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ALCEE HASTINGS // REJECTION & REDEMPTION

The first constituent call comes in at 7:30 a.m. It's mama, and she's upset about a fish kill in the lake.

Then some school types want to talk money over breakfast.

At least the two young environmentalists who follow have got their you-know-what together. So there's time for a few tales about waiting tables on the Jersey shore back in the '50s. "Those were very, very good times, you know?"

Phones ring, aides flutter about and at the sound of the bell, Miramar Rep. Alcee Hastings and 434 other lawmakers arise in unison, promenade into the Capitol and vote on the less than scintillating Taxpayer Browsing Protection Act.

Just another day in the life of a typical congressman.

Well, not quite.

What makes this lawmaker so extraordinary is the road that brought him to the hallowed halls of Congress.

Here he is rubbing shoulders with, as Hastings might put it, the same jokers who booted him out of his last job, said this smooth-talking judge schemed to solicit a $150,000 bribe. A Miami jury found him innocent. However, the Washington politicians said he was a disgrace, so they took away his salary, his pension and a bit of his dignity.

The voters of Florida's 23rd District sided with the jury.

Now, nearly eight years after the humiliating impeachment, he's one of them.

As Hastings says so often, "Hah, hah, hah, hah."

On this otherwise unremarkable spring day, Hastings is savoring another delicious development in the "megalemna" that is his life story.

Across town, in a drab conference room, Justice Department officials are reaming the FBI for years of shoddy work in its crime lab. The discovery may damage the Oklahoma City bombing trial; it could mean a mistrial in the World Trade Center case.

And buried on page 363 of last week's report is a mention not many notice. It seems the FBI agent in U.S. vs. Hastings testified falsely about the evidence in that case.

All these years, the 60-year-old, twice-di-vorced Democrat from Central Florida has maintained the system was out to get him. From the FBI to the courts to Congress, every institution in America has done him wrong.

"I feel like I'm a victim now," he says as the news reaches him.

Others argue convincingly it was a strong, albeit circumstantial, case against Judge Hastings. There were cryptic telephone calls, a hotel rendezvous and a timely reversal on a racketeering case.

However, to many of the players in this drama, the case stopped being about Hastings a long time ago. It is about race in America, the sanctity of a jury trial, and now, the credibility of the men and women who write and uphold our laws.

With the new revelations about FBI deceit, Hastings again smells vindication. But that is far from certain. The report by the inspector general is inconclusive at best and few seem eager to reopen the wounds of the impeachment saga.

No mind, Hastings takes small victories where they come and, ever the fighter, presses on.

"In typical fashion of all the Hastings matters," he observes, "they never end with a period; they end with a comma."

The ride begins

Hastings' life story would be enthralling enough without the impeachment chapters.

Raised in tiny Altamonte Springs outside Orlando by his grandmother, the young man rode 30 miles a day, past three white high schools, to attend Croomes Academy. He studied hard, earned a law degree and was a leading civil rights lawyer.

A dapper man, Hastings is bald but for a ring of salt-and-pepper hair wrapping from ear to ear. As long as anyone can remember, he has compensated for his small frame with a wicked tongue, mixing splashes of red-hot profanity with cool street slang.

By 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the bench. The son of a maid and chauffeur/butler, Hastings became Florida's first black federal trial judge.

The stunning tale might have ended there, were it not for either his greed or some overzealous white prosecutors. Instead, the wild ride of Alcee Hastings was just beginning.

Appointed a judge for life, Hastings had the ultimate job security. But that was threatened in 1981 when his friend William Borders was arrested in a sting operation accepting a satchel full of $100 bills.

Borders was allegedly the middle man between Hastings and two racketeers, Tom and Frank Romano. The plan was for Hastings to reduce the Romano brothers' sentences in exchange for $150,000. Borders, caught with the money, was convicted in 1992, although he has never said a word publicly about the case.

Hastings meanwhile, maintains Borders was "rainmaking," or offering a deal he could not deliver.

