schwind, you will, as Uncle Albert's lawyer, pull every possible string and exert maximum pressure behind the scenes and utilize all the power, contacts, and access to crucial decision-makers you have as a City Commissioner to ensure that the City awards the contract to Schwind, except you won't tell anyone at the City that you are actually acting as Uncle Albert's lawyer in helping Schwind get a contract from your City, and you won't tell anyone at the City about the huge financial rewards you and your law firm stand to reap down the road once the City awards the contract to Schwind.
If you are Hollywood City Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, and we're talking about Keith's Uncle Arnold and Schwing, you chose B.
In my opinion, in order to have chosen B, Keith must have followed a line of thought that went something like this: Yes, I am a lawyer and I am a City Commissioner. If I was just a lawyer and not a City Commissioner, there would be no problem with me representing Uncle Arnold to help Schwing get a contract from the City of Hollywood. But I'm such a wonderful person and I perform a wonderful public service giving of my time above and beyond to the citizens of the City of Hollywood as a City Commissioner. So how is it fair that I, as a lawyer, should be penalized and not be able to make this money, just because I also happen to be a City Commissioner? There must be a way I can circumnavigate the ethical problems here so that I can make the money as a lawyer and still be a City Commissioner! I know! I'll talk to the City Attorney! He's a credulous flunkie and he'll believe anything I tell him about all this and he'll give me a clean bill of ethical health! And then later, if anyone questions my conduct, I can say the City Attorney told me it was ok! Excellent plan!
So where did Keith go wrong? Why is Keith now suspended from public office, facing felony corruption charges and a possible 25-year prison sentence? In my opinion, among the flaws in Keith's thinking, as I have imagined it, were the following:
- Keith pretended that Schwing hired Uncle Arnold for his vast lobbying and sludge expertise, and Keith pretended that Uncle Arnold would have been interested in hiring Keith as his lawyer to help Schwing get a contract from the City of Hollywood even if Keith was not a Hollywood City Commissioner.
- Keith apparently saw nothing wrong with using his position as an elected official to line his own pockets. In fact, Keith's enormously high opinion of himself as morally above-reproach and infallible made him feel entitled to do so.
- Keith convinced himself that what was in his client's best interest (having the City award a contract to Schwing), which would also eventually result in money in his pocket, was also in the City's best interest. In Keith's tortured analysis, everyone would win! Yay!
- Keith's opinion of his own cleverness and craftiness was so out-of-proportion to reality that he thought he would be able get away with using his position as an elected official to line his pockets by "structuring" the arrangement and "gaming the system" so as to avoid breaking the law.
- The City Attorney's ethical blessing is a GIGO issue: garbage-in, garbage-out. It only works if you fully disclose all pertinent facts to the City Attorney.
- Reliance on the City Attorney's flawed judgment is not a defense if you broke the law.
UPDATE: September 10, 2007 - Excellent news for Keith Wasserstrom:
According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
Broward Circuit Judge Joel T. Lazarus today dismissed a felony corruption charge against suspended Hollywood Commissioner Keith Wasserstrom, saying he is "presumed innocent" of obtaining unlawful compensation. That means the jury will consider only the four remaining felony charges, that Wasserstrom lied on his conflict of interest statements and that he misled the mayor into lying on hers. The maximum penalty for each of those counts is five years in prison. Lazarus agreed with the defense that the state had failed to prove its case on the main corruption count.
We were the sludge haulers until Schwing, Arnold, Chris and Mr. Larry Wikinyan got involved!!!
Some of the facts are clarified here: