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Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney and lifelong friend to Berlin, recalls that Berlin had met Pecora as a customer. "Jerry ran a lot of functions," Sonnett says. "He did a lot of fundraising receptions, entertained at his house for political affairs. I think he looked at it as a business opportunity -- not the catering business particularly but the catering-hall business. He saw a need for a first-class high-class venue for parties and bar mitzvahs. He had the business expertise, and Mike had the catering expertise. It was a pretty good team. He envisioned a chain of Signature Gardens -- or that kind of business."
One long-time Signature employee told Davie detectives that the two hooked up because "one was knowledgeable about the catering industry" and "the other was knowledgeable about how to raise money." In the past two decades, Jerry Berlin built a reputation among Democrats as the king of fundraising. In a eulogy at his funeral, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said, "In spite of the fact that he raised more money for me than anyone else, not once did he ever come to me and ask me for a favor legislatively."
One of Berlin's first forays into electoral politics was on behalf of his boyhood chum, Neal Sonnett, who now practices law in Miami. The two had attended Miami Beach High School, where, Sonnett recalls, they acted and sang together in school plays. Berlin went on to get an accounting degree at the University of Florida and then completed law school in 1968.
"I don't recall him being political in high school," Sonnett says. But after he completed his education, a business associate introduced him to several people active in politics. He became chairman of the Dade County Zoning Appeals Board in 1971 and was soon drawn into campaign work. In 1972, Sonnett, then a federal prosecutor in Miami, was pressed by Democrats into the race for Florida's attorney general. He in turn inducted Berlin as his campaign treasurer.
Sonnet lost, but Berlin's interest and prominence in politics grew in the coming years. "He had a desire to see things better, to see government improve," Sonnett says. "A very deep-seated desire. He believed that he needed to be active in the democratic process. We thought very much alike on that."
Berlin's political ideas began to gel over the years. "I think you'd call him a moderate to liberal Democrat," Sonnett says. "He believed in the core values of the Democratic Party. I don't know that I'd point out one issue as opposed to another, but if he had one area he worked on a lot, it was his love for Israel and protection of Israel. He ran organized trips to Israel that many senators and congressmen went on over the years."
Berlin possessed the traits one would expect in a successful fundraiser. "Upbeat, gregarious, charming," Sonnett says. "He was very bright. He got along with people. He talked to people, conversed with them easily. He moved very well through crowds. He remembered people's names."
One Washington, D.C.-based fundraising consultant who worked with Berlin for more than 15 years says: "Members liked working with Jerry because there was no quid pro quo. He was a good fundraiser because he was able to sell passion for whatever the candidate or cause. Jerry's sincerity was his greatest asset."
At the peak of Berlin's fundraising, however, the federal government indicted him in August 1990 on charges of conspiracy and fraud. The ten-count indictment accused Berlin and Anthony Labozzetta, a New York lawyer, of squeezing the owners of Tampa-based GIC Government Securities Inc. for $200,000 in political payoffs to banking regulators.
"For a while, he had to kind of drop out of things he enjoyed doing," says Sonnett, who represented Berlin in court. "A man under indictment is not a very effective fundraiser for people in the United States Senate."
After a four-week trial a year later, a jury acquitted both men after a four-hour deliberation. "I think he had some bitterness over the circumstances over the indictment, which I thought and he thought was politically motivated and very unfair," Sonnett says. "This was a case in which he was truly innocent and unfairly charged. He never should have been charged. He had to go through an emotionally wrenching experience of defending himself.
"I think it gave him a very healthy respect for the justice system and how it works and how susceptible it can be to abuses. But I didn't detect any longstanding bitterness or any change in his attitude or personality. The mark of Jerry is that he was welcomed back into the halls of the Senate and House after it was over because I think most people were aware that he was truly innocent and that the verdict was correct."
Although there were other investors in Signature Gardens, Michael Pecora and Jerry Berlin had gained equal controlling interest in the catering center as it was just getting off the ground in 1985. Michael Selig had been squeezed out, although the partnership's name remained Deux Michel. Bad blood had developed among the three, claims one source. Perhaps the older and more hard-nosed Berlin had pushed for his removal, much as he would one day demand the same of Arlene Pecora. (Selig died in 2000.)