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Court Broom menu includes well-fed judge

February 16, 1992

The most disheartening revelation of Operation Court Broom is how cheaply some of our judges were bought.

Bribery usually means cash packed in a briefcase, wire transfers to a secret Nassau bank account, or a hidden interest in some juicy real estate deal. Those are the types of payoffs that crooked public officials customarily accept.

The last thing that comes to mind is squid. In this case, fried squidwhich is served in fancy Italian restaurants under the deceptively lyrical alias of "calamari."

I know what you're thinking: How much corruption can you buy with a plate of squid? The answer: a whole judge, allegedly.

A federal grand jury has heard evidence that Dade Circuit Judge Al Sepe regularly feasted on calamari and other delicacies at a fancy restaurant called Buccione, in Coconut Grove. According to testimony the judge's lunch tabs were paid by a local lawyer named Arthur Massey, who was seldom in attendance to enjoy the squidfest.

However, Massey frequently appeared in Judge Sepe's courtroom because Sepe frequently gave him court-appointed cases. In fact, the judge assigned Massey to 42 criminal cases that brought the lawyer more than $57,000 in fees. Interestingly, during that same 18-month period, Massey allegedly picked up about $10,000 worth of lunch and dinner tabs for the judge.

Now indicted and suspended on other matters, the well-fed Sepe vehemently denies any wrongdoing at the Buccione bistro. He insists there was no squid pro quo.

Massey, who is under investigation, remains silent. Perhaps his lunch-time largess was heartfelt, and in no way meant as a kickback for receiving those 42 cases. Perhaps he bought fried squid for all his favorite judges, so they wouldn't have to order from the courthouse cafeteria.

Feeding Sepe might have been an act of pure charity. After all, poor Al was barely scraping by on his $90,399 judge's salary. A man's gotta eat, right?

Still, prosecutors suspect a bribe. If so, it's an ingenious schemeslimy and pathetic, but ingenious. What better way to get rid of incriminating evidence than to eat it!

I'm not sure how Massey and Sepe would've worked out the specifics. Say the judge got a free meal for every armed-robbery case that he steered to Massey. What were the precise terms of the arrangementdid Sepe order only a la carte? Was wine included? And, most importantly, who left the tip?

The other Operation Court Broom crimes aren't nearly so complex, and the bribes not nearly so tasty. For instance, when Judge Roy Gelber assigned cases to a sleazoid lawyer buddy, the judge's kickback was a flat percentage of the feeeither one-fourth or one-third of the total, depending on how greedy Gelber was feeling that morning.

Taking cash is worse than taking calamari, but it's still graft and taxpayers still pay for it. Besides, $10,090 is a heap of squid. If it was an outright bribe, Sepe has set a cheesy precedent for future corrupt judges and those who seek to enlist them.

Even the dumbest criminal understands the concept of bribing with cash. Bribing with food is much harder. It requires a certain minimum level of savvy and sophistication. Not every case is worthy of Buccione cuisine, but pity the poor shlub who tries to fix a traffic ticket by offering the judge a Big Mac, a large Coke and a side of McNuggets.

Now that the Sepe-squid allegations are public, some defendants will assume the worst about the justice system. Their lawyers will creep into court with brown bags full of menus instead of money. Those facing serious felonies will rely on the Michelin restaurant guide for five-star selections, and hope that their judge is hungry.

The good ones aren't. After a long day on the bench, they don't have much of an appetite. Neither would you.

Judges think fast to explain needles, money June 17, 1991 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Borrowing lines from Brando won help judge February 4, 1993