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.

According to the workers' sworn accounts, for at least eight and often ten hours a day (the companies claim the average workday was just six hours), the workers would bend over and grab an armful of the freshly burnt cane, hack it off at the base with a machete, chop off the leaves, and stack the stalks in one pile and the waste in another. Cutters claimed they often had no more than five minutes to eat lunch. Sometimes they'd make only $15 for the day. Many of the men say they never knew the company was supposed to guarantee a minimum wage of $5.30 an hour.

"The sun hot, your clothes wet right through, and some guys get their fingers cut off clean," says Frazer, now 68 years old. "You have to work hard, really hard, to make $40 or $45." He says cutters who tried to organize protests were sent back to the islands.

Frazer and his fellow workers won their case the first time around in 1992, when a circuit court judge in Palm Beach County ruled that the contract clearly provided for a minimum row price that at least equaled the minimum hourly wage. The judge awarded them $51 million in back pay and interest. But a three-judge state appellate panel found that the contract was ambiguous and remanded the case for trial in 1995. Last year one of the defendants, U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston, settled for $5.7 million, with $1 million going to the plaintiff's three attorneys. But the four other companies decided to keep fighting. That's when the three Fanjul-owned companies hired Gary as lead counsel.

"Willie Gary did migrant farm work himself, so he understands an honest day's pay for an honest day's work," says Mark Cheskin, of Steel Hector & Davis, a blue-chip Miami firm that's also representing the Fanjul companies. "His sincerity will help us in assuring that the jury goes with the truth."

David Gorman, a North Palm Beach attorney who represents the cane cutters, believes Gary simply sold out for a big fee. "Did he come from poor?" Gorman says. "He must have forgotten." Gary, who was busy hosting President Clinton and running his 21-attorney firm in Stuart, did not return calls requesting comment.

If they win the four cases, Gorman and his two co-counsels stand to reap millions, depending on the judge's discretion. But Gorman says he's sunk thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in the case over ten years and would walk away empty-handed if he loses.

Cheskin calls the lawsuit "frivolous." The growers never agreed to pay a price per ton, only a row price that varied with field conditions, he says. "The lawyers after the fact are trying to change the deal between the workers and growers, and that's grossly unfair," says Cheskin, who offers faint hope of any settlement.

"This case is not about the workers but about creative lawyering," Gary said when he took the case last year. He justified his involvement in the case by saying, "If you're in the right, I'll represent you, big or small, white or black. If I didn't, I'd be a hypocrite."

But Gorman has damning new testimony from the growers' West Indian field bosses, who weren't willing to come forward previously because they still worked for the sugar companies. Several now say in sworn depositions that the companies told them not to credit the cutters for hours actually worked so that they wouldn't have to pay them the guaranteed hourly wage. If the field bosses refused to go along, they were warned that they'd be "put back on the knife" cutting cane.

Cheskin insists that the hours issue is irrelevant and hints that the growers will try to block the plaintiffs from introducing this evidence.

Gary's role, Cheskin admits, will be to blunt the cane cutters' heart-tugging claims of mistreatment by saying, essentially, "I've been there myself and it ain't so."

Ultimately, Gary's reputation as champion of the little guy may be more at risk than the Fanjul's fortune, which would hardly be dented by a $50 million judgment. "What really impresses me about [Gary] is that he hasn't caught amnesia," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. said in 1992. "He remembers where he came from."

Ray Marshall, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor who supports the cutters' position, sees it differently. "If you're a lawyer," says Marshall, the son of a poor sharecropper himself, "where you stand is determined by where you sit, not where you've been."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: [email protected]

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Harris Meyer