Odio and the Dolt Defense
There is an old Irish toast: May you be in Heaven an hour before the devil even knows you're dead. Former Miami mayor Steve Clark was a great fan of Irish toasts -- as well as Scandinavian toasts, Italian toasts, Russian toasts, Cuban toasts, and pretty much any toast that ultimately involved alcohol. But it is that particular Irish toast that today seems most appropriate to Clark. Because, assuming for a moment that Clark did make it through the Pearly Gates, the devil may not have been the only one who didn't catch him.
The upcoming bribery trial of former city manager Cesar Odio is likely to reveal that Clark was one of the original targets of FBI agents investigating corruption at city hall. The probe, known as Operation Greenpalm, began in 1995 after the city's finance director, Manohar Surana, was discovered soliciting a bribe from a computer company seeking a city contract. After being confronted by federal agents in March 1996, Surana agreed to work undercover and help prosecutors set up stings against other city officials.
Odio's attorneys are expected to argue that it was really Clark that federal agents wanted to snare. According to sources familiar with both the defense's strategy and the surreptitious tape recordings made by Surana, he had numerous conversations regarding city contracts with several of Clark's closest friends, in which Clark's assistance in steering contracts was discussed. But before the mayor could be lured into the sting, he died. Defense attorneys will claim that Clark's death caused Surana to fear that his deal with prosecutors might fall apart. As a result, Surana theoretically stepped up his pressure until he finally coerced Odio and his lifelong friend, lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas, to take part in a kickback scheme involving the city workers' compensation contract.
Identifying Clark as an original Greenpalm target is part of a larger defense strategy to convince the jury that Odio was entrapped and therefore not legally liable for his criminal actions.
Odio, whose reputation is seemingly established as the most incompetent city manager in Miami's history, goes on trial Monday to see if he will be remembered as its most corrupt, as well. No other city manager in Miami's 100 years of existence has been convicted of accepting a bribe, according to local historians, seasoned politicians, and journalists. "Some were fired under suspicious circumstances, but none were ever indicted," confirms Jeanne Bellamy, "at least none that I can recall." A veteran newspaperwoman, the 85-year-old Bellamy has covered numerous incidents of municipal malfeasance, including the so-called Termite Administration scandal of 1936, in which the mayor and the Miami City Commission were recalled by voters and the city manager was fired amid reports that they had solicited bribes from executives of Florida Power & Light. "Even in that case no one was ever charged," Bellamy adds.
Odio probably wishes for the simpler, less judgmental nature of days gone by. Instead he faces the ignominy of trial. But the drama of the United States of America v. Cesar Humberto Odio goes beyond defining Odio's place in local history and determining whether his obituary will someday include the words "disgraced" and "imprisoned." This trial will also be filled with the types of subtexts and storylines that can happen only in South Florida.
Take Odio, for instance. The son of Cuban political prisoners, he fights to remain free in the country that gave him refuge. Odio's mother Sara spent six years in a Cuban prison, his father Amador ten. Cesar came to America as a young man to avoid that same fate and to help raise his younger brothers and sisters while his parents languished in Cuba. Odio embraced this country and praised it as a sanctuary. Before being caught accepting bribes for city contracts in a government-orchestrated sting, he had been hailed -- at least by some -- as an immigrant success story, a leader in his community and an example for others to emulate. But Odio, who had been summoned to the White House for consultation during the balsero crisis of 1994, now faces the prospect of an American prison cell.
Oddly enough, the one person in the courtroom who might best empathize with Odio will be sitting on the bench. In 1992 U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore was a target of a federal grand jury in Brooklyn, which was investigating allegations that he had accepted gratuities -- including a trip on a chartered yacht and tickets to the Broadway show Cats -- from a company that did business with the U.S. Marshals Service while he was its director from November 1989 until February 1992. Moore, who left the Marshals Service to become a federal judge in Miami, claimed that the gifts were part of "normal social hospitality" between old friends.
Moore's hospitable host was John Caldara, one of the owners of Central Security Systems, which in 1988 won a $115 million contract with the Marshals Service to provide metal detectors and guards at most of the federal courthouses across the country, including those in South Florida. Caldara later confessed that he and his partners paid $75,000 in bribes to rig the selection process and guarantee his company would have the lowest bid. Moore had nothing to do with the bid-rigging incident, which took place a year before he became the service's director. But his choice of friends (and musicals) certainly leaves something to be desired, to say nothing of the poor judgment he showed in accepting those gifts while he was the agency's boss.
In June 1994, after almost two years of reviewing evidence, prosecutors in New York dropped their investigation of Moore. "A determination was made that no criminal charges will be sought," one Brooklyn official said at the time. Lukewarm exoneration indeed.
The Odio trial is believed to be Moore's first public corruption case since his own brush with humiliation. None of the lawyers in the case is willing to predict if his history will have any effect on his objectivity, although it certainly makes a person wonder. Does he harbor resentment toward prosecutors who specialize in public corruption cases? Will he be sympathetic toward Odio and his defense that the government crossed the line in its zeal to bag a public official? Or will Moore -- a former federal prosecutor -- seek to affirm his conservative, law-and-order credentials by taking a tough stance with Odio?
