Alcee Hastings corruption scandal

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In 1979, Alcee Hastings was appointed a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida by President Jimmy Carter. Two years later, Hastings was indicted on charges of conspiring to solicit a bribe from two defendants awaiting sentencing in his court. Hastings was unanimously acquitted of the charges in 1983. The Judicial Council of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, soon launched a separate investigation into the matter which lasted nearly four years. Ultimately, the council (which was led by former Watergate prosecutor John Doar and comprised of the active appeals court judges for that circuit and three U.S. District judges) found that Hastings not only had solicited a bribe, but also repeatedly lied during his trial. Following this report, the House Judiciary Committee approved seventeen articles of impeachment against Hastings. Sixteen dealt with the bribery case, while one centered around Hastings' improper revelation of sensitive government information obtained through a federal wiretap in 1985. In late 1988, the articles passed the House by a vote of 413-3. The Senate, following a trial by a twelve-member committee, chose to convict Hastings on eight of the articles, but opted not to restrict him from seeking federal elected office in the future (which it had the authority to do). In 1992, a federal judge remanded Hastings' conviction back to the Senate, arguing that Hastings should have received a trial by the full Senate. The Supreme Court, however, had ruled in a similar case that the courts have no jurisdiction over impeachment proceedings, and Hastings' conviction was therefore upheld. Later in 1992, Hastings was elected to Congress in Florida's Twenty-Third Congressional District. In 2006, after being reelected for the seventh time, Hastings was considered to chair the House Intelligence Committee in the 110th Congress. Facing pressure as a result of Hastings' troubled past, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ultimately declined to give Hastings the job, choosing Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) instead.

Contents

Background

Hastings accused of accepting bribe

In 1981, two brothers, Frank and Thomas Romano, were accused of stealing $1 million from a union pension fund. The men were tried and convicted in Hastings’ court. As they awaited sentencing, William Dredge, a man facing separate drug charges, contacted the FBI and said that Hastings had solicited a bribe in the ongoing criminal case involving the Romano brothers. [1] [2]

Dredge said that William Borders, a lawyer friend of Hastings, was interested in soliciting a bribe for Hastings from the Romano brothers. He said that Borders had asked him to see if the brothers were interested in paying Hastings $150,000 in exchange for no jail time and having their gains from the robbery returned to them. [3] [4]

FBI sting operation against Hastings and Borders

After interviewing Dredge several times, the FBI designed a sting operation. An agent, posing as Frank Romano, approached Borders to say that the Romanos were interested in paying off Hastings in return for light treatment. Borders said it could be done. The undercover agent then indicated he wanted to go ahead with the deal, but said he had some questions. They included: [5] [6]

  • How do I know you really speak for Hastings?
  • Can you arrange some sort of sign to show that Hastings is on board?

In response to the latter, Borders said that this could be done, and offered to have Hastings show up for dinner at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami on September 16, 1981. If Hastings came, this would be a signal that he was on board. Indeed, Hastings arrived for dinner. In a meeting that night, the FBI agent, posing as Frank Romano, gave Borders $25,000 as a down payment. In return, Hastings was to throw out the forfeiture judgment against the Romanos. After that, the rest of the money, $125,000, would be paid. [7] [8]

Hastings did indeed throw out the judgment, and evidently acted to ensure that it was done quickly. According to testimony, he told his courtroom clerk, “I want the order today...Sorry for the rush, but the order has to go out today.” A short time later, a pickup date for the full payoff was set. [9] [10]

As the FBI was building its possible case against Hastings, it wiretapped calls between the judge and Borders. In one call, Hastings stated, "I've drafted all those ah, ah, letters, ah, for him, and everything's okay. The only thing I was concerned with was, did you hear if, ah, hear from him after we talked?" This statement would become a key piece of evidence for the prosecution at Hastings' trial. (Edward Cody, "Jury Acquits Judge Hastings In Bribery Case," Washington Post, February 4, 1983)

On October 9, 1981, the day Borders was to be honored in Washington by the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest black legal group, he got a call to meet “Frank” at a local hotel. Borders showed up and met with the FBI agent he thought was Frank Romano. The agent had brought the $125,000. Borders was immediately arrested when the money changed hands. [11] [12]

Hastings was in Washington that day to attend the dinner honoring Borders. Alan Baron, the lawyer who was hired by the Democratic majority on the Judiciary Committee to lead an impeachment investigation into Hastings several years later, wrote a law review article on the case in which he described Hastings’ actions this way:

Hastings was at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C. when he heard the news of Borders’ arrest. His reaction was to leave Washington immediately and return to Florida, thereby avoiding the FBI. He quickly packed a bag and left the hotel without checking out, leaving behind a suit he had sent to the hotel’s valet service. The suit was retrieved by the FBI several days later. [13] [14]

Hastings then took a taxi cab to the Baltimore-Washington airport. Once there, he called his mother in Florida from a pay phone. Then, according to Baron:

Hastings placed a collect call from a second pay phone at the airport to the home of his girlfriend, Patricia Williams. The call lasted a minute or less. Hastings told Williams to call him back at a third pay phone, which she did. He then told her to go to a pay phone and call him again at the same number. About fifteen minutes later, she called Hastings from a pay phone located in a shopping mall near her home. This call lasted a minute or less. Hastings then called her at the mall pay phone from a fourth pay phone at the BWI Airport. This call lasted about four minutes. [15] [16]

Hastings then caught a plane headed for Florida. The FBI found him late that night at his girlfriend’s house. [17] [18]

Hastings faces punishment

Hastings indicted for conspiring to solicit a bribe

In December 1981, Hastings and Borders were indicted on charges that they conspired to solicit a bribe from the Romanos. At the trial, Hastings pleaded not guilty and claimed Borders was lying about the entire affair. He also claimed that the prosecution in the case was discriminating against him on the basis of race, and that the Reagan administration singled him out for prosecution because of his previous rulings opposing the government's treatment of Haitian refugees in Florida. (Edward Cody, "Jury Acquits Judge Hastings In Bribery Case," Washington Post, February 4, 1983)

Justice Department attorneys Reid Weingarten and Robert Richter felt that the key piece of evidence in the trial was a wiretapped phone conversation Hastings had with Borders in which he stated, "I've drafted all those ah, ah, letters, ah, for him, and everything's okay. The only thing I was concerned with was, did you hear if, ah, hear from him after we talked?" According to Weingarten and Reid, this conversation featured coded language in which Hastings was essentially saying that he had drafted an order restoring the Romano brothers' seized funds and was inquiring whether Borders had heard from Frank Romano. (Edward Cody, "Jury Acquits Judge Hastings In Bribery Case," Washington Post, February 4, 1983)

Hastings insisted, however, that the letters in question were going to authorities and friends in Columbia, S.C. on behalf of Hemphill Pride, a friend and former lawyer who was attempting to regain his legal license. Hastings said he wrote the letters, but never sent them because he later thought it would be unethical for a judge to do so. During the trial, Hastings produced several draft letters to support his claim. The government, however, charged that these were concocted after the indictment. Indeed, Pride said he had no knowledge of the letters and was not even eligible for reinstatement. (Edward Cody, "Jury Acquits Judge Hastings In Bribery Case," Washington Post, February 4, 1983)

Ultimately, Hastings was unanimously acquitted (found not guilty) in early 1983. Borders, however, was convicted and sent to prison. [19] [20] (Spencer Rich, "Impeach Hastings, House panel says," Washington Post, July 27, 1988)

Appeals court investigation

In spite of Hastings' not guilty verdict, Terrell Hodges, the chief federal judge of Florida's Middle District, and Anthony Alaimo, a Georgia judge, filed a complaint with the Judicial Council of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals urging a separate investigation into the matter. The Eleventh Circuit complied, hiring former Justice Department attorney John Doar to lead an investigative team made up of the appeals courts judges and three U.S. District judges. After an investigation that lasted nearly four years, Doar came back with an extensive report suggesting that Hastings had not only solicited a bribe, but also lied repeatedly under oath at his trial. [21] [22] ("Judge's Impeachment Urged," Washington Post, June 19, 1983)

Impeachment by House

Following the report, the House Judiciary Committee began considering impeachment proceedings against Hastings. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), an African-American known for advocating civil rights, was placed in charge of the initial subcommittee investigation. [23] [24]

On Conyers' recommendation, the full Judiciary Committee voted 32-1 in favor of seventeen articles of impeachment against Hastings. Rather than vote on each separately, the House considered the articles as a whole. Citing that Hastings engaged in a corrupt conspiracy to obtain $150,000 from defendants and lied under oath about specific elements of the case, the House passed the articles with a 413-3 vote in August 1988. The three dissenting votes were cast by Reps. Gus Savage (D-Ill.), Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.) and Edward R. Roybal (D-Calif.). [25] (Tom Kenworthy, "House Votes To Impeach Judge Hastings," Washington Post, August 4, 1988) (Nicholas C. McBride, "House votes to impeach federal judge," The Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 1988)

Seventeen articles of impeachment passed

This section lists the seventeen articles of impeachment approved by the House. [26]

Article 1

In 1981, Hastings and William Borders, an attorney, engaged in a corrupt conspiracy to obtain $150,000 from defendants in United States v. Romano, a case tried before Judge Hastings, in return for the imposition of sentences which would not require incarceration.

Article 2

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that he and Borders never made any agreement to solicit a bribe from defendants in the Romano case.

