Cybersleuth

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
Though he was raised in Detroit, Cochran identifies more with his Southern roots
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Though he was raised in Detroit, Cochran identifies more with his Southern roots
Cochran as a boy
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Cochran as a boy
John Edgar Hoover authored the telegram that welcomed the ex-teacher to the FBI
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
John Edgar Hoover authored the telegram that welcomed the ex-teacher to the FBI
Television's It Takes a Thief first sparked Cochran's interest in the FBI
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Television's It Takes a Thief first sparked Cochran's interest in the FBI
Cochran's wife, Lynea, is also a partner in his business ventures
Steve Satterwhite
Cochran's wife, Lynea, is also a partner in his business ventures
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo (left) credits the retired agent with his return to office
photo courtesy Hugh Cochran
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo (left) credits the retired agent with his return to office
Political consultant Al Lorenzo calls Cochran the best supplier of voter demographics
Steve Satterwhite
Political consultant Al Lorenzo calls Cochran the best supplier of voter demographics

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."

That humility can be traced to simple roots. His grandparents, descendants of Irish and German immigrants, farmed tobacco in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in rural Tennessee. Cochran's father, Howard, was raised in a small shack near Lewisburg. In 1918 Howard Cochran became the first member of his clan to continue study after high school, when he enrolled at a teacher's college in Normal, Tennessee. There he met and married Verley Shanklin. The two returned to Lewisburg following their graduation in 1922 and opened a one-room elementary school. "They were the only two teachers in town," says Cochran. "He was the principal and she was the teacher."

The Great Depression forced many farming families to flee to urban centers. The Cochrans followed the trend by moving to Detroit, where Howard found employment on an automobile assembly line. Verley became a housewife. The couple's first child, Gary, was born in 1938. Hugh followed seven years later. During the late Forties Howard opened a factory that manufactured concrete tiles. In 1954 just as the factory began turning a profit, Howard Cochran was diagnosed with cancer and soon died. Driven back into the work force, Verley renewed her teaching certificate and began providing for her sons, even helping them through college.

In 1964 Hugh Cochran enrolled at the University of Michigan. His high school sweetheart Victoria joined him on campus, and they married during their junior year. The couple graduated in 1968. He took two bachelor's degrees, one in mathematics and the other in physics. She earned a B.A. in psychology. They returned home to Detroit and landed jobs in the school district. He began teaching math at an inner-city junior high school; she became a guidance counselor at a suburban elementary school.

Soon Cochran became frustrated with the system. Three adolescent girls in his class reported they were raped by family members. One student came to school barefoot on a cold winter day. "It was a difficult environment to learn in," Cochran recalls. "It was a difficult environment to teach in."

Around this time he remembers viewing an episode of the television show It Takes a Thief. The plot involved an FBI investigation. One of the characters stated that the bureau was made up strictly of lawyers and accountants. That struck Cochran as odd. He and his wife debated whether the agency could hire nonprofessionals. To settle the dispute Cochran wrote a letter to the local FBI office.

Several weeks later the bureau responded with an application, which Cochran tossed aside. Then a lunchtime food fight at the school became so rowdy the staff evacuated the cafeteria and locked the students inside. Cochran was one of several teachers who watched the uproar from a second-floor balcony. "It was out of a prison riot scene in a movie, except they weren't fighting each other," he recalls. "No grownup could have gone in there." That night he looked more closely at the government paperwork and learned there was a chance to double his $7000 yearly salary. In 1969 Hugh Cochran entered the FBI academy and after three months of training, headed to the bureau's San Antonio, Texas, office.


Downtown Detroit in 1970. Cochran spends a few days at home preparing for his move south. He is proud of his shiny badge, FBI identification card, and service revolver. He feels invincible. Then a drugstore clerk refuses to cash his check, and it's back to earth for the G-man.

