Politician wants money for friend's public corruption defense

Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace wants help with Steve Bateman's legal fund

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

During his recent campaign for re-election, Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace posted a photo on Facebook that showed him shaking hands with President Barack Obama.

Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace used a photo of himself with President Barack Obama during his campaign. And on Monday, he used big federal legal principles to defend himself for helping a friend in a small political scandal.

Wallace, 62, said he believes everyone -- even the former mayor of Homestead accused of public corruption -- deserves legal representation. 

Steve Bateman was arrested on charges he made thousands as a consultant for a chain of nonprofit health clinics that benefited from his political influence.

The former public defender said chronic underfunding of public legal aid trapped Bateman in a land where he earned too much to have access to a public defender, but not enough for a defense attorney.

Bateman "has always been there for us; it's time to be there for him," Wallace said in a signed letter Bateman's friends were distributing Tuesday. "And he needs our help NOW."

Wallace, who was first elected mayor when Ronald Reagan was president, told Local 10 News Christina Vazquez that he wrote the letter to ask for financial contributions to Bateman's legal fund. The two mayors of deep south agricultural communities have been friends for years.

Bateman reportedly struggled with debt as his construction ventures failed. He earned $6,000 a year as mayor, but was arrested after he was accused of using his political influence to make about $120,000 for consultancy work he did for Community Health of South Florida.

Bateman's post-election expenditures in 2011  -- when Wallace was making about $150,000 a year as mayor -- also got him in trouble. 

Bloggers who follow Homestead and Florida City politics said Wallace may have picked the wrong friend to defend the issue, but he did so at a time that was safe.

Wallace worked to get the city out of its placement as one of the poorest cities in the country, while securing a generous pay and retirement.

This isn't the first time the mayor of the city where the Florida Turnpike ends supports a controversial fund.

In 2005, Wallace introduced an ordinance the Florida City commission unanimously approved without question. It granted him a pension equal to 80 percent of his earnings. It created a retirement fund for elected officials "in appreciation of [their] unselfish services."

The extra perk: The retirement fund required no contributions from the elected officials.

During his recent campaign, it was easy for Wallace to defend himself. He claimed that the millions in grants that he had brought to fuel the city's progress after Hurricane Andrew's destruction justified his high pay.

Critics asked: And his castle? (Not the many properties that Wallace owns in South Florida, but the modern city hall that cost the city millions). It was a sign of the progress, his faithful defenders said.  

This time, Wallace's defense for helping Bateman was his undivided loyalty to the Sixth Amendment. As he himself has been linked to public corruption investigations and survived. 

The issue of public-funded legal aid goes back decades and a Florida case in the '60s paved the way for the current model, which has expanded into a network covering both criminal and civil cases.

Controversy on the use of public funding has followed. The Legal Services Corporation Act funds civil litigation programs nationwide, including some that help undocumented migrants with representation.

Hillary Clinton served in the LSC board of directors until 1980, and funding was high during the Clinton administration. Last year, President Barack Obama kept the LSC budget at $350 million.

Florida's legal defense programs for the poor have struggled for decades.

Wallace said the public defender's definition of low income applicants is hurting people like his friend Bateman.

His letter did not imply he had any intentions of starting a legal fund for other politicians facing charges in South Florida. But if he would, the line would probably be long.

In August, his friend Bateman stood in line behind other politicians arrested for murky dealings. The FBI hit Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono and Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi. While Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina was in court Tuesday accused of tax evasion and was found not guilty of all charges.

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