By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Miriam Alonso, a Miami city commissioner and former candidate for county commission, who in July 1988 provided false information about where she lived in order to run against Charles Dusseau for a seat on the Metro commission. To be eligible for the District 7 seat, she had to live within District 7, in southwest Dade. The address she provided when she filed to run for office was within the district. The only problem was, she didn't live there. In September 1988, Circuit Court Judge Edward Klein ruled that Alonso was ineligible to run, and her name was removed from the ballot. But one month later the Florida Supreme Court ruled that candidates don't have to live in particular districts until the day of the election. Reno's office determined that the Supreme Court's new ruling precluded prosecution.
Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud was accused this past April of accepting $35,000 from David Paul, the ousted chairman of CenTrust Savings Bank, in return for favorable votes at city commission meetings. Reno said at the time that her office would investigate the allegations. But then she decided not to, and the feds are now handling the case. Reno did investigate Daoud, however, in 1989, at the request of Harry Plissner, a Miami Beach political activist. Plissner complained that Daoud, while trying to pressure him into withdrawing his candidacy for mayor, had admitted discussing a pending public issue with members of the Miami Beach City Commission - outside commission chambers - a violation of Florida's Sunshine Law. Reno's office dismissed the matter as a political squabble between Plissner and Daoud.
Alberto San Pedro, the "Great Corruptor" from Hialeah. Among the most highly touted cases of corruption in Dade history, it turned out to be among the least impressive. While San Pedro himself was not an elected official, he boasted - during conversations he did not know were being recorded - that he had bribed dozens of officials, including judges, mayors, and various commissioners. Initially stories of San Pedro's influence abounded, but of 39 charges eventually filed against him, he was convicted of just seven, and the only elected official whose record was sullied in the 1986 scandal was school board member Kathleen Magrath.
When Reno's office receives a tip that an official is corrupt, a prosecutor and an investigator are assigned the case, says Mary Cagle, chief of the public corruption unit. The prosecutor and investigator interview the tipster to gather as many facts as possible, and then begin tracking down information, finding witnesses, examining records, and speaking to people who may know something about the matter. If Reno's office thinks there is sufficient evidence to convict, they charge the official with a crime.
The problem, Reno and other state prosecutors say, is that Florida's corruption laws make it easy for officials to avoid prosecution. "The public corruption state statutes are just awful," says Ed Austin, state attorney in Duval County. "They're terribly weak and have been emasculated by the Supreme Court of Florida." So what does the Jacksonville prosecutor do about that? He avoids problems with the state court system by having his own prosecutors appointed as special assistant U.S. attorneys so they may try cases in federal court. "In almost all of your public corruption cases, you get better tools on the federal side," Austin explains. "They have the Hobbs [anti-racketeering] Act. It opens doors."
In the past, Reno's prosecutors have been appointed as special assistant U.S. attorneys, most notably during the notorious Miami River Cops case in 1986. In cases involving elected officials, however, Reno says she has not seen it necessary to have her lawyers try cases in federal court. Still, like Austin, Reno says she'd like to see stronger state corruption laws. "We've had concerns over the way that unauthorized-compensation and bribery laws are drafted," she says. She has not, however, lobbied forcefully to have the laws changed.
Miami defense attorney Michael Tarkoff, however, argues that state laws are no weaker than the federal ones, and that Reno can always prosecute if she wishes. "The [federal] Hobbs Act is no easier to prove than unlawful compensation or bribery," he says. "These crimes all require specific intent."
Privately, Dade prosecutors express frustration not with Reno, but with the difficulty of proving public corruption cases. "If you don't have them locked up eight ways to Sunday, you're going to lose," says one prosecutor. In the Schreiber case, the prosecutor says, "we expended a lot of resources, we explored every possible theory, and we ended up not being able to shoot to kill." Furthermore, Reno maintains that unless she's convinced she can win a conviction, she has no right bringing elected officials to trial. But Reno, who does not personally try cases, acknowledges that no case is "locked up eight ways to Sunday."
Defense lawyers contend that Reno gives a benefit to elected officials she does not extend to people who don't have political connections. That benefit, they say, comes in the form of enormous analysis before charges are filed - analysis that concentrates on reasons not to file. Meanwhile, the lawyers add, Reno is brutal on nonpoliticians, routinely filing charges without such investigation. A sampling of that criticism: