Coffey Grind

Why would state prosecutors probe a penny-ante fraud case against Susanna Timor? Maybe it has to do with who she works for.

For the past five months state investigators have been trying to determine whether Susanna Timor, a paralegal at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, committed insurance fraud by submitting bogus receipts for repairs to her Coral Gables home after Hurricane Andrew.

Though the dollar value of the alleged fraud is less than $4000 -- minuscule by South Florida standards -- the probe has the potential to attract plenty of attention. And not just because of where Timor works, but because of the involvement of her long-time boss and friend Kendall Coffey, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Coffey, who was appointed U.S. Attorney by President Clinton in October 1993, has offered to serve as a character witness for Timor.

Coffey declines to discuss the Timor investigation, which was initiated by the state's Division of Insurance Fraud and has since been referred to Mary Cagle, acting chief of the public-corruption unit of the Dade State Attorney's Office. Cagle and officials from the Division of Insurance Fraud refuse to comment about any aspect of the investigation.

Timor's alleged transgression seems relatively straightforward, judging from interviews with sources close to the inquiry and several people who say they have been questioned.

After the hurricane, Timor made various repairs to her home, for which she was reimbursed approximately $11,000 by her insurance company, State Farm. Late last year the Division of Insurance Fraud received an anonymous letter alleging that some of the bills she submitted for those repairs were fraudulent.

An investigator reviewed her claims and began contacting the contractors who had apparently worked on her home. Three claimed they had never done the work reflected on the receipts Timor submitted to State Farm. About two months ago Timor was confronted with the allegations and agreed to give a sworn statement to state prosecutors.

According to the criminal defense attorney she retained, John Thornton, Jr., Timor has also agreed to provide investigators with handwriting samples and, at her own expense, has taken and passed four lie-detector tests administered by respected polygraph expert George Slattery, during which she was asked specific questions about each allegedly fraudulent receipt.

"There is no question in my mind but that Susanna Timor is innocent," Thornton says. "She had absolutely no intent to break the law. The problem comes from the fact that Department of Insurance investigators came into this investigation believing she was guilty. When people come into a situation with their minds made up, it takes time to convince them otherwise. That's the reason it has taken five months thus far and we're still not at the point where a decision has been made by Mary Cagle.

"I commend Cagle's thoroughness," Thornton adds, "because the stakes in this case are so high. If Susanna gets charged, she will lose her job, and her eleven-year-old handicapped daughter will be without absolutely essential insurance coverage."

Thornton says that within a month he expects Cagle to decide whether to charge his client. Other sources say they believe an arrest is imminent and could come as soon as next week. According to Thornton, the most likely charges would be insurance fraud and/or grand theft, both third-degree felonies that carry a maximum punishment of five years in prison. He adds that Timor would assert her innocence in court even if prosecutors were to offer the minimum punishment -- which usually permits expunging a defendant's record after he or she attends a class for first-time offenders.

Should Timor face criminal fraud charges, she might have at least one extremely influential character witness: Kendall Coffey. It would not be the first time Coffey has interceded on Timor's behalf since she came to work for him at the law firm Greenberg Traurig more than a decade ago. When he and fellow Greenberg Traurig partner Robert Burlington decided to launch their own firm in 1988, Timor followed. By then she was embroiled in a heated divorce proceeding; the dissolution of her four-year marriage to Ricardo Ferreira led to an even nastier subsequent dispute over custody of their daughter. Burlington handled most of the legal work, but Coffey made numerous appearances in court and filed pleadings on a pro bono bais.

That same year, 1991, Timor was given a public service award by the Dade County Bar Association for her work in a volunteer program to help divorced mothers find affordable housing. The program was the brainchild of Coffey, who was president of the bar association at the time.

Court records reflect that in early 1992 Coffey opened a joint bank account with Timor at the Coconut Grove Bank. Statements were sent to Timor's home in Coral Gables. When her ex-husband suggested in court that the account should be tallied along with Timor's other assets, Coffey and Timor filed affidavits stating the account was a campaign fund to be used for Coffey's unsuccessful 1992 campaign for state senator. They explained that Timor, as a trusted employee, was assigned to administer the money and never made any withdrawals. Coffey now says Timor's address was used because her home served as an informal headquarters during the initial phases of his senate campaign.

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