Key aide to testify against Miriam Alonso
By JIM DeFEDE
Elba Morales has flipped.
The trusted confidante of former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miriam Alonso has struck a deal with prosecutors to be the star witness against her longtime friend and former boss.
The agreement, quietly reached three weeks ago, will keep Morales out of prison. Earlier this year, Morales, Alonso, and Alonso's husband, Leonel, were charged with stealing tens of thousands of dollars from Alonso's 1998 campaign account.
''The allegations are true,'' said Morales' attorney, Steve Chaykin. ``Every dollar collected by Elba Morales went to the Alonsos. She kept nothing for herself. Everything she did was at the exclusive direction of the Alonsos. She did it blindly and out of a fierce and misguided sense of loyalty to her boss.''
The Alonsos continue to deny any wrongdoing.
Morales alone was facing 18 separate felony charges, including
grand theft, money laundering and fabricating evidence. Chaykin would not
comment on the terms of Morales' sealed plea agreement, but sources familiar
with the investigation said Morales will be placed on probation for three
years, after which the charges will be
expunged from her record. In addition, Morales, who was Alonso's chief of staff, has resigned from the county and will not be entitled to any pension.
''Elba Morales was a proud , respected and powerful woman,'' Chaykin said. ``She has now been completely disgraced and knows she has no one to blame but herself. She is prepared to accept responsibility and weather the storm that will engulf her as a result of her decision to cooperate with the state against the Alonsos.''
In addition to bolstering the state's case against the Alonsos
for allegedly stealing from the 1998 campaign, Morales has provided the
state critical information about
events in 1999 in which the Alonsos solicited more than $100,000 in donations to fight a proposed recall campaign by her constituents. When the recall effort fizzled, sources familiar with the investigation allege, the Alonsos decided to keep the money for themselves rather than return it to the contributors.
As she did in 1998, Morales helped convert the campaign funds into cash by having checks written for bogus expenses. Morales would then cash the checks and turn the money over to the Alonsos.
This time, however, Morales was not alone. During that year, Morales' husband became gravely ill and eventually died, and Morales' daughter, Ileana, stepped into her mother's role in the campaign as a signatory on some of the accounts.
Last month prosecutors made it clear to Morales that they were
going to indict Ileana for her role in the alleged scheme. Faced with the
prospect of her child being
arrested, Morales agreed to cooperate. As part of the plea agreement, no member of Morales' family will be charged with a crime.
''Unfortunately, Ileana got wrapped up in this mess by virtue of wanting to help her mother during a period of significant family turmoil surrounding the death of Elba's husband,'' Chaykin said. ``Ileana had no idea that at the time she agreed to get involved in the campaign, what it was the Alonsos and her mother were expecting of her. Having allowed Ileana to become involved with the Alonsos is something Elba will always regret.''
Jose Quiñon, the attorney for Miriam and Leonel Alonso, said his clients were shocked to learn Morales was cooperating with prosecutors. Quiñon recalled a comment Chaykin made to The Herald in April. Four months ago, Chaykin exclaimed: ``It's very clear that the full weight of the government's boot is on the neck of somebody many consider an excellent public servant to extract evidence against her employer that she does not possess.''
Playing off Chaykin's earlier statement, Quiñon said last week: ``The government boot was moved from Elba's neck to the neck of her daughter, and obviously Elba has decided that it is important to save her daughter, even if she has to give information she does not possess.''
Chaykin made it clear on Friday that his client has a great deal of information to provide to the authorities about the Alonsos, as well as ways in which that information can be independently corroborated. ''They will not have to rely on Elba's word alone,'' Chaykin said. ``That statement of defiance [made in April] was a reflection of her fierce loyalty to her boss and friend and signaled her intention to do everything she could to protect them. It was also wishful thinking on Elba's part.''
Chaykin said Morales always believed the Alonsos would eventually do the right thing and not allow her or her family to go to jail for their mistakes.
''The Alonsos stood by and did and said nothing to help her,'' Chaykin said. ``What was clear to Elba was that the Alonsos were perfectly willing to throw Elba and her family under a bus. And once Elba understood that, she was extremely devastated.''
Right up until the end, Chaykin said, Morales was trying to protect the Alonsos. He declined to elaborate. But sources familiar with the negotiations between Chaykin and the state attorney's office said Morales warned the Alonsos in advance she was about to cut a deal, and offered them the opportunity to go in together and negotiate an agreement that might keep them all out of jail.
The timing of Morales' cooperation proved significant for another reason. Miriam Alonso learned Morales had turned informant just prior to the July 23 filing deadline to run for the County Commission.
Morales' decision is believed to be the main reason Alonso decided not to try to reclaim her commission seat, even though it had been widely anticipated she would run.
The decision by the Alonsos to fight the charges rather than cooperate almost certainly means there will be a new round of charges against the couple. Sources familiar with the case say prosecutors are considering charging the pair under the state's racketeering statutes.
With Morales now cooperating, prosecutors may go back to court to ask that the Alonsos be forced the surrender their passports and post a higher bond. The couple has recently begun mortgaging properties. The most likely explanation is that they need money to pay their legal fees, but there is also a concern they may be trying to convert their holdings into cash so they can flee. And although they are currently free on bail, the Alonsos were not ordered to surrender their passports following their arrest in April.
Quiñon brushed aside any suggestion that his clients would
run. They don't need to flee, he said, because ``Miriam and Leonel have
always maintained they are
Although the prospect of the Alonsos' running seems remote, it
is not without precedent. In 1993, former County Commissioner Joe Gersten
fled the country when
prosecutors tried to force him into cooperating in a wide-ranging public corruption probe.
Indeed, there are similarities between the case against Gersten
and the ongoing investigation of the Alonsos. In the case of Gersten, investigators
used the allegation
that he filed a false police report regarding his stolen Mercedes in hopes of forcing him to reveal evidence about crooked bond dealing at County Hall.
Likewise, prosecutors would ultimately like to place enough pressure on Alonso to force her to tell them anything she might know about corruption within County Hall and especially about the relationship between her and various County Hall lobbyists.
Morales is also expected to help prosecutors in that wider probe. Her plea agreement requires her to cooperate fully, in all investigations, not just the ones involving the Alonsos.