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.

Rundle has another term for the disgraced politician: She calls him the union's “moneyman.” No matter what criticism Rivera levels against Rundle, the origins of his feud are clear, she says: “It's a smoke screen. It all goes back to Kaplan.” The irony that Rivera now criticizes her public-corruption record is not lost on her.

Rivera, a sergeant with the Miami-Dade Police Department, is a political fighter. He has launched his union into pitched battles in Hialeah, where Mayor Raul Martinez won re-election despite PBA opposition, and in South Miami, where police support was crucial to electing Mayor Julio Robaina. Rivera's constant attacks also helped oust former county Department of Corrections head Donald Manning.

His tactics are bruising, his offensives constant. He lambastes those he deems foes in the monthly PBA newspaper the Heat. And this year his favorite target has been Rundle. “Kathy Fernandez Rundle touts her “war' on public corruption though it is nonexistent,” read one recent headline. While Janet Reno's relationship with the PBA was rocky at times, she never faced the kind of organized resistance Rundle is experiencing.

Rundle (right) is working harder than she should have to in this campaign
Steve Satterwhite
Rundle (right) is working harder than she should have to in this campaign

“Our officers are out there risking their lives daily, making more arrests each year. They're doing their part fighting crime,” Rivera fumes. “And every year the State Attorney's Office has been dropping more and more cases. And public corruption is a joke. If public officials are stealing millions and millions of dollars each year, it hurts our ability to collectively bargain. It's very insulting to us.”

In fact over the past twelve months Rundle's office has maintained a relatively constant “no action” rate. From September 1999 to August 2000, the State Attorney's Office either dismissed or withdrew charges in 12,701 felony cases out of 39,874, about 30 percent, a figure that's remained stable over the past ten years. (The greatest factor contributing to that is the failure of witnesses and victims to appear in court, a phenomenon Rundle believes may be more pronounced here because of the number of tourists and illegal immigrants in Miami-Dade.) By comparison Broward, the next busiest State Attorney's Office in the state, had a nineteen percent no-action rate in 1999, the only year numbers were available. That office, though, handles far fewer felony cases, 22,245 last year.

As summer rolled around there was no higher priority for Rivera than unseating Rundle. “We were looking [for an opponent], no ifs, ands, or buts,” Rivera recalls. He approached a few people but couldn't get a taker. Then he read a story in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel about a veteran prosecutor being reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court for slugging a defense attorney. This past October Milian punched Ty Terrel in the face after disagreements over jury selection in a criminal case. Milian says Terrel elbowed him in an elevator first. A juror saw the fracas, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial. “I probably crossed the line,” Milian allows, “but I don't make apologies for the fact that I'm a fighter. I fight for the victims of these crimes.”

That kind of talk excited Rivera. “I saw passion,” he recalls. “I saw a guy who cared more about victims' rights than a criminal's freedom. All the stuff we've been lacking around here for years. So I contacted a friend and said, “You know what we need? We need someone like that Broward prosecutor to run for State Attorney down here.'” His friend, whom Rivera declines to identify, called back a few days later and told him: “You've got your guy.”

“It's true if he hadn't had that brawl, we wouldn't have heard about him,” Rivera muses. “The fact that he hit a defense attorney -- do we condone it? No. But why did he do it? He cared about his job. And that's what we need around here.”

Rivera has gone to great lengths to portray Rundle as soft on crime. In Milian he found what he considers her polar opposite. Rundle, a Democrat, is less overtly hawkish. Milian, a Republican, is a proud member of the National Rifle Association. “I'm pro-gun to the end,” he told the Broward-Palm Beach New Times last year.

The 39-year-old military man is happy to cast himself as the anti-Rundle. While she touts her legislative record, her budget accomplishments, and her management skills, Milian responds simply: “I think the public is ready to elect a prosecutor, not an administrator or a politician.”

His supporters hope his background will play well on Calle Ocho. His father, Emilio Milian, is a well-known Cuban-exile journalist who lost both legs in a Miami car bombing in 1976, after repeatedly denouncing violence during his radio shows. (Emilio Milian has been the subject of two New Times cover stories: “The End of the Silent Years,” February 1, 1989; and “Breach of Faith,” November 16, 1995.)

Such brutality framed the candidate's emerging world view. “We were in police protective custody for two years, and perhaps that's one of the reasons I feel very close to law enforcement,” Milian says. Following high school he joined the army and then studied at Miami-Dade Community College and Florida International University, after which he went to law school at Florida State University. As a second lieutenant in the army reserves, he saw combat in Panama and the Gulf War. He's been a prosecutor with the Broward State Attorney's Office since 1988 and boasts an 80 percent conviction rate in 300 jury trials.

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