Crime & Politics

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In February 1986, the Miami Herald broke the story that Book and Dugan were under investigation for allegedly bribing members of the Opa-locka City Commission. Hooten told the Herald he had no doubt that Book knew what Dugan was doing when he delivered the $4000. (Nearly a decade later, Hooten remains firm in his belief. "Ron Book was the engine," he said in a recent interview. "Dugan was his gofer.")

On August 6, 1986, Dugan was arrested and charged with bribery. He eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years' probation and 500 hours of community service. Today he maintains that Book knew nothing about his attempts to bribe Hooten: "My problems were created by myself, period."

Book was never charged with any crime regarding Southern Combustion and the payoff to Hooten. That decision by then-State Attorney Janet Reno reportedly caused a major split in her office as several prosecutors involved in the investigation argued strongly that Book should have been criminally charged. Still, Book's connection to San Pedro would forever color the way police and prosecutors viewed him. And if there was suspicion during this period, it was only exacerbated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

According to a January 15, 1986, sworn statement by Metro-Dade Sgt. Thomas Tretola, FBI agents in Philadelphia had contacted Metro detectives to say that Book's name had surfaced in an investigation there. One of the FBI's informants was alleging "widespread corruption" within the Florida Department of Insurance, then headed by Bill Gunter. "The confidential source further alleged that Ronald Book was heavily involved in this corrupt activity and was one of the key people to be contacted for any potential bribery attempt concerning the Department of Insurance," Tretola wrote. Book and Gunter were long-time friends; the lobbyist had raised more than $100,000 for various Gunter campaigns over the years. At the time the report was made public, both Book and Gunter denied any wrongdoing, and no charges were brought against either man.

The peculiar events of late 1985 prompted investigators to take a special interest in Ron Book's affairs, including the reported theft of his brand-new Mercedes 500 SEL, stolen from a parking lot at Miami International Airport on December 10, 1985.

Book had owned the car -- the same one he and Brian Hooten sat in outside Opa-locka City Hall -- less than a month. It was a gift from Miami Grand Prix promoter Ralph Sanchez, who Book represented as an attorney and lobbyist. The Mercedes was a "gray market" car, meaning it had been manufactured for use outside the United States and required upgrades after being imported. Such modifications sometimes make it difficult to place a precise dollar value on a car.

But determining a price didn't seem to be a problem for the dealer, Rennsport Autohaus, a Coconut Grove dealership owned by Antonio Jose Garcia. In early November, Ralph Sanchez had reportedly called Garcia to tell him Book would be trading his current car for a new Mercedes and that Sanchez would pick up the difference between the trade-in and the new car.

A month later, after the Mercedes was stolen, Book submitted an insurance claim stating that the sale price was $53,000. Following a tip by Metro-Dade police that something odd may be occurring with Book's insurance claim, two investigators from the state Division of Insurance Fraud went to Rennsport and asked to see all documents relating to Book's Mercedes purchase. When a secretary approached with the paperwork, the investigators -- John Askins and Ed Dahl -- quickly snatched it, slapped a subpoena in her hands, and walked out with the file.

Inside they found the original invoice for the car, dated November 5, 1985, which stated its sale price as $44,000. They also discovered a letter dated December 26, 1985, from Book to Antonio Jose Garcia: "Please remember to send me the Bill of Sale we discussed." At the bottom of the letter, in Garcia's handwriting, was a note to one of his assistants: "We have to do new bill."

Next in the file, Askins and Dahl found a new invoice, backdated to November 5, 1985, stating the purchase price of the car as being $53,000. Book had submitted to his insurance company a copy of this inflated invoice as proof of how much he paid.

On May 23, 1986, Book was arrested at his law office in downtown Miami. The headline in the Herald the next morning read, "Noted Lawyer Arrested"; the article was accompanied by a photograph of Book being led away in handcuffs by Askins and Dahl. The lobbyist was charged with second-degree theft and three counts of filing a false and fraudulent insurance claim, each of which were third-degree felonies. Book was also charged with misdemeanor perjury for filing a sworn statement he knew to be false. The case was assigned to Assistant State Attorney Larry LaVecchio, the same prosecutor who at that time was handling the Opa-locka bribery investigation.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede