Men Behaving Badly

By Scott Maxwell | Sentinel Columnist
Posted March 5, 2006

Rich Crotty, Ernest Page and Tom Gallagher are in trouble.

And they should be.

In the past few weeks, all three are answering questions about mixing private business with their public jobs.

Some of it may be illegal. Some of it may not. All of it stinks.

The men say either that they did no wrong, made honest mistakes or didn't connect the dots between their money and the public's business.

And therein lies the biggest problem. These men are all veterans of Florida's political scene, having spent years -- even decades -- in public office. Gallagher was first elected in 1974; Crotty in 1978; and Page in 1980.

And if they haven't learned by now, what chance is it that they will?

RICH CROTTY: ORANGE COUNTY MAYOR

THE PROBLEM: Invested $100,000 with one of Orange County's most influential land brokers -- a broker whose projects have routinely come before Crotty's board for votes. When he cashed out about a year later, Crotty got $212,000.

THE DEAL: Crotty's predicament was the most shocking. This local boy-made-good had spent a lifetime trying to build up a good reputation. I emceed a roast for Crotty last year where speaker after speaker praised him for his good deeds and efforts.

Crotty knows that his reputation is now tainted. Sitting in his office last week, eyes weary and shoulders slumped, he asked: "Don't you think I know that?"

So why did he do it?

" I made a mistake," he said. "I don't know what else I can say."

Crotty argues there are shades of gray in this case. He stresses that the money he invested with land broker Daryl Carter was for a project in South Florida, far from Orange County. And he says he never voted on any of Carter's local projects during the year or so that he had the investment.

But the bottom line remains that he made more than $100,000 from a man whose land deals he has repeatedly voted on. And Crotty, who is as conscientious about his image as any pol in town, has been around long enough to know that would be a problem.

THE PREDICTION: The jury's still out. If it ends here, this episode could be just an ugly chapter -- though a significant one -- in a long and otherwise scandal-free career. But with this deal, Crotty has opened up his tenure, portfolio and his staff's dealings with Carter to closer scrutiny. You can bet he will get it. What is found and how Crotty responds will determine whether his Carter dealings prove to be a speed bump or brick wall for a political career that has cruised along pretty effortlessly through the years. One thing Crotty has submitted to the court of public opinion that neither of the other two has is repeated remorse. And that can make a difference.

ERNEST PAGE: ORLANDO CITY COUNCIL MEMBER

THE PROBLEM: Arrested and suspended from office last week, accused of threatening that a housing project with the city was dead unless his own company was cut in on the deal.

THE DEAL: Audio and videotapes may be Ernest Page's downfall.

In 1983, hidden cameras caught him buying goods that he had been told were stolen: typewriters, a television, a photocopier. The tapes were pretty much all prosecutors needed to get a grand-theft conviction and send Page to jail for eight months.

But Page got out, had his civil rights restored and once again made it to City Hall -- until another recording surfaced a few months ago.

On a voice mail, Page is heard telling a potential business partner that "the city is not going to be involved" with the partner's project unless Page's nonprofit company is part of the deal -- a deal potentially worth at least hundreds of thousands of dollars.

On the recording, he calls himself "Mayor Page" (referring to the 40 days he served as interim mayor) and says that unless the potential partner calls him back about the project, he can "consider it dead."

This is the most cut and dried of the three cases. And the only thing funny about it is his defense -- that he was making the threats as a private citizen and not an elected official.

Admittedly Page's attorney, Mark NeJame, has his hands full in trying to exonerate his client. But the defense they are talking about seems as hard to believe as the one NeJame floated when he was representing State Sen. Lee Constantine in a DUI charge and claimed the senator was impaired by fumes from a gasoline can in his car.

Constantine, by the way, ended up pleading no contest, and a judge found him guilty. He kept his office.

THE PREDICTION: Done in politics. You have to ask yourself: How many times can an elected official get arrested for such things and be returned to office? And, for Pete's sake: It's all on tape!

TOM GALLAGHER: FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER

THE PROBLEM: Revealed to have traded stocks of insurance companies while he was insurance commissioner. Also to have owned stock in a company he voted on while serving on the Florida Cabinet.

THE DEAL: Gallagher, now running to be your governor, doesn't seem to be handling this well. He has attacked the messengers, chastising the media and supporters of his GOP primary opponent, Charlie Crist, for the hubbub.

He hasn't disputed the fact that he owned stock in insurance companies while he supposedly served as the citizens' watchdog over the same industry. Nor has he disputed that he took a Cabinet vote on a plan for an energy company's natural-gas pipeline -- while he owned $8,000 worth of stock in the company.

So what difference does it make who's spreading the information if it's true?

THE PREDICTION: Done in politics after losing this year. Gallagher was already running behind in the governor's race. And even if he wages a nasty campaign that panders to the far right to squeak out a victory among Republicans, he's damaged goods that mainstream voters won't support in a general election. Gallagher already tried to reinvent himself for this campaign -- shedding his moderate, centrist image for a more conservative, moralistic one. Some folks liked Old Tom. Some liked New Tom. It's hard to see how anyone will get excited about Ethically Challenged Tom.

Source: Orlando Sentinel