Cybersleuth

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

When the trial was over and Carollo had been restored to office, Cochran went to work developing his businesses. Among them: Campaign Data Inc., which provides statistical information about voters to office seekers; Cochran and Associates Investigations, the private-eye firm; and Florida Parking Enforcement, a company that specializes in booting illegally parked cars for private businesses.


His next political adventure came in the Port of Miami corruption scandal. In June 1999 port director Carmen Lunetta, along with businessmen Calvin Grigsby and Neil Harrington, went on trial for stealing $1.5 million in county funds. Prosecutors accused the men of pocketing some of the cash and improperly using some for political contributions.

As the trial of the three men progressed, it became evident that former port employee John Tiddes was a key prosecution witness. Harrington's defense attorneys Ben Kuehne and Kendall Coffey requested that Cochran investigate Tiddes's financial portfolio. The private eye checked a database that showed the high-level manager lived in a $300,000 home in Plantation. Cochran also employed high-tech surveillance equipment to identify Tiddes's circle of friends. "The idea was to impeach him if he swayed from his testimony," says Cochran.

Next Cochran began a computer analysis of the 1996 election. Prosecutors argued the trio had improperly funneled an exorbitant amount of the port's money into campaigns. The government accused Harrington of donating $30,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1994; he was allegedly angling for a pardon of a 1980 conviction on corruption charges. Cochran obtained a database of campaign donations for state and federal elections. He sorted the data and found the scale of Harrington's donations was relatively common. (In the end all criminal charges were dropped against the three men.)

The ex-FBI agent had no qualms about opposing prosecutors who were once his colleagues. He believes federal officials had no case. "The money they used was not the port's. They could use it however they saw fit," says Cochran. "Many times at trial you have to react quickly to what the feds put out."


Campaign Data Inc. keeps Cochran in the thick of Miami politics. Several times a year he purchases CDs from the Miami-Dade County Elections Office. They include each voter's name, address, sex, date of birth, and voting record. In a sterile office Cochran calls "the War Room," he keeps the state-of-the-art computer equipment he uses to manipulate data.

He gathers lists of voters who have participated in the last five elections and then uses database software to match up telephone numbers. Political consultants rely on the information to contact probable voters on or before election day. Or the data can be converted into a mailing list, complete with address labels. Cochran can also rework the list into a map identifying voters' homes and suggested routes to reach them. Or he can provide an inventory of every constituent's birthday.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas relied on Cochran during the campaign for a penny transportation tax this past summer. He provided information on voters who were likely to cast ballots and helped in polling. Despite a much larger budget, sophisticated information, and a stream of experts, the measure failed by a nearly three-to-one margin.

Marsha Matson, a political science instructor at the University of Miami, says campaign operatives swarm to voter data like Cochran's as flies flock to a carcass. "It's used all the time," she says. "It really helps candidates identify who are the best voters." But she points out Penelas's tax campaign illustrates some of the pitfalls. "It's one thing to have the list and knowledge of who to send it to," the instructor notes. "But it's another thing to get the voters to the polls." Matson says she received three mailings from the pro-tax campaign. One was targeted to Jewish voters she says, adding that her surname used to be Silverman. Identifying likely voters helps campaigns focus their messages to specific audiences.

Campaign Data appears as a vendor on a diverse set of campaign expenditure reports. State Rep. Rudy Garcia (R-Hialeah) bought a $250 birthday list. Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, who's running for re-election, solicited a list of likely voters. The charges range between $500 to $1000 per report. The company has yet to turn a profit.

Cochran claims he contributes to the political process: "I like to think I bring a little honesty into the situations." During election season Cochran speaks with about a half-dozen candidates per day. He says, "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

Campaigns also employ Cochran's investigative expertise for opposition research. That is, he helps them get dirt on opponents. It's not always what you'd expect. Not long ago Miami commission candidate Johnny Winton hired Cochran. The reason: Winton wanted to know what public information other candidates could use in an attack. After culling through public records, the detective found a decade-old DUI arrest. The developer had passed out in the parking lot of a Miami Beach bar with his keys in the ignition. Winton presented the case to reporters before they discovered the incident themselves, explaining that he pled guilty and paid a fine. So far nothing has been printed about the incident. (Citing confidentiality agreements, Cochran won't comment. He says most political rumors are false.) "Every candidate imagines there is dirt on the opposition that will make a difference in the election," the private eye remarks. "The truth is that nine out of ten rumors about politicians are wrong."

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