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Dressed in an olive suit with an American-flag pin on the lapel, Charles Clay walks into the downtown Fort Lauderdale office of New Times on a warm February morning. The 54-year-old political novice is here to explain why he's the best man on the March 9 ballot in his tiny suburban town of Margate.
In the crazy, crazy world of South Florida politics, controversy is usually what fuels the debate in local elections. Next Tuesday, voters in Hollywood will have an opportunity to decide between a developer-friendly hag in incumbent Mara Giulianti and a purportedly corrupted environmental attorney in Brenda Lee Chalifour, who successfully curbed a beachside condominium from 250 to 240 units (woohoo!) after raking in $350,000 in developer settlement money. Then, farther north, there are illicit drugs. Wilton Manors voters have an opportunity to elect a mayor who kicked a crack cocaine addiction.
Yet Clay, a polite, unassuming man with gray hair and an audible swallow, is arguably the most interesting of the local candidates in the March election. That's because Clay, a retired Margate police officer who in 1997 single-handedly foiled an armed bank robbery and returned $167,000 in cash, has a history of gambling and alleged connections to organized crime.
The candidate's problems started in December 1999, when an FBI agent was conducting surveillance outside Gold Coast Check Cashing at 5701 Margate Blvd. in Margate, just blocks from City Hall and police headquarters. Federal authorities suspected that the business was a front for moneylaundering, loansharking, and gambling, run by Trafficante soldier John Mamone. Clay, then a 24-year veteran of the Margate police who was unaware of the surveillance, was on patrol and noticed that a car near the check-cashing business had New Jersey plates but not the windshield sticker required by that state's law. He approached. When the driver identified himself as a federal agent, Clay left as directed.
On January 7, 2000, federal agents then executed a search warrant at Mamone's business. Although no immediate indictment followed the search, surveillance continued. In early February, according to court records, Clay was inebriated at Bobby Rubino's Place for Ribs in North Lauderdale, which is owned by the sons of former Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano. Clay told bartender Allan Wolf about the FBI agent's scoping out the Mobbed-up check-cashing business in December. Wolf then allegedly retold the story to Frederick "Freddy" Scarola, a Fort Lauderdale bookmaker who associated with the Trafficante and Bonnano crime families.
Clay and Scarola were hardly strangers. In fact, despite the fact that Clay denies he placed bets with Scarola, an FBI investigation discovered that Scarola was Clay's bookie, according to federal court documents. "I only made two bets with the bartender," Clay contends.
After telling the story to Wolf, federal authorities alleged, Clay then tipped off Scarola, compromising the FBI investigation. At the time, authorities based their allegation on intercepted cell phone conversations. On February 4, 2000, at 8:27 p.m., bookmaker Scarola called Mamone, according to court records. "One of my friends is on the Margate [police]..." Scarola told the Trafficante soldier. "He stopped one of the guys, uh, Wednesday, 'cause he, he had a Jersey plate and he didn't have the, the, the sticker in his windshield. And he pulled them over, and the guy told him, he said, 'Look,' he said, 'I'm a, I'm a FBI agent,' he said, 'and we're watching this joint,' he says, 'so mind your business.' So I just wanted to let you know that they're still there, and they're there every day."
Immediately after ending the conversation, Scarola called Bonnano associate Israel "Buddy" Torres. "Listen, um, don't go near that, you know, in Margate? That store?" Scarola said.
"Where the big guy is?" Torres asked, apparently referring to Mamone.
"Yeah. Don't go there no more. All right. Just stay away from there."
"All right. I gotcha... They're watching him?"
"Oh, I was just, ah, I, a friend of mine, you know, where I go, Bobby Rubino's, every, you know. He's with the Margate you-know-what. He told me." Scarola then explains how Clay stopped the FBI agent near Gold Coast Check Cashing.
"Holy shit," Torres responded.
Federal agents then used a cooperating witness inside the Trafficante organization, Al Polito, to question Scarola about the cop. Wearing a wire, Polito met Scarola at Bobby Rubino's on February 11, 2000, one week after authorities intercepted the cell phone conversations. According to court records, Scarola identified Clay as his inside man. In fact, Scarola said, the two met every Friday night at Bobby Rubino's to settle up on the week's bets. On the Thursday before, Clay had won $500 on a University of Nevada-Las Vegas basketball game.
