The Waiting Game

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

At the county the probe has centered on Dade's lucrative bond business and the relationship between Burke and businessman Calvin Grigsby. At the time the investigation began, Burke was chairman of the commission's powerful finance committee and Grigsby was chairman of Grigsby Brandford, a San Francisco bond firm.

Aiding federal agents in their investigation of Burke and Grigsby has been Howard Gary, a former Miami city manager and owner of his own bond firm, Howard Gary and Company. Gary became a government informant after being ensnared in the City of Miami scandal.

When he was first questioned by the FBI in July 1996, Gary told agents that instead of investigating him, they should go after Burke. Gary claimed he was being forced to pay the commissioner a $100,000 bribe in order that his firm might be included in a deal with Grigsby to refinance $183 million in bonds for the county's recycling plant. He also claimed that Burke was about to receive a $300,000 kickback from Grigsby.

Federal agents decided to test Gary's truthfulness, and the dramatic results will undoubtedly be the centerpiece of the government's case against Burke and Grigsby. Investigators secretly videotaped an August 1996 meeting among Burke, Grigsby, and Gary in a ritzy San Francisco hotel room, where the details of the bribery scheme were allegedly discussed.

"It's just some brothers sitting around talking about women, talking about this, talking about that," Burke contends. "The thing you have to look for on the tape is who's talking and who's kidding and who's laughing. I don't think anybody would get a bribery scheme out of that."

Burke asserts that the conversation was manipulated by Gary, who knew it was being recorded. According to Burke, Gary would say things such as: "'Okay, Calvin, now you'll take care of Jimmy.' And I remember Calvin looking surprised and saying, 'I'm not taking care of Jimmy.' And Howard would just keep talking on."

Burke argues that any discussion he might have had with Gary regarding money was of a personal nature and had nothing to do with the bond deal pending before the county. Last year Burke told the Miami Herald: "If someone was wearing a wire, things that you say as friends can seem to be something odious. [Gary] helped me out in a number of ways. It was things that only friends would do for each other, like 'I am in a jam until the end of the month, can you help me out?' On tape it could be interpreted differently, but I knew what it meant."

Not long after Burke made that comment, Howard Gary told New Times the commissioner's claim was ridiculous. "We were never friends," he declared.

Today Burke says he is still amazed at Gary's response. "Howard's thing just floored me," he remarks. "I was surprised to read that I was never his friend. I hope prosecutors really investigate that and ask people if Howard and I were close, if they ever saw Howard and I out to dinner, or if Howard was ever in my house."

Burke emphasizes that his intentions in bringing Gary and Grigsby together were honorable, designed to further the cause of blacks in business. "I really thought I was making this grand attempt to get these two brothers, who are in the same field, together to combine and do something great," Burke elaborates. "One of them wanted to do it and was really bending over backward and the other one -- Howard -- had a totally different agenda."

Prosecutors have also latched on to a telephone conversation Burke and Grigsby had with County Manager Armando Vidal and county finance officials. Under the terms of the $183 million refinancing plan for the county's recycling plant, Grigsby's company, as lead underwriter, was scheduled to receive nearly $1,000,000 in fees. But Grigsby called Vidal to say he expected another $600,000 for additional work he did on the project.

At the time Grigsby placed his call from San Francisco, Vidal was meeting with several other county administrators, including then-finance director Ed Marquez, so the manager transferred the conversation to his speaker phone. Both Vidal and Marquez thought the request was highly unusual, all the more so when they heard Burke's voice joining the conversation and telling the manager that if Grigsby had done any extra work, he should be paid for it.

Burke insists there was nothing inappropriate about that phone call, which took place from Grigsby's office. "We were in an open meeting in a large room where business was going on," he says. "It wasn't like I was in some phone booth secretly telling the manager he needed to do this. It was a meeting and I thought that these people had made a good point."

In his interview last year with New Times, Gary said the phone call revealed Burke's and Grigsby's greed. The additional fees were not justified, he claimed, and were designed only to "put more money in Jimmy's and Calvin's pockets."

But now Burke claims the phone call was actually Gary's idea and that Gary was the one who told Grigsby he was entitled to the extra $600,000. "Gary was right, and the manager said, 'I will consider it and send me the information that will show it,'" Burke recalls. "That's all that happened."

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