By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Michael Band is packing. The stacked boxes of files make his sparsely decorated office look even more austere. For twenty years Band has operated in rooms like this one on the second floor of the E.R. Graham Building in Miami, stripped of adornment in service of the people. Band, one of Miami-Dade County's most powerful and veteran assistant state attorneys, sits at a three-decade-old desk with chipped varnish. Government-issue file cabinets line the back wall. A couple of industrial-beige swivel chairs and an old brown couch round out the furniture. The only deviations from the spectrum of grays and browns are color photos of his wife and two daughters that sit on a computer table and some crayon drawings taped to his door.
Band will leave the office in December after four weeks of vacation. He intends to spend his free time reading and wants to pick up a new book titled Kaddish, about a son's struggle with a parent's death. The title refers to the Jewish prayer of mourning that helps the living cope with loss. Band, whose own father died last year, has loss on his mind these days.
"Life has its disappointments," he says, clasping and unclasping his long fingers. At 46 years old, his face is still youthful under a head of gray hair. "The presumption is your character is measured by how you handle them."
Band is about to find out what he's made of. After twenty years prosecuting cases, he was forced to resign in June following a secretary's accusation that he sexually harassed and fondled her. No one expected this. In 1993 Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle chose Band to head the major-crimes unit, which handles the county's most complex and sensitive cases. One of Rundle's chief assistants, he coordinated the investigation into Gianni Versace's murder. He led the inquiry of former county Commissioner Joe Gersten. And he has sent countless murderers to prison, including most recently, Juan Chavez, the killer and rapist of nine-year-old Jimmy Ryce. To dozens of lawyers who have passed through the office during his tenure, Band has built a reputation as a caring supervisor with strong ethics.
Given his prominence and record, Band might have weathered the accusations by Sherry Rossbach, a 39-year-old secretary with a blemished personnel record. But they came amid a larger and monumentally embarrassing internal investigation that the press termed the "phone sex scandal." (The moniker promised more than it delivered. It was never proven that any phone sex actually took place.)
The events that toppled Band began to unfold in February, when he asked Rundle to call in a team of special prosecutors from Fort Myers to investigate whether three secretaries, including Band's accuser, had acted improperly. Allegations had been leveled that the secretaries spent hours on the phone with a convicted killer, accepted money from him, and even fell in love with him. It was a tabloid-style scandal and the press wallowed in it.
But when the probe turned to Band, his colleagues were shocked. And when he resigned in June, the broad consensus in the State Attorney's Office (SAO) was that Rundle sacrificed him after a flawed investigation. Fourteen current and former assistant state attorneys, men and women alike, told New Times they believe Band was ousted as a politically expedient way to make the headlines disappear.
"Michael Band is a good lawyer, an ethical lawyer, and a wonderful supervisor," says Ann Lyons, who left the SAO in June for criminal defense work. "I was very disappointed with the way the investigation was handled." Others agree. Michele Block, a former felony division chief who recently changed jobs, also believes the investigation was "inadequate."
Rick Kolodgy, vice president of the county's Police Benevolent Association and a consistent SAO critic, summed it up: "Look, we were no fan of [Rundle's predecessor and now U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno. But all the feedback we got from her staff was that she was loyal to them. The sentiment was, 'She's good to us, she watches out for us.' With Kathy, we're hearing just the opposite. People are saying, 'We're showing loyalty but we're certainly not getting it in return.' I think Michael Band is a sterling example of that. As soon as he got a little warm, boom, he's dropped."
Band's resignation resounded in an office where discontent is high. More than 30 of the SAO's 280 lawyers have left in the past six months. Although attrition is nothing new (the workload is high and pay relatively low, with a starting salary for prosecutors at $28,000 per year) Band's departure didn't help matters.
"When you don't have support or leadership it's demoralizing," says a prosecutor who departed this past spring. "When this happened with Michael, people were saying 'If this could happen to him, it could happen to any of us.' Now people are jumping ship like rats off the Titanic."
Rundle dismisses her critics. She says morale is high and asserts the recent state of departures is nothing out of the ordinary. Prosecutors and office staff support her just as she supports them, she contends, adding that the number of people New Times talked with represented only a fraction of her staff. "Over 1000 people work here and the majority were not affected by this at all."