Buff, bearded and handsome, Atlanta developer Mike Miller sat sipping a cocktail one afternoon last summer outside the spiffy Power Plant Cafe in the city’s new central park. Relaxed, with shirt collar open, he chatted up the head of the local Community Redevelopment Agency, spinning his grand plans to redevelop a not-yet-gentrified block in the shadow of Florida’s Capitol.
The meeting was one of many Miller had with local elected officials and hot-shot developers, beginning in 2015, when he rolled into the steamy, Spanish-moss draped seat of Florida state government. More south Georgia than South Beach, Tallahassee was hungry for the likes of Miller, an out-of-towner willing to spend millions to revitalize downtown as the capital city ached to rebrand itself as a place open for business.
But Miller was not what he appeared. After spending nearly two years infiltrating the burgeoning ranks of up-and-coming entrepreneurs and wooing the town’s politicians over wine and tapas, he vanished.
Until early this summer, that is, when a pair of FBI subpoenas were dropped on City Hall. Miller, it turned out, was no ordinary developer. He was an undercover FBI agent, sources close to the federal investigation said, the lynchpin in an elaborate scheme to ferret out public corruption, which could lead to huge political shake-ups.
Often, Miller was accompanied by two other believed FBI undercover agents, sidekicks with spot-on Hollywood archetypes: An aspiring medical marijuana magnate from out West with blonde surfer hair, and a chubby, bald-headed leader of an energy efficiency company.
The apparent head of the federal probe – looking to land a new gig at the Florida Bar Association — boasted about his last job as head of the FBI’s North Florida Public Corruption Task Force. In his application, he described his most recent case, one with a $500,000 budget and a time frame similar to the Tallahassee investigation. For that case, he had a 25-member staff, including undercover agents, intelligence analysts, an airplane, covert vehicles, surveillance equipment and investigative techniques not used in decades.
At the time of the Power Plant meeting in July 2016, “Mike Miller” already was a year into what appears to be a massive, multi-year investigation of local politicians, their friends and millions of dollars in taxpayer redevelopment money. In the crosshairs may be some of Florida’s most ambitious political climbers, including its mayor, who has his sights set on the Governor’s Mansion.
Whispers of corruption are commonplace in the one-degree-of-separation government town halfway between Pensacola and Jacksonville. Teeming with lobbyists, professors and political sophisticates, local officials can barely keep an arms-length from those who seek to influence them. Over the years, rumored FBI investigations have come and gone without any charges.
This time, however, political gadflies are bracing for indictments to come as sure as August afternoon thunderstorms.
Public corruption is the FBI’s chief criminal investigative priority and is something it does very well.
The Tallahassee case whiffs of perhaps the agency’s most famous case: The undercover Abscam operation of the 1970s, which brought down dirty art dealers, phony stock traders and crooked congressmen.
From 1996 to 2015, U.S. Attorney offices charged 5,411 local officials with public corruption crimes, earning 4,699 convictions, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The investigation in Tallahassee is one of roughly 5,000 the FBI launched from roughly 2012 to 2016 concerning allegations of public corruption, election crimes or government fraud.
“It’s very big,” said James Wedick, a retired FBI undercover agent who worked hundreds of public corruption cases at all levels of government. “Public corruption is one of the one violations that the bureau is best at handling. We’ve got the money, resources and agents to do it and we’ve got the people that understand the crime.”
Local governments are more vulnerable to corruption, said Wedick, who worked some early Abscam cases, because there are fewer eyes watching. Payments typically don’t need to go through the same approval process required at the state and federal level.
Really corrupt politicians deal in straight cash, but many others are willing to sell votes or other government services for surprisingly little money, Wedick said. Bribes can take the form of “street currency” — dinners and sports tickets. In Allentown, Pennsylvania, prosecutors said all it took for Mayor Ed Pawlowski to dole out a city contract was a steak dinner, campaign contributions and tickets to a Philadelphia Eagles playoff game.
Public corruption cases require a boots-on-the ground approach. Wedick said agents are trained to read local news reports, chat with local activists and collect scuttlebutt.
In the case of Tallahassee’s Mike Miller, one of the first places he hobnobbed was the Gulf Coast resort Sandestin, where he took part in the local Chamber of Commerce annual retreat in 2015. It was an easy place to make a good first impression, with its focus on networking, greased by nightly open bars, dining and dancing.
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SOURCE: USA Today, Sean Rossman