Miller's Time

Standing before U.S. District Court Judge Norman Roettger last Friday, Miller Dawkins appeared sullen and repentant. Three months ago Dawkins resigned from the Miami City Commission after pleading guilty to federal charges that he had traded votes for bribes during an FBI sting dubbed Operation Greenpalm. Now it was time for his sentencing, and the 71-year-old Dawkins -- who for years was viewed as one of the meanest, toughest, and most arrogant politicians in the city's history -- began to weep. "I'd like to say that what I did was wrong in the greatest sense of wrongness," he sobbed. "To my family, my friends, my church, my community, and to the court, I ask forgiveness." Offering nothing more in his own defense, Dawkins, his eyes still wet with tears, gently bowed his head and waited for his sentence to be imposed.

But before Roettger could speak the lights in the courtroom unexpectedly dimmed. As courtroom bailiffs anxiously scrambled to see what was occurring and the crowded gallery whispered excitedly, a single spotlight flashed on and illuminated the raised platform of the judge's bench. In Roettger's place a new figure appeared. It was Madonna. Dressed in the flowing black robes of a judge, hair wound tight in a bun, she rose from her seat, opened her arms wide, and began to sing:

"Don't cry for me Miller Dawkins
The truth is you were always crooked
All through your wild days
Your mad existence
You broke your promise
Now take your sentence."

And it was at that moment Saturday that I woke up.
In reality, Dawkins did cry at Friday's hearing, in which Roettger sentenced the disgraced politician to 27 months in prison. But there was also much to the day's events that had the feel of theater -- an eclectic cast of characters, a storyline filled with intrigue and deception. There was even a little Shakespeare for the artsy crowd.

And as at any other well-publicized and highly touted production, crowds began lining up early to ensure they could get good seats. "We only know what we've read in the paper," one woman said as she waited with several other Dawkins supporters outside the courtroom. "And we don't trust the paper, so we wanted to come down here and see for ourselves. We believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and we're here to see that justice is served."

Of course, Miller Dawkins no longer held the presumption of innocence, since he had already pled guilty last October. His confession, however, held little sway with his supporters. "We don't know the pressures exerted on him to plead guilty," explained the woman, who like the others refused to disclose her name.

Although the hearing was scheduled to begin at 1:15 p.m., Dawkins made his dramatic entrance ten minutes late, at 1:25. He was surrounded by additional supporters and flanked by his attorney, Jesse McCrary, and Urban League president T. Willard Fair.

The hearing lasted less than an hour, as McCrary produced six character witnesses to speak on Dawkins's behalf. Richard Barry, the rector of St. Agnes Episcopal Church in Overtown, described Dawkins as "a person of integrity" and added that "nothing has happened to change that opinion of him." Annette Eisenberg, a political activist and founder of the Downtown Bay Forum, pleaded with the judge to place Dawkins on probation instead of sending him to prison. "We need Miller," she implored. Robert Simms, former executive director of Dade's Community Relations Board, and Laurie Lichtman, a local business owner, made similar heartfelt appeals.

But it was the appearance of Dawkins's final supporter that electrified the audience: U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek. "Your honor, I'm pleased and humbled to be here to ask you for one thing: mercy for Miller Dawkins," the congresswoman began. "The Miller Dawkins that I know is not the Miller Dawkins that sits here. Yes, he made one mistake. We all make mistakes."

The Miami Democrat described Dawkins as a tireless advocate for the rights of minorities. "None of us had the courage that this man had to speak out," she explained. "He was not well-liked by some people in high places. But I want to tell you, the little people liked this man."

As prosecutors and investigators listened to Meek refer to Dawkins's "one mistake" and to how much "the little people" were on his side, they were amazed. They wondered if the congresswoman had even read or understood the indictment. Dawkins didn't make just one mistake. And these charges did not involve merely "one moment in time," as McCrary tried to describe it.

Dawkins was standing before Judge Roettger because for eighteen months -- eighteen months -- he had plotted and planned a scheme to extort money from a company seeking business with the city. He agreed to exchange his vote for $100,000 in cash, and in two separate meetings, months apart, he accepted the money -- $25,000 before the vote and $75,000 after. But still this wasn't enough for Dawkins. Consumed by greed and an inflated view of his own worth, he demanded an additional $100,000.

Indeed, he was so cocksure that he even sought advice from others about the best way to invest and hide this money in offshore bank accounts. In one of his most incriminating statements captured on tape, Dawkins talked about plans to hide the money in India. "Let them trace that," he crowed.

Dawkins thought he was smarter than federal agents and prosecutors. But he wasn't smart enough to realize that his co-conspirators had become government informants or that his arrogance was being secretly recorded by the FBI.

Outside the courtroom Meek said her appearance was a matter of long-standing friendship with Dawkins. She understood that as an elected official it might seem improper to some people for her to come to the defense of someone who violated not only his oath of office but, more important, the public's trust. "In the end I decided I had to follow my conscience," she said.

Meek wasn't the only elected official to offer support to Dawkins. Though she did not appear in court, County Commissioner Natacha Millan did write a letter to the judge extolling Dawkins's civic leadership. Careful not to comment on the charges, Millan chose instead to stress "the many years of admirable public service" Dawkins had provided the community. In an interview on Sunday, Millan said she considered the letter to be a "benign type of thing." Millan added she was asked to write the letter by Dawkins's wife Nancy. The two women know each other through their work for various social service agencies in Dade. "It is a sad, sad situation," Millan sighed. "But I believe you don't just walk away from someone and not let people know the positive aspects of his life well."

During his courtroom monologue, McCrary, hoping to evoke a scintilla of sympathy for Dawkins, quoted Shakespeare: "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones." The words, from the play Julius Caesar, are spoken during Mark Antony's eulogy for the slain ruler.

It would be difficult to imagine a more fitting play than Julius Caesar, filled as it is with political treachery and betrayal, to synopsize the state of affairs in Miami today. It even contains an analogous warning that Dawkins would have been wise to consider: "Beware the ides of March," a soothsayer counsels Caesar early on. If only Dawkins had taken this advice himself. Because it was in March 1995 that he and the city's finance director Manohar Surana began their plot to extort money from a city contractor. And it was in March 1996, with the FBI watching, that he sat in the parking lot of a Denny's restaurant with Surana and gleefully stuffed his first payment of $25,000 in cash in his pockets.

But McCrary is wrong to compare Dawkins to Caesar. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was a tragic figure because he was undone by the avarice and ambition of those he trusted. Dawkins was destroyed by his own greed and lust for power.

After Dawkins was caught -- and after his attempts to conceal his guilt were thwarted -- he pled guilty. And even then he showed the true nature of his selfishness. "I want the court to know that the [plea] agreement contains nothing at all about any cooperation," his attorney defiantly declared. In other words, Dawkins would not help the government rid city hall of the corruption that many believe has been endemic for years.

But at the sentencing hearing, Dawkins and McCrary tried their best to create the image that Dawkins was a selfless public servant. Dawkins claimed that he pled guilty to spare his family the grief and anguish of a trial, and to protect the city he loves from further media embarrassment. And he had the gall to add that he was doing all this even though he thought the charges against were, from a legal standpoint, "debatable."

If Dawkins truly cares about Miami, he should have agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, who were anxious to interview him and gain the insights he accumulated during fifteen years on Dinner Key. If Dawkins cares about Miami, he should have been more worried about the future integrity of city hall than about the possibility he might be branded a rat or a traitor by those he turned in.

Julius Caesar ends with Mark Antony offering another tribute to Caesar: "His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him, that nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"

In the case of Miller Dawkins, no such tribute is deserved.


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