Saturday, November 7, 2015

Executive Director's Message: U.S. District Court Celebrates “Fifty Years of Justice”

By John F. Kynes

U.S. Customs undercover agent Bob Mazur sensed he and his family were in imminent danger for their lives.

You see, Mazur had previously gotten word that a contract had been put out on his life because of the intelligence he had gathered after infiltrating deep into the seedy underworld of international money laundering and drug trafficking. As a precaution, Mazur had relocated his family to a rural area 1½ hours north of Tampa.

One night, however, after driving his son home from gymnastics, he noticed a man outside in a pickup truck parked next to a nearby pond. He turned off all the lights in the house and took out his binoculars. He looked out a window at the truck and, to his surprise, saw that the man in the front seat had a pair of binoculars as well.

Fearing the worst, Mazur told his family to lie on the floor, and he quickly got out his .357 Magnum. Sneaking around back through some woods, Mazur approached the truck from behind.

Mazur confronted the stranger, who became visibly shaken. He asked what the man was doing parked next to the pond.

“I’m watching the migration of alligators,” the startled man explained, much to Mazur’s relief.

Mazur shared this bizarre encounter, as well as other eye-opening stories about his work as the lead undercover agent in the historic Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) money laundering case, at a luncheon this September at Le Meridien hotel in Tampa. The event was organized by the U.S. District Court to coincide with the release of the new book, “Fifty Years of Justice: A History of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida,” written by Florida Southern history professor James Denham.

Le Meridien hotel, which formerly served as a federal courthouse for many years, was the scene for the BCCI trial in 1990. The historic building was restored and opened as a boutique hotel in 2014.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, created in 1962, was carved out of the Southern District and includes 35 of Florida’s 67 counties. It stretches geographically more than 350 miles from the Georgia border on Florida’s northeast coast to south of Naples on the southwest coast.

Over the years, the district court, which is considered one of the busiest federal courts in the nation, has been the scene for many important legal proceedings. Along with the BCCI case, the district court is most recognized for the litigation surrounding the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case. Some other notable names and cases in the District Court’s recent history: Santo Trafficante, F. Lee Bailey, Denny McLain, Ted Bundy, Sami Al-Arian, hanging chads, and Baby Sabrina.

Along with agent Mazur, the Hon. William Terrell Hodges, who served as the trial judge, and Tampa lawyer Bennie Lazzara, who served as defense counsel, participated in the panel presentation about the BCCI case.

At the time, FBI Director Robert Mueller described the BCCI case as “one of the largest money-laundering prosecutions in U.S. history.” The bank also was known to handle the money laundering needs of former Panamanian dictator General Manuel Noriega.

During the panel presentation, Judge Hodges recalled the complexity of the case and the mental and physical toll the lengthy trial took on all the participants. He said agent Mazur’s performance as a government witness ― recalling every detail of his multi-year investigation ― was “absolutely spectacular.” Mazur appeared on the witness stand every day for three months of the six-month trial.

Judge Hodges also explained how the trial almost got derailed because of a problem with a juror during jury deliberations. One of the jurors had to be dismissed, Judge Hodges said, because the juror had inexplicably taken a telephone number from a trial exhibit and called the number, then subsequently spoke to other jurors about the call.

Attorney Lazzara talked about the challenges faced by the defense team and the overwhelming amount of evidence presented by government prosecutors. Lazzara noted that the court had worked out a creative arrangement whereby all the international defendants in the case, along with their families, were housed in condominiums on Davis Islands under 24-hour guard for the duration of the trial.

Mazur also recounted the elaborate federal sting operation, called Operation C-Chase, that helped bring down the bad guys. The sting climaxed with an elaborate staged wedding at Palm Harbor’s Innisbrook Resort in which all the international bankers and drug dealers being investigated were invited to what they thought was Mazur’s wedding.

The night before the wedding, however, the attendees were whisked away in limousines to what they thought was going to be wild bachelor party at MacBeth’s atop the old Exchange Bank building in downtown Tampa. Instead, federal agents were waiting in the building’s parking garage, and dozens of astonished attendees were taken into custody.

Now retired from the federal government, Mazur said a movie based on the 2009 book he wrote about his undercover work and the BCCI case will be coming out in 2016. The movie, titled “The Infiltrator,” will star award-winning actor Bryan Cranston, who will play Mazur.

See you around the Chet.