Scalded

A long-time aide. A few thousand dollars' worth of dubious insurance receipts. A cauldron of allegations. U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey has been . . . scalded

Though Susanna Timor hasn't yet had her day in court, the reams of documents generated during the investigative proceedings have been laid open for public scrutiny. As a chronicle of the nuances of an inquiry, their contents are instructive. And as a repository for unanswered questions A particularly where the U.S. attorney is concerned A they are, to say the least, daunting.

At 9:00 a.m. on June 13, John Askins, the lieutenant of the Miami office of the Division of Insurance Fraud and a seventeen-year veteran of the department, sat down at his office computer and began typing. "Frank Doolittle called me yesterday afternoon extremely upset over the Susanna Timor investigation," commenced an interoffice e-mail from Askins to his investigators on the case, Murphy and Smith. "In order for you to understand the gravity of this situation, the following is what was said, to the best of my recollection:

"The Director first mentioned that his blood pressure was extremely high as he just had a 45-minute conversation with Department General Counsel Dan Sumner. Apparently, enormous political pressure is being applied to get us off this case. Director Doolittle stated, 'I may get fired over this, but I'll make sure you and the investigators get fired also.' He stated that this case is going to do us in, and we need to get completely away from it."

Perhaps only fittingly for a case where nothing is exactly as it seems, the veracity of this memo has been thrown into doubt. By Doolittle.

The division director says he learned about the e-mail only early this past month, when it was made available to New Times in response to a public records request. But he contests several of its assertions, and says he never uttered the words, "I may get fired over this, but I'll make sure you and the investigators get fired also." In fact, Doolittle adds, he never said anything threatening about Askins's or the investigators' jobs, or about his own livelihood being in jeopardy. "I don't know where he's coming from on that," Doolittle says of the quotation. (John Askins refused to comment on any aspect of the case and referred all inquiries to his superiors in Tallahassee.)

Regardless of the disputed contents of the memo, there was evidence of pressure, whether political or otherwise, from the other side of the investigation.

The complications had begun with the involvement of John Thornton, Jr., a Miami lawyer who says he was contacted by Timor the night Murphy and Smith visited. She knew him, Thornton explains, because he had done referral work for Coffey's law firm before the U.S. attorney's appointment by President Clinton in October 1993. Thornton also had more than a passing familiarity with the Dade State Attorney's Office, where he had worked as a prosecutor from 1977 to 1980. He was also a social acquaintance of both Chief Assistant State Attorney Trudy Novicki and Mary Cagle, the deputy chief for special prosecutions. Both women oversee cases involving public officials.

Within several days of Timor's interview, Thornton met with prosecutors at the State Attorney's Office and with investigators at the Division of Insurance Fraud to plead his client's case. His aim, says Thornton, was to prevent charges being filed against Timor. Under his counsel she submitted to four lie-detector tests and passed them all. (She also underwent handwriting analysis, the results of which were deemed inconclusive.) Thornton also pointed investigators to documents and witnesses he felt would further attest to his client's innocence. Among the people he proffered as character witnesses was U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey. "In my experience, I'm not familiar with a defense attorney meeting and trying to provide leads to an investigative body prior to charges being filed," comments Doolittle. "But there's certainly nothing that says a defense attorney can't do this for his client."

The swirl of lawyers and politics intensified in part owing to Coffey himself. By late spring, when New Times was preparing a story about the Timor investigation, the apparently nervous U.S. attorney retained noted First Amendment lawyer Richard Ovelmen to run interference for him. A former general counsel for the Miami Herald, Ovelmen says he was commissioned "to provide libel counseling" for Coffey and to call the State Attorney's Office on the U.S. attorney's behalf. He adds that Coffey instructed him to ask specifically about how the office was planning to respond to New Times's inquiry about Coffey's involvement in the case.

Over the course of a few days, Ovelmen blitzed the State Attorney's Office and New Times with phone calls. "The fear was that New Times would publish something that was inaccurate," he explains.

In one bizarre exchange of calls, Ovelmen tried to persuade Assistant State Attorney Mary Cagle to declare publicly that Coffey was not a target of any investigation. Though it is the policy of the State Attorney's Office not to comment on open investigations, Ovelmen called New Times insisting that Cagle had told him she was willing to declare that Coffey was not under investigation. But when Cagle was reached the following day, she gave only the standard "no comment" response to New Times. (Though Cagle will not comment on the exchange of phone calls, it appears the miscommunication was a matter of semantics: While Cagle says there was no official investigation of Coffey at the time, the public records make it clear that the State Attorney's Office was amassing information about Coffey and suspected possible wrongdoing on his part.)

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