illing to step forward until now. I’m stepping forward. The question is simply this: Does the Board on Judicial Conduct want to investigate the most corrupt judge in the history of American jurisprudence?”
“He’s the friend of an old friend who knows my shady past and figures I’ll roll the dice for a fat fee. He’s right. My friend looked me up, then convinced me to take his case. Don’t ask for the client’s name, because I don’t have it. My friend is the intermediary.”
“You don’t know the name of your client?” Lacy asked.
“No, nor do I want to.”
“Are we supposed to ask why or just accept this?” Hugo asked.
“Gap number one, Mr. Mix,” Lacy said. “And we don’t do gaps. You tell us everything or we’ll leave and take nothing with us.”
“Just relax, okay?” Mix said as he chugged some beer. “This is a long story that will take some time to unfold. It involves a ton of money, corruption that is astonishing, and some really nasty guys who wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet or two between my eyes, yours, my client’s, anyone who asks too many questions.”
There was a long pause as Lacy and Hugo allowed this to sink in. Finally, she asked, “Then why are you in the game?”
“Money. My client wants to pursue a claim under the Florida Whistleblower Statute. He dreams of collecting millions. Me, I’ll take a nice cut, and if all goes well, I’ll never need clients.”
“Then he must be a state employee,” Lacy said.
“I know the law, Ms. Stoltz. You have a demanding job, I don’t. I have plenty of time to pore over the code sections and case law. Yes, my client is employed by the State of Florida. No, his identity cannot be revealed; not now, anyway. Perhaps, way down the road, if money is on the table, then maybe we can convince a judge to maintain a closed file. But, to kick things off, my client is far too frightened to sign a formal complaint with Judicial Conduct.”
“We cannot proceed without a signed, formal complaint,” Lacy said. “The statute, as you know, is very clear.”
“Indeed I do. I’ll sign the complaint.”
“Under oath?” Hugo asked.
“Yes, as required. I believe my client is telling the truth and I’m willing to sign my name.”
“And you’re not afraid?”
“I’ve lived with fear for a long time. I guess I’m accustomed to it, though things could get worse.” Mix reached for another file and withdrew some papers, which he placed on the table. He continued, “Six months ago, I went to court up in Myrtle Beach and changed my name. I’m now Greg Myers, the name I’ll use on the complaint.”
Lacy read the court order from South Carolina and, for the first time, doubted the wisdom of traveling to St. Augustine to meet this guy. A state employee too frightened to come forward. A reformed lawyer so spooked that he went to court in another state and changed his name. An ex-con with no real address.
Hugo read the court order and, for the first time in years, wished he could carry a gun. He asked, “Do you consider yourself to be in hiding at this moment?”
“Let’s say I’m just real cautious, Mr. Hatch. I’m an experienced boat captain who knows the water, the seas, the currents and cays and keys and remote beaches and hideaways far better than anyone looking for me, if, in fact, anyone is back there.”
Lacy said, “Well, it certainly sounds like you’re hiding.”
Myers just nodded as though he agreed. All three took a sip. A breeze finally arrived and broke some of the humidity. Lacy flipped through the thin file and said, “A question. Were your legal troubles in any way connected to the judicial misconduct you want to discuss?”
The nodding stopped as he weighed the question. “No.”
Hugo said, “Back to this mysterious client. Do you have any direct contact with him?”
“None whatsoever. He refuses to use e-mail, snail mail, fax, or any type of traceable phone. He talks to the intermediary, the intermediary either visits me face-to-face or calls me on a burner, one of those disposable phones. It’s awkward and time-consuming, but quite safe. No trail, no records, nothing left behind.”
“And if you needed him right now, how would you find him?”
“That’s never happened. I suppose I would call the middleman and wait an hour or so.”
“Where does this client live?”
“I’m not sure. Somewhere along the Florida Panhandle.”
Lacy took a deep breath and exchanged glances with Hugo. She said, “Okay, what’s the story?”
Myers gazed into the distance, across the water, beyond the boats. A drawbridge was opening and he seemed mesmerized by it. Finally, he said, “There are many chapters to the story, some still being written. The purpose of this little meeting is to tell you enough to make you curious, but also to frighten you enough to back off if you want. That’s the real question right now: Do you want to get involved?”
“Is there judicial misconduct?” Lacy asked.
“The word ‘misconduct’ would be a massive understatement. What I know involves corruption at a level never before known in this country. You see, Ms. Stoltz and Mr. Hatch, my sixteen months in prison were not completely wasted. They put me in charge of the law library and I kept my nose in the books. I’ve studied every single case of judicial corruption that’s ever been prosecuted, in all fifty states. I have the research, the files, notes, everything. I’m quite the resource, just in case you ever need a know-it-all. And the story I can tell you involves more dirty cash than all the others combined. It also involves bribery, extortion, intimidation, rigged trials, at least two murders, and one wrongful conviction. There’s a man rotting away on death row an hour from here who was framed. The man responsible for the crime is probably sitting on his boat right now, a boat much nicer than mine.”
He paused, took a drink from his bottle, and gave them a smug look, satisfied that he had their complete attention. “The question is, do you want to get involved? It could be dangerous.”
“Why call us?” Hugo asked. “Why not go to the FBI?”
“I’ve dealt with the FBI, Mr. Hatch, and things went badly. I don’t trust them or anyone with a badge, especially in this state.”
Lacy said, “Again, Mr. Myers, we are not armed. We’re not criminal investigators. It sounds like you need several branches of the federal government.”
“But you have subpoena power,” Myers said. “You have statutes that give you the right to obtain subpoenas. You can require any judge in this state to produce every record maintained in his or her office. You have considerable power, Ms. Stoltz. So in many ways you do investigate criminal activity.”
Hugo said, “True, but we’re not equipped to deal with gangsters. If your story is true, it sounds like the bad guys are well organized.”
“Ever hear of the Catfish Mafia?” Myers asked after another long pull on the bottle.
“No,” Hugo replied. Lacy shook her head.
“Well, it’s another long story. Yes, Mr. Hatch, it’s a gang that’s well organized. They have a long history of committing crimes that are none of your concern because they do not involve members of the judiciary. But, there is one enterprise in which they’ve purchased a judge. And that does concern you.”
The Conspirator rocked in the wake of an old shrimp boat and for a moment all three were quiet. Lacy asked, “What if we decline to get involved? What happens to your story?”
“If I file a formal complaint, aren’t you required to get involved?”
“In theory, yes. As I’m sure you know, we have forty-five days to do an assessment to determine if the complaint has some merit. We then notify the target, the judge, and ruin his day. But we can also be very adept at ignoring complaints.”
Hugo said with a smile, “Oh yes. We’re bureaucrats. We can duck and delay with the best of them.”
“You can’t duck this one,” Myers said. “It’s too big.”
“If it’s so big, why hasn’t it been discovered before now?” Lacy asked.
“Because it’s still unfolding. Because the time hasn’t been right. Because of a lot of reasons, Ms. Stoltz, the most important being the fact that no one with the knowledge has been w
“One of our very own?” Lacy asked.
“You got it.”
“When do we get his name?” Hugo asked.
“You’re assuming it’s a male.”
“We’re not assuming anything.”
“That’s a good way to start.”
The tepid breeze finally gave up, and the oscillating fan rattling above them did little more than shove around the sticky air. Myers seemed to be the last of the three to realize their shirts were sticking to their skin and, as host of the little gathering, finally made a move. “Let’s take a stroll over to the restaurant there and have a drink,” he said. “They have a bar inside with plenty of AC.” He clutched an olive-colored leather courier bag, well used and seemingly attached to his body. Lacy wondered what was inside. A small pistol? Cash, a fake passport? Perhaps another file?
As they walked along the pier, Lacy asked, “Is this one of your hangouts?”
“Why would I answer that?” Myers retorted, and Lacy wished she’d said nothing. She was dealing with an invisible man, one who lived as if his neck was always near the block, and not some casual sailor who bounced from port to port. Hugo shook his head. Lacy kicked herself in the rump.
The restaurant was empty now, and they took a table inside, overlooking the harbor. After roasting in the heat for the past hour, they found the air almost too frigid. Iced tea for the investigators, coffee for Mr. Myers. They were alone; no one could possibly hear them.
“What if we’re not too enthused about this case?” Hugo asked.
“Then I suppose I’ll eventually go to Plan B, but I don’t really want to. Plan B involves the press, a couple of reporters I know, neither of whom is completely reliable. One is in Mobile, the other in Miami. Frankly, I think they’ll spook easily.”
“What makes you so sure we won’t spook easily, Mr. Myers?” Lacy asked. “As we’ve said, we’re not accustomed to dealing with gangsters. We have a full caseload anyway.”
“I’m sure you do. No shortage of bad judges.”
“Actually, there aren’t many. Just a few bad apples, but there are enough disgruntled litigants to keep us busy. Lots of complaints, most of which have little merit.”
“Right.” Myers slowly removed his aviator shades and placed them on the table. His eyes were puffy and red, like a drinker’s, and they were encircled by pale skin, a contrast that gave him the resemblance to an inverted raccoon. It was obvious he rarely took the glasses off. He glanced around once more, as if to make sure those after him were not in the restaurant, and he seemed to relax.
Hugo said, “About this Catfish Mafia.”
Myers grunted with a smile, as if he couldn’t wait to spin a yarn. “You want the story, huh?”
“You brought it up.”
“I did.” The waitress placed their drinks on the table and disappeared. Myers took a sip and began: “It goes back fifty years or so. Kind of a loose gang of bad boys who misbehaved in various parts of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, anywhere they could bribe a sheriff. Mainly bootleg booze, prostitution, gambling, sort of the old-fashioned sins, I guess, but with a lot of muscle and no shortage of dead bodies. They would pick a wet county near a Baptist desert, preferably on a state line, and set up their operations. Invariably, the locals would get fed up, elect a new sheriff, and the thugs would leave town. Over time, they settled along the Mississippi coast, around Biloxi and Gulfport. The ones who didn’t get shot were indicted and sent to prison. Almost all of the original gangsters were gone by the early 1980s, but there were a few leftovers from a younger generation. When gambling was legalized in Biloxi, it really knocked a hole in their business. They moved to Florida and discovered the allure of bogus land deals, along with the astonishing margins in cocaine trafficking. They made a lot of money, reorganized, and morphed into an outfit known as the Coast Mafia.”
Hugo was shaking his head. “I grew up in north Florida, went to college here, and law school, lived here my whole life, and for the past ten years I’ve investigated judicial corruption, and I’ve never heard of the Coast Mafia.”
“They don’t advertise, and their names are never in the papers. I doubt if a member has been arrested in the past ten years. It’s a small network, very tight and disciplined. I suspect most members are blood kin. It probably would have been infiltrated, busted, and everyone sent to prison but for the rise of a guy I’ll call Omar for the moment. A bad dude but a very smart man. In the mid-1980s, Omar led the gang to south Florida, which at the time was ground zero for cocaine trafficking. They had a few good years, then things went to hell when they crossed up some Colombians. Omar got shot. His brother got shot too, except he didn’t survive and his body was never found. They fled Miami but not Florida. Omar has a brilliant criminal mind, and about twenty years ago he became infatuated with the idea of casinos on Indian land.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Lacy mumbled.
“You got it. As you probably know, there are now nine Indian casinos in Florida, seven of which are owned by the Seminoles, which is by far the largest tribe, and one of only three recognized by the federal government. As a whole, the Seminole casinos are grossing four billion a year. Omar and his boys found the opportunity irresistible.”
Lacy said, “So, your story involves organized criminals, Indians who own casinos, and a crooked judge, all in bed together?”
“That’s a fair summary.”
“But the FBI has jurisdiction over Indian matters,” Hugo said.
“Yes, and the FBI has never shown much enthusiasm for going after Indians for any type of wrongdoing. Plus, Mr. Hatch, and please listen as I repeat myself, I’m not dealing with the FBI. They don’t have the facts. I do, and I’m talking to you.”
“When do we get the whole story?” Lacy asked.
“As soon as your boss, Mr. Geismar, gives the green light. You talk to him, relay what I’ve said, make sure he understands the dangers involved, and when he tells me, on the phone, that the Board on Judicial Conduct will take my formal complaint seriously and investigate it fully, then I’ll fill in as many blanks as possible.”
Hugo tapped his knuckles on the table and thought about his family. Lacy watched another shrimp boat inch through the harbor and wondered how Geismar would react. Myers watched them and almost felt sorry for them.
The Board on Judicial Conduct’s home was one-half of the third floor in a four-story state office building in downtown Tallahassee, two blocks from the Capitol. Every aspect of its “suite”—from the worn, fraying carpet, to the narrow, prisonlike windows that somehow managed to deflect most sunlight, to the paneled ceiling squares still stained by decades of cigarette smoke, to the walls covered by cheap shelving that swayed and bent under the weight of thick briefs and forgotten memorandums—all of it reeked of straining and declining budgets, not to mention the obvious fact that the agency’s work was not exactly a pressing priority with the Governor and the legislature. Each January, Michael Geismar, BJC’s longtime director, was forced to walk over to the Capitol, hat in hand, and watch as the house and senate committees split the revenue pie. Groveling was required. He always asked for a few more bucks, and he always received a few less. Such was the life of the director of an agency that most lawmakers did not even know existed.
The Board was comprised of five political appointees, usually retired judges and lawyers who found favor with the Governor. They met six times a year to review complaints, conduct hearings that resembled trials, and get updates from Geismar and his staff. He needed more staff but there was no money. His six investigators—four in Tallahassee and two in Fort Lauderdale—were working an average of fifty hours a week, and almost all were secretly looking for other jobs.
From Geismar’s corner office, he had the vie
w, if he chose to take it, which he rarely did, of another bunker-type edifice even taller than his, and beyond that a hodgepodge of government office buildings. His office was large because he’d knocked out walls and added a long table, the only one in the maze of cubbyholes and cubicles BJC called home. When the Board met for official business, it borrowed a conference room in the Florida Supreme Court building.
Today, four people gathered around the table: Geismar, Lacy, Hugo, and BJC’s secret weapon, an ancient paralegal named Sadelle, who, even pushing the age of seventy, was still able not only to research vast amounts of material but to remember it all as well. Thirty years earlier, Sadelle had finished law school but failed the bar exam, on three occasions, and was thus relegated to the role of permanent paralegal. Once a heavy smoker—a good portion of the smoke-stained windows and ceilings could be blamed on her—she had been battling lung cancer for the past three years but had yet to miss a full week of work.
The table was covered with paperwork, with many of the sheets unstapled and highlighted in yellow or edited in red. Hugo was saying, “The guy checks out. We’ve talked to contacts in Pensacola, people who knew him when he was a lawyer. Nice reputation and all, at least until he got indicted. He is who he says he is, albeit with a new name.”
Lacy added, “His prison record is spotless. Served sixteen months and four days in a federal prison in Texas and for most of that time he ran the prison law library. Quite the jailhouse lawyer, he helped several of his buddies with their appeals, even sprang two on early release because their lawyers had screwed up the sentencing.”
“And his conviction?” Geismar asked.