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Coffey Grind

For the past five months state investigators have been trying to determine whether Susanna Timor, a paralegal at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, committed insurance fraud by submitting bogus receipts for repairs to her Coral Gables home after Hurricane Andrew.

Though the dollar value of the alleged fraud is less than $4000 -- minuscule by South Florida standards -- the probe has the potential to attract plenty of attention. And not just because of where Timor works, but because of the involvement of her long-time boss and friend Kendall Coffey, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Coffey, who was appointed U.S. Attorney by President Clinton in October 1993, has offered to serve as a character witness for Timor.

Coffey declines to discuss the Timor investigation, which was initiated by the state's Division of Insurance Fraud and has since been referred to Mary Cagle, acting chief of the public-corruption unit of the Dade State Attorney's Office. Cagle and officials from the Division of Insurance Fraud refuse to comment about any aspect of the investigation.

Timor's alleged transgression seems relatively straightforward, judging from interviews with sources close to the inquiry and several people who say they have been questioned.

After the hurricane, Timor made various repairs to her home, for which she was reimbursed approximately $11,000 by her insurance company, State Farm. Late last year the Division of Insurance Fraud received an anonymous letter alleging that some of the bills she submitted for those repairs were fraudulent.

An investigator reviewed her claims and began contacting the contractors who had apparently worked on her home. Three claimed they had never done the work reflected on the receipts Timor submitted to State Farm. About two months ago Timor was confronted with the allegations and agreed to give a sworn statement to state prosecutors.

According to the criminal defense attorney she retained, John Thornton, Jr., Timor has also agreed to provide investigators with handwriting samples and, at her own expense, has taken and passed four lie-detector tests administered by respected polygraph expert George Slattery, during which she was asked specific questions about each allegedly fraudulent receipt.

"There is no question in my mind but that Susanna Timor is innocent," Thornton says. "She had absolutely no intent to break the law. The problem comes from the fact that Department of Insurance investigators came into this investigation believing she was guilty. When people come into a situation with their minds made up, it takes time to convince them otherwise. That's the reason it has taken five months thus far and we're still not at the point where a decision has been made by Mary Cagle.

"I commend Cagle's thoroughness," Thornton adds, "because the stakes in this case are so high. If Susanna gets charged, she will lose her job, and her eleven-year-old handicapped daughter will be without absolutely essential insurance coverage."

Thornton says that within a month he expects Cagle to decide whether to charge his client. Other sources say they believe an arrest is imminent and could come as soon as next week. According to Thornton, the most likely charges would be insurance fraud and/or grand theft, both third-degree felonies that carry a maximum punishment of five years in prison. He adds that Timor would assert her innocence in court even if prosecutors were to offer the minimum punishment -- which usually permits expunging a defendant's record after he or she attends a class for first-time offenders.

Should Timor face criminal fraud charges, she might have at least one extremely influential character witness: Kendall Coffey. It would not be the first time Coffey has interceded on Timor's behalf since she came to work for him at the law firm Greenberg Traurig more than a decade ago. When he and fellow Greenberg Traurig partner Robert Burlington decided to launch their own firm in 1988, Timor followed. By then she was embroiled in a heated divorce proceeding; the dissolution of her four-year marriage to Ricardo Ferreira led to an even nastier subsequent dispute over custody of their daughter. Burlington handled most of the legal work, but Coffey made numerous appearances in court and filed pleadings on a pro bono bais.

That same year, 1991, Timor was given a public service award by the Dade County Bar Association for her work in a volunteer program to help divorced mothers find affordable housing. The program was the brainchild of Coffey, who was president of the bar association at the time.

Court records reflect that in early 1992 Coffey opened a joint bank account with Timor at the Coconut Grove Bank. Statements were sent to Timor's home in Coral Gables. When her ex-husband suggested in court that the account should be tallied along with Timor's other assets, Coffey and Timor filed affidavits stating the account was a campaign fund to be used for Coffey's unsuccessful 1992 campaign for state senator. They explained that Timor, as a trusted employee, was assigned to administer the money and never made any withdrawals. Coffey now says Timor's address was used because her home served as an informal headquarters during the initial phases of his senate campaign.

Coffey has since helped Timor deal with other legal matters. In February 1993, for instance, he filed suit on her behalf against Synergy, a company that supplies natural gas for home use. He also wrote a letter of complaint to Catalina Pools, the firm that built a swimming pool and deck for Timor. Later he paid a personal visit to Richard Jones, the owner of Catalina Pools, to discuss a settlement.

Coffey freely acknowledges helping Timor in the past: "Oftentimes the cost of retaining legal assistance is prohibitive for the staff in a law office, so the lawyers try to help out. I would venture to say the practice is so far from unusual as to be routine."

Timor is a valued employee, Coffey explains, so much so that he brought her along when he was appointed U.S. Attorney nearly two years ago. He says her duties are primarily scheduling and event planning, though he notes that she has worked as a paralegal on civil cases, including a few that involve health-care fraud. According to an office spokesman, she earns between $36,000 and $46,000 per year.

Coffey insists he has not represented Timor -- or any other private interest -- since he took over as South Florida's top law enforcement official, and he stresses further that he has in no way attempted to exert influence on the officials investigating Timor. "I have never spoken with Mary Cagle or anyone else at the State Attorney's Office about Susanna's situation," the U.S. Attorney says.

He refuses to speculate about why state agents and prosecutors would spend so many months pursuing a seemingly minor case against one of his employees.

Oddly, one line of questioning in the investigation seems to involve Coffey himself. Susanna Timor's mother, Gaude Timor, says she she gave a lengthy sworn statement to prosecutor Mary Cagle earlier this year that included responses to questions about $31,000 Coffey paid her for printing services during his 1992 senate race. (Gaude Timor runs a small printing company.) "I thought they wanted to know about hurricane repairs. Then they start to ask about my work for Kendall and I thought, What does this have to do with Susanna?" the elder Timor recalls. "It sounded like they are trying to reach Kendall through my daughter."

Coffey says he has no idea why investigators might be asking about the $31,000 in campaign funds he paid to Gaude Timor, and he labels as "absurd" the implication that his actions are under scrutiny. "She did an awful lot of work for us," Coffey notes. "It's all documented and I'd be happy to make all campaign records open for any appropriate inquiry."

Mary Cagle refuses to comment about whether Coffey is in any way the subject of a state investigation. She also will not clarify why Gaude Timor was asked under oath about Coffey's campaign expenditures.

Gaude Timor believes she knows why. The probe of her daughter, she maintains, was prompted by politics. "They are crucifying my Susanna to try to get something on Kendall," she huffs. "This is a poor woman with two daughters and they are going to ruin her life.


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