Witness for the Prosecution

Bruce Udolf spent seven years arguing public corruption cases for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. A report from the front lines.

"I'm persuaded that there are several important matters that our office has handled over the past several years about which there has been either controversy or ambiguity requiring explanation," he conceded. "I thought this might be an opportunity to shed some light on these matters to the extent that I'm able within the limitations of Justice Department policy and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure."

Though Udolf continued to have misgivings about granting the interview -- "This is everything I haven't wanted to do," he grumbled at one point -- during more than five hours of conversation he spoke openly about the culture of political depravity in South Florida, the sometimes Sisyphean struggle of prosecuting corruption, a U.S. Attorney's Office in flux, and mayors he has known.

It's a widely held perception that Miami is a breeding ground of public corruption. Do you think that perception is accurate?

Well, it certainly seems like we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to public corruption cases. At any given time there are probably no more than a dozen pending indictments, but there may be many as 50 investigations going.

Is there an ebb and flow, or has there been a gradual rising of the tide?
We're at high tide now. [Laughs.] I think prosecution, particularly in the area of public corruption, is cyclical. It's not unusual for there to be feast or famine in terms of the number of cases that are pending at any given time.

What governs those cycles?
I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule about that. Some cases tend to generate other cases. You have an indictment against someone who has been convicted, either by trial or a guilty plea, and they end up cooperating. That leads to new evidence, new investigations of other people. And that in turn begets other investigations. So, depending on how successful they are, you can either have a snowballing of corruption cases or you can have a dry spell. A lot of it is just luck, too. Somebody walks into the office and says, "I'm getting shaken down by a government official." We ask them if they would consider wearing a wire and recapture those conversations. A similar thing happened in Greenpalm: One Unisys official walked in off the street and indicated someone was soliciting a bribe from him.

Is the number of corruption cases being brought in line with the amount of public corruption?

Yes. I mean, the Greenpalm cases and the Hallandale police officers/Customs inspectors that were charged this year -- that's an extraordinary amount of work for one office to put out in a year's time, particularly given the complexity of those investigations. Those were all undercover operations that our office, the FBI -- and in the Hallandale case, Customs -- were generating at one particular time. That's a lot of work.

Why has corruption taken hold here? Any ideas why it's so prevalent?
I'm not sure. I think criminal behavior, like any other form of behavior, is learned. This town was basically the southeast frontier. And while it attracted its share of entrepreneurs and professional people, it also attracted its share of profiteers and rogues, who left us some unfortunate legacies that have been mimicked by some of those who have followed. But to suggest that Miami has cornered the market on corruption is wrong. Corruption is a problem that every government has to deal with.

Do you think the culture of corruption is, in part, imported from Latin America?

No. I think it was here before anyone from Latin America got here. Long before there was corruption involving Cuban Americans in Hialeah, for example, there was Henry Milander. [Milander was mayor of Hialeah and was convicted in 1971 of grand larceny.]

The public hears about the big fish. We hear about the Cesar Odios, the Alex Daouds: high-profile public officials. But are we just seeing a fraction of corruption in Dade County? I imagine that the farther down the food chain you go, the more corruption proliferates.

Clearly there is other corruption that doesn't make the headlines, but I wouldn't feel terribly comfortable making a blanket statement like that. I may be stating the obvious, but the overwhelming majority of public servants in Florida are fine people. But yes, there are bad apples among all of us. We don't confine our investigations to the managers and mayors. A lot of cases made by our office do not command as high a profile.

Do you think prosecutions act as a deterrent to further public corruption?
I certainly hope so!

Then again, I wonder if the culture of corruption is woven so deeply into the fabric of the community that you will never get it out.

You'll never get it out. You can never get it out. You come up with more sophisticated laws and your targets will become more sophisticated at concealing their activities. Some people around the country are very well-versed on the latest corruption decisions and know exactly how far they can go and still avoid prosecution.

So the smarter prosecutors get, the smarter the corrupt get? How so?
They've become more sophisticated in concealing their activities and finding loopholes in the law. For example: Beginning in the early Nineties there were several court decisions indicating that in order for there to be a conviction for extortion, there needed to be explicit agreement between a person making a payoff and the official receiving the payoff, an explicit agreement to do an official act in exchange for the payment -- what's known in the law as a quid pro quo. We've seen cases around the country in which the bribee and the briber, armed with that knowledge, have exchanged money or another benefit without any expressed verbal discussion. So people conduct themselves without words.

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