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.

Bush had come to Lee County to look over some real estate and attend a reception held in his honor. The reception was to be hosted by Lee County Commissioner Vicki Lopez-Wolfe; the $575 tab for food and drink at the University Club in downtown Fort Myers (and the $439 helicopter ride) was paid by Sylvester Lukis.

"In my mind, having worked with him in the Martinez administration, I thought that he was interested in running for governor in the next election," Lukis says of Bush. "I thought he would be interested in meeting some people in Lee County."

As to how the involvement of Lopez-Wolfe benefited his and her interests, Lukis says: "First and foremost I thought she would be a good magnet, that people would come if she was the host. I thought it would help her career, too."

By the summer of 1991, Lukis and Lopez-Wolfe were more deeply involved, and he was assisting her in several ways. When she moved out of her house in North Fort Myers following a dispute with the landlord, Lukis helped her find a new apartment, and on July 23 he wrote a check for the $1000 security deposit.

In late March, Lee County Clerk Charlie Green decided to see if he could save the taxpayers some money by performing an audit of long-distance cellular telephone bills. He discovered that Lopez-Wolfe had a one-month bill of $1200, more than twice the amount of the next most talkative commissioner. The lion's share of the charges derived from calls to a Washington telephone number listed in Lukis's name.

Melsek, the Fort Myers News-Press reporter, obtained a copy of the audit and started asking questions. In a written response, Lopez-Wolfe denied there was anything indecorous between herself and Lukis. Contacted at home in Washington, Lukis verbally scratched his head and allowed that, yes, as a matter of fact he had been talking to Lopez-Wolfe quite a bit. Unable to confirm a secret romance, Melsek backed away from the story. Meanwhile, on May 6, Lukis sent Lopez-Wolfe $800 for the long-distance phone calls, and she quickly reimbursed the county.

During the ensuing three-month period -- a crucial chapter in the political life of Lee County -- Lukis transferred a total of just over $5000 to Lopez-Wolfe. In each case he covered his tracks by writing a check to her friend Karen Johnson and mailing the check to Johnson via Federal Express; Johnson deposited the checks and handed the cash over to Lopez-Wolfe.

By April 1992 the combination of secrecy and mileage had become too much. Lopez-Wolfe and Lukis decided to split up. "It was getting to both of us, carrying on in secret, behind closed doors, unable to go out to any of the Christmas receptions or other social functions," Lukis explains. "We're both passionate people, but I think we're both hard-headed people, too. We saw the relationship going in a direction that was not to her liking. She wanted some space to think about where we had been, where we were going."

Why conceal the affair in the first place?
One reason was Lukis's clients, who would certainly look askance at their lobbyist courting a public official in such literal fashion.

Another reason was Lukis's wife Brenda. At one point in early spring she called Lopez-Wolfe at home, having grown increasingly suspicious that her husband was having an affair. On another day Lopez-Wolfe faxed a love note to Lukis in Washington. The note, wreathed with X's and O's, rolled out of the fax machine as Brenda Lukis happened to be standing beside it.

"Always haunting us was the 'Romance and Ethics' episode," Lukis adds, referring to the front-page exposure of Lopez-Wolfe's affair with Bruce Strayhorn. "I felt that newspaper coverage in Fort Myers was consistently negative, and I felt that she couldn't be seen with a person like me."

Paradoxically, Lopez-Wolfe says, she was in favor of secrecy because she believed it was the best way to serve her constituents. If she disclosed her relationship with Lukis, it would mean removing herself from some of the most important votes in the county's history. "We talked about abstention," Lukis notes. "She felt that if she abstained from any of these votes, she would be failing in her responsibilities."

The final rationale for the deception, according to Lopez-Wolfe, is that she simply didn't think the private life of the only unmarried Lee County commissioner was anybody's business. To this day, even considering what happened next, she believes the same.

Asked why he did what he did in the coming months, Lukis replied, "Because I was a nut case, an individual who was completely off his rocker at the time."

Soon after breaking up with Lopez-Wolfe, Lukis left his wife and two children, moved out of his $750,000 house on Quincy Street, and took up residence with his friend James Rubin, now the senior adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Rubin had a unique before-and-after view of Lukis during the split with Lopez-Wolfe.

Before they parted ways, Rubin recalls, "they were a very exciting and dynamic couple. They had a lot of chemistry. They played off each other very well, and they were very much in love. Part of the dynamic and the excitement between them was that they argued. But they argued in a good way. They didn't argue about stupid things."

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