Florida: 'A Paradise Of Scandals'

<B>Steve Kroft</B> Talks To Columnist/Novelist Carl Hiaasen

This story originally aired on April 17, 2005.

In a little less than a century, the state of Florida has been transformed from a largely uninhabited swamp to the fourth-largest state in the union. And no one has written about that transformation more successfully than Carl Hiaasen.

Part humorist, part muckraker, his satirical novels about greed, crime and corruption in the Sunshine State have become fixtures on the best-seller list and embraced by influential literary critics who compare him to Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken.

He is also an award-winning children's author and a former investigative reporter-turned-columnist for the Miami Herald.

And he has made a career of documenting, analyzing and interpreting what may be the most bizarre state in the union -- and one, Hiaasen says, is "a victim of its own geography."

Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.

Whether he's writing fiction or journalism, Carl Hiaasen's main character is always Florida, that axis of weirdness that gave us the sagas of Elian Gonzales, and dimpled "chads." It's also where developers build homes around gravel pits advertised as "lakefront property," and where marijuana falls out of the sky.

This is how Hiaasen describes Florida: "The Sunshine State is a paradise of scandals teeming with drifters, deadbeats, and misfits drawn here by some dark primordial calling like demented trout. And you'd be surprised how many of them decide to run for public office."

Still true?

"Yeah, very true. More true than ever I think. The opportunities for corruption are many here," says Hiaasen. "But the one thing about Florida politicians, the crooked ones that I still find somewhat heartwarming, is that they're not very sophisticated."

In fact, most of them still take cash. You could hold a film festival of all the undercover sting operations and perp walks involving public officials. One of Hiaasen's favorite subjects was Miami Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, who was indicted for bank fraud and money laundering, re-elected anyway, and continued to serve until convicted of vote fraud.

"A pernicious little ferret from the first day he walked onto the stage," says Hiaasen. "And the only thing that slowed his political career down was jail, when they took him away to jail and then he could no longer serve. And even in Florida, they don't let you serve from inside the cell."

Hiaasen says any politician without handcuff marks on his wrists is considered an elder statesman. He called one Miami mayor "a slagheap of mediocrity." And he called the Florida state legislature "a festival of whores."

Hiaasen doesn't believe in writing columns that don't offend someone, and his weapon of choice is humor, not outrage.

"From my experience, politicians are much more uncomfortable being made fun of than they are being preached at and screeched at -- you know, and the soapbox routine," says Hiaasen. "They're much more uneasy knowing they're a target of ridicule. It really ruins their day. They lose their breakfast over it."