The Don

Adrift in Miami's fierce political maelstrom, Donald Warshaw is one cool customer

His qualifications as an administrator aside, Warshaw's avoidance of overt political alliances was his most obvious asset. Odio -- who would plead guilty May 28, 1997, to obstructing a federal investigation into corruption at city hall -- knew Warshaw was likely to be uncontroversial.

There may have been no better time to be chief of the 1000-officer department. Crime was plummeting in Miami and across the rest of the country. And the concept of "community policing" was gaining ground among progressives such as Warshaw. He ordered police to interact with people on their beats, humanizing a department that often seemed remote and hostile. "We had tough cops before and we had riots. We needed compassionate cops who knew how to be tough when required. But the kind of officers I looked for, and look for now, were people with compassion, empathy, and caring," Warshaw says.

Warshaw's tenure in the police department was marked by a near total lack of scandal. One possible reason is the chief's openness -- as in July 1995 when a police officer shot a seventeen-year-old black boy. Warshaw promptly invited twenty black ministers and community activists to a briefing on the case and gave a full description of events. Then there's his close relationship with journalists. Warshaw takes calls from the press at midnight, hands out exclusive stories, and lunches with editors. Potential enemies are disarmed by his candor.

But during the 1996 investigation of city hall corruption known as Operation Greenpalm, the man who had studiously avoided controversy was criticized for complaining about how the feds were conducting the sting. As city hall leadership was ravaged by indictments, he maintained a consistent veneer. "I always try to appear upbeat, to put on my public face, because employees pick up on the mood of the boss, and it affects them," he says. But in the tornado of events that consumed the city, Warshaw would lose that game face.

September--November, 1996: City hall is rocked by scandal as City Manager Cesar Odio, Commissioner Miller Dawkins, and lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas are stung by FBI agents in several shakedown schemes. The chief informant, also involved in some of the crimes, is Manohar Surana, the city budget director.

Greenpalm presented one of the most difficult dilemmas Warshaw had ever faced: how to deal with a probe that pitted his strict sense of propriety against allegiance to Odio, his boss and friend. It started when an executive of Unisys, a computer company, walked into the Miami Police Department and complained of city leaders demanding bribes. To avoid a conflict of interest, the chief handed off the investigation to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI.

As the probe progressed, he was invited by U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey to attend briefings at his office just a few blocks from the police department. Soon Warshaw began to sense a problem. Surana, who the feds knew had participated in illicit activity, was allowed to continue in his job. The chief wanted to tell Odio or someone in city hall of Surana's misdeeds in case the budget director were to commit other crimes that would harm taxpayers. The feds, of course, believed this revelation would blow the covert operation.

Some investigators even questioned Warshaw's allegiance. Warshaw denies that he was trying to protect Odio: "If that were the case, I simply would have told him as soon as the guy from Unisys walked in our front door."

Warshaw was pained to see his boss under investigation. Worse was the need for secrecy. He recalls taking a business trip with Odio to New York to meet with bond raters in the summer of 1997. He admired Odio's charisma and political shrewdness. As the two men ate steak in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, Odio opened up, admitting he didn't have many friends. The police chief sympathized with the manager's feelings and was tormented by what he knew. "Sure it was painful to watch someone who was your boss and had confidence in you be investigated and go to jail," Warshaw says, now casual in his discussion of the matter. "But in my job, that's part of the makeup."

After Odio was indicted, six more city managers would tumble from the job like change from a torn pocket. Warshaw had no idea that he would soon be offered that position. Nor did he know he would almost immediately lose it.

Thursday, November 13--Monday, November 17, 1997: Xavier Suarez, once known as the "pothole mayor," is re-elected to the job and begins behaving in ways that make him a national curiosity. Exhibiting frenetic energy, Suarez cans City Manager Ed Marquez, then summons all high-level administrators to a meeting and demands letters of resignation.

When Warshaw arrived at Suarez's meeting, the room was packed. The chief describes the mayor as almost manic, rushing into the room and talking incessantly. He appointed Warshaw interim city manager, told everyone else to submit the resignation letters, then left.

After the meeting Warshaw realized his relationship with the new mayor was not likely to improve.

"You know they used to refer to him as Hurricane Xavier," Warshaw says. "That's the best way I can describe him. His whole speech pattern at the meeting was hyper. He didn't even stop for punctuation. He was just ranting, 'Get rid of this one' and 'Get rid of that one' and 'I want these people gone by twelve.' I mean, he was out of control. I had such a miserable feeling about this."

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