Secrets and Sunshine

One thing is clear: Some county commissioners broke the law last December. Another thing isn't so clear: Will they ever be punished?

More than four months have passed since the Dade State Attorney's Office began an investigation to determine whether certain county commissioners violated Florida's Sunshine Law by meeting secretly to discuss -- and presumably to influence -- the selection of a new county manager last December. Violation of the law, one of the strongest in the nation, can result in criminal charges and penalties that include jail time.

The conduct of several commissioners has come under scrutiny, but the investigation has centered principally on Chairman Art Teele and Commissioner Bruce Kaplan. New Times has contacted many of the more than two dozen people who have been questioned under oath by prosecutors. The picture that emerges from these interviews is an investigation with too many suspects and not enough witnesses, a probe struggling to find focus and beset by indecision. The likelihood of any charges being filed against anyone remains very much in doubt.

As 1994 drew to a close, several county commissioners and others close to the selection process candidly admitted in media reports that an unprecedented level of backroom dealing took place prior to Armando Vidal's appointment as county manager. In the weeks that followed, many people assumed that the State Attorney's decision to bring charges against some elected officials was a foregone conclusion. Only the timing and the details remained to be resolved.

Instead prosecutors have found themselves outsmarted by some commissioners and stymied by others. As a result, the options for filing charges have been significantly reduced, if not altogether compromised. For example, New Times has learned that the State Attorney's Office granted Commissioner Maurice Ferre immunity from prosecution for his testimony without realizing that he, too, may have violated the Sunshine Law by meeting secretly with Kaplan. Prosecutors believed Ferre could offer information about a meeting between Teele and Kaplan, but once protected by immunity, Ferre readily admitted to his own participation in a private meeting with Kaplan regarding the commission's upcoming vote for a new manager. Although prosecutors are now powerless to make a case against Ferre, the commissioner's testimony would likely be crucial in proving a charge against Kaplan. But that consideration becomes relevant only if Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle decides that charges are warranted.

"The Sunshine Law has never been taken seriously by the State Attorney's Office," says veteran political consultant Phil Hamersmith, a long-time advisor to Teele and one of the few knowledgeable sources willing to comment about the investigation on the record. "They don't take it seriously because they don't see the moral outrage by the public over violations of the Sunshine Law. The only people who take this law seriously are the media, because they have a vested interest in having politicians discuss issues in public forums. Nevertheless it is the law. If you wanted someone to believe this was a serious investigation, you wouldn't use your part-time help."

Hamersmith's pointed reference to part-time help is aimed at the lead prosecutor handling the investigation, Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino. Under a highly unusual employment arrangement, Centorino divides his time between a private law practice in Broward and his prosecutorial duties in Dade. He is the State Attorney's resident expert on the Sunshine Law, and he enjoys an unimpeachable record for honesty and hard work. But as far as Hamersmith is concerned, the issue is not professional ability, it is public perception.

Despite that assessment, the politicians involved apparently are taking Centorino's investigation quite seriously, as indicated by the attorneys they've hired to represent them. Teele has retained famed criminal defense attorney Roy Black, who most recently beat the State Attorney's Office in the retrial of Miami police officer William Lozano. Ferre's immunity agreement was negotiated by George Yoss, a former chief deputy assistant state attorney who also represented former commissioner Larry Hawkins while he was under investigation for alleged ethics violations. Kaplan has hired Steve Chaykin, who formerly headed the public-corruption unit at the U.S. Attorney's Office.

State Attorney Rundle will not comment on the specifics of the investigation, though she stresses that her office is diligent in pursuing Sunshine Law cases. "We consider them serious and we do fully investigate them," she says, adding that she has "the utmost confidence in Joe Centorino. He knows these laws inside and out."

The State Attorney's Office has long been criticized for its lack of aggressiveness in prosecuting political figures, even when confronted with solid evidence of wrongdoing. In 1988 former county commissioner Barry Schreiber lied on his financial disclosure forms and used taxpayer money to finance a trip to New York to visit his girlfriend when he was supposed to be at a conference in Washington, D.C. In 1990 former county commissioner Sherman Winn was twice investigated for allegedly pressuring county officials to hire his relatives, a charge substantiated by the people who did the hiring. In both cases, the State Attorney's Office, under the direction of Janet Reno, chose not to press charges. Miami city commissioners Miriam Alonso and Miller Dawkins, as well as former city manager Howard Gary, were also investigated for alleged misconduct but never charged.

Some observers who have followed the State Attorney's public-corruption cases over the years say the threshold for prosecution is simply too high, that unless a conviction is virtually guaranteed, charges will not be brought. (Being elected officials themselves, state attorneys have a unique understanding of the career damage that can be caused by the mere filing of charges against a politician.) But that attitude, these observers say, fosters an even more dangerously permissive environment in which corrupt politicians are emboldened by endless investigations that never seem to result in actual prosecution.

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