Burke's Law

Is there a financial adviser in the house?

These are not the kinds of days James Burke probably dreamed of when he won election to the Dade County Commission in 1992. Since late last month he's been defending himself against a torrent of criticism that he slipped behind the backs of county attorneys to request $9000 of taxpayers' money to fund the "James C. Burke Family Labor Day Picnic." Metro attorneys had refused to draft a proposal for Burke to present to the commission, saying it sounded too much like a political event. So at the weary end of a thirteen-hour commission meeting on July 28, he asked his colleagues, by a verbal motion, to approve $9000 in county services (security, safety crews, cleanup) for "a Labor Day picnic," failing to mention the event's full title. It received unanimous approval, but some commissioners now say they had no idea they were voting for a "Burke" picnic.

Burke says Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg recommended to one of his commission aides that the commissioner try to secure the money by a motion. Greenberg denies saying anything of the sort. Battered by negative press reports of the incident, Burke admits "it was obviously a mistake to do it that way" and will now fund the picnic with private donations and with money from his re-election campaign account. However, he maintains that the picnic is a public affair meant to benefit the citizens of Dade County, not him. "I get no personal benefit out of it at all," he states. "It doesn't do anything for me."

In addition to the charges of political sneakiness, Burke also has had to deflect rumors that he was directly involved in the last-minute withdrawal of Roy Hardemon, his only opponent, from the commission race. Burke won instant re-election when Hardemon, the brother of his chief of staff, dropped out at the last minute. The commissioner acknowledges he's heard the rumor that he encouraged Hardemon to run as a dummy candidate in order to deter other potential opponents. But Burke declares the rumor is untrue, arguing that Hardemon is a negligible political force and "wouldn't scare anyone else out of the race. If anyone thinks I did that," Burke continues, "then they obviously don't think very much of me intellectually."

The commissioner is now grappling with a third controversy besetting his camp. This past month a complaint was filed with the Florida Elections Commission charging that Burke has violated Florida's election laws. While FEC officials will neither confirm nor deny they have received a complaint, knowledgeable sources say an FEC investigator is pursuing, among other allegations, the claim that Burke has made illegal contributions to his church using funds drawn from his re-election account. (Burke says he learned of the investigation late last week.)

Burke's campaign expenditure reports indicate that since opening the account a year ago, the commissioner has dipped into his campaign coffers for $3980 in "offerings" and "tithes" to his church, Bible Baptist Church, at 9801 NW 27th Ave. But according to Florida campaign financing law, "contributions by candidates...to any religious, charitable, civic, or other causes or organizations established primarily for the public good are expressly prohibited."

But Burke argues that another part of state law does, in fact, permit his church offerings. He points to a section of the law that allows the use of campaign funds "to defray normal living expenses for himself or his family," as long as the candidate has filed a notice of intent to use campaign funds in this manner. (According to the Metro-Dade Elections Department, elections officials received such a letter from Burke on August 6, 1993, at the time he opened his campaign account.) "Offerings and tithes are a part of my regular living expenses," he contends, adding that he thinks the law is directed at other, less scrupulous people who go from church to church buying support with donations.

Burke, who is chairman of the county commission's powerful finance committee, cites the same law to explain his use of campaign funds for other payouts that raises questions about his judgment. From November 1993 to this past March, for instance, he paid $1925 in child support to his ex-wife, Marcia Burke, using campaign funds. "That is a normal living expense, like paying the electric company to keep my lights on," he argues. "There was a period of time when I was financially tight for funds. Not everyone who runs for office is a well-to-do person." Yeteva Hightower, senior counsel for the Florida Department of State's Division of Elections, says an opinion regarding child support as a "normal living expense" has not been issued in case law.

The bulk of his income, Burke says, derives from his work as a business consultant (his firm is called American Destiny Inc.) A lawyer, he was handed a three-month suspension from the Florida Bar in 1988 after the Florida Supreme Court cited him for "shabby accounting" and for delaying a payment to two clients for nearly a year. The politician suffered another three-month suspension in 1991, after the Supreme Court found "gross negligence" in his handling of a $150,000 settlement from a 1984 wrongful death case. Burke had paid himself $9919 too much in attorney's fees, an error he attributed to an accounting oversight. He remains suspended but recently applied for reinstatement.

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