Public War, Private Fight

Miami's war on public corruption has spawned a private skirmish affecting two top law-enforcement agencies. Marcos Jimenez, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, has accused the Miami-Dade Police Department of leaking information about a sensitive investigation, an accusation police officials vehemently deny. In response Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, already upset that the case hasn't been pursued more aggressively by federal prosecutors, has ordered his public-corruption unit to withdraw as the lead agency in the investigation, transfer its files to the FBI, and act only in a supporting role.

Last week, in response to questions about the conflict, Jimenez answered under the impression that Alvarez had completely severed ties with his office's public-corruption task force, a development he believed was "regrettable and indefensible." Alvarez clarifies that his department has continued to work with federal agencies at all levels. He says he only pulled his officers back in that one investigation so they could not be accused of leaking information in the future. "We haven't refused to work with anybody," Alvarez explains. "This was a specific case that, after years of investigation as the primary agency, we had a very strong philosophical difference of opinion on how it should proceed."

Alvarez met with Jimenez in October to discuss the impasse. "During the meeting Mr. Jimenez said to me: 'Listen, I have a problem about leaks in the case from your department,'" Alvarez recounts. "I asked him: 'What information do you have? What evidence?' If it were true, I'd look into it. We take that very seriously. He couldn't say. He said it was his 'gut feeling.'" According to Alvarez, Jimenez referred vaguely to leaked grand jury information. "But as we got further into the discussion it turned out the leaks were not about the case but about his personal relationship with defense attorneys in that particular case. My response to that was to say it sounded like something people in his office would talk about -- you know, office gossip."

This week Jimenez issued a statement asserting that Alvarez's comments were "inaccurate and don't merit any further response."

Jimenez and Alvarez refuse to identify the case, which was already under way when President George W. Bush appointed Jimenez in August 2002. In law-enforcement and legal circles, however, it's commonly known the dispute centers on an investigation at Miami International Airport. For more than two years Miami-Dade police, assisted by the FBI, have been trying to determine whether a team of lobbyists representing an international company used minority businesspeople as fronts to qualify for a lucrative contract at the airport that generates an estimated $40 million per year in revenues. Federal guidelines required minority participation to qualify for the contract. The cops and the feds have been investigating whether payments made to the minority participants, who allegedly did little or no work, constituted a form of unlawful compensation. According to defense attorneys, the case is taking so long because no crime has been committed, that in fact the minority partners are performing their jobs as the contract requires.

Lobbyists Chris Korge, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser and ally of county Mayor Alex Penelas, and Rodney Barreto, a Republican stalwart, in 1998 assisted Host Marriott Services Corp. in winning the contract from the county commission to develop new restaurants and stores at MIA.

As a result of the investigation, all involved have hired powerful attorneys, several of whom have personal relationships with Jimenez; among them is Roberto Martinez, a former U.S. Attorney and influential Republican. A partner at Colson Hicks Eidson in Coral Gables, Martinez is also chairman of the Federal Judicial Nominating Commission in Florida and is credited with helping Jimenez get his job. Peter Prieto, an executive partner at Holland & Knight, is a former federal prosecutor and also a friend of Jimenez. He is representing two of the people involved in the minority joint venture with Host Marriott. Steven Chaykin, a former federal prosecutor who headed Miami's public-corruption unit, is Korge's attorney.

Traditionally a new president picks his own U.S. Attorneys, and Jimenez had the right pedigree for the job. He's a Cuban American with strong Republican ties, he was part of Bush's legal team during Florida's contentious 2000 presidential election, and his brother served as Gov. Jeb Bush's deputy chief of staff. Jimenez also worked as a federal prosecutor in the Southern District for three years, from 1989 to 1992. The majority of his career, however, has been spent practicing civil law in the private sector.

Miami-Dade police reportedly have been displeased with the pace and direction of the Host Marriott case since Jimenez took office. It's not the first time his prosecutorial backbone has been challenged. Last year his office charged former United Teachers of Dade president Pat Tornillo with tax evasion and mail fraud after he pilfered union money to support an extravagant lifestyle. The powerful union boss was offered and accepted a plea deal requiring 27 months in prison and restitution, even though he refused to cooperate with prosecutors. Neither did authorities go after his wife, who spent much of the money. Editorial pages bristled. Jimenez eventually felt compelled to respond publicly, saying it was a "tough, just sentence" prompted by Tornillo's failing health.

This is also not the first time Carlos Alvarez and the head of the Miami-Dade Police Department's corruption unit, Maj. Carlos Gonzalez, have protested when prosecutors didn't feel a case was strong enough to go to trial. In 2000 they clashed with the State Attorney's Office over the investigation of a politically connected tree farmer. Police believed Manuel Diaz conspired to defraud the county by withholding hundreds of trees worth nearly a million dollars. The corruption cops complained that prosecutors were slow to file charges. Eventually Diaz was arrested, but a judge dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had expired. (Diaz's lawyer, Thomas Tew, accused police of leaking information about the case to the press.) Then in 2001 police grumbled loudly that county Commissioner Pedro Reboredo, accused of hosting no-show employees on his taxpayer-funded staff, was allowed to resign from office in exchange for not being criminally charged.

At least some of that fulminating can be attributed to the corruption unit's growing pains. It was created in 1998 after a drop in homicide rates freed up resources at the same time the public's concern was shifting from crime to corruption. A number of homicide detectives were reassigned to the new unit, which now has about 40 investigators. But white-collar cases, with their extensive paper trails, are notoriously more complicated to assemble than violent crimes. Often just identifying criminal intent is tricky. A veteran homicide cop might well find the process an exercise in frustration.

"When we disagree, that's a healthy relationship [between police and prosecutors]," Alvarez ventures. "It's good to argue. And we've gone on to make dozens of [state] cases after those. But don't accuse people of leaks when it's a 'gut feeling.'"

Defense attorneys Prieto and Chaykin say the alleged leaks in the Host Marriott case are anything but a gut feeling. They claim reporters have asked them to comment on material that could only have come from grand jury proceedings, and they've complained to prosecutors. "The reality is that investigators have, in fact, leaked secret grand jury information to the Miami Herald," Prieto charges. "Such leaks, as every investigator knows, are federal crimes. Ironically the leaks in this investigation are far more serious than the underlying conduct that the investigators have been investigating." Meanwhile, he adds, any allegation that Jimenez is swayed by his relationships with defense attorneys is just "ludicrous." Says Prieto: "I have never -- not once -- spoken to Marcos Jimenez about this case."


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