By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
"They investigated the hell out of it," Jesse Gaddis says in his typical blunt and often colorful fashion. "I've been investigated almost as much as Clinton. I have no secrets. They've done everything but look up my rear end."
Indeed, Jesse Gaddis has been investigated by the FDLE, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Customs Service, and the U.S. Treasury Department. In addition to the drug-smuggling investigation, he has been investigated for his ties to the Mafia and his own alleged organized-crime activities dating back to the late '70s.
Despite his checkered past, Gaddis is highly respected in elite circles in Broward County -- in part because of the hundreds of thousands of dollars he's lavished on politicians. He's also earned himself the reputation of being one of the best, and most ruthless, businessmen in South Florida.
Jenne and Gaddis are in many ways similar. Both are short and both are tough. Both are respected even by their enemies. Both are sharp and persuasive. Both have been remarkably successful.
Gaddis, age 66, grew up poor in Indiana and learned to play craps and poker when he was still in grade school. By the time he was 13 years old, he was a regular in the town pool hall. At age 16 he left home and hitched up with a family known as the Terrible Williamsons. They picked up the "Terrible" moniker from the fact that they were shameless rip-off artists who went door-to-door conducting home improvement scams and other shams. Gaddis, the young hustler, spent a year working with the clan of Irish travelers.
"They were con artists, borderline crooks," he says. "But they had some good points. They were good family people."
After leaving the Williamsons, Gaddis joined the merchant marine for the sole purpose of gambling on the ships, which he found a lucrative occupation. Between voyages he lived in Virginia, where he began raising a family. In 1952, when he was 20 years old, he and a friend decided to rob a man who carried money from a local store to a bank. They used a gun owned by his friend's father, he says.
"We intercepted him and took his money, and that was about it," he says.
His friend admitted the robbery to police and Gaddis was charged with the felony. Gaddis says it was the only time he ever robbed anyone -- but it wouldn't be the last time he was charged with it. In 1960 he was arrested for robbery and the kidnapping of a man who owed him gambling debts. The charges were eventually dropped, and soon he was in Fort Lauderdale, about to build his transportation empire, which began with a service station and 13 cabs owned by Donald Gaddis and a third brother.
Jesse and Donald Gaddis -- who was also a professional gambler -- proved to be a formidable duo. They soon expanded the business to the Bahamas and began operating gambling concessions on cruise ships. In 1963 the county hit Jesse Gaddis hard; it took his taxi permits. Jesse Gaddis hadn't reported his felony in his application. He got a lawyer and had his civil rights restored. He got the permits back and was allowed to go back to buying up struggling taxi businesses.
Gaddis says he and Jenne became friends in the early '70s, when Jenne was a twentysomething assistant state attorney in Broward County. He doesn't remember exactly where he met Jenne but supposes it was at some kind of political function.
"I've known Ken Jenne since he was almost a kid," Gaddis says. "He is one of the most dedicated, hard-working civil servants I have ever met. Ken Jenne is a tough politician. He doesn't take any prisoners when it comes to politics."
In 1975, the year Jenne became a Broward County commissioner, the commission voted to give Gaddis exclusive rights to ground transportation at the Fort Lauderdale airport, a move that secured Gaddis' control over the taxicab industry, which lasts to this day. Gaddis had already begun giving politicians like Jenne big contributions to help pave the way for Gaddis' continued rise in business. Today he has a net worth, he conceded after some cajoling, of something in the ballpark of $50 million.
A look at state campaign records shows he's still giving plenty to candidates. In the past three years, he's handed nearly $100,000 to political parties and candidates running for state office alone. He's given tens of thousands more to candidates for local offices.
His extensive bankrolling of campaigns led to allegations that he bought his way to his monopoly through the purchase of politicians. Today he owns roughly half of the 697 taxi permits in Broward County, and his company controls 180,000 dispatches a month, or about 75 percent of the market.
"Everybody is a special interest," Gaddis explains of his political charity. "For us in the business community, to have any influence over the decisions that are made, we have to help get politicians elected."
While Gaddis was cultivating his political friends, he was also making friends with Mafiosi. Gaddis says he met Anthony "Tumac" Accetturo, a Mob captain from New Jersey who lived in Broward County, and Louis Rosanova, a Chicago Mob boss with ties to the Teamsters, through his brother, who golfed with them.