Jimmy in the Lion's Den

This past Sunday Rev. Cleo Albury, Jr., of the Bible Baptist Church in Liberty City, exhorted his congregation to believe in the power of prayer, and he used the parable of Daniel in the lion's den as an illustration. Daniel, the pastor reminded everyone, was a servant of the Lord and a righteous man who had been betrayed by those who were jealous of him. His detractors tricked the king into believing that Daniel was corrupt, and the king in turn ordered him thrown into a lair filled with savage cats, a giant stone pressed against the entrance to literally seal his fate.

"Then the king arose very early in the morning and went in haste to the den of lions," Albury read from the Old Testament. "And when he came to the den, he cried out in a lamenting voice to Daniel, 'Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?' Then Daniel said to the king, 'O king, live forever! My God has sent his angel, and shut the lions' mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you.'"

As Albury spoke, raucous cries of "Amen!" punctuated his every sentence. "Now the king was exceedingly glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den," the reverend continued. "So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no injury whatever was found on him, because he believed in his God." The king, realizing he had been duped, then ordered Daniel's accusers thrown to the lions, and Daniel went on to become a prosperous man.

Closing his Bible, Albury paced back and forth, retracing the path of the story. "Prayer sustains us in times of false accusations," he intoned. "Prayer turns the table on accusers and enemies." The more he spoke, the more he appeared to seethe with indignation. "They can't find anything wrong to pull you down," he bellowed, "so they'll make something up to pull you down. When people want to get you, they'll find ways to get on your trail!"

And when they catch you, Albury said, they throw you to the lions, just like Daniel. "And all lions don't have four feet!" he roared over the rising din of the 900 people who had gathered to hear his sermon. "There are some lions who have two feet, who are going around looking for someone to devour!"

Albury's flock erupted in shouts and applause. "That's right! That's right!" they yelled as it became clear the pastor was no longer talking about the biblical Daniel.

In the church balcony, Dade County Commissioner James Burke smiled and nodded in agreement. Only a few days earlier the news had broken that Burke was the target of a federal investigation in which he was suspected of soliciting $100,000 in kickbacks from a county bond deal. An allusion to the controversy had been made at the outset of Sunday's service. Donald Manning, director of Dade County's Department of Corrections -- who, like Burke, is a long-time member of Bible Baptist -- had told the congregation: "Don't believe everything you read." But it was Albury's allegorical tale that brought the faithful rallying to Burke's side.

As the service was drawing to a close, Burke descended from the balcony. He wore a striking white Nigerian ceremonial shirt with gold trim that hung loosely below his knees. His matching white cotton pants were also laced with gold. Clutching his Bible, he strode to the front of the church, a flowing, glowing apparition. Albury opened his arms wide as the commissioner approached the altar. They embraced. Then a dozen church elders stepped forward and tightly encircled the two men. "Oh Lord," Albury prayed, "deliver him from the lions."

It may indeed take divine intervention to save Jimmy Burke. Though he has not been charged with any crime, he acknowledges that in the weeks ahead he will be indicted as part of a wide-ranging investigation into government corruption. After initially netting Miami Commissioner Miller Dawkins, Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, and lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas, federal agents shifted their attention to the county and took aim not only at Burke but at his former chief of staff Billy Hardemon, and at bond underwriter Calvin Grigsby.

The link between Dinner Key and County Hall was Howard Gary, Miami's former city manager whose firm, Howard Gary & Co., is one of Dade's most successful minority bond traders. The affair began unfolding last year, when Miami finance director Manohar Surana solicited a bribe from the computer company Unisys, which was seeking a multimillion-dollar contract with the city.

Unisys reported the extortion attempt to federal authorities, who then set up Surana and Gary, both of whom allegedly were participating in the scheme. This past March the FBI quietly brought in Surana for questioning and persuaded him to become a government informant. In the months that followed Surana wore a hidden microphone, which allowed agents to gather evidence of alleged wrongdoing against Dawkins, Odio, and de Cardenas. All three men were arrested earlier this month on a variety of charges.

