Friendly Fire

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle should have coasted to election victory. Instead she's dodging bullets from the police unions in the political fight of her life.

Humbertico, as he was affectionately known by his Little Havana constituents, was snared during the apogee of public corruption in Miami-Dade County: the 1997 Miami mayoral race. Rundle's office ended up prosecuting 65 people for voter fraud, including Hernandez. Federal authorities, however, already had charged Hernandez in a separate bank-fraud scheme, stealing the State Attorney's thunder. “Bert Hernandez is in federal prison because of the U.S. Attorney's Office,” John Rivera points out. “Rundle got some misdemeanor vote-fraud conviction against him.”

Novicki strongly defends her prosecutors' work: “Excuse me? I think we tried and convicted him first, and then the feds pled him. And as I understand it, his conviction in state court helped facilitate the federal plea.”

But when the issue is public corruption, it's not so much who is prosecuted as who isn't. Rundle didn't hesitate to step in when it appeared former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez was trying to usurp the city manager's authority and fire police Chief Warshaw back in 1997. Her office filed a violation-of-city-charter charge against him, which Suarez settled by agreeing to stop his interference. But two years later when Warshaw, now as city manager, alleged that Miami Mayor Joe Carollo was violating the charter by ordering him to fire police Chief William O'Brien following the Elian Gonzalez raid, Rundle didn't get involved.

The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera
Steve Satterwhite
The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera
The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera
Steve Satterwhite
The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera

Warshaw didn't fire O'Brien, so Carollo fired Warshaw, claiming a rationale unrelated to Elian. Warshaw sued. Rundle then attempted to mediate the civil dispute. When that didn't work she simply dropped the whole thing.

For months before the mediation, Warshaw had been under suspicion for allegedly embezzling money from the police charity known as Do the Right Thing. Rundle steered clear of the case and left the investigation to federal agencies. “I have to “conflict off' any criminal investigations, because I have a professional relationship with the manager....,” she had told reporters earlier, noting that Warshaw had supported her earlier campaigns.

Scoffs Milian: “If I were a crook, I'd want her as the State Attorney also. Here's an example of the corruption and embezzlement from a pension fund and charity, and when the allegation first surfaces, the State Attorney ignores them. And when [Warshaw is] fired, the State Attorney tries to mediate. And when mediation fails, she recuses herself because he's a campaign contributor. I don't know of any prosecutor who's ever been called to the scene of a crime to mediate between a criminal and an accuser.”

“It was never a state case,” Rundle counters. “The IRS was involved, as well as federal programs. It was a federal case. I think the FBI did a superb job investigating that case.”

According to figures compiled by the PBA from the governor's legal office, Rundle's administration leads the state in “new executive assignments,” matters the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office asked to have assigned elsewhere because of conflicts of interest. Rundle's camp notes that the number of recusals is high because her office is the busiest in the state. (Rundle recused her office 38 times last year. Next highest was Palm Beach County, with 31. But Miami-Dade handled twice as many cases as Palm Beach.)

This may be a no-win situation for Rundle. She's criticized for handing off cases -- many of them public-corruption cases -- in which she has some conflict of interest. But imagine the criticism if she didn't hand off those cases. “The public-corruption issue is a complete red herring,” says Bruce Udolf, who was chief of the local U.S. Attorney's public-corruption unit for five years and is now a private attorney in Broward County. “It's just not a fair characterization to say they don't do enough. If you look at most state prosecutor's offices around the country, very little of their resources are used to address public corruption. It's an area traditionally dominated by federal authorities. The resources are just not available at the state level to the extent they are at the federal level.

“Corruption investigations are very difficult, requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars in resources and sometimes years of investigation. Most local offices can't justify that kind of expenditure. Look at Broward -- you rarely see corruption cases handled at the state level. And the political implications of having one elected official investigate another make it very difficult. Miami-Dade County is unique in that it probably prosecutes more corruption cases than any county in the country. And [the SAO] do an exceptional number of those cases in conjunction with the Department of Justice.”

One other factor complicates the subject, especially in politically charged Miami-Dade. “When you start to be aggressive in areas of public corruption, that's when you make enemies,” Rundle notes wearily.

She knows whereof she speaks. In fact most of her current problems can be traced to a public-corruption case. In 1997 her staff investigated Bruce Kaplan, a county commissioner at the time, for mortgage fraud. In an April 1998 agreement with prosecutors, Kaplan pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of filing false financial disclosure forms and agreed to resign from office and not run again.

Throughout the lengthy investigation, Kaplan's biggest supporter was the PBA's John Rivera. The union boss publicly excoriated Rundle and prosecutor Joe Centorino, head of the public-corruption unit. Kaplan had been a major benefactor of the county police department during his tenure. Even after Kaplan's resignation, Rivera called him law enforcement's “best friend.”

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