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Investigative stories

 

Joe Gersten

22 May 2002


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald



At 53, Joe Gersten is bald and a little spherical - with a level gaze which has stared down some of America’s meanest prosecutors, a hostile media, and eight lean years. His accent echoes of Mickey Rourke, though the boisterous shirt - which scarcely arrests an impressive mid-section - is pure South Florida.
 
Gersten appreciates a touch of melodrama - though this may be a recently acquired taste. The former Florida Senator is in Australia claiming to have been ‘purged from political office by my long-time political enemy, US Attorney-General Janet Reno’.
 
The son, brother and nephew of three respected Florida judges, and once an admired reformist, Gersten is labelled ‘clueless’, ‘raunchy’, ‘corrupt’, and worse, by the freebooting press of his home city of Miami.
 
After an eight-year campaign to make a new life for himself in Australia, this week brought a first: Chief Counsel for Washington’s heavyweight House Committee on Government Reform, James C Wilson, told the Herald : ‘There appear to be legitimate concerns of improper action in the Gersten case.’
 
As Chairman of the all-powerful Dade County Finance Committee, in 1992 Gersten had run a ‘deep cover’ investigation which suggested racketeering and money-laundering at the Port of Miami. Major fundraisers for the Clinton-Gore campaigns appeared to be involved, as were the New York Mafia. A restaurant named Buccione’s was being used as a conduit for illicit money transfers. 
 
Gersten speculated that big consignments of cocaine were being landed. He handed his investigation over to the FBI.
 
Afterwards, Gersten’s car was stolen - with his Port documents in it.
 
Almost immediately, a 15-year-old boy reported seeing Gersten shoot dead a transvestite. When his story’s many inconsistencies were challenged by police, the boy confessed that he’d confected it - because he and his girlfriend were ‘going to be paid some money by the FBI’.
 
By an extraodinary coincidence, the officer who brought in the murder ‘witness’ found Gersten’s car next day - in the possession of people claiming to have been with Gersten at a sex and drug orgy. The officer, JL Garcia, was a close personal aide to a key ally of Mayor Steve Clark - whom Gersten was running against.
 
Richard Gregorie - the man who had put Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega away for life - was chosen to prosecute Gersten for three misdemeanours.
 
Gregorie was selected by State Attorney Janet Reno. Reno thereafter took time off pursuing international drug cartels to administer minuscule details of Gersten’s case.
 
State Attorney’s Office documents reveal that Reno’s investigators organised media interviews for witnesses against Gersten.
 
In early 1993, Reno became the United States Attorney-General. Gersten was subpoenaed to appear for questioning by her hand-picked successor, Katherine Rundle. It was March 16, 1993: his election day as a Dade County Commissioner. (‘Rundle,’ Gersten drily notes, ‘was publicly supporting my opponent.’) He was required to answer questions regarding the car theft - but wasn’t told that the thief had confessed, and  been released, eleven months earlier.
 
Two witnesses against Gersten, who could have expected life sentences for unconnected kidnapping and armed robbery offences, subsequently served two years’ prison between them.
 
Remarkably, Janet Reno’s initialled instructions appear several times on a ‘Gersten’ document in July 1993. From Washington, the Attorney-General of the United States was still micro-managing the matter.
 
Hair tests revealed that Gersten had not taken cocaine on the day in question. This suggested that he had not lied - as was now being alleged - when he reported his car stolen from his home, and not a crack den.
 
‘After the hair tests,’ says Gersten, ‘The case fell apart. It shows bad faith. It shows abuse of power.’
 
Three years after the statute of limitations ran out on his alleged misdemeanours, there is still a senior prosecutor assigned to ‘the Gersten case’. State Attorney Rundle did not respond to the Herald’s  questions.
 
Last week - eight years after Joe Gersten fell to the Earth like Icarus - Janet Reno was dragged before the House Committee on Government Reform in Washington, to answer questions about all this.
 
The transcript will not be released till next week - however Chief Counsel James C Wilson told the Herald  from Washington:


 
‘The Committee requested Attorney General Reno to answer questions about a number of matters. Among those matters was the Gersten case. Her answers raised additional concerns about what happened in the Gersten case.’


 
_________________
 
 
The Dade County Jail bears a plaque asserting that it was built through the efforts of Commissioner Joseph Gersten. The plaque might also record that Commissioner Gersten was himself confined to the Jail’s maximum security wing, for civil contempt, in March 1993. Realising he was being set-up, Gersten had refused to answer prosecutors’ questions.
 
For three weeks, he supervised Dade County’s multi-billion dollar budget from his prison cell. There were regular visits from aides and senior County staff.
 
Gersten was released pending an appeal, and came to Australia for a holiday. Whilst here, the appeal was rejected in Florida - meaning he would be jailed if he returned.
 
Gersten initially rejected as preposterous his Australian lawyer’s advice to apply for refugee status. Whilst visiting the Old Fremantle Gaol, a minor epiphany in the shadow of the gallows changed his mind.
 
In late 1993, his refugee application was rejected. Gersten began seven years of unsuccessful appeals - to the Refugee Review Tribunal, then the Federal Court. He is now seeking leave to appeal to the High Court.
 
Throughout this period, the US Government has shown an extraordinary interest in a man with a single civil contempt order in a state jurisdiction, no charges, and no criminal record.
 
Documents obtained by the Herald reveal a long-standing pattern of interference in Gersten's career and life in Australia. One is a February 1996 letter from the US Embassy in Canberra to the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Mick Palmer. Written at the FBI’s behest, the letter inaccurately refers to Gersten as ‘a fugitive from justice’, and draws attention to the fact that the Florida Bar was trying to disbar him because of the outstanding contempt order.
 
On March 11, AFP Sergeant John Greenaway reported back to the US Embassy that Gersten was applying for admission to the NSW Bar.
 
On April 15, the Embassy sent the AFP a copy of a teletype from the FBI in Miami (which had responded to a request from FBI Director Louis Freeh). It described the crack and prostitution allegations, and how Gersten had ‘fled the country’. (He had in fact had no travel restrictions.) It promised to determine Gersten’s status with the Florida Bar.
 
At a subsequent Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing, the AFP’s Sergeant Greenaway testified that he later made enquiries with the NSW Law Society - revealing his name and agency, and speaking to staff about Gersten. Another witness (now a NSW District Judge) testified that the AFP had contacted the Legal Practitioners’ Admissions Board.
 
Thereafter, moves began to cancel Gersten’s accreditation. (The Law Society did not return the Herald’s  call on this matter.)
 
Why did the Director of the FBI - which is an agency of Janet Reno’s Justice Department - initiate a dialogue with the AFP about Gersten’s legal accreditation?
 
Why did the AFP act upon such an apparently outlandish communication, by tainting Gersten’s name with the Law Society?
 
What did Gersten’s accreditation as a lawyer have to do with either agency?
 
Neither the AFP nor the FBI responded to the Herald’s  questions regarding Joseph Gersten.
 
Leaked Australian Immigration Department documents reveal that the FBI’s interest in Gersten did not end there. In 1995 it contacted the Department to torpedo Gersten’s ‘skilled migrant’ application.
 
The Bureau referred to unsubstantiated ‘corrupt activities’; a (non-existent) corruption investigation; a suspicion of bribery based (remarkably) on a witness’s testimony that there had been none; and an implication that Gersten had fled the US after a drugs scandal - when test results from the FBI’s own laboratories proved there had not been one.
 
Unsurprisingly, the Immigration Department concluded that ‘the applicant is not considered to be of good character’, and denied the application. It ensured, however, that this would not be ‘included as a reason for the rejection of the application’.
 
Disclosing these ‘character’ grounds for rejection would have obliged the Immigration Department to make the FBI document available to Gersten. The FBI had instructed the Department not to show the document to anyone.
 
From Washington, the House Committee’s James C Wilson comments: 


‘There is a practical law enforcement question here. Information was provided to the Australian authorities. One of the questions the Committee is asking is, "What is the standard we apply when supplying raw and unsubstantiated allegations, or information, to foreign law enforcement entities?"’


As to Janet Reno’s long-standing pursuit of Joe Gersten, Wilson says ‘The Committee intends to continue to look at the background to the Gersten case - and the documents.’
 
When rejected as a skilled migrant, Gersten reverted to his application for refugee status. Perhaps fittingly, it was required to be based on ‘a well-founded fear of political persecution’.
 
_______________________
 
 
Joe Gersten’s calamities began after he handed over his information on the Port of Miami and Buccione’s Restaurant to the FBI. The Bureau did not find the information interesting enough to act on.
 
Since then, a Buccione’s owner - Pietro Venezia - has been charged with the murder of a tax agent. Two other owners - seaport boss Carmen Lunetta, and investment banker Calvin Grigsby - were indicted on ten counts of embezzlement and money-laundering. These included large illegal donations to the Democratic National Committee in Washington.
 
Though the prosecutions failed, Lunetta has resigned, and Grigsby’s reputation was destroyed.
 
Lunetta was a guest at Vice-President Gore’s ‘coffee’ gathering on December 15, 1995. These frequently illegal fundraisers - where government favours and contributions to the Democratic Party were exchanged - blew up into ‘Coffeegate’.
 
‘Coffeegate’ almost earned Gore a Special Prosecutor: Attorney-General Reno eventually decided against.
 
Carmen Lunetta also organised the largest Clinton-Gore fundraiser ever held outside Washington, which raised $US3.4 million.
 
On September 14 this year, The Miami Herald  reported:
 
‘Billions of dollars in illegal drugs are pouring into South Florida every year according to a new state report. It seems that drug smugglers are getting some inside help at the Port of Miami...’
 
__________________
 
 
What has motivated Janet Reno’s long crusade against Joe Gersten?
 
‘The answer to that can only be speculative,’ Gersten says. ‘Maybe she was angry that I’d done her job for her at the seaport. Maybe it was because I killed her more draconian legislation in the Senate. Maybe she considered me a political rival. Or maybe it was something bigger.’
 
Gersten’s Australian friend, Dr Andrew McNaughtan, has done more than anyone to solve the Gersten jigsaw. A tenacious researcher, he was recently questioned by the House Committee.
 
‘When you make war,’ McNaughtan says. ‘You destroy your enemy’s ability to defend himself. That was what was behind the communications between the FBI and the AFP - to rob Joe of his practising certificate.’
 
What started it all?
 
‘I believe Joe’s downfall was engineered by a cabal of interests which included members of the FBI in Miami, Janet Reno’s State Attorney’s Office, and members of the City of Miami Police Department. It’s likely that the Mayor of Dade County, Steve Clark - whom Joe was running against - played a pivotal role. Clark had connections to the Port of Miami, where a lot of corrupt activities were occurring - and which almost certainly had links to organised crime. Joe’s activities as a Commissioner in Dade County had been a threat to a lot of established economic and political interests.
 
‘The activities of Reno’s State Attorney’s Office reveal that they knew they were in deep trouble with this. That’s what precipitated the ongoing attempts to undermine Joe Gersten in Australia. They can’t let him get away with remaining credible.’
 
Gersten vs. the Law Society  is still running in the NSW Supreme Court. Gersten’s appeal on his refugee application is yet to be heard in the High Court. Nevertheless, is Joe Gersten starting to feel vindicated on the broader issues?
 
‘To tell you the truth, I really don’t care about being vindicated,’ he says. ‘I care about being left alone to get on with my life, and to make a living as a lawyer in Australia.’


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