But federal agents were also interested in county government, particularly in the area of Metro's bond-dealing. For years authorities had sought evidence supporting their long-standing suspicions that some of the county's bond transactions -- which generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees -- were steered to selected firms with political clout. Investigators recognized that Gary could provide them access to this normally insular world.

Apparently a tactical decision was made not to approach Gary until Surana's Miami stings were well under way. If he had refused to cooperate, Gary might have alerted Dawkins and others to the FBI probe, leaving authorities with nothing to prosecute. The chronology of events in the city investigation, and interviews with Burke, Hardemon, and others, indicate that Gary did not begin cooperating with federal investigators until late June at the earliest.

As it turned out, the FBI couldn't have picked a better time to turn Howard Gary into an informant; at that very moment he was negotiating for his inclusion in two separate bond transactions. The first involved the county's recycling and incineration plant, operated by Montenay Power Corp., and the second encompassed the anticipated cost of a new basketball arena for the Miami Heat -- assuming, of course, the arena is approved by voters in November.

While the arena's future may have been in doubt, the Montenay deal was guaranteed to be lucrative, generating fees and commissions of nearly $1.5 million for reissuing $183 million in bonds for the waste plant. In mid-June, shortly before Gary agreed to become a federal informant, he met with Burke and Grigsby in Orlando to discuss the Montenay transaction.

Calvin Grigsby's San Francisco bond firm, Grigsby Brandford & Co., was already in place to be the lead underwriter for the deal, with Smith Barney and AIBC Investments slated to play supporting roles. Gary wanted to be part of the deal, but according to numerous sources, his relationship with Grigsby has been marked by a spiteful animosity.

In the late Eighties, with the help of then- county commissioner Joe Gersten, Gary's firm became the major black player in Dade's bond business. But with Gersten's departure from the commission in 1993 and Burke's ascendancy to the chairmanship of the finance committee the following year, Gary's firm suddenly found itself competing with Grigsby, who had been assiduously courting Burke -- wining and dining him and paying for at least one trip to San Francisco. Before long Grigsby's firm was being included in a series of bond deals that just a few years earlier automatically would have gone to Gary.

The June conclave in Orlando had been arranged by Burke as a sort of summit meeting. The commissioner says its purpose was to have Grigsby and Gary set aside their personal differences and join forces for the betterment of the black community. Recalls Burke: "I basically told them, 'You guys can work together and build a real black economy that will benefit the community. You guys can generate a lot of stuff together. But you can't do that if every time Calvin comes to town you two argue about the past.'"

The meeting, which Billy Hardemon also attended, did not begin until nearly midnight and lasted for several hours. Gary was the most volatile, Burke says, repeatedly screaming about how Grigsby had "fucked him" in the past, and that he couldn't trust Grigsby. To which Burke says he responded: "We're going to stay here and have this out and you guys are going to work together."

Burke says the discussions that night were far-ranging and included more than just the Montenay and arena bond deals. But, he adds, there was no attempt by him to arrange a $100,000 kickback for his efforts to broker a truce between Gary and Grigsby.

Following the Orlando meeting, Grigsby added Gary's name to the list of underwriters who would participate in the Montenay deal, which was later approved by the county commission. Whatever cheer that might have brought to Gary's life was short-lived. Soon thereafter federal agents swooped down on him and revealed that they knew all about his attempt to extort money from Unisys.

After Gary agreed to become an informant, federal agents appeared to concentrate on the Montenay transaction, and specifically on Burke, who says agents have been trying to reconstruct details of his recent travels outside Miami, especially a series of trips to the Bahamas and Bermuda. Burke says the excursions were "primarily for social occasions with female friends."

New Times has learned that in early August, Burke and Gary, who by now was working for the government, flew to the Bahamas, where investigators believe they opened an offshore bank account in anticipation of the alleged payoff Burke would receive for helping with the Montenay transaction.

Burke does not deny he went to Nassau with Gary, or that an offshore bank account was opened, which in itself is not illegal. Though he would not explain why such an account was opened, he contends that the actions were orchestrated by Gary in a fashion to make it appear as though Burke was participating in a kickback scheme. "Every trip we are talking about there was a female friend involved," he explains. "Other things might have happened, and that's what I meant when I said I think this whole thing has been manipulated by Gary."

