Big Wheel Keep on Turnin'

Carload by carload they come, judges and politicians and attorneys and cops, some enthusiastically, others ambivalently, to toast a man who just a week earlier was the most powerful law enforcement official in South Florida but is now an unemployed lawyer most famous for an alleged taste for nude dancers. And so they step from their vehicles beneath the blue awning of Monty's Bayshore and climb the stairs, past the two perplexed-looking mannequins decorating a player piano that plinks out schmaltzy oldies, and into a private banquet room for the "Farewell Party" for Kendall Coffey, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Everyone seems oblivious to the fact that the gathering is taking place at a restaurant named for and formerly owned by a convicted felon: confessed tax evader/restaurateur Monty Trainer, who was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1989. Perhaps 300 guests, reflecting a cross-section of Coffey's life of legal and political activity, have turned out to bid him adieu. Democratic Party stalwarts Joe Geller and Benedict Kuehne are here, as are activists from Friends of the Everglades, for which Coffey did pro bono work when he was last in the private sector. Four U.S. District Court judges A James Lawrence King, Edward B. Davis, K. Michael Moore, and Ursula Ungaro-Benages A rub shoulders with DEA and FBI honchos. Several top-ranking cops show up, including the police chiefs of Miami, West Miami, and Miami Beach. So does Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo. Scores of assistant U.S. attorneys have turned out in force to see off their former boss. Rounding out the party are Coffey's family, including his wife, daughter, brother, and parents.

Door charge is fifteen dollars a head A ten dollars for U.S. Attorney's Office support staff A for the pleasure of the festivities and plentiful hors d'oeuvres. (The bar, though, is cash.) The gathering has the air of fleeting merriment that characterizes any corporate going-away party: the reminiscing, the gossiping, the alcohol-lubricated congeniality, the bittersweetness of a colleague's departure. But that is superficial. Amid all the banter and revelry here the loudest conversation is the unspoken one, bawdy and unsettling beneath the cheery clink of glasses and the patter of plastic cutlery on paper plates.

On May 17, the 43-year-old Coffey tendered his resignation as U.S. Attorney in the face of a Department of Justice (D.O.J) investigation into rumors that he got drunk one February night, visited a nudie bar on South Dixie Highway, and bit a stripper during a private dance. "This is surreal," whispers one assistant U.S. attorney, beholding the social gymnastics. "It's like nothing ever happened."

The room quiets. A dozen or so people stand up one after another to toast, and gently roast, Coffey. They commend him on his quick study in office (he came to the job in October 1993 with only a civil law background). They speak to his intelligent law-enforcement initiatives and successful prosecutions (but don't mention the recent high-profile acquittals of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and accused drug traffickers Willy Falc centsn and Sal Magluta). They praise his leadership. "He became a warrior," gushes Lee Stapleton, Coffey's chief assistant U.S. attorney. "He gave us dignity." Then she slips in a friendly dig that his ratty briefcase was "one step above a Publix bag." Coffey is presented with various mementos, including a U.S. Attorney's Office seal framed and signed by all his assistants.

Then it's his turn. "Well, if I'd known you were going to be that nice I'd of left a couple of years ago," Coffey begins. "I can't tell you how much there is in my heart for you in terms of appreciation." The job, he says, was "a dream come true. Keep dreaming the big dream in your own lives."

A banjo appears in Coffey's hands. "It's my last chance to subject you to a song," the attorney announces. "It's not going to be good, but it's going to be short."

The first few chords are instantly recognizable as the opening of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1969 hit "Proud Mary." In a thin twang barely reminiscent of John Fogerty, Coffey sings: "Left a good job in the city/Representing banks and gettin' real good pay/But I never saw the best side of the city/Till I joined the Southern Court of the D.O.J."

Two back-up vocalists -- both assistant U.S. attorneys -- clumsily chime in at the refrain: "We're throwin', throwin', throwin' crooks in prison."

Coffey hacks his way through a few more humorous choruses, and on his final chord the room explodes in applause.

Judge Davis, standing in the back of the room, takes a swig of his lime-bedecked cocktail and smiles impishly. "I'm not worried about him," the judge remarks to his fellow jurists. "He'll get a job." Perhaps, Davis suggests, Coffey should try South Beach.


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