Fear and temerity commingle in the voice of Alex Daoud, phoning the New Times offices to announce that he is finally on his way to prison.
"Hey buddy, I'm in South Carolina, heading into Estill," he barks into a mobile speaker phone, in the manner of a radio correspondent filing an up-to-the-minute report. "I'm turning myself in, buddy. This is it."
It is the afternoon of November 19, and Daoud's nephew A.J., the director of three Florida funeral homes and four cemeteries, is chauffeuring the former Miami Beach mayor toward the Federal Correctional Institution in Estill and a prison sentence of five years and two months for bribery, money laundering, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice, crimes Daoud committed during the mid- to late 1980s.
Through the static of the phone line, the fallen mayor explains that he has called to say goodbye and to find out what has been happening in David Paul's federal fraud trial. The former chairman of CenTrust Savings Bank, Paul recently had taken the stand for two days in his own defense against several dozen charges, among them the accusation that he pocketed millions of his depositors' dollars. "I heard he was crying," Daoud adds smugly. "Did he cry on the stand?"
For the first time in years, Daoud has found something to gloat about. Once upon a time he was a rising political star with seemingly limitless potential: charming, exuberant, a man who moved easily through Miami Beach's multiethnic hodgepodge, reassuring the old and partying with the young as he presided over the city's renaissance. He seemed indomitable, winning three consecutive elections to the city commission, followed by an unprecedented three consecutive mayoral races. But his upward flight hit its fraudulent apogee as federal investigators began to discover in 1990 that Hizzoner had sold his vote for private gain. And so Daoud was cast into an unforgiving three-year tailspin, losing his good name on the way, not to mention his wife, his career, and his money. (The plummet was the subject of a September 29 New Times cover story, "Daoud Descending.")
In October he had an opportunity to recapture a measure of his dignity, when the government asked him to take their side against David Paul. (Among his convictions, Daoud had been found guilty of accepting a bribe from a CenTrust subsidiary in return for a favorable vote on a zoning variance for a controversial dock behind Paul's La Gorce Island mansion.) During his two days of testimony in the Paul trial, Daoud also admitted he had been cooperating in a federal investigation into Capital Bank chairman Abel Holtz, a former ally and adviser.
As soon as Daoud stepped down from the witness stand, an FBI agent and an IRS investigator escorted him out of the courtroom, and for the next three weeks he remained under federal protection in a hotel in Deerfield Beach. (While Daoud says he never received any death threats or information about a contract on his life, federal prosecutors feared for the ex-mayor's safety and wanted to protect their valuable witness.)
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"I wish I'd told the truth from the beginning," he confided while ensconced in Deerfield Beach. "What was eating me up is that I was living a lie for so many years. But it's good to tell the truth now! Let me tell you, a psychological weight is lifted off of my mind and off my very soul. It feels wonderful! I'm wrapped in the American flag now! I feel like a hero again!"
Though Daoud wasn't required to surrender himself until December 13, he decided to turn himself in early, for his own safety. He and his nephew took two days to drive to South Carolina, staying a night in Hilton Head along the way.
"There's the sign, we're passing the sign to the penitentiary," Daoud continues his live update from Estill. "You know, I'm a little scared," he adds, then falls silent. "Oh my gosh, you oughta see this place!" he exclaims. "There are two buildings, one is medium security, the other is the camp. That's where I'm going to be. In fact, I'm looking at the campers right now...."
"Alex," his nephew points out dryly, "look at those lovely blue uniforms."
"Oh my God, oh God," Daoud mutters. "What an end to an illustrious career." Amid the self-pity, he stumbles suddenly upon a punch line. "And I could've been voting on NAFTA!" he cries, and the phone line sings with the free man's last laugh.