Politics & Policy

Alcee Hastings, Bribery, and the House Intelligence Committee

Will Democrats overlook the next chairman's past?

Hastings was a prominent South Florida attorney when was appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. His problems began in 1981 with the case of two brothers, Frank and Thomas Romano, who were accused of stealing $1 million from a union pension fund. The men were tried and convicted in Hastings’ court. While they were awaiting sentencing, a man named William Dredge — a longtime criminal who at the time was facing drug charges — got in touch with the FBI and said that Hastings had solicited a bribe in an ongoing criminal case.

Dredge said that a close friend of Hastings, a Washington, D.C. lawyer named William Borders, was the go-between; Borders’s job was to collect the bribe money and pass it on to Hastings. In addition, Dredge said that Borders was interested in soliciting a bribe for Hastings from the Romano brothers. He said that Borders had asked him, Dredge, to see if the brothers were interested in paying Hastings $150,000 in exchange for no jail time and having their ill-gotten gains, which had been confiscated, returned to them.

After interviewing Dredge several times, the FBI designed a sting operation. An agent, posing as Frank Romano, approached Borders to say that yes, the Romanos were interested in paying off Hastings in return for light treatment. Borders said it could be done. When Borders said that, the undercover agent indicated he wanted to go ahead with the deal, but had some questions: How do I know you really speak for Hastings? Can you arrange some sort of sign to show that Hastings is on board?

Sure, Borders said — how about I have Hastings show up somewhere at the time and place of your choosing? That will show that we’re working together. Borders and the FBI agent, posing as Romano, agreed that Hastings could give the signal by coming to the dining room of the Fontainbleau Hotel at 8:00 P.M. on September 16, 1981. If Hastings did that — all he had to do was show up — then everyone would know he was part of the deal.

When the time came, FBI agents had the hotel under surveillance. And sure enough, Hastings showed up for dinner at 8. (The FBI did extensive investigation to determine whether Hastings might have gone to the Fontainbleau by chance, or whether Borders, who on that night was in Las Vegas watching a prizefight, might have tricked Hastings into it. They found nothing to support that theory.) The signal was sent; Hastings was on board.

A deal was struck. In a meeting at the Miami airport, 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.

Hastings did indeed throw out the judgment, and showed particular interest in making sure it was done quickly. “I want the order today,” he told his law clerk, according to testimony in the case. “Sorry for the rush, but the order has to go out today,” he told his courtroom clerk. A short time later, a pickup date for the full payoff was set.

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. When the money changed hands, Borders was immediately arrested.

Hastings was also in Washington that day to attend the dinner honoring his friend Borders. When he heard that Borders had been nabbed, and that the FBI wanted to talk to him, Hastings quickly changed his plans. Alan Baron, the lawyer who was hired by the Democratic majority on the House Judiciary Committee to lead the impeachment investigation, later wrote a law review article on the case in which he described Hastings’s 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. 

Instead of going to National Airport in Washington, a short drive from his hotel, Hastings took a long, expensive cab ride to Baltimore-Washington airport. Once there, he called his mother in Florida from a pay phone. And 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.

After that, Hastings caught a plane south. The FBI found him late that night at his girlfriend’s house.

In December 1981, Hastings was indicted, charged with conspiring with Borders to solicit a bribe from the Romanos. Borders was also indicted. At trial, Hastings pleaded not guilty and claimed Borders was lying about the whole thing. He also claimed the prosecution was racially motivated. He was acquitted; Borders was convicted.

The verdict, in the face of what seemed to be solid and convincing evidence, was too much for judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida. Using the authority they have to discipline fellow judges in some circumstances, they hired John Doar, the legendary Kennedy Justice Department lawyer, to investigate. Doar came back with an extensive report suggesting that Hastings was not only guilty in the bribery case but that he had lied repeatedly under oath at his trial. The report, in turn, led two Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee to advocate impeachment proceedings. The Democratic majority agreed, and Conyers was placed in charge of the subcommittee investigation. While Conyers was extraordinarily protective of Hastings’ rights, he also became convinced that Hastings was guilty. The House passed 17 articles of impeachment. 

Sixteen of the 17 articles against Hastings were based on the Borders/Romano case. Article 1 said simply that Hastings and Borders “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 of the defendants.” Articles 2 through 15 accused Hastings of lying under oath about specific elements of the case — actually, about virtually every element of the case. And Article 17 said that, in the case as a whole, Hastings had “undermine[d] confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary and betray[ed] the trust of the people of the United States.”

Hastings was convicted on Article 1. Among those voting to convict were Sens. Harry Reid, Edward Kennedy, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller (who will soon chair the Senate Intelligence Committee), Robert Byrd, Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Daniel Inouye, and Frank Lautenberg. Hastings was then convicted on Article 2, Article 3, Article 4, and Article 5, which all concerned false statements he made at trial. He was acquitted on Article 6, convicted on Article 7, convicted on Article 8, and convicted on Article 9 — again, more false statements. Any one of those votes would have removed Hastings from office. The Senate decided not to vote on Articles 10 through 15, and Hastings was acquitted on Article 17. (On that one, 60 senators voted to convict, less than the two-thirds required.)

That left Article 16, the one accusation against Hastings that did not stem from the original criminal case. Article 16 stuck out from the rest, not only because it came from information that surfaced in the House’s investigation of Hastings but because it pointed to a wider pattern of alleged misconduct in Hastings’ performance as a judge. This is what Article 16 said:

From July 15, 1985, to September 15, 1985, Judge Hastings was the supervising judge of a wiretap instituted under chapter 119 of title 18, United States Code…The wiretap was part of certain investigations being conducted by law enforcement agents of the United States.

As supervising judge, Judge Hastings learned highly confidential information obtained through the wiretap. The documents disclosing this information, presented to Judge Hastings as the supervising judge, were Judge Hastings’ sole source of the highly confidential information.

On September 6, 1985, Judge Hastings revealed highly confidential information that he learned as the supervising judge of the wiretap, as follows: On the morning of September 6, 1985, Judge Hastings told Stephen Clark, the Mayor of Dade County, Florida, to stay away from Kevin “Waxy” Gordon, who was “hot” and was using the mayor’s name in Hialeah, Florida.

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.

In other words, the article accused Hastings of using secret information from the wiretap to tip off a friend to steer clear of someone who was under investigation.

On Article 16, Hastings was acquitted — on a 95 to 0 vote. In addition, Hastings was never charged with any crime in relation to the “Waxy” Gordon matter. But the nature of the allegation — the revelation of a confidential wiretap — speaks directly to the kind of material Hastings would handle were he to become the chairman of the Intelligence Committee.

Given all that, will Hastings make it to the chairman’s seat? It’s not clear. When National Review got in touch with Rep. Conyers’s office to ask whether Conyers believes today, as he did in 1988 and 1989, that Hastings was guilty, a spokesman made no comment except to send along two newspaper articles from the late 1990s about problems and irregularities at the FBI laboratory. One of those problems concerned an FBI agent who allegedly testified falsely about some peripheral evidence in the Hastings case. The stories quoted then-FBI Director Lewis Freeh saying he would support re-opening the Hastings impeachment matter.

Does that mean Conyers now believes the Hastings impeachment was illegitimate and should not play a role in evaluating Hastings for the Intelligence Committee chairmanship? Or that the impeachment case should be re-examined? Or that Hastings was innocent? A spokesman for Conyers did not answer NR’s inquiries.

Hastings has always maintained his innocence of all the charges against him. But the record is what it is, and it’s fair to say that most people who have studied the case believe Hastings was guilty. Now, of course, the question is, should a man who was found guilty of impeachable offenses be entrusted with the nation’s most sensitive intelligence secrets? It’s a question Nancy Pelosi would undoubtedly prefer not to answer. But it’s not going away.

 – Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.


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