How a former FBI agent with a yen for computers became one of the most powerful men in Miami

Backstage at the Miami-Dade County Courthouse, ousted Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and more than twenty of his campaign volunteers prepare to feed the media sharks. It is the first day of Carollo's bid to convince a judge that rampant voter fraud swept him from office -- and allowed Xavier Suarez to return to the dais. Two dozen television cameras eagerly await the plaintiff's words about the day's proceedings. Finally the well-coifed group walks into the room. Camera flashes pop and television lights beam. One by one, lawyers, campaign workers, and politicians eloquently describe why Carollo should be returned to his stead.

Suarez does not deserve to be in office, they state. Cheating took place. Computer analysis has shown the depths to which politics can sink only in Miami.

Behind the line of impeccably dressed publicity-seekers is a five-foot five-inch retired federal agent named Hugh Cochran. He stands in the dark because the monstrous egos block the light. Several times Cochran tries to break through the Armani wall but is rebuffed. Then Carollo grabs him by the arm and says, "C'mon Hugh." But the suits close rank to protect their precious minutes of fame.

The banjo-pickin' information agent charges up to $1000 for his computer expertise
Steve Satterwhite
The banjo-pickin' information agent charges up to $1000 for his computer expertise

That was the first of many news conferences during the two-week trial. A well-kept secret during the proceedings was that Cochran's work formed the backbone of Carollo's case. Applying investigative acumen honed during decades with the FBI, he had recorded in minute detail the absentee ballot abuse that propelled Suarez past Carollo in the 1997 election; Cochran had frequently worked twenty-hour days for next to nothing. True compensation, he figured, would come in the form of publicity for his fledgling private investigation business. "He has never asked for anything from me," Carollo says. "He reinforces the positive stereotypes of the FBI."

Never heard of Cochran? Don't remember his role in the trial that convinced three judges to boot Suarez from office in February 1998 and hand the city hall reins to Carollo? Then how about Cochran's work discrediting prosecution witnesses in the Port of Miami corruption trial? Still not a clue? How about this? Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas recruited him to help convince voters to approve a penny sales tax for transportation. Indeed Cochran's computer expertise has been used in 60 campaigns over the past three years.

The 54-year-old has parlayed his FBI experience and cyberknowledge into a unique position in local politics. He's become information agent to the county's power brokers. Many candidates turn to Cochran to uncover dirt on an opponent, determine likely voters, and provide other consulting services. Although his work is often behind-the-scenes, Cochran is well-known among decision-makers. "He's a guy I would consider part of the inner circle of any campaign I am working on," says Ric Katz, a political consultant. "He makes wise contributions."

It's a cloudy, humid September morning in the Magic City. Cochran slips into a dark suit jacket at his office on Brickell Avenue; he's dressed in the same style as an FBI agent. Hanging on the walls are memorabilia from his government days: a class picture from the bureau's academy, two commendations from the Department of Justice, and a photo of a stash of semiautomatic rifles confiscated during a raid. There's also a green-and-pink toy crocodile that dances and croons "Crocodile Rock"; a Harley Davidson motorcycle replica occupies a corner of his elliptical wooden desk.

He grabs a large brown envelope and heads to the Metromover station just off Brickell Avenue and NE Ninth Street. He drops a quarter into the turnstile, boards the train, and rides to the NationsBank Tower in downtown Miami. He walks a couple of blocks east and enters the Americas Center on SE Second Avenue. He rides the elevator to the campaign headquarters of Johnny Winton, Miami Commissioner J.L. Plummer's well-financed challenger in the upcoming November 2 election. Cochran interrupts Winton, a real estate developer, who is in a meeting with two Texas businessmen interested in managing a Cypress Creek building the candidate owns. The group exchanges pleasantries and remarks on deer hunting in southern Texas. Then Cochran hands Winton the envelope. It contains a list of voters who are most likely to cast a ballot in the upcoming municipal election. Also included are home phone numbers. It's an election kit that would have been impossible to produce just a few years ago.

Next stop: the Miami-Dade County elections office. The women who work the counter are familiar with Cochran's weathered red face and gray-streaked, dirty-blond hair. He is here to pick up a report on the last municipal election in Hialeah. The paperwork contains a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of the voting. It is destined for County Commissioner Natacha Millan. She could have sent a staffer, but it would have taken days for almost anyone else to obtain the data. One phone call to Cochran in the morning and the information was in her hands by the afternoon. Millan has so much confidence in Cochran that in September she named him to the county's Charter Review Committee; he is one of only four private citizens on the board, which will recommend changes to the law that regulates county government. The other nine posts are held by commissioners. "I really don't think about it," answered Cochran when asked to comment on his elected peers. "They are just my friends."

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