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 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.
Judge Dean's courtroom was packed, but Joe Gersten himself was noticeably absent. That appears to be the wisest move he made that day. Not only did prosecutors deny they were trying to trap Gersten, they revealed that Richey, in a private meeting, said Gersten had a drug problem.
Press accounts of the courtroom testimony, however, raised more questions than answers, especially when attorneys and witnesses referred to Gersten's "problem." The first reference to this mysterious "problem" arose when Richard Shiffrin, representing the State Attorney's Office, was questioning attorney William Richey about a meeting he had with prosecutor Gregorie and investigator Havens on May 21, 1992.
SHIFFRIN: You said the State wanted something and you wanted something.
RICHEY: Yes, sir.
SHIFFRIN: Wasn't what you wanted is for this thing to sort of maybe go away?
RICHEY: That is an understatement.
SHIFFRIN: And didn't you express to the State the idea that you A your client's family was concerned with your client's problem?
RICHEY: Yes, sir.
SHIFFRIN: And that if your client would enter some kind of program, that maybe this whole thing would go away?
RICHEY: That was part of the larger discussion that I had with the State.
Shiffrin then questioned investigator George Ray Havens, and again the unexplained "problem" surfaced.
SHIFFRIN: Who first broached the subject about Mr. Gersten coming in?
HAVENS: Mr. Richey.
SHIFFRIN: And how was that raised?
HAVENS: Mr. Richey advised me that the family and friends of Mr. Gersten were very concerned about his behavior and that Mr. Richey wanted to know what the State of Florida's position would be if his client comes in and admits that he has a problem, admits that he needs to have counseling and/or rehabilitation and agrees to go into a program A what was the State of Florida's position on sentencing?
Veteran prosecutor Richard Gregorie then took the stand. His sworn testimony was elicited by defense attorney Sharpstein.
SHARPSTEIN: The situation involving Mr. Gersten, was it your purpose to give him immunity and call him in to give a sworn statement?
SHARPSTEIN: Certainly that option existed at some time, isn't that right?
GREGORIE: I had not thought about that at all. His lawyer came in and was trying to plea bargain for him and I A I answered in response to his lawyer's telling me that he thought that his client had a problem, that the man was sick, he needed help, and that he wanted to resolve this thing so that he could get him some help, and he wanted to know how we would do that .... A few minutes later this exchange took place:
SHARPSTEIN: You and Mr. Havens told Mr. Richey that you believed Mr. Gersten had a problem, that he used crack in that crackhouse and things of that nature?"
GREGORIE: That is ridiculous. We would have never said something like that. He came in and suggested to us that his client had a problem. He told us his family was worried about it. He told us that his investigators had investigated it and he was telling us. We were shocked. We were sitting there amazed that Mr. Richey said it, but Mr. Richey came in and I believe he repeated it in a second meeting in Janet Reno's office.
Today none of the parties involved in that court hearing will comment as to the meaning of Gersten's alleged "problem," and until now, local news organizations have provided no explanation. But the answer is available in the full transcripts of the hearing.
Prior to William Richey's cross-examination by Richard Shiffrin of the State Attorney's Office, Shiffrin called for a "sidebar" conference, a private discussion with defense attorney Sharpstein and Judge Dean that courtroom spectators could not hear.
SHIFFRIN: It is my understanding that this meeting [among Richey, Gregorie, and Havens] took place at the insistence of Mr. Richey, that Mr. Richey came in and said that his client has a problem, that his family is very concerned about his problem, that in return for his entering some kind of program would we consider a voluntary statement on the part of his client, and we said, "We will think about a voluntary statement, but it has to be under oath." And his problem was a drug problem and that was the whole context of these remarks. That is what I intend to ask Mr. Richey about.
SHARPSTEIN: Well, I am not too sure that is exactly as I understand the context, or A
JUDGE DEAN: Or Mr. Richey will answer it.
SHARPSTEIN: A or that he will answer it.
JUDGE DEAN: I guess he wants you to know beforehand.
SHARPSTEIN: I understand. Thank you, Mr. Shiffrin. I believe during the course of this meeting there were some discussions about how this case can be worked out short of a A and a drug program was brought up. Now, I am not too sure if Mr. Richey overtly came in and threw that card on the table or whether that became the desire of the State Attorney's Office.