In recent weeks Moore has rejected several attempts by Odio's attorneys to delay the trial. Odio was initially represented by Richard Sharpstein, who spent three of the five months after Odio's indictment in a New York courtroom defending Orlando Castro-Llanes against bank fraud charges. Sharpstein lost the Castro-Llanes case and didn't fare much better with Moore when he asked for more time to prepare. In a blistering March 31 order denying Sharpstein's request, Moore wrote: "The court notes that there is also no indication that Odio and his counsel have made the best use of the five months which have elapsed since the indictment was returned. A review of the docket sheet reveals that no motions, with the exception of motions for continuance, have been filed by Odio." The next day, April 1, Sharpstein was dropped from the case; Odio hired Donald Bierman and Ed Shohat. The judge also denied their request for a continuance so they could familiarize themselves with the case.
Odio's co-defendant, lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas, is on his third attorney since he was indicted in October. When de Cardenas was first apprehended by FBI agents, he agreed to cooperate and hired attorney Oscar Rodriguez to assist him. The government alleges that de Cardenas reneged in his deal with prosecutors and that, rather than gather evidence against his long-time friend, he tipped Odio off.
The corruption charges against de Cardenas have brought him financial ruin. Since the scandal broke, no one has been willing to hire him; he was forced to shut down his once-lucrative lobbying firm. He is in poor health and often spends his days at the Big Five Club, playing cards with friends and probably trying not to think about what lies ahead. Rodriguez left the case in March and was replaced by de Cardenas's brother-in-law, attorney Louis Casuso. The move was primarily driven by the need to find a less expensive lawyer. Casuso lasted only two weeks, however. Judge Moore ruled that since Casuso had represented de Cardenas's wife before the grand jury, it would be a conflict of interest for him to represent de Cardenas. On April 18 de Cardenas hired Edward O'Donnell, Jr., to defend him.
Despite having had only a few weeks to prepare, the strategy for the defense attorneys seems fairly straightforward. Their case, at least in theory, will go as follows: Manohar Surana is the real villain. A cunning con artist, Surana used his position as the city's finance director to systematically shake down firms that sought contracts with the city. Surana lied to his co-workers and betrayed those, such as Odio, who placed their trust in him. And when Surana was caught by the FBI extorting money from the computer company Unisys, he made up stories about Clark, Odio, and others in order to lie his way out of trouble.
Court documents indicate that defense attorneys are also expected to attack the lead investigator in the case, FBI agent Keith Bryars. They will attempt to portray Bryars as an overzealous agent with a history of misconduct who has previously been accused of distorting evidence to serve his own purpose. "Bryars's credibility and the credibility of the entire investigation are inextricably intertwined," Bierman wrote in a motion seeking access to Bryars's personnel file.
The defense will claim that together Surana and Bryars formed a dangerous partnership whose sole purpose was to force normally honest, hardworking public servants such as Odio into succumbing to a moment's temptation. And the defense team will attempt to foment civic outrage among the jury by arguing that the federal government allowed Surana, even after he was known to be corrupt, to remain as the city's finance director for nearly a year, while the city sank deeper and deeper into financial ruin owing to Surana's own mismanagement.
As the defense attorneys realize, they do not need to convince every juror that an unholy alliance between an agent and a thief led Odio to commit a crime he would never have considered on his own. To achieve a hung jury and therefore a mistrial, they only have to create reasonable doubt in one of the twelve jurors' minds. Although Odio would still face another trial, history reveals that it becomes more difficult for prosecutors to win a conviction the second time around.
As jury selection begins Monday, defense attorneys will do their best to pack the jury box with as many potential holdouts as possible. The highest priority for defense attorneys will be selecting older Cubans, who will see themselves reflected in Odio. Blacks may also be desirable, as defense attorneys could try to play to their fears of police persecution.
Perhaps the most anticipated moment of the trial will be when Surana takes the stand. He is expected to undergo several days of scathing cross-examination by defense attorneys. Leading the attack will be Shohat, an attorney known for his foul temper and ill disposition; his face perpetually pinched in a scowl. Shohat practices what some courtroom observers have dubbed "nasty law," a process whereby prosecution witnesses are belittled and their credibility assailed in a humiliating manner. Bierman defends his partner: "We try our cases hard," he says, "and we certainly vigorously point out things we think are wrong."
In order for Odio's defense strategy to work, Surana, and to a lesser extent Bryars, must be eviscerated before the jury. It will be blood sport.
The two prosecutors handling the case -- Mary Butler and Larry LaVecchio -- will rely on Odio's own words to convict him. Even defense sources who have heard the tapes of Odio conspiring with Surana to solicit bribes admit that the impact could be devastating. The one bright spot for Odio, according to several sources, is that he comes across as a dimwitted naif who often has to have matters explained to him several times before he understands.
The "dolt defense" holds that Odio is too stupid to have understood what he was doing was wrong. Who knows, for Odio it may be the most believable defense of all.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.