The Waiting Game

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

Prosecutors have also closely tracked Burke's trips abroad. In August 1996 Burke accompanied Gary to the Bahamas -- reportedly to open an offshore bank account to deposit the payoffs. "I've been over to the Bahamas several times, even after Howard and I went over there once, usually for social purposes, just for fun," he says. "I also had a couple of clients over there. I know agents have been searching all over the island [looking for secret bank accounts]. Ask me, I'll give you my permission. I don't have an account. I know Howard has an account. But I don't."

New Times has learned that in addition to seeking bank records in the Bahamas, prosecutors have been doing the same in Switzerland. Although Swiss banks are famous for the privacy afforded their customers, investigators have quietly sought those records through the Swiss judicial system. The process, however, is time-consuming, which is one reason the case has dragged on so long.

Burke scoffs at the notion that he has a bank account in Switzerland or any other foreign country. "I'll tell you what, if they find any bank accounts in Switzerland, let me know," he laughs. "My lawyers will want it."

There is something about the prospect of prison that makes a politician set pen to paper. Burke is no exception. Since learning he was under investigation, he has been writing his memoirs, the first few pages of which he shared with New Times. His introspection led him to the realization that what goodness he possesses grew from his family and his upbringing in the town of Waycross, in the southeast corner of Georgia.

The opening chapter begins on March 2, 1948, as his mother Francis gives birth:

"As Grandmama Doll was coming into the yard with Ms. Dunn [the midwife], Francis began shouting, 'Have mercy, it's coming!' Sure enough, at 5:30 a.m. a little boy flowed from her body. Gerald took one look and ran into the front room with Mr. Edgar, shouting, 'Mothdear is having a pig, a pink pig!' Lorraine looked on first in amazement but summoned the strength to encourage her sister. 'Francis, it's coming, but just relax and breathe; you're going to be okay.' Then it happened; although covered as all babies are, Jimmy Clarence Burke, who did not exist a few seconds ago, was now in the world. Lorraine slipped a towel under him as Doll and Ms. Dunn came into the room. Lorraine smiled and Francis, even after delivery without anesthetic, looked down and smiled. Lorraine was almost handing the baby to Ms. Dunn with a look of relief. However, Ms. Dunn perked her lips and said, 'I can't do nothing without my coffee.'"

Burke points out that both Ossie Davis and Burt Reynolds were born in Waycross, as was Pernell Roberts of the TV show Bonanza. Burke writes about the segregated school system he attended and about the town's Dairy Queen, which served whites through a window in the front and blacks through a window around back.

"I was born into the unprotected world of all Southern African American boys, then called 'colored,' whose family had little or no money in 1948," Burke writes. "As I grew older and left Waycross to go to college as the first in my family to do so, I learned that my life and my town, while common to other Southern towns, was unique in keeping me prepared to live in the last half of the Twentieth Century against odds that were more weighted against me than I ever knew. Perhaps that unique Waycross sense of self is what still guides me today."

The second chapter is titled "The Pillars and My Backbone: Why I Will Never Break!" In this section, Burke writes about his maternal grandparents, both of whom are now dead. From his grandmother he learned about God; from his grandfather he learned the merits of hard work. Another lesson from his grandfather: "You cannot depend on anyone other than yourself to do what you need to do for yourself."

Perhaps no one was as heartened as Burke by last month's re-election of Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. The commissioner had been charged by the U.S. Attorney's Office with bank fraud and money laundering and removed from office by the governor, only to defiantly reclaim his seat -- while under indictment -- by appealing to voters that he was the victim of arrogant, possibly even bigoted, federal prosecutors eager to crush a Cuban-American politician on the rise.

Substitute African American for Cuban American, and make the pitch on WMBM instead of WQBA, and you have a blueprint for Burke's re-election campaign next year. "You take Humberto, you take Raul [Martinez], and what it says is that in some communities we understand that prosecution sometimes may be the same thing as persecution," Burke posits. "And you don't throw people out of office just because the governor does.

"I am going to run for re-election next year -- that's definite."
Because county commission districts are divided along racial lines, making race an issue will be a likely gambit in Burke's campaign, and he has already been suggesting that the investigation against him is racially motivated. He frequently cites several recent magazine articles that claim a black politician is more likely to become the target of federal investigation than a white one. "Was I targeted?" Burke asks. "Yeah, I was targeted. The question is was I targeted because I'm black? I don't dismiss that as a possibility, but I don't know for sure." Later he adds, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."

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