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.

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."

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."

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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