Gov. Rick Scott has been loading state government with lobbyists and industry spokespeople since his election. Now he's taking that habit to a new level: The justice system.
Scott today named a lobbyist as State Attorney in Palm Beach County.
The county's new top lawman is Peter Antonacci, and he does have an impressive resume as a former state Deputy Attorney General and Statewide Prosecutor. But he gave up his white hat status 15 years ago to become a hired gun, using his influence in state government to cash in with the Tallahassee firm Gray Robinson.
His lobbying clients include insurance and gambling companies, including Hartman & Tyner, which owns Mardi Gras Casino. He represents pawn giant Cash America International and the cities of Hollywood and Key West. Antonacci says he will serve for ten months as the successor to Michael McAuliffe, who quit the post to take a job with a company owned by the billionaire Koch brothers, and won't seek election.
I came across Antonacci a few years ago while digging into the case of Ponzi schemer Joel Steinger. Antonacci was a key lawyer for the felon before Steinger was indicted on federal fraud charges. Steinger hired Antonacci for one reason: To use his sway at the Attorney General and Statewide Prosecutor's offices to try to stop a state investigation of his Mutual Benefits viatical fraud.
And by all appearances, Antonacci was successful. He went to the mat for Steinger, meeting with officials and writing a letter in 2003 to then-Statewide Prosecutor Peter Williams on the fraudster's behalf. From the letter:
"[Mutual Benefits] has consistently worked with the Legislature to assist in changing and making improvements in viatical legislation to protect policy owners and investors. ... It also is significant that Mutual has consistently given back to the community by contributing generously to charitable organizations which affect patients suffering from AIDS. We are greatly concerned that an ill-advised prosecution would serve to put Mutual out of business, which would bring great harm to numerous innocent individuals."
Mind you Mutual Benefits at the time was the subject of literally hundreds of complaints from investors who were being ripped off when Antonacci wrote that letter. And the guy he was writing it for was already a convicted felon. After writing that letter, Antonacci arranged a meeting between Steinger and Williams so they could come to, as he put it, "a global resolution to the pending investigation" of the fraudster.
The men met and the criminal case against Steinger was dropped. It took the feds to indict him five years later (and Steinger was indicted again last week for allegedly running a $3 million health insurance fraud while he was out on bond).
Did Antonacci do anything illegal? No. In fact, in purely business terms, he did a great job as an influence peddler to help allow a career criminal and one of the most brazen con men in Florida history remain on the streets. And you can be sure the big-spending Steinger, who raised more than a billion dollars in his Mutual Benefits fraud, paid him handsomely for the work.
That's the system, and it's fair game, but here's the point: When a one-time lawman crosses that line, he should never be allowed back. The job of State Attorney is far too important -- some might say sacred -- for that. And the halls of justice shouldn't have revolving doors.