Janet Reno's Greatest Hits
The county commissioner's corruption was petty, stupid, and - as far as the state attorney's office was concerned - perfectly legal: Charging the county $176.35 for two nights in a hotel room he never used: legal. Charging the county $310 for round-trip airfare to a destination he used only as a stopover: legal. Charging the county $225 for registration to a conference he did not attend: legal. Lying on a financial disclosure form: legal.
While Commissioner Barry Schreiber visited a girlfriend in New York in December 1988, taxpayers in Dade were shelling out money for his empty hotel room and other expenses in Washington, D.C. After the Miami Herald published a story about the bogus trip (approximate cost equalling that of a police detective's weekly salary), the state attorney's office conducted an investigation and decided that Schreiber had broken no laws and would not be prosecuted.
But then that's the way it tends to go when local politicians get caught taking things they shouldn't. Not that the Dade state attorney's public corruption unit doesn't bring cases to court. When it comes to going after dirty cops, for instance, the office is vigorous; and several city managers and other officials have been prosecuted. But in a county marked by a public perception of rampant corruption, only rarely do elected officials end up before a judge. Says a partner at one well-known Miami law firm: "Janet Reno's prosecution of elected officials isn't animal. It isn't mineral. It's vegetable."
Just finding the public corruption unit of the state attorney's office can be a task. The directory downstairs in the Metro Justice Building doesn't list public corruption, and the sign outside Room 950, which houses the unit, reads "Organized Crime & Narcotics." You have to ask around to find the folks responsible for prosecuting elected officials and cops and building inspectors. The eight lawyers in Room 950 are clearly a sharp bunch - quick on their feet and fiercely loyal to their boss, Janet Reno, who they say gives them broad authority and tremendous support. Reno, Florida's first female state attorney, a 52-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer whose family has lived in South Florida more than 60 years, praises the department in turn, calling its work among the most important her office handles. "The two most important things in the office are crimes of violence and public corruption," she asserts. "Violence undermines the very physical fabric of society, and corruption undermines the spiritual, internal fabric of government."
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Yet public corruption unit files show that Reno, in her twelve years as state attorney, has brought to trial a total of five elected officials for violations of the public trust. Reno's records contain only these corruption prosecutions:
Former Surfside Mayor Louis Hoberman was found guilty of bribery in a 1978 case, former Florida City Mayor Thomas Karrick pleaded guilty to grand theft in 1979, former Metro Commissioner Neil Adams was convicted of gambling charges in 1979, former school board member Kathleen Magrath pleaded guilty to election-law violations in 1986, and former Circuit Judge Howard Gross was acquitted of bribery charges brought against him in 1987.
Prosecutors filed civil - but not criminal - charges against former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre in 1983 for election-law violations, resulting in a $35,000 fine. Reno's office has since brought civil charges against other elected officials for similar violations. Former Miami Beach Commissioner Ben Grenald, for instance, was fined $10,600 for illegally spending 1987 campaign contributions. Reno explains that she filed civil rather than criminal charges against Ferre, Grenald, and several others because "that would afford the stiffer penalty. It seems to be an effective way of sending a message in terms of these election-law violations."
If corruption cases are so important, why haven't there been more prosecutions in twelve years? The easy answer is that elected officials hereabouts are thoroughly honest, highly principled public servants who aren't capable of harboring a dishonest thought, much less pulling off a crooked deed. But answers, of course, are not always easy.
The office of the U.S. attorney, the state attorney's federal counterpart, has been prosecuting plenty of elected officials lately - including five in a particularly busy four months. Between January and April of this year, the feds convicted Sweetwater Mayor Irain Gonzalez and council members Carmen Menendez and Antonio Duran on extortion charges, and indicted Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Councilman Andres Mejides on charges of trading votes for cash and property. Another Sweetwater council member, Lucio Cobian, has agreed to plead guilty to extortion conspiracy charges. In August, former Sweetwater Councilman Hugo Alvarez was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to extortion. Prosecutors recommended he not be sentenced to jail, but when a federal judge sentenced him to federal prison, Alvarez changed his plea to not guilty. Last month prosecutors dropped charges against him, citing his cooperation in the case.
