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.

A legal career was kind of an afterthought for Udolf. In the mid-Seventies, having graduated from college, he was playing bass in a blues band, touring around the Southeast and hoping to make a living that way. But the road wasn't very lucrative, and Udolf eventually enrolled at law school at Emory University in Atlanta. His intentions weren't particularly lofty: "I thought it would be fun," he explains. "I was always sort of interested in the law; my father was a lawyer." Still, he quickly got serious and embraced the profession. He went on to clerk for a circuit judge in Atlanta, and in 1982, at the age of 30, he was elected district attorney of a suburban area north of the capital.

After a four-year term, he ran for re-election and lost, whereupon he headed south to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami -- a city he chose partly so he could be near his ailing grandfather and partly because it was a hotbed of legal activity. While chief of the public corruption unit, Udolf's work hasn't been confined to the U.S. He has traveled to Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, and the former Soviet Union to train prosecutors. During his ten years in Miami, he worked under six U.S. attorneys.

How destabilizing has this revolving door of U.S. attorneys been?
If you look around the country, the average term of a U.S. attorney has been two and a half or three years. I don't think the length of the terms has had a destabilizing effect.

But now we're looking at the nomination of a Republican to head the office, and that's at least significant, because he's been nominated by a Democratic administration. Is this a signal of a need for more consistency?

I hope that's a signal that they're more interested in competency than they are in party loyalty.

Do you think party loyalty and the politicization of the selection process has hurt the U.S. Attorney's Office?

This particular office? No. I think everyone who's been selected to be U.S. attorney has had their strengths and weaknesses, but clearly all have been exceptionally bright people and are talented in some way or another.

How destabilizing to the office was Kendall Coffey's resignation and the circumstances thereof? [Coffey, who was U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1996, resigned amid allegations that during a bender at a South Miami strip club he bit a dancer on the arm. He was replaced by an interim chief, William Keefer, a career prosecutor who was recruited from within the ranks of the Southern District.]

How destabilizing? The office has a remarkable resilience. In many ways it runs itself. Having Bill Keefer there was a tremendous help. I guess it could have been tough, but I think he has held things together on a lot of different levels. Had it been anyone else, it might have been tougher to accomplish all the things that have been accomplished in the past year, including Greenpalm and Hallandale. There are so many things that have been going on, not just in the area of corruption. There's been a heck of a lot of movement in the area of economic crime, special prosecutions, narcotics, appeals.

But were the circumstances of Coffey's resignation in any way embarrassing to the office?

I don't think it had anything to do with the office.

A widely held perception, at least among observers of the U.S. Attorney's Office, was that Dexter Lehtinen was politically minded. Was Lehtinen more political than any of the other U.S. attorneys you worked for? [Lehtinen, husband of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was U.S. Attorney from 1988 to 1992. Raul Martinez's attorneys accused him of targeting the mayor for political reasons, in that Martinez was considered a likely political opponent of Ros-Lehtinen.]

I'm not going to get into that.

Was the Martinez prosecution in any way politically motivated?
No. When I was first assigned this case, in December of '88 or January of '89, I didn't even know who Raul Martinez was.

But Dexter did.
I can't say what was in his mind.
What motivated you to enter elected public office?

When I got out of Emory, I clerked for a judge for a while, then I went to work for this one district attorney who had been D.A. for 33 years. He was a legend in the state of Georgia. I worked for him for about two and a half years. He was getting ready to retire, and he said he would endorse me if I ran. At the time of the election, I hadn't even been practicing law long enough to serve as D.A., but by the time I took office I was.

Has that experience made you more empathetic toward public officials?
For one thing, I don't see things in black and white. There are different shades of gray in matters that we look at. So maybe it has given me some perspective. It may also have helped my ability to gain insight into the people we are looking at, and to anticipate what their defenses may be.

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