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"The normal case just rolls through the system untouched and unscathed, with very little scrutiny as to the potential to actually win," says Richard Sharpstein, a former prosecutor who served a stint in the public corruption unit and now is a top Miami defense lawyer. "I just don't think that they properly use the resources that are available to them. I think they have some fine investigators, like Ray Havens, and they have some professionals who are seemingly bright, but they're bogged down in these petty complaints rather than looking for serious allegations of corruption."
"The public has a perception that there's an awful lot of circumstantial shenanigans that go on with public officials," says Joel Hirschhorn, a former prosecutor and prominent Miami attorney. "I think that one area the state could prosecute, but doesn't, involves municipal zoning laws - particularly zoning changes. I think there's been kind of an institutional policy developed over the years that they defer to the federal government in these matters."
"Any citizen who goes down to the clerk of the circuit court criminal division and goes through the files can see that there are thousands of cases that have been filed and have been lost by the state attorney's office," says Ellis Rubin, the famous and flamboyant Miami defense lawyer. "Does that mean that she shouldn't have filed the cases in the first place? If that is her theory and her admission, then I think that many people have great civil rights cases against the State of Florida," Rubin says, for allowing a double standard between prosecuting elected officials and everyone else.
Prosecutors contend that elected officials tend to be a touch shrewder than the average criminal, and are good at covering their tracks. The cases themselves tend to involve less evidence - at its most base level, a bribery case can be one person's word against another, with no fingerprints or bullet holes to support a prosecutor's contention that the accused is actually guilty. In such situations, investigators occasionally tap telephones to gather information. Still, the cases tend not to present the dramatic evidence on which prosecutors often rely. The public corruption unit prosecutes a lot of police officers, one attorney says, because "oftentimes what they do is more egregious and easier to prove." There's another reason Reno's office prosecutes so many cops: most area police departments have internal affairs divisions that constantly monitor officers' behavior and send cases to Reno. When it comes to monitoring public officials, there is no such department. Only Reno.
Cagle, chief of the public corruption unit, says she understands people being frustrated with many seemingly corrupt elected officials not being locked up. "Your average citizen out there can look at something and say, `This looks bad to me,' and a lot of times it does. But we can't start an investigation unless there's something that appears to be criminal. You can't always prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt in the courtroom just because it stinks when you look at it." And, she says, "For the average person who looks at the Schreiber case, it really stinks."
Reno is comfortable, even serene, with her office's handling of public corruption. "We prosecute every case we can where the evidence is sufficient," she says, dismissing any talk that she is lethargic about pursuing elected officials. "There are so many perceptions that I long ago stopped worrying about perceptions. I worry about reality."
Reno's actions, however, belie her words. In fact the county's top prosecutor cares deeply about what people think, and takes pains to avoid any appearance of personal misconduct or that she uses her office to bully others. She once asked Chief Judge Gerald Wetherington to appoint a special prosecutor to handle complaints that her mother's peacocks were disturbing neighbors. She pays sticker price for her personal cars so no one will think she's coercing dealerships into giving her a break on the cost.
She points to one particularly difficult public corruption case from 1987. "When we prosecuted Judge Gross, a number of people told us we shouldn't do it," she says, declining to name the people who dispensed such advice. "I told them, ~`I've got to do what's correct based on the evidence and the law.'" In 1980, just two years after taking office, she prosecuted a nonelected but popular official - former school superintendent Johnny Jones, who was accused of using county money to buy, among other items, gold-plated plumbing fixtures for his home. He was convicted of second-degree grand theft, but the prosecution was politically risky. Former Miami Police Chief Harms - the man who must have been "confused" about the Miller Dawkins situation - believes Reno felt stung by the matter. "It was perceived by many in the black community that the reason he was prosecuted was because he was black," he says today. "She got a lot of flak within the black community and came to realize she didn't want that kind of aggravation."
Reno, however, contends that she doesn't mind politically hot cases. "I try to do everything in my power to keep politics out of the office," she says. Her prosecutors - both on and off the record - say they have never felt pressured to go easy on anyone. "If anything," one prosecutor says, "we will double our efforts when it's a public official."
As for Reno, she's confident she's doing well. And she presents an invitation to people who say she should prosecute more politicians: "Have 'em call me," the state attorney offers. "Have 'em sit down with the facts.