Nobody is having more fun at the Commissioner James Burke Labor Day Family Picnic than Commissioner James Burke himself. "Welcome!" he says to guests filing through the gates of Arcola Lakes Community Park, just north of Liberty City. "And oh boy, are you gonna have a good time today!" As a six-piece junkanoo band rattles into motion, Burke, his beefy frame squeezed into black jeans, a white T-shirt, and running shoes, leads the ensemble and a procession of Boy Scouts on a hip-swinging loop through the park.
Moments later he's on-stage, cordially playing host to the dozens of judicial, school board, and legislative candidates who have turned out wearing eponymously labeled T-shirts and armed with stacks of eponymously labeled flyers to schmooze a few extra votes before the September 8 election. But the commissioner really comes alive as he introduces the entertainment ("One of my favorites!"): Barney the Dinosaur and Baby Bop. Two actors bound into view dressed in the purple-and-green costumes of the popular children's cartoon characters. Burke leaps to the ground and leads a pack of small kids in a rush of the stage. His cellular phone wedged in a back pocket, he joins Barney and Baby Bop in choreographed renditions of songs from the cartoon show. The commissioner appears to know almost all the words.
On the face of it, these are good days for James Clarence Burke. He is chairman of the Metro Commission's finance committee, which oversees Dade's monetary affairs and its $2.3 billion budget. And he has a lock on his District 2 commission seat for another four-year term; his only foe dropped out of the race in late July. Still, the picnic frivolities belie the fact that the commissioner's life of late has been anything but a romp in the park.
In recent weeks, he has come under the scrutiny of state elections officials and the Florida Bar, not to mention the media. (An attorney, Burke was suspended from the Bar in 1991 and has applied for reinstatement.) The inquiries, in part, concern allegations that Burke misused his own campaign funds in the 1994 re-election race. Now it appears he may also be drawn into a federal investigation involving extraordinary allegations by his erstwhile District 2 opponent: Former candidate Roy Hardemon claims he was coerced off the slate by physical threat and was offered a bribe to remain out of the race.
The public beleaguerment of Burke is also a reflection of a personal life in shambles. Since taking office in the spring of 1993, as his marriage crumbled and his bank accounts hit a low ebb, the commissioner has become something of a nomad, moving between friends' homes and sleeping on couches around town.
"[Public officials] have private lives, too, and I think people forget that," Burke said several days before his Labor Day picnic, during a lengthy, wide-ranging interview held in the conference room of his new commission district headquarters on NE 125th Street in North Miami. After a few reschedulings, Burke had granted New Times two in-person interviews. The first was an hourlong session, to which the commissioner brought his chief aide, as well as a tape recorder. At the second, a three-hour interview held four days later, the tape recorder was again present but not the aide. A third, shorter conversation was held over the phone. Though his aides had said the long session would be conducted in the presence of an attorney and a political consultant, at the last moment Burke decided against the backup. "I'm probably like too many people who feel the guilty need lawyers," he explained.
Throughout the discussions, Burke was courteous and patient, if a little tense. Dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt for the first interview, and a pinstripe shirt with floral-print tie for the second, he sat straight up in his chair, his torso pressed snugly against the edge of the conference-room table. Behind him, along the walls, hung about 100 plaques, certificates, and awards given to Burke by community and church groups, universities, and governmental organizations. The commissioner's manner was noticeably absent of the righteous indignation that so often characterizes politicians who are under fire; not once did he raise his voice. But his answers were punctuated by heavy sighs, seeming gusts of pentup pressure and frustration. His speech, made muddy with the residual accent of his native Georgia, was characterized by an apparent habit of talking before thinking, a tendency to give a convoluted and grammatically clumsy response that stumbled far from the pending question.
"The worst thing that can happen is, well, if somebody says, 'You don't need to be in office,' and they take away this office," Burke said at one point, when asked about the possible outcome of the ongoing inquiries. "And let's say the Bar says, 'You don't need to be in the Bar, you don't need to be a lawyer...,'" he went on, his voice tinged with melancholy. "I can think of all the things that can be the worst negative, and I still am confident with who I am and what I can do."
That Burke seems to lack the hubris, the studied synthesis of formality and swagger one would expect of a 46-year-old politician inhabiting the blustery milieu of Dade County government, is particularly surprising, given that he's spent nearly all of the past twelve years in elected office. But then, it's safe to say he wasn't born with a sense of divine right to much.
He grew up in the town of Waycross in southeast Georgia. His father left home while Burke was still an infant; his mother "used to keep kids for a white family" but was mostly on welfare, Burke recalls. During the summers of his youth, he picked tobacco and cotton in the fields around Waycross. Though he was twice president of his high school class, his plans beyond graduation did not originally include academics. "Nobody in my family had ever gone to college," he says. "We had no idea, no dreams of it, nobody ever thought about it. In Waycross, if you were black, you either went into the armed forces or you went to work for the railroad-maintenance station. I'd assumed that would be what would happen to me." But in 1966, with the help of a school counselor who recognized the young man's promise, Burke secured a scholarship to attend Knoxville College, some 800 miles away in Tennessee, farther from home than he'd ever been.
After Knoxville Burke attended the University of Miami law school, graduating in 1973 alongside six other black students, including well-known Miami attorneys H.T. Smith and George Knox. He put his training to use at two community-based organizations that handled legal matters for poor clients and other nonprofit groups, and he served as president of the Miami branch of the NAACP from 1976 to 1978.
Burke had his first seductive taste of politics while working as an aide to the late state Rep. Gwen Cherry, whom he calls his first "political woman-tor" (as opposed to mentor). His initial bid for public office was an unsuccessful run for state house in 1978. After Cherry died in an auto accident the next year, he joined ten others vying for her empty seat, finishing third in a large pack behind Carrie Meek.
He wasn't through. On his third try, in 1982, Burke won a seat in the legislature, representing a district that covered a swath of north-central and northeast Dade. He retained the seat for five terms and counts among his greatest achievements two pieces of legislation he sponsored: the 1990 Civil Rights Act and the Martin Luther King Birthday Bill. Critics, however, say that considering the number of years he spent in office (ten) and the leverage he held (he served on various committees, chaired the House sub-committee on sales tax, and was speaker pro tempore from 1986 to 1988), Burke's accomplishments were minimal. "It seemed he wasn't that interested in getting bills passed," observes one legislative staffer who worked closely with Burke during his tenure. "He was riding, he wasn't driving."
When Carrie Meek entered Congress in 1992, Burke ran for her vacated Florida Senate seat but lost by 25 votes to then-Dade County School Board member William Turner. That same year, however, a federal court ordered Dade to elect its commissioners by single-member districts. Burke had been one of the plaintiffs in the 1986 voting-rights lawsuit that spurred the move. "I believed that it's something God ordained to happen that way, that the case was decided at just the time that I could run," he says of his candidacy for the brand-new District 2 seat. It was another squeaker, but this time Burke was victorious, defeating his main rival, Rev. Victor Curry, by 59 votes. He took office in April 1993.
Despite his legislative experience, Burke has not been a political dynamo on the fledgling commission. But neither has he been inert. He sponsored a countywide curfew for juveniles, applauded by many as a tough anticrime measure. And he spearheaded the drive to have Dade named a federal "empowerment zone," which would result in about $200 million in grants and tax breaks for the county. Both initiatives are up in the air: The curfew is tied up in court on an ACLU challenge, and the empowerment-zone effort is still pending and largely in the hands of the White House.
"Jimmy's one of the people that I as chairman can rely upon to frame an issue with a view toward keeping harmony and peace and moving the process further," comments Art Teele, chairman of the Metro Commission. "Frequently we get people so locked into their positions that they don't move off their point. Jimmy's skilled in the art of compromise."
Other sources closely connected to the commission commend Burke for working hard at his job and putting in long hours. Many of these same people, however, point out that his efforts are often undermined by his lack of rhetorical skill. "I've been frustrated as hell," exclaims a staffer who works for one of Burke's fellow commissioners. "He tends to go into speech patterns where he just rambles on until he's tired of hearing himself talk, and he fails to make a point."
His less-than-articulate presence on the commission notwithstanding, Burke compiled an admirable attendance record during his first year in office: Of 2044 commission votes, he missed a mere 206, fewer than any commissioner besides Dennis Moss. While he maintained this presence on the dais, though, his private life was anything but consistent.
He was suffering through a protracted separation from his wife, State Rep. Beryl Burke. The two had met in Tallahassee in the mid-1980s, when he was a legislator and she was a staff analyst for a House committee. At the time, by his own and others' admissions, Burke was something of a ladies' man. (Married four times, Burke has five children: one from his first marriage, two from his third, plus one born out of wedlock before he was married for the first time, and another from a relationship that followed his second marriage. He also has six grandchildren.) "Jimmy is a very likable individual," offers Art Teele, who was in private law practice in Tallahassee when he first met Burke. "He's not rude, he's not abusive, he's not vulgar. Women tend to gravitate to him. They trust him. And many feel he's the kind of guy they want to marry. Like with all too many of us, Jimmy's problems A the controversy A swirls around the private life. What else can a handsome, young, professional, single male have but controversy?"
Teele laughs, then goes on, making allusions but not being specific: "Even during his days in Tallahassee, there were controversies, and much of it has to do with a young female companion who may have felt rejected or otherwise hurt because he failed to give her the right amount of attention, which is a failing characteristic of many males. Jimmy's problems in Tallahassee were not in the Capitol, they were in the corridors, so to speak."
Burke says that his having thrice married and divorced by the time he entered the legislature at age 34 indicates he was simply taking full advantage of his untethered years. "I enjoyed life," he says of his first few years in the legislature. "I enjoyed the companionship of beautiful women and the stuff that when you're shy and growing up [you don't have], and it now comes to you. I probably did more than most folks have done. I enjoyed women's company and women tended to enjoy my company, because it wasn't threatening. It wasn't all sexual; we used to talk a lot."
Given his romantic peregrinations, Burke says, few saw any likelihood of a union between him and Beryl: "People were saying Beryl was a good Christian girl and [I was] into everything." But in 1987, he says, his lifestyle changed significantly, when he began to study the Scripture. He remembers the exact date and time of his marriage to Beryl A"1989, April 13th, 5:50 p.m.," he recites, rapping a fist on the conference table for emphasis, a smile spreading across his face at the bittersweetness of the memory.
While he will not go into detail about the turmoil that led to the relationship's demise, Burke asserts that politics doesn't always provide the most fertile ground for the growth of a marriage. The Burkes' three campaigns in 1992 and 1993 -- his failed 1992 Senate attempt and his successful 1993 commission run, and her victorious 1992 bid for the House -- were an additional strain. By the beginning of 1993, the commissioner recalls, the marriage had begun to fracture. "For a while it was easy not to deal with it," he admits. "She was in the legislature and I was here working on the campaign. But it kind of started looking like it was going to be a problem. We just became not what I wanted it to be."
Last summer, the commissioner says, he moved out of the rented apartment he shared with Beryl and began boarding with various friends. (Before the separation, the couple was by no means a picture of domestic rootedness: Burke has to rack his brain to remember exactly where he was living the night he won the commission election in April 1993. "That's when we were staying over at P.J.'s house," he says after a pause, referring to the home of a friend.)
"For a long period of time, most of my stuff was still there at Beryl's, then for a while I had it at [another] house, then I had it at my [third wife's mother's] house. I stayed with friends. There were occasions when I stayed in hotels. If you ask, 'How many places have I slept at least two nights?' There's a lot of them." A giggle of discomfort escapes through a skewed grin. Burke's official records -- voter-registration files, campaign forms, and Florida Bar documents -- partially reflect this drifting: He lists at least four different addresses since April of last year.
The last home address Burke gave election officials is the home of his close friend Donald Manning, a division director for the Metro-Dade Department of Corrections. He filed that change of address in July, when by his own account he was sharing the small duplex with Manning, Manning's wife, and the couple's three children, and sleeping on the sofa. Since late July, Burke says, he has moved twice more and now lives in his own apartment in North Miami.
"From a personal standpoint, I was more than at loose ends," he allows. "This is where my work helped me, because I could get involved with my work. Working at two in the morning, three in the morning -- that really didn't bother me. It's tough sometimes when you're talking to people and somebody says, 'So how're you doing?' You can't say, 'You know, I'm really not doing all right because, you know, it's tough today, Beryl didn't do this, I didn't do this, my daughter's having problems.' Folks don't want to hear this. They really look to you for some inspiration for their life."
As Burke's matrimonial comfort dissolved, so did his financial security. Instead of a modest legislative salary (about $22,000 plus a "district expense account" of about $18,000 annually), he was drawing a Metro commissioner's salary of $6000 per year.
In October 1993, he opened a consulting company, American Destiny, Inc., which he describes as "a firm that will give advice to private companies and even to governments, about the trends occurring, particularly in minority certification and procurement and employment. Also, American Destiny will represent private individuals and noncounty governments in attempting to get whatever kind of things they may want from other governments or from other private individuals."
If his explanation sounds vague, it would seem to be a perfect match for the company itself. American Destiny has no employees. Like its president, the firm has moved around, according to Burke: from an office next door to his old district headquarters in Liberty City to his former campaign headquarters in North Miami to a new space in the building that houses his current district office. Burke says he has some office furniture in the new location but no phone yet. American Destiny is not listed in either last year's or this year's phone directory.
The company's financial standing is equally murky. On his 1993 financial disclosure form, a document required annually of all elected officials, Burke failed to declare any income from American Destiny. (The commissioner says there wasn't any.) This year, he says, he expects the company to gross "somewhere along the lines of $120,000," of which he intends to pay himself a salary of "around $40,000." While he refuses to name his customers, he says he has about five clients, all corporations.
At the end of 1993, when he was "financially tight for funds," Burke began looking for sources of money to pay his personal expenses. He didn't have to look very far. As reported in New Times this past month ("Burke's Law," August 11), expenditures from the commissioner's 1994 re-election campaign account are the subject of an investigation by the Florida Elections Commission. (As of July, the account showed about $163,000 in contributions; Burke says the balance is now about $50,000.) While state officials will neither confirm nor deny the existence of the probe, Burke says he has received letters from the FEC notifying him of the investigation. Though the commissioner deems the allegations of impropriety unfounded, the August 11 New Times story revealed several unusual expenditures from his campaign account. Among those:
According to campaign records, Burke used $3980 of his campaign funds to pay "tithes" and "offerings" to his church, Bible Baptist Church at 9801 NW 27th Ave. Florida campaign-financing laws state that "contributions by candidates...to any religious, charitable, civic, or other causes or organizations established primarily for the public good are prohibited."
Burke argues that another part of the state law does permit his church offerings. He points to a section that allows a candidate to use campaign funds "to defray normal living expenses for himself or his family," and says his church offerings and tithes are part of his normal living expenses. He says the law wasdesigned to prevent candidates from traveling from church to church buying votes; he, on the other hand, gives only to one church. "When we do our response [to the FEC complaints], I'm going to cite Malachi and II Corinthians," he promises.
From November 1993 to this past March, Burke dipped into his campaign coffers to cover $1925 in child-support payments to his third wife, Marcia Burke. A lawyer for the Florida Department of State's Division of Elections says an opinion regarding child support as a "normal living expense" has not been issued in case law.
"We've moved to a point in our society where we realize that if you have the ability to pay [child support], then you should pay," Burke asserts. "It should be as normal as paying your rent. As a matter of fact, you probably have more obligation to pay your child support than your rent."
Campaign records show that in December, Burke spent $2769 to buy a car he says he used exclusively for campaigning. The man who sold Burke the car says it was purchased in the name of one of the commissioner's daughters.
Burke confirms that he indeed bought the car in the name of his daughter, Ebonie Mays, but only because he intended to give it to her, or sell it to her for a small charge "if it was in any kind of shape" after the election. Burke says both he and Mays used the car for campaign purposes. "She did primarily a lot of running around for me," he explains. "She was in college but she came home during the holidays and she would do some things." According to Burke's campaign records, his daughter was paid $1500 for campaign-related "clerical services."
Since publication of the August 11 story, New Times has discovered more odd spending patterns amid Burke's election records:
On several occasions Burke used campaign funds to pay his regular dues at the Kiwanis Club of North Miami, in apparent violation of the state statute forbidding contributions of campaign money to charitable and civic organizations.
The commissioner also allegedly used the funds to pay for consultancy work completed during a prior campaign. Elections Department records indicate that in November 1993, Burke paid $1000 to his half-brother Lawrence Cochran, who lives in Augusta, Georgia.
Cochran says the money was a "delayed payment" for demographic research he did in connection with Burke's 1992 run for state Senate. "I haven't worked with him that often," adds Cochran, a political pollster. "Why not? Let's just say it's a problem with money."
Burke says there was a dispute about what the consultant was owed for his work; Cochran felt he deserved more money. But the commissioner denies paying Cochran in 1993 for work done in 1992. He says he called on Cochran in the early stages of his 1994 commission campaign to interpret some of the demographic information Cochran had gathered earlier.
Burke's campaign records show that he made payments of $500 to his sister Denise Johnson and $300 to an old girlfriend, Sandra McPhaul, in November 1993. Both expenditures are noted as payments for "information accumulation for March affair."
When asked recently about what she was paid for, Johnson, who lives in Waycross, Georgia, said, "We did some advertising and talking and spreading the word," both in Georgia and in Miami. She could not remember what the "March affair" was. Reached by phone at her home in Savannah, Georgia, McPhaul was equally vague about her payment. "I can't recall exactly," said McPhaul, the mother of Burke's eldest daughter. "I did some research for him. Exactly what it all entailed, I can't remember."
Burke explains the vague responses by saying the women were just being protective of him. "I think both of them were concerned about who was calling," he says. The matter is simple, according to the commissioner: He had asked McPhaul and Johnson to search their family photo albums for old pictures of him, his children, and his grandchildren; he was compiling a photo-essay of his life that he planned to capture on video and show at a 46th birthday-commission campaign party. He says that although he never completed the project, he paid the women for their research time.
When asked about the specific payments, the former staffer, Courtney Beacham, said she recalled having been given checks to pay a phone bill and an electric bill for the campaign office. After reviewing a copy of the expenditure report, Beacham refused any further comment to New Times.
Burke expresses surprise at Beacham's response. "I know I had her pay some, it was two bills that was paid or something, and so she went ahead and paid them and I gave them back to her. And the event planning had to do with, I guess, a discussion about the picnic or whatever."
The commissioner says he and his accountant will discuss the expenditures. One source of confusion should be immediately evident to anyone who peruses Burke's campaign reports: They are rife with inconsistencies and typographical errors. For example, one consultant's name appears alternately as "Mimi Tribe" and "Mirieille Tribie." (Her name is Mireille Tribie.) And Marcia Burke's address is alternately given as 1320 West Trail in the 33132 zip code, and 3220 West Trail in the 33133 zip code. There is no West Trail in Miami.
All candidates who run for office in Dade must file such forms with the Metro-Dade Elections Department. According to Gisela Salas, assistant supervisor of elections in Dade, it isn't up to her office to ensure completeness, accuracy, or truthfulness. "We're basically ministerial in function," says Salas. "We accept whatever is given to us. We make sure a person's name and address is listed and make sure the documents are signed. We don't look at the actual body to see what they're disclosing. If someone wants to question it, they have to file a complaint."
Speaking generally about FEC investigations, Michael Cochran, assistant general counsel for the state's Division of Elections, says if investigators turn up "probable cause to believe that a willful violation has occurred," the FEC holds a hearing and has the authority to impose a civil penalty of up to $5000 per violation. Investigators forward all evidence of possible criminal violations to the pertinent state attorney's office. James Burke knows the process well: In 1984 the FEC fined him $3600 for numerous violations of campaign financing laws. (About that case, Burke says the FEC sent its hearing notice to an out-of-date address; he chose not to contest the fine, he says, because he felt the additional publicity would provide fodder for his political opponents.)
Disorganization, it would appear, has bedeviled Burke's recent life. On August 26, for instance, the Florida Department of State's Division of Corporations dissolved his consulting corporation because he failed to file the company's annual report as required by law. The document had been due May 1. (Asked about the dissolution of his corporation, Burke's mouth drops open in surprise. "American Destiny? Are you sure? That's like telling me there's no gas in my car and I have a business chauffeuring people.")
The Florida Bar, too, is discovering a certain inattentiveness to detail. In March Burke filed a petition to be reinstated with the Bar. (He had been suspended in 1991, after the Florida Supreme Court criticized his handling of a $150,000 settlement in a wrongful death case. Justices criticized him for "extremely sloppy accounting procedures." It was the second suspension of his career.) In a reinstatement petition, the petitioning lawyer has the burden to prove he has had a rehabilitation of character; it stands to reason that an attorney will do everything he can to prove it.