SHIFFRIN: It certainly wasn't the State's. I'm sorry.
Once outside the courtroom, Richey and Sharpstein seemed to scramble for spin control. Surrounded by reporters, Richey A no longer under oath A appeared to deny the very statements he had made only moments earlier. There was no plea offer, he said. He also denied saying Gersten's family was concerned about any alleged "problem."
Sharpstein also danced around the embarrassing revelations. Contrary to his private remarks made during the sidebar conference, he now claimed not to know what type of "program" Richey and prosecutors were talking about. "Maybe they were talking about anger control," Sharpstein said jokingly.
(Gersten's chief of staff, Mike Powers, said the commissioner would consider offering comment for this story only on condition that New Times reveal the identity of any unnamed sources. New Times rejected the offeer. "I'm at a loss to understand what the State Attorney wants from me."
A Joe Gersten, 1/14/93, shortly after the hearing before Judge Dean regardless of the fact that few people who know Joe Gersten would believe he is truly baffled by prosecutors' interest in his activities, a veiled reference to that interest cropped up during the Janurary 14 hearing in Judge Dean's courtroom.
Assistant State Attorney Gregorie testified that during the May 21 meeting with Gersten lawyer William Richey, prosecutors told him that as part of any plea bargain, investigators would want Gersten to provide a sworn statement regarding not just the crackhouse allegations but also "as to a number of other incidents that we thought needed to be cleared up."
Defense attorney Sharpstein also hinted at this during the private conference with Judge Dean. "We brought [Richey] in here with the understanding of what was said at that meeting, and there were certain parameters we had hoped wouldn't come out," Sharpstein said. " ...There are other areas that came out about desires the State Attorney had for Mr. Gersten cooperating and all of this."
"We won't get into it," prosecutor Shiffrin reassured him.
The topic that Gersten's attorney was afraid would become public: an investigation into county bond dealing.
New Times has confirmed that not long after the May 21, 1992 meeting, a second meeting took place among Gregorie, Havens, and Richey A this time in State Attorney Janet Reno's office. During that June 8 conclave, according to sources familiar with the details, Reno repeated that if Gersten wanted to make a deal regarding the crackhouse case, he would have to provide a complete and truthful statement about what happened. But in addition, Reno told Richey that Gersten would be questioned, under oath, about allegations of corrupt county bond dealing. (Three months after this meeting, Gregorie was temporarily assigned to the U.S. Attorney's Office, where he has been working with the federal grand jury investigating airport operations and county bond deals.)
Bonds worth tens of millions of dollars are offered for sale by Dade County in order to finance major civic projects, most involving construction such as the Metrorail or airport parking structures. To accomplish such sales, the county hires financial advisors, attorneys, and underwriters to market the bonds, then repays the purchasers, with interest, over an extended period of time. Gersten's appointment as chairman of the Metro Commission's finance committee put him in a position to exert substantial influence over this process.
On February 22, 1989, just a few weeks after taking charge of the committee, Gersten voted to include his best friend in the first three bond deals that came before his finance committee. Charles Citrin, a lobbyist who worked for PaineWebber, was Gersten's chief fundraiser in his successful 1988 county commission campaign, responsible for collecting thousands of dollars in contributions for Gersten from Wall Street bankers and investment firms.
The two men have been friends since high school, and Gersten is godfather to one of Citrin's daughters. But Gersten and Citrin have denied that their friendship played any role in PaineWebber's sudden good fortune.
The underwriting firm had done no bond business with the county in the years preceding Gersten's election to the commission. But shortly after Gersten took a seat on the board, PaineWebber hired Citrin to lobby before the county. The results were highly profitable. In 1989 PaineWebber earned more than one million dollars in fees for its bond work A more than double the amount earned by any other firm that year.
This past summer New Times contacted Citrin to ask him about his relationship with Gersten and whether he was aware of state and federal investigations into the county's bond-dealing practices. Citrin seemed stunned. "I have no knowledge of it. None. It comes as a surprise," he said at the time. "I never characterized Joe as my best friend. The [Miami Herald] characterized him as my best friend. We've had some recent personal disagreements but I don't want to go into any of the details. It has nothing to do with the bond business."
Gersten argues he has opened county bond dealing to include more underwriters than ever before, including minority-owned firms. His long-time friend, lobbyist Stuart Rose, says the federal scrutiny could ultimately vindicate Gersten. "They are going to see a bond business that has been expanded tenfold since he's taken over," Rose contends.
Increasing the number of participants in bond deals, however, can be deceptive. A more revealing picture is provided by inspecting the revenue those firms earned. The county could have tripled the number of firms participating, for example, but each of those newly included companies could be earning only a fraction of the total fees and profits, while a select few firms continue to dominate A perhaps as a result of preferential treatment.
Federal investigators, though, will have trouble determining with any certainty how the pie has been split. According to Ed Marquez, county finance director, Dade does not ask for a final accounting of each bond deal. Marquez claims the system works best when the various participants are allowed to watch over each other. "There's nothing better than self-policing," he says, "because if one firm is getting shortchanged, we'll hear about it." (While Marquez discussed the merits of self-policing this past week, a half-dozen federal agents were combing through thousands of pages of finance committee records, looking for improprieties.) Marquez, however, says he will soon join the State of Florida and Broward County in requiring such an accounting, not because he thinks it is prudent, but because of "media concerns."
"Joe Gersten fought to expose waste and corruption in county government that cost taxpayers millions. Joe Gersten exposed and corrected wrongdoing at Miami International Airport."
A Gersten campaign flyer recently mailed to District 5 voters
Immediately after his 1988 election, Gersten began examining operations at Miami International Airport. The Miami Herald at the time was investigating Aviation Director Richard Judy, and Gersten joined in, alleging various conflicts of interests and publicly criticizing Judy. Less than five months after Gersten took office, Judy resigned. "I feel bad for Mr. Judy," Gersten said after the director's departure. "I take no personal pleasure in the result. But there had to be a closer look at how the airport was run."
Along with fellow commissioner Larry Hawkins, Gersten was then instrumental in selecting Rick Elder as Judy's replacement. According to past and present MIA executives, Elder, in turn, rarely made an important decision without first seeking Gersten's approval.
His first major power play as a commissioner assured Gersten unfettered prowling rights at MIA. And his role as finance committee chairman enhanced his influence: Many of the county's major bond deals involved the airport. Those, as well as lucrative airport service contracts, were routinely reviewed by Gersten's finance committee.
But instead of exposing and correcting wrongdoing at Miami International Airport, as he claims in his campaign literature, and despite pledging to maintain one of the cleanest, most scandal-free facilities in the nation, Gersten's MIA legacy is an airport beset by federal investigations and charges of influence-peddling.
In the past month, FBI agents have served subpoenas on the county in search of aviation records relating to questionable private service contracts. Other subpoenas have sought files documenting the distribution of millions of dollars intended for airport promotion but spent on other county projects. The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a separate investigation to determine whether the county violated agreements with the federal government by using other airport funds for expenses unrelated to MIA's operation. Several private companies and individuals doing business with the airport have received federal grand jury subpoenas, as well.
But even before the subpoenas began descending upon MIA, executive staff members had been complaining privately that lobbyists had overrun the airport following Gersten's election. In previous years, private firms would demonstrate their interest in MIA business via bids or other traditional methods. But the Gersten/Elder era marked a dramatic change: Firms now hired lobbyists to approach MIA executives, lobbyists who flaunted their ties to various commissioners. "Now it is not uncommon for the first contact we have with someone who wants to do business at the airport is through a commissioner," says one airport official who requested anonymity. "Everything is now political. Staff can't do a professional job because they are being given done deals."
Critics of the business atmosphere at MIA point to the case of Dynair, Inc. In 1992 Dynair sought a contract for ground services A such as baggage handling and ticket-counter attendants A for some of the smaller airlines. But when the company was eliminated from consideration because its bid arrived past deadline, Rick Elder found an excuse to reopen the bidding. Dynair eventually won one of the contracts.
Dynair is one of Gersten's most generous political contributors, having thus far donated at least $3000 to his current campaign. Dynair's lobbyist? Stuart Rose, Gersten's friend and a major fundraiser for the commissioner.
