The Gersten Affair

Eight years, 10,000 miles, and eleven time zones don't seem to be enough to insulate former county Commissioner Joe Gersten from his notorious Miami past. Despite attempts to fashion a new life in Australia, the ghosts of his local infamy haunt his every move. In fact just a few weeks ago, Gersten was forced to confront two of his Florida nemeses who had traveled to Sydney to testify in his latest legal imbroglio.

Gersten, an attorney, has been waging war against the New South Wales Law Society, which has sought to suspend his professional license. In 1996 the Law Society (the equivalent of the Florida Bar) granted him the right to practice law. Two years later, in March 1998, Gersten's Florida license was suspended by the state Supreme Court. That action, the result of a 1993 contempt-of-court controversy that landed him in jail, caused the Law Society to seek suspension of his Australian license. (Under rules governing lawyers in the state of New South Wales, suspension of one's license in any other jurisdiction triggers suspension in New South Wales as well.)

With the Law Society about to give him the boot, Gersten appealed to the New South Wales Supreme Court, which delayed the suspension and handed the matter to a panel of judges for a hearing. To support their claim that Gersten's suspension should stand, Law Society officials wanted the testimonies of Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Joel Rosenblatt and former staff counsel for the Florida Bar's Miami office, Bill Hendrix. Both men traveled to Sydney in late February.

Hendrix, now an assistant attorney general in Tallahassee, would not comment about the hearing because Australia's public-records laws restrict such information until a final judgment is reached. Both the Florida Bar and State Attorney's Office, however, confirm that the Law Society covered Hendrix and Rosenblatt's travel costs. They stayed Down Under about ten days.

It's likely that Hendrix proved to be a valuable witness. He led the 1993 move to disbar Gersten after the ex-commissioner refused to comply with a judge's order to answer prosecutors' questions about the 1992 theft of his automobile. The heist was the opening chapter in a nine-year saga that has helped make Gersten one of Miami's most intriguing and infamous political characters.

Gersten's calamitous fall began April 29, 1992, when he reported to police that his ice-blue Mercedes-Benz had been stolen from his Hardee Road home in Coral Gables. The next morning police spotted small-time drug dealer Kenneth Elswick driving the car in Miami and arrested him. Elswick in turn led investigators to Claudia Lira, a prostitute who helped him rob Gersten at knifepoint while the commissioner allegedly was having sex and smoking crack with hooker Tracy Sheehan in a ramshackle drug den on NE 31st Street, just east of Biscayne Boulevard. Another eyewitness, Robert Maldonado, corroborated their story, saying the Mercedes had been taken from the crackhouse -- not Gersten's home. The scandal quickly erupted and dominated local news for weeks. Gersten fueled the headlines with allegations he was being set up by political foes.

The State Attorney's Office, at the time led by Janet Reno, tried to force Gersten to answer questions about the stolen Mercedes, but he refused, claiming that prosecutors had set a trap: If he stood by his version of events, he risked being charged with perjury; but if he admitted to the crackhouse incident, he could be charged with filing a false police report. On March 17, 1993, Circuit Court Judge Amy Dean ordered Gersten to respond. He still refused. Dean then found him in contempt of court and tossed him in jail, where he sat for 26 days. He was released after an appeals court agreed to review his challenge to the judge's order. That September, while visiting a friend in Hawaii, Gersten bought a ticket to the South Seas and never returned.

Gersten claims he was framed by Reno and the FBI because his own investigation into corruption at the Port of Miami was causing certain people in high places to become nervous. He also asserts that the crackhouse story was manufactured by his political enemies, including Dade County Mayor Steve Clark, whom Gersten hoped to unseat.

The conspiracy theory remains the cornerstone of Gersten's defense, and he is pressing it in his appeal of the Law Society's attempt to yank his license. Observers who attended the hearings at the New South Wales Supreme Court describe the pudgy expatriate furiously scribbling notes on a legal pad and passing them to his barristers in his effort to show that state prosecutors were on a politically driven vendetta against him.

During a cross-examination Assistant State Attorney Rosenblatt, who was a member of the team that prosecuted Gersten in 1993, was peppered with questions. "There were a lot of arguments concerning if the FBI was in collusion with [state prosecutors] Dick Gregorie and Michael Band," Rosenblatt recalls. "I think they were trying to portray a pattern of people out to get Gersten and doing anything they could to do so."

Gersten's conspiracy theories also are being aired in Washington, D.C., where the House Committee on Government Reform is poring over reams of documents from the investigation arising from the car theft. The committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), an outspoken critic of Janet Reno, is the same body that has been investigating President Bill Clinton's pardon of fugitive billionaire Marc Rich. This past fall the Sydney Morning Herald quoted committee chief counsel James C. Wilson as saying, "There appear to be legitimate concerns of improper action in the Gersten case." Wilson would not discuss the case with New Times.

Gersten, too, refuses to speak to the Miami media, which he believes are cooperating with authorities in the conspiracy to destroy him. "I have no comment, not to the New Times or to the National Enquirer. Don't ever call here again," he snapped in a recent telephone interview. "There are laws here regarding people's privacy.... What goes on there does not matter. I have a new life. There's nothing personal. I want you to stay out of my life. I'm home."

Gersten has not been so shy with the Australian press, where he has been portrayed as a truth-seeker whose investigation into Miami corruption sparked a political crusade against him. This past October the Sydney Morning Herald published a sympathetic 2000-word story about Gersten and the House Committee's review of the case. It ran with this headline: "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

In recent years Gersten has been living in Neutral Bay, a suburb north of Sydney. He applied for political asylum in 1993, asserting he was being persecuted by Janet Reno and a slew of political rivals. He was denied refugee status after a panel of judges ruled against him in July 2000. He remains in Australia using an interim visa issued while he appeals the panel's decision.

As part of his Sydney law practice, Gersten has taken on various humanitarian causes pro bono, says personal friend and client Andrew McNaughtan. He notes that Gersten -- the man who once used a gun to threaten a Miami hotel parking valet -- now represents refugees trying to stay in Australia and also is speaking out against human-rights abuses in East Timor. The people of Miami, McNaughtan says, have got the former commissioner all wrong. "Joe has been shell-shocked," he explains. "I believe he was framed by prosecutors who used the media to convict him."

McNaughtan describes Gersten as a broken man who now depends on a handful of friends to get by. But prosecutor Joel Rosenblatt came away with a distinctly different impression. As he made small talk with Gersten outside a Sydney courtroom, Rosenblatt was impressed by the ex-commissioner's jovial demeanor and impressive girth. "He looked more rotund than I remember him to be," Rosenblatt recalls. "It doesn't look like he's been depriving himself of anything."

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez