The Waiting Game

After more than a year, Commissioner James Burke may finally learn what lies ahead: Prosecution or exoneration

James Burke didn't seem to want to leave. The November 18 county commission meeting had been adjourned, and while his colleagues quickly packed up and left, Burke remained in his chair, papers and reports scattered in front of him. Who could blame him for lingering?

For the past fourteen months Burke has known that each exit he makes from the commission chamber could be his last. From the moment federal agents informed him he was under investigation for soliciting kickbacks, Burke has been acutely aware that he could be indicted at any time; once that happens, the governor would almost certainly remove him from office.

"The first thoughts I had when the news broke was that I had wasted twenty years of my life in politics," he recalls. Burke says he was sure that at some point during those first days of the scandal federal agents would burst through his door and drag him off to jail. "From what I was reading in the newspaper and hearing, the feds were going to come in any day and arrest me," he says. But then the first week passed with no action. And then a month passed, followed by another and another. Eventually Burke settled into an uneasy peace. "I decided I wasn't going to hide away," he says. "I was elected and I liked public service and I was going to continue to do it."

Burke's wait may be nearing an end. According to sources familiar with the investigation, the commissioner's indictment now appears imminent, and could come as early as next week. Burke is unfazed by the possibility. "If you think about it," he muses, "this time last year people were saying the same thing -- that I was going to be charged in November. Then it was going to be February, then it was going to be April, so I don't worry about it as much any more."

Burke says he has used the last year to re-examine his life. "After a while I realized that the problems in my life weren't the things that people were talking about but were more personal things and the way I was living, which was far from how I grew up," he explains. "I had gotten really socially carefree -- and perhaps even more than socially carefree. I'm talking about women that I was hanging around with and other people who would just come to me and say, 'Come on, Jimmy, let's go have a good time.' I'm almost 50 years old. I don't need to be dealing with some of these young girls who I know just want to have a good time."

In recent months, he says, he has settled down and rekindled a romance with his first wife Mamie, who recently moved from Texas to Florida. (Burke has been married four times.) "We started seeing each other again," he reports, "and that has given me a sense of comfort."

He has also spent more time praying and attending church. Burke notes that before the scandal erupted on September 20, 1996, he had missed Sunday services three weeks in a row. "I hadn't missed three weeks of church in ten years," he says, suggesting that his current troubles were meant as a warning not to stray from God's path. "What I have learned through this is that prayer works and it is real." An assistant county attorney gave him the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which, he says, provided succor.

As the federal investigation dragged on for months, Burke toyed with the idea of suing the U.S. Attorney's Office in hopes of forcing prosecutors to either charge him or clear his name. That was never a serious thought, however. Instead, he claims, he is pleased prosecutors have taken so long; it is an indication that they are examining all the evidence. "I practiced criminal law for ten years," Burke says. "If a prosecutor wants to get an indictment from a grand jury, he or she can. But what I hope is that [Assistant United States Attorney] Mary Butler and her team are really going through the facts, that they don't feel the need to satisfy the idea that because they spent x amount of dollars on this case they have to get somebody.

"I know where my heart is," he adds. "I know I did nothing wrong. At this point I hope I'm dealing with a group of [prosecutors] who are professional. Some prosecutors believe that their job is to prosecute no matter how weak the case is, and the fact that they may not get a conviction is secondary. They figure, 'Let's shoot and see what happens, let's just let things fall where they may.' They can take that view because they don't have to deal with my children and my family; they don't have to deal with my life."

The allegations against Burke first surfaced during last year's Operation Greenpalm investigation, which began in the City of Miami and quickly spread to county hall. The city investigation concentrated on a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme that eventually led to indictments of and guilty pleas from Commissioner Miller Dawkins, City Manager Cesar Odio, and lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas, all of whom are now serving time in federal prison.

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