The following week Cochran and Victoria move into a one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio. His first case involves the attempted theft of a jet from Randolph Air Force Base. The plane is discovered in a heap just 100 yards from the end of a runway. Beer cans surround the fuselage. Cochran starts searching for suspects and finds an airman with cuts and bruises that, the soldier claims, resulted from a fall. But the FBI crime lab finds the airman's prints on some of the cans. Confronted with the new information, the airman confesses. He is discharged from the air force.

That case and others Cochran solved during his first year in the Lone Star state whet his appetite for bigger investigations. "Every new agent wants to work the best cases in the biggest cities," Cochran says. "I put in for Los Angeles. They gave me Miami." In 1971 South Florida provided a panoply of crime, but the long hours of detective work took a toll on his marriage to Victoria; the high school sweethearts divorced in 1976.

Three years later Cochran met his second (and current) wife Lynea on a blind date. Cochran took the tall, pretty, blonde to a simple dinner at TGI Friday's near The Falls shopping mall in South Miami-Dade. "It just grew from there and kept getting better," recalls Lynea, who was born on Long Island to Norwegian parents. "He was different from all the rest." They married in January 1981.

Cochran's experience paid off in the early Eighties. He helped solve some of the area's biggest cases. In 1983 thieves stole 30 boxes of gold wire worth more than one million dollars from an Eastern Airlines warehouse at Miami International Airport. Cochran, already working other airport thefts, was assigned to the case. Through an informant, he learned that a ramp worker had masterminded the crime with three helpers. The thieves sold the gold to a North Miami pawnshop for a fraction of its value. The four Eastern employees, along with the pawnbroker, went to jail. Most of the precious metal was recovered.

In July 1984 fortune smiled on Cochran. Kidnappers had abducted Clelia Quiñonez, wife of Robert Quiñonez-Meza, the former Salvadoran ambassador to the United States.

After tracing phone calls to pay phones in South Miami and Coral Gables, the bureau flooded the area with undercover agents. A few days later investigators traced a $1.5 million ransom call to a convenience store near Le Jeune Road and South Dixie Highway. When the dispatcher asked for help, Cochran was the closest agent to the scene. He rushed over, spotted a car leaving the parking lot, followed it, and jotted down the license plate number. The bureau placed a wiretap on the address linked to the tag and quickly learned the residents were working with the kidnappers. The FBI soon rescued Clelia Quiñonez from the Washington, D.C., apartment where she was being held. "I got lucky," he admits. Cochran's dedication was recognized in 1984: He was named Federal Agent of the Year for the southern district of Florida.


Cochran sits at the beige Formica dining room table in his quaint Hialeah townhouse. Like many other Anglos, he does not speak Spanish and sometimes feels like a stranger in his own community. Unlike some members of his race, he embraces diversity. "If more Anglos would have experienced what I experienced, they would understand why people think they overreact," he says.

Cochran moved into the predominantly Hispanic city in 1973. These days his two-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath lakefront home is valued at $76,000. The two-story structure reflects his humble personality. Tan-and-brown furniture with a wigwam pattern sits atop vanilla-color ceramic tiles. The peach walls are mostly bare, except for a few framed prints. There is also a collection of banjos and a guitar. Strumming folk music on a banjo helps Cochran decompress after a long day. "When I was in college, folk music was popular," he explains. "If I could make a living on it, I would."

As an FBI agent Cochran witnessed Hialeah's transformation from redneck backwater to metropolitan area. He respected the new Cuban immigrants' work ethic and decided to stay at the FBI's Miami office. He also became entangled in the complex connections between South Florida and its island neighbor to the south. When three members of the paramilitary exile group Comandos L were captured in Havana in December 1991, Cochran was drawn into the fray. The Cuban military accused Eduardo Betancourt, Daniel Fernandez, and Pedro Pedroso of plotting to bomb hotels, movie theaters, and markets. The communist government paraded the men before television cameras.

