FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A federal judge said Wednesday it was time to send a clear message against political corruption when he sentenced a prominent eye doctor to four years in prison for evading taxes, lying to FBI agents and diverting hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions for his own use.
The sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge William Zloch on Dr. Alan Mendelsohn was about twice what prosecutors recommended and well above the term envisioned under advisory federal sentencing guidelines. Zloch said "corruption in society is like a cancer," and said Mendelsohn must be punished for his role in a Tallahassee system that trades favors for political cash.
"It is totally inappropriate for the court to give what would amount to a slap on the wrist," Zloch said. "The corruption of public officials, those who took an oath to uphold the law, leads to contempt for the law."
Mendelsohn, family members and his political committee made contributions to hundreds of lawmakers and political candidates over the years.
The 53-year-old ophthalmologist had hoped for only house arrest, and much of the 2 1/2-hour hearing was consumed with pleas from his attorney to recognize his strong family and local ties, his willingness to give free eye care to the poor and the need for Mendelsohn to be on hand for a kidney transplant required by one of his daughters.
"Alan Mendelsohn is a good man who made a tremendous misjudgment," said defense attorney Alvin Entin.
Mendelsohn himself apologized profusely, but also said he was proud of health-related state legislation he said he pushed for and noted that since his 2009 indictment "words just can't describe the devastation" suffered by his family and business.
"Who was responsible for this devastation?" Zloch asked.
"I was," Mendelsohn replied. "I am really, really, really, truly sorry."
Prosecutor Mary Butler insisted that Mendelsohn should serve at least some prison time, although the Justice Department sought a maximum of 2 1/2 years.
"He isn't accepting responsibility when he says, `Everybody was doing it,'" Butler said. "That's just not going to cut it."
Mendelsohn pleaded guilty in December to a conspiracy charge, admitting he filed false tax returns for a number of years, lied to FBI agents who interviewed him and used for himself about $700,000 in contributors' money to political action committees and other assets. The money went for luxury cars, private school tuition for Mendelsohn's children, credit card bills and gifts, and support for a mistress.
Mendelsohn also admitted funneling $82,000 to an aide to former Democratic State Sen. Mandy Dawson in return for support for his legislative agenda. Neither the aide nor Dawson have been charged, although Dawson did acknowledge being interviewed by the FBI.
At one point, Mendelsohn told one of his top contributors - Fort Lauderdale insurance executive Joel Steinger - that he had such influence at high levels of state government that he could halt a federal investigation into Steinger's Mutual Benefits Corp. That also was false, Mendelsohn admitted, but it widened the FBI probe to include top state legislators and other government figures.
Steinger and several others were eventually charged with fraud in what prosecutors call a roughly $1 billion Ponzi scheme. Most of those charged have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.