Witness for the Prosecution

Bruce Udolf could not have joined the U.S. Attorney's Office at a more auspicious time for an attorney who wanted to prosecute public corruption. It was 1987, and the federal investigation into Hialeah political malfeasance was beginning to peak. Two former city officials had already been convicted of attempted extortion, a third was on deck, and it was only a matter of time until the federal prosecutors landed what promised to be their biggest catch: Raul Martinez, the mayor himself.

The office's public corruption unit had come a long way in the few years since its birth. In fact, the Hialeah investigation had nearly collapsed before it even got started in 1984, when Hialeah businessman Julio Navarro walked through the front door of the FBI's Miami office and announced that he was being shaken down by a councilman. The agents had a hard time understanding him because none of them spoke much Spanish. Though they were eventually able to record a phone conversation between the informant and a middleman, it was months before anyone there or at the U.S. Attorney's Office realized the tape was incriminating.

But the lack of fluent Spanish speakers was the least of the prosecutors' problems in those early years. "There was no intelligence base," recalls Mark Schnapp, an original member of the unit. "There had been no systematic gathering of intelligence on corruption. Nor had there been any effort to understand the local political system -- it's a byzantine system, with so many municipalities, mayors on top of mayors! Many of us prosecutors were from other parts of the country and didn't even know the names of the various political players, including who was on the county commission!"

After a stint prosecuting narcotics cases, Udolf joined the public corruption unit and the continuing investigation of Hialeah political malfeasance. In 1991, with then-Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Chaykin, he won a conviction of Mayor Raul Martinez on charges of giving zoning favors to developers in exchange for cash and land deals. The following year Udolf was named chief of the unit and went on to supervise or prosecute some of South Florida's most notorious corruption cases, including Operation Greenpalm, the ongoing investigation into Miami and Metro-Dade corruption. Other highlights of Udolf's tenure include cases involving

*three Dade judges and five attorneys who were convicted on various charges following the Operation Court Broom probe into judicial corruption

*former Miami Beach mayor Alex Daoud, who was found guilty of bribery, money laundering, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice, and went to prison

*financier Abel Holtz, who pleaded guilty to lying to a grand jury investigating Daoud and who also served prison time

*Metro-Dade purchasing director Hal Johnson, who was indicted for receiving kickbacks from a contractor. After a jury acquitted Johnson on three counts and deadlocked on the remaining nine, the government dropped the case because it was too dependent on a witness who had lied about his background

*former Key West commissioner Emery Major, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery and was sentenced to probation

*Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow, who was acquitted of taking a bribe
*three former Hallandale police officers and one former U.S. Customs Service inspector, who pleaded guilty to participation in a drug rip-off and extortion scheme

Last month the head of Miami's public corruption unit was lured away by Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr to help bolster the controversial federal investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Pres. Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, and others. Coincidentally, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved Clinton's nomination for a new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, which extends from Fort Pierce to Key West. The choice of former federal judge Thomas Scott to take over from interim chief William Keefer is a remarkable one, in that Scott is a Republican; the long-standing tradition of selecting a candidate along party lines appears to have come to an end.

On the occasion of his departure, Udolf, now age 45, agreed to speak to New Times about his experiences supervising what might be the nation's busiest public corruption prosecution team.

He was, however, a reluctant participant. Under normal circumstances a federal prosecutor is about as publicly garrulous as a corpse: Federal rules prohibit the attorneys from commenting on pending investigations or trials except under very limited circumstances. When he headed the local U.S. Attorney's Office in the late Eighties and early Nineties, Dexter Lehtinen threatened to fire anyone who talked to the media. As Udolf himself puts it: "Among people who have been doing this for a while, the conventional wisdom is that talking to the press is like kissing a rattlesnake."

Udolf's new job has him commuting back and forth to Washington, D.C. The bulk of the interview took place during two successive Saturday afternoons at the modest three-bedroom West Broward home he shares with his wife Sheryl and sixteen-month-old daughter Hayley; a lengthy phone conversation wrapped things up several days afterward.

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Kirk Semple