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.

If his explanation sounds vague, it would seem to be a perfect match for the company itself. American Destiny has no employees. Like its president, the firm has moved around, according to Burke: from an office next door to his old district headquarters in Liberty City to his former campaign headquarters in North Miami to a new space in the building that houses his current district office. Burke says he has some office furniture in the new location but no phone yet. American Destiny is not listed in either last year's or this year's phone directory.

The company's financial standing is equally murky. On his 1993 financial disclosure form, a document required annually of all elected officials, Burke failed to declare any income from American Destiny. (The commissioner says there wasn't any.) This year, he says, he expects the company to gross "somewhere along the lines of $120,000," of which he intends to pay himself a salary of "around $40,000." While he refuses to name his customers, he says he has about five clients, all corporations.

At the end of 1993, when he was "financially tight for funds," Burke began looking for sources of money to pay his personal expenses. He didn't have to look very far. As reported in New Times this past month ("Burke's Law," August 11), expenditures from the commissioner's 1994 re-election campaign account are the subject of an investigation by the Florida Elections Commission. (As of July, the account showed about $163,000 in contributions; Burke says the balance is now about $50,000.) While state officials will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the probe, Burke says he has received letters from the FEC notifying him of the investigation. Though the commissioner deems the allegations of impropriety unfounded, the August 11 New Times story revealed several unusual expenditures from his campaign account. Among those:

According to campaign records, Burke used $3980 of his campaign funds to pay "tithes" and "offerings" to his church, Bible Baptist Church at 9801 NW 27th Ave. Florida campaign-financing laws state that "contributions by candidates...to any religious, charitable, civic, or other causes or organizations established primarily for the public good are prohibited."

Burke argues that another part of the state law does permit his church offerings. He points to a section that allows a candidate to use campaign funds "to defray normal living expenses for himself or his family," and says his church offerings and tithes are part of his normal living expenses. He says the law wasdesigned to prevent candidates from traveling from church to church buying votes; he, on the other hand, gives only to one church. "When we do our response [to the FEC complaints], I'm going to cite Malachi and II Corinthians," he promises.

From November 1993 to this past March, Burke dipped into his campaign coffers to cover $1925 in child-support payments to his third wife, Marcia Burke. A lawyer 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.

"We've moved to a point in our society where we realize that if you have the ability to pay [child support], then you should pay," Burke asserts. "It should be as normal as paying your rent. As a matter of fact, you probably have more obligation to pay your child support than your rent."

Campaign records show that in December, Burke spent $2769 to buy a car he says he used exclusively for campaigning. The man who sold Burke the car says it was purchased in the name of one of the commissioner's daughters.

Burke confirms that he indeed bought the car in the name of his daughter, Ebonie Mays, but only because he intended to give it to her, or sell it to her for a small charge "if it was in any kind of shape" after the election. Burke says both he and Mays used the car for campaign purposes. "She did primarily a lot of running around for me," he explains. "She was in college but she came home during the holidays and she would do some things." According to Burke's campaign records, his daughter was paid $1500 for campaign-related "clerical services."

Since publication of the August 11 story, New Times has discovered more odd spending patterns amid Burke's election records:

On several occasions Burke used campaign funds to pay his regular dues at the Kiwanis Club of North Miami, in apparent violation of the state statute forbidding contributions of campaign money to charitable and civic organizations.

The commissioner also allegedly used the funds to pay for consultancy work completed during a prior campaign. Elections Department records indicate that in November 1993, Burke paid $1000 to his half-brother Lawrence Cochran, who lives in Augusta, Georgia.

Cochran says the money was a "delayed payment" for demographic research he did in connection with Burke's 1992 run for state Senate. "I haven't worked with him that often," adds Cochran, a political pollster. "Why not? Let's just say it's a problem with money."

Burke says there was a dispute about what the consultant was owed for his work; Cochran felt he deserved more money. But the commissioner denies paying Cochran in 1993 for work done in 1992. He says he called on Cochran in the early stages of his 1994 commission campaign to interpret some of the demographic information Cochran had gathered earlier.

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