Former Sarasota GOP chair Bob Waechter didn't walk on Thursday, but he did get by with just a few months "house arrest", despite facing five years in prison on fraud charges stemming from a 2012 scheme to buy pre-paid debit cards and make political donations in the name of someone he apparently wanted to besmirch.
No one was surprised by the apparent leniency, but there's more to it than the case itself. Matters like this seem to confirm what most citizens suspect – that not only is the deck stacked against decent people trying to run for office for the right reasons, in terms of the huge financial disadvantage they'll face from those who are sponsored by special interests – but their well-heeled adversaries also play by a completely different set of rules.
The state attorney's office had Waecther dead to rights, on video, buying the cards that were used to make donations to three prominent Democrats on behalf of fellow Republican Lourdes Ramirez. There was already talk of Ramirez running for the Sarasota County Commission in 2014, and now it seems she'll be facing a pal of Waechter's in the Republican primary. You don't have to be a genius to figure out that the intent was to roll them out at the midnight hour, probably in a bunch of nasty direct-mail pieces that Ramirez would not have had time to answer. She'd be labled a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and that would likely be that.
This is what Waechter does. He's sometimes spoken of as some sort of local rainmaker, but in truth he's little more than a front man, a political bottom-feeder who provides cover for local developers who buy county commission seats in order to make sure that they maintain a build-friendly board that's big on development and flexible on all else.
Waechter and his cohorts have been highly successful, as anyone who follows local politics closely can attest. They stuff the boards with empty suits and win nearly every battle they fight, no matter the public opposition to the project. This has always been the uphill battle in local politics. Any everyman (or woman) who runs for office and presents any threat to the status quo will quickly find themselves up against an 80 or even 100 thousand dollar campaign disadvantage, not including the sleazy shadow campaigns like this one or this one.
Unfortunately, those tactics are legal, or at least it's been made clear that no organization with ability to police the obvious fraud involved with most political advertising is interested in opening the flood gates by doing so. However, either the audacity that comes from getting away with everything you try or panic at the thought of a race that's actually competitive, can apparently lead to a crossing of the line. Given how broken the system is to start with, it is then that much more important that such blatent and brazen infractions are met with strict enforcement and aggressive prosecution.
Waechter, however, had the good fortune to land in the judicial circuit of a fellow Republican who he and his allies helped to get elected state attorney. Even though this is Florida, and even more succinctly, the friendly, good-old-boy environs of Sarasota and Manatee Counties, that still seemed a little too over the top to actually happen. At first, it was assumed Waechter's case would be moved out of Ed Brodsky's 12th judicial circuit.
However, when it was not only not kicked, but a request from the feds to join the case was denied, it started to become clear that Waechter would not be facing any sort of meaningful comeuppance. This travesty of justice clearly undermines the entire criminal justice process, where participants are not supposed to wonder whether their political support of its players (or lack thereof) are factors in the treatment they receive.
It's also a textbook example of why too few good people want to run for local political offices. It's tough to convince someone that they should go door-to-door, hat in hand asking everyday taxpayers to cut a check for a would-be politician, especially knowing that no matter how well they do, a local developer can get their opponent five dollars for every one they raise, simply by flipping through their Rolodex.
It's hard enough when they know that they will have to prepare their family, friends and business associates to hear utterly false, but nonetheless repulsive things about them that people such as Waechter have been routinely allowed to disseminate with impunity. But add in the notion that even flagrant flouting of the law to this extent will be met with little more than a slap on the wrist and it's likely enough for most good people to give up. Then again, that's just the way Waechter and his sugar daddies want it.