When Vicki Met Syl, Part Two

Accused of bribery and public corruption, this power pair finds that love and justice prevail

Lopez later became a successful construction contractor and a founder of Lee County's Hispanic-American Association, but in small-town Fort Myers the taint of scandal never quite wore off, and the killing is still whispered about today. The important thing, according to Vicki Lopez-Lukis today, is that neither her father's trial nor her own would succeed in tearing the family apart. In the courtroom, beginning the morning of April 2, Lopez-Lukis's father sat in the first row of the spectators' gallery beside her brother and three sisters.

While trouble drew the Lopez clan even closer, it badly rattled Sylvester Lukis's social and professional circle in Miami. A number of people he had considered friends flatly deserted the couple after the indictment. Others, including Metro-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, attorney Hector Alcalde, former Miami city manager Cesar Odio, and former Dade County manager Joaquin Avino, remained supportive, Lukis says.

"Definitely, I was shocked about the indictment," notes Sergio Pereira, a former Miami and Metro-Dade County manager who first met Lukis at a meeting in the White House's Roosevelt Room in 1980. "I picked up the phone and called him and said, 'Syl I don't know what this is all about, but it's got to be bullshit.' I like to think that through this whole ordeal I maintained my friendship with him."

U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Pembroke Pines), who invited Lukis to Clinton's first inauguration, counts himself among Lukis's supporters. "He got caught up in a Kafka movie," Deutsch says. "The offense he was accused of boils down to bribing his wife. How much sense does that make?"

Rob Parkins, a onetime police officer and former Miami Beach city manager, says he suspects Lukis's indictment was the result of a midlife crisis gone horribly awry.

"I was absolutely stunned when this whole thing began," says Parkins, today the city manager of Palm Springs, California. "It was totally out of character for Syl. He absolutely fell in love -- or lust -- beyond anything anyone could have imagined, and he lost all perspective. Getting involved with Vicki was surprising, but not beyond belief. What's beyond belief is the idea that Sylvester Lukis would get involved in a criminal enterprise. It's simply not in his nature."

Another steadfast friend was Terrence O'Connell, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who today serves as chairman of the U.S. Reserve Forces Policy Board. In March 1994 O'Connell and his wife Linda insisted that Lukis and Lopez-Lukis move into their home in Maryland.

"It was actually like living in the Sixties again, like a commune," Lukis recalls. "Terry O'Connell is a liberal Democrat and I'm a conservative Republican. We started cooking together, we ate together, we raised our kids together."

O'Connell and his wife did Lukis another favor: They urged him to call an attorney named Thomas Green, described by the Washington Post in a February 17 profile as "the meanest, toughest white-collar lawyer in Washington."

Green's fearsome reputation derives partly from his willingness to go to court in the first place. White-collar defense lawyers typically prefer to negotiate outside of courtrooms rather than risk a jury verdict and unwanted publicity for their clients, but Green has been to trial an astonishing 80 times in 27 years of private practice. At age 31 he defended Richard Mardian, one of seven men originally indicted in the Watergate scandal. Through the years his clients have included Richard Secord, a key figure in the Iran-contra case; former senator Don Riegle, one of several players in the Keating Five inquiry; and Dave Durenberger, another former U.S. senator, who was accused of falsifying financial disclosure forms.

A former artillery captain who stands six feet tall and weighs 230 pounds, Green manages to make an impression not so much with his size but with his voice. Measured and eloquent, with a soupçon of exasperation expressed toward his prosecutorial opponents, he uses down-to-earth similes like "fresh as a pear" and tends to dress in shopworn shoes and slightly frayed suits.

On April 2, along with 21 boxes of documents, Green took with him to the federal courthouse in Fort Myers a co-counsel of equally impressive pedigree. After graduating cum laude from Yale University and Harvard Law, Bradford Berenson had spent a year clerking for Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Slim, self-deprecating, and clean-cut, the 32-year-old Berenson seemed the perfect counterpoint to Green's bearish presence.

The two defense attorneys had delayed the start of trial for fifteen months while they sought to exclude the Strayhorn-Anthony surveillance videotape. (The videotape shows a married Lee County commission candidate named Susan Anthony in an extramarital affair with Gulf Coast lobbyist Bruce Strayhorn; it was filmed by a Miami private eye hired by Lukis.) On September 1, 1995, a federal judge ruled that the video was irrelevant; it could not be used to help prove criminal behavior because it did not involve Lopez-Wolfe's official duties as a county commissioner.

But on January 6 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reversed that opinion, saying that "because the videotape incident tends to show both that Lopez-Wolfe intended to benefit Lukis's clients instead of the public and that the scheme was more likely to succeed, it is clearly relevant to the charge of honest-services fraud."

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