Burke's Legacy, for the Record

If there is one moment, one 30-second span of time, on the FBI surveillance tapes of James Burke that is more striking than any other, it is the instant Howard Gary handed Burke $5000 in cash -- "a down payment" Gary called it, for a larger bribe to come. Burke blithely placed the money in his valise, stood from the table where the two men were sitting, and began to laugh as he put on his jacket to leave. "You know," he said, "this is a wonderful country."

In court when the videotape was played, Burke refused to look at the large televisions placed around the room for the judge, jury, and lawyers to watch. Instead he stared down at a transcript of the tape, following the words without seeing the images. He wore a pair of large headphones so he could better hear the tape, but they only made him appear more distant and removed from the proceedings, like a quiz-show contestant waiting his turn in a soundproof booth.

The tape was devastating. And there was more to follow. By the end of the week prosecutors played eight different audio- and videotapes, documenting Burke's greed, his arrogance, his naiveté, and his stupidity. But it was the first video, in which cash first changed hands, that evokes such a strong, visceral reaction. Or at least it did in me.

An FBI surveillance tape shows former County Commissioner James Burke (right) pocketing $5000 from Howard Gary
An FBI surveillance tape shows former County Commissioner James Burke (right) pocketing $5000 from Howard Gary

Listening to him snicker after pocketing $5000, and then mockingly declare this to be a wonderful country, was nothing short of appalling. And whether he intended it or not, it appeared he was laughing at every person who had ever voted for him and every person who had ever trusted him.

A couple of years ago, Burke shared with me the first two chapters of a book he was writing about his life. They dealt mainly with his childhood, growing up in Waycross, Georgia. Last week, after watching the government's videotape of Burke, I re-read those passages. "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 wrote. He described the segregated school system he attended and the town's Dairy Queen, which served whites through a window in the front and blacks through a window around back.

"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, titled "The Pillars and My Backbone: Why I Will Never Break!" includes homages to his maternal grandparents, both of whom are now dead. From his grandmother he learned about God; from his grandfather he claims to have learned the merits of hard work.

That legacy, however, is not apparent on the tapes being played in federal court. Indeed if anything, he insults their memory. This is difficult for me to say because I have always liked Jimmy Burke. I've covered him since he first came to the county commission in 1993, where I found him to be both affable and concerned about improving the lives of blacks in Dade County. But somewhere along the line he deluded himself into believing he was entitled to exploit his position. And befitting Burke's typically hapless nature, he tried to cash in at the exact moment when the FBI was swarming over South Florida looking for corrupt politicians.

The specifics of the case are by now well-known, as the federal trial has unfolded day after day in the Herald. In 1996 the county was attempting to refinance more than $100 million in bonds under a plan proposed by San Francisco businessman Calvin Grigsby. To get the deal, the government alleges, Grigsby agreed to pay Burke, who at the time was chairman of the county commission's powerful finance committee, a $300,000 kickback. And the commissioner's chief of staff, Billy Hardemon, would receive a $50,000 bribe for helping with the deal.

In addition Howard Gary, who had elbowed his way into the lucrative bond deal as a partner of Grigsby, agreed to pay Burke $100,000. The scheme was exposed when Gary was caught, in a separate FBI sting, agreeing to launder illegal payoffs to a Miami city commissioner. In July 1996, after the FBI confronted Gary on the City of Miami case, Gary told federal agents about the corrupt activities surrounding the county bond deal. Gary then began cooperating with the FBI, recording all of his subsequent meetings with Burke, Grigsby, and Hardemon -- the three men now on trial before U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davis.

From a purely voyeuristic standpoint, the trial, entering its fourth week, has been a revealing affair, rife with more subplots than a Jackie Collins novel. Every day it seems another politician is mentioned on the tapes in an unflattering, though not necessarily illegal, light. From plans to offer a bribe to Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer to Burke calling his former colleague, County Commissioner Javier Souto, "dumbbell Souto."

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