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.

"I must say I had a very strong sexual attraction to Vicki. It had to do with my feelings for her body and her physical features, but I had already had the opportunity of experiencing her intellectual features as well the night before. Vicki has tremendous charisma. It's an animal, magnetic quality. It was love at first sight, but I didn't admit it to myself until April."

Three weeks after meeting Lopez-Wolfe, in early April 1991, Lukis traveled south for a business meeting with the mayor of Orlando and various airport officials. With him were two executives from Goldman, Sachs & Co., a New York investment and banking firm.

Their business finished in Orlando, the three men boarded a flight to Fort Myers.

Q: Did you see Ms. Lopez-Wolfe in Fort Myers?
A: Yes. We arrived in the late afternoon and checked into the hotel. I left Mr. Butcher and Mr. Spector [of Goldman, Sachs] to freshen up, and I went out to see Ms. Lopez-Wolfe at a restaurant, I believe it was the Old World Cheese Shop. Later we had dinner with Mr. Butcher and Mr. Spector.

Q: And what was your relationship with her like at that time?
A: By that time, in early April of 1991, we had talked on the phone every day, probably several times a day. It was a long-distance romance. We talked about everything. Vicki had lived in Miami for ten years, so we knew a lot of the same people.

Q: What happened later that evening?
A: She dropped us off at our hotel, and I made up some excuse not to get out of the car. I asked Vicki if she wanted to have a nightcap, and we went to her home and had one.

Q: And when was it that you first began an intimate relationship with her?
A: It was that evening.
Vicki Lopez-Wolfe recalls: "We didn't kiss the whole time we were in Washington. We never crossed that line, which I think is pretty phenomenal for both of us because we're both pretty passionate people. We maintained that boundary. I think that the spark that happened in April was more explosive because of it."

Lukis: "We just gave in to it, yeah."
Lopez-Wolfe: "It was the end of the world at that point."
Trying to remember the days after they parted in Washington, Lukis says, "Vicki is a very focused person, and she goes after what she wants. After she went back [to Fort Myers], I would say that she probably called me first."

"And I think there was a definite reason for that," Lopez-Wolfe adds. "I had nothing to stop me. He did. He had a wife and kids."

There is a darker explanation for how and why Sylvester Lukis and Vicki Lopez-Wolfe met, and what happened next, a theory that has been hashed over in newsrooms, squad rooms, and jury rooms for the past six years, and that led to one of the largest public corruption probes in the history of southwest Florida.

To wit: Lukis the lobbyist carefully targeted Lopez-Wolfe the politician, seduced her with money, and persuaded her to sell her vote. Lopez-Wolfe, ambitious and broke, received several thousand dollars and the promise of assistance from a political mentor with ties to the highest power circles in Washington and Tallahassee, and Lukis's clients got to build a $200 million garbage incinerator and help float $36 million in bonds for a regional airport in Lee County.

Of the many questions Lukis was later asked under oath, one was whether his Washington office subscribed to a newspaper clipping service that allowed him to keep abreast of events in Lee County. The answer was yes, and the reason for the question was this: In the weeks before their first meeting at Galileo, Lopez-Wolfe was front-page news in Fort Myers.

In November 1990 she began a love affair with a man named Bruce Strayhorn, variously referred to in local press accounts as "suave," "debonair," and a "Southern charmer." Not only was Strayhorn charming, he was married; and besides being a lawyer and a fundraiser for Lopez-Wolfe's county commission campaign, he was also a lobbyist. Since 1987 Strayhorn had represented Waste Management, Inc., an international conglomerate that held the garbage-hauling contract for Lee County and owned a nearby landfill.

The identity of Strayhorn's client was significant -- Waste Management stood to lose money if the county commission went forward with plans to construct a giant garbage incinerator and began burning trash instead of continuing to dump it. Lopez-Wolfe was attractive to Strayhorn not just for her physical and intellectual attributes, but because, as a commissioner, she would have a say over whether the county actually embarked on the biggest public works project in its history. As a candidate she had distributed brochures promising she would "fight against costly and poorly planned projects like the proposed incinerator."

On January 6, 1991, Lopez-Wolfe's affair with Strayhorn became public, thanks to an article in the Fort Myers News-Press called "Romance and Ethics." Written by investigative reporter Lee Melsek, the article began this way: "Amid Lee County's garbage controversy, a romance between a powerful lobbyist and the county's newest commissioner has raised ethical questions."

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