Larry Hawkins The Man Who Loved Women
About a month ago, during a wide-ranging, three-hour interview, Dade County Commissioner Larry Hawkins spoke about allegations that he had sexually harassed a woman who worked for Vietnam Veterans of America. Until recently Hawkins had been a member of that organization's board of directors. Paula Ramsey, the San Francisco woman who filed the harassment complaint against him, was the VVA's manager for product sales.
This is what Hawkins had to say about the complaint and the commotion that ensued after he resigned from the VVA's board of directors: "Trash for cash! That's all that is. So just put that aside." Ramsey and her attorney, Hawkins charged, were attempting to extort money from him to keep the allegations quiet. The attorney, Lanny Fielder, had demanded a million dollars from him and from the VVA, Hawkins claimed. "What you have is two people who are going 'trash for cash' because they think I'm vulnerable and that I'll roll over," Hawkins asserted. Both of them, he added, were aware that three of Hawkins's former office employees had charged him with sexual harassment, and they told Hawkins if he didn't want to be embarrassed further, Ramsey would have to be compensated.
The commissioner wasn't content merely to expose Ramsey's motives; he was ready to prove that her charges were false. First, Hawkins began, Ramsey claimed he was drinking hard liquor on the night he went to her hotel room during a convention and supposedly grabbed her breasts and exposed himself to her. His rebuttal: The only alcohol he ever drinks is beer. The second proof that she was lying -- the clincher -- should have been obvious to anyone who knew him and who had actually seen Ramsey. "This woman," he said, "happens to be, in my opinion, fairly unattractive."
During this interview in his downtown commission office, Hawkins had been joined by his executive assistant, Terry Murphy, and his well-known political consultant, Phil Hamersmith. Both men had taken seats on a couch across from Hawkins's desk. Now, as Hawkins ventured down this dubious aesthetic line of defense, Murphy began to squirm. "You see, Terry goes crazy when I say that," Hawkins said with a smile while motioning to his assistant, who laughed nervously.
Undeterred, Hawkins plowed ahead. "She happens to have," he began, then stopped in midsentence. "She's very well endowed, okay? But she is not an attractive person."
Hawkins turned toward his political consultant. "Philip goes back with me to 1978, and I think he will tell you that women I have dated have not been completely unpleasant or intellectually deficient," Hawkins noted with pride. "I have pretty good taste, I guess you could say, when it comes to women." Hamersmith smiled but said nothing.
During an interview subsequent to Hawkins's assertions of extortion, Lanny Fielder, whois not only Paula Ramsey's attorney but also her ex-husband, denied they had ever asked for money from Hawkins or the VVA. "That's all bullshit," he said disgustedly. "There was one comment about money, and it came from [Hawkins's personal attorney, George Yoss]. He said Paula won't be able to get any money from Larry because he's judgment-proof -- he doesn't have any money. And I told him we didn't want any money. All we wanted was for Larry to apologize and say he wouldn't do this to anyone else."
Hawkins had urged New Times to contact VVA attorney John Catterson, who, he said, would be able to verify Ramsey's demand for cash. "Paula has never asked for any money," Catterson replied emphatically in a phone interview from his New York City law office. "Lanny Fielder has never asked for any money. Both of them made it very clear that the only thing they wanted was an apology from Larry and a promise by him that he wouldn't do that to any other women again."
Hawkins made his charges before New Times had obtained a copy of a VVA report investigating Paula Ramsey's complaint, and before the highly critical contents of that report were publicized in the Miami Herald. The Herald article, published last week, made no mention of Hawkins's opinion that Ramsey is unattractive and thus unlikely to have been the object of his desires. And it included nothing about "trash for cash."
Was Hawkins lying to New Times? Or was this simply a misunderstanding? Catterson admitted he did discuss money with Hawkins and his attorney, George Yoss. But he brought up the subject only as a solemn warning to the two men, a warning based on his review of Ramsey's allegations and of Hawkins's conduct: "I said to George and to Larry that Paula could sue us for millions of dollars." Not that she had threatened to sue, but that she would be justified in bringing a lawsuit.
Dissembling and misunderstandings have marked every phase of the tumult surrounding Hawkins and the VVA. From Hawkins's point of view, flattering comments and innocent gestures toward Ramsey and another VVA staffer had been sadly misinterpreted. John Catterson, who investigated and co-authored the VVA report on the affair, came to a dramatically different conclusion. "Throughout the course of this investigation," he wrote in his report, "Mr. Hawkins has, in the opinion of the investigators, demonstrated a total lack of candor and a profound lack of understanding of the serious nature of the charges against him.... In a shocking demonstration of his lack of understanding and, to both investigators, a reflection of his true character and arrogance, Mr. Hawkins made two totally inappropriate responses to our inquiry. During our telephone conference on February 5, Mr. Hawkins made a shocking reference to Ms. Ramsey's figure. He said, 'It may sound chauvinistic, but Paula has big boobs.'"
Larry Hawkins's mouth has gotten him into a lot of trouble lately, and the timing couldn't be worse. He's up for re-election this fall, and with two weeks left before the close of the filing period, he's already drawn two opponents: PTA activist Katy Sorenson and former state legislator Richard Renick. In addition, he's facing three serious charges that he may have violated state ethics codes (see sidebar, below), any one of which could lead the Florida Commission on Ethics to impose penalties ranging from a reprimand to a recommendation that the governor remove him from office.
