Law at first bite

Gore hires Kendall Coffey, a high-profile attorney known for sinking his teeth into his work -- and into a Miami stripper who nearly ended his career.

Published November 13, 2000 7:46PM (EST)

During the brief Q&A period of Gore campaign manager Bill Daley's Friday press conference, a reporter asked about Kendall Coffey, the Miami litigator whom the "Gore Campaign Recount Committee" has retained. On Monday, Coffey was one of the team of attorneys helping Vice President Al Gore fend off Gov. George W. Bush's call for an injunction to put an end to the hand recount of Florida ballots.

"Mr. Coffey was responsible for removing a sitting mayor in Miami," the reporter cried out on Friday, referring to the time that Coffey helped Joe Carollo unseat Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez in a 1997 vote-fraud trial. "How far is the Gore campaign willing to go? Past inauguration?"

Daley dispatched the question rather swiftly, brushing it aside with a terse "No."

But Coffey brings with him not only years of legal expertise and high-profile successes but his share of controversy. He represented Elián González's Miami relatives, for instance, and as such was a major critic of President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno. He was a U.S. attorney nominee who was criticized by Republicans for being a mere political appointee. As U.S. attorney for South Florida, Coffey was a successful, high-profile prosecutor of major drug lords and received high marks for his performance -- until he had to resign after biting a stripper.

What's that? Let me back up, if only to provide a rare moment of levity in the midst of this godawful national crisis -- as well as to shed some light on the curious and bizarre world of Florida politics.

Coffey, a longtime Miami attorney involved with the Democratic Party, lost an election for the state Senate in 1992, scoring only 43 percent of the vote against Republican Al Gutman. To Coffey's good fortune, however, Clinton was elected the same day. And after Clinton's problems with attorney general nominees were settled, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., recommended to Reno that Coffey become South Florida's U.S. attorney, prosecuting federal civil and criminal cases from Fort Pierce to Key West, replacing Republican appointee Roberto Martinez. Coffey was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in November 1993.

Coffey immediately set to work, within only a few months getting a grand jury to indict 16 members of a Colombian drug cartel.

Though he focused on healthcare fraud and immigration violations, drug cases occupied much of Coffey's docket. In February 1996, Coffey was prosecuting Augusto "Willie" Falcon and Salvatore "Sal" Magluta -- known as "Los Muchachos" -- who were charged with smuggling $2.1 billion worth of cocaine into the United States.

Surprisingly, Los Muchachos were acquitted on Feb 17. It would later come out that a juror, Miguel Moya, received a bribe of $500,000 to throw the case. Earlier this year, Moya was sentenced to 17-and-a-half years in jail as a result.

But Coffey obviously didn't know that at the time. Despondent on the night of Feb. 22, at around midnight Coffey headed to Lipstik, a Miami strip joint. At some point, he got very drunk.

According to an investigation by the Miami Herald, Coffey soon struck up a conversation with "Tiffany," a thin, blond former bank teller, then 28, whose real name is Tamara Gutierrez.

Coffey bought $200 in "Lipstik money," used to pay the dancers for private sessions and lap dances in the fabled "champagne room." With that destination on his itinerary, Coffey also purchased a $900 magnum of Dom Perignon.

Coffey and Tiffany headed to the champagne room. They sat on one of the room's two expansive couches. He told her he'd lost a big case. He drank his Dom Perignon. He gave her little affectionate love bites. They had a moment.

Things got a little hairy, however, when Coffey decided to try to kiss Tiffany on the lips. She didn't want him to, and when she tried to wriggle away, he bit her left arm, only not so affectionately this time. He broke the skin and drew blood.

Tiffany screamed.

A bouncer and the night manager loaded Coffey head-first into a cab.

Rumors immediately began to race through the area like a hurricane.

In mid-March, Coffey told the Sun-Sentinel that the rumors were untrue.

Had he been at Lipstik that night? asked a reporter.

"No," Coffey said. He added that he'd "never" been to the club.

"It absolutely never happened," Wilfredo Fernandez, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, told the Miami Herald.

On March 27, the incident was reported to the Inspector General's Office. On March 28, investigators were sent to South Florida to check out the charges.

It turned out that Coffey, by the way, had purchased his Dom Perignon, and his $200 in Lipstik money, with his American Express card.

In May, the Miami Herald reported that Coffey was under internal investigation for the incident. This was just two days before GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole -- who had been making a campaign issue out of Clinton's federal appointments -- was to arrive in Florida. Coffey was summoned to D.C. to talk to Reno.

A day later, Coffey resigned.

The husband of the bