Bruce Udolf could not have joined the U.S. Attorney's Office at a more auspicious time for an attorney who wanted to prosecute public corruption. It was 1987, and the federal investigation into Hialeah political malfeasance was beginning to peak. Two former city officials had already been convicted of attempted extortion, a third was on deck, and it was only a matter of time until the federal prosecutors landed what promised to be their biggest catch: Raul Martinez, the mayor himself.
The office's public corruption unit had come a long way in the few years since its birth. In fact, the Hialeah investigation had nearly collapsed before it even got started in 1984, when Hialeah businessman Julio Navarro walked through the front door of the FBI's Miami office and announced that he was being shaken down by a councilman. The agents had a hard time understanding him because none of them spoke much Spanish. Though they were eventually able to record a phone conversation between the informant and a middleman, it was months before anyone there or at the U.S. Attorney's Office realized the tape was incriminating.
But the lack of fluent Spanish speakers was the least of the prosecutors' problems in those early years. "There was no intelligence base," recalls Mark Schnapp, an original member of the unit. "There had been no systematic gathering of intelligence on corruption. Nor had there been any effort to understand the local political system -- it's a byzantine system, with so many municipalities, mayors on top of mayors! Many of us prosecutors were from other parts of the country and didn't even know the names of the various political players, including who was on the county commission!"
After a stint prosecuting narcotics cases, Udolf joined the public corruption unit and the continuing investigation of Hialeah political malfeasance. In 1991, with then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Chaykin, he won a conviction of Mayor Raul Martinez on charges of giving zoning favors to developers in exchange for cash and land deals. The following year Udolf was named chief of the unit and went on to supervise or prosecute some of South Florida's most notorious corruption cases, including Operation Greenpalm, the ongoing investigation into Miami and Metro-Dade corruption. Other highlights of Udolf's tenure include cases involving
*three Dade judges and five attorneys who were convicted on various charges following the Operation Court Broom probe into judicial corruption
*former Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, who was found guilty of bribery, money laundering, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice, and went to prison
*financier Abel Holtz, who pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury investigating Daoud and who also served prison time
*Metro-Dade purchasing director Hal Johnson, who was indicted for receiving kickbacks from a contractor. After a jury acquitted Johnson on three counts and deadlocked on the remaining nine, the government dropped the case because it was too dependent on a witness who had lied about his background
*former Key West commissioner Emery Major, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and was sentenced to probation
*Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow, who was acquitted of taking a bribe
*three former Hallandale police officers and one former U.S. Customs Service inspector, who pleaded guilty to participation in a drug rip-off and extortion scheme
Last month the head of Miami's public corruption unit was lured away by Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to help bolster the controversial federal investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Pres. Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and others. Coincidentally, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved Clinton's nomination for a new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, which extends from Fort Pierce to Key West. The choice of former federal judge Thomas Scott to take over from interim chief William Keefer is a remarkable one, in that Scott is a Republican; the long-standing tradition of selecting a candidate along party lines appears to have come to an end.
On the occasion of his departure, Udolf, now age 45, agreed to speak to New Times about his experiences supervising what might be the nation's busiest public corruption prosecution team.
He was, however, a reluctant participant. Under normal circumstances a federal prosecutor is about as publicly garrulous as a corpse: Federal rules prohibit the attorneys from commenting on pending investigations or trials except under very limited circumstances. When he headed the local U.S. Attorney's Office in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Dexter Lehtinen threatened to fire anyone who talked to the media. As Udolf himself puts it: "Among people who have been doing this for a while, the conventional wisdom is that talking to the press is like kissing a rattlesnake."
Udolf's new job has him commuting back and forth to Washington, D.C. The bulk of the interview took place during two successive Saturday afternoons at the modest three-bedroom West Broward home he shares with his wife Sheryl and sixteen-month-old daughter Hayley; a lengthy phone conversation wrapped things up several days afterward.
Udolf set certain conditions for the discussion. Pending cases (including Whitewater) would be off-limits, he said, and warned that he would be guarded with information about closed investigations as well.
"I'm persuaded that there are several important matters that our office has handled over the past several years about which there has been either controversy or ambiguity requiring explanation," he conceded. "I thought this might be an opportunity to shed some light on these matters to the extent that I'm able within the limitations of Justice Department policy and the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure."
Though Udolf continued to have misgivings about granting the interview -- "This is everything I haven't wanted to do," he grumbled at one point -- during more than five hours of conversation he spoke openly about the culture of political depravity in South Florida, the sometimes Sisyphean struggle of prosecuting corruption, a U.S. Attorney's Office in flux, and mayors he has known.
It's a widely held perception that Miami is a breeding ground of public corruption. Do you think that perception is accurate?
Well, it certainly seems like we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to public corruption cases. At any given time there are probably no more than a dozen pending indictments, but there may be many as 50 investigations going.
Is there an ebb and flow, or has there been a gradual rising of the tide?
We're at high tide now. [Laughs.] I think prosecution, particularly in the area of public corruption, is cyclical. It's not unusual for there to be feast or famine in terms of the number of cases that are pending at any given time.
What governs those cycles?
I don't think there's a hard-and-fast rule about that. Some cases tend to generate other cases. You have an indictment against someone who has been convicted, either by trial or a guilty plea, and they end up cooperating. That leads to new evidence, new investigations of other people. And that in turn begets other investigations. So, depending on how successful they are, you can either have a snowballing of corruption cases or you can have a dry spell. A lot of it is just luck, too. Somebody walks into the office and says, "I'm getting shaken down by a government official." We ask them if they would consider wearing a wire and recapture those conversations. A similar thing happened in Greenpalm: One Unisys official walked in off the street and indicated someone was soliciting a bribe from him.
Is the number of corruption cases being brought in line with the amount of public corruption?
Yes. I mean, the Greenpalm cases and the Hallandale police officers/Customs inspectors that were charged this year -- that's an extraordinary amount of work for one office to put out in a year's time, particularly given the complexity of those investigations. Those were all undercover operations that our office, the FBI -- and in the Hallandale case, Customs -- were generating at one particular time. That's a lot of work.
Why has corruption taken hold here? Any ideas why it's so prevalent?
I'm not sure. I think criminal behavior, like any other form of behavior, is learned. This town was basically the southeast frontier. And while it attracted its share of entrepreneurs and professional people, it also attracted its share of profiteers and rogues, who left us some unfortunate legacies that have been mimicked by some of those who have followed. But to suggest that Miami has cornered the market on corruption is wrong. Corruption is a problem that every government has to deal with.
Do you think the culture of corruption is, in part, imported from Latin America?
No. I think it was here before anyone from Latin America got here. Long before there was corruption involving Cuban Americans in Hialeah, for example, there was Henry Milander. [Milander was mayor of Hialeah and was convicted in 1971 of grand larceny.]
The public hears about the big fish. We hear about the Cesar Odios, the Alex Daouds: high-profile public officials. But are we just seeing a fraction of corruption in Dade County? I imagine that the farther down the food chain you go, the more corruption proliferates.
Clearly there is other corruption that doesn't make the headlines, but I wouldn't feel terribly comfortable making a blanket statement like that. I may be stating the obvious, but the overwhelming majority of public servants in Florida are fine people. But yes, there are bad apples among all of us. We don't confine our investigations to the managers and mayors. A lot of cases made by our office do not command as high a profile.
Do you think prosecutions act as a deterrent to further public corruption?
I certainly hope so!
Then again, I wonder if the culture of corruption is woven so deeply into the fabric of the community that you will never get it out.
You'll never get it out. You can never get it out. You come up with more sophisticated laws and your targets will become more sophisticated at concealing their activities. Some people around the country are very well-versed on the latest corruption decisions and know exactly how far they can go and still avoid prosecution.
So the smarter prosecutors get, the smarter the corrupt get? How so?
They've become more sophisticated in concealing their activities and finding loopholes in the law. For example: Beginning in the early Nineties there were several court decisions indicating that in order for there to be a conviction for extortion, there needed to be explicit agreement between a person making a payoff and the official receiving the payoff, an explicit agreement to do an official act in exchange for the payment -- what's known in the law as a quid pro quo. We've seen cases around the country in which the bribee and the briber, armed with that knowledge, have exchanged money or another benefit without any expressed verbal discussion. So people conduct themselves without words.
Subsequent court decisions say no words need be spoken, and if people participate in these transactions with winks and nods knowing full well what this money is really for, then that is sufficient to convict under the law. So the law has evolved to respond to the growing sophistication of people engaged in this sort of conduct.
The 1991 conviction and sentencing of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez did not signal the end of the federal extortion and racketeering case against him; it was just the beginning. In fact, the mayor never went to jail to serve his ten-year sentence. His attorneys appealed the verdict -- not once, but twice -- and won a reversal. But although the first appellate court panel had reversed the conviction, a second panel ruled that the evidence was sufficient to allow a retrial, and the feds weren't about to fold. Udolf and co-counsel Richard Gregorie took the case back to federal court in 1996 -- an astonishing six years after the original indictment -- and retried Martinez on the remaining six counts. The result: a hung jury on all charges. Four weeks later they were back in court again, for trial number three. The jury acquitted Martinez on one extortion charge and deadlocked on the other five. Though the majority of votes on each count was reportedly in favor of conviction, then-U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey declared that the government would end its prosecution of Martinez.
Explicit agreements versus implicit agreements, spoken communication versus nods and winks: Weren't these exactly the niceties at issue in the Martinez case?
At the time we tried Martinez, the law was still very much evolving. Still is. While the jury was deliberating during the first retrial, they sent a question to the courtroom. As I remember, they asked: "Does there have to be an explicit quid pro quo?" And the judge said yes. And they asked : "Can there be an implicit quid pro quo?" And the judge said no.
There was a big fight whether the jury should be told that "explicit" didn't mean "verbally expressed." We didn't fare too well in those arguments and, as a result, we weren't too optimistic. It was a pretty major battle: That issue, whether or not circumstantial evidence could be used to prove a corrupt agreement, was at the heart of our case. That's one of the reasons we tried the case a third time. To walk away from it under those circumstances would've hamstrung our future ability to make a corruption case where there weren't explicit words spoken. But the bottom line was that we felt the evidence we had was sufficient. And we were supported by the jury's verdict in the first case and by the appeals court's finding that there was sufficient evidence in the first trial.
Was there an emotional component to the decision to retry the case?
No. There was no way I wanted to try that case again. I had just become a father a week before the closing arguments in Martinez 2. But we felt like we had to give it everything we had to make that case, including all the circumstantial evidence of the quid pro quo. I have no problem with what the jury did in the third trial, because we were able to make the point that a case of this kind can be brought with circumstantial evidence.
Would you call it a loss?
No. I think it was a principled effort that should have been made. I think it would have been a mistake to walk away from the case. That was the important thing -- not whether he was convicted or not. As far as I'm concerned, that jury worked as hard as any jury I've ever seen. They really struggled with that case! They wanted to resolve the issues one way or another. We thought we had a fair trial, a good airing-out of the issues.
Unfortunately people measure success by convictions. As has been said many times, the government wins when there's justice. In our society we're so used to judging things by wins, losses, and draws. Justice is a much more amorphous concept and doesn't lend itself to that type of evaluation, at least from my point of view. I thought the last trial was fair and well-tried on both sides. What we do is really measured by how we do, not necessarily by acquittals or convictions. How just the process is can't be measured in those terms.
That's a subtlety that's often lost on the public, I imagine.
And that's understandable, because the public doesn't distinguish the different dynamics that are involved between prosecuting a career criminal for murder versus prosecuting someone who has been in the front pew every Sunday for the last twenty years and is now sitting there as a defendant in a criminal case. It's not perceived the same way. The public has different expectations.
Frankly, it's difficult from the outside to imagine the U.S. Attorney's Office deriving much glory from the Raul Martinez prosecution.
I'm glad you put it that way, because we shouldn't be deriving glory when we convict anyone. There is no glory. It is a distasteful, oftentimes depressing job that someone has to do.
Using that same sort of measure of success, how do you regard the Key West prosecution of Mayor Dennis Wardlow?
I don't have to agree with the jury's verdict. I think that case was an important case. I thought it was well-tried. The jury gave it fair consideration and they resolved any doubts in favor of the defendant, as they should.
That's a pretty coy response. You guys went down to Key West with a prosecution in hand and got whipped. No hung jury, nothing ambiguous about it.
It's inappropriate for Justice Department employees to comment on the rightness or wrongness of a verdict, but I think the lesson that we can take from that case -- or any of the corruption cases that we've prosecuted -- is that it is really tough to get convictions in public corruption cases, particularly in small communities.
How do we reconcile that with the contention of state attorneys that it's easier to prosecute public corruption cases in the federal system?
I think the reason that statement is made is that we don't have depositions in criminal practice in the federal system, which is a source of much consternation and frustration among state prosecutors. That's number one Number two: We generally have more resources than the state has, and that's true throughout the country, not just here. But the deposition system in this state is particularly frustrating to prosecutors' efforts, and that's why we work so many cases together with the state. That's not to say it's easy in the federal system; it's just that there aren't as many procedural roadblocks.
Did you go into Wardlow knowing you were going to lose?
We knew it was going to be a very tough case. Number one: Every corruption case is difficult. Number two: Key West is a small, insular community; everyone knows everyone else. Number three: The defendant was a very popular elected official with considerable family members throughout the city. And the last issue is the amount of money involved: The evidence showed that the mayor was getting approximately $100 a week from this Jet Ski company at the time he was voting on matters before the commission that were directly and indirectly affecting the Jet Ski operator. I'm just speculating, but the jury may not have felt the amount of money was particularly substantial in comparison with other corruption cases.
If it wasn't such a great amount, why didn't the Monroe State Attorney's Office prosecute the case?
I can't speak for them.
Why bother doing the case at all if you knew it was such a long shot? Clearly it required a lot of manpower and resources.
But don't you have to choose your battles?
If there's evidence that someone is selling out their office for any amount of money, some prosecutory agency should step up to the plate and take it and not just walk away from it because the person sold out his office too cheap.
Do you think the residents of South Florida have become scandal-weary?
No one likes a corrupt public official, and I think there is a pretty widespread mistrust of public officials in general, sort of a nonspecific mistrust. But on an individual basis, people's attitudes are often controlled by their political and personal associations, and a lot of people who are pretty much opposed to corruption are strong supporters of people I've prosecuted.
Do you think those loyalties run deeper in this community than elsewhere?
This is really a small-town city. Families know one another, and that's a factor in sending a case to a jury. As a juror, even if you don't know the person sitting in the defendant's chair you may know someone who does or who has very strong opinions about him, for or against. There are very few degrees of separation between people in this community, far less than in most large cities.
Does it make investigating a public corruption case difficult?
It's often difficult to find people who are willing to be forthcoming, because of their possible associations with the target or the target's family or friends.
In what cases have you particularly confronted this phenomenon?
I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on any particular case. It's a fact of life in every high-profile case.
When Udolf was named chief of the public corruption unit, there were ten prosecutors in the section. That number had dropped to six by the time he left. The decline, he says, is due in part to budgetary cutbacks. It may also reflect national priorities. During their tenures in Washington, D.C., Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno have, in various public pronouncements, announced their crime-fighting priorities, and violent crime, health-care fraud, drugs, illegal immigration, and terrorism regularly top the list -- not public corruption. Still, Udolf insists, the shrinking staff in his former unit doesn't reflect a declining commitment. "As far as I'm concerned," he says, "all the U.S. attorneys I've worked for have considered public corruption a top priority."
How many prosecutors do you think are needed for the prosecution of public corruption cases in Miami?
I think eight is the right number, as it stands now. What's more important, though, is the type of people and the quality of the people, not necessarily the quantity. And it's my opinion that for security reasons it's important to have a smaller, closed group of people working together.
Keeping confidential information confidential?
Yeah. A lot of the stuff we do is extremely high-profile, and a lot of the matters we end up investigating turn out to be bogus. If information like that gets out, it could be very damaging to innocent people. A very small proportion of the matters that we investigate -- I'd say under twenty percent -- actually result in an indictment.
How do you make a case? How are they initiated?
Like any other investigation, generally: A defendant or a potential defendant in a criminal investigation begins to cooperate. We do either a historical investigation, in which we attempt to reconstruct past events with the testimony of witnesses and the use of documentary evidence, or we do a proactive investigation: undercover operations, or what's often referred to as "stings."
The other type of source is citizens' complaints, and some of those tend to be reliable and some not so reliable. We consider and check out all reasonable sources of information.
What's an example of a historical investigation?
The Raul Martinez case. Silvio Cardozo, a former Hialeah councilman, and Antonia Pardona, a former Hialeah housing commissioner, entered into plea negotiations with the government and began providing investigators with information about criminal conduct among city officials in Hialeah. And as a result of that cooperation, we were able to develop other witnesses and documentary evidence of crimes that were alleged to have been committed by other people, including former city councilman Andres Mejides and Mayor Raul Martinez.
That's one way we get tips: Someone cooperates. Another situation is where you develop leads from reading the newspaper, such as in Daoud.
Hialeah also. Hialeah wasn't strictly a case that was developed by informants. The Miami Herald had already done a lot of work for us in its series "Hialeah: Zoned for Profit." That provided us with some sort of framework for our approach when we developed these cooperators later on. In the case of Daoud, the Herald had a series of articles on CenTrust Savings Bank and its CEO, David Paul.
Was all the information new, or had you already heard some of it?
I can't answer that.
How do you work an undercover informant, like Manohar Surana, Howard Gary, Daoud?
You're asking the wrong person. You should ask an investigator that question. I take part in the planning stage, but I don't take part in those meetings.
That raises an important point not understood by everybody: that the U.S. Attorney's Office doesn't make these cases alone. How do you coordinate your efforts with other agencies?
Well, in terms of the strict division of labor, it's often said that the Bureau [FBI] or other investigative agencies -- like IRS, Customs, internal affairs -- investigate cases and we prosecute them. Ideally we work together at every phase. It doesn't always work that way, but in the ideal situation we're involved from the outset. A person comes in and complains he's being solicited for a bribe. Our office will sit down with the federal agencies involved and come up with some sort of plan as to what we need to do to legally establish that a bribe has been solicited and what sort of evidence we would need to prove it. Every case has to be judged on its own merits. The decision whether or not to exercise prosecutorial discretion is the single most important one that a prosecutor can make.
How do you go from prosecuting a defendant to working with that person as a cooperator?
On a personal level?
It's awkward but not impossible. It's mainly awkward for the defendant. I try not to take these matters personally. I try to remain objective, so I can be a better judge of how the jury's evaluating the evidence. It's more difficult for the defendant, though, because he has seen me as his persecutor. So we have to get beyond that. If there's a grudge on my end, it's usually aimed at the opposing attorneys. In the heat of battle it can get a little hot in there.
How consumed do you become by your trials?
Generally the work week is about a hundred hours, more or less. I get up about four-thirty in the morning, get to the office by six-thirty, start preparing for the witnesses who are going to testify that morning, get all the documents in order. Usually work through lunch, send out for lunch. Then at the end of the day, about five, five-thirty, you come back, you have witnesses show up to be prepped for the next day. Stay until about eight, go out to eat, back to the office, leave by ten-thirty, get home about eleven-thirty, try to sleep, go back and do it again. Weekends, try to give yourself a break one of the days: You work at least eight to ten hours Saturday and Sunday. I usually end up losing ten pounds. What usually happens is you start living off of adrenaline and at the end of it you get sick, sick as a dog. Your body catches up with you.
Was the Martinez 1 trial the longest trial you've been involved in?
That, or Daoud.
How did you unwind?
I went to Nepal. Climbed the Himalayas for six or seven weeks. Grew a beard.
How consumed do you become by thoughts about your adversaries? Do you dream about them? Nightmares?
It's really not a personal thing at all. You can disapprove of a person's conduct without feeling animosity toward that person. One of the worst mistakes a prosecutor -- or any lawyer, for that matter -- can make is to allow himself to demonize his opponent, meaning his target/defendant or opposing counsel. When you do that, you lose your objectivity, and that clouds your judgment. Some of the defendants I've prosecuted I find to be very engaging people. Alex Daoud can be a very engaging fellow. Cesar Odio is a very likable man.
Three trials in seven years and Martinez is a free man. Not just free, of course, but he's still mayor of a large American city. Does that frustrate you?
Whether or not he's mayor is a matter between him and the voters. I have no interest in whether or not he's mayor. I feel like we did a good job.
How often do you think about that case?
One evening this past month, about 100 people crammed into a small banquet room at the Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Miami to bid farewell to Bruce Udolf. William Keefer was there, as were many assistant U.S. attorneys, past and present -- one former Miami prosecutor even flew down from his home in New York for the occasion. There were also agents from various federal investigative agencies, judges, defense attorneys, and one elected official: Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber, who joined his son, former assistant U.S. attorney Dan Gelber.
Among the usual assortment of encomiums and roasts, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Butler spoke about how Udolf habitually agonized over decisions and consulted what he called his "internal justice gyroscope." After years of pursuing corrupt public officials, she said, her colleague had "never lost any of the sensitivity toward the awesome power prosecutors have."
Do you ever feel conflicted about a prosecution?
With few exceptions, yeah.
Any specific cases?
Alex [Daoud] clearly committed many despicable acts as mayor, but you can despise what he did without despising him. It was very sad to watch what happened to him during the period of time he was indicted and ultimately convicted.
What happens to them? Do you see patterns among defendants that would suggest why they may have turned to crime?
Sometimes it's greed, in the case of others it's insecurity -- don't ask me which ones! -- sometimes it's a matter of arrogance, a feeling that they're entitled to it because they work hard, it's their time to be recompensed for their sacrifice as public servants. Sometimes it's a combination of all of those. But you can't judge any of these people by a black-and-white standard. Some of the people we've prosecuted have done some extraordinarily good things, and they've ended up disappointing a lot of people. As I always say, it's sometimes much easier to prosecute a bank robber than it is a public official.
Are there any times when you come to like or feel sorry for the defendants?
Most of them I feel sorry for. The worst thing is not so much watching the pain of someone who occupied a significant station in their community being humiliated in the courtroom; it's watching what happens to their family. That's tough.
What's the worst emotional memory of your career?
The time one of our defendants committed suicide. [In March 1993, U.S. Customs Agent Alcides Licona killed himself an hour before he was scheduled to plead guilty to stealing more than $100,000 in drug money.]
How did it make you feel?
It certainly hits home to you: the power you have over people's lives. Even if you know in your heart that what he did was wrong and the prosecution was justified, nothing's worth that. I think about it a lot.
Daoud told me he considered taking his life several times during his trial.
Any time you arrest someone, particularly in the kind of work we do, the people don't see themselves as criminals like bank robbers and burglars. You have a responsibility to consider how these people will react. There have been many times that we've taken people into custody and we've discussed with their lawyers our concerns and even suggested the defendants get some counseling. That comes up more often than not in law enforcement corruption. Believe it or not, a cop takes it harder than just about anybody when he's caught. Their role has always been to wear the white hat.
Are there cases where you haven't indicted someone where you could have?
Always people who became witnesses?
So are there politicians in South Florida who in the legal opinion of the U.S. Attorney's Office appear to have committed a crime and have not been indicted?
You don't seriously expect me to answer that!
A legal career was kind of an afterthought for Udolf. In the mid-Seventies, having graduated from college, he was playing bass in a blues band, touring around the Southeast and hoping to make a living that way. But the road wasn't very lucrative, and Udolf eventually enrolled at law school at Emory University in Atlanta. His intentions weren't particularly lofty: "I thought it would be fun," he explains. "I was always sort of interested in the law; my father was a lawyer." Still, he quickly got serious and embraced the profession. He went on to clerk for a circuit judge in Atlanta, and in 1982, at the age of 30, he was elected district attorney of a suburban area north of the capital.
After a four-year term, he ran for re-election and lost, whereupon he headed south to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami -- a city he chose partly so he could be near his ailing grandfather and partly because it was a hotbed of legal activity. While chief of the public corruption unit, Udolf's work hasn't been confined to the U.S. He has traveled to Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, and the former Soviet Union to train prosecutors. During his ten years in Miami, he worked under six U.S. attorneys.
How destabilizing has this revolving door of U.S. attorneys been?
If you look around the country, the average term of a U.S. attorney has been two and a half or three years. I don't think the length of the terms has had a destabilizing effect.
But now we're looking at the nomination of a Republican to head the office, and that's at least significant, because he's been nominated by a Democratic administration. Is this a signal of a need for more consistency?
I hope that's a signal that they're more interested in competency than they are in party loyalty.
Do you think party loyalty and the politicization of the selection process has hurt the U.S. Attorney's Office?
This particular office? No. I think everyone who's been selected to be U.S. attorney has had their strengths and weaknesses, but clearly all have been exceptionally bright people and are talented in some way or another.
How destabilizing to the office was Kendall Coffey's resignation and the circumstances thereof? [Coffey, who was U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1996, resigned amid allegations that during a bender at a South Miami strip club he bit a dancer on the arm. He was replaced by an interim chief, William Keefer, a career prosecutor who was recruited from within the ranks of the Southern District.]
How destabilizing? The office has a remarkable resilience. In many ways it runs itself. Having Bill Keefer there was a tremendous help. I guess it could have been tough, but I think he has held things together on a lot of different levels. Had it been anyone else, it might have been tougher to accomplish all the things that have been accomplished in the past year, including Greenpalm and Hallandale. There are so many things that have been going on, not just in the area of corruption. There's been a heck of a lot of movement in the area of economic crime, special prosecutions, narcotics, appeals.
But were the circumstances of Coffey's resignation in any way embarrassing to the office?
I don't think it had anything to do with the office.
A widely held perception, at least among observers of the U.S. Attorney's Office, was that Dexter Lehtinen was politically minded. Was Lehtinen more political than any of the other U.S. attorneys you worked for? [Lehtinen, husband of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, was U.S. Attorney from 1988 to 1992. Raul Martinez's attorneys accused him of targeting the mayor for political reasons, in that Martinez was considered a likely political opponent of Ros-Lehtinen.]
I'm not going to get into that.
Was the Martinez prosecution in any way politically motivated?
No. When I was first assigned this case, in December of '88 or January of '89, I didn't even know who Raul Martinez was.
But Dexter did.
I can't say what was in his mind.
What motivated you to enter elected public office?
When I got out of Emory, I clerked for a judge for a while, then I went to work for this one district attorney who had been D.A. for 33 years. He was a legend in the state of Georgia. I worked for him for about two and a half years. He was getting ready to retire, and he said he would endorse me if I ran. At the time of the election, I hadn't even been practicing law long enough to serve as D.A., but by the time I took office I was.
Has that experience made you more empathetic toward public officials?
For one thing, I don't see things in black and white. There are different shades of gray in matters that we look at. So maybe it has given me some perspective. It may also have helped my ability to gain insight into the people we are looking at, and to anticipate what their defenses may be.
Did you face any political pressure when, as district attorney, you prosecuted public corruption cases?
A great deal. It's tough for state prosecutors to do corruption cases, because inevitably a lot of political pressure is brought to bear.
Has the Dade State Attorney's Office been compromised because of that dynamic? Do you think the office has been reluctant to prosecute public corruption cases for that reason?
I've heard that criticism, and in my view it's unjustified. Actually, I think this State Attorney's Office is a lot more aggressive than most. They've done many cases by themselves and have often brought cases to us and we've worked them jointly. They've been particularly aggressive even though they haven't always got the appropriate amount of credit because they've brought their cases over to the federal side and cross-designated some of their prosecutors.
But they've seemed so gun-shy. They sat on the Dade County Sunshine Law violation case for more than a year.
I can't comment on particular cases. But what I can tell you is that this State Attorney's Office, in terms of prosecuting corruption, is way above average.
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Now you're in Washington. What sort of work does the Starr job entail?
Right now it entails sitting in a back room reading volumes and volumes of documents.
Can we expect an indictment against the First Lady?
I notice you have a smile on your face, so I know you don't really, seriously expect me to answer that.
Oh, I absolutely do.
Well -- [laughs] -- you will be absolutely disappointed because all I can say to that is no comment.