Other Dade officials whose offenses have been brought to light by the U.S. Attorney's Office since 1984 are John Lomelo, former mayor of Sunrise, who was convicted of mail fraud and extortion charges in 1984; former Hialeah Councilman Sebastian Dorrego, convicted in 1987 of extortion and making false statements (in 1988 he was again convicted on two counts of making false statements); and Silvio Cardoso, another former Hialeah councilman, who pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and was sentenced to probation in 1988. That's a total of eleven prosecutions in the past seven years (U.S. Attorney's Office records were computerized in 1984; they could not provide information for cases dating before that time).
Although the U.S. Attorney's Office took those cases, the laws local officials broke or are currently charged with breaking are not exclusively federal statutes - the state books contain similar versions - and Reno's office could have pursued the whole bunch. Which again raises the question: Why hasn't the state prosecuted?
Because the feds did, says Reno. "If they are pursuing it," says the Dade state attorney, "it is not in the best advantage of the case for us to jump in. It creates a disadvantage for the feds." Unlike federal law, Reno explains, state statutes allow defense lawyers to question witnesses and examine evidence prior to trial, which can make it more difficult for prosecutors to handle such matters in state court. Not everyone in the South Florida legal community buys that rationale, however. "If a man is a crook," says veteran Miami defense attorney Michael Tarkoff, "and the evidence indicates that he's a crook, letting his lawyers take statements from the witnesses prior to trial doesn't change anything."
There are other reasons, too, says Diane Cossin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office. Resources, for example. Federal prosecutors frequently work lock step with a number of letter-laden agencies. "We have intelligence of DEA, FBI, ATF, whatever," Cossin says. "The IRS particularly. That kind of investigative agent is important - someone with a financial background which the state might not always have."
Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, the former Miami city attorney who ran for state attorney against Reno in 1984, doesn't accept such responses. He notes that the state attorney's office has its own staff of 26 investigators, and although they might not get assistance from the Drug Enforcement Administration or Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents, they can request help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, local police departments, and other state agencies, including investigators with financial expertise from the state revenue department. The feds, Garcia-Pedrosa claims, are doing Reno's job for her, and shouldn't have to. "We have still, regrettably, one of the most crowded drug-related [federal] criminal dockets in the country," he points out, "and so in areas like public corruption, where there is concurrent federal and state jurisdiction, it is puzzling to see most of the cases being brought by the federal prosecutor. I do not know why that is."
Reno is unfazed by Garcia-Pedrosa's puzzlement. She applauds the feds for prosecuting elected officials and defends her policy of letting them handle many of the cases, because federal agencies, she says, have more time to investigate such matters than her office does. "The FBI and IRS," she explains, "don't have the burden of street violence." She says her department has a good relationship with the U.S. Attorney's Office, and frequently works with them. "I don't put up trophies," she says. "We shouldn't worry about perception, or who gets credit for it. We should worry about the end result." Mary Cagle, the plain-spoken chief of Reno's public corruption unit, echoes her boss's comments, and says her office frequently hands over volumes of investigative material to the feds. Credit, she contends, "really doesn't matter. Everybody - them and us - are basically here to get the bad guys."
But when the bad guys are politicians, it adds a new dimension to prosecutions. Although Reno is adamant about keeping politics out of her office, the fact remains that she is a politician and faces election every four years - her current term expires in 1992. She depended on the good will of Gov. Reubin Askew for her appointment in 1978, and has depended upon the good will of the voters to keep her job ever since. It may not be politically wise for such a person to prosecute popular politicians, observers point out. Yet with the exception of a handful of habitual complainers who have little credibility, few people question Reno's personal integrity. Even her most tendentious critics - Garcia-Pedrosa, for instance - vouch for her veracity. In fact, one local lawyer says, "If she weren't so honest, I'd be sure there was some kind of payoff with public corruption cases."
Again the question: If she's so honest and the cases so important, where are the prosecutions?
Perhaps the answer lies in the corruption politicians are committing. Reno's files portray a county practically oozing with political chicanery. Yet Reno's office insists that it oozes on just the right side of the law.
