Former Sarasota County GOP chairman Bob Waechter was arrested this month on charges related to the criminal use of a stolen identity. Waechter, a politically-powerful front man for local developers, is a poster boy for all that is wrong with modern politics and to finally see his deeds result in a mug shot is somewhat satisfying. But charging Mr. Waechter is only the first step. Until the highly-political process of the justice system plays out, it remains to be seen whether a man that has made many friends in high places receives equal treatment under the law.
Waechter's name came up on the Manatee County radar this year when records showed him to be the chair of a shadowy PAC called Take Back Our Government. The group was behind a Memorial Day weekend robo-call campaign targeting Manatee County Commissioners Joe McClash and Robin DiSabatino. The calls identified themselves as communications from the Wounded Warrior Foundation before mentioning the PAC, which hadn't even been approved by the state at the time, at the end of the recording.
TBOG went on to wage a malicious and deceitful campaign against McClash that ultimately contributed to the 22-year veteran's narrow defeat in an August Republican primary. Finance records showed that local developer Carlos Beruff was behind the group, which campaigned exclusively on that race in which a development lobbyist was running against a long-time smart-growth advocate and environmentalist.
It turned out Waechter was more than just a name on the forms to cover Beruff's tracks, however. In an excellent column this week, the Herald Tribune's Tom Lyons detailed Waechter's legal run-ins, as well as his convoluted ties with both local developers and politicians. Waechter, it seems, has carved out a very successful niche for himself as the conduit between special interests and elected officials, managing to get his hands into pies shared by both.
This is exactly the sort of dynamic that prevents a democracy from functioning as intended by corrupting the very notion of representative government. What's more, it is precisely what keeps many good individuals with honest intentions from ever considering public office. Someone interested in truly representing the interests of the collective community in an equitable fashion will surely run up against a Bob Waechter along the way, and even if they do have the mountains of cash it would require to overcome the onslaught of fabricated attacks on their character, they'd have to be willing to swim in those shark-infested waters every election cycle.
Meanwhile, someone a bit more ethically-challenged, who is primarily interested in advancing their own prosperity, will quickly find someone like Waechter waiting to introduce them to the right interests that will help ensure they've got the money and dirty tricks to succeed. They'll also find that in addition to the lucrative pay and relative prestige of public office, there's a slice of the pie in it for them as well. Anyone who's lived in Southwest Florida for very long knows how this game is played and how futile protests to its employment can be.
The really sad part is that almost all of what Waechter has done over the years has been legal. However, it seems as if his impunity has left him careless and brazen. Stealing a fellow Republican's identity to make fake donations to Democrats, presumably so he could tar them through his infamous last second attack blitzes in future elections, crosses the line between shady and felonious. In addition to those allegations, Waechter is also under investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff's Office for his role in falsely identifying the robo-calls and operating an unregistered PAC.
The big question now is what becomes of Waechter. Will a high-ranking Republican operative be treated the same as any other common criminal, or will his relationships with other politically-powerful members of the party who stand between him and the clink ensure that he gets the country club treatment? The 12th Judicial Circuit has a well-earned reputation of being soft on white collar crime. While running for office, newly elected State Attorney Ed Brodsky promised that would not be the case under his watch. Whether or not his office aggressively pursues the charges against Waechter will be the first test. Kudos to Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight – a Republican with his own ties to Waechter – for filing charges, even though that's exactly what he's supposed to do. But until this plays out in the courts, it remains to be seen whether Waechter is treated like the rest of us could expect to be, were we accused of such serious allegations.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.