By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
When Dexter Lehtinen resigned suddenly this past January 13 from his post as South Florida's U.S. Attorney, prosecutors past and present joined together to celebrate. Gathering the night of the announcement, the group hoisted beers and breathed a collective sigh of relief amid strains of James Brown's "I Feel Good." After three and a half years, Lehtinen's despotic rule was finally over, and among many of the onerous edicts imposed on the attorneys by him, the oppressive gag rule would likely be lifted. Attorneys would be free to speak judiciously to the press about blockbuster cases - Noriega and Yahweh Ben Yahweh, for instance. And, they speculated, with Lehtinen gone, his much-maligned executive assistant, Diane Cossin, was sure to follow.
They were right. Cossin's last day was February 6.
As the spokeswoman for the highest-ranking law enforcement official in South Florida, it was Cossin's job to speak to reporters and to keep the public informed. She rarely did either to any significant degree, serving more as an ultrafine filter between the U.S. Attorney's Office and the press. Prosecutors who spoke on their own to the media, it was understood, would be fired. In a memo issued shortly after she and Lehtinen arrived, Cossin adopted a simple rule: "It is not public information until I release it."
The Laws of Silence led the assistant U.S. attorneys in Lehtinen's office to peg her as overbearing and arrogant, more interested in promoting and protecting Lehtinen than in doing her job. "I don't think I have anything to defend," she says now. "Everybody thinks they can do it better until they are actually here. I don't have any regrets about the things I have done in this office. What we are talking about is a few disgruntled people who have a particular opinion. They happened to get some inches in the newspaper." Cossin says all she ever did was enforce Justice Department guidelines and local court rules concerning the press.
But to members of the media, Cossin seemed to delight in thwarting inquiries and in limiting the flow of information out of the office. "We are going out of our way to baffle you," she once told a reporter for the New York Times.
"I knew and other media knew that if you wanted to get any information, it was a complete waste of time to call Diane Cossin," says Peter Eisner, a Miami-based reporter for Newsday. "I don't believe I ever did get a comment from her other than, `No comment.'"
"She was basically being a good soldier," says Richard Cole, of the Associated Press. "A lot of people really dumped on her, and I always felt she was doing the job Dexter Lehtinen wanted her to do. There is no question she was personally loyal to him."
Loyal to a fault. When a former assistant U.S. attorney, David Demaio, dared to criticize Lehtinen to the Miami Herald, it was Cossin who counterattacked with a vicious letter to the editor, claiming that Demaio had almost been fired. The stinging rebuke served both to embarrass the former employee and warn others not to criticize the boss. But the matter proved even more embarrassing to Lehtinen and Cossin, when her allegation about the near-firing turned out to be false.
Resentment mounted again last year, after Lehtinen announced through Cossin that a fellow Republican, Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro, was not the subject of a grand jury investigation. The statement angered members of Lehtinen's staff, who had been looking into allegations of wrongdoing in Broward County and had subpoenaed Navarro's personnel file. The matter proved to be the last straw for Lehtinen, whose violent temper and abusive management style, besides its local unpopularity, had left him out of favor with the U.S. Senate, and with officials in the Justice Department, who reportedly were anxious for him to resign.
When Jim McAdams was appointed on January 20 to temporarily replace Lehtinen, the only person who believed there was any possibility of Cossin retaining her job was Cossin herself. Certainly those who had worked with her knew better. "That was an unbelievable miscalculation," one former assistant U.S. attorney remarks. "I don't know why she thought the assistants would have taken her back into the fold. If there was any one person who was hitched to Dexter, it was her."
Shortly after McAdams was appointed, he was asked to comment about Cossin's future. His response was less than a ringing endorsement: "I think Diane Cossin has done the job she was hired to do by Dexter Lehtinen."
One week later a press release was issued by McAdams thanking Cossin for her years of service and and wishing her well in whatever endeavor she chooses next - a not-so-subtle way of saying goodbye.
But even though Cossin's exit was expected to mark a change in the way the U.S. Attorney's Office deals with the media and its own attorneys, the initial signals indicate she was more of a prophet than a charlatan. After McAdams's appointment, prosecutors in his office were counting on him to lift the gag rule. And on February 6, when McAdams met in an informal session with local reporters, he claimed he was willing to loosen the restrictions that had been placed on prosecutors.
Asked specifically if prosecutors during a major trial would be allowed to speak to the press, McAdams said they certainly would, within specific guidelines. "It shall be the general policy of the United States Attorney's Office to promote the responsible, professional, and prudent flow of information to the public regarding work performed by members of the U.S. Attorney's Office," he wrote in the eleven-page memo distributed that day to the media as well as to all the attorneys in his office.
But the five weeks since McAdams's promise have brought little, if any, change. Noriega's prosecutors have uttered barely a word to reporters; the same holds true for the Yahweh Ben Yahweh trial. U.S. attorneys asked to comment for this story continue to express a sense of caution and fear about what might happen to them if they speak out. Even McAdams has been tight-lipped. When he recently announced the indictment of former CenTrust chairman David Paul, he read from a prepared statement and then refused to field a single question. Leaving the press conference, one reporter mumbled: "Why didn't he just mail us the statement and save us the time?"
It's possible that things have not changed because McAdams doesn't want them to change. On February 6, when he handed out his memo encouraging the "prudent flow of information," he also distributed a second memo to prosecutors and to his office staff - but not to the media. "On occasion, an AUSA [Assistant United States Attorney] may be approached by the media in or just outside the Courthouse and asked to comment about a case," McAdams wrote. "AUSAs are cautioned that in a criminal case and prior to the impositions of sentence, they must be especially cautious in responding.... Accordingly, in a criminal case, prior to sentencing, the AUSA must respond `No comment' to any inquiry, except, with regard to a jury verdict of guilty, `We are pleased with the jury's finding,' or, with regard to a hung jury or acquittal, `Our jury system is a good one and we must accept the jury's decision,' or other similar statements to these."
McAdams went on to add: "I am not unmindful of the lure of talking to the media. But as attorneys for the government, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is both unethical and unprofessional to succumb to that lure by permitting anything more than that which is public record to be the subject of comments to the media."
The in-house guidelines, which utterly contradicted the statement supplied to the press, had been photocopied from a manual assembled some time before - by Diane Cossin.