Another lobbyist with close ties to Gersten is Miami attorney Greg Borgognoni, whose wife, Georgia, won a 1991 contract to operate a sandwich shop at the airport. Greg Borgognoni lobbied commissioners on behalf of his wife and her partner despite the fact they had no experience in such a business. A losing bidder called the process "a farce." Disclosure forms show the Borgognonis were early contributors to Gersten's election campaign, having donated the maximum $500 each.
Other problems have plagued the airport since Gersten decided to involve himself in its operations. One of the most controversial garnered publicity last fall, when Balfour Construction was awarded a $28 million construction contract even though one of its subcontractors declared he'd been used as a "minority front" who was included simply so Balfour could qualify as a bidder. The State Attorney's Office is investigating.
The wrongdoing at Miami International Airport that Gersten claims to have exposed and corrected prompted a frustrated Commissioner Alex Penelas to lament not long ago: "Every one of these damn contracts is becoming a federal case. I just don't know why."
"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.
But even that small sampling offers a telling glimpse into the methods Gersten has used in his efforts to influence Herald coverage of him: a pattern of attacks on reporters, disarming appeals to Lawrence, and, when all else fails, obfuscation of issues and suggestions that the paper investigate someone else. Presumably to add emphasis to the delivery of his missives, Gersten's habit has been to have them hand-delivered by the county commission's sergeant-at-arms, Lael Schumacher, who is a Metro-Dade police officer charged with providing security for the mayor and commissioners.
Such was the case when Gersten learned, in the fall of 1991, that the Herald was probing his relationships with various bond dealers. As part of her investigation, reporter Lisa Getter sought to interview Gersen, which prompted this letter to Lawrence: "After reflecting on my previous interviews with Ms. Getter, and the resulting articles, I have declined," Gersten wrote on October 2, 1991. "Simply, David, I choose not to participate in a story that I believe is being contrived for the purpose of injuring my reputation. Ms. Getter has told others that my refusal to grant her an interview will have negative ramifications. I believe that you will not permit your newspaper to enforce a policy of punishing someone who doesn't do what your reporters want them to do."
While Gersten was unwilling to be interviewed by Getter, he did propose to Lawrence "to meet with you or [Knight-Ridder chairman] Jim Batten alone and off the record, to discuss Ms. Getter's sources, certain activities of these sources, and their motives, which, as a newsman as well as publisher, you will find quite intriguing."
A few weeks later Gersten sent along another letter, this time to Herald executive editor Doug Clifton but again addressing the subject of investigative reporter Getter:
"I offered to discuss with Mr. Lawrence or Mr. Batten the motives and activities of certain of Ms. Getter's sources. That offer was not accepted. Thus, it is with regret that I am forced to commit the following to writing.
"In her position as a reporter, Ms. Getter, for at least three years, has been furthering the financial interests of certain of her personal friends, who are also her sources. I am silent as to whether or not she is doing so knowingly."
Gersten provided no proof for his allegations. Instead he referred to the coverage of him as a conspiracy: "I am certain that the Miami Herald's institutional desire to believe the worst of me, together with what I know is Ms. Getter's deep personal animosity towards me, have been transformed into reckless disregard for the truth and malicious intent, both of which have been aided and abetted by certain Miami Herald news editors. Neither you, Mr. Lawrence, nor the officers and directors of Knight-Ridder, Inc., can disown responsibility for her actions.
"You are now on actual notice of the above and have sufficient evidence to warrant an objective inquiry into the above charges against Ms. Getter," Gersten concluded, employing the ominous language of imminent litigation.
Herald executives say they placed no credibility in Gersten's allegations. "We have the utmost faith in Lisa Getter's integrity," says executive editor Clifton. "There was never a shadow of a doubt that she wasn't acting out of anything but the desire for solid journalism.
"Gersten acts with us as he does with others," Clifton adds. "He's the kind of a guy who talks a lot, accuses a lot, speaks in rhetoric. We take it as it comes and we deal with the facts as they are."
"I want my good name restored and your vote is how I can wash this dirt that has been piled on me by professional criminals and murderers and whores and drug addicts off of me."
