When Vicki Met Syl, Part Two

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

Green and Berenson would also spend considerable time and energy during the trial trying to get the judge to drop the first of the eleven charges against Vicki Lopez-Lukis. The charge, mail fraud, related to whether Lopez-Lukis had broken the law by mailing newspaperman Lee Melsek misleading responses to a series of written questions.

The issue, Green pointed out, wasn't whether Lopez-Lukis had lied to a reporter -- "If it were a crime for a politician to be less than candid, we would have a line stretching from here to New York awaiting prosecution," he thundered -- but whether she had lied to further a criminal conspiracy. That distinction might easily be lost on the jury.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Gagliardi declined to throw out the charge, and he would later deny a motion by Green asking him to clarify the issue for the jury. But veteran observers weren't surprised by the judge's impatience with Green. By entering Gagliardi's courtroom in Fort Myers, the renowned Washington litigator had run headlong into a local legend.

Gagliardi, age 78, is known as South Florida's most powerful snowbird. He serves as senior judge in Albany, New York, but spends each winter as a visiting judge in Fort Myers. An appointee of Richard Nixon, Gagliardi has a reputation for setting his own strict rules at trial and moving along at a punishing pace. That fast pace may help explain why, according to Albany's Times Union newspaper, only one other judge in a three-state northern region has had more of his rulings overturned by appellate courts than Gagliardi.

Unbeknown to the jurors in the Lopez-Lukis trial, Gagliardi has recently been the subject of a rare Justice Department perjury investigation. The probe began after a defendant in a high-profile embezzlement case Gagliardi was trying accused him of secretly meeting with a federal prosecutor at a cafe, a serious breach of legal ethics. Gagliardi refused to remove himself from the case but was forced to do so by an appellate court. He has denied any impropriety.

Also unknown to the jurors was the fact that Green and Berenson had asked Gagliardi to recuse himself from the Lopez-Lukis trial because of the ongoing scrutiny. Gagliardi refused to do so.

Instead he gave Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy the go-ahead to stand up from the prosecutor's table in his black Dingos and begin his opening statements. The jury heard an amazing tale. Vicki and Sylvester Lukis, Molloy explained, had attempted to blackmail a commission candidate into dropping out of the race; enriched a Wall Street investment bank and an engineering firm, two of Sylvester Lukis's clients; and "hoodwinked an entire voting population through a secret conspiracy of lies, coverups, and threats."

Take away the surveillance videotape, the 400-odd exhibits, and the 35-page witness list and the government's argument boiled down to this: When Lukis met then-county commissioner Vicki Lopez-Wolfe in March 1991 and then went to Fort Myers, Ogden Martin Systems, Inc., was in danger of losing its $200 million garbage incinerator contract with Lee County, and Goldman, Sachs (the Wall Street banking firm) was entirely shut out of the county's lucrative bond business.

But when Lukis left town two years later, Ogden Martin Systems was moving ahead with construction of the incinerator; Goldman, Sachs had been chosen one of three senior bond underwriters for the county and was one of two participants in the reissuance of $35 million in bonds for Southwest Florida International Airport.

"If you had taken yourself out of Lee County at the time you fell in love, it would have cost you thousands of dollars," Molloy said, pointing at Lukis.

Molloy also pointed to the money that changed hands during the spring and summer of 1991. Didn't Lukis write an $800 check to Lopez-Wolfe (ostensibly for telephone charges) in March, the same month she reversed her opposition on the incinerator? Wasn't that the same month county commissioners voted to include Goldman, Sachs in a venture known as the City-County Complex?

The July 23 check for Lopez-Wolfe's $1500 rental security deposit was sent down from Washington, Molloy noted, a month after the county commission approved the issuance of bonds for the incinerator.

Molloy called one witness who testified that Vicki and Sylvester Lukis tried to influence county officials in the selection of a bond underwriter, and another who claimed Lopez-Wolfe destroyed evidence when she came under investigation. Both were former county employees who blamed Lopez-Wolfe for the loss of their jobs.

On May 15, 1991, Sylvester Lukis paid a visit to Marsha Segal-George, then Lee County's chief administrator. Segal-George testified that Lukis demanded she include Goldman, Sachs in various upcoming bond deals. She says she explained her concern that Goldman, Sachs had insufficient experience in Florida to be considered a contender. Lukis continued to bully her, Segal-George claims.

"He became very angry, and basically told me that my job was on the line, and that he would talk to Ms. Lopez-Wolfe about it," Segal-George recalled. "When he made the statements about my job ... it was in a very loud, aggressive way."

(Lukis denied Segal-George's allegations of his pushiness. Under cross-examination Segal-George admitted that over the years she had favored one firm with the bulk of the county's bond business. That firm was Smith Barney, an investment firm that in the past had wined and dined the county administrator and her husband in New York City; on one occasion the firm gave her tickets to the Broadway musical Phantom of the Opera.)

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