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Investigative stories

 

Gersten: Congressional hearings

28 June 2000

Published in the Weekly Planet


THE CAST:
 
• Joseph M Gersten: former Florida Congressman and Senator; in 1992 a Dade County Commissioner, and Chairman of the influential Finance Committee. Reformist legislator, with mayoral and federal ambitions.
• Janet Reno: Dade State Attorney till March 1993, before becoming US Attorney General. Arch-enemy of Gersten.
• Richard Gregorie: SAO prosecutor picked by Reno to run the Gersten sex-drugs investigation; cross-sworn as a federal prosecutor.
• Michael Bonner: FBI Agent working, on federal matters, under Gregorie’s direction.
• Mary Cagle: oversaw the Gersten sex-drugs investigation; Gregorie's boss.
• Lisa McCann: the key witness against Gersten in the alleged 'crack den' incident; paid $400 by the FBI to sponsor the Gersten murder allegation.
• Wayne Pearce: 15-year-old boy McCann sent into Miami Homicide to make the murder claim.
• Michael Osborn: Miami Homicide detective who broke down Pearce.
• Patrolman JL Garcia: Miami cop who brought in both the crack den witnesses and the murder witness. Assigned to Reno's SAO; close to Mayor Clark's camp.
 
 
SAO = State Attorney’s Office of the 11th Judicial District of Florida (Metro-Dade). Run in 1992 by Janet Reno.
 
 
Stormclouds gather for Gersten Prosecutors

IN WASHINGTON LAST Friday, Janet Reno’s star prosecutors from the early 1990s finally got their own day in court.
 
Since a Congressional report was published in March, Richard Gregorie, Michael Band and Mary Cagle have been implicated in the mistreatment of Dade County Commissioner Joe Gersten in 1992. At the time they were senior prosecutors at the Metro-Dade State Attorney’s Office (SAO), then run by Reno. The Office was investigating Gersten over sex-drugs allegations - allegations which destroyed his career, and which he says were fabricated.
 
On Friday the three were summoned to Washington (two of them by subpoeana) to a hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform.
 
The performances were robust, with Richard Gregorie - the man who indicted General Noriega, and now a senior federal prosecutor - leading the charge. The force of Gregorie’s personality impressed many at the hearing, including its acting Chairman, Conressman Chris Shays (R-Conn).
 
There was much apparent conviction in Gregorie’s belief that Gersten was indeed guilty, and that the SAO had done its job fairly. Many left the hearing believing it was a political hatchet job designed to damage Reno, who has announced she may be running for Florida Governor. Certainly the Committee’s ranking Democrat, Congressman Henry Waxman, made that point with vigor.
 
Gregorie and company cited a blizzard of facts and legal precedents in support of their actions. Congressman Shays, who stood in for Chairman Dan Burton when the latter was detained with a family illness, had insufficient knowledge of the case - which is enormously complex - to counter the onslaught.
 
Gregorie, Band and Cagle left the hearing clapping each other on the back and laughing - and certainly they were entitled to some relief, after the cloud which has hung over them in recent months.
 
The day was a PR victory for the prosecutors, and for Janet Reno - the Florida Democratic icon whose specter hovered over the proceedings through the entire day.
 
Yet a careful reading of the day’s transcripts is likely to provide the House Committee with many troubling questions, and Gersten’s supporters with more than a little ammunition.

 
THROUGH THE 1990s, the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) claimed that, on April 29, 1992, the flamboyant Dade County Commissioner had been caught in a crack den with prostitutes. Gersten has long-denied the accusation.
 
Janet Reno’s witnesses claimed Gersten was with them that fateful night, smoking crack in an orgy, after which they took his car. But Gersten was well-known to be drug-phobic (if you don’t count alcohol). And the witnesses were, after all, hookers and crack addicts beholden to the SAO for other crimes.
 
Gersten’s defenders have always been unambiguous: he was framed.
 
Last August, Reno’s old State Attorney’s Office (SAO) finally opened the files on the nine-year-old case. They brought to light the astonishing fact that prostitute Lisa McCann, the state’s key ‘crack den’ witness, had indeed arranged to have Gersten framed - for murder.
 
A Miami Police report, by Detective Michael Osborn, details how a 15-year-old boy, Wayne Pearce, had been sent down to Miami Homicide by McCann.
 
At McCann’s direction, Pearce stated he had seen a bald, heavy-set man driving a light blue Mercedes (a description which perfectly matched Gersten) shoot a transvestite known as ‘Champagne’. Champagne had been found dying from gunshot wounds in an alleyway behind NW 56 Street, three days earlier.
 
But Pearce said Champagne was murdered near Biscayne and 53rd, three streets away. Whilst being the wrong location, this is highly significant for another reason: a hotel near Biscayne and 53rd is where the crack den witnesses said they’d left Gersten after they’d taken his car. Between them, Pearce and the crack den group had apparently tried to tie Gersten to the murder scene.
 
Had Osborn not broken his witness down, they might have succeeded. But Pearce confessed that ‘he was told by Lisa to come to the police and tell this story because she was going to be paid some money by the FBI’ - money she would share with him.
 
Pearce duly confessed 'that he has never seen anyone known as Joseph Gersten’.
 
To say the least, Osborn’s murder report undermined the credibility of Lisa McCann, Janet Reno’s key ‘crack den’ witness. Or it would have - had Reno not ensured that it never saw the light of day.
 
Janet Reno claims not to recall the murder frame-up involving her long-term enemy, and one of Dade’s highest-profile politicians.
 
This stretches credulity a little. According to a 1993 FBI document, Reno involved herself in fine details of Gersten’s case even after she went to Washington as US Attorney General.
 
Last month, the Planet exclusively obtained Wayne Pearce’s original sworn statement about his Gersten murder frame-up.
 
The Pearce confession not only blows the SAO’s ‘sex-drugs’ case against Gersten out of the water, it confirms, for the first time, that the murder frame-up began at government level.
 
The Planet passed the Pearce document on to the House Committee on Government Reform in Washington. James C Wilson, Chief Counsel for the Committee - which is investigating Gersten’s mistreatment in 1992 - describes the Planet’s find as ‘the law enforcement document of a lifetime’.
 
The State Attorney’s Office has apparently destroyed its copy of the document. This is perhaps unsurprising, given what it contains.
 
To begin with, Pearce states he had already told ‘the other man...I have nothing to do with this’ - that is, witnessing the murder. Osborn now confirms that ‘the other man’ was the cop who brought Pearce in, Patrolman JL Garcia. (Garcia has since died.)
 
Garcia was, bizarrely enough, bringing in a ‘murder witness’ who was telling him that he was not a murder witness.
 
Not only that, but Osborn says Garcia bugged him for days thereafter, asking if he’d ‘charged Gersten with murder yet?’
 
So who was Miami Police Patrolman JL Garcia?
 
Garcia was, at this time, assigned to Reno’s State Attorney’s Office. The assignment was arranged after the patrolman had brought in the Gersten ‘crack den’ witnesses, one day earlier.
 
Garcia was also the sometime aide to Miami City Commissioner JL Plummer, campaign advisor to Dade Mayor Steve Clark. Gersten had announced, just three weeks before, that he may run against Clark in the coming mayoral election. He was widely expected to win.
 
The Pearce statement was much-cited in the House Committee’s public hearing in Washington last Friday.
 
As the Committee heard, the statement’s most ominous revelation comes on page 12. Here Pearce explains why prostitute Lisa McCann put him up to the murder frame-up:
 
 
Pearce: She said, ‘They ain’t going to believe me unless you there’. I said, ‘Okay. I don’t care.’
 
Osborn: As far as you know, that guy [Gersten] has nothing to do with Champagne?
 
Pearce: No... FBI man going to pay her $400 to call the man. Then the FBI trying to set up the man for something he didn’t do and all she want to do was get the money... The whole thing is lie that man didn’t do nothing [sic.].
 
 
Who, then, was the ‘FBI man’?
 
Detective Osborn first learned of Pearce’s allegation against Gersten at 6.55pm on May 1, 1992. In a remarkable corroboration of Pearce’s claim, at 6.54pm, FBI Special Agent Michael Bonner was with Lisa McCann, facilitating (and recording) a phone call from McCann to Gersten. The purpose was to make Gersten incriminate himself.
 
Detective Osborn told Mary Cagle - who oversaw the SAO’s sex-drugs investigation - about the murder frame-up. Asked how long it would have taken for news of it to be conveyed to Janet Reno, Osborn says:
 
‘About thirty seconds. Gersten was a county commissioner. There’s no way that after I talked to Cagle, Reno wasn’t told immediately.’
 
Osborn later hand-delivered his murder report to Cagle. ‘She asked me not to tell Gersten’s lawyers about it,’ he says.
 
This raises the stakes quite a bit in the Gersten affair. And may make it more understandable why crucial files have gone missing.
 
All evidence of the murder frame-up was closed by the SAO for five years, till the statute of limitations ran - then, illegally, for three years after that.
 
Osborn says it would have been routine for the Pearce statement to have been delivered to the SAO. Yet when the files were finally opened last year, under media pressure, the statement was not among them.
 
Osborn’s murder report was briefly there in August. By the time Congress obtained the SAO’s files soon after, it had ‘disappeared’.
 
 
PEARCE'S CONFESSION ALSO undermines Reno’s chief objection to the present congressional investigation.
 
‘We never charged him’, the former state attorney has consistently said. So what can Gersten object to?
 
But by not charging Gersten - and instead stringing out the allegations for a year with well-planned media leaks - Reno destroyed Gersten’s career, family, impending marriage, assets and reputation.
 
But the Pearce statement now makes it clear that Reno could not afford to charge Gersten anyway. To do so would have forced her to destroy files (a serious crime), or furnish Gersten’s lawyers with all the evidence in her possession. There’s no way Gersten’s prosecutors could have done that, and remained on the right side of prison bars themselves.
 
Whilst Gersten’s 1992 prosecutors mounted robust defences on Friday - led by Gregorie, who is a compelling speaker - a close look at the documentary evidence suggests the ‘whole truth’ is yet to be spoken.
 
The Pearce statement credits FBI Agent Bonner with the Gersten murder frame-up. And an FBI document records that $400 was indeed paid to Lisa McCann by Agent Bonner - just as Pearce had claimed (in advance) that it would be.
 
Dramatically, half-way through Friday’s hearing, the FBI provided a document further linking Agent Bonner with the murder frame-up.
 
Understandably, Richard Gregorie - Gersten’s chief ‘sex-drugs’ prosecutor - went to great pains to distance himself from the Bureau on Friday.
 
‘I never talked to the FBI,’ Gregorie volunteered under oath. ‘So I had no idea what they did.’ He repeated the claim several times throughout the day.
 
Gregorie had been working since 1991 with Agent Bonner on another matter involving Gersten - a federal ‘county bond deals’ investigation. (After five years of exhaustive work, they discovered no evidence of Gersten wrongdoing.)
 
Thus Gregorie was investigating the Gersten ‘sex-drugs’ allegations for the SAO, and his ‘bond deals’ partner - Michael Bonner - was investigating the same ‘sex-drugs’ claims for the FBI. We’re asked to believe they never discussed the matter.
 
And we might have to believe it - did the SAO’s own documents not reveal some disturbing facts:
 
 
• The SAO’s ‘sex-drugs’ investigation was initiated by the FBI as the ‘complainant’, on a form signed by Gregorie.
 
• Gregorie was furnished with summaries of the FBI’s witness interviews.
 
• Patrolman Garcia worked closely with both agencies - providing both, for example, with their first information on Gersten’s presence in the crack den, and providing both with the ‘witnesses’.
 
• The FBI wrote to Gregorie on May 22, 1992, enclosing several bizarre ‘facts’ about the alleged crack den incident.
 
• Finally, Gregorie (SAO) and Bonner (FBI) jointly interviewed Gersten’s secretary to obtain information about Gersten's whereabouts on the night of the crack den incident.
 
 
These documents do not sit well with Gregorie’s claim: ‘I never talked to the FBI, so I had no idea what they did’.
 
On Friday, Mary Cagle, Gregorie’s boss in 1992, tried equally hard to distance herself from the murder frame-up. Cagle said she had been asked about the murder report in connection with a March court case in Australia. She told the Committee on oath:
 
‘I have no recollection of the Osborn report or the fact that it contained a reference to Gersten being involved in a murder.’
 
However Cagle told this writer, during an April 28 interview, regarding the same approach from Australia:
 
‘I get a fax and phone call, asking me about the murder. I say, “Fax it to me and let me look at it.” They do. When I read the Osborn report, the first part that references me, I totally remember.’
 
Gregorie and Band, too, stated that they remembered nothing about Osborn’s murder report. However an SAO document from June 29, 1992 records that the explosive report was in the possession of both of them.
 
This economy with the truth did not end there. Gregorie cited crack den ‘witness’ Ken Elswick to support Gersten’s presence in the crack den. However he neglected to inform the Committee that Elswick observed Patrolman Garcia ignore major crimes such as cocaine trafficking, whilst traveling around town to collect evidence to nail Gersten in the murder frame-up.
 
‘Now how much can they look over to get one man?’ Elswick asked in a recorded statement - relating how Garcia had ignored piles of cocaine and $8,000 in cash in search of Gersten’s gun, which the thieves had pawned to a drug dealer.
 
When asked about the crack den incident, a visibly frightened Elswick told the Planet last week:
 
‘I got nothing to say. I ain’t going to say whether it happened or whether it didn’t happen. I just finished my parole from all that shit. I ain’t going back to prison.’
 
Gregorie’s investigators also scoured the streets of Miami looking for hookers who would claim they ‘knew’ Joe Gersten was in the crack house. Indeed SAO documents tell us that this search went on till at least 1994 - a remarkable period of time for misdemeanors which would have brought no penalty for a first offense.
 
In the course of this exhaustive search for evidence, Gregorie failed to interview a neighbor of Gersten’s who had contacted his office, saying she’d seen Gersten’s car in his driveway when he was supposed to have been at the crack den.
 
Whilst Gregorie neglected to mention this on Friday, he made sure the Committee learned that ‘Joseph Gersten never gave a statement concerning his actions between 6.30 pm and 10.00 pm on April 29, 1992 and no-one, to this day, knows what he would say.’
 
In any number of press stories, over the past nine years,  Gersten freely describes the events of that evening. In a nutshell: he came home; he fell asleep; he woke to find his car, and all its contents, had been stolen.
 
Inaccurately branding Gersten as a ‘fugitive’ (he actually has no outstanding warrants) Gregorie then turned on the Committee itself:
 
‘If the Committee chooses to give a forum to a fugitive...then the Committee must recognize that Joseph Gersten’s car [and its contents] were found in the possession of four crack addicts and street hustlers on Biscayne Boulevard’.
 
Of course this may well be true. But it sidesteps one glaring fact: before that, the car was in the possession of a policeman who presently tried to frame Gersten for murder, using these same ‘crack addicts and street hustlers’.
 
Patrolman JL Garcia was a cop with a bad disciplinary record, who was close to Gersten’s political enemies. Remarkably, no-one at the SAO credited the possibility that Garcia arranged to steal Gersten’s car from his home, then handed it over to the crack den quartet - whom he knew well.
 
How, exactly, do we know that Garcia is likely to have done this?
 
Dr Andrew McNaughtan, an Australian friend of Gersten’s, played a key role in getting the SAO documents released, and in arousing the interest of the House Committee in the Gersten case.
 
McNaughtan has carefully analysed the events which Reno’s prosecutors claimed took place on April 29, 1992. He points out that - according to Gersten’s car phone logs - calls were made to a number in Perrine both when the crack den group had the car, and next day when it was in the possession of Patrolman Garcia.
 
That is, the thieves and Garcia were phoning the same number. The ‘re-dial’ function had not been used.
 
McNaughtan’s analysis takes us further than that. Indeed it has led to a compelling synopsis of the SAO’s version of events, which was published last Friday by the House Committee’s investigators:
 
 
6.28 pm: Gersten was with Marc Klinger at Klinger’s clothing store. [Klinger stated this to prosecutors. His business records confirm it.]
 
7.00 pm: SAO investigator Ron Ohlzen filed a sworn affadavit stating that Gersten could not have solicited McCann before 7.00 pm.
 
7.13 pm: Gersten’s car was in the possession of the thieves. [The phone records demonstrate this beyond doubt. The theft occurred after the ‘sex-drugs’ incident.]
 
 
Thus - the SAO purported to believe - in the space of 13 minutes, Gersten picked up Lisa McCann, drove her to the crack den, had sex with her and others, smoked crack, sent one of the crack den people out to buy more crack on three occasions, consumed the three new crack deliveries, and got robbed at knifepoint. The thieves then took his car.
 
Were this an Olympic event, Gersten’s world record would be safe for all time.
 
Reno’s prosecutors must have known that the phone records destroyed their case. Given the well-documented internal mechanics of the SAO - which dictated that Reno be informed of all important developments - it’s difficult to credit that Reno did not know it too.
 
Still, Gregorie, Band and Cagle persisted with their investigations. Indeed, as its own internal memos make clear, the SAO copiously leaked its details to the media.
 
Even after a hair test proved that Gersten had not consumed cocaine - let alone the enormous amounts claimed by the SAO, which would have left clear evidence in his hair - Janet Reno announced, via the Herald, that the investigation was still ‘pending’.
 
It remained ‘pending’ for many more years, in which time Gersten lost everything he had once enjoyed as a lawyer, county commissioner and citizen of Florida.
 
Thus did the woman who may be the next Governor of Florida neutralize an old political enemy.


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