By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"I think this will be the most important vote people will make in a long time. You only get one vote, folks. There are no latitudes for mistakes."
A Joe Gersten, 1/14/93, Government Cut Political Club
Next week a revolution will take place. A political system is being opened to minority groups that for decades have been left out of the governing of Dade County. It is a time for new leadership, a purging of the old guard. And the commissioner was correct A this election is so important there is no latitude for mistakes. Particularly when it comes to Joe Gersten, candidate for a seat in District 5.
Last August New Times reported that state and federal prosecutors were investigating Gersten's role as chairman of the county's powerful finance committee, and allegations that he had steered million-dollar bond deals to friends and political supporters. Investigators were also probing Gersten's ties to Rick Elder, recently resigned director of the county's aviation department, and the awarding of lucrative outside contracts at Miami International Airport.
In a 72-hour period late last month, FBI agents served on several county offices a host of federal grand jury subpoenas, a signal that the investigation, which had been proceeding quietly, has moved into a crucial and more public phase. The most comprehensive subpoena, delivered by agents assigned to the FBI's public corruption unit, demanded thousands of pages of documents from the county's finance committee pertaining to bond deals. A second set of subpoenas dealt exclusively with Miami International Airport (MIA). "They are revving up all the engines again," says a former MIA executive who has been interviewed by federal agents nearly a dozen times. "They were interested in finding out all they could about the behind-the-scenes link between Elder and Gersten."
Gersten was not named in any of the federal subpoenas, and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing. But the intensified scrutiny by federal agents and prosecutors, the ongoing State Attorney's investigation regarding allegations that Gersten smoked crack with a prostitute last year, and his refusal to comply with a state subpoena to testify about that incident A all of this hangs over an incumbent commissioner one week away from an election. A politician who is described A even by his allies A as a nasty guy and an arrogant bully. A politician at war with the press and desperate to convince voters that he is worthy of their trust.
"The FBI has already said that Joe Gersten hasn't and doesn't use drugs."
A Joe Gersten, 1/14/93 Gersten left the country for more than a month following the April 29, 1992 incident in which drug dealers and prostitutes claimed he had procured the services of a hooker, smoked crack with her, and then was robbed of his Mercedes-Benz. His political advisors begged him to return from his European vacation in order to confront the allegations and bad publicity. Gersten refused.
When he finally came home, he was forced to supply hair samples after the State Attorney's Office obtained a warrant. The samples were tested by FBI specialists for signs of drug use. No evidence of cocaine was found.
Gersten has held out those test results as a shield to deflect public doubts and suspicions. "I guess you would have to say the FBI lied to say I wasn't telling the truth," he protested indignantly.
In fact, no one from the FBI has ever said Joe Gersten "hasn't and doesn't use drugs." The test merely showed that the FBI could not prove, one way or the other, that Gersten was a casual user of cocaine. According to Dean Fritch, a forensic toxicologist with National Medical Services in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, one of the nation's leading drug-testing labs, hair sampling is the best test known to detect cocaine. But it has limitations. "It's unclear how much cocaine a person has to take before it will show up in hair samples," Fritch explains. "It will not pick up one-time use, or intermittent use. A person has to be exposed to cocaine over an extended period of time."
Fritch says an individual could use as much as a gram of cocaine every month and still register negative results from a hair test. "There are no hard and fast rules," he notes, adding, "The problem with the hair test is when people try to prove their innocence by pointing to the negative results as proof they are clean. A negative finding does not indicate no cocaine use."
Far more intriguing than the claims of drug dealers and prostitutes, or even FBI technicians, are statements about drug use made by Gersten's own attorneys. At an unusual court hearing this past January 14, Gersten's current lawyer, Richard Sharpstein, sought to have the State Attorney's Office removed from the investigation. State prosecutors, Sharpstein claimed, were pursuing a vendetta against the commissioner. The hearing before Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean was supposed to be Gersten's chance to stick it to the men who had been making his life miserable.
Gersten's lawyer won the right to place on the witness stand Assistant State Attorney Richard Gregorie and his chief investigator, George Ray Havens, in order to grill the men about their motives in investigating Gersten. Defense attorney Sharpstein would also question William Richey, the lawyer who had initially represented Gersten after his Mercedes was stolen. Richey was prepared to testify that prosecutors were laying a trap for Gersten that would result in perjury charges should the commissioner obey a subpoena to testify about the events of April 29, 1992.