The Waiting Game

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

Burke says he finds it suspicious that federal agents have gone to such lengths to catch him doing something wrong when they did not make the same effort to catch a previous chairman of the county's finance committee, Joe Gersten. "I know that Joe Gersten was investigated, but I never heard of any attempt at a sting operation involving him," Burke says. "I don't think the level of scrutiny is the same."

Burke's former chief of staff, Billy Hardemon, has also been implicated in the Burke-Grigsby investigation; reportedly he was in line to receive $50,000 for his help in including Grigsby's firm in the recycling plant bond issue. Hardemon adamantly denies any wrongdoing and has already made it clear that if he is indicted he will cry racism.

When he was first questioned, Hardemon claims, federal agents offered to not indict him if he agreed to testify against Burke and Grigsby. In a press conference last year, he accused the government of trying to coerce him into lying. "The federal government has offered me the deal not to fingerprint me, not to arrest me, not to indict me," Hardemon declared. "I also would have the ability to get my civil service job back if I would assist them in lynching some innocent people. What the facts of this case are going to show is I'm innocent, just like Alcee Hastings went from an impeached judge to a congressperson. Any time they attempt to unjustly prosecute black leaders, it only makes them stronger. It's going to make me into a community hero."

Hardemon's defiance made him an instant hero to Burke. "I learned to have more respect for Billy Hardemon," Burke recalls. "That tells you the real measure of a person." Burke says he talks to Hardemon regularly about his re-election campaign.

Burke may respect Hardemon, but he says he has only pity for Howard Gary. This past August Gary was arrested for allegedly shoplifting a $68 shirt from Lord & Taylor in Aventura. "At first when I heard about it," Burke says, "I thought about it like a lawyer, in terms of what it would mean for Howard's credibility on the stand and things like that. But then I thought there must be something wrong with him and so I said a prayer for him."

Burke has hired defense attorney Ed Shohat, a classmate from the University of Miami's law school. This will be Shohat's second Greenpalm case; he represented Cesar Odio earlier this year in negotiating a plea bargain. Burke vows, however, there will be no plea bargain in his case.

The other lawyers on the defense team are Hardemon's attorney Jose Quinon, who represented Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez on federal corruption charges; and Grigsby's attorney Roy Black, whose clients include such luminaries as Marv Albert, William Kennedy Smith, and William Lozano. Grigsby has also retained famed O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran.

"This has cost me in money paid and debts owed, I would say, over $75,000 so far," Burke calculates. This past October a group of lobbyists, led by Sylvester Lukis (who was himself acquitted earlier this year of bribery charges), offered to hold a fundraiser for Burke to help with his legal bills. "It was his idea because of what he went through," Burke says. "We were out playing golf and he said, 'Jimmy, I'd like to do something for you because I know how you are feeling.' He's one of the ones who led me to conclude that some of these [federal prosecutors] are not nice people. I said, 'Great, whatever you can do I would appreciate it.' And so he came up with that."

The event was canceled after it was reported in the Herald. Burke says the county attorney's office told him he cannot solicit donations, and if he appeared at a fundraiser it might seem as if he were personally asking for the money. Burke adds, though, that people are permitted to send him money on their own. "I think the first check came from a minister in West Palm Beach who I had met once at a Lum's restaurant," he says. "When he read about what was happening, he sent me a check for $100." So far about a dozen people have given him money, "a couple of thousand dollars," he says, adding that none of them do business with the county. Eventually, he promises, he will disclose the names and amounts.

Burke says he is unafraid of the future. "I know there is nothing that anybody who walks on these streets can do to me," he proclaims. "I still laugh and I'm happy. That's not something that the state attorney can take away from me, or a grand jury, or the U.S. Attorney, or the governor, or anybody else.

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