When Vicki Met Syl

Fate introduced Miami lobbyist Sylvester Lukis to a rising political star named Vicki Lopez-Wolfe. Twenty-two felony charges later, South Florida is still reeling.

The evening of March 14, 1991, was crisp and windy in Washington, D.C., with temperatures dropping to the mid-50s after sundown. A car, a black Audi 5000, turned left off M Street onto 21st Street NW and paused briefly before the glowing windows of Galileo, an expensive Italian restaurant, while the driver switched places with the valet parking attendant.

The owner of the car entered the restaurant and made his way to a table, but this action required several minutes of his time. More than a few of Galileo's patrons appeared with regularity on network news shows and in the pages of national newspapers, and Sylvester Lukis knew them all. The maitre d'hotel and each of the six waiters knew him, too, and greeted the dapper lobbyist with uncommon warmth. Not only was Lukis a gregarious sort, he was also a legendary tipper.

He could afford to be. On the night in question Lukis, in his dark-blue Armani suit and conservative rep tie, ranked among the most successful political rainmakers in the nation's capital. Like most lobbyists, he worked for clients on month-to-month contracts; but if his employment was wildly untenured, it was also extremely lucrative. His several private and governmental customers paid an average of $5000 per month for his services, and Lukis earned between $500,000 and $600,000 per year. He owned a five-bedroom, four-bath home on exclusive Quincy Street in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and summered at Rehoboth Beach on Delaware's eastern shore.

What made Lukis wealthy was his knowledge of government and his personal acquaintance with Washington's power elite, the latter summed up in a pocket-size black leather address book containing the home phone numbers of congressmen, top bureaucrats, and corporate chieftains. But although he lived and worked inside the Washington Beltway, Lukis derived most of his paychecks from South Florida. By the early Nineties he had been Dade County's lobbyist in Washington for a decade, responsible for protecting and furthering at the national level the interests of Florida's largest county. His other clients included the cities of Miami, Miami Beach, and Palm Springs, California; and the Houston, Texas, and Dade County school boards.

Lukis had first come to South Florida from Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1963 as a pool-hustling teenage runaway in a '57 Plymouth. He returned seventeen years later to witness the most important summer in Miami's modern history. In between he spent three years in the air force in Europe, went to law school in Maryland on the G.I. Bill, and joined the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. His first assignment was giving legal advice to the department's Cuban Refugee Program.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Lukis served as HEW's chief counsel in efforts to resettle Indochinese refugees. In the spring of 1980, when 125,000 bedraggled Cuban immigrants began pouring into Miami from Mariel, Lukis was sent down from Washington by the State Department as director of policy and intergovernmental coordination for the Cuban-Haitian Task Force.

Mariel was a defining experience for Lukis, and after the summer of 1980 he would repeatedly return to Miami. On the surface Lukis seemed slightly out of place in the neon metropolis, an old-fashioned northern Anglo with a poor command of Spanish and a fondness for wool suits. But deeper down lay tribal affinities. "I became enamored of the Cuban-American movement and analogized it to some extent to my own sort of Italian-American upbringing," he says. "I saw the closeness, the drive to succeed, pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps."

Lukis left the federal government to become Miami's lobbyist in Washington. While he kept an eye on the Cuban Refugee Program and other federal matters, he worked behind the scenes as an adviser and fundraiser for the 1986 and 1990 campaigns of Republican governor Bob Martinez; the U.S. Senate campaigns of Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Bob Graham; and the congressional campaigns of Democrat Peter Deutsch and Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. He also raised money for local politicians, including former Miami City commissioner Rosario Kennedy, Miami mayor Steve Clark, and Metro-Dade commissioner Barbara Carey.

Moving through the crowded dining room of Galileo, shaking a hand here and exchanging a word there, Lukis may have seen himself as the consummate shadow man living by his wits in the gray interstices of American democracy. More simply, he might have seen himself as the son of an immigrant factory worker having succeeded for some years now beyond his wildest dreams. It's even likelier that Lukis didn't think about himself at all, for at age 45 his life had become almost entirely professional, and quasi-public. There was little opportunity for self-contemplation. It had been years, for example, since he had dined alone.

Tonight would be no exception. Seated at the table when Lukis arrived were Dick Judy, at that time the director of Miami International Airport; Deborah Lunn, then head of the Washington-based Airport Operators Council International; former Brevard County commissioner Thad Altman; and Randy Franke, a county commissioner from Oregon. Franke's wife was also present, along with Jeff Weiss, Lukis's former administrative assistant; and Weiss's girlfriend. The members of the dinner party had traveled to Washington to attend a weeklong meeting of the National Association of Counties. Franke was running for president of the organization.

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