By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
With a crocodile's calm grin, Ricardo Corona rises from his chair near the end of a long table of coiffed women and conservatively suited men, grabs a microphone, and tells a roomful of college students why they should elect him a Florida circuit court judge. "I was mainly in business before law school," says Corona, who could pass for an ex-football player with his shaved head and tan suit hanging from linebacker-wide shoulders. "I was a banker for 15 years. My last position was actually as director and executive vice president."
It's the truth.
Also true: Corona's leadership at his family's Sunshine State Bank earned him a lifetime ban from the banking industry thanks to millions of dollars in shady loans and startup money from a drug smuggler.
And yes, he wants to enforce the law.
The two dozen students scattered around a meat-locker frigid Miami Dade College auditorium politely applaud his two-minute pitch, which ends with typical lawyerly understatement: "I've had a long and winding road to this position up here in front of you."
Corona's race against former court staffer Abby Cynamon — pitting a disgraced banker against a foster-care product who's now rich enough to pour $300,000 of her own cash into campaigning — highlights the criminal, the questionable, and the fascinating that for decades has made Miami courtrooms the nation's weirdest.
State judges in Florida — as in 38 other states — are elected, which means they have to run campaigns to get their jobs. It usually takes tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to win a judgeship, and that often comes from lawyers whom the winner will later see in court.
South Florida's judiciary has faced a tsunami of corruption since the Nineties, when a mostly federal raid called Operation Court Broom swept up three judges and six lawyers in a corruption sting. There was Dade County Judge Harvey Shenberg, who took $50,000 to hand over the name of an alleged drug snitch. And Circuit Judge David Goodhart, who served time for playing bagman and accepting a $25,000 bribe. And how about Circuit Judge Alfonso Sepe, who snatched up $150,000 from undercover feds to fix cases? Sepe's case, the last wrapped up in the sting, concluded eight years ago.
More recently in Broward, several judges have been busted for keeping their own divorces secret, karate-kicking drivers in acts of road rage, and — our favorite — smoking pot in a Hollywood drug-free zone.
So when Ricardo Corona dragged his impressive family baggage up to that long folding table full of judicial candidates, he trudged a well-worn path.
Corona's tale is a uniquely Miami mix of drug money and liberal banking practices that made South Florida the Wild West of the financial world in the Eighties. His family emigrated from Cuba in 1960, and his brother Ray and father Rafael worked in small banks here until Ray befriended Jose Antonio Fernandez, a low-level marijuana smuggler whose profits soon began to soar.
In 1977, Fernandez handed Ray $500,000 in cash, directed him to Alma Robles, a member of an influential Panamanian family, and told him to use Robles as a figurehead to buy Sunshine State Bank. Ray was named president of the drug smuggler's new bank; dad Rafael was made chairman of the board. As Fernandez's drug business peaked, bringing in 1.3 million pounds of pot to the States between '76 and '81 and putting $5 to $7 million in his wallet, Ray, a former Golden Gloves boxer, took to living like a kingpin — driving a Rolls Royce, buying luxury boats and mink coats, waving his gun around nightclubs.
Ricardo stayed behind the scenes at his family's bank until 1984, when he took over after his brother and father were indicted for racketeering and fraud. Two years later, the FDIC banned all three from banking, calling them the "principal cause of the bank's distressed financial condition." An independent audit found loans to be worth almost six times the bank's equity.
Corona moved onto (where else?) law school, graduating from the University of Miami in 1996. He's had no disciplinary record since joining the bar. He focuses on (what else?) business litigation and lists "banking" as one of his areas of expertise on the Florida Bar Association's website. "I've learned a lot," he recently told the Daily Business Review. "I've learned a lot about what makes a good judge."
At Miami Dade College, a few minutes after Corona finishes touting that "banking experience," a student strides to a podium and pounces on the night's most compelling question: "How the heck do you all not let thousands of dollars in campaign contributions affect your decisions on the bench?"
A few weak chuckles drift from the candidates' table. One prospective jurist wistfully shakes his head. Alas, only three of the 17 candidates — who've put together $1.9 million among them in contributions and loans — get a chance to tackle the truth bomb.
Abby Cynamon is not one of them, but she certainly has enough fundraising experience to speak to the issue. An avid rower with wavy brown hair brushing her shoulders, Cynamon lived through the early death of her mother, a childhood in the foster-care system, and a gruesome injury when a cab snapped her shin in half a few weeks before she was to begin law school.
Like Corona, she's the child of immigrants — from Eastern Europe via Palestine. But there they diverge. Cynamon was born in New York in 1960, her parents divorced 10 years later, and then her mother died of breast cancer. After living in a Connecticut foster home, she earned scholarships to Barnard College and the University of Miami School of Law, and then spent 15 years researching legal decisions for circuit court judges.
Cynamon has loaned her campaign three times more than any other candidate and has raised as much as any other nonincumbent. She's been gathering contributions since early 2007 and has pulled in more than $69,000 from hundreds of donors, including dozens of lawyers and law firms such as Richard Baron & Associates, Mandel & Mandel, and Damian & Valori. (Corona also has plenty of lawyers among his $12,500 in donations, including Mark Kamilar and Bolivar C. Porta.)
Then there's the $300,000 in loans to Cynamon's campaign, which she says she can afford. Pumping in her own wealth — she lives in a $1 million home on Normandy Isle — is just part of running, she says. "How can I ask all these people to invest in my campaign if I'm not willing to make that investment myself?" she asks.
Most of the money has gone to consultants and advertising. She recently paid for television ads touting her experience behind the scenes in circuit court and her lengthy list of endorsements.
Why would she spend so much in a quest for a $145,080-per-year job? "I think you make the most of the system you have," she says. "And I believe I'd make a real difference [on] the bench. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time."
Tony Alfieri, director of the University of Miami School of Law's Center for Ethics and Public Service, is skeptical of such substantial money in races for judge. Lawyers will almost certainly expect something for their cash — even if Florida law explicitly makes such contributions legal and allows judges to oversee cases involving the same lawyers who donate. "The over-reliance on campaign finances is certainly troubling," Alfieri says. "One would hope that judicial campaigns would aim higher in ethics and integrity than ordinary political campaigns."
The good news for voters: It's no longer Corona dishing out loans.