Fearing a Havana trial would put the trio on the wrong end of a firing squad, the U.S. State Department began seeking the men's return. Officials suspected the armed incursion violated a federal law called the Neutrality Act, which prohibits launching an attack against a foreign government from American soil. Cochran called Comandos L leader Tony Cuesta and arranged a meeting. In a small conference room inside a Coral Way law firm's office in January 1992, the agent spoke with Cuesta, mercenary Tony Bryant, and their lawyer Luis Fernandez. Tensions were running high. The FBI had arrested many exiles for plotting such invasions. Fernandez inquired about the agency's motivations. Cochran explained his orders. A dialogue began.

After about an hour, a tentative deal was struck: Cuesta agreed to testify before a grand jury and plead guilty to sending the men to Cuba. He expected the subsequent trial to draw publicity, which would generate sympathy. "It was unusual. It was a different tactic," recalls Fernandez. "[Cochran] took it up the chain of command. Had it been up to Mr. Cochran, I'm sure we would have had a deal."

But bureaucracy stalled the agreement, and the trio was convicted in Havana. The Cuban military executed ringleader Betancourt. Fernandez and Pedroso received 30-year prison sentences. Cochran's negotiations came to naught. Then he was assigned to monitor militant Cuban groups.

Adventures with the exiles piqued Cochran's interest in politics. In February 1992 he helped start the Hialeah Citizens Alliance, a 30-plus member group that worked to rein in rampant overdevelopment on the city's western edge. In an effort that would presage his later work with computers, Cochran reached back in time, to his mathematics degree, to lobby for change. He reviewed more than 200 zoning changes approved by the city council, then input the data into a spreadsheet. The result: "It showed a clear pattern of zoning changes that favored overdevelopment and hurt the quality of life," Cochran comments. The council had repeatedly agreed to more commercial space with less than the minimum amount of required parking. Cochran described his findings in a newsletter, which was distributed to 10,000 homes and businesses.

A core group attended every council meeting. They protested zoning changes and lobbied council members to slow the rapid construction. The alliance also opposed all of the incumbents in the 1993 municipal elections. "[Cochran] was a great counselor to us," said Tomas Martinez, the group's president at the time. "He accompanied us frequently in our demonstrations, but he could not talk because he was an FBI agent."

Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez has a different recollection of the alliance: It consistently opposed the city's decisions but carried no political weight. "They were a paper organization. I don't think they had a large group of individuals that were active," Martinez contends. (Scrutiny of the zoning changes led to the indictment of Martinez in 1990. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 1996 after the mayor won his appeal.) Martinez questions whether Cochran used his badge to influence the municipality's government. "When you identify yourself as being with the FBI, that carries a lot of weight," the mayor notes.

The alliance disbanded after the 1993 ballot. A lawsuit filed by Unified Developers Inc., a group owned by builder Mario Ferro, contributed to the alliance's demise. It accused members of spreading rumors to damage Ferro's reputation and even claimed they threatened after a city council meeting to harm Ferro's son Mario Jr. (Cochran's wife, Lynea, was named in the suit. Cochran was not.) When the alliance disbanded, the suit was dismissed.

The setback did not dissuade Cochran from further political involvement. He helped document absentee ballot fraud in Hialeah's 1993 mayoral race. Loser Nilo Juri filed a lawsuit two weeks after the November election claiming Martinez, the incumbent, had benefited from the shenanigans. He wanted a new election. Juri learned that many of the bad ballots were cast at adult congregate living facilities (ACLFs). More than 50 came from voters who could barely remember their names.

Juri's camp consulted Cochran. "I was doubtful. You hear [about cheating] after every election," Cochran says. "But after reviewing the ballots, [I realized] something was wrong." Cochran helped educate campaign workers about the evidence needed to prove malfeasance. Although the federal agent's public role in the scandal was limited by the nature of his job, Juri campaign workers deemed his help essential. "[Cochran] had a huge role that was never made public," explains a former Juri volunteer, who declined to give his name. "He felt that it necessitated scrutiny." Later, the Miami Herald, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Dade State Attorney's Office performed their own inquiries. In 1994 Dade Circuit Judge Sidney Shapiro ruled that overzealous campaign workers on both sides corrupted the absentee voting process and ordered a new election. Juri lost again.

