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
"I am not going to join the politically correct movement and start beating up unnecessarily on lobbyists. The press has decided that all the evil in the world can be explained away in one word A lobbyists. As if lobbyists were some alien breed sent to Earth to mess up our hallowed system of government."
A Joe Gersten, 1/14/93 Mayor Steve Clark was on his way home from another hard day of governing when he decided to stop off at a neighborhood tavern to pick up a pack of cigarettes and commune with the local electorate. It was June 18 of last year, and the mayor's campaign for re-election was well under way. Victory seemed assured: Clark already had a sizable war chest and vast name recognition. And his only potential challenger, Joe Gersten, was mired in a sex-and-drugs scandal.
As Clark pulled into a gas station adjacent to the tavern, the station's owner, a friend of the mayor, noticed something strange. Two mysterious-looking men in a rental car seemed to be following Clark, watching his every move.
Eventually the county commission's sergeant-at-arms stopped and questioned the two men, Charles Brugman and Johnny Diaz. A subsequent police investigation found they had been hired to tail the mayor "to dig any dirt up," according to Brugman, a convicted felon with a lengthy criminal record. They were supposed to follow the mayor to a bar in anticipation of him consuming liquor, and then videotape him driving home while drunk. Brugman and Diaz would then supposedly call police and have the mayor arrested, thereby damaging his chances for re-election.
So who hired Brugman and Diaz?
Authorities involved with the investigation say they have established a link between the two men and Greg Borgognoni, the well-connected attorney/lobbyist and ally of Joe Gersten. The Miami Herald reported it obtained a copy of a bill Brugman sent Borgognoni for his surveillance services. And Diaz says he and Brugman visited Borgognoni's Brickell Avenue office building.
Was Gersten involved in the alleged plot to discredit Mayor Clark? When asked that question shortly after the incident, Brugman responded, "I'm not at liberty to discuss that."
The special investigations division of the Metro-Dade Police Department, which initially took responsibility for the case, was asked by the FBI last summer to back away from their investigation in order to give federal officials time to develop information. The same FBI agent who has acted as liaison to Metro police in that case has been involved in investigating Gersten.
After New Times and the Herald reported details of the Clark episode, Borgognoni, once one of the most prominent lobbyists in the county, seemed to fade from view. For months he was absent from the corridors of county government. But after Hurricane Andrew blew the story out of the newspapers, and after Clark announced he would not run again for public office, Borgognoni began to re-emerge.
But Borgognoni never lost touch with one political friend: Joe Gersten. In fact, they were together this past December when another potential scandal erupted.
Gersten and Borgognoni were scheduled to have lunch together at the Four Ambassadors hotel/condominium. Gersten, behind the wheel of his legendary Mercedes, pulled up and parked near the hotel's front door, blocking traffic. When a valet tried to move Gersten's car, the commissioner, according to witnesses, drew a gun from his briefcase and told the valet that if he touched the car, he would shoot him.
Although a State Attorney's investigation into possible weapons violations is still pending, Gersten is not expected to be charged, in part because of contradictory statements from witnesses. According to sources familiar with the investigation, however, most of the witnesses agreed on one thing: they described Gersten's behavior as obnoxious."Wear enemies out by keeping them busy and not letting them rest."
A From The Art of War
That book, along with Winning through Intimidation, is one of Joe Gersten's bibles of political life. He keeps copies of both of them in his commission office. Their aggressive, take-no-prisoners style has served Gersten well over the years, and appear to have guided him in his dealings with the Miami Herald.
"David, you preside over a Star Chamber known to our community as The Miami Herald. Your lofty ideals, so eloquently articulated by you...are doomed," Gersten wrote to Herald publisher David Lawrence on February 6, 1990. "They are stillborn, unless you roll up your shirt sleeves and, starting from the top down, beat some sense of fairness and decency into your staff. Nothing less than a revolution will suffice. Even Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are changing. Why not The Miami Herald?"
In a postscript to the same letter, Gersten suggested that Lawrence should fly with him to Key West for lunch. "I'd love to have your news staff learn," he added, "that you were a passenger in my somehow sinister airplane."
Several months ago New Times filed a Florida public records request for all correspondence between Gersten and the Miami Herald during 1991 and 1992. After repeated demands that Gersten's office comply in full with the law, Gersten's chief of staff, Mike Powers, provided about a dozen letters, far fewer than Gersten actually sent to and received from the paper's executives.