It is likely that prosecutors will portray Burke's excursions abroad as banking-related and that they coincided with his August 25 trip to San Francisco, where he would again meet with Gary and Grigsby. The purpose of the West Coast trip, Burke claims, was to observe Grigsby's staff as they conducted the Montenay bond sale, thereby gaining a better understanding of the intricacies of the bond business.

In San Francisco Burke stayed at the ritzy Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill, where suite prices begin at $375 a night. Gary picked up the tab for the flight and the room, though Burke claims he intended to have the county reimburse Gary. Although prosecutors do not have recordings from Burke's meeting with Grigsby and Gary in Orlando, this time around Gary was wired. Those conversations in San Francisco will likely form the basis for the government's case against Burke and Grigsby.

After a couple of days in San Francisco, Burke returned home. But he made his second trip in less than a month to the Bahamas.

Last week Burke was questioned by the FBI and heard portions of those taped conversations from San Francisco, some of which include discussions of payments he allegedly expected to receive. Those conversations, Burke maintains, are being misconstrued by prosecutors and were unrelated to Gary and Grigsby's bond transactions; rather they involved his friendship with Gary and certain things Gary may have been able to do for Burke as a friend.

Burke's personal finances have always been murky. In addition to his $6000 county commission salary, he says he works as a "governmental consultant," lobbying in Tallahassee and Washington on behalf of "educational institutions and African-American associations." He earned approximately $60,000 during the first six months of this year, he says, adding: "This would have been my best year ever."

In the past he has survived on "loans from friends, from relatives, that were always paid back." He has also used campaign contributions to cover some of his living expenses, a practice for which he is now under investigation by the State of Florida.

As a result of news leaks regarding Manohar Surana's role in the FBI's City of Miami sting, and a report in the Miami Herald that the probe had expanded to include an unnamed county commissioner, rumors immediately began circulating that Gary and Burke must be involved, which in turn prematurely ended Gary's usefulness as an undercover informant.

Even Burke wondered if he was the unnamed commissioner under scrutiny. He says he had his lawyer contact the U.S. Attorney's Office earlier this month and ask if the commissioner was under investigation. "We were given a clean bill of health," Burke says. "Obviously they were lying to us."

Hardemon says he told Burke he suspected they were being set up but that Burke refused to listen to him. He also maintains his own innocence. "I have not participated in anything," he insists. "I don't know about the conspiracy they are talking about. If there was something going on, it was a pay grade above me." (The remark about "a pay grade above me," he acknowledges, is a reference to his former boss, the commissioner.)

As a candidate for the county commission, Hardemon is trying to find some advantage in the fact that he is under criminal investigation. Hoping to tap into what he believes to be the black community's resentment toward police and the Justice Department, he has redefined himself as a victim of the white power structure akin to former federal judge Alcee Hastings, who was tossed off the bench by the United States Senate for allegedly soliciting a bribe but who went on to win election to Congress in a primarily black district.

Hardemon's troubles don't end with the federal charges that are expected to be brought against him; he is also under criminal investigation by the Dade State Attorney's Office for misusing campaign contributions. But his racially charged response to the federal probe illustrates a danger for prosecutors in the months ahead. With Dawkins and Burke the only two elected officials targeted so far, allegations of racism are likely. That possibility has been further heightened by the fact that Calvin Grigsby, who resigned from his own firm upon learning he was under investigation, hired former O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to represent him.

In his office following his sermon this past Sunday, Rev. Cleo Albury considered the inflammatory question of race for a moment. Drained of the passion he had exuded before his congregation only moments earlier, he made reference to Burke in a far more measured tone. "There are some people who are going to say he is guilty, and there are others who will always believe that he is innocent," he offered. "But I think we ought to wait until the courts are through with this case before we make any judgment. Today all we wanted to do was let brother Burke know that we love him and we pray for him, and no matter what he may or may not have done, God will be there for him.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede