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.

Burke's campaign records show that he made payments of $500 to his sister Denise Johnson and $300 to an old girlfriend, Sandra McPhaul, in November 1993. Both expenditures are noted as payments for "information accumulation for March affair."

When asked recently about what she was paid for, Johnson, who lives in Waycross, Georgia, said, "We did some advertising and talking and spreading the word," both in Georgia and in Miami. She could not remember what the "March affair" was. Reached by phone at her home in Savannah, Georgia, McPhaul was equally vague about her payment. "I can't recall exactly," said McPhaul, the mother of Burke's eldest daughter. "I did some research for him. Exactly what it all entailed, I can't remember."

Burke explains the vague responses by saying the women were just being protective of him. "I think both of them were concerned about who was calling," he says. The matter is simple, according to the commissioner: He had asked McPhaul and Johnson to search their family photo albums for old pictures of him, his children, and his grandchildren; he was compiling a photo-essay of his life that he planned to capture on video and show at a 46th birthday-commission campaign party. He says that although he never completed the project, he paid the women for their research time.

Campaign records also indicate October 1993 payments of $175.04 for "reimbursement" and $450 for "event planning services," both made to a former commission and campaign staffer.

When asked about the specific payments, the former staffer, Courtney Beacham, said she recalled having been given checks to pay a phone bill and an electric bill for the campaign office. After reviewing a copy of the expenditure report, Beacham refused any further comment to New Times.

Burke expresses surprise at Beacham's response. "I know I had her pay some, it was two bills that was paid or something, and so she went ahead and paid them and I gave them back to her. And the event planning had to do with, I guess, a discussion about the picnic or whatever."

The commissioner says he and his accountant will discuss the expenditures. One source of confusion should be immediately evident to anyone who peruses Burke's campaign reports: They are rife with inconsistencies and typographical errors. For example, one consultant's name appears alternately as "Mimi Tribe" and "Mirieille Tribie." (Her name is Mireille Tribie.) And Marcia Burke's address is alternately given as 1320 West Trail in the 33132 zip code, and 3220 West Trail in the 33133 zip code. There is no West Trail in Miami.

All candidates who run for office in Dade must file such forms with the Metro-Dade Elections Department. According to Gisela Salas, assistant supervisor of elections in Dade, it isn't up to her office to ensure completeness, accuracy, or truthfulness. "We're basically ministerial in function," says Salas. "We accept whatever is given to us. We make sure a person's name and address is listed and make sure the documents are signed. We don't look at the actual body to see what they're disclosing. If someone wants to question it, they have to file a complaint."

Speaking generally about FEC investigations, Michael Cochran, assistant general counsel for the state's Division of Elections, says if investigators turn up "probable cause to believe that a willful violation has occurred," the FEC holds a hearing and has the authority to impose a civil penalty of up to $5000 per violation. Investigators forward all evidence of possible criminal violations to the pertinent state attorney's office. James Burke knows the process well: In 1984 the FEC fined him $3600 for numerous violations of campaign financing laws. (About that case, Burke says the FEC sent its hearing notice to an out-of-date address; he chose not to contest the fine, he says, because he felt the additional publicity would provide fodder for his political opponents.)

Disorganization, it would appear, has bedeviled Burke's recent life. On August 26, for instance, the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations dissolved his consulting corporation because he failed to file the company's annual report as required by law. The document had been due May 1. (Asked about the dissolution of his corporation, Burke's mouth drops open in surprise. "American Destiny? Are you sure? That's like telling me there's no gas in my car and I have a business chauffeuring people.")

The Florida Bar, too, is discovering a certain inattentiveness to detail. In March Burke filed a petition to be reinstated with the Bar. (He had been suspended in 1991, after the Florida Supreme Court criticized his handling of a $150,000 settlement in a wrongful death case. Justices criticized him for "extremely sloppy accounting procedures." It was the second suspension of his career.) In a reinstatement petition, the petitioning lawyer has the burden to prove he has had a rehabilitation of character; it stands to reason that an attorney will do everything he can to prove it.

According to Florida Bar records, though, Burke has been slow and incomplete in his responses to the Bar's requests for information. Arlene Sankel, the attorney handling the inquiry for the Bar, has taken the unusual step of filing not one but two "motions to compel," in which she has asked a judge to force Burke to provide documents. Among the requested records are Burke's tax returns and bank records.

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