In 1996 Cochran retired from the FBI and chose politics as a second career.


It's November 11, 1997. E-day in the city of Miami. Residents are choosing between Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez in a runoff election. The winner will preside over a new era of centralized power. The first executive mayor will be able to hire and fire the city manager, veto commission votes, and preside over meetings.

In the midst of Carollo's get-out-the-vote drive, his political consultant Al Lorenzo invites Cochran to visit campaign headquarters. The former FBI agent arrives around lunchtime. A few minutes later Carollo drops by and invites Cochran to join him in a precinct-to-precinct blitz. Inside the mayor's black Lincoln Town Car, they find time to chat about family, politics, and law enforcement. Carollo mentions that he suspects some absentee ballots cast in the primary election were fraudulent. Cochran files the comment in his memory.

In the end Suarez won by 300 votes. About twelve hours after the polls closed, Lorenzo called Cochran, requesting information on the Hialeah vote-fraud case. Former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, whom Carollo had hired to look into the affair, then offered Cochran $2000 to work on the case. Retired FBI agents average about $100 per hour for private detective work, yet Cochran took on the job. He felt it was his civic duty.

Cochran joined a team of lawyers who were examining absentee ballots at the elections office. They were finding irregularities. A woman named Lili Arce witnessed 25 votes, far more than usual. Eighteen people with no apparent relation to each other listed the same single-family house in Little Havana as their home address. Signatures on some ballots did not seem to match those on file at the elections office. The discoveries were interesting, but not nearly enough to overturn the election. On the Sunday following the election, Cochran joined about ten lawyers and campaign workers at the home of attorney Carlos Desias to discuss the findings. Carollo and Coffey were absent. The group divided into three teams to talk to thirty-six voters whose ballots appeared suspicious. It was a fruitful endeavor. One-quarter of them reported problems. Some said they had never voted. Others asserted they had not ordered ballots, yet the documents appeared in their mailboxes.

Carollo and his lieutenants decided to continue the court challenge. "Coffey said there was no more money," Cochran recalls. "I said I would donate as much time as needed."

The Herald had already reported some clear signs of election malfeasance, like the fact that a dead voter named Manuel Yip had cast a ballot in the election. But the method and magnitude of the problem was still unclear. It fell upon Cochran to prove that at least 100 ballots -- the amount necessary to nullify the election -- were fraudulent. He had three months before the assigned trial date. About fifteen volunteers went to work. "Hugh [Cochran] was the chief of staff for the investigation," Carollo recalls.

Cochran began the inquiry by creating a database of all voters who had cast absentee ballots. Then he compared the names to a list of all the county's registered voters and found a trend. Many had changed their addresses from locations outside Miami to listings within the municipality. The majority listed addresses in the district of City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. Cochran found more than 900 suspicious ballots. He whittled that number to 300 by focusing on ones with multiple problems.

Next Cochran sent volunteers to the dubious addresses. "Did you vote absentee?" they asked the resident. "Did you request the ballot yourself?" "Were you paid for your vote?" If the purported voter did not live at the address listed on the ballot, they set out to locate the true residence. Cochran says he spent eight weeks working long days to collect the evidence. He analyzed it first on a computer at Carollo's house, then on his home machine. Meanwhile handwriting expert Linda Hart identified 50 fake signatures. By the time of the trial, the vote-fraud team had uncovered 150 undeniably faked ballots. "It was the most important investigation I have ever worked on, including my work in the FBI," Cochran comments. "That investigation had the biggest impact on the largest number of people."

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."

And Cochran believes his work has a positive effect, most of the time. "If by virtue of my involvement in the political process we are able to make things better, I don't mind being used to further political careers," Cochran explains. "I only work for one candidate at a time. And I have rarely worked for a candidate who I felt should not ascend to office."

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