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

A week later, on Friday, September 6, the Miami Herald published a front-page story under the headline "Bribery Probe Targets Odio and Dawkins." Quoting anonymous but very accurate sources, the newspaper outlined both the Unisys and the Cigna corruption investigations. The article, by reporters Manny Garcia and Tom Dubocq, stated that an unnamed county commissioner was under investigation as well.

In the days that followed, the Herald, thanks to its anonymous sources, published one revelation after another, leading to a September 20 story that exposed Howard Gary's role as a government informant and identified James Burke as the county commissioner under investigation. By that time, though, Gary's usefulness had already been destroyed.

"It is a fact that the activity in this case stopped with the leaks," says a source familiar with the investigation. "I just hope that whoever leaked those stories understands the damage they caused."

Unlike the City of Miami case, which began with Surana and Dawkins and expanded to ensnare Odio and de Cardenas, the Dade County case never had the opportunity to grow beyond Burke, Grigsby, and Hardemon. Prosecutors made a frantic attempt after the investigation was publicized to meet separately with Burke, Grigsby, and Hardemon, but by then they had all hired attorneys and refused to cooperate.

As another consequence of the investigation's premature end, prosecutors were unable to collect as much evidence against Odio as they had wanted. In fact, they have only a single instance in which Odio allegedly accepted money from de Cardenas, and the evidence of that exchange is merely a conversation between Odio and Surana, in which the two men appear to talk about the payoff. By comparison, the evidence against Dawkins was devastating: two clear instances of him accepting money, $25,000 from Surana, and $75,000 from Gary, captured on videotape at his office.

Acting U.S. Attorney William Keefer defends the actions taken by his office and the FBI. "I've been involved in a lot of public-corruption investigations," he says, "and most of them that are any good are going to have a few mistakes, missteps, healthy rivalries, and interagency tensions. In fact, I have never been in one that didn't. But this investigation had far fewer than most. And I think what made this case remarkable was the extraordinary level of cooperation between our office and the FBI.

"You always want more time in every covert operation," Keefer adds, noting that the use of cooperating witnesses is always risky. "You are on borrowed time and it is just a question of when your operation will be revealed. The only question we are arguing about now is whether it could have been more successful. And I like those kinds of arguments."

Not all federal authorities are as pleased as Keefer. "This entire case has ruined my relationship with the media in this district," complains Wilfredo Fernandez, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office. "Everyone believed that I was responsible for leaking those stories to the Miami Herald. I would get other reporters screaming and cursing at me, accusing me of playing favorites with the Herald. I've never seen anything like it before." Fernandez categorically denies he released information to the Herald or anyone else.

Fred Schwartz, James Burke's attorney, was a state prosecutor for five years and a federal prosecutor for ten before entering private practice. In all that time, he says, he has never seen a case produce so many damaging leaks. "When I was a prosecutor we always tried to prevent leaks, but it is difficult because in a case like this too many people are aware of the facts," he says. "I also know the prosecutors in this case and I know them all to be honorable people and do not believe they were responsible. But it is clear to me that someone connected to the government wanted to convict Commissioner Burke in the newspaper. Ask anyone in the street who James Burke is and they will say he is the commissioner who was taking bribes. And he hasn't even been charged yet."

Though he won't come right out and say it, Schwartz seems to cast an accusing look toward the FBI. "This appears to be the type of organized leaking that we saw from the FBI in the Richard Jewell case in Atlanta," he says. "And I think this type of action is repugnant to our legal system."

Whatever their personal animosities, Howard Gary and James Burke now share a common sentiment: They both believe they've been beaten up in the press. "The surprising aspect of this to me was the hypocrisy of the Miami Herald," says Gary's attorney Peter Raben. "Howard Gary agreed to assist the government in a bond-corruption probe and was labeled 'Howard the Rat' by the Miami Herald. With publicity like that, this town could look forward to a long future of corruption. If the Herald was truly anti-crime, Howard would have been lionized. Instead they threw him to the lions."

Whether Gary should be canonized or vilified will perhaps be easier to judge when the cases he helped build come to trial. The fact remains, however, that he did not report to authorities the initial extortion plot conceived by Surana and Dawkins, nor their later request that he help them transfer ill-gotten money through offshore bank accounts. He also failed to immediately report Burke's alleged extortion attempt against him. At best he demonstrated uncharacteristic weakness when faced with pressure from men who had influence over his economic well-being. At worst he revealed his willingness to commit crimes for financial gain.

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