By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Donna Kim waits behind the metal detector at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale at 9 a.m. on Thursday, October 16. A stout woman with long, shiny, black hair who stands about five feet, five inches, she wears a blue, loose-fitting shirt and black slacks. She has on no jewelry, just as federal authorities had instructed her. James Davis, her soft-spoken, unemployed boyfriend, stands to her right. He's here for, as Kim puts it, "moral support." Davis has the disheveled brown hair and contemplative look of a street-corner poet. They met at a coffeehouse one year ago. Since then, he's been a positive part of Kim's new life, a life unlike her past one, a life that doesn't involve a recently indicted Norwegian businessman named Arne Soreide.
Sometimes, though, her old world returns to haunt her. That's what is happening today. Kim, a 47-year-old woman from Hawaii who moved to South Florida eight years ago, is about to surrender to federal marshals on a charge that she conspired to defraud thousands of U.S. telephone customers between July 31, 1996, and September 4, 2001.
"Let's go," instructs Darwin Crenshaw, the court officer handling her surrender. Crenshaw, a handsome 36-year-old African-American with an athletic build, has been preparing Kim for this moment since yesterday afternoon. "This is going to be the most humiliating moment of your life," he had told her. "Marshals are going to escort you into a courtroom, and they'll read out your charges for everybody to hear. You're just going to have to stand there, facing that judge, absolutely humiliated."
As they all walk past framed pictures of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, Kim's face reddens. She's holding back tears. "I'm scared," she admits, "but I'm prepared. I know what I'm doing is right. Arne ripped off thousands of people, and nobody would know if it weren't for me. He stole from people. He was living high on the hog. But now he's going to be held accountable. That's why I'm here." She pauses and looks down. "If I don't do this," she continues, "there's no case, is there?"
Crenshaw opens the door to the U.S. Marshal's Office. "Wait here," he instructs Kim's boyfriend, Davis, pointing to a reception area with ten chairs. In the corner of the waiting room hangs a poster for the 1998 movie U.S. Marshals. Davis takes a seat.
Crenshaw then escorts Kim to a steel door. Once behind it, she will be searched, processed, and booked. From there, she can't turn back.
Davis watches through a glass wall as Crenshaw knocks. The door opens slowly. Kim takes a step back as if apprehensive. She looks back at her boyfriend, her face puffy and red, and blows him one last kiss to say goodbye. Then she disappears.
Her boyfriend turns away with a pensive look. Davis knows Kim faces up to five years in federal prison. "But you have to believe that the justice system works," he says. "You have to believe that they're going to go easy on Donna for cooperating."
Until mid-2000, Kim was president of Accutel Communications, a Pompano Beach long-distance company that raked in millions after deregulation swept through the U.S. telecom industry in 1992. Accutel's fortunes, both Kim and federal prosecutors allege, came from scams known as "cramming" and "slamming." Cramming is when long-distance companies charge small recurring fees to telephone customers without receiving permission or rendering service; slamming is when those firms switch a consumer's provider without consent.
In the deregulated telecommunications industry, Accutel was just one of dozens of predators that allegedly stole from U.S. telephone customers and tried to cover up their crimes. Yet Accutel has national significance. Previous federal inquiries into telecom scandals focused on giants like WorldCom and its book-cooking chief financial officer, Scott Sullivan, a part-time Boca Raton resident who allegedly committed $3.6 billion in fraud. Now, as the Accutel case illustrates, federal prosecutors are casting a wider swath. They want to jail the executives of firms that operated a level below WorldCom on the telecom totem pole. Like Sullivan, Accutel's chief executive faces hard time for his misdeeds.
That is, in many ways, thanks to Kim. When she testified before a federal grand jury on September 11, she became the government's key witness against former Accutel CEO Soreide, a 57-year-old Boca Raton resident. That testimony helped to secure a 66-count indictment against Soreide, who has a history of dubious business practices. If convicted on all charges, he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. Soreide declined to comment when reached by telephone at the Broward Sheriff's Office Main Jail on October 23. After the businessman made bond, neither he nor his wife responded to repeated calls from New Times.
When Soreide placed Accutel into Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in December 2000, he changed Kim's life for the worse. Now she's getting even. "I was Arne's patsy," Kim says.
Arne Soreide may go down. And so may his patsy.
Donna Kim's mother is Filipino, her father Japanese. Burdened by the collision of cultures, she has always felt inadequately American. She talks about coming forward to federal authorities as if it were an act of patriotism, as if it were the most American thing she could have done. Her Asian sensibilities, she admits, tug at her ceaselessly: There's a wish to be obedient, a need to respect her elders, a search for a mentor.