A Joe Gersten, 8/6/92, during a televised interview on street corners, in political forums, before anyone who will listen to him, Joe Gersten has sounded this refrain: I have not been charged. I have not been indicted. This is America, where a man is innocent until proven guilty.
As a courtroom principle, innocent until proven guilty is the minimum standard applied to judgment. As a standard of judgment in the voting booth, however, many observers say it has little application. Friends and political consultants advised Gersten not to run again for office, to step aside, to wait for the allegations to show themselves true or false, and to rebuild his reputation and effectiveness by volunteering to assist community projects.
"I really think that Joe should not have run," says political consultant Ric Katz, who has supported Gersten in the past but is now representing one of his challengers, Bruce Kaplan. "Guilty or innocent, he has a major public-image problem to repair. The public no longer has confidence in him."
"He has gone way beyond the line politically," says Phil Hamersmith, another prominent political consultant who has organized prior campaigns for Gersten. "It's not one story that does you in in politics, it's ten stories. And Joey's had 50 written about him. It's just inconceivable to me that Joey could win."
Instead of heeding such warnings, Gersten has plunged ahead and entered the race for county commission in the newly created District 5, which includes Miami Beach south of 71st Street and a portion of Little Havana.
In an unpublicized maneuver prior to the federal court ruling that created Dade's new voting districts, Gersten managed to alter the proposed boundaries of District 5, according to sources familiar with the process. Gersten bargained for and got a change that added to District 5 two key precincts in Overtown, from neighboring District 3. Together those precincts represent about 2000 black voters.
Gersten is hopeful of attracting black voters in a close race. Because of past patterns of discrimination, according to some political insiders, black voters would be less trusting of the media and the claims of prosecutors that Gerstan may have violated the law.
If that seems coldly calculating, it would be in keeping with Gersten's determination to vindicate himself at the polls. And it is no more calculating than the essential effort of modern politics: raising money.
Gersten has been working hard at that. His campaign chest is more than three times larger than any other candidate in District 5; as of February 26, he reported he had raised $251,000. Challenger Conchy Bretos is a distant second to Gersten, with a reported $81,000, $30,600 of which was a personal loan to her own campaign.
A significant portion of Gersten's money A more than 36 percent A has come from businesses and individuals outside Dade County, including major contributions from Wall Street bankers and bond dealers, among them the county's long-time financial advisor, W.R. Lazard & Co. Other contributors include American Airlines (which recently won approval from the commission for a major expansion at Miami International Airport) and members of the Latin Builders' Association. For example, LBA president Sergio Pino and his family have donated more than $3000. In addition, John J. Brunetti, owner of Hialeah racetrack, and his family have contributed at least $5000.
In announcing his intention to run in District 5, Gersten noted that he was born in Miami Beach, so he felt he knew the people and they knew him. But of the 369 individuals who contributed to his campaign between October and the end of February, only five listed a Miami Beach address.
With a bankroll in place, Gersten sought to put together his old team of political consultants, including Phil Hamersmith. But this time Hamersmith said no. He is managing Conchy Bretos's bid to unseat Gersten. "He did not listen to me," Hamersmith says of his advice that Gersten return quickly from Europe last spring in order to address the crack-and-hooker allegations. "He ruined his own career. He didn't have to be so arrogant and evasive and mystical and all of that crap. But that's Joey."
Even Gersten's most ardent supporters are equivocal about his chances of winning. "I consider Joe Gersten to be a good friend of mine," says lobbyist Stuart Rose. "I think he's been a good commissioner for this community. If you look past all the garbage, you will see a record of dedication to the community, and I believe he deserves to be and I think there is a strong possibility he will be re-elected."
During a recent commission meeting, Gersten may have inadvertently explained his reasons for seeking office amid such personal controversy. To provide what he described as inspiration for his fellow commissioners, he launched into a soliloquy from Act Two of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cowards die many times before their death; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, that neccessary end, will come when it will come."
As he finished he smiled, thrust his arms into the air, and awaited the reaction from those in attendance. What he got was a smattering of applause, a few chuckles, and the dumbfounded stares of his colleagues, who were hungry and ready for lunch.