But it is the subject of sexual harassment that has captured most people's attention in South Florida. While investigating Hawkins with regard to the three ethics charges, Dade Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino questioned current and former members of Hawkins's staff. During the course of the sworn depositions, two former secretaries -- Mary DiFede and Rashel "Shelly" Nudelman -- told Centorino they were no longer working for Hawkins because he had sexually harassed them. Centorino then expanded his investigation to include the harassment allegations. After more than four years spent pursuing the accusations against Hawkins, Centorino declined to bring charges against him and instead forwarded his research to the state ethics commission in the form of a complaint. To date, the commission has interviewed at least three women who claim they were harassed by Hawkins -- DiFede, Nudelman, and another former secretary, Marcia Fernandez -- and has found probable cause to believe their claims are true.
In the past month, New Times reviewed all available records regarding the various Hawkins investigations -- the two dozen depositions taken by Centorino; a report prepared by Florida Commission on Ethics investigator Larry Hill; and Hill's tape-recorded sessions with all potential witnesses -- more than ten hours of interviews. The paper also examined a portion of a polygraph test Hawkins has boasted will exonerate him. Also, in the course of interviews with more than 60 people, New Times discovered another half-dozen women who described a pattern of behavior by Hawkins that could be considered inappropriate, if not sexually harassing.
But nothing proved to be as revealing as time spent with Hawkins himself. "I welcome this opportunity," Hawkins said during the first of several interviews. "I haven't done this with anyone else in town. I haven't ever really tried to tell the entire story, to put it in context. The thing that has frustrated me the most is -- I'm innocent, damn it. I'm innocent, damn it!"
Throughout that initial interview, Hawkins, who is 51 years old, portrayed himself as the victim. "I've become a marked man," he argued. "I'm not saying that as someone who has never done anything wrong. But there seems to be a feeding frenzy. That's what one of the people in the press called it, a person who works over at One Herald Plaza. They said, 'There seems to be this feeding frenzy on you right now. You're news, and if you're not, we're going to make you news.'"
Getting to the truth, Hawkins insisted, was a simple matter of applying perspective. "What you need to do is look at the whole person," he advised. "What makes Larry Hawkins, Larry Hawkins? What are his values? What does he care about? What are his life experiences?"
His earliest experiences are drawn from suburban Detroit, where he was born and raised, and where his father, Roy, was an engineer for the telephone company. His mother, Carolyn, was a homemaker who on occasion worked as a secretary. In addition to Larry, their oldest child, the couple raised two daughters. Growing up in the innocence of the Eisenhower era, Hawkins enjoyed a carefree middle-class life -- he attended public schools, worked a few odd jobs during the summers, and was, in the words of his mother, "a really nice boy."
In high school, Hawkins's interests seemed more directed toward girls and sports than to his studies. "He was always being chased by the girls," recalls his mother. "They were always very attracted to him. He was a very good athlete -- not such a good student -- but he was always a good athlete." At Farmington High, Hawkins participated in basketball, track, and wrestling, though football was his specialty. With speed and agility, he was a terror on the field -- averaging nearly six yards per carry, a school record.
Hawkins then attended Eastern Michigan University, where, in 1966, he earned a degree in political science. Then it was on to law school at Wayne State University, but his first year was interrupted by the war in Vietnam. In 1967, on the day he graduated from officer candidate school, 2d Lt. Larry Hawkins married long-time girlfriend Mary Jean Beals in the chapel at Fort Benning, Georgia. His subsequent assignment to Southeast Asia was made all the more trying by late news that his young bride was pregnant and that he probably wouldn't be home before their child was born.
Tragically, he was wrong. Hawkins was in Vietnam only a few months before he was shipped out on a stretcher, his life forever changed. "I was injured during the Tet offensive of 1968," Hawkins says, "by any account the most brutal time of the Vietnam War, in what they call a very hot fire area around Tuy Hoa during the retaking of an airbase. I was by myself on a sand dune directing artillery fire, mortar fire, and air strikes. When I was hit, I felt my back open up. I thought I would never see my son, who hadn't been born yet, and that this was a hell of a place to die."
An enemy mortar round had exploded behind him, instantly severing his spinal cord. He fell to the ground unconscious. "The next thing I remember I was on a helicopter," he continues, "and there was a guy holding my hand and he said, 'Don't worry, we're going to be okay.' I looked at him and I believed him. I believed I was going to be okay. And then I got to the field hospital and they took me off, and during triage the doctor looked at me and I heard him say, 'He's too far gone to save. Put him over there.' And I remember my head looking down at a row of stretchers, half of which had the tarps pulled over their heads, which means they were dead. And I remember being set down there to die."
But Hawkins held on. "I woke up six weeks later," he recalls. "The doctor said to me, 'I think you'll probably be paralyzed for the rest of your life.' But at least I knew I was going to live." In addition to suffering paralysis, Hawkins lost the little finger on his right hand, injuries that led to a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Despite eight major operations since the war, Hawkins remains in almost constant pain, requiring daily medication. And his diet is restricted A he is unable to eat and properly digest red meat, and he must avoid milk. "He was never bitter, he was never moody," his mother says. "He was just anxious to get on with his life." At the top of his list: finishing law school. Within a year of his homecoming, he was back at Wayne State. In the meantime, Mary Jean had given birth to a boy they named Richard.
For the next two years Larry and Mary Jean struggled to adapt to the dramatic changes in their young lives, but the combined pressures of Larry's injuries, parenthood, and law school proved to be too much. During Hawkins's final year at Wayne State, Mary Jean left him. "Not her fault," he says flatly. "She had two babies to raise -- my son and me."
