The Don

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

Info:Correction Date: 07/30/1998
Info:
The Don

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

Tristram Korten
Donald Warshaw enters a back room in Miami City Hall filled with political types and lawyers. He tells a joke, then settles into a cushy swivel chair. No one says a word as the television broadcasts the beginning of a special city commission session called to discuss whether the 55-year-old Brooklyn native will be named Miami city manager. Warshaw holds two of the most powerful and perhaps undesirable political positions in all of South Florida at this moment: Miami police chief and interim city manager. He's not sure how long he can hold on to both. Warshaw fidgets with his watch as the five men begin what has become a ritual dance of power with Mayor Joe Carollo. For the second time, the mayor has fired City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. And for the second time, commissioners -- who disdain the mayor's tactics -- are convening to discuss overriding the mayor's decision.

The commissioners fret about this very public display of governmental dysfunction. One describes it as "a circus." Another calls it a "boondoggle" and a "mockery." But they follow the script. They vote unanimously to reinstate Garcia-Pedrosa, thereby displacing Warshaw.

Warshaw chuckles and, as a bunch of cops gathers around to tease him about losing his job, says, "Welcome me back, boys. I'm just the chief again!"

Warshaw didn't always take city hall's theater of the absurd as lightly as he did on that June 15. In fact, during the last two years -- and especially the last seven months -- his limits have been tested. The normally jocular police chief has reluctantly cooperated with federal investigators as they busted the man who hired him, former City Manager Cesar Odio; survived a monthlong siege by former Mayor Xavier Suarez, who tried to oust him from the police department; and was appointed city manager three times and fired twice.

As a result, Warshaw has traveled to his emotional edge and back, at one point breaking down in tears in his office before regaining the resolve to fight back. He stared down Suarez, who he says tried to involve him in making a political show of Cuban leader Jorge Mas Canosa's funeral. And he took some comfort in daily phone calls to his mother in Broward County during the most difficult days.

The chief's recent adventures have been more than just a wild ride for one city official. They have provided insight into a political culture where changes in power are convulsive and where the end is swift and cruel for the losers. And they have been revealing about Warshaw, who so far has avoided losing.

Donald Howard Warshaw is oddly cast as top cop -- or city manager -- in one of America's most violent cities. With his shiny pate, gravelly voice, and hang-dog eyes, he's more like a kindly uncle. He's a friendly, white, Jewish guy who started police work late in life in a city that is a steamy ethnic mix often on the verge of exploding. But since he was appointed chief July 7, 1994, his calm, noncontroversial manner has been an antidote to Miami's racially charged social and political infirmities.

He was raised by two New York City school teachers in a middle-class home. After graduating from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, he opted not to go to college. Instead he moved quickly through humdrum office jobs and then started his own business, an executive headhunting firm on Madison Avenue. He closed it in a bad year and ditched New York for good in 1971 to move to Miami, a place he had visited only once. In 1972 Warshaw joined the Miami Police Department, at age 29. He was older by far than most of the other rookies, and apparently smarter.

Warshaw spent a mere five years on patrol before his superiors noted his business acumen and yanked him into an office in 1977. Over the next few years, the future chief's business background paid off as he wrote grants, analyzed budgets, and implemented special programs.

In 1984 Warshaw was promoted to major in charge of the business management section. The years that followed were tumultuous for Miami police. The city was shaken by almost yearly street disturbances, as well as by the 1985 Miami River Cops scandal, in which twenty officers were eventually brought down in a scandal involving theft of drugs from smugglers and the drowning of two. Public confidence in the department ebbed even further when hundreds of officers were rushed through the department's screening process. Warshaw's role, never fully recognized, was critical. As officer in charge of training new recruits and performing these background checks, he tried to restore credibility by more thoroughly screening applicants. He hid nothing from either his superiors or the public about the department's flaws. "A lot of police culture during these years was to say nothing about anything. I like to think we've broken that mold. To hide behind mistakes erodes trust." In 1992 he was promoted to assistant chief.

In keeping with the sudden shifts in power typical of Miami, Warshaw's later ascent to the police department's number-one spot was unexpected. In July 1994, Chief Calvin Ross left to head the newly created state Department of Juvenile Justice. After Ross departed, City Manager Cesar Odio had to decide quickly on a successor. He chose Warshaw for the $106,000 post. "I think the fact that it happened so fast was beneficial to me," Warshaw says. "If he had 30 days to select a chief, the lobbying would have begun."

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."

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."

Soon Warshaw became intractable: "I realized not only did [Suarez] not have the legal right or authority to fire me, but that he didn't have commission approval.... He was completely out of line."

Monday, November 24, and Tuesday, November 25: Suarez faces a challenge to his authority from the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which announces it will investigate him for violating the city charter. Retreating from his attempt to fire Warshaw, the mayor tries to arrange a truce at funeral services for Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa.

At 10:00 a.m. on the day of Mas Canosa's funeral, Warshaw says his office phone rang. "'Can you come down and see me right now?'" the chief quotes the mayor as saying. Warshaw hedged, saying he was on his way to the funeral. The mayor suggested they go together.

Warshaw obliged, and drove to Dinner Key with his senior executive assistant, John Buhrmaster. He met with Suarez in a conference room, sitting so close their knees nearly touched. Then, he says, the mayor leaned forward, a "crazed look in his eyes," and asked what Warshaw was trying to do to him. "Nothing, I'm just doing my job," Warshaw says he replied. Next the mayor again proposed that they ride together to the funeral to show they had reconciled.

Warshaw said the idea made his skin crawl. He says he stared at Suarez in angry disbelief and said: "Xavier, I'm going to the funeral to pay my respects to someone who died. I'm not going there to make a public statement, and I'm very offended that's the way you feel we should make a truce."

So the chief decided on a compromise. They would drive separately to St. Michael's Catholic Church on Flagler Street, then stand together at the funeral. During the service, as television cameras filmed the two enemies together, the chief claims, Suarez leaned over and whispered into his ear: "This is good, this is good."

Warshaw says, "It was like a bad dream. The next day he was bad-mouthing me all over again."

John Buhrmaster says it was tough to see his boss struggle: "Don Warshaw is a very laid back, easy-going person. During this whole situation it was like a different person came out of him. He was very aggravated."

December 1997--June 1998: Warshaw's situation improves. City Manager Ruder resigns rather than fire the chief. His replacement, Frank Rollason, sends a memo to Suarez in defense of Warshaw. Soon after the State Attorney's Office cites Suarez for violating the city charter by meddling in city personnel business, the "pothole mayor" is thrown from his job in a voter fraud scandal. By June, Mayor Joe Carollo is in office trying to replace new city manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa with Warshaw.

By the spring Warshaw was left alone to run his department. But his battle with Suarez left him bitter. "What he did to me, setting me up to be fired, was despicable and deceitful," he says. "He was an unworthy opponent."

The chief sees the conflict as a personal watershed. He realized he had nothing to lose. Because of his long career with the police department, he qualified for a $100,000 pension. He also reports having received enticing job offers from several multinational corporations he won't identify.

So Warshaw reacted calmly on June 1 when Carollo fired Garcia-Pedrosa for the first time and tapped him as interim manager. Garcia-Pedrosa would be hired and fired twice more. Carollo has also hired Warshaw three times.

"Don Warshaw has made history: the most-hired manager in Miami," Carollo says dryly. "Of course, Garcia-Pedrosa has made history too: the most-fired manager in Miami." Garcia-Pedrosa has since bowed out of the fray.

Given the turmoil in city hall the past seven months, it's easy to see why Carollo picked Warshaw. His reputation was tested by fire in the Suarez affair, and heck, he's a cop. What better image to have in a scandal-ridden city hall than a guy with a badge?

As both interim manager and police chief, Warshaw has a busy life. He arrives at his police department office around 6:15 a.m. to get a jump on paperwork. He goes to meetings with lieutenants, swears in new officers, and pores over reports. By midday he'll slip over to the tenth floor of the city's Riverside Center to a bare-walled office overlooking the Miami River. He hasn't yet set foot in Garcia-Pedrosa's office down the hall.

Carollo says it's a strong possibility he'll appoint Warshaw permanent city manager. That's a challenge the chief wouldn't mind. Warshaw reports that some friends have advised him against taking the post, saying city hall is crazy. "Maybe crazy is the wrong word," he says. "This is a very passionate place. It's a passionate city with passionate people.

Published:In Tristram Korten's articles about Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw ("The Don," June 25), a reporting error led to an incorrect date appearing in the chronology of Operation Greenpalm, the federal government's corruption probe. Warshaw accompained former Miami City Manager Cesar Odio to New York City to meet with bond raters in the summer of 1996.

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