Deep Inside the Scandal

Howard Gary discusses OPERATION GREENPALM, the ambitious corruption investigation rattled by mismanagement and blown apart by astonishing leaks of secret information

It would also take a fairly resolute personality to work undercover for two months, as Gary did. Throughout July and August he regularly met with Burke to discuss details of the recycling-plant bond deal. They even traveled together to the Bahamas, reportedly to set up an offshore bank account for handling anticipated kickbacks. Gary's involvement culminated in an August trip with Burke to San Francisco, where they met with Grigsby.

In what will undoubtedly be the highlight of the federal government's case against Burke and Grigsby, the two men had dinner with Gary in his hotel suite. While dining on grilled salmon, the three allegedly talked about a $300,000 kickback from Grigsby to Burke, as well as a $100,000 payoff from Gary to Burke. Unfortunately for Grigsby and Burke, Gary's hotel room, like his Miami office, had been wired with microphones and video cameras by the FBI.

Burke argues that the conversations in San Francisco were manipulated by Gary. He told the Miami Herald last month that some of the discussions he might have had with Gary regarding money were in the context of their personal friendship and were not related to the bond business. "If someone was wearing a wire, things that you say as friends can seem to be something odious," Burke said. "He helped me out in a number of ways. It was things that only friends would do for each other, like, 'I am in a jam until the end of the month, can you help me out?' On tape it could be interpreted differently, but I knew what it meant."

Says Gary: "We were never friends."
Gary also denies he guided the conversations in San Francisco: "I can understand Jimmy saying everything he's been saying -- he's trying to make himself appear innocent to the public. [Entrapment] is his only defense because he was caught red-handed. But if I did all of the orchestrating, how is he going to explain him and Calvin coming up with the idea of asking the county for an additional $600,000 structuring fee at the last minute?" According to Gary, Burke and Grigsby concocted the idea of charging the county an additional $600,000 on top of the million-dollar fee Grigsby was due to receive in the recycling-plant bond deal. The two men were so excited by their plan they called County Manager Armando Vidal from Grigsby's office. Vidal and his staff were dumbfounded by the request, but after Burke vouched for its necessity, the manager said he would be willing to consider it, provided Grigsby could produce the proper documentation.

Gary says he knew the fee was not necessary. Its only purpose was to "put more money in Jimmy's and Calvin's pockets."

While Gary was in San Francisco, Operation Greenpalm was coming apart in Miami. Federal agents had been operating three distinct branches of the investigation. The first involved Surana, Dawkins, Gary, and the Unisys computer contract. By the end of August that case was fully developed. The second branch concentrated on Cesar Odio and Jorge de Cardenas and their links to the city's Cigna insurance contract. With Surana's help, federal authorities had gathered a fair amount of evidence against the two men but were looking for more. The third branch centered on Burke, Grigsby, Hardemon, and the recycling bond deal. In late August that case was still in its infancy.

In a probe such as Greenpalm, experts say, secrecy is critical to success. And secrecy is jeopardized each time investigators try to turn a suspect into an informant. If the suspect refuses to cooperate, there is nothing to stop him from telling the world an investigation is underway. But the use of informants is often the only means by which a case can be developed.

The government first set its sights on Surana, and in March confronted him with the mountain of evidence it had gathered against him. He agreed to cooperate. Next came Gary, who was quietly interviewed by the FBI in July. The next effort to recruit an informant backfired, however. On Monday, August 26, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office approached Jorge de Cardenas in hopes he could help them gather enough evidence to guarantee a conviction against Odio.

According to sources close to the investigation, the likelihood of de Cardenas cooperating had been a matter of debate. "There was a lot of infighting about that," says one source. De Cardenas and Odio, after all, were lifelong friends. Authorities also discussed the so-called Cuban factor -- a combination of pride and machismo that holds it is better to go to jail than to betray a friend.

During de Cardenas's meeting with federal agents, they told him he had one option available if he wanted to avoid going to prison for a very long time: Help the government convict Odio. De Cardenas agreed, but according to court documents he left the Monday meeting and promptly warned Odio that the FBI was after them. The feds had gambled and lost.

Officials say that when Surana realized Odio was aware of the investigation, he panicked and abruptly quit his $110,000-a-year job. Surana's resignation on Friday, August 30 -- just a week before the city commission's budget hearings -- came as a complete surprise. His departure prompted a storm of rumors around city hall. The investigation was in a free fall.

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