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An FBI surveillance tape shows former County Commissioner James Burke (right) pocketing $5000 from Howard Gary

If there is one moment, one 30-second span of time, on the FBI surveillance tapes of James Burke that is more striking than any other, it is the instant Howard Gary handed Burke $5000 in cash -- "a down payment" Gary called it, for a larger bribe to come. Burke blithely placed the money in his valise, stood from the table where the two men were sitting, and began to laugh as he put on his jacket to leave. "You know," he said, "this is a wonderful country."

In court when the videotape was played, Burke refused to look at the large televisions placed around the room for the judge, jury, and lawyers to watch. Instead he stared down at a transcript of the tape, following the words without seeing the images. He wore a pair of large headphones so he could better hear the tape, but they only made him appear more distant and removed from the proceedings, like a quiz-show contestant waiting his turn in a soundproof booth.

The tape was devastating. And there was more to follow. By the end of the week prosecutors played eight different audio- and videotapes, documenting Burke's greed, his arrogance, his naiveté, and his stupidity. But it was the first video, in which cash first changed hands, that evokes such a strong, visceral reaction. Or at least it did in me.

Listening to him snicker after pocketing $5000, and then mockingly declare this to be a wonderful country, was nothing short of appalling. And whether he intended it or not, it appeared he was laughing at every person who had ever voted for him and every person who had ever trusted him.

A couple of years ago, Burke shared with me the first two chapters of a book he was writing about his life. They dealt mainly with his childhood, growing up in Waycross, Georgia. Last week, after watching the government's videotape of Burke, I re-read those passages. "I was born into the unprotected world of all Southern African American boys, then called 'colored,' whose family had little or no money in 1948," Burke wrote. He described the segregated school system he attended and the town's Dairy Queen, which served whites through a window in the front and blacks through a window around back.

"As I grew older and left Waycross to go to college as the first in my family to do so, I learned that my life and my town, while common to other Southern towns, was unique in keeping me prepared to live in the last half of the twentieth century against odds that were more weighted against me than I ever knew. Perhaps that unique Waycross sense of self is what still guides me today."

The second chapter, titled "The Pillars and My Backbone: Why I Will Never Break!" includes homages to his maternal grandparents, both of whom are now dead. From his grandmother he learned about God; from his grandfather he claims to have learned the merits of hard work.

That legacy, however, is not apparent on the tapes being played in federal court. Indeed if anything, he insults their memory. This is difficult for me to say because I have always liked Jimmy Burke. I've covered him since he first came to the county commission in 1993, where I found him to be both affable and concerned about improving the lives of blacks in Dade County. But somewhere along the line he deluded himself into believing he was entitled to exploit his position. And befitting Burke's typically hapless nature, he tried to cash in at the exact moment when the FBI was swarming over South Florida looking for corrupt politicians.

The specifics of the case are by now well-known, as the federal trial has unfolded day after day in the Herald. In 1996 the county was attempting to refinance more than $100 million in bonds under a plan proposed by San Francisco businessman Calvin Grigsby. To get the deal, the government alleges, Grigsby agreed to pay Burke, who at the time was chairman of the county commission's powerful finance committee, a $300,000 kickback. And the commissioner's chief of staff, Billy Hardemon, would receive a $50,000 bribe for helping with the deal.

In addition Howard Gary, who had elbowed his way into the lucrative bond deal as a partner of Grigsby, agreed to pay Burke $100,000. The scheme was exposed when Gary was caught, in a separate FBI sting, agreeing to launder illegal payoffs to a Miami city commissioner. In July 1996, after the FBI confronted Gary on the City of Miami case, Gary told federal agents about the corrupt activities surrounding the county bond deal. Gary then began cooperating with the FBI, recording all of his subsequent meetings with Burke, Grigsby, and Hardemon -- the three men now on trial before U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davis.  

From a purely voyeuristic standpoint, the trial, entering its fourth week, has been a revealing affair, rife with more subplots than a Jackie Collins novel. Every day it seems another politician is mentioned on the tapes in an unflattering, though not necessarily illegal, light. From plans to offer a bribe to Miami City Commissioner J.L. Plummer to Burke calling his former colleague, County Commissioner Javier Souto, "dumbbell Souto."

The point of the trial, however, is to search for the truth. Or at least that's what it is supposed to be. In this case it's often hard to tell. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have a knack for overlooking obvious explanations for events, preferring instead to contort the facts in order to reach their own desired conclusions. There is nothing new or earthshattering in that, but it is amusing to watch.

Assessing how the trial is going from the standpoint of each defendant is always a tricky matter, but it is clear the government's case against Burke is overwhelming. The government's footing seems less sure against Grigsby and Hardemon. In fact we have now reached that point where defense attorneys for Grigsby and Hardemon will not only begin to distance themselves from Burke, but also cast an accusing finger in his direction and argue that he alone is the guilty one.

The pretense that this is a united defense is just that, a pretense.

From opening statements Grigsby's defense attorneys have argued that he was actually the victim in this business transaction. They maintain that Grigsby developed the bond-refinancing plan, and that the county's staff was interested in it because it was going to save taxpayers millions of dollars in interest payments.

But before the deal could be ratified by the county commission, Grigsby's attorneys claim he was shaken down by Howard Gary, who threatened to use his political influence to block the deal if he wasn't given a piece of the profits. And Grigsby's attorneys will argue that Howard Gary wasn't the only one extorting him. They will maintain Burke was the central figure in the scheme. How strongly they will argue that point remains to be seen. They may try to be subtle, but at the end of the trial Grigsby's team will want the jury to believe their client was a helpless victim of both Gary and Burke.

If anything the FBI surveillance tapes have helped Grigsby's defense team shape this argument. Because the investigation was cut short by press leaks, the FBI has numerous tapes of conversations between Gary and Burke, but only one involving Grigsby. The result is a feeling that Gary and Burke are extremely close and that Grigsby is the outsider.

Throughout their discussions of payoffs to come, Burke and Gary talk about how they can't really trust Grigsby, how he may try to double-cross them and not pay up.

"My trust is really with you," Burke says during one of his meetings with Gary.

The most damning evidence against Grigsby comes from a tape in which he is seen meeting with Burke and Gary in a San Francisco hotel and appears to be agreeing to the terms of the payoff outlined by Gary. Prosecutors can also document a $50,000 wire transfer from a Swiss bank account controlled by Grigsby to an offshore account opened by Burke.

Grigsby's defense team (which includes Albert Krieger and Ted Wells) will almost certainly argue that Grigsby was merely nodding along on the tape in San Francisco in order to buy time and get the deal closed. Once the deal was finished, the defense attorneys will maintain, Grigsby had every intention of backing out of his pledge to pay Burke and Gary their extortion money. In essence they'll argue Burke and Gary were right to be worried that Grigsby was going to double-cross them. The $50,000 he sent to Burke through the Swiss bank account was necessary to keep Burke happy and prevent the commissioner from scuttling the deal at the last moment.

In the past Grigsby had reported to the FBI such extortion attempts by Gary, his defense attorneys have pointed out. In 1991 Grigsby even tried working undercover for the feds, in effect trying to sting the very man who would later sting him. But Grigsby was unable to get Gary to make any incriminating statements. His attorneys claim that with nowhere to turn for help or protection this time around, Grigsby went along with Gary and Burke's efforts to extort money from him.

To counter the image of Grigsby as an otherwise honest businessman forced to succumb to the evils of Miami-Dade County politics, prosecutors Allan Kaiser and Anita Gay have developed a portrait of Grigsby as a man who routinely double-crosses business partners and will stop at nothing to succeed.  

Hardemon's defense attorney, Jose Quiñon, will have his own strategy for raising reasonable doubt with the jury, including the suggestion that Burke never intended for Hardemon to get any of the bribe money. Burke merely claimed the money was going to go to Hardemon, when in fact Burke had every intention of cheating his chief of staff by keeping the money himself.

Quiñon argues there is no proof Hardemon had any influence over the county staff in its decision to move ahead with the bond deal.

Hardemon, however, has his own incriminating tape with which to deal. With Gary doing most of the talking, Hardemon never disputes the notion he will get $50,000 for his help in making sure the deal goes through. And he provides one of the more amusing moments on any of the tapes: Before he is willing to discuss the alleged kickback, Hardemon nervously points to the walls and ceilings in Gary's office, as if to indicate he's worried the office is bugged.

With the FBI surveillance cameras and microphones running, Gary assures him the place is regularly swept for bugs.

Hardemon then acknowledges that he has "a gentleman's agreement" with Grigsby to get paid after the deal goes through.

For Burke's defense attorney, Ed Shohat, the climb is all uphill, over a mountain of incriminating tapes. His only hope is to convince the jury that Gary somehow tricked Burke into appearing to agree to this scheme. As far as the money that exchanged hands, Shohat will try to show it was a loan between friends, the type of exchange that Gary and Burke had conducted in the past.

It's impossible to tell if Burke fully realizes just how dire his situation is. During breaks in the trial, he laughs and smiles with supporters, expressing confidence in his eventual acquittal. And perhaps he believes it. Perhaps in his mind, having come so far in his life, nothing as terrible as a guilty verdict could possibly happen to a noble son of Waycross, Georgia. Especially not now, and certainly not here.

Not in such a wonderful country.


RELATED STORIES By Jim DeFede

"Grigsby in Defense of Grigsby," December 3, 1998

"Howard Gary Sings," October 22, 1998

"Stealth Indictment," May 21, 1998

"Witness Hampering," January 29, 1998


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