Prosecutors produced a pile of circumstantial evidence. Hastings, for instance, returned $845,000 in seized property to the Romanos. He also showed up at the Fountainebleau hotel as Borders promised, an incident Hastings chalked up to coincidence but prosecutors said proved he was in on the scam. Finally, they charged, when Hastings learned of Borders' arrest he hurried home via a suspiciously circuitous route.

Although 14 years have elapsed, Hastings still recalls every detail of the case.

Bouncing on the toes of his rubber-soled shoes, he is a ball of energy recreating his performance as he defended himself before the Miami jury.

"Did you know where I went when I left Washington? Do you know whether or not I rented a car?" In rapid succession, Hastings spit 32 questions at FBI agent William Murphy, the top investigator on the case.

"I sat down and said, "In short, you really don't know what happened then do you Mr. Murphy?' "

At the time Borders was collecting the cash, Hastings says he was busy buying books for his mother _ one on Duke Ellington, the other Paul Robeson _ and getting a broken strap on his shoulder bag repaired.

He told the jury about his mundane activities "to give a pattern of what I was doing," he says.

They believed him and voted not guilty. He is convinced that his stellar cross-examination, along with the detailed alibi, secured his freedom.

In Hastings' never-ending cycle of rejection-then-redemption, the victory was shortlived. A group of 11th Circuit Court judges conducted an investigation and in 1987 urged Congress to impeach him.

As for agent Murphy and the leather bag, they would be ancient history were it not for a mysterious FBI document that surfaced earlier this year.

In a 1989 internal memo, special agent William Tobin alerted his superiors that the agent who testified before the judicial panel lied. Tobin warned that Michael Malone never tested the leather strap and that his testimony to the judges who endorsed impeachment was riddled with no fewer than 27 falsehoods. He said he was worried about "the potential for serious conflict and substantial embarrassment to the bureau."

Tobin agreed with Malone's overall conclusion the strap had been cut, but he noted the report excluded important exculpatory evidence and presented the findings "with scientifically unfounded, unqualified and biased testimony."

To Hastings, the memo is nothing short of the smoking gun he has searched for all these many years.

"An FBI agent lying before judges is perjury; an FBI agent taking someone's evidence sticker off and putting his name on it is tampering with evidence," he says, the blood boiling up into his face. "Lawyers get disbarred for that; people get thrown in jail for that. That alone should be enough for people to know I was done pretty damn wrong by the FBI."

It doesn't stop at the strap. Citing Tobin's memo, Hastings questions why FBI supervisors allowed Malone's inconsistencies to stand.

Malone "didn't know me. I didn't know him. We've had no cross purposes. Why me? Why would he choose to do this?" Hastings asks. "Well, damn it, he was told to do it."

Furthermore, Hastings thinks Murphy harbored a grudge from that day on the witness stand. "He had an axe to grind because I literally kicked his ass."

Prosecutors say that while Malone misbehaved, there was still good reason to remove Hastings from the bench.

"There was an enormous amount of evidence that didn't turn on the credibility of the FBI," says Alan Baron, the lead attorney in the congressional trial.

Baron says his team spent 18 months reviewing documents and interviewing witnesses before recommending impeachment.

"If I had not been convinced the evidence warranted impeachment I would have used every power of persuasion to convince the House against it," he says.

No one from the FBI, including the three key agents in the case, is willing to discuss it. The bureau's formal response to the Justice Department report states: "While Malone may have not been entirely accurate . . . it is not appropriate to characterize his testimony before the impeachment panel as "false.' "

Hastings is hoping his new pals in Congress, some of the same men who voted to impeach him, might have better luck getting answers in hearings later this spring. But he knows the Washington establishment _ even his new friends _ is queasy at the prospect of admitting such a heinous injustice.

"I don't know that I will ever know who else was involved because these are the people that kept it from the public this long," he says. "And you can bet your bottom dollar they're going to try to keep it from the public forever if they can."

Out of the valley

In the glory days, Hastings, the liberal black agitator, staged sit-ins, got arrested and filed lawsuits.

Today, he sits in his commodious Washington office, asserting he can do more to promote civil rights from his seat in Congress than as a lone attorney.

