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Federal prosecutors can't shackle Hialeah mayor

Published Sep. 16, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

After six years, three trials, one conviction and two appeals, federal prosecutors dropped their extortion and racketeering case Monday against Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.

The action ended one of the most tortuous public corruption cases in South Florida history.

The decision of U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey to drop the case came one hour after jurors in Martinez's third trial voted to acquit him on one count of extortion and deadlocked on five remaining counts.

Stone-faced during an afternoon news conference, Coffey delivered the words that scores of Martinez's faithful had waited weeks during this trial to hear, years since the mayor's legal battles began.

"We cannot further consume the processes of our courts with questions our juries cannot answer," Coffey said. "We therefore will not retry the remaining corruption charges against Raul Martinez."

Martinez, drained from four days of deliberations and back-to-back trials, heard the news from his attorney's office in the company of his immediate family, close friends and a half-dozen lawyers who have represented him since he was first indicted in 1990.

"It's a relief. But this is something I have lived with for such a long time that it hasn't sunk in yet," Martinez said as he flipped through local TV channels to hear confirmation of the news.

Martinez, who was accused of trading zoning favors to developers for cash and sweet land deals worth $134,000 to $182,000, was convicted on six of eight federal extortion and racketeering charges in 1991. But appellate judges ordered a new trial in 1994, citing flawed jury instructions and blatant jury misconduct. The mayor's second trial ended March 26 in a hung jury. The third trial, which began April 22, had a similar fate.

The indictments and trials did not diminish the appeal of the charismatic mayor of Hialeah, a working-class, mostly Hispanic city of 220,000 northwest of Miami.

Since the early 1980s, when he first came under criminal investigation, he has been re-elected four times.

Although prosecutors could not convict Martinez of corruption, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Udolf warned that the verdict is not a green light for corrupt public officials.

Although court rulings hurt their case against Martinez, new federal laws that could not be applied to this case make it easier to prosecute corruption, Udolf said. One law does not require explicit proof that a bribe took place.

"We have more laws in our legal quiver than we had available before," Udolf said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to use that law when we indicted Martinez."

Martinez said he holds nothing against prosecutors or witnesses who testified against him. He plans to finish his term and repay Hialeah voters for the confidence they showed by re-electing him twice while his conviction was on appeal.

"I have a debt of gratitude to the people of Hialeah," said Martinez, who aspired to run for Congress before the indictment derailed his political career. "I will finish out my term, and then we'll see what happens in 1997."