Bust Me if You Can

Besides his stellar career as South Florida's premier cardiologist, Dr. Zachariah P. Zachariah moonlights as a bigtime Republican fundraiser. He sits on a slew of corporate and government boards. He has campaigned for three different Bushes. He has eaten dinner at the White House and loaned his private jet to Governor Crist. Reports estimate that over the years Dr. Zachariah has raised nearly $20 million for various candidates. One associate describes him as a "political animal." Presumably it takes a lot to impress such a man.

One March day in 2007, Dr. Zachariah entered the Wellness Pavilion at Holy Cross Hospital, where he serves as director of cardiology. The luxury gym and fitness facility was named after his family, which donated $3.1 million to build it. Inside the doctor noticed a young gentleman, about six foot two with dirty blond hair, wearing a Harvard shirt — and a Harvard class ring to match. Since Zachariah's own son was considering going to school there, the doctor struck up a conversation.

According to his lawyer, Dr. Zachariah was wowed by the young man's knowledge of land use and zoning. He was amazed by his grasp of local politics. Whatever the exact details of their conversation, Dr. Zachariah walked away with the impression that Robert Charles Jones Brady, known as Chas, had graduated from Harvard Law, an alumnus of the most prestigious school in the country.

Shortly thereafter Brady, then 26, became a regular guest of the doctor's. The two traveled together to New York. They socialized on Dr. Zachariah's yacht. Zachariah introduced his young protegé to his friends — successful businessmen and political notables. In November of 2007, when Dr. Zachariah hosted a $2,300-a-head political fundraiser at his Fort Lauderdale mansion, he proudly presented Brady to presidential candidate Fred Thompson.

A few weeks later, Brady landed in a cell at a Broward County jail, the subject of six criminal complaints, at least three civil lawsuits, and five investigations by the Florida Bar. Authorities would later describe him as a curious con man, blessed with intellectual gifts and cursed with psychological troubles. They compared Brady's story to Hollywood movies like Six Degrees of Separation or Catch Me If You Can, both featuring clean-cut imposters who knew how to push the right buttons to finagle their way into influential circles.

Said prosecutor David Schulson, "Brady's a poor man's Leonardo DiCaprio."

Brady's case has inspired a host of emotions: anger, sympathy, bewilderment. With his cultured manner and polished public persona, Brady never looked like much of a criminal. Even in his mug shot, he smiles broadly like the boy next door.

In the days before his arrest last fall, Brady seemed to have ended up where he always wanted to be: in the company of the rich and well-connected. But what leaps had he taken to get there? And how many influential people would he embarrass along the way? Most important, as far as the criminal justice system was concerned, was he really guilty of any serious wrongdoing? Or was he having the book thrown at him because he had embarrassed a bunch of muckety-mucks. It'll all come out in the wash, lawyers say. According to one who has represented Brady, the young Ivy Leaguer-manqué cleverly bulletproofed himself against would-be legal complications. Brady shouldn't have to do serious time, defense attorney Lawrence Livoti says.

"The law imposes no obligation to dispel a misunderstanding," Livoti argued in court (before withdrawing from the case because Brady couldn't afford his services). "Saying you are a Harvard law graduate is not holding yourself out to practice law. Nobody testified that he was a member of the Florida Bar. Nobody stated that."

Was it Brady's fault if Dr. Zachariah — as well as a lot of other Broward County movers and shakers — was a sucker?

Chas Brady's stepfather James Eddy is now in his late 70s. His associates report that Eddy is winding down his law practice in Oakland Park — perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of his troubles. From 1963 to 1968, Eddy served in the state House of Representatives. By all accounts, the elder man had carved out an admirable career and enjoyed the respect of his peers.

Chas Brady assisted his stepfather in his law practice. Many clients believed that Brady was a lawyer too — a Harvard-educated one. Brady now maintains that he was only an assistant, a consultant, a paralegal, and a lobbyist — jobs that don't require special training or advanced degrees.

But his future — and possibly his stepfather's — hinges on whether he engaged in the illegal practice of law, which is a felony. Brady also faces charges of grand theft, forgery, and organized fraud. If convicted on all of the 14 counts against him, Brady could face a maximum sentence of more than 75 years in prison, his public defender says.

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Deirdra Funcheon