Last week I chanced upon Humberto Hernandez in the parking lot of Miami City Hall. After some small talk, the commissioner began complaining that he and his allies were being singled out by state investigators. Plenty of politicians engage in sleazy election tactics, he huffed. Why doesn't the State Attorney's Office show any interest in them?
"We should sit down and talk about that," I said.
"That would be good," he nodded. "Maybe next week."
If I had known that 48 hours later he'd be in handcuffs on his way back to jail, I would have tried to push up that interview date. Hernandez and six others, his father among them, were arrested last Thursday on charges they participated in a coverup of a massive vote-fraud campaign by his supporters.
At the very least, if I had known his arrest was imminent, I would have passed along a suggestion I was saving for our later conversation: He should wear the exact same set of clothes he wore when he was arrested by the FBI last year after his indictment on bank fraud and money laundering charges. That way, when they perp walk him in front of television cameras, hands cuffed, some viewers might believe they were watching footage of his earlier arrest -- old news.
Oh well. It was just a thought.
During our chat before his most recent bust, Hernandez said he knew the State Attorney's Office couldn't make a case against him for vote fraud and so was coming after him for his role in the alleged coverup. "Every person they bring in they try to make a deal for information about me," he said testily. "They'll do anything to get me."
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Although his anger toward Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was evident, Hernandez spared me the foul-mouthed invective he apparently used during more private moments when discussing Dade's top cop. In secretly tape-recorded conversations, Hernandez allegedly referred to Rundle as "a bitch" and "a whore," and more broadly to her and the investigators on the case as "those fucking scumbags."
Rundle smiled last week when asked if she had listened to those tapes. "I've heard them," she replied, "and I've dismissed them like I do many other personal attacks that happen to a lot of us in law enforcement."
Hernandez's arrest marks an important moment for Rundle and her office. In less than two months, her public corruption unit has brought charges against two of Dade's most pernicious politicians -- County Commissioner Bruce Kaplan and now Hernandez. In April Kaplan resigned from office and was convicted of filing false financial disclosure forms. That case stemmed from a mortgage-fraud investigation that prosecutors agreed to abandon in return for Kaplan's resignation.
Both cases follow other significant investigations by Rundle's public corruption unit, including the prosecution of several Miami police officers in the so-called "throw down" gun case in which an unarmed homeless man was shot. Officers allegedly planted a gun at the crime scene in an attempt to justify the shooting. Rundle's office is also prosecuting a pair of Miami Beach police officers who are accused of shaking down local club owners for payoffs and protection money.
Last December she forced then-Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez to adhere to the city charter and quit interfering in personnel decisions. And her office is also supervising criminal investigations into the county's building department as well as the county's $58 million paving contract with Church & Tower.
For years Rundle was sharply criticized for being lackadaisical in holding public officials accountable. During an interview in her office after Hernandez's arrest, Rundle said she's never taken such criticism seriously. "I really have never felt that those attacks were justified," she asserted.
Whether or not she is willing to acknowledge the difference, Rundle's office today is unmistakably more aggressive than it was only a few years ago. When Rundle took over the office in 1993, the head of the public corruption unit, Joe Centorino, worked only part-time and maintained a private law practice in Broward County. Eventually that changed, and Centorino devoted himself full-time to public corruption cases. The number of attorneys assigned to his unit has also increased. Last year six attorneys were assigned to public corruption; now there are nine.
"What was happening was that Joe was really drowning up there keeping up with the number of complaints -- new complaints that were coming in," Rundle said.
The public corruption unit investigates not only allegations against politicians, but against all public employees, including police officers. In fact, Centorino, who was present during the interview with Rundle, estimated that he spends more time investigating complaints against police officers than any other type of allegation. "We review all police-brutality cases and police-misconduct cases," he noted. "That's a huge amount of our work. That's our bread and butter. That stuff comes in every day. We do a lot of police prosecutions."
Besides the nine prosecutors already assigned to public corruption, Rundle promised that additional attorneys will continue to be brought in to handle the more difficult and time-consuming cases. The investigation into the paving contract, for example, has been assigned to Trudy Novicki, chief assistant for special prosecutions, and Fred Kerstein, who is head of the office's white-collar crime section. And as the Miami vote-fraud cases -- now involving more than a dozen defendants -- move through the courts, attorneys from other units will be assigned to work on trial preparation.
"There is a combination of reasons why we are now able to devote more resources to public corruption cases," Rundle offers. "Part of it had to do with the fact that we have been very successful in our fight against violent crime. That is always going to be my main priority, because we're basically the only show in town that can prosecute violent criminals. But because of the decrease in violent crime, we've been able to shift some resources over to the public corruption unit."
According to figures provided by Rundle, in the last five years the State Attorney's Office investigated 584 cases involving public officials or public employees, including police officers and politicians. Charges were filed in 263 of those cases, resulting in 171 convictions.
Rundle also wanted to dispel what she considers to be a misconception -- that her office is (or should be) in competition with the U.S. Attorney's Office. In the past two years, federal prosecutors have garnered headlines for indicting City Manager Cesar Odio, Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins, and County Commissioner James Burke through Operation Greenpalm. And in the coming weeks, the feds are expected to announce a major set of indictments against local officials stemming from mismanagement of the Port of Miami. Rundle knows that people will ask why her office wasn't making those big cases.
Lots of reasons, she said. Federal laws are often tougher and have stiffer penalties. It can also be a matter of resources. More important, the public doesn't understand that the U.S. Attorney's Office and the State Attorney's Office often work closely in deciding who should handle a particular case.
"When the seaport case first surfaced, my office and the U.S. Attorney's Office were contacted at the same time, and the audits were given to us and the U.S. Attorney's Office, and I personally looked at it and we decided who could best handle that case," she recalled. "I have complete confidence in them. We mutually agreed they would handle that case, just like we mutually agreed that we would take the Kaplan case. We coordinate all the time. They have confidence in us, we have confidence in them. Why would we want to in any way interfere with their case?"
Rather than comparing them to federal prosecutors, Centorino and Rundle said, it would make more sense to contrast their office with other state attorneys around Florida. None of them, Centorino argued, devotes as much time to public corruption cases as Rundle. "What happens down here is that we work the case with the law enforcement agencies," he noted. "Take the voter-fraud case. We were in that from the very beginning with FDLE, working with them in developing the investigative strategy and working toward the arrest. That would not have happened at most places in Florida. They would have let the law enforcement agency do the work and bring them the case if they had one. I think we are much more proactive and investigative than any other State Attorney's Office in the state."
Rundle added that the work her office is doing is essential to restoring public confidence in government. "I think there are some very good public servants -- I work with a lot of them right here in this office -- and I think there are some very good elected officials out there," she said. "And I think there are a few rotten apples that spoil the image for the rest of us. My real fear is that right now the next generation of leaders, the ones who should be coming forward, the ones we would want running for office and who would actually serve the public and who are honest are saying to themselves, 'I never want to work in government because it's corrupt. Nobody thinks highly of it. It's not noble, it's not respected.'
"I think it is real important that they see that the rotten ones do get held accountable," Rundle continues. "We are going to have to somehow rebuild more faith in government. Not only to keep those who are good we've got now, but to attract new people.
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