These are not the kinds of days James Burke probably dreamed of when he won election to the Dade County Commission in 1992. Since late last month he's been defending himself against a torrent of criticism that he slipped behind the backs of county attorneys to request $9000 of taxpayers' money to fund the "James C. Burke Family Labor Day Picnic." Metro attorneys had refused to draft a proposal for Burke to present to the commission, saying it sounded too much like a political event. So at the weary end of a thirteen-hour commission meeting on July 28, he asked his colleagues, by a verbal motion, to approve $9000 in county services (security, safety crews, cleanup) for "a Labor Day picnic," failing to mention the event's full title. It received unanimous approval, but some commissioners now say they had no idea they were voting for a "Burke" picnic.
Burke says Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg recommended to one of his commission aides that the commissioner try to secure the money by a motion. Greenberg denies saying anything of the sort. Battered by negative press reports of the incident, Burke admits "it was obviously a mistake to do it that way" and will now fund the picnic with private donations and with money from his re-election campaign account. However, he maintains that the picnic is a public affair meant to benefit the citizens of Dade County, not him. "I get no personal benefit out of it at all," he states. "It doesn't do anything for me."
In addition to the charges of political sneakiness, Burke also has had to deflect rumors that he was directly involved in the last-minute withdrawal of Roy Hardemon, his only opponent, from the commission race. Burke won instant re-election when Hardemon, the brother of his chief of staff, dropped out at the last minute. The commissioner acknowledges he's heard the rumor that he encouraged Hardemon to run as a dummy candidate in order to deter other potential opponents. But Burke declares the rumor is untrue, arguing that Hardemon is a negligible political force and "wouldn't scare anyone else out of the race. If anyone thinks I did that," Burke continues, "then they obviously don't think very much of me intellectually."
The commissioner is now grappling with a third controversy besetting his camp. This past month a complaint was filed with the Florida Elections Commission charging that Burke has violated Florida's election laws. While FEC officials will neither confirm nor deny they have received a complaint, knowledgeable sources say an FEC investigator is pursuing, among other allegations, the claim that Burke has made illegal contributions to his church using funds drawn from his re-election account. (Burke says he learned of the investigation late last week.)
Burke's campaign expenditure reports indicate that since opening the account a year ago, the commissioner has dipped into his campaign coffers for $3980 in "offerings" and "tithes" to his church, Bible Baptist Church, at 9801 NW 27th Ave. But according to Florida campaign financing law, "contributions by candidates...to any religious, charitable, civic, or other causes or organizations established primarily for the public good are expressly prohibited."
But Burke argues that another part of state law does, in fact, permit his church offerings. He points to a section of the law that allows the use of campaign funds "to defray normal living expenses for himself or his family," as long as the candidate has filed a notice of intent to use campaign funds in this manner. (According to the Metro-Dade Elections Department, elections officials received such a letter from Burke on August 6, 1993, at the time he opened his campaign account.) "Offerings and tithes are a part of my regular living expenses," he contends, adding that he thinks the law is directed at other, less scrupulous people who go from church to church buying support with donations.
Burke, who is chairman of the county commission's powerful finance committee, cites the same law to explain his use of campaign funds for other payouts that raises questions about his judgment. From November 1993 to this past March, for instance, he paid $1925 in child support to his ex-wife, Marcia Burke, using campaign funds. "That is a normal living expense, like paying the electric company to keep my lights on," he argues. "There was a period of time when I was financially tight for funds. Not everyone who runs for office is a well-to-do person." Yeteva Hightower, senior counsel 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.
The bulk of his income, Burke says, derives from his work as a business consultant (his firm is called American Destiny Inc.) A lawyer, he was handed a three-month suspension from the Florida Bar in 1988 after the Florida Supreme Court cited him for "shabby accounting" and for delaying a payment to two clients for nearly a year. The politician suffered another three-month suspension in 1991, after the Supreme Court found "gross negligence" in his handling of a $150,000 settlement from a 1984 wrongful death case. Burke had paid himself $9919 too much in attorney's fees, an error he attributed to an accounting oversight. He remains suspended but recently applied for reinstatement.
In another questionable campaign expense, Burke shelled out $850 per month, from October 1993 to March 1994, to rent a 1200-square-foot North Miami apartment he says functioned as a campaign office. Former Burke commission staffer and campaign worker Doris Dickens notes that only one of the apartment's two bedrooms contained office equipment, including desks and computer gear. The other bedroom was empty, and the living room contained only a sofa and television, says Dickens. Burke explains that he selected the location with Dickens in mind: Because she would be doing her work at night after her regular business hours on his commission staff, and because she had a friend who lived nearby, Dickens would be able to spend the night at the friend's house rather than drive to her home in Broward. As for the size of the unit, Burke recalls that there were no one-bedroom apartments available in the complex when he opened the office. (Burke says he has stopped using the apartment.)
Murky? Yes. And so is the rental's legality. North Miami's zoning code administrator, Ron Russo, says the city rarely allows residential properties to be used primarily for commercial purposes, though he's not sure whether a political campaign office would be considered a commercial use. But Russo says that if indeed Burke used the apartment primarily as a campaign office, the commissioner probably should have had an occupational license.
"The person who indicated he'd take care of that for me was Howard Premer, the vice mayor of North Miami," Burke claims. "He said he would look into seeing what he could do to make sure I got the occupational license." (Premer says he never spoke with Burke about the campaign office or, for that matter, its legality.) The commissioner says he temporarily sidestepped the knotty zoning issues by having Dickens rent the apartment under her own name and by considering it primarily a residence. But Dickens says she never slept in the apartment.
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In another irregular campaign expenditure, Burke spent $2769 to buy a car he says he used exclusively for campaigning. "I've seen [campaign] reports where people have actually gone out and bought a suit," comments Gisela Salas, Dade's assistant supervisor of elections, who's responsible for scrutinizing campaign treasurer reports. "I don't know if I've ever seen a car purchased by another candidate, but I wouldn't say it hasn't happened." The commissioner says at least he's not using a county automobile to campaign, insinuating that such is the practice of other incumbent politicians.
"The one thing that's good about the election law is that it leaves broad discretion to the candidate as to what expenses they're going to make," Burke remarks without a trace of irony.
But this same attitude got Burke into trouble a decade ago when the state elections commission fined him $3600 for numerous violations of campaign financing laws. A member of the state House of Representatives from 1982 to 1992, Burke was penalized for failing to file complete reports as well as for using 1982 campaign funds to make a car payment and to purchase a legislative license plate.