Consider, for instance, the Barry Schreiber case. After news reports revealed his questionable trip, assistant state attorneys and investigators pored over the Metro commissioner's travel records and financial disclosure forms. They checked with airlines and credit card companies. And they concluded Schreiber hadn't broken the law.
"Dade County ultimately paid for a hotel room, airfare, conference registration, and taxicab rides in order for Commissioner Schreiber to attend a conference," Assistant State Attorney Andrew S. Hague wrote in a March 21, 1990 memorandum clearing Schreiber of legal wrongdoing. "In order to prove theft, the state has to show criminal intent. If one looks behind Mr. Schreiber's actions, it is difficult to isolate a plausible motive." Schreiber, the investigators discovered, paid nearly $200 of his own money to fly from Washington to New York - about the same as he would have paid for a direct flight from Miami to New York. "Dade County never received the benefit of that investment because Mr. Schreiber did not attend the conference," Hague wrote. "The issue is whether or not Mr. Schreiber's actions amount to a crime. As suspicious as this appears, it does not cross the threshold making it a criminal violation."
Prosecutors have reached the same conclusion in case after case. Reno's office would have the public believe that politicians aren't committing crimes. They're committing "suspicious" actions.
These officials, for instance, were investigated but not prosecuted:
County Commissioner Sherman Winn. During the past nine months, Reno's office has twice investigated Winn and twice cleared him. The first investigation began after the Herald reported that Commissioner Winn's learning-disabled daughter worked for the county, as did his son-in-law, his grandson, and his granddaughter. Questions were raised because the Metro charter prohibits commissioners from becoming involved in county hiring. So what's the story with the son-in-law? Did Winn help architect Harvey Ehrlich get a county job in early 1986? Don Frederick, the Metro architect who hired Ehrlich, said no. That, along with similar denials from former County Manager Merrett Stierheim and his executive assistant, Charles Scurr, was good enough for Reno's office. "Mr. Frederick...stated that Ehrlich followed all routine procedures in obtaining county employment," according to a report by Assistant State Attorney Lawrence D. LaVecchio, "and...Frederick] was unaware that Ehrlich was related to Sherman Winn."
And the two grandchildren? Charles Pezoldt, deputy director of the Metro-Dade Parks and Recreation Department, told investigators that in 1986 he helped find the children summer jobs with the county, after receiving telephone calls from Winn's executive assistant, Kaye Kramer. During those calls, "Ms. Kramer stated that the commissioner would appreciate Dr. Pezoldt's referring the youngsters for employment," LaVecchio wrote in the report clearing Winn. But Kramer told an entirely different story. According to LaVecchio's report, she "denied ever having contacted anyone regarding summer employment for Commissioner Winn's grandchildren." Additionally, wrote LaVecchio, "Commissioner Winn has publicly stated that he does not recall ever having intervened with anyone on behalf of his grandchildren's employment." Apparently either Pezoldt or Kramer lied, but Reno's office determined no one did anything wrong.
Case closed. Winn and his assistant said it didn't happen, so it must not have.
But what about Winn's daughter Patty? Did the commissioner help get her the job in 1988? Again Pezoldt said yes. Again someone else said no. Guess who got credit for the truth? According to Reno's investigation, "there has been no competent evidence discovered indicating that any [county commission] member directed, gave orders, or requested that any particular individual be hired by any agency of county government." Even though Pezoldt told investigators that his boss made it clear Winn wanted a job for his daughter, Reno's office decided otherwise. Pezoldt's boss, Bill Bird, also spoke with investigators, who reported that he "was not approached at any time by Commissioner Winn...and that his decision to have Patty hired was the result of his having fortuitously met with her one day and his being impressed with her desire to live on her own." According to investigators, Winn's assistant, Kaye Kramer, said that Bird "approached Commissioner Winn and asked if he could assist in finding employment for Patty after learning that she had recently returned to Miami from a group home in New Jersey."
Reno's office also investigated and cleared Winn of extortion and misuse of public position. Again Winn's son-in-law, Harvey Ehrlich, was involved. In this case, prompted by an anonymous letter to Reno's office, Winn was accused of threatening business associates of a man who opposed Ehrlich in a lawsuit. Ehrlich was suing Signature Gardens, a banquet facility in Kendall, for architectural fees he said he deserved. The owner of Signature Gardens, Jerome C. Berlin, declined to pay the full fee because he was unhappy with Ehrlich's work. The negotiations between Berlin and Ehrlich were unfriendly, and according to Reno's report, Berlin received word that Winn was extremely upset about the matter. The business associates - lobbyist Eston "Dusty" Melton and lawyers Jeffrey L. Berkowitz and Lester Goldstein, all of whom frequently appear before the county commission on zoning matters - told investigators that Winn had "communicated his extreme displeasure at the position taken by the management of Signature Gardens," and they were afraid he would automatically vote against any project they were involved in because of their affiliation with Berlin. According to Reno's report, "all three urged [Berlin] to settle as expeditiously as possible to avoid any retaliation" by Winn. Although Berlin told investigators that Winn never threatened him directly, he said he settled the lawsuit at a figure higher than he thought was appropriate.
But Reno's office determined Winn had done nothing illegal. "It is of some concern that [Winn] made it a point to tell at least four attorneys known to represent clients on zoning matters...of his deep displeasure at the actions of a party with whom they were all associated," Assistant State Attorney Joseph M. Centorino wrote in a report clearing Winn. "It is obvious that this did not occur coincidentally. It is also apparent that the concerns these individuals expressed to Berlin resulted in a more favorable settlement to [Winn's] son-in-law than otherwise would have been the case. However, without other proof that [Winn] used or intended to use his public position to intimidate these individuals, there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal or ethical charge against him."
Despite the "concern" expressed by Reno's office, the "obvious" intention of Winn showing his displeasure, and the "apparent" truth that the incident resulted in a settlement favoring the commissioner's son-in-law, prosecutors found nothing wrong with Winn's behavior. This past May the case was closed.
Prosecutors made a similar finding in the case of Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins. In 1984 former Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms, in spoken and written testimony, told a county grand jury that he had information from informants that "Commissioner Miller Dawkins was taking political kickbacks." During several meetings with G. Ray Havens, Reno's chief investigator, Harms said he had received tips that Dawkins was accepting kickbacks from a city consultant who arranged for businesses to have their garbage picked up by city crews. (Officially, businesses must hire private waste-removal companies; city crews are restricted to residential garbage pickup.) Before contacting Reno's office, Harms, who spent six years as chief, had an aide call the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for assistance in investigating the matter. Before Harms could meet with agents, however, he was fired. (The grand jury before which he testified was convened to investigate the firing.)
According to Reno's probe, Harms received the information from Clarance "Pat" Patterson, then-director of the city's solid waste division. Reno's investigation into these allegations consisted solely of conversations with Harms, Patterson, and another alleged informant. According to the inquiry, Patterson "stated that he never met with Harms, never discussed with Harms any such information, and could only conclude that Harms was confused." At the time, Patterson worked for then-city manager Howard Gary, a political ally of Dawkins and adversary of Harms.
Based on denials from Patterson and the informant, the case was closed. The well-regarded former police chief was "confused."
The chief also must have been confused about Howard Gary, the city manager who fired him during a 2:47 a.m. telephone call on January 27, 1984. Gary's position is filled by appointment, not election, but his office comes under the state attorney's purview. In sworn testimony, Harms told the grand jury that Gary had purchased land adjacent to a city development project, "creating the distinct impression that he was buying property with insider information"; and that Gary misused the city auto repair shop by having his private cars fixed there at city expense, and by accepting a city gasoline allowance but continuing to use city pumps to fill his tank. Harms also testified that Gary was on the board of directors of Sunshine State Bank, whose president was then under federal investigation. Harms told the jurors that Gary received favorable treatment in obtaining loans from the bank and that the bank "has gotten at least one [zoning] variance through Gary."
After an extensive investigation, Reno's office cleared Gary of all wrongdoing. In an April 11, 1984 letter to then-Mayor Maurice Ferre, Reno wrote, "It was common knowledge that the City Manager was having repair work done on his private vehicles," but that the work was a legal, if inefficient, use of city funds. She wrote that Gary "received beneficial treatment by the Sunshine State Bank, but we are unable to discover any benefit Mr. Gary gave in return."
No charges. Case closed. But Gary's ties to the city remain open. He maintains a contract with Miami as a consultant.
In 1986 Reno's office investigated North Miami Beach Councilwoman Mary Foote at the request of North Miami Beach City Attorney Howard Lennard. Prosecutors decided that Foote, a real estate agent who no longer sits on the city council, had done no wrong in accepting $5900 in commissions on sales of land she had recently voted to rezone or exempt from existing zoning. In the two cases Lennard presented to Reno, Foote received commissions even though she hadn't handled the sales. She got the money - after voting - as referral fees from real estate agents whose clients benefited from the zoning changes.
In one instance, Foote received a $900 commission on the sale of a house after voting to change the zoning of one block in North Miami Beach from residential to residential and office. A realty company, the Leo Jaeson Corporation, then arranged for a chiropractor to buy the house and use it as an office. Shortly afterward, the Leo Jaeson Corporation sent Foote a check. Company president Brian Leslie told Reno's investigators he gave Foote the money because "there was enough money in it that I felt generous to do so." He also told investigators he was "grateful that they [Foote's real estate company] thought of me and introduced me to this property. And it's a way of saying thank you. It's a small town."
In the other case, Foote received a $5000 referral fee after voting to allow Figueredo Chevrolet to keep an existing sixteen-square-foot sign on property it was renting, in an area where the maximum sign size was three square feet. Shortly after the vote, Figueredo purchased the land. Again Foote did not handle the sale; she merely introduced the seller to another real estate agent.
Reno's office considered three charges - unlawful compensation, conflict of interest, and violations of the county "gift" ordinance, which prohibits people from accepting gifts in exchange for votes. On the first, prosecutors decided "there is no evidence...which would prove that she received a pecuniary benefit as a result of using her influence to obtain the zoning variances." On the second, they judged that because Foote was not "a beneficiary at the time she voted," she didn't break the law. Because she didn't get the money until after the vote, she's fine, Reno's office decided. Prosecutors also cleared Foote of violating the "gift" ordinance: "There is no evidence to indicate that Mary Foote accepted the money in return for her voting on the zoning matter."
The zoning vote investigation of 1987 wasn't the first time Foote had been scrutinized. A year earlier Reno's office had cleared her of filing phony financial disclosure statements, even though Foote admitted to investigators that she provided an altered tax return with the statements, which elected officials are required to file. She supplied what Reno's office termed "a plausible explanation for doing so and promptly amended her financial disclosure forms for the years in question." The plausible explanation: "She stated that she was attempting to hide her assets from her daughter's ex-husband, who would not pay child support if he knew that the assets existed."
The prosecutors found that although Foote filed false forms, "there exists no evidence that she was shielding her sources of income in order to abuse the public office or further her financial interests. Consequently, no charges will be filed." The law, apparently, be damned.
Investigators also cleared State Rep. Luis Rojas (R-Hialeah), this past March, of charges he paid WOCN radio commentator Carlos D'Mant $2000 to broadcast derogatory statements about Rojas's campaign opponent, Christina MacKenzie-Maranon, during the 1988 election. (MacKenzie-Maranon requested the investigation.) State law prohibits candidates and their supporters from giving money or gifts to members of the media in order to receive favorable treatment in elections. Reno's office found that on August 30, 1988, Rojas gave D'Mant's advertising firm two checks for $1000 each, and one check - made out to D'Mant's employer, Union Radio - for $500.
D'Mant maintained that the money was intended for the production of television ads, although he told investigators he didn't remember exactly where the ads were placed. (Investigators discovered that D'Mant paid $425 for commercials on cable's HIT-TV Channel 20.) Shortly before the election, between September 2 and September 8, 1988, D'Mant broadcast several comments about MacKenzie-Maranon, and said her father was racist and anti-Cuban. Reno's investigation showed that "there has been no adequate accounting of the $2000. It is also indisputable that the recipient [D'Mant] made negative political commentary aimed at undermining the campaign of an opponent of Mr. Rojas. Although it is doubtful that all of the money was spent on advertising, there is no evidence directly linking the money to the negative commentary."
Reno's conclusion is familiar: Except for circumstantial evidence, there's nothing to prove that Rojas broke any law. Reno's office could have, but did not, offer D'Mant immunity from prosecution if he'd testify against Rojas. D'Mant and Rojas simply denied MacKenzie-Maranon's allegations; therefore they must not have been true.
A 1988 Reno investigation cleared Virginia Gardens Mayor Roy Whitfield of sales-tax evasion, unlawful compensation, misuse of public position, and perjury/false report to law enforcement officers in connection with the purchase of a $489 Uzi automatic weapon. Reno's inquiry, prompted by an anonymous letter, showed that Whitfield, a vice-principal at Miami Springs Middle School, helped his boss, then-principal Steven Ladd, buy the gun at a discount and without having to pay sales tax, by billing the city for the gun and then having Ladd reimburse Virginia Gardens. Prosecutors eventually granted Ladd immunity in exchange for truthful testimony. While under immunity, Ladd said he "reached an understanding with Whitfield that the bill for the firearm should go to the [city]," Reno's report shows. "He continued to deny, however, that he did so with the intent to avoid paying the state sales tax," and said he finally paid the tax.
Through his lawyer, Whitfield told Reno's investigators that he "had no recollection of conversations he had with others concerning the purchase." After much discussion with his lawyers, Whitfield acknowledged that he had in fact called a gun store, Metro Public Safety Distributors, "to try and get the weapon for Ladd at a good price." He also admitted to telling Ladd that the store should bill the city for the gun if necessary. Finally he told investigators that he had lied under oath during their earlier discussions.
Reno's office decided that Ladd and Whitfield didn't intend to avoid paying the $24 sales tax, and consequently did not pursue tax-evasion charges. Investigators also cleared the two of unlawful-compensation charges because "the benefit derived from Whitfield's involvement in the gun sale went to Ladd, not to Whitfield. There is no evidence that Whitfield was compensated." Thus, no charges. Reno's office did not pursue perjury charges because the two recanted; they changed their stories to the truth, which made the lies, in the eyes of the law, okay. No charges.
And there have been other notable cases:
Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. In this case, Reno's office missed what the feds got. The state attorney investigated when Martinez was accused in 1989 of dealing drugs. A polygraph examiner concluded that the informant in the case was lying about the allegations, and Reno's office did not pursue the matter. The U.S. Attorney's office, however, had other, more significant, interests. This past April, after a protracted investigation of the mayor and others in Hialeah, the feds indicted Martinez on eleven counts of extortion and seven counts of racketeering.
Silvio Cardoso, a former Hialeah councilman, now a government witness granted immunity from prosecution and testifying for the feds about extortion in Hialeah. Reno's investigation into Cardoso's involvement in the extortion plan consisted solely of a February 12, 1985 letter from her chief investigator to an FBI agent who also was investigating: "The FBI will assume responsibility for follow-up on the allegations of criminal activity involving the City of Hialeah Planning and Zoning Board," investigator Havens wrote. "We will cooperate with you in every way possible, and should any violations of state law be developed, we assure you that we will vigilantly pursue the allegations." (The letter followed a Miami Herald series of articles about corruption in Hialeah.) Of course, Reno's office makes a point not to pursue such allegations when the feds are involved.
Miriam Alonso, a Miami city commissioner and former candidate for county commission, who in July 1988 provided false information about where she lived in order to run against Charles Dusseau for a seat on the Metro commission. To be eligible for the District 7 seat, she had to live within District 7, in southwest Dade. The address she provided when she filed to run for office was within the district. The only problem was, she didn't live there. In September 1988, Circuit Court Judge Edward Klein ruled that Alonso was ineligible to run, and her name was removed from the ballot. But one month later the Florida Supreme Court ruled that candidates don't have to live in particular districts until the day of the election. Reno's office determined that the Supreme Court's new ruling precluded prosecution.
Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud was accused this past April of accepting $35,000 from David Paul, the ousted chairman of CenTrust Savings Bank, in return for favorable votes at city commission meetings. Reno said at the time that her office would investigate the allegations. But then she decided not to, and the feds are now handling the case. Reno did investigate Daoud, however, in 1989, at the request of Harry Plissner, a Miami Beach political activist. Plissner complained that Daoud, while trying to pressure him into withdrawing his candidacy for mayor, had admitted discussing a pending public issue with members of the Miami Beach City Commission - outside commission chambers - a violation of Florida's Sunshine Law. Reno's office dismissed the matter as a political squabble between Plissner and Daoud.
Alberto San Pedro, the "Great Corruptor" from Hialeah. Among the most highly touted cases of corruption in Dade history, it turned out to be among the least impressive. While San Pedro himself was not an elected official, he boasted - during conversations he did not know were being recorded - that he had bribed dozens of officials, including judges, mayors, and various commissioners. Initially stories of San Pedro's influence abounded, but of 39 charges eventually filed against him, he was convicted of just seven, and the only elected official whose record was sullied in the 1986 scandal was school board member Kathleen Magrath.
When Reno's office receives a tip that an official is corrupt, a prosecutor and an investigator are assigned the case, says Mary Cagle, chief of the public corruption unit. The prosecutor and investigator interview the tipster to gather as many facts as possible, and then begin tracking down information, finding witnesses, examining records, and speaking to people who may know something about the matter. If Reno's office thinks there is sufficient evidence to convict, they charge the official with a crime.
The problem, Reno and other state prosecutors say, is that Florida's corruption laws make it easy for officials to avoid prosecution. "The public corruption state statutes are just awful," says Ed Austin, state attorney in Duval County. "They're terribly weak and have been emasculated by the Supreme Court of Florida." So what does the Jacksonville prosecutor do about that? He avoids problems with the state court system by having his own prosecutors appointed as special assistant U.S. attorneys so they may try cases in federal court. "In almost all of your public corruption cases, you get better tools on the federal side," Austin explains. "They have the Hobbs [anti-racketeering] Act. It opens doors."
In the past, Reno's prosecutors have been appointed as special assistant U.S. attorneys, most notably during the notorious Miami River Cops case in 1986. In cases involving elected officials, however, Reno says she has not seen it necessary to have her lawyers try cases in federal court. Still, like Austin, Reno says she'd like to see stronger state corruption laws. "We've had concerns over the way that unauthorized-compensation and bribery laws are drafted," she says. She has not, however, lobbied forcefully to have the laws changed.
Miami defense attorney Michael Tarkoff, however, argues that state laws are no weaker than the federal ones, and that Reno can always prosecute if she wishes. "The [federal] Hobbs Act is no easier to prove than unlawful compensation or bribery," he says. "These crimes all require specific intent."
Privately, Dade prosecutors express frustration not with Reno, but with the difficulty of proving public corruption cases. "If you don't have them locked up eight ways to Sunday, you're going to lose," says one prosecutor. In the Schreiber case, the prosecutor says, "we expended a lot of resources, we explored every possible theory, and we ended up not being able to shoot to kill." Furthermore, Reno maintains that unless she's convinced she can win a conviction, she has no right bringing elected officials to trial. But Reno, who does not personally try cases, acknowledges that no case is "locked up eight ways to Sunday."
Defense lawyers contend that Reno gives a benefit to elected officials she does not extend to people who don't have political connections. That benefit, they say, comes in the form of enormous analysis before charges are filed - analysis that concentrates on reasons not to file. Meanwhile, the lawyers add, Reno is brutal on nonpoliticians, routinely filing charges without such investigation. A sampling of that criticism:
"The normal case just rolls through the system untouched and unscathed, with very little scrutiny as to the potential to actually win," says Richard Sharpstein, a former prosecutor who served a stint in the public corruption unit and now is a top Miami defense lawyer. "I just don't think that they properly use the resources that are available to them. I think they have some fine investigators, like Ray Havens, and they have some professionals who are seemingly bright, but they're bogged down in these petty complaints rather than looking for serious allegations of corruption."
"The public has a perception that there's an awful lot of circumstantial shenanigans that go on with public officials," says Joel Hirschhorn, a former prosecutor and prominent Miami attorney. "I think that one area the state could prosecute, but doesn't, involves municipal zoning laws - particularly zoning changes. I think there's been kind of an institutional policy developed over the years that they defer to the federal government in these matters."
"Any citizen who goes down to the clerk of the circuit court criminal division and goes through the files can see that there are thousands of cases that have been filed and have been lost by the state attorney's office," says Ellis Rubin, the famous and flamboyant Miami defense lawyer. "Does that mean that she shouldn't have filed the cases in the first place? If that is her theory and her admission, then I think that many people have great civil rights cases against the State of Florida," Rubin says, for allowing a double standard between prosecuting elected officials and everyone else.
Prosecutors contend that elected officials tend to be a touch shrewder than the average criminal, and are good at covering their tracks. The cases themselves tend to involve less evidence - at its most base level, a bribery case can be one person's word against another, with no fingerprints or bullet holes to support a prosecutor's contention that the accused is actually guilty. In such situations, investigators occasionally tap telephones to gather information. Still, the cases tend not to present the dramatic evidence on which prosecutors often rely. The public corruption unit prosecutes a lot of police officers, one attorney says, because "oftentimes what they do is more egregious and easier to prove." There's another reason Reno's office prosecutes so many cops: most area police departments have internal affairs divisions that constantly monitor officers' behavior and send cases to Reno. When it comes to monitoring public officials, there is no such department. Only Reno.
Cagle, chief of the public corruption unit, says she understands people being frustrated with many seemingly corrupt elected officials not being locked up. "Your average citizen out there can look at something and say, `This looks bad to me,' and a lot of times it does. But we can't start an investigation unless there's something that appears to be criminal. You can't always prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt in the courtroom just because it stinks when you look at it." And, she says, "For the average person who looks at the Schreiber case, it really stinks."
Reno is comfortable, even serene, with her office's handling of public corruption. "We prosecute every case we can where the evidence is sufficient," she says, dismissing any talk that she is lethargic about pursuing elected officials. "There are so many perceptions that I long ago stopped worrying about perceptions. I worry about reality."
Reno's actions, however, belie her words. In fact the county's top prosecutor cares deeply about what people think, and takes pains to avoid any appearance of personal misconduct or that she uses her office to bully others. She once asked Chief Judge Gerald Wetherington to appoint a special prosecutor to handle complaints that her mother's peacocks were disturbing neighbors. She pays sticker price for her personal cars so no one will think she's coercing dealerships into giving her a break on the cost.
She points to one particularly difficult public corruption case from 1987. "When we prosecuted Judge Gross, a number of people told us we shouldn't do it," she says, declining to name the people who dispensed such advice. "I told them, ~`I've got to do what's correct based on the evidence and the law.'" In 1980, just two years after taking office, she prosecuted a nonelected but popular official - former school superintendent Johnny Jones, who was accused of using county money to buy, among other items, gold-plated plumbing fixtures for his home. He was convicted of second-degree grand theft, but the prosecution was politically risky. Former Miami Police Chief Harms - the man who must have been "confused" about the Miller Dawkins situation - believes Reno felt stung by the matter. "It was perceived by many in the black community that the reason he was prosecuted was because he was black," he says today. "She got a lot of flak within the black community and came to realize she didn't want that kind of aggravation."
Reno, however, contends that she doesn't mind politically hot cases. "I try to do everything in my power to keep politics out of the office," she says. Her prosecutors - both on and off the record - say they have never felt pressured to go easy on anyone. "If anything," one prosecutor says, "we will double our efforts when it's a public official."
As for Reno, she's confident she's doing well. And she presents an invitation to people who say she should prosecute more politicians: "Have 'em call me," the state attorney offers. "Have 'em sit down with the facts.
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