The Don

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

As the day wore on, Warshaw smelled a trap. Because the mayor cannot fire the chief of police, Warshaw suspected that Suarez appointed him solely in order to fire him. "It became apparent to me that this mayor was setting me up to resign," he reflects. Warshaw still suspects that Suarez wanted a chief he could control.

(Repeated attempts by New Times to reach Suarez over the past week were unsuccessful. His business phone was busy day and night, even though operators said the line was not in use. A former cell phone number no longer works. Events as described in this article are from Warshaw's recollection augmented by others who were present at various meetings.)

Around 5:00 p.m. on November 17, Warshaw called Jeffrey Bartel, Suarez's campaign treasurer and legal adviser, to try to understand the quickly unfolding events. It was Bartel, a Warshaw friend, who delivered the news with a wince. "Basically the word came back to me through him [Bartel], 'If you're not out of your [police department] office by Friday, you're fired and you'll be thrown out,'" Warshaw recounts. "In those exact words." (Bartel says he doesn't recall the phone conversation, but that Warshaw is a "straight shooter, and if he told you this, then I trust him.")

That's when Warshaw looked dolefully around his wood-paneled office on the third floor of police headquarters. He studied the framed photo of President Clinton shaking his hand, the portrait of Attorney General Janet Reno scrawled with a personal note. Then his eye moved to framed news articles about his appointment as chief. He wondered, "How am I going to pack all of this stuff up?"

Then he leaned over his desk and started to cry.
Warshaw couldn't think clearly. He was in a fog of anger, fear, and frustration. After collecting himself, he made telephone calls late into the night. Then he realized that city commissioners were likely the only ones who could stop the mayor. He began contacting them. "I didn't like having to do that. In all my years here I have never asked any of them for anything personal. I mean, here I was after 26 years of public service calling elected officials and saying, 'I need your help.'" One by one the commissioners agreed to support Warshaw. "I began to feel a little bit better," he says.

Tuesday, November 18--Friday, November 20: After Suarez publicly announces Warshaw's departure from the police department on Spanish-language radio, commissioners and citizens rally around the chief. Despite his previous appointment of Warshaw, the mayor now appoints parks department director Alberto Ruder as interim city manager. At a press conference, the chief announces he will leave the job January 2.

Warshaw nearly surrendered in the days after Suarez's re-election. He called a lawyer friend named Jerome Wolfson, who arranged a meeting at Bartel's offices on the 41st floor of a Biscayne Boulevard skyscraper. Over two nights they negotiated a lucrative retirement package. "I figured I had to protect myself," Warshaw says. He was off-balance, trying to think on his feet how to save his job.

"They wanted him out bad," Wolfson says. "And I don't think cost was a factor." Bartel offered Warshaw a $100,000 exit package plus full use of a city-owned car for a year. In addition, Warshaw would receive five years of paid medical insurance. "During the negotiations it was like taking candy from a baby," Warshaw recalls. "They kept saying, 'Well, do you want a little bit more?' It was like being bribed to leave."

Each day during the worst of the ordeal, the chief phoned his mother, Jean Warshaw, in Sunrise. "He called to let me know everything was all right," she says. "I was proud of him. He kept everything on an even keel. He didn't lose his cool."

Over the years Jean Warshaw has taken in stride her son's rise in power. "I always knew he'd move up the ladder quickly, because he's a sharp cookie. Both my sons are."

(Warshaw's younger brother Robert followed him to Miami and also joined the police force. He left as an assistant chief to head the Rochester, New York, police department. This year he was tapped as associate director of the White House Drug Policy Office.)

"All I wanted was for them to do the right thing," she says. "I'm happy."
As Warshaw tried to remain cool, supporters like Wolfson were coaxing him to stay. Wolfson noted that the city charter did not allow the mayor to fire the police chief. City fathers instituted that rule to try to insulate law enforcement from politics. "I kept telling him, 'It's in the charter, you're protected in the charter,'" Wolfson says.

The chief can't remember the exact moment he decided to fight Suarez. But he knew one thing: "I didn't want it to end like this."

He says he was afraid for his department and offended by the way Suarez moved to hire a replacement -- former Miami Assistant Chief Arnold Gibbs, the chief of police in Cape Coral. On November 19 Suarez flew by helicopter to interview Gibbs in that Gulf Coast town. Later Gibbs would be put up in a swank Coconut Grove hotel and taken for boat rides with lobbyists. Warshaw was stunned: "This is not the way high-level public officials get interviewed. You come in the front door, you do things the right way."

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