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.

Using that same sort of measure of success, how do you regard the Key West prosecution of Mayor Dennis Wardlow?

I don't have to agree with the jury's verdict. I think that case was an important case. I thought it was well-tried. The jury gave it fair consideration and they resolved any doubts in favor of the defendant, as they should.

That's a pretty coy response. You guys went down to Key West with a prosecution in hand and got whipped. No hung jury, nothing ambiguous about it.

It's inappropriate for Justice Department employees to comment on the rightness or wrongness of a verdict, but I think the lesson that we can take from that case -- or any of the corruption cases that we've prosecuted -- is that it is really tough to get convictions in public corruption cases, particularly in small communities.

How do we reconcile that with the contention of state attorneys that it's easier to prosecute public corruption cases in the federal system?

I think the reason that statement is made is that we don't have depositions in criminal practice in the federal system, which is a source of much consternation and frustration among state prosecutors. That's number one Number two: We generally have more resources than the state has, and that's true throughout the country, not just here. But the deposition system in this state is particularly frustrating to prosecutors' efforts, and that's why we work so many cases together with the state. That's not to say it's easy in the federal system; it's just that there aren't as many procedural roadblocks.

Did you go into Wardlow knowing you were going to lose?
We knew it was going to be a very tough case. Number one: Every corruption case is difficult. Number two: Key West is a small, insular community; everyone knows everyone else. Number three: The defendant was a very popular elected official with considerable family members throughout the city. And the last issue is the amount of money involved: The evidence showed that the mayor was getting approximately $100 a week from this Jet Ski company at the time he was voting on matters before the commission that were directly and indirectly affecting the Jet Ski operator. I'm just speculating, but the jury may not have felt the amount of money was particularly substantial in comparison with other corruption cases.

If it wasn't such a great amount, why didn't the Monroe State Attorney's Office prosecute the case?

I can't speak for them.

Why bother doing the case at all if you knew it was such a long shot? Clearly it required a lot of manpower and resources.

If there's evidence that a public official has done an official act in exchange for money, then the case should be brought, whether it's for $100 or $100,000.

But don't you have to choose your battles?
If there's evidence that someone is selling out their office for any amount of money, some prosecutory agency should step up to the plate and take it and not just walk away from it because the person sold out his office too cheap.

Do you think the residents of South Florida have become scandal-weary?
No one likes a corrupt public official, and I think there is a pretty widespread mistrust of public officials in general, sort of a nonspecific mistrust. But on an individual basis, people's attitudes are often controlled by their political and personal associations, and a lot of people who are pretty much opposed to corruption are strong supporters of people I've prosecuted.

Do you think those loyalties run deeper in this community than elsewhere?
This is really a small-town city. Families know one another, and that's a factor in sending a case to a jury. As a juror, even if you don't know the person sitting in the defendant's chair you may know someone who does or who has very strong opinions about him, for or against. There are very few degrees of separation between people in this community, far less than in most large cities.

Does it make investigating a public corruption case difficult?
It's often difficult to find people who are willing to be forthcoming, because of their possible associations with the target or the target's family or friends.

In what cases have you particularly confronted this phenomenon?
I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on any particular case. It's a fact of life in every high-profile case.

When Udolf was named chief of the public corruption unit, there were ten prosecutors in the section. That number had dropped to six by the time he left. The decline, he says, is due in part to budgetary cutbacks. It may also reflect national priorities. During their tenures in Washington, D.C., Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno have, in various public pronouncements, announced their crime-fighting priorities, and violent crime, health-care fraud, drugs, illegal immigration, and terrorism regularly top the list -- not public corruption. Still, Udolf insists, the shrinking staff in his former unit doesn't reflect a declining commitment. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "all the U.S. attorneys I've worked for have considered public corruption a top priority."

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