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Investigative stories

 

Gersten 3

24 May 2001


 


Published in The Weekly Planet, Florida


by John Macgregor and John F Sugg


 Last Saturday, while most Florida newspapers had front-page puff pieces on Janet Reno as a fantasy candidate for governor, the former U.S. Attorney General was giving grief to a Weekly Planet reporter who wanted to know about her nine-year effort to smear a political rival in Miami.


     Joseph Gersten, a former state senator and Dade County commissioner, had his political and personal life decimated after allegations in 1992 that he had participated in a sex and crack cocaine orgy. Reno pursued the case with a vengeance, both as Dade’s state attorney and after she became U.S. attorney general in February 1993. Gersten eventually sought refuge in Australia.


     As mounting evidence obtained by congressional investigators and the Planet indicates, there never was any proof of Gersten’s guilt – and plenty of reason to suspect he was the victim of a frame-up.


    “There was no case" against Gersten, Mary Cagle told the Planet on April 28. Cagle is a senior prosecutor in the Dade State Attorney’s office who oversaw much of the probe of Gersten.


    Without a case, the only explanation is a political vendetta – one that may have involved illegal actions. As one congressional investigator told the Planet, “It’s disturbing that criminal acts were ignored in order to hide the truth about the Gersten case.”


    Reno, in a telephone interview, brushed aside questions about whether she should have revealed the lack of evidence in Gersten’s case, saying it was sufficient that “he was not charged.” Reno said she had no obligation to make public facts favorable to Gersten.


    However, long after she knew of the lack of evidence, documents indicate that, as attorney general, she fielded the FBI in a continuing assault on Gersten. Reno denied taking a personal role in the case as Attorney General. But a June 1993 document from Department of Justice files on Gersten shows she three times initialed instructions in the case.


    That Reno has almost untouchable status among Florida reporters was demonstrated after she announced May 18 that she is considering a run for governor. Reno’s political deficits were buried deep in news articles and dismissed –  most obviously the 1993 lethal siege of Branch Davidians at Waco, last year’s predawn grab of Elian Gonzalez, refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate 1996 fundraising by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and her affliction with Parkinson’s disease.


    The Miami Herald, Reno’s hometown paper and longtime ally, couldn’t find any skepticism until two-thirds of the way through its initial report on May 19. The next day, a news story labeled Reno critics as “not kind.”


    Not mentioned was Gersten, despite an April 10 report from a powerful Congressional committee that blistered Reno – although it only mentioned her name once.


    With Republicans in the congressional leadership, running the Justice Department and in the Florida Governor’s Mansion, it’s likely that this episode won’t be ignored much longer.


    Reno may soon be answering questions from government investigators who want to know if offices she headed engaged in, as the congressional report states, “possibly corrupt” efforts to destroy Gersten.


     Two key associates from when Reno was Dade State Attorney – Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie and former prosecutor Michael Band – have refused to answer recent questions, under oath, from James Wilson, the top legal counsel for the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform.


    Wilson and the committee chairman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) will hold hearings in Miami on May 30 to compel Gregorie and Band to give testimony. Cagle will also be asked to testify.


    Wilson also said this week that Burton is writing Attorney General John Ashcroft to inquire what steps the Justice Department and the FBI are taking on possible criminal acts uncovered by the committee.


    Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush has been asked by Gersten’s Miami lawyer, Maria del Carmen Calzon, to appoint a special prosecutor to examine the case. Ed Griffith, spokesman for Reno’s successor as Dade State Attorney, Katherine Rundle, said of Calzon’s proposal: “I don’t think that idea has been broached to us. It’s a new concept.”


 


    Although the case is nine years old, officials could still be indicted for wrongdoing. There would be no applicable statute of limitation to charges of an ongoing obstruction of justice.


    Reno, who so far has claimed faulty memory for a lack of explanation over key events in the Gersten case, has primarily responded by asserting that the congressional probe is a political hatchet job by a longtime foe Burton.


    On May 19, the Planet asked Reno about what the Wall Street Journal has recently called “Gerstengate.” Reno responded tartly by asking if the reporter was working for Burton. She several times asserted she wasn’t required to publicly clear Gersten’s name.


    Reno had, however, taken the opportunity to skewer Gersten publicly when the case broke. Her office facilitated media interviews with prostitutes and drug dealers who alleged Gersten had been at an orgy. And, on May 8, 1992, the Herald quoted Reno: "We are investigating all circumstances surrounding … allegations that the commissioner was involved in prostitution and drug use."


    After such public statements, “Reno had a moral if not a legal obligation to let my constituents in Dade County know the charges against me were baseless,” Gersten said from his home in Sydney, Australia.


    Not indicting Gersten – but letting suspicions linger – was hardly a favor. Given what the State Attorney’s office has tardily disclosed about the evidence, Gersten could easily have beaten the charges in court and resumed his life.


     There may be more to Reno’s long-shot launch at the governor’s mansion than political ambition. As with Burton, she now will be able to claim that any action by Gov. Bush – such as appointing a special prosecutor – is politically motivated.


 


    The persecution of Gersten continued after Reno became attorney general. What have been dubbed the “X Files” by Down Under newspapers were accidentally handed over to Gersten’s legal team last year by Australia’s Federal Court. The secret files reveal that that the Reno-run Department of Justice and the FBI orchestrated a campaign to blacken Gersten's name with Australia's Immigration Department.


    The FBI had broadcast that Gersten was involved in "corrupt activities," had an outstanding "warrant," and was a "fugitive from justice." Last month, the FBI conceded in writing that all these allegations had been untrue.


    When asked last week about the FBI efforts to undermine Gersten in Australia, Reno told the Planet she played no role and that “I don’t have a recollection.” Further, she said any responsibility belonged to FBI Director Louis Freeh.


    The heart of Gersten’s counterattack are files showing the Dade State Attorney’s office withheld critically important documents from him and his attorneys. One secret file linked a key witness against Gersten to a bizarre plot to frame the commissioner for the murder of a transvestite. Those documents, obtained by the Planet and by congressional investigators, are now missing from the Dade State Attorney’s files. Griffith, spokesman for the State Attorney’s office, refused to comment on the files.


    Gersten’s downfall began on April 29, 1992, when he reported his blue Mercedes-Benz had been stolen from in front of his Coral Gables home. The next day, a Miami police officer stopped the car. In it were a small-time drug dealer and two hookers. Eventually they came up with the story that the car had been stolen from in front of a crack house where, they said, Gersten had been engaged in a drug-and-sex orgy.


    Facts favorable to Gersten soon came out – he tested negative for cocaine and none of his finger prints were found at the drug den. However, the press onslaught, primarily by the Herald, was overwhelming.


    Gersten maintains Reno tried to ensnare him in a perjury trap. He was asked to testify under oath. Had he denied the sex-drug allegations, Reno would have produced the whores and drug dealer and used their testimony to charge Gersten with perjury. Refusing to testify led to contempt charges against Gersten. He took up residence in Australia in 1993 after losing a key decision in the contempt case; however, he has never been a “fugitive.” He has sought what amounts to political asylum in Australia, claiming persecution by Reno.


 


    Important facts – sensational, to say the least – were not revealed to Gersten until last year. At the same time as the 1992 sex-drugs allegations, there had been an attempt to frame Gersten for murder. A witness, 15-year-old Wayne Pearce, initially claimed he saw Gersten shoot dead a transvestite.


    Subsequently, Pearce told Detective Michael Osborn the key "sex-drugs" witness against Gersten – prostitute Lisa McCann – was going to be paid $400 by the FBI to phone Gersten. “The FBI,” Pearce explained, was "trying to set up the man for something he didn't do" in the course of the phone call.


   "The man" is Gersten, and the "something he didn't do" is murder.


    Had Reno's office made public McCann's role in the murder frame-up, the prostitute’s credibility – and thus the entire sex-drugs investigation – would have collapsed. Instead, Reno and her successor Rundle kept the investigation going and files sealed until the statute of limitations ran five years later, and then – illegally – for three years after that.


    The homicide report reveals that Pearce and his sponsor, McCann, were "going to be paid some money by the FBI" for their efforts. As the House Committee report duly notes, $400 of FBI cash was indeed paid to McCann. The FBI agent involved reported to Gregorie.


    Rep. Burton’s hearing in Miami will likely focus on this incident and whether law enforcement officials engaged in a conspiracy to frame Gersten.


    What remains to be seen is whether in Gerstengate, a la Watergate, those at the edge of the conspiracy will progressively incriminate those closer to the center. And, of course, how involved was Janet Reno?


    "She would have been at the top of everything," said Assistant State Attorney Cagle, who was Gregorie's boss, and Reno's subordinate in 1992. "But Janet wouldn't have been involved in the day to day."


    Candid answers aren’t likely to be forthcoming from the prosecutors. Just this week, the Planet learned that Gregorie and the State Attorney’s office still had undisclosed Gersten documents – after supposedly opening all files on the case.


     Also, ex-prosecutor Band was asked about the transvestite murder allegation. Band responded to the Planet’s question: “I really know nothing of the murder report.”


    When told that there was a handwritten summary in the files – apparently Band’s handwriting – he said: “My handwriting? You're sure it's my handwriting?”


    Band agreed to help the Planet verify the handwritten summary as his – or not. However, after the Planet faxed Band copy of the summary, he has declined to comment.


    Or, in follow-up questions to Cagle’s acknowledgement that


"there was no case," the Planet asked why this news had never been conveyed to Gersten's lawyers, and the case closed.


    "I have absolutely no recollection," Cagle replied.


    Gregorie, when queried on May 21 about Gersten, retorted: “I don’t know whose payroll you’re on,” and then refused to comment.


      As the Congressional inquiry gains momentum, with the prospect of subsequent criminal indictments, splits are appearing in the once-tight anti-Gersten ranks. Gregorie last month told the Planet that Gersten was in the crack den. Cagle, his boss on the Gersten case, said he wasn't.


      And when the Planet asked Janet Reno about the investigation of Gersten, which continued long after evidence that exonerated him had come into her possession, Reno tried to shift attention to her successor, Rundle. “I was no longer the State Attorney,” Reno said.


    Osborn, the detective who authored the homicide report that blew the Gersten case open, commented: “I would have never thought that that little report would have ever been looked at again after I wrote it, especially after nine years. How stupid can they be? Never leave a paper trail."


 




    John Macgregor is a correspondent in Australia. He has reported more on the Joseph Gersten than any other reporter in that country.


    Editor John F. Sugg first reported in Florida the details of the congressional findings in the Gersten case.


 



 


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