In a troubling epilogue to a groundbreaking political career, former South Florida lawmaker Mandy Dawson was arrested Wednesday on federal tax evasion charges alleging she failed to pay nearly $25,000 to the IRS while serving in office.
Dawson was hit with a five-count indictment alleging tax evasion and failure to file tax returns. The document, unsealed Wednesday, alleges Dawson tried to evade tax payments of $11,889 in 2004 and $12,966 in 2005, and failed to file income tax returns from 2006 through 2008.
Broward County's first black woman in the state Legislature, Dawson came to be known as a champion of the poor and the medically needy, serving six years in the state House followed by a decade in the state Senate. Dawson, a Democrat whose district stretched from Fort Lauderdale to Palm Beach Gardens, was pushed out of office in 2008 by term limits, following controversies about her health, poor attendance record and solicitation of money from lobbyists.
Dawson, 55, now lives in Daytona Beach, where she was arrested by the FBI shortly before 10 a.m. Wednesday. The tax evasion charges are punishable by up to five years in prison and $100,000 in fines, while the charges of failing to file tax returns are punishable by up to a year in prison.
She made her first appearance in U.S. District Court in Orlando wearing a lime-green sleeveless top, a matching skirt and sandals. Dawson was led into the courtroom in shackles. During the brief hearing, U.S. Magistrate Judge Donald Dietrich allowed her to be released on a $100,000 personal surety bond. Dawson left the courthouse, arm in arm, with her new husband, Hobson Bethune Sr., and declined to comment.
Dietrich determined Dawson was entitled to a public defender and restricted her travel to Central Florida and South Florida. The case will be prosecuted out of Fort Lauderdale. Dawson's next court date has not been set.
Criminal charges against the former Florida lawmaker had long been expected — federal investigators have been examining her dealings since at least 2009.
Dawson's name surfaced in a federal public corruption probe headed by the U.S. Department of Justice that centered on Alan Mendelsohn, a Hollywood eye doctor who was a major player in the political fundraising world.
When he began cooperating with investigators, Mendelsohn told them that he had passed along $82,000 in payments to Dawson through an intermediary between 2003 and 2005, when she was a senator. He did it, he said, in hopes that she wouldn't vote against legislation he was pushing.
The charges filed against Dawson on Wednesday do not explicitly link the alleged tax evasion to the Mendelsohn payments, and Dawson has not been officially accused of any wrongdoing connected to him.
Mendelsohn testified that Dawson had insisted that he and his associate, lobbyist Steve Hull, hire her friend and former aide, Venica Blakely. Mendelsohn told a federal judge that he believed some, if not all, of the $82,000 given to Blakely was being funneled to Dawson.
Mendelsohn, who served as the treasurer of the Florida Medical Association's political action committee, said in court that it was common for state legislators to ask lobbyists and others to hire their friends or family and suggested there were dire consequences for those who refused to go along. "You're toast," he said.
In June, Mendelsohn was sentenced to four years in prison after he pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy, filing false tax returns and lying to FBI agents. He has filed court papers indicating he will appeal the sentence, which he is to start serving in January. Mendelsohn admitted he siphoned $330,000 from political action committees that he controlled, and failed to report more than $600,000 in taxable income from his lobbying and medical practice.
In October 2009, Dawson acknowledged to the Sun Sentinel that FBI agents had questioned her about her 2006 appointment as chairwoman of the Florida Senate's Health Policy Committee. Former Senate President Ken Pruitt, a Republican, crossed party lines to appoint Dawson to the position.
Dawson said at the time that she had never accepted money from Mendelsohn and had no idea if she was under investigation.
In recent times, Dawson has been living in Daytona Beach and she remarried in April.
Her final years in the state Legislature were plagued by health and attendance problems. She was arrested in Tallahassee in 2002 after she was accused of altering a prescription for a powerful narcotic painkiller. She spent a year in a drug rehabilitation program, admitting she became addicted to painkillers after being treated for a degenerative disc in her neck.
The Florida Senate reprimanded her in 2005 for soliciting money from lobbyists and political operators to pay for a 10-day trip to Africa. Among those Dawson solicited for money was Mendelsohn, whose political action committee — the Ophthalmology PAC — gave her $2,500.
In 2006, she had two spinal surgeries and needed to wear a neck brace and be wheeled around the state Capitol. The next year she vanished from the public eye for days, missing more votes than any other state senator and skipping a three-day special session. She later explained she was in pain because of spinal problems.
Dawson called a press conference in March 2008 to reveal that she was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and depression.
"I call it being in a box," a tearful Dawson said.
Dawson, then a single mother of three, got her start in politics at as a legislative aide for state Rep. Tracy Stafford, D-Wilton Manors, and state Rep. Bill Clark, D-Lauderdale Lakes. In 1992, she won her first election in a contest for the newly created House District 93 seat — representing parts of Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Oakland Park, Wilton Manors and unincorporated Broward County.
During Dawson's time as a legislator, she focused on issues involving children, the poor and minorities. She successfully championed increasing funding for the Florida Department of Health to offer new AIDS, sickle cell and cancer prevention programs in minority communities.
Dawson also backed the Care Giver program established in 1998, which allowed relatives of foster children to receive funding for becoming the children's guardians.
Every year when legislators' annual financial disclosure reports became public, Dawson was near the bottom — if not at the bottom — when it came to net worth. From 2002 to 2008, she reported no more than $45,000 in annual income with the vast majority of that money from her salary as a state legislator. She did some consulting work for the Fort Lauderdale Housing Authority.
"I'm just a poor, struggling person like everybody else, trying to put my kids through school," Dawson said after the 1999 reports came out. "You need to have both kinds. If you had a lavish lifestyle, it would be difficult to connect with the people who get up every day and go to work."
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