Article 3

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that he and Borders never agreed to modify the sentences of defendants in the Romano case in return for a bribe from those defendants.

Article 4

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that he and Borders never agreed that, in return for a bribe, Hastings would modify an order he previously issued that property of the Romano defendants be forfeited.

Article 5

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that his appearance at the Fontainebleau Hotel on September 16, 1981 was not part of a plan to demonstrate his participation in a bribery scheme and that he had not expected to meet Borders there.

Article 6

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that he did not expect Borders to appear at his room at the Sheraton Hotel on September 12, 1981.

Article 7

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that his motive for instructing his law clerk to prepare a new forfeiture order in the Romano case was based on his concern that the order be revised before the law clerk's scheduled departure, when in fact the instruction was in furtherance of a bribery scheme.

Article 8

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that his October 5, 1981, telephone conversation with Borders was about writing letters to solicit assistance for Hemphill Pride, when in fact it was a coded conversation in furtherance of a conspiracy with Borders to solicit a bribe from defendants in the Romano case.

Article 9

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that three documents that purported to be drafts of letters to assist Hemphill Pride had been written by Hastings on October 5, 1981, and were the letters referred to by Hastings in his October 5th telephone conversation with Borders.

Article 10

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that on May 5, 1981 he talked to Hemphill Pride by placing a telephone call to 803-758-8825.

Article 11

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that on August 2, 1981, he talked to Hemphill Pride by placing a telephone call to 803-782-9387.

Article 12

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that on September 2, 1981, he talked to Hemphill Pride by placing a telephone call to 803-758-8825.

Article 13

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that 803-777-7716 was a telephone number through which Hemphill Pride could be contacted in July 1981.

Article 14

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly and falsely stated that on October 9, 1981, he called his mother and Patricia Williams from his hotel room at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel.

Article 15

In 1983, while Hastings was a defendant in a criminal case and under oath, Hastings knowingly made a false statement concerning his motives for taking a plane on October 9, 1981, from Baltimore-Washington International Airport rather than from Washington National Airport.

Article 16

On September 6, 1985, Hastings revealed highly confidential information that he learned as the judge supervising a wiretap. As a result of this improper disclosure, certain investigations then being conducted by law enforcement agents of the United States were thwarted and ultimately terminated.

Article 17

Hastings, through a corrupt relationship with Borders, giving false testimony under oath, fabricating false documents, and improperly disclosing confidential information acquired by him as the supervisory judge of a wiretap, undermined confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and betrayed the trust of the people of the United States, thereby bringing disrepute on the Federal courts and the administration of justice by the Federal courts. [27]

One article deals with Hastings' improper revelation of sensitive information

While sixteen of the impeachment articles dealt with the bribery case, one (Article 16) centered on Hastings' improper revelation of sensitive information regarding a wiretap against a suspected Miami drug dealer in 1985.

In 1985, FBI agents received warrants to wiretap the phones of Kevin “Waxy” Gordon, a local zoning officer and suspected drug dealer. Gordon was close friends with Miami-Dade County Mayor Steve Clark. Hastings was aware of the wiretaps, for he had signed the FBI’s requests for them and received weekly updates about the information they were generating. [28]

In late summer 1985, a bureau agent and a U.S. attorney briefed Hastings on the latest details, which included information that Gordon had discussed involving Clark. Hastings, according to congressional prosecutors, was struck by this revelation. Hastings allegedly stated, “That is heavy stuff...The mayor better watch out what he’s doing.” [29]

On September 6, 1985, a local group held an event honoring Hastings and others at the Miami Hyatt Regency. Mayor Clark attended and sat in an aisle seat. Hastings gave the keynote speech and, according to Clark, walked down the center aisle of the room and whispered sensitive information about an ongoing FBI investigation into the mayor’s ear. He allegedly stated, “Stay away from Kevin Gordon...He's hot. He is using your name in Hialeah (a city in south Florida).” Clark claims that he immediately telephoned his office and ordered his staff to set up a meeting with Gordon. [30]

There was, however, some dispute as to the accuracy of this account. Hastings completed his speech around 10 a.m., but the FBI wiretap on Gordon's telephone recorded an urgent call from Mayor Clark’s office to Gordon at 8:58 a.m. Second, Hastings and three eyewitnesses maintain that he exited the room immediately through a door behind the podium, and had no contact with anyone in the crowd. House prosecutors said that Clark’s memory was faulty, and Hastings must have provided FBI secrets to the mayor before, not after, his address. Hastings' lawyers countered that Clark had friends, including FBI agents, who could have had access to the same information Hastings had (and passed it on to him). [31]

After Clark and Gordon learned of the FBI investigations, the bureau immediately removed its agents from the matter, and ultimately shut down two of its investigations completely. [32] [33] [34]

Senate removes Hastings from bench

In 1989, a special twelve-member Senate committee tried Hastings. The full Senate then chose to vote on eleven of the seventeen articles. Ultimately, he was convicted on eight of the eleven. The following chart details the way in which the chamber voted on the eleven articles.

Article NumberYeasNaysResult
16926Convicted
26827Convicted
36926Convicted
46728Convicted
56726Convicted
64847Acquitted
76926Convicted
86827Convicted
97025Convicted
16095Acquitted
176035Acquitted

Hastings was just the sixth federal judge ever removed from office by the Congress. In addition, his conviction marked the first time a federal official had ever been impeached and removed from office for a crime in which he had been previously acquitted. [35] [36]

Aftermath

Hastings argues racism played a role in his conviction

Following the Senate's decision, Hastings stated that he was the victim of a process, "infected by a form of racism." Among those who agreed that race played a role in the conviction were Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Rev. Al Sharpton. (Ruth Marcus, "The Distressing Case of Judge Hastings," Washington Post, August 6, 1989)

Many prominent African-Americans, however, did not agree. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who led the House subcommittee which recommended impeachment, stated "This is not a happy moment for me." But, he continued, "A black public official must be held to the same standard as anyone else because a lower standard would be patronizing, a higher standard would be racist...I have looked carefully to see if there was any scintilla of evidence of racism...I could not find any." [37]

Additionally, Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, issued a brief statement declaring that the organization, "must respect the considered judgment of the Senate which voted by a large margin to impeach." Considering that twenty of the twenty-three members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted to impeach Hastings, Hooks acknowledged, "It's hard to say its racism." ("Racism is Charged in Ouster of Judge," October 22, 1989)

Hastings argues conviction constituted double jeopardy

In addition to his claims of racism, Hastings argued the proceedings were unfair because they constituted "double jeopardy," for he had been previously acquitted of similar charges in 1981. Just before the Senate took up the House's charges, Hastings brought suit against the Senate and some of its officers seeking to nullify his impeachment trial on these grounds. District Judge Gerhard Gesell rejected Hastings' double jeopardy contention and dismissed the action. He justified his decision this way: [38]

In several instances in the Constitution, impeachment is distinguished from criminal proceedings. The accused has no right to a jury, and the President may not pardon a person convicted by impeachment. The Framers understood that impeachment trials were fundamentally political, which seems to indicate that impartiality--however much it has been present and is to be desired--is not guaranteed. It is clear that the federal rules of evidence do not apply in impeachment trials, and the Constitution itself does not require unanimity among the Senators sitting in judgment. Senators determine their own burdens of proof: they need not be persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed each and every element of every Article. Deviating from English precedent, the Framers sharply limited the remedies or punishment available upon conviction to disqualification and removal from office . . . [39]

The Senate considered a motion to end the proceedings on grounds that they violated Hastings' right not to face double jeopardy. It was overwhelmingly defeated, 92-1. This sentiment was shared in the House. Rep. Peter Rodino, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, stated "The fact that Judge Hastings was acquitted of the bribery charge does not alter our responsibility to adopt articles of impeachment based on the extensive record of his corrupt conduct." [40] [41]

Hastings' impeachment remanded back to Senate

In 1992, Hastings' impeachment was remanded back to the Senate by Judge Stanley Sporkin. Sporkin argued that Hastings had a constitutional right to a trial before the full Senate, not just a twelve-member committee. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in a similar case regarding Judge Walter Nixon (who had also been impeached and removed) that the courts had no jurisdiction to review Senate impeachment procedures. Hastings' case was therefore dismissed, and his impeachment and removal were upheld. [42]

Hastings elected to Congress

Following its conviction of Hastings, the Senate had the option of forbiding him from seeking federal office again, but chose not to do so. Hastings was elected to the House in 1992, and was reelected for the seventh time in 2006. [43]

Hastings considered to chair Intelligence Committee

Following Democratic victories in the 2006 congressional elections, much speculation arose regarding who would head the House Intelligence Committee in the 110th Congress. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) had served as ranking member of the committee in the 109th Congress, but was said to have had a poor relationship with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Hastings was next in line for the post, and speculation that he may head the committee led to considerable controversy and debate given his past. [44]

On November 20, 2006, Hastings sent a five-page letter to all House Democrats detailing why the charges against him were false. In it, he pointed to the fact that he was acquitted of wrongdoing in a criminal trial, stressing "In a jury trial, the evidence is the only consideration...In an impeachment, politics is central." (Read Hastings' letter in its entirety)

On November 28, Hastings was informed by Pelosi that he would not be given the chairman post. Rather, it was given to Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who first joined the Intelligence Committee in 2001, two years after Hastings. Following the announcement, Hastings expressed disappointment but offered to cooperate with the new chairman, stating "Our nation's national security is far more important than my professional security." (Read Hastings' statement)

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