Carolyn Hawkins recalls an additional marital problem, an aspect of her son's personality that was exacerbated by the injuries: his efforts to reassert his masculinity. Hawkins himself doesn't disagree. "Back then, when I used to drink beer at night and go out and play pool, stay up all night on the weekends and play cards rather than study, I think there was a bit of Larry Hawkins that had to prove he was still a man and a macho guy," he says, his voice low and deep with intensity. "But those days are long over for me. I'm content with who I am."
In 1971 he became the first wheelchair-bound person in the history of Wayne State to receive a law degree. Hawkins never took the Michigan bar exam, or any state's bar exam, he says, because he was never interested in practicing law; he wanted the degree on his resume to help him land a job in the business community.
Having spent nearly his entire life in Michigan, Hawkins concluded it was time for a change, especially in light of his injury. "After three years of pushing through the snow in a wheelchair, I realized that wasn't a way I wanted to go," he explains. He moved to Miami in 1972.
That Hawkins soon gravitated toward politics should have surprised no one. Both his parents had been politically active in Michigan, and being lifelong Democrats, there was never much doubt as to where their son's party loyalties would lie. Hawkins's first job in Florida tossed him into the political fray as a lobbyist for veterans and the disabled in Tallahassee. In one session alone, he successfully lobbied for nineteen bills and helped to change the state's constitution to prevent discrimination based on physical handicaps. "I think at the time we were only the second state in the country to have written that into their constitution," Hawkins says. "There are still very few states that have that."
In 1978 he made his first bid for public office, running for an open legislative seat in South Dade. His principal opponent: Dexter Lehtinen. Following a grueling campaign, Hawkins beat Lehtinen in the November 1978 runoff election. But the campaign proved bittersweet. Earlier that year Hawkins had married Judy Spates, a single mother of two children. According to Hawkins's mother, Judy was strongly opposed to her new husband running for office, but he did it anyway. When he won, his wife was doubly upset -- so much so that she didn't attend Hawkins's swearing-in ceremony in Tallahassee. His parents were there, of course; they had moved to Florida in 1976 to be closer to their son. Hawkins's own son Richard was also there. But not his wife. In fact, a couple of days later, when Hawkins and his family returned home, they found his house empty. "To get in we had to climb in through the kitchen window to unlock the door," Carolyn Hawkins recalls. "Judy had taken everything." The couple divorced a short time later.
"Larry is in a constant war with women," says Susann Wild. "He loves women, but he always seems to be at odds with them." Wild and Hawkins first met in Tallahassee in 1979. As a travel agent, she had many clients who were politicians, and she prided herself on taking special care of her influential customers -- upgrades to first class, short layovers, VIP treatment. Hawkins soon found his way to her door, and she was eager to be of assistance.
Wild had been making his travel arrangements for several months when Hawkins ran into her one night in a bar near the capitol. She was there talking to a couple of lobbyists, she recalls, and Hawkins rolled up behind her, reached under her skirt, and grabbed her. "I turned around and I slugged him," Wild says. Hawkins seemed unfazed. "He thought this was all great fun," she remembers. "I said, 'Larry, you've embarrassed me and you've belittled me and I don't work with people like that.'" Wild told Hawkins to find himself another travel agent, and stormed out of the bar. After three months of what she guesses was lousy service from the other travel agents, Hawkins began calling her and apologizing profusely. Eventually she took him back as a client.
As she sits in her West Dade living room recounting this fifteen-year-old incident, Wild explains she's doing so not to humiliate Hawkins but to show that there are lessons to be learned from dealing with him. "He plays with women to see what he can get away with," she says candidly. "But the problem often is that the women don't know how to handle it. They go along until it's too late, and then they feel trapped. After that [episode in the bar], he never did anything to me because I wouldn't put up with it. And he knew that." This firmly established understanding allowed for a friendship that led Wild in 1984 to join Hawkins's staff. She helped run his district office in South Dade while he was in Tallahassee. "Larry's good points far outweigh the bad," she insists. "Larry was a hero. He may be a dirty old man, but he was a war hero."
Another woman who worked for Hawkins while he was in the legislature, and who asked that her name not be used in this article, says she never personally felt sexually harassed by him, but she does recall plenty of occasions on which he would remark upon the appearance of women around him. "He'd say things like, 'My, you've got a good-looking pair of breasts.' Or 'You have a cute ass.' He's always made dumb comments," she recalls. "That's more for attention than sexual fulfillment. His biggest problem is he's got too much mouth. He's never sexually matured much past the age of twenty. He just thinks he's cute. If he would only put it in perspective -- who he is and how old he is."
She disagrees with the notion that Hawkins says the things he does because of some chronic need to assert his authority. "I don't think he has a power complex where he does it to twist or demean women," the former employee continues. "He loves women. The bottom line with him is he doesn't think. He doesn't think. And the sad part is I think Larry does a good job. He's just a child."
After serving eight years in the legislature, Hawkins embarked on a new adventure in 1986 -- he ran for state education commissioner. More precisely, he wheeled for the position, nearly 1200 miles. Hawkins set out from the northwest corner of the state, at the Florida-Alabama border, propelled himself east to the Atlantic Ocean, then zigzagged his way south. Averaging about 30 miles a day, and campaigning at every opportunity, he took nearly two months to complete the journey. Though he was applauded for his physical accomplishment, he finished second in the Democratic primary.
Hawkins, however, didn't remain politically idle for long. A reform movement was sweeping across Dade County, and he was encouraged to join the 1988 race for the county commission. He ran successfully against Clara Oesterle, a veteran commissioner from South Dade.
As a county commissioner Hawkins has excelled. He is known for his meticulous preparation and planning, and his skills as a politician are envied by many on the commission and have earned him the sobriquet "Deals on Wheels." He has been a tireless advocate for the disabled, and while he was chairman of the commission's health and human services committee, he was cited for his commitment to Jackson Memorial Hospital and the health concerns of Dade's indigent population. Before the State of Florida had a family-leave law on the books, Hawkins led the fight to have Dade County pass a similar measure, guaranteeing most employees time off following the birth of a child. Next week the county commission is expected to pass another of Hawkins's proposals -- an ordinance to protect consumers from unscrupulous moving and storage companies.
But it is Hawkins's personal behavior, not his political acumen, that may determine his future. Signs of trouble arose almost from the outset. For example, in 1989, while Hawkins was chairman of the county's internal management committee, he announced during a meeting a number of changes on the commission's general staff. (As head of internal management, Hawkins controlled personnel who worked for the commission as a whole.) One of those changes involved the reassignment of a secretary named Amilada Clerveau, a move that was seen as a demotion. Following the meeting, as commissioners left the dais for their offices, Clerveau sat sobbing at her desk. She had no idea she was about to be transferred, and heard it for the first time when Hawkins publicly announced it.
Hawkins's fellow commissioners were stunned at his callousness. As they gathered around the woman's desk to console her, angry words were exchanged. Mayor Steve Clark was furious, and on the spot he stripped Hawkins of his chairmanship of internal management. The scene was so dramatic the Herald published a story about it the next day, and included a host of other changes Hawkins had made in staff and procedures that affected the entire commission. Commissioner Jorge Valdes decried Hawkins's management style. "Everybody here is living in terror," he said. Hawkins shrugged off the complaints with these words: "I don't consider myself a tyrant."
But tyranny does seems an appropriate word, at least according to the working environment described to investigators by the three women who accuse Hawkins of sexual harassment A Mary DiFede, Shelly Nudelman, and Marcia Fernandez. The women declined to be interviewed for this story, but in their tape-recorded remarks, conducted under oath by ethics commission investigator Larry Hill, they claimed Hawkins made lewd and suggestive comments to them and found ways to insult and demean them. Marcia Fernandez, who worked in Hawkins's office from 1988 to 1990, said it was a "hellhole.... It was very difficult to be called into his office alone because you felt, okay, what's he going to say next? Or what's he going to do next? Or what is his comment going to be?"
Shelly Nudelman, who worked for Hawkins from January 1990 to November 1992, said Hawkins repeatedly made remarks about her figure. "He would glare at me -- you know, leer at me -- and make comments," she recalled. "'Oh God, your tits are hanging out.' Or 'Your tits look great today.' And I would say, 'Would you please not say that. You know that I don't like that.' And he'd say, 'I know, but I just had to tell you.' Or he would say things like, 'I know you don't want to hear this, but God, you have a good ass.'"
Nudelman also told investigator Hill, "Every morning he'd call [on his way to work] and say, 'What are you wearing? Describe what you are wearing to me.'"
"Did he ever give you a reason why he was doing this?" Hill asked.
"Why do you think he was doing this?"
"Because," Nudelman responded, "I think he's sick."
Mary DiFede said she put up with the same sort of comments when she worked in Hawkins's office from October 1990 to May 1992. "He would say things like, 'You look very hot today,' and 'If I wasn't in this wheelchair, I would jump you right now,'" DiFede recounted. "I should have slapped him but I didn't."
On other occasions, she recalled, Hawkins deliberately knocked onto the floor a bullet he kept on his desk so he could try to look down her blouse as she picked it up for him. The second time he did this, she said, she caught on. But he tried other things, she stated. While standing next to him, going over some paperwork, he poked her in the breast with a pencil, she said. She turned to her boss, incredulous at what he had done, but Hawkins said nothing.
Hawkins would also force her to attend after-hours political events with him. One time he demanded her presence under the pretext of needing someone to interpret Spanish for him. That was a lie, DiFede argued, because she knew other people from the office would be there to interpret if needed. As it happened, an interpretor wasn't even necessary. "I just sat there and had to look pretty for him," she said. "He just kept commenting about how beautiful I looked and how he was with the most beautiful woman there."
At another required event, this one a political fundraiser, DiFede claimed Hawkins pressured her to go out to dinner with one of his friends. She said she reminded Hawkins she already had plans for the night. "And Larry looked at me and said, 'No, you need to go to dinner with this gentleman,'" she recalled. She said she ran off emotionally distraught. "I left the event in tears," she told Hill.
When she returned to work, she said she told Hawkins's executive assistant, Terry Murphy, she was fed up with the way Hawkins was treating her. "I told him, 'I'm not in any way a piece of meat or a Barbie doll for anybody. And I'm not going to take this any more,'" DiFede recounted to Hill.
In his interviews with both Hill and New Times, Hawkins said DiFede misunderstood his intentions. He wasn't trying to force her to date his friend. They were going out as a group, with several other people, and they wanted to buy DiFede dinner as a way of thanking her for volunteering to work that evening.
All three women also complained about Hawkins's requirement that they wear lipstick A at all times. While this may seem to be among the more trivial complaints lodged against Hawkins, to the women it represented a perverse form of control he exercised over them. For example, the women said that if, after lunch, they returned to work without lipstick, Hawkins would order them out of his office. "He would not let you address him until you came back with your makeup on," Marcia Fernandez asserted.
"I'm not a makeup person," Shelly Nudelman told Hill. "I really didn't wear lipstick too much before. I had to start wearing lipstick when I started working in this office. And it got to a point where it was offensive. Like, am I some ugly creature that you won't even look at me if I don't have lipstick on my face?"
Even executive assistant Terry Murphy agreed with the women. "I've heard him tell his mother when she comes in here to put on lipstick," Murphy told Hill during his interview. "I don't get it." Murphy acknowledged that DiFede, Nudelman, and Fernandez all complained to him about the office rule. He can't, however, remember if he discussed it with the commissioner. "I don't recall if I ever specifically challenged him on it," he said. "I thought they were probably right and it was inappropriate."
Today Hawkins argues that the controversy has been blown far out of proportion. He is simply trying to ensure that the women in his office are properly attired and looking their best. (The lipstick rule remains in effect.) It is no different, he said, from requiring men to wear neckties. "Did I expect them to wear lipstick and dress in a professional manner? Yes, I did," Hawkins offered. "Am I too much of a stickler for that? Maybe." He also prohibits women from wearing open-toe shoes. "It's a quirk," he said by way of explanation. "I'm human and I have quirks. It's my office."
Hawkins was accompanied to his interview with investigator Hill by two lawyers, George Yoss and Raul Cantero. Hill asked Hawkins: "Did you throw your bullet on the floor so [Mary DiFede] could bend over and you could look down her blouse?"
"There wasn't anything down her blouse," Hawkins quickly replied. His attorneys began laughing.
"I take that as 'No,'" Hill added as Hawkins's attorneys continued to cackle in the background. "The answer is 'No'?"
"No," Hawkins affirmed. "She's a very small-chested woman. It doesn't take a genius to figure that one out."
A few moments later in the interview, Hill asked Hawkins about DiFede's claim that Hawkins called her a "bimbo." Hawkins answered yes, but that he was actually paying DiFede a compliment. He said he told DiFede that when he first hired her, he thought she was a bimbo, but that over the years she had become a good, productive worker.
Hill conceded to Hawkins that he wasn't sure if the bimbo incident would be important to his report. "Since I don't know what a bimbo is," Hill said, "and Webster's really doesn't tell me, I don't know that it's an issue."
In the background, Hawkins's attorneys once again broke into boisterous laughter. Yoss can be heard offering to help Hill find a definition.
"When it comes to bimbos," Hawkins chimed in, "George has all the books."
(For DiFede, Hawkins's "bimbo" comment, made in May 1992, was indeed an issue -- and the final insult. She quit the next day. Hawkins claims she resigned because she didn't receive a promotion.)
Investigator Hill interviewed other members of Hawkins's staff as well. In separate sessions, two of the commissioner's long-time male aides said they had never seen Hawkins act inappropriately. Kevin Stein was emphatic. He told Hill it was "just absurd" to think that Hawkins would make lewd comments about the appearance of his female staff. "This whole sexual harassment thing -- I think it's a bunch of B.S.," Stein declared. "The commissioner can be a difficult person to work for. He demands a lot and, like any tough boss, there have been times where I was so aggravated and frustrated at him, but it's work-related. We've all been under that kind of pressure."
Terry Murphy denied that any of the women complained to him about being sexually harassed by Hawkins. "I've never heard them use the term 'sexual harassment,'" he told Hill. Furthermore, Murphy said, Hawkins isn't the type of person to engage in such conduct.
Hawkins's questionable behavior has not been limited to members of his own staff. Female aides and secretaries for other county commissioners say they, too, have been subjected to his lascivious side. "I actually felt sorry for him," says one former commission aide who still does business with the county and therefore asked that her name not be used here. "He was always trying to paint the picture of himself as a real sex machine. He grossed me out. Being around him was something I despised. He needs help," she adds. "He needs to come to grips with being in a wheelchair."
Another commission aide, who also requested anonymity for fear of retribution by Hawkins, recalls an episode at a commission meeting. Hawkins motioned for her to come over to him. Although it seemed odd that he would summon her -- she didn't work for him, after all -- she went as a courtesy. The aide claims that Hawkins, in a sultry whisper, told her how good she was looking and that it appeared she had lost weight. "Then he began blowing down the front of my dress," she says. "He's such a pig." Hawkins also perpetrated other incidents involving the woman -- comments he would make about her body, dirty jokes he would tell her and other staff members. "It was always something about a penis or it was something about a vagina or it was something about tits," she says. "Larry has a million of them."
She says she is offended at Hawkins's public denials of his actions. "I'm telling you this because I respect those women [DiFede, Nudelman, and Fernandez], and I don't want to leave them hanging out there all alone," she explains. "It's not right. Those women are not making up these things. His conduct is unbecoming of an elected official. If he wanted to become a lech, then he should have bought himself a porn shop."
Virtually no one seems willing to confront Hawkins about these matters -- not his closest aides, not his fellow commissioners, not even people who say they consider Hawkins to be a personal friend. "You've basically got a guy who needs some help," says one prominent political player who has known Hawkins since his days in Tallahassee. "Larry is beyond a state of denial. I just think he doesn't realize that what he does is wrong. Look at the comments he's made to the press and to the ethics investigator. And besides that, I've been in his office when he's made rude comments about Mary [DiFede]. I think the guy is just blind to it."
So why doesn't this friend challenge Hawkins directly? "I know, I know, I've thought about it," he says. "Somebody should."
Ralph Velocci has known Hawkins for ten years, considers him a good friend, and says he has nothing but admiration for the commissioner. "The guy gets up every morning, climbs into that wheelchair, and dedicates himself to public service," says the former head of Industrial Waste Service. "He has plugged away for a lot of years to help this community." As for Hawkins's apparent problems, Velocci allows, "Maybe he does have a long tongue. Maybe he does talk too much. I think he talks without thinking. Why does he do it? Maybe because he's trying to prove himself. We all like to prove ourselves sometimes."
According to Hawkins, anyone who believes he harasses women because he is confined to a wheelchair and has something to prove is simply dead wrong. "I don't view myself from any perspective of having to prove anything," he says, his voice filling with emotion. "I know who I am. I don't have to prove my sexuality. I don't have to prove my intelligence or lack thereof. I don't have to prove that. If other people are uncomfortable with the fact that I'm in a wheelchair, if other people think that because I'm in a wheelchair that I have to act in a certain way, then I can't change that about them. But I know who I am and I'm comfortable, I'm not ashamed, I'm not embarrassed about anything about me. Because for 26 years I've beaten the odds."
It may be too early in this year's county commission campaigns to rank Hawkins's odds for victory, but he acknowledges the need for support among female voters, and he is aware of the danger he is now facing: a growing perception that he is an insensitive sexist, a classic chauvinist pig. During one of his interviews with New Times, Hawkins said many women have approached him with reassurances that he needn't worry, that they know the sexual harassment charges are false. He even provided the names of several women he believed should be contacted for comment.
Among those women was Colleen Griffin, whom Hawkins appointed to the zoning appeals board in 1990. Griffin said she has never experienced any problems with Hawkins. "He's a hard-working commissioner who puts in a lot of extra hours and a lot of time for his district," Griffin stated. "He's brought us through a lot from the hurricane."
Pat Fernandez is Hawkins's current executive secretary. She has held the job for the past year and said she has never seen the commissioner act improperly. "I've never felt uncomfortable with Larry," she offered. "He can be very demanding. When he wants something done, he wants it done right away."
Another woman Hawkins recommended was Deborah Mayo. This is what he had to say about her: "She used to work for me. She's an attorney now and is as attractive as anybody in the Metro-Dade Center." Without prompting, Hawkins decided to emphasize the point: "I will tell you right now that if you looked outside this door for ten minutes and watched the males and females pass, and Deborah Mayo was one of those people, and you came back in here, and knowing she was single and I was single and I said, 'You know, of all of the people you saw in the last ten minutes, who would you think I'd ask out for a date?' You'd say, 'The dark-haired girl, the tall one. Boy, is she nice.'"
In a subsequent telephone interview, Mayo recalled that Hawkins did come courting once, a long time ago, with a box of chocolates and an armful of flowers. She turned him down for a date, but the two have been friends for years. "He's a genuinely fine and kind gentleman," she said, adding that he is "slightly flirtatious." As for the allegations of sexual harassment, she is shocked by them and doesn't believe them. "I'm not suggesting that any of these girls didn't feel uncomfortable because of Larry's sweet flirtatious nature," she noted, but Hawkins would never try to hurt or demean a woman.
Some of the women Hawkins suggested New Times contact, however, ended up having their own disquieting stories about the commissioner. One woman, in fact, was so annoyed that Hawkins would suggest her name as a reference that halfway through her interview she stopped in midthought and cried out, "That bastard!"
To sway public opinion, Hawkins knows that kind words from a few select friends won't carry much weight with the public at large. He needs something big, something explosive. "I know there is no way I can win in the press," Hawkins admits. "I knew I had to do something that was personally humiliating and distasteful to me. I took a lie detector test and I passed." The day after taking the exam, on June 2, Hawkins flew to Tallahassee for his first hearing before the state ethics commission. And although he was unsuccessful in persuading commission members to consider the polygraph results, he remained upbeat. Following the hearing, Hawkins declared to the Miami Herald that the polygraph exam was the equivalent of an "A-bomb" dropped on prosecutor Joe Centorino's ethics complaint. "Centorino's complaint crumbles," Hawkins boasted, and then added with Hawkinsesque flair: "It falls down faster than Gennifer Flowers's underwear."
Through attorney George Yoss, Hawkins released to New Times this portion of the exam:
Q: Regarding those allegations which Mary DiFede and Shelly Nudelman have made against you, do you intend to answer truthfully each question about that?
Q: Did you say anything to Mary DiFede about "jumping" her?
Q: Did you knock a bullet on the floor in order to look down Mary DiFede's dress?
Q: Did you touch Mary DiFede's breast with a pencil, hand, or any object?
Q: Did you ever use the word "tits" when speaking with Shelly Nudelman?
Following the exam, polygraph expert George Slattery wrote, "Based upon a careful analysis of Lawrence Hawkins's polygrams, it was the opinion of this examiner that there were no significant or consistent psycho-physiological reactions consistent with deception to the relevant questions and answers. Therefore, it was the opinion of this examiner that Mr. Hawkins did truthfully answer those questions." (Slattery did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)
Warren Holmes, a respected polygraph expert with 40 years' experience, says Hawkins's test results hardly carry the impact of an atomic bomb. In fact, Holmes, former chief examiner for the Miami Police Department, places little value in the test because it may have been compromised by several factors. "Medications, for instance, have a profound effect on the results of any test," Holmes asserts. Hawkins takes Valium and other prescribed drugs on a daily basis to ease pain and help with his digestion. Holmes says pain medication in particular will "dim" or "even out" an individual's response to polygraph questions and make results more difficult to analyze. Hawkins, however, says he took no medication in the 24 hours preceding the test.
"Medication is one problem," Holmes explains, "but not the only one." For example, test results can be adversely affected if a subject believes his answers to be truthful even if they are not. "Also," he adds, "some people are just chronic, prolific liars, and they are so good at it that they can beat the test," which is why polygraph results are not admissible as evidence in court. "And they shouldn't go in as evidence," Holmes stresses. "It's not an exact science; it's too subjective."
The lie detector test, however, has been only the first step in Hawkins's campaign to clear his name. The next step is more complicated. Hawkins hopes to show that he has been the target of a concerted attack by the Miami Herald, the State Attorney's Office, and well-connected lobbyist and political consultant Eston "Dusty" Melton, a former Herald reporter. While disavowing any inclination toward paranoia ("I'm not trying to be a Joe Gersten conspiratorial guy," he says), Hawkins paints a sinister picture of the forces at work against him.
Back in 1992, while the State Attorney's Office was investigating allegations that Hawkins may have misused his office for financial gain, the Herald reported that prosecutor Joe Centorino had "stumbled" onto the subject of sexual harassment as a result of claims made by former Hawkins employees Mary DiFede and Shelly Nudelman.
Hawkins says there was nothing accidental about it. Shortly before DiFede and Nudelman were scheduled to be questioned by Centorino under oath, Hawkins alleges the prosecutor received a call from a reporter or editor at the Herald, informing him that Hawkins had sexually harassed both women. (Centorino says no one from the Herald called him to suggest questions or to provide information about sexual harassment. He was tipped off to the allegations of harassment by Shelly Nudelman's attorney, after Nudelman received a subpoena. Centorino thought the information was significant in judging the credibility of the women as potential witnesses against Hawkins.)
Centorino did question DiFede and Nudelman about harassment, and some months later Herald reporter Dexter Filkins asked DiFede's attorney, Arturo Alvarez, about the matter. Alvarez told Filkins: "There were questions asked about [whether there was] sexual harassment, and there were answers given to indicate that there was." The next day, November 8, 1992, the Herald published its first harassment story under the headline, "Two Women Accuse Hawkins of Sexual Harassment."
Also lurking behind the scenes, Hawkins asserts, was his old nemesis Dusty Melton. The day Hawkins was sworn in as a county commissioner, he told his staff that Melton was never to be permitted inside his office. Melton had supported incumbent Clara Oesterle during that first race in 1988, but more importantly, Hawkins says, Melton had a reputation for controlling various commissioners and dictating how they voted. Over the years, Hawkins claims, Melton's influence has waned.
Hawkins believes Melton, in bitter retaliation for the decline of his practice, somehow manipulated DiFede into lying about him, and that after she and Nudelman gave their damaging statements, Melton provided Centorino with the now-infamous "mystery list" of five additional women who were supposedly harassed by Hawkins. (Three of those women once worked for various county commissioners; the other two -- Jacquee Petchel and Kathleen Krog -- wrote for the Herald. Petchel is no longer with the paper.) "If you go down and give [Centorino] information and it's false and it's malicious, then you're a rat," Hawkins charges, "and Dusty Melton is a rat."
In addition, Hawkins suspects Melton was actually paying DiFede's legal costs. "You realize what he is saying?" asks a bemused Arturo Alvarez, DiFede's attorney. "He's saying that there was a criminal conspiracy to hurt Larry Hawkins. That people got together and decided to commit perjury, and risk going to jail, just to hurt Larry Hawkins. What is the up side for Mary to make up all of this? She's not suing him; she's not looking to get any money out of him." As for his fees, Alvarez says, "I haven't been paid anything by anyone. I've never met Dusty Melton; I don't even know who Dusty Melton is." Alvarez explains that he agreed to represent DiFede free of charge. "If you want to know the truth," he says, "I have three daughters, and I'd like them to live in a world where this stuff doesn't happen. This is my contribution to the good fight."
Dusty Melton says he is not aware of any "grand conspiracy" to damage Hawkins, and he denies manipulating DiFede in any way. But New Times has determined that Melton passed the names of the additional women allegedly harassed by Hawkins to a former Metro-Dade police officer, who in turn contacted the State Attorney's Office. Prosecutor Centorino later forwarded the names to the ethics commission. While Melton will not confirm the details of his role, he does say, "I have no regrets at having facilitated a comprehensive and thoughtful investigation.
As these women have expressed in their own words, Commissioner Hawkins apparently exhibited a pattern of behavior that they found to be objectionable. I believe their own testimony speaks volumes about Commissioner Hawkins, and their testimony is wholly independent of me."
Centorino's own motives are suspect, according to Hawkins: "The thing that struck me terribly -- and this is kind of a subplot -- is that the man is a part-time state attorney." Hawkins is correct. In addition to his work as an assistant state attorney in the public corruption/organized crime unit, Centorino maintains a private law practice with his wife in Fort Lauderdale -- Centorino & Waterous. Prosecutors admit it is extremely rare that an assistant state attorney is also allowed to practice law privately. "This was a four-and-a-half-year investigation done by a part-time guy," Hawkins fumes. If the investigation was so important, he argues, then it should have been conducted by someone who could devote all his energies to it. Furthermore, Hawkins claims, Centorino's outside interests compromise his entire investigation, including his complaint to the ethics commission. "I have been an elected official for sixteen years," he says, "and I don't care who [Centorino's] private clients are, I've probably somewhere in that time voted against them. I'm not making any accusation that he did anything wrong. I'm just saying the appearance and the possible abuse of a part-time state attorney looking into elected officials who vote on things in which you may have clients is an apparent conflict. That is something no one has ever written about or wants to talk about."
Centorino says the protracted nature of the Hawkins investigation was not the result of his part-time status, but rather because new allegations kept cropping up. "We tried to be careful and thorough," he states, adding that suggestions of a conflict of interest are ludicrous. "There was no reason for me not to handle this investigation," he asserts. "I did not know Larry Hawkins before I was assigned the investigation. I have no personal animosity toward him." (State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has no problem with Centorino's actions in the case. "I have total confidence in Joe," she says.)
Hawkins is equally suspicious of the Herald's coverage of the sexual harassment controversy, as well as other issues, and he points to a story published this past June 3 as evidence. In that article, staff writers Steve Bousquet and Peter Slevin reported that "the Herald" had learned only three days earlier that Jacquee Petchel and Kathleen Krog were part of the "mystery list" of women supposedly harassed by Hawkins.
But that list and those names had been public record for more than a year. "Now you're getting into something that is really interesting," Hawkins says. "It was in Centorino's file over a year ago and [Herald reporter] Dexter Filkins looked at it. If they didn't know, they should have known, because every other piece of the file was looked at." Filkins says he did examine the file months ago but did not see the "mystery list." Regardless, Hawkins contends that the Herald's coverage cannot be considered impartial because the allegations struck so close to home. Petchel and Krog, he points out, later denied being sexually harassed.
Petchel's published comments, however, were far from reassuring: "He did make what I consider to be lewd and sexually inappropriate remarks to me while I was a beat reporter covering the Metro Commission."
During his three-hour interview with New Times, Hawkins said he didn't know what Petchel was talking about. "What does she consider to be inappropriate?" he asked. "We're talking real subjective stuff here. This is from a girl who I suggested should wear longer skirts rather than shorter skirts."
Perhaps sensing that Hawkins might be heading down another dangerous path, observers Phil Hamersmith and Terry Murphy grew quiet. The commissioner continued: "I thought someone who was a Miami Herald reporter shouldn't be wearing the skirts that she did. I said to her, 'You know, you need to be wearing some longer skirts.' And she said" -- here Hawkins raised his voice to mimic a coquettish young woman -- "'Oh, you don't like them so high?' And I said, 'No, not on you.' Maybe that was inappropriate. I don't know."
At that point both Hamersmith and Murphy jumped in. Hamersmith admitted he could see how Petchel might misunderstand a comment like that. "She may have taken that as a hurtful thing," he ventured, "as if Larry might have been saying, in a kind way, 'You don't have very attractive legs.'"
Murphy offered that such verbal sparring between reporters and politicians goes on all the time -- especially with reporters like Petchel who have written negative stories about Hawkins.
Hawkins added that he was simply trying to tell Petchel she should dress more professionally. "I don't think I said anything in that context that was inappropriate," he concluded, noting that he didn't force Petchel to interact with him: "You don't have to come into my office. If you don't like me, call me on the phone. If you don't want to hear my voice, don't call me."
But why would Hawkins feel the need to make a comment about Petchel's skirt in the first place? And why would he tell an investigator that Mary DiFede's breasts are too small to ogle? Or that he wouldn't have exposed himself to Paula Ramsey because, even though she is "well endowed," she isn't very attractive?
"This is the core of everything," Hamersmith answered as Hawkins sat in silence, seemingly baffled by the thought that he'd done anything wrong. "The guy is into flirting, as he said. He's into bantering, as he said. He's single, as he said. He likes to do small talk. He's a talker. He would probably be a lot safer, and wouldn't be sitting here with you and I today in this situation if he was one of those reserved, quiet guys who never said anything to anybody."
That's the lesson, Hawkins agreed. He needs to hold his tongue.
"He's going to be a dull guy," Hamersmith vowed, referring to Hawkins's upcoming commission campaign.
"I'm not going to be a dull guy," the commissioner countered, "but when it deals with women, I have to be very, very careful."
Still, why does he say such things? And if he makes incredibly stupid and inappropriate remarks to reporters and investigators he knows are scrutinizing his conduct, is it so hard to believe he would make comments or behave in a way female members of his staff would find degrading and insulting?
Hawkins stared down at his desk and said nothing, lost in thought. "The thing people don't understand," he said at last, "it's kind of like a pressure valve -- you've got all of this goddamn steam built up inside this engine that's got to keep working and working. Every once in a while it's got to be let go, and not in a sexual manner, not in a demeaning manner, but just in a way that he doesn't have to think about everything. I'm human and I make mistakes. I say things sometimes. And if I've said things sometimes that have hurt people, I'm sorry."
Could he think of anything specific he'd done or said for which he's now sorry? Hawkins paused and shook his head. He couldn't think of a single thing. But being a well-trained politician, he said he was prepared to take responsibility for his actions: "I take 100 percent responsibility, because in the end, I'm the only one who can say or not say something. In the end, I'm the only one who has hurt or not hurt someone. In the end, I'm the one responsible. I take 100 percent of the blame. Do I think that Dusty Melton and the Miami Herald and Joe Centorino either erred or did things detrimental to me? Yes, I do. But in the end, I have to take responsibility."
For what, though, he still wasn't sure.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.