Not surprisingly, the Margate police officer was indicted on October 24, 2000, on RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) charges, along with Scarola and the top men in the Trafficante family's South Florida operation. Two days later, at about 5 a.m., FBI agents and Broward sheriff's deputies, armed with an arrest warrant, arrived at Clay's home at 1465 NW 66th Ter. in Margate. He did not respond to repeated knocks, though he called Margate police to inform his superiors that he was too ill to fulfill his 6 a.m. shift, according to court records. When the agents returned at 7:30 a.m., Clay answered the door in his underwear.
In the house, FBI agents found casino membership cards bound together in a stack that also included the Margate cop's Police Benevolent Association card, according to court records. On the table next to the stack was a check Clay had written to his girlfriend for $15,000. An FBI agent, skeptical of a small-town police officer's ability to have so much cash available, then commented: "Is there anything else here I'm not supposed to see?"
Indeed there was. Inside Clay's police cruiser, authorities found letters from Hilton Casino Resort and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, as well as a Miami Heraldbusiness section with a hand-written note that read, "WAGERWEB.COM," followed by the Internet casino's toll-free number.
No doubt about it: Clay was an avid gambler. But that was the least of his concerns. When informed that he was being arrested on federal charges related to Scarola, Clay lied, denying that he knew the Fort Lauderdale bookie. He then resigned from the Margate police to fight the federal charges.
In 2002, Clay and Scarola received temporary reprieves when federal prosecutors dropped charges against them in the Trafficante indictment. But that was merely tactical. The government believed it had a stronger case against both men by indicting them in March of that year with 27 Bonanno wise guys, including consiglieri Anthony "T.G." Graziano and Torres.
Assistant U.S. Attorney William T. Shockley argued that Clay's tip to Scarola proved that he was associated with the Italian Mafia's gambling operation. "Clay surely realized that if Scarola should be arrested," Shockley wrote, "there was a greater likelihood his own involvement in the gambling operation might be revealed." And so Clay informed Scarola of the ongoing FBI sting, the government alleged.
But Clay's defense attorney, Richard A. Hamar, who was paid in part by the Police Benevolent Association, argued that Clay wasn't a dirty cop so much as a drunken buffoon with loose lips and a bartender friend. Scarola "found out about the stop [of the FBI agent] from a bartender, and he was boasting when he told [the mafioso] that the source of this information was a friend with the Margate police," Hamar argued.
The case came down to the intercepted words of Scarola, a Mob associate who received 41 months in prison after pleading guilty to the 2002 RICO charge, against the account of Clay, a 24-year veteran of the Margate police with a penchant for gambling. In the end, a 12-member jury acquitted the ex-cop in 2002, believing that he was guilty only of blabbing to the Bobby Rubino's bartender in a drunken stupor. However inappropriate for a law enforcement officer his behavior may have been, it wasn't a federal crime.
Clay leans back in a chair during his interview with New Times. He opens the right side of his suit jacket and pulls out a copy of the acquittal. "I was a customer in a restaurant, and I wind up in an indictment," he says. "I was charged with crimes I never committed, and a federal jury saw that." He then changes the subject abruptly: "That bank robbery speaks volumes for my credibility," he says, pointing to a seven-year-old news report of his heroic action. "I'm alone. I chase down three bad guys, wound one and arrest another, recover $167,000 in cash. And the thought never entered my mind to take a five-dollar bill for myself."
And the gambling problem? "That was [the government's] allegation," he responds. "They took a handful of mud, threw it on the wall, and hoped that it would stick. And it didn't stick. I don't have a gambling problem."
Clay doesn't think his contentious past should become a campaign issue this year. He'd rather talk about his will to oust 16-year Margate City Commissioner Arthur Bross from office. Bross is "in favor of helping big business, big developers, and special-interest groups," Clay alleges.
The candidate rises from the table, straightening his jacket. "I am intent on winning this election," he says. "I am focused on bringing positive changes. If I don't win this year, I'll be back next year to run again. I'll be out running every year until I win in Margate." He walks toward the door, then turns to make one last one comment.
"Don't crucify me."