According to Florida Bar records, though, Burke has been slow and incomplete in his responses to the Bar's requests for information. Arlene Sankel, the attorney handling the inquiry for the Bar, has taken the unusual step of filing not one but two "motions to compel," in which she has asked a judge to force Burke to provide documents. Among the requested records are Burke's tax returns and bank records.
Burke says the motions to compel have been unnecessary and that he's not trying to hide anything: He insists all records have been available to Sankel whenever she has wanted them and accuses the Bar's attorneys of "trying to make a name for themselves." But he certainly didn't help his petition when he and his personal attorney Jorge Sosa failed to show up for an August 29 county court hearing regarding the second motion to compel. In Burke's absence, Judge Marilyn Milian entered an order giving Burke seven days to produce everything requested by the Bar or risk forgoing his petition.
Though Judge Milian says she notified Burke's attorney by mail, fax, and phone, Sosa claims he was out of town for two weeks prior to the hearing. Burke says Sosa is preparing to file a motion to expunge the motion to compel.
Meanwhile, Bar investigators are looking into the commissioner's public and private business. According to Burke, they appear to be concentrating on his campaign reports; he confirms that they have contacted Lawrence Cochran and Denise Johnson, as well as Thomas Koujales, who sold the campaign car to Burke's daughter. The commissioner attributes the Bar's curiosity to the New Times story and to the FEC complaints raising allegations of campaign impropriety. "Before the complaint came up, [the Bar] didn't appear to have a reason to object to me to be reinstated," he says. "But now they're asking questions that are along the lines of the article and the complaint. I'm comfortable that we've done everything we're supposed to do as it relates to this elections law."
The Florida Bar's Arlene Sankel declines to comment about the matter.
Roy and Al Hardemon are wedged into a booth at the Denny's on Biscayne Boulevard and NW 36th Street, trying to make one thing clear: They don't think much of Commissioner James Burke. "He's got this county so intimidated it's pathetic," Roy snarls between sips of coffee, the extent of his midmorning meal. Brother Al, his chubby face hovering above the greasy terrain of a Grand Slam Breakfast, nods sagely. "He's so unqualified to run for the [commission] seat it's freaky! Scary freaky!"
Roy wears a shiny name tag that reads: "ROY L. HARDEMON, CANDIDATE FOR METRO COMMISSION DISTRICT 2." Al has a name tag, too: "ROY L. HARDEMON, CANDIDATE FOR METRO COMMISSION DISTRICT 2, CONSULTANT." It's safe to say the brothers are in denial. There is no longer a campaign for District 2.
On July 26, Burke won instant re-election when his only opponent dropped his challenge.
That opponent was Roy Hardemon.
An unemployed former Metro-Dade Parks Department staffer and a self-described community activist, the 32-year-old Hardemon withdrew six days after the qualification deadline. When he tried to re-enter the race the very next day, David Leahy, Metro-Dade's supervisor of elections, said it was too late. A week later a circuit court judge denied Hardemon's request for a temporary injunction that would have kept his name on the ballot, a decision that has since been upheld by the Third District Court of Appeal. Now Hardemon's attorney, Ron Cordon, has asked the Florida Supreme Court to take jurisdiction.
Even without that added intrigue, the situation had been awkward for James Burke: Roy Hardemon is the brother of Billy Hardemon, Burke's top aide. But it would soon become much worse. Early in August, Roy reported to the FBI, and to the Miami Times, that he had been forced out of the election by a threat against his family.
Now, over breakfast, Roy is recounting the bizarre account he gave the FBI:
On the night of July 25, he claims, he was driving through the intersection of NW 68th Street and 19th Avenue when a green 1994 Cadillac Northstar cut off his van, forcing him to stop. A passenger in the Cadillac allegedly strode over to the van and said, "Get out of the race or you and your family will be hurt." The man instructed him to go see his brother Billy the next morning. "He told me Billy would take care of the rest," Roy Hardemon alleges.
Hardemon says he took the man at his word. When he met his brother at Burke's office the next morning, he goes on, Billy gave him a piece of paper on which a withdrawal letter had already been typed; with Billy at his side, he delivered the letter to the elections supervisor.
Both Al and Roy Hardemon also allege that after Roy had a change of heart and took the matter of his withdrawal to court, Roy was twice offered money (an offer of one million dollars, the men say, followed by an offer of $100,000) to drop the court case. The brothers won't divulge who made the offer.
"I passed six polygraph tests at the U.S. Attorney's Office," declares Roy. "They stressed to me that if I fabricated anything at any time, I'd be arrested."
In an effort to dispel any doubts about the veracity of his brother's claims, Al tugs a deck of business cards from his bulging wallet. "See," he says, displaying two dog-eared samples. "FBI." He holds out the cards of FBI special agents Michael Bonner and Julio Ball. More rummaging yields two more cards, which bear the names of Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie and Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Tom Sullivan. Al nods his head emphatically, as if possession of these documents proves the brothers' allegations are true.
Billy Hardemon admits writing and helping to deliver the withdrawal letter but says he did it at Roy's request. The rest of his brothers' allegations he dismisses as fiction. "I'm pretty disappointed New Times would lend any credibility to this," he complains. "First of all, I don't think Roy is the type of individual who can be intimidated by verbal threat A he's a pretty rough guy. I'm convinced [his story is] a complete fabrication...[he] concocted a damnable lie." Sabrina Hardemon, a younger sister, backs Billy's account of events.
Burke denies that he or anyone connected with his campaign coerced Roy Hardemon out of the race or had anything to do with any alleged bribe. "I don't even want to deny it, because I don't even want to legitimize these allegations," the commissioner grumbles. "With government, you can go and say, 'I just saw Elvis,' and investigators will open a file on it." Burke also questions his accusers' credibility. "If I had Roy's arrest record, it would go from here to there," he says, holding a hand about five feet above the floor. (Roy Hardemon says he was arrested only once -- for attempted kidnapping, assault, and armed robbery. That case was closed with no action. But court records indicate that he has been arrested at least six other times on an array of charges, including assault-and-battery and disobeying a police officer. He has twice been convicted for disorderly conduct and on related counts of resisting arrest without violence and trespassing.)
About a month ago, James Burke left Miami and drove north for a vacation. Over the next several days, he visited family and friends in Tallahassee, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
Now recalling the trip, Burke stares out the windows of his district office overlooking NE 125th Street, gazing at the middle distance. "Sometimes I said, 'Oh, I'm going to have to go back down to reality. This is really nice. Driving. Flowing in the wind. Stop. No hurry. What do they say? Stop and smell the roses. Along the turnpike, stop. Talk to people. And just look.'"
Drifting along in this reverie, so devoid of all his daily worries and obligations, Burke appears more comfortable than he has throughout the entire interview. The burden of the constant inquiry seems to slip, however momentarily, from his shoulders, as he talks about the solitary hours spent driving, escaping into the world of several books-on-tape. John Gray's best seller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, which deals with improving communication between the sexes. David Halberstam's October 1964, a book about that year's World Series. The autobiography of organized-crime figures Sam and Chuck Giancana, Double Cross. And two self-help tapes by Miami motivational speaker Les Brown.
His political aspirations are simple these days, Burke muses; they don't extend much beyond his four-year commission term. "I have no desire to be chairman of the county commission, or to be mayor," he says, adding that past thoughts of a run for Congress have receded as he has aged. "I really want to concentrate more on my financial stability. My political life has determined for a long time what I was doing. Now I'm really going to let my personal life determine what I do." And, he announces, he wants to get married again. "The problem with this..." he pauses, then sighs. "At this point I was just getting myself on my feet financially. I formed American Destiny and finally I got some cases I've been working on. But now I'm spending my money on lawyers." He lets his hands thump heavily to the table and his eyes slip back to the middle distance beyond the window.
"I kind of look back at where I began to run the race as opposed to where I am or where I really wish I was," he says gently, almost fatalistically. "And I realize God will take care of me.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.
- Miami Is Now One of Airbnb's Top Five American Markets
Sat., Feb. 13, 6:00pm
Sat., Feb. 13, 7:00pm
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:30pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:30pm
- Marco Rubio: Brokered Convention Might Pick Winner Amid GOP Chaos
- Seven Worst Bills Still Alive in the Florida Legislature