Willie Gary's Sugar Daddies

When President Clinton's motorcade glided through the gates of Willie Gary's 50-room mansion in Stuart for a $2500-a-plate Democratic National Committee fundraiser last week, it was the latest triumph in the rags-to-riches story of Martin County's black superlawyer. At the dinner Clinton hailed Gary's success as "an enduring testament to the American dream."

Born in 1947, Gary grew up poor in a family of migrant farm workers, sharing a tiny shack in Indiantown, Florida, with his parents and ten siblings. He traveled with his family picking vegetables and oranges. "I remember it as if it were yesterday," he said in 1995. "Picking beans, cutting corn. No shade in sight. Sweat pouring off me and insects biting me." Unable to afford college tuition, he scrapped his way onto the football team despite his small size and won a scholarship. He went to law school, he has claimed, so he could help migrant workers. "I champion the causes of the little people," he told Black Enterprise magazine in 1993.

Using a powerful churchlike rhetorical style, Gary fulfilled that goal. He's wrested dozens of multimillion-dollar judgments from big companies for victims of corporate negligence and medical malpractice. And he's shared his winnings, showering millions in charity on clinics and schools that serve poor people. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. hired him as his personal attorney. National publications have profiled him in adulatory articles with headlines like "Champion For the Underdog." He bought his own private jet and named it The Wings of Justice.

Now he's gone over to the other side. Next month Gary will ride to the Palm Beach County courthouse in one of his many limousines to defend Atlantic Sugar Association against a class-action lawsuit brought by black sugar cane cutters. The cutters, who filed the suit ten years ago, claim that Atlantic cheated them out of $7 million in pay from 1987 to 1991, counting interest. Identical lawsuits have been filed against three other sugar growers for another $50 million in damages. Starting April 5 Gary will argue his case to a jury that the cutters don't deserve a dime.

He represents three of the four defendant companies, and those are owned by the Fanjuls of Palm Beach, the fabulously rich family of Cuban exiles who have the ear of top political leaders in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., because they have contributed millions of dollars to both parties. They are so connected that, on February 19, 1996, as President Clinton was telling Monica Lewinsky that he wanted to break off their affair, he took a personal call from Alfonso Fanjul. A tearful Lewinsky listened as Fanjul pressed Clinton for 22 minutes, unsuccessfully, to oppose a proposed tax on sugar farmers to pay for the Everglades cleanup, according to Kenneth Starr's impeachment report. The spokesman for Flo-Sun, the Fanjul's Palm Beach-based holding company, did not return calls requesting comment.

The plaintiffs Gary wants to beat are a class of about 20,000 men from the West Indies, mostly from Jamaica, who came to the swampy cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee under the controversial "guest worker" program. That program was launched in the '40s after sugar growers were prosecuted for conspiring to enslave their U.S.-born workers. Until the early '90s, foreign cutters worked from November through March and took home about $3000 each season. Sugar growers have fully mechanized harvesting since then and no longer use hand cutters.

Under the federal rule allowing the growers to import the guest workers, the growers had to pay the cutters a rate per row of cut cane -- which varied each day by field conditions and yield -- or a federally set minimum hourly wage ($5.30 in 1992), whichever was greater. The cutters say that since they were required under the rule to cut an average of eight tons per day and the minimum hourly rate was $5.30 per hour, the row price should work out at least equal to $5.30 per ton.

The cutters claim that the growers violated their contracts, which were based on the federal rule, by paying them less than this minimum. The growers, they allege, actually paid them less than $4 per ton.

If the cutters win, each worker would recover only about $2000 per season worked. But that's a lot of money to many of them who have returned to their Third World countries. Harold Frazer, a Jamaican who worked for Atlantic for two years in the late '80s and emigrated to Canada rather than going home, says he needs the money since being laid off from his factory job in Downsview, Ontario. "They didn't pay us fair," he says. "I never go back."

Frazer and other cutters were selected in their home countries by U.S. sugar representatives, who inspected their hands and bodies for strength. The men signed a contract, without any explanation or a full opportunity to read it, Frazer and other cutters say. They were flown to Miami and bused to Belle Glade, then dispersed to various camps and assigned beds in large dormitories without air conditioning or heating. Every day, including Sundays and holidays, they would be awakened at 4:30 a.m. and bused to the fields by 7 a.m. That's when they'd be told the day's price for a row of cut cane.

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Harris Meyer