Justice, One Page at a Time

Don't hold your breath waiting for Miriam Alonso's criminal trial

It's been nearly two years since ex-Miami-Dade Commissioner Miriam Alonso was arrested by police, which prompted Gov. Jeb Bush to boot her from office amid a cloud of scandal. And yet the intervening 21 months have not resulted in a trial date for the former powerhouse politician and her husband, who are accused of creating an illegal slush fund from campaign contributions, then devising a scheme to launder the cash.

Instead the case has slipped into a curious legal limbo as the Alonsos' defense attorney, prosecutors, and a judge have been forced to painstakingly examine every page in roughly 80 boxes of documents police seized as evidence but which the Alonsos claim is material protected by attorney-client privilege.

The case against the Alonsos stems from a 1999 grassroots petition drive to recall the commissioner because residents in northwest Miami-Dade believed she was working to place a solid-waste landfill in their neighborhood. That effort prompted Alonso to create a political-action committee that would raise money to defeat the recall. The petition drive died shortly after it began, but the funds to fight it only grew, according to authorities. In early 2001 police received a tip that Alonso had continued to accept contributions and that this money had become a personal piggy bank.

In April 2002, after a lengthy investigation, police arrested Alonso, her husband and campaign treasurer Leonel, and her chief of staff Elba Morales. The case was a work in progress; authorities charged the defendants twice in the spring of 2002. And it still wasn't over.

By August Morales agreed to cooperate with police and prosecutors in exchange for leniency. Flipping Morales was a major coup for authorities. After debriefing her, they learned specifics of the plan to launder the money by having cronies cash checks for nonexistent campaign work and then return the cash to Alonso. They also learned the location of allegedly forged documents and fake receipts.

On August 9, 2002, four months after the arrest, the State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department sought a warrant to search the Alonsos' home and seize "accounts, ledgers, logs showing the nature or purpose of campaign expenditures, fundraising, checks, checkbooks, check ledgers, notes, receipts, invoices, bills, United States currency, and any other documents." This would lead to a third set of charges against the Alonsos, and unwittingly cause the delay.

Even as police approached the two-story home at 13167 NW Seventh St., the Alonsos' attorney, José Quiñon, was on the phone, frantically warning everyone involved that the materials police were confiscating had been compiled by his clients at his direction and thus were protected under attorney-client privilege. Aware that mishandling evidence could cost them the case, police and prosecutors agreed to seal the boxes and send them to the court clerk's office for safekeeping until the matter was sorted out.

The matter is still being sorted out. It's called a "taint hearing." Two prosecutors who are not involved in the case have been assigned to sit with Judge Kevin Emas and Quiñon a couple of days each month to make their way through every sheet of paper in the boxes to determine if it's covered under attorney-client privilege. Those prosecutors, Fred Kerstein and Christine Zahralban, are not allowed to discuss any aspect of the process with the prosecutors handling the case: Joe Centorino, head of the public-corruption unit, and Howard Rosen. "It's been a long and laborious process, and we're anxious to move forward," Centorino says. But he doesn't know when that will be because he doesn't know how many boxes remain to be examined. And he can't ask.

Quiñon has more to say about the situation. The taint hearings are "unique and disturbing," he asserts, because they came after his clients had been arrested, and after they'd received some discovery from the state -- a list of witnesses and other evidence to be used against them at trial. The search was conducted while Quiñon and the Alonsos were plotting their defense based on that information. "What they did when they executed that search warrant was to take away all those documents that had been carefully prepared in order to rebut the allegations against them," Quiñon says. "In my opinion this is an outrageous abuse of the process, and that is why we have to undergo this laborious and tedious procedure. They have really gone out of their way to prevent her from defending herself, and I'm going to request a dismissal because of this outrageous governmental abuse." The warrant, he adds, wasn't necessary because it didn't contain any new allegations: "They had already made allegations that some documents were forged."

But apparently those original allegations didn't provide sufficient probable cause, including specifics of the documents' location, to justify a police search of her home. That changed when Morales flipped.

"We became aware of certain facts we weren't aware of at the time of the arrest," Rosen says. "We presented those facts to a neutral judge, who determined that there was probable cause. Of course we're very sensitive to the rights and privileges of the accused, and for that reason we were very circumspect in obtaining these documents. We didn't rummage through the boxes." (Emas was not the judge who approved the search warrant.)

In fact the Alonsos themselves may have been responsible for the police search and subsequent taint hearings. Authorities subpoenaed all campaign-related documents in February 2002, during their investigation but long before any arrests. In the affidavit supporting the search warrant, signed by Antonio Rodriguez, a detective with the Miami-Dade Police Department's public-corruption unit, Morales said she met with Quiñon and the Alonsos. "At that meeting, José Quiñon told Miriam Alonso that she should turn over all documents requested by the subpoena. According to Elba Morales, at the meeting Miriam Alonso stated that she would not turn over all of the documents requested by the subpoena." A police audit of requested material "revealed that some of the documents in question were not produced and are still missing," the affidavit stated. If it's true Miriam Alonso didn't turn over everything she was obligated to, then she has no one to blame but herself.

When the taint hearings conclude and Judge Emas rules on what documents are protected under attorney-client privilege, a trial could still be months away. Both sides are entitled to appeal Emas's decision, which is likely. Conventional wisdom holds that delays in a criminal case benefit the defense: Witnesses forget things or move away; evidence disappears. But in the case against Miriam Alonso, prosecutors are hoping for the opposite -- that the delay will result in a trove of new evidence to be used against the former commissioner.

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