Belly Away From the Bar

Perhaps more than any other Metro politician, County Commissioner James Burke could probably use the new year's restorative psychological boost. True, he won re-election this past fall after running unopposed, but that victory was overcast by the gloom of political and personal miseries.

During the summer, a New Times investigation revealed that Burke apparently misused his own re-election campaign funds. Among other unusual expenditures, he donated thousands of campaign dollars to his church and also used campaign money to purchase a car in his daughter's name. Florida Elections Commission (FEC) officials won't say whether they are looking into any alleged improprieties, but the commissioner confirms that an investigation has been under way since summer. (Burke's travails were the subject of two New Times articles -- "Burke's Law" on August 11, and "Burke Besieged," the paper's September 15 cover story.)

Burke also had to contend with a U.S. Attorney's Office probe into bizarre allegations by former political opponent Roy Hardemon, who told authorities that he was physically threatened and offered a bribe to remain out of the District 2 race. Federal sources say the U.S. Attorney's Office has dropped the investigation.

This past fall, in another blow to his image, Burke came under fire for his cozy relationship with a bond firm that helped pay for a trip he took to a conference in California. Five days after the conference, Burke insisted on including the firm in a $452 million county bond issue.

The most recent setback occurred in November when Burke, who is an attorney, was compelled to drop his nine-month-old petition for reinstatement to the Florida Bar. The Bar had suspended him in 1991 A for the second time in his career A after the Florida Supreme Court criticized his handling of a $150,000 settlement in a wrongful-death case.

According to Florida Bar records, Burke's bid to resume his legal practice was marked by disorganization and inattention to detail. He was repeatedly tardy or incomplete in his responses to the Bar's requests for information; at one hearing regarding a motion in the case, neither he nor his personal attorney showed up. (The attorney, Jorge Sosa, later complained to the judge that he was abroad on vacation at the time of the hearing.)

Burke subsequently hired co-counsel from the prominent local law firm of Adorno & Zeder, and on October 26 asked for a 180-day extension to complete the petition-application process, which had been scheduled for completion almost two months earlier, on September 6. There were mitigating circumstances, the commissioner pleaded in his request. Along with "legislative commitments," he cited a personal life in shambles. "Petitioner suffered personal dislocation during such period due to a separation and subsequent divorce from his spouse," his motion read. "For example, Petitioner was forced to abandon the marital abode and reside with friends and 'extended family' members in his Commission District until he was able to stabilize his personal affairs."

Finally, Burke requested that the Bar wait until the FEC concludes its investigation into what he deemed "unsubstantiated and scandalous charges of alleged campaign law violations." Noting that the Bar was scrutinizing similar issues, he argued that the FEC was a more "appropriate forum" to decide whether the allegations had merit.

In a hard-nosed response, the Bar attorney handling the case asserted that Burke shouldn't have tried to get reinstated at such a difficult time in his life. "Certainly, a pending reinstatement proceeding should not be stayed for six months in order that a petitioner may attempt to get his house in order," wrote attorney Arlene Sankel.

Despite Burke's excuses, the Florida Supreme Court denied the request for more time.

On November 30, Burke withdrew his petition, but took advantage of the opportunity to lash out at the Florida Bar, stating that it "has assumed [the campaign-law] complaints to be true and correct.... Petitioner can no longer afford to defend himself in two separate and distinct forums against politically motivated and false allegations of wrongdoing," Burke continued, adding that if it weren't for the "prohibitive cost of fighting the same battle on two fronts," he wouldn't have dropped his bid.

Sankel retorted with similar defiance. Burke's decision was "clearly predicated upon potential problem areas for the petitioner," she wrote in response, and demanded that he reimburse the Bar for $3198.43 in expenses, including $2240.68 in investigators' costs incurred during the application process.

Burke wasn't about to let Sankel have the final word. This past week he filed yet another memo in the case, alleging that the Bar was "attempting to pepper the record in this matter with self-serving and jaded statements of supposed facts." Sankel, he went on, had "embarked on a duplicative, costly, and extra-jurisdictional investigation of such false and scandalous complaints...[and] attempted to characterize the actions of Petitioner and his counsel in a false light with a sensationalistic tone, presumably in an attempt to sully their reputation, cloud the facts and issues, and defeat the Petitioner's bid for reinstatement."

A judge has yet to rule on Burke's challenge to the Bar's demand for reimbursement.

The commissioner says his recent public beleaguerment has exacerbated a festering disenchantment with politics. In fact, he adds, this may be his last term in elected office. One reason: After more than a decade of time-consuming public service, he'd like to spend more time with his family. (Prior to being voted onto the commission in March 1993, Burke served for ten years in the state legislature.) "The other thing is that when I first ran for public office, there was a perception that we were really trying to do some good," Burke goes on, contrasting this impression with today's commonly held "negative image" of politics. "It's not what it used to be."

He adds that the recent media scrutiny of his travails, including the stories published in New Times, "just kind of fortified in my mind that no matter what kind of good you've been doing for so long, people find it easy to define you by mistakes that you've made or by negative coverage of mistakes."

He plans to make another stab at reinstatement to the Bar before the end of next year, by which time, he hopes, the FEC will have vindicated him. And as the new year dawns, he won't completely rule out a political future beyond 1998, when his commission term expires. "It's four years away," he notes. "And though I never say never, some things have to change for me to want to continue.


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