Odio and the Dolt Defense

There is an old Irish toast: May you be in Heaven an hour before the devil even knows you're dead. Former Miami mayor Steve Clark was a great fan of Irish toasts -- as well as Scandinavian toasts, Italian toasts, Russian toasts, Cuban toasts, and pretty much any toast that ultimately involved alcohol. But it is that particular Irish toast that today seems most appropriate to Clark. Because, assuming for a moment that Clark did make it through the Pearly Gates, the devil may not have been the only one who didn't catch him.

The upcoming bribery trial of former city manager Cesar Odio is likely to reveal that Clark was one of the original targets of FBI agents investigating corruption at city hall. The probe, known as Operation Greenpalm, began in 1995 after the city's finance director, Manohar Surana, was discovered soliciting a bribe from a computer company seeking a city contract. After being confronted by federal agents in March 1996, Surana agreed to work undercover and help prosecutors set up stings against other city officials.

Odio's attorneys are expected to argue that it was really Clark that federal agents wanted to snare. According to sources familiar with both the defense's strategy and the surreptitious tape recordings made by Surana, he had numerous conversations regarding city contracts with several of Clark's closest friends, in which Clark's assistance in steering contracts was discussed. But before the mayor could be lured into the sting, he died. Defense attorneys will claim that Clark's death caused Surana to fear that his deal with prosecutors might fall apart. As a result, Surana theoretically stepped up his pressure until he finally coerced Odio and his lifelong friend, lobbyist Jorge de Cardenas, to take part in a kickback scheme involving the city workers' compensation contract.

Identifying Clark as an original Greenpalm target is part of a larger defense strategy to convince the jury that Odio was entrapped and therefore not legally liable for his criminal actions.

Odio, whose reputation is seemingly established as the most incompetent city manager in Miami's history, goes on trial Monday to see if he will be remembered as its most corrupt, as well. No other city manager in Miami's 100 years of existence has been convicted of accepting a bribe, according to local historians, seasoned politicians, and journalists. "Some were fired under suspicious circumstances, but none were ever indicted," confirms Jeanne Bellamy, "at least none that I can recall." A veteran newspaperwoman, the 85-year-old Bellamy has covered numerous incidents of municipal malfeasance, including the so-called Termite Administration scandal of 1936, in which the mayor and the Miami City Commission were recalled by voters and the city manager was fired amid reports that they had solicited bribes from executives of Florida Power & Light. "Even in that case no one was ever charged," Bellamy adds.

Odio probably wishes for the simpler, less judgmental nature of days gone by. Instead he faces the ignominy of trial. But the drama of the United States of America v. Cesar Humberto Odio goes beyond defining Odio's place in local history and determining whether his obituary will someday include the words "disgraced" and "imprisoned." This trial will also be filled with the types of subtexts and storylines that can happen only in South Florida.

Take Odio, for instance. The son of Cuban political prisoners, he fights to remain free in the country that gave him refuge. Odio's mother Sara spent six years in a Cuban prison, his father Amador ten. Cesar came to America as a young man to avoid that same fate and to help raise his younger brothers and sisters while his parents languished in Cuba. Odio embraced this country and praised it as a sanctuary. Before being caught accepting bribes for city contracts in a government-orchestrated sting, he had been hailed -- at least by some -- as an immigrant success story, a leader in his community and an example for others to emulate. But Odio, who had been summoned to the White House for consultation during the balsero crisis of 1994, now faces the prospect of an American prison cell.

Oddly enough, the one person in the courtroom who might best empathize with Odio will be sitting on the bench. In 1992 U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore was a target of a federal grand jury in Brooklyn, which was investigating allegations that he had accepted gratuities -- including a trip on a chartered yacht and tickets to the Broadway show Cats -- from a company that did business with the U.S. Marshals Service while he was its director from November 1989 until February 1992. Moore, who left the Marshals Service to become a federal judge in Miami, claimed that the gifts were part of "normal social hospitality" between old friends.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede