By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
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By Michael E. Miller
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In early January employees of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office found a plain white envelope in their mailboxes. No return address. Inside was something that looked like a newsletter, amateurishly produced and printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper. It bore the name SAO underground. Employees immediately understood that SAO stood for State Attorney's Office, but the newsletter's creator was not so apparent.
Obviously it wasn't something produced by the State Attorney herself, Katherine Fernandez Rundle -- that much was clear from the goofy photos of a cackling Rundle that ran across the newsletter's masthead. Moreover a quick scan of the content, divided into five unsigned articles, revealed a sharply critical tone aimed directly at Rundle. One of them was headlined "Celebrity Treatment: Driving Ms. Rundle," and purported to expose the State Attorney's use of a chauffeur to "avoid being observed, or even worse, caught behind the wheel inebriated." Another short piece took a shot at Joe Centorino, the veteran assistant state attorney in charge of the public-corruption unit.
Between late January and early April two more editions of SAO undergroundwere delivered to employees, each equally venomous in its attacks on Rundle and Centorino, and each written anonymously but supposedly by someone within the State Attorney's Office. While no one has taken credit for the newsletter, Rundle and others in her office believe they know who's behind it. They point to clues such as the mangled grammar and syntax, the frequent references to a particular police labor union, and a few telltale misspellings. Their prime suspect: John Rivera, president of the 6000-member Police Benevolent Association (PBA).
For several years Rivera and the PBA have noisily argued that Rundle, a Democrat, is too soft on public corruption and too hard on cops accused of wrongdoing. The enmity peaked in the fall of 2000, when Rundle's re-election bid was challenged by a PBA-sponsored Republican candidate. Rundle won, but her opponent made a strong showing with 44 percent of the vote.
The soapbox of choice for Rivera has been the PBA's own newsletter, Heat, whose caustic tone toward the State Attorney's Office bears an uncanny resemblance to SAO underground. But the similarities don't end there, a fact openly acknowledged in the second edition of SAO underground. "While many of us do concur with the PBA's concerns," reads the lead article, "we are trying to be careful not to turn this newsletter into another Heat."
They may not have tried hard enough. Joe Centorino's name was misspelled in two editions of SAO underground -- precisely the same misspelling committed by Rivera in a Heat article from last year. "Both newsletters spell Joe's last name C-e-n-t-u-r-i-n-o," says one prosecutor. "It has the PBA written all over it."
Not surprisingly Rivera, a sergeant with the Miami-Dade Police Department, denies that he or anyone else from the PBA penned SAO underground. "I'm proud about openly criticizing her," Rivera boasts, referring to Rundle. "Why would I do it anonymously?"
More important to Rivera is the mere existence of SAO underground. He sees it as validation of his relentless critique of Rundle. In fact if you believe him, morale is so low at the State Attorney's Office that employees ranging from secretaries to investigators to front-line prosecutors are clamoring to join a union. "There is a huge amount of discontent in her office," he asserts.
In addition to the newsletter's appearance, Rivera offers other evidence of discontent. This past April, he says, seven investigators from the SAO approached his union seeking representation. (Rundle employs seventeen investigators.) According to one of those investigators (who requested anonymity), the State Attorney's Office is a malignant agency where grunts are exploited and "Rundle socialites" are rewarded. The situation is so bad, he reports, that three of the original seven who went to the PBA have since resigned.
Rivera says it's not just investigators who are turning to unions for help. He claims he's also been contacted by an unspecified number of the 200-plus assistant state attorneys working for Rundle. "They're not just reaching out to us," he says. "Some of the prosecutors have also been in touch with the [Fraternal Order of Police]."
Actually it's the other way around. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which represents City of Miami police officers, decided this might be an opportune time to take the initiative, so over the past several weeks the union has mailed "interest cards" to Rundle's prosecutors. (The cards are used by labor unions to ascertain interest in collective bargaining at a specific workplace.) Al Cotera, head of the FOP, says the response thus far has not been dramatic; he's received only about a dozen positive responses from the prosecutors. He'd need signatures from 30 percent of them in order to petition the state's Public Employees Relations Commission for permission to allow all prosecutors the chance to vote for or against unionization. "I'm concerned that the assistant state attorneys will be hesitant to unionize on the first go-around," Cotera says. "It may take two or three go-arounds before we generate interest."
Efforts to independently gauge that interest could prove to be difficult. The FOP was unable to persuade any of the pro-union prosecutors to be interviewed. But two assistant state attorneys who did not respond to the FOP say support for a union is mixed at best. "I just don't see how joining the PBA or the FOP is going to help us considering their rocky relationship with our boss," observes one of the prosecutors. The other acknowledges that a few colleagues have been grumbling about low pay and no raises over the past three years: "There are some people who are frustrated, and they have expressed an interest in forming a collective-bargaining unit, but it's hard to say if there is a groundswell to go union."