As a legislator, he has championed the cause of poor, predominantly dark-skinned, sugar workers. He pitches trade with Africa as the best avenue for minorities to break into the global marketplace. And when his 24-year-old receptionist expresses an interest in Sojourner Truth, Hastings helps her draft a bill to erect a statue in the abolitionist's honor.

"That's how you lift somebody; that's how you empower somebody," he says with the passion once reserved for rallies.

With his flair for spellbinding oratory, Hastings never misses a chance to deliver a message of equal opportunity, even if he's preaching to the converted.

"I can assure a balanced budget does not mean balanced prosperity," he tells two unsuspecting visitors, Vera and Perry Ginn. Although they sit just five feet away, his voice rises to a crescendo: "When the economy's getting squeezed who gets squeezed quick? Poor people. And who among poor people gets squeezed quickest? Black people. You understand what I'm saying."

Hastings laughs hardily when he makes such points, and although he displays no bitterness, the pain of injustice simmers just below the surface. In a single breath he both dismisses the element of racism in his case and implies it is pervasive.

"I have a very strong and passionate feeling I am aggrieved," he says. "If I were a white, it would be the same damn feeling. But I ain't white, and I ain't ever gonna be white."

In the black community, Hastings has always been a hot commodity. His impeachment only increased his stature.

"He really has stood above this particular blemish on his record," says Keith Clayborne, the editor and publisher of the local black paper, The Broward Times. "Nothing had really happened for black people here for some time. He gave them hope they would have some power. They don't see him as an impeached federal judge; they see him as congressman Alcee Hastings."

A trip back in time

Last Wednesday, just 24 hours after Justice Department investigators issued the blistering report on the FBI, Hastings was back working the corridors of power. In the sensible shoes that help ease the strain of marble floors he darts down an escalator, through an underground tunnel, up an elevator and into Rayburn 2318.

Hastings sits in the second row, his face drooping with boredom as his colleagues debate the merits of cutting the deadbeat Russians out of the space station program. On the wood panels are the words of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

He is a human magnet, attracting all types. Rep. Dave Weldon, a conservative Republican from Palm Bay, whispers in Hastings' ear. When a young legislative assistant delivers a soft drink to his boss Rep. Lynn Rivers, D-Mich., Hastings teases: "I get her change." The aide, chuckling, obeys.

"He's a very outgoing, friendly man with an extraordinary sense of humor," explains Tony Gibson.

After 40 minutes, Hastings ducks out the door and scurries back toward his office, spotting Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte in the hall.

"Oh no, they didn't tell me Sandy was coming," he bellows, tackling the white-haired president of Florida State University with a hearty bear hug.

Inside, D'Alemberte and University of Miami president Edward T. Foote II engage in the ancient political ritual of flattery.

"Why don't we sit here and you brief us," D'Alemberte says, marveling at Hastings' knowledge of environmental issues. Even after Hastings departs, the pair stick around to praise him as a smart, savvy lawmaker who doesn't need to surround himself with obsequious staffers.

Such accolades would have been unthinkable in the summer of 1988.

With the prominent civil rights activist Rep. John Conyers leading the charge, the House went ahead with an impeachment proceeding Hastings boycotted.

"I don't take ropes to lynchings," he says today, explaining his thinking at the time.

On Aug. 3, in the hushed chamber, a saddened Conyers said that although "the conclusion of guilt tears at your soul," the only logical finding was that Hastings "betrayed his office and is no longer fit to wield the power and authority."

The son of a Detroit autoworker who helped pass a national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Conyers said he was initially predisposed to accept the Miami jury's verdict. "But we did not wage the civil rights struggle in order to substitute one form of judicial corruption for another."

When he concluded, Florida Rep. Claude Pepper, the aging dean of the House, rose slowly from his leather chair, turned to Conyers and began to applaud.

Then the House voted, 413-3, to recommend impeachment to the Senate.

Even now, with the new evidence emerging, the scars of the trial remain. Despite repeated assertions he was eager to discuss the Hastings case, Conyers refused to make himself available.

New York Rep. Charles Rangel, another prominent African-American who supported impeachment, tiptoed around the controversy saying his vote in 1988 was for a committee, not against Hastings.

