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.

Was the Martinez 1 trial the longest trial you've been involved in?
That, or Daoud.

How did you unwind?
I went to Nepal. Climbed the Himalayas for six or seven weeks. Grew a beard.

How consumed do you become by thoughts about your adversaries? Do you dream about them? Nightmares?

It's really not a personal thing at all. You can disapprove of a person's conduct without feeling animosity toward that person. One of the worst mistakes a prosecutor -- or any lawyer, for that matter -- can make is to allow himself to demonize his opponent, meaning his target/defendant or opposing counsel. When you do that, you lose your objectivity, and that clouds your judgment. Some of the defendants I've prosecuted I find to be very engaging people. Alex Daoud can be a very engaging fellow. Cesar Odio is a very likable man.

Three trials in seven years and Martinez is a free man. Not just free, of course, but he's still mayor of a large American city. Does that frustrate you?

Whether or not he's mayor is a matter between him and the voters. I have no interest in whether or not he's mayor. I feel like we did a good job.

How often do you think about that case?
Never.

One evening this past month, about 100 people crammed into a small banquet room at the Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Miami to bid farewell to Bruce Udolf. William Keefer was there, as were many assistant U.S. attorneys, past and present -- one former Miami prosecutor even flew down from his home in New York for the occasion. There were also agents from various federal investigative agencies, judges, defense attorneys, and one elected official: Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, who joined his son, former assistant U.S. attorney Dan Gelber.

Among the usual assortment of encomiums and roasts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Butler spoke about how Udolf habitually agonized over decisions and consulted what he called his "internal justice gyroscope." After years of pursuing corrupt public officials, she said, her colleague had "never lost any of the sensitivity toward the awesome power prosecutors have."

Do you ever feel conflicted about a prosecution?
With few exceptions, yeah.

Any specific cases?
Alex [Daoud] clearly committed many despicable acts as mayor, but you can despise what he did without despising him. It was very sad to watch what happened to him during the period of time he was indicted and ultimately convicted.

What happens to them? Do you see patterns among defendants that would suggest why they may have turned to crime?

Sometimes it's greed, in the case of others it's insecurity -- don't ask me which ones! -- sometimes it's a matter of arrogance, a feeling that they're entitled to it because they work hard, it's their time to be recompensed for their sacrifice as public servants. Sometimes it's a combination of all of those. But you can't judge any of these people by a black-and-white standard. Some of the people we've prosecuted have done some extraordinarily good things, and they've ended up disappointing a lot of people. As I always say, it's sometimes much easier to prosecute a bank robber than it is a public official.

Are there any times when you come to like or feel sorry for the defendants?
Most of them I feel sorry for. The worst thing is not so much watching the pain of someone who occupied a significant station in their community being humiliated in the courtroom; it's watching what happens to their family. That's tough.

What's the worst emotional memory of your career?
The time one of our defendants committed suicide. [In March 1993, U.S. Customs Agent Alcides Licona killed himself an hour before he was scheduled to plead guilty to stealing more than $100,000 in drug money.]

How did it make you feel?
It certainly hits home to you: the power you have over people's lives. Even if you know in your heart that what he did was wrong and the prosecution was justified, nothing's worth that. I think about it a lot.

Daoud told me he considered taking his life several times during his trial.
Any time you arrest someone, particularly in the kind of work we do, the people don't see themselves as criminals like bank robbers and burglars. You have a responsibility to consider how these people will react. There have been many times that we've taken people into custody and we've discussed with their lawyers our concerns and even suggested the defendants get some counseling. That comes up more often than not in law enforcement corruption. Believe it or not, a cop takes it harder than just about anybody when he's caught. Their role has always been to wear the white hat.

Are there cases where you haven't indicted someone where you could have?
Many.

Always people who became witnesses?
Not necessarily.
So are there politicians in South Florida who in the legal opinion of the U.S. Attorney's Office appear to have committed a crime and have not been indicted?

You don't seriously expect me to answer that!

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