Burke Besieged

The Florida Elections Commission and the Florida Bar. Maybe the FBI, too. For a man who won automatic re-election, Metro Commissioner James Burke seems to have a lot of explaining to do.

Teele laughs, then goes on, making allusions but not being specific: "Even during his days in Tallahassee, there were controversies, and much of it has to do with a young female companion who may have felt rejected or otherwise hurt because he failed to give her the right amount of attention, which is a failing characteristic of many males. Jimmy's problems in Tallahassee were not in the Capitol, they were in the corridors, so to speak."

Burke says that his having thrice married and divorced by the time he entered the legislature at age 34 indicates he was simply taking full advantage of his untethered years. "I enjoyed life," he says of his first few years in the legislature. "I enjoyed the companionship of beautiful women and the stuff that when you're shy and growing up [you don't have], and it now comes to you. I probably did more than most folks have done. I enjoyed women's company and women tended to enjoy my company, because it wasn't threatening. It wasn't all sexual; we used to talk a lot."

Given his romantic peregrinations, Burke says, few saw any likelihood of a union between him and Beryl: "People were saying Beryl was a good Christian girl and [I was] into everything." But in 1987, he says, his lifestyle changed significantly, when he began to study the Scripture. He remembers the exact date and time of his marriage to Beryl A"1989, April 13th, 5:50 p.m.," he recites, rapping a fist on the conference table for emphasis, a smile spreading across his face at the bittersweetness of the memory.

While he will not go into detail about the turmoil that led to the relationship's demise, Burke asserts that politics doesn't always provide the most fertile ground for the growth of a marriage. The Burkes' three campaigns in 1992 and 1993 -- his failed 1992 Senate attempt and his successful 1993 commission run, and her victorious 1992 bid for the House -- were an additional strain. By the beginning of 1993, the commissioner recalls, the marriage had begun to fracture. "For a while it was easy not to deal with it," he admits. "She was in the legislature and I was here working on the campaign. But it kind of started looking like it was going to be a problem. We just became not what I wanted it to be."

Last summer, the commissioner says, he moved out of the rented apartment he shared with Beryl and began boarding with various friends. (Before the separation, the couple was by no means a picture of domestic rootedness: Burke has to rack his brain to remember exactly where he was living the night he won the commission election in April 1993. "That's when we were staying over at P.J.'s house," he says after a pause, referring to the home of a friend.)

"For a long period of time, most of my stuff was still there at Beryl's, then for a while I had it at [another] house, then I had it at my [third wife's mother's] house. I stayed with friends. There were occasions when I stayed in hotels. If you ask, 'How many places have I slept at least two nights?' There's a lot of them." A giggle of discomfort escapes through a skewed grin. Burke's official records -- voter-registration files, campaign forms, and Florida Bar documents -- partially reflect this drifting: He lists at least four different addresses since April of last year.

The last home address Burke gave election officials is the home of his close friend Donald Manning, a division director for the Metro-Dade Department of Corrections. He filed that change of address in July, when by his own account he was sharing the small duplex with Manning, Manning's wife, and the couple's three children, and sleeping on the sofa. Since late July, Burke says, he has moved twice more and now lives in his own apartment in North Miami.

"From a personal standpoint, I was more than at loose ends," he allows. "This is where my work helped me, because I could get involved with my work. Working at two in the morning, three in the morning -- that really didn't bother me. It's tough sometimes when you're talking to people and somebody says, 'So how're you doing?' You can't say, 'You know, I'm really not doing all right because, you know, it's tough today, Beryl didn't do this, I didn't do this, my daughter's having problems.' Folks don't want to hear this. They really look to you for some inspiration for their life."

As Burke's matrimonial comfort dissolved, so did his financial security. Instead of a modest legislative salary (about $22,000 plus a "district expense account" of about $18,000 annually), he was drawing a Metro commissioner's salary of $6000 per year.

In October 1993, he opened a consulting company, American Destiny, Inc., which he describes as "a firm that will give advice to private companies and even to governments, about the trends occurring, particularly in minority certification and procurement and employment. Also, American Destiny will represent private individuals and noncounty governments in attempting to get whatever kind of things they may want from other governments or from other private individuals."

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