Teele, Toil, and Trouble

Strolling into the press room at county hall last week, the lobbyist had a news flash. "It's going to be Thursday," he said confidently. "I just talked to Tallahassee."

The two Miami Herald reporters in the room stared back without saying a word. No one needed to translate this information. We all knew he was referring to the possible indictment of Miami City Commissioner Art Teele. "It was $200,000," the lobbyist added. This was the amount Teele supposedly pocketed as a bribe.

In the days leading up to last week's Herald story revealing the federal investigation of Teele, both city and county hall were overrun with rumors of Teele's imminent demise. On my way to the county commission meeting the day before the Herald article, four people stopped me between the parking lot and the commission chambers to share gossip. "I hear he took $300,000 from the stevedores," one supposed insider whispered. Another had this tip: Teele had fled the country and was hiding out somewhere in the Bahamas.

Thursday came and went without Teele being led away in handcuffs. The amount of money involved was actually $90,000. And the commissioner was still in Miami.

Inaccurate rumors notwithstanding, Art Teele is in serious trouble. In recent months federal agents pieced together a 1993 transaction in which Fiscal Operations, the company that operates the Port of Miami's gantry cranes, wired $85,000 to a bank in Puerto Rico. That money, as well as an additional $5000, was then sent to the office of Teele's Miami lawyer. Teele denies knowing that the cash -- which was described as a loan -- came from Fiscal Operations and its owner Calvin Grigsby, the San Francisco investment banker who is under indictment for allegedly bribing then-County Commissioner James Burke.

Anticipating that a Teele indictment would create a vacancy on the city commission, potential candidates last week were scrambling to line up support, most notably Pierre Rutledge, whom Teele defeated last fall. That election marked an extraordinary comeback for Teele. After he lost the county mayor's race to Alex Penelas in 1996, many predicted he would leave South Florida. But Teele not only won a city commission seat last November, he quickly established himself as that body's de facto leader, providing one of the few voices of clarity during Xavier Suarez's chaotic 111-day tenure. He was the only city politician with enough backbone to consistently support the unpopular but necessary fire-rescue fee. Indeed his future once again seemed boundless. Teele, a black Republican, was positioning himself to run for Congress in the next few years, depending on when U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek decided to retire.

Today, however, the question isn't whether he's headed for Washington but whether he's headed for prison. There is little doubt that Arthur E. Teele, Jr., will be indicted.

The nature of the charges, and the timing, is still being considered by the U.S. Attorney's Office. According to former federal prosecutors interviewed for this story, the charges could be a combination of any of the following: theft of government funds, wire fraud, or conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

Prosecutors will have to make a decision in the next two weeks if they want to charge Teele with one particular count of wire fraud. According to sources familiar with the facts in the case, the money was wired to Teele on May 12, 1993. The statute of limitations on wire fraud is five years, which means prosecutors would have to indict Teele by May 12 of this year.

One possible scenario: Prosecutors will indict Teele; former seaport director Carmen Lunetta, who engineered the loan; and Grigsby by May 12 and then follow up a month or two later with a more comprehensive indictment. The superseding indictment would include not only additional charges against Teele (such as conspiracy to commit wire fraud) but all the other counts prosecutors have been quietly developing against Lunetta and Grigsby during a two-year investigation of the port's finances.

By indicting Teele within the next two weeks, prosecutors would force Governor Chiles to remove the commissioner from office immediately -- a goal in any public corruption prosecution. It would also allow them an opportunity to make public some of their evidence in order to counter the criticism being expressed in the black community that the Teele investigation is racially motivated.

An indictment may be inevitable, but a conviction is not.
Certain facts will be impossible to dispute. Teele did receive $90,000 in May 1993, $85,000 of which came from Fiscal Operations and Grigsby. And although it was described as a six-month loan, it still has not been repaid.

The specific events in this case unfolded in early 1993 but have their roots in Teele's tortured personal financial history. In 1985 he bought a small Brooklyn company called Applied Electrical Technologies Corporation (AETC), which rebuilt electric subway motors. Teele purchased the company for nearly three million dollars -- paying $1.4 million in cash and assuming more than a million dollars in company debt. Teele borrowed money from several individuals, including William A. Patch, a former army brigadier general who served with Teele in Korea. Patch provided $150,000.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede