Alberto Gutman, popular Miami state lawmaker who went to prison, dies at 60

Alberto “Al” Gutman, a former Miami state lawmaker whose powerful political career ended when he went to federal prison for Medicare fraud, has died at age 60.

The former Republican state senator was dogged for years by ethics and criminal investigations before his indictment in 1998. He nevertheless remained a beloved figure among his constituents and won re-election even while facing a criminal trial.

Still, Gutman wound up pleading guilty and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. He was released early in 2003, and lived outside the public limelight working at Cigar Crafters in Little Havana.

“He loved helping people and he never asked for anything in return,” his brother, Jorge Gutman, said on Monday. “We miss him tremendously.”

His family declined further comment, and did not say how he died on Feb. 16.

Charming and hard-working, Gutman still counted many friends in South Florida political circles, offering informal advice and mentoring many.

“He had that charisma. Everybody loved Al. Anyone that met Al would automatically become friends with him. He was that type of person,” said Tomás P. Regalado Jr., a television anchor for TV Martí and the son of Miami’s former mayor.

Gutman was born on Jan. 4, 1959, in Guanabacoa, Cuba. His family fled to South Florida in 1965, and Gutman was raised on Miami Beach.

He attended Miami-Dade Community College and earned his bachelor of arts at the University of Miami in 1982. In the 1980s, he ran an import-export business and a candy distribution company, and went to work as vice president of FaxMed, a Miami pharmacy.

Gutman was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1984, representing a swath that spanned from East Little Havana to Overtown to South Beach. He was only 25 and was part of a wave of Hispanic lawmakers voters sent to Tallahassee that year.

His campaign slogan underscored his roots: “From Guanabacoa to Tallahassee.”

“Guanabacoa is considered by most Cubans as a place where people are hard-working and middle class. That describes me,” Gutman said during that first campaign.

Gutman won that seat five more times before he was elected to the Senate in 1992. Cuban and Jewish, Gutman was seen as a tireless advocate for a broad array of constituents.

At his district office in Little Havana, Gutman always had cafe and pastelitos for elderly people who needed help applying for federal benefits, citizenship and other matters.

“When we could come into the office in the morning, there was a line of people waiting to to helped. They became part of his family,” said Lubby Navarro, one of his aides in the mid-1990s who is now a Miami-Dade School Board member.

Gutman made combating crime, especially against the elderly, one of his signature issues. In 1996, he co-sponsored a bill that ended the three-year statute of limitations on felonies that result in a death. The law was passed in honor of 9-year-old Victor Palada, who was hit and killed by a motorist near the Orange Bowl.

“If someone runs someone over, or has an accident with a boat, and that person runs from the scene, they’ll fall under these guidelines,” Gutman said.

He easily won re-election time and time again.

But his critics decried him as a ruthless politician who used his growing position to benefit himself and his allies.

Over the years, he weathered many a scandal tied to his business dealings. For example, a state regulator complained he threatened her job if she fined a boarding house that later became a client of his pharmacy. He denied the allegation.

In 1995, Gutman resigned as chairman of the Senate Health Care Committee after receiving a $500,000 fee for brokering the sale of a health maintenance organization and trying to arrange the sale of other HMOs.

Through it all, investigation after investigation fizzled, something Gutman wore proudly.

“The media seems to like to hit me, whether maliciously or because of ignorance, I don’t know,” Gutman said in one Miami Herald interview. “But the distortions have been so, so huge that, knowing the facts, they are just unrecognizable after the media get through with them.”

One political consultant noted: “Face it, in his district, being attacked by the Miami Herald is considered a badge of honor.”

But his career came crashing down in 1998, when the feds indicted him and his wife as part of what was then the largest-ever Medicare fraud investigation.

Investigators said Guttman secretly ran two fraudulent home health-care companies that created ghost patients and phony documents to bilk taxpayers of almost $2 million from 1990 to 1992. At his trial, co-defendants told jurors that Gutman delivered forged patient records, paid off corrupt doctors, accepted illicit cash payments and encouraged grand jury witnesses to lie and conceal evidence.

The FBI also caught him on video surveillance tapes tampering with witnesses, and discussing how to impede the federal investigation.

Gutman decided to plead guilty midway through his trial. His wife, Marci Gutman, got six months of house arrest after pleading guilty for her role in the scheme.

Prosecutors recommended a sentence of two years in prison. But U.S. District Judge Alan Gold in 1999 slammed him with a sentence of five years, criticizing the senator for his “public lies” while serving as the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“We, as a society, abhor such callous disregard of our trust,” Gold wrote in his sentencing order. “It shakes our belief in our representative form of government to the core.”

Gutman was released in 2003 and tried to get his conviction overturned, risking the chance that prosecutors would seek to retry him and put him away for more time. “The whole point is to clear his name and his family’s name,” his attorney, Henry Ferro, said at the time. “He’s innocent.”

US. Judge Cecilia Altonaga refused. His conviction stayed intact.

After prison, he began working at Miami’s Cuban Crafters, a popular spot for the city’s power brokers.

Juan-Carlos Planas, a lawyer and former state lawmaker, first met Gutman when he was a Florida State student interning in the Legislature in the 1990s. In 2012, Planas was helping organize a conference for the National Fragile X Foundation, a group that supports families living with Fragile X Syndrome, an intellectual and developmental disability.

Gutman donated cigars for a silent auction to raise money for the foundation. He even printed up cigar rings with the foundation’s name on them.

“The generosity of the man was phenomenal,” Planas said.

Gutman is survived by daughters, Lauren and Ilana, mother Gena, brothers, Jose and Jorge Gutman, and uncles Sergio and Rodolfo. A service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Levitt-Weinstein-Blasbger Rubin-Zilbert Memorial Chapel, 18840 W. Dixie Hwy. The burial service will follow at Lakeside Memorial Park, 10301 NW 25th St.