Scalded: The Afterburn

A state fraud investigator says he was punished because he tangled with U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey

Steve Smith liked his old job. In fact he loved his old job, and his boss, and his colleagues. An investigator at the Miami office of the state Division of Insurance Fraud, he did his work well, earning consistently good evaluations during his seven-and-a-half-year career. He had no intention of leaving.

Suddenly, several weeks ago, he was ordered to clean out his desk: He was being transferred to another office in the division.

Smith's Department of Insurance bosses say his strengths are required elsewhere. Smith alleges that the move was a disciplinary action and was taken because he'd done good work -- and stepped on too many toes in the process.

"I believe that my transfer is an act of retaliation and punishment for several actions of the last year," he wrote in a letter of protest to Tim Wellborn, a local field representative for the Florida Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the union that represents state insurance investigators.

Most emphatically, Smith cited his involvement in the high-profile, politically sensitive prosecution of Susanna Timor, the former paralegal of Kendall Coffey, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. In 1994, Smith and fellow fraud investigator Maureen Murphy had been assigned to pursue allegations that Timor had submitted false receipts to an insurance company for post-Hurricane Andrew repairs to her house. During the ensuing investigation, suspicions arose regarding various loans, payments, and gifts Coffey had made to Timor and her mother, who owns a printing shop.

As the Timor investigation widened, Coffey retained legal counsel to protect his image, and numerous influential Florida Democrats rallied to his support. This past June, Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle recused herself from the case, citing a conflict of interest because of her close working relationship with the local U.S. Attorney's Office.

Gov. Lawton Chiles reassigned the case to Polk County. In the end, State Attorney Jerry Hill charged Susanna Timor with six felony insurance-fraud counts. An investigation regarding possible wrongdoing on the part of Coffey was closed. (Timor's case is scheduled for a plea hearing April 11.)

Investigators Smith and Murphy, as well as their boss, Lt. John Askins, came under fire for their handling of the controversial case, which was chronicled in two New Times stories, "Coffey Grind" (May 18, 1995) and "Scalded," (December 7, 1995). Defense attorneys, and supporters of Timor and Coffey, accused the three of pursuing the paralegal in order to get to her boss. Critics also accused the investigators of straying outside their statutory jurisdiction and delving into issues that had nothing to do with insurance fraud.

But Askins and his staffers consistently assured their superiors that they were operating within the bounds of the law, and in conjunction with the State Attorney's Office. Although concerned by the charges of impropriety, their bosses in Tallahassee defended the fraud investigators.

Publicly, at least. Internally, tensions were running high. In a June 13, 1995 e-mail letter addressed to Smith and Murphy (portions of which were later quoted in New Times), Askins wrote of a conversation he'd just had with Frank Doolittle, then-director of the Division of Insurance Fraud. "Apparently enormous political pressure is being applied to get us off this case," Askins wrote to his investigators. "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." (When questioned by New Times, Doolittle denied uttering the words ascribed to him, and said he never suggested anyone's job was in jeopardy.)

In his memo to the PBA's Tim Wellborn, Smith theorized that his involvement in another high-profile corruption case constituted a second strike against him. Late last year powerful lobbyist Ron Book pleaded guilty to making $30,000 in illegal political contributions. While looking into an unrelated automobile-insurance fraud investigation two years ago, the same triumvirate that looked into Timor and Coffey had received a tip that Book was funneling campaign contributions through his secretaries in order to circumvent state regulations. In his letter, Smith called that case "another investigation where pressure was put on our office to back off." (As a third possible factor in his transfer, Smith also mentioned an unrelated dispute he had with the personnel office about his salary.)

After learning in mid-January that he was to be transferred three weeks later to the major case squad, which handles long-term, big-dollar cases, Smith wrote an e-mail memo to his supervisor, asking, "Could you inform me as to why this is happening? I did not ask to be transferred to another squad, and since I have been here, I am unaware of any involuntary transfers within the Division." Responded the supervisor, Captain Paul Williams: "The reason for your transfer is your ability to work major cases . . . . These changes are for the good of the Division and I hope that you will make the best of your transfer."

Instead, Smith filed a grievance with the PBA, asking the union to help him get his old job back. The PBA registered the complaint with the Department of Insurance, which denied the grievance this past month. Smith has appealed the matter to the state's Department of Management Services for review.

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