Hastings is conciliatory toward his colleagues, even the men who led the assault. "They were bit players, you know? And they were playing out history strained."

He recalls Conyers and others greeted him warmly when he arrived in Congress in 1993.

Many say the secret to Hastings' success in the Washington club that once snubbed him is his uncanny knack for relating to people. On a recent trip to China, Rep. Mark Foley observed that Hastings was equally comfortable talking policy with Speaker Newt Gingrich as he was conversing with elevator operators.

"Alcee was always the guy who took the time to say hi to the person doing their job, the one serving the tea," says Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican.

As much as his genial personality and shrewd political skills have contributed to his success, it is one overriding principle _ the voice of the people is paramount _ that provided him entree into Club Congress.

"If there was to be any vindication it came from the voters," Hastings agrees.

Now, in the most ironic twist to date, the ultimate vindication may come in the Senate, the very place that seemed to seal his fate once before, when it found Hastings guilty on eight articles of impeachment. Hastings was the first and only official to be impeached by the Senate after being acquitted by a jury.

Eight years after voting against Hastings, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has taken a renewed interest in the case and other incidents of FBI bumbling.

"Confidence and trust in the nation's premier law enforcement agency is dwindling," he declares in a speech on the Senate floor.

Then, citing the newly revealed Tobin memo, this conservative, white farmer who notes he does not have a law degree, suggests the son of black domestics may have been wronged by the very institutions Americans look to for protection.

"This alleged wrongdoing by an FBI agent wasn't done to a terrorist or a mad bomber," Grassley rumbles. "He was a sitting federal judge, a man who held a position of prestige and influence in a separate and coequal branch of our government."

Grassley intends to hold hearings, which may some day, mean the reinstatement of Hastings' pension.

But Hastings, of all people, knows there are "rivers to cross, roads to run."

If nothing else, he is enjoying the wild ride today more than ever. Once a maverick on the outside, he now is a maverick from within.

As the supplicants parade into his Capitol Hill office, congressman Alcee Lamar Hastings listens politely then swoops in, his light tone and easy smile softening the blow.

"I will say to you, sometimes I think your whole politics is misplaced," he tells Josefina Carbonell, president of a Miami-based Cuban nutrition program.

His gripe with the Cuban-American community, most notably GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, is they never seem to return his favors.

"For the life of me, I don't know how people can keep coming to you asking you to support their efforts and then when you have something they don't support you," he says.

But the beauty of being an outsider in the clique known as Congress is the freedom to speak bluntly. He feels no more pressure to kowtow to the Cuban-Americans than he did the judges and prosecutors who knocked him down eight years ago.

"I'm in Miami and they never held a fund-raiser for me," he explains after a repentant Carbonell departs. "Hey that's fine; don't hold no fund-raiser for me. I'm still going to talk to 'em because that way I get to do what I just got to do, telling them what they do wrong."

UPS AND DOWNS OF ALCEE HASTINGS

1936: Born in Altamonte Springs.

1963: Graduates from Florida A & M Law School.

1977: Florida Gov. Reuben Askew appoints Hastings to Broward County circuit court judgeship.

1979: President Carter appoints him to a federal judgeship, Florida's first black federal judge.

1981: Indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami for conspiring to accept a $150,000 bribe.

1982: Jury convicts co-conspirator William Borders, a Washington lawyer.

1983: Miami jury acquits Hastings.

1987: Despite acquittal, U.S. Judicial conference recommends Congress pursue impeachment.

1988: House of Representatives votes 413-3 to impeach Hastings for "high crimes and misdemeanors."

1989: Senate convicts Hastings on eight articles of impeachment, removes him from federal bench and rescinds pension.

1992: Federal judge in Washington rules Senate improperly evicted Hastings because a committee of senators, not the full Senate, heard the case. (The U.S. Supreme Court would later rule that federal courts have no authority over Senate impeachment trials.)

1992: Wins election to U.S. House of Representatives from Florida's 23rd District. Re-elected in 1994 and 1996.

1997: Justice Department finds FBI agent lied about a piece of evidence used against Hastings when the agent testified before the judicial panel.

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