The Fabric of Society Is Being Torn Apart by Corruption

By Alexandra Clough

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 6:50 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, 2009

As 2009 draws to a close, the fabric of society is being torn apart by corruption. So says the top Federal Bureau of Investigations agent for South Florida.

In a speech resembling a morality pep talk, John Gillies, the FBI special agent in charge of the Miami division, last week gave a summary of his office's caseload to a West Boca Chamber of Commerce meeting. He also outlined the FBI's priorities, which include reining in corruption, a problem Gillies deemed the nation's No. 1 threat.

Gillies regaled about 70 attendees with tales of his work investigating politicians, judges and attorneys in prior FBI postings across the country. These FBI targets all displayed an unhealthy thirst for money, power and greed, he said. Closer to home, Gillies cited the corruption cases of former West Palm Beach City Commissioners Ray Liberti and Jim Exline as local examples of wrongdoing. And he warned that these types of crimes would be a prime focus of his office. "Public service is a public trust," he said.

So why do society's leaders so often lose their moral compasses?

Gillies said transgressors are adept at rationalizing their untrustworthy behavior. He gave examples of the types of excuses that FBI agents typically hear: "I'm not hurting anybody." Or "I deserve this." And especially: "Everybody does it."

But rationalization isn't OK, Gillies said, whether it's coming from an elected official, an attorney — or a golf icon.

Yes, Gillies even had harsh words for Tiger Woods, now caught in an ethics scandal involving allegations of his adultery with a virtual harem of women. Speaking of Woods' wife, Elin, he said, "She trusted Tiger, and he violated that trust. For kids who look up to him, it's disappointing."

Of more relevance to Gillies is the escalation in crimes ranging from health care fraud to investment scams. At the year anniversary of the Bernard Madoff swindle, money scams are up 42 percent in South Florida alone, he said.

Front and center in the scam department is the widening probe of ex-lawyer Scott Rothstein and the $1 billion Ponzi scheme he is alleged to have orchestrated. Federal prosecutors have charged Rothstein with racketeering and money laundering. In the charges, they also allege Rothstein and his co-conspirators paid bonuses to employees as payback for contributions to political candidates, in violation of campaign finance laws.

Gillies gave scant detail on the investigation of Rothstein and his former firm, Rothstein Rosenfeldt Adler, one of the state's most politically connected law firms. RRA has local ties: It used to have an office in Boca Raton and a county commissioner on the payroll. "If you've come to hear about Scott Rothstein, you've been victimized. It's an ongoing case, and I can't talk about it," Gillies said. (Speaking generally, Gillies did say the government would pursue the bosses who paid fake bonuses to employees.)

Gillies said the recession is a prime factor in the proliferation of investment scams. Investors looking to make returns better than a bank account paying 1 percent are lured by schemes offering 15 percent, 18 percent or even 20 percent returns, he said. Everyone gets tripped up by greed, and the cycle of victims and criminals begins again.

In his closing remarks, Gillies admonished attendees to be good. "The worst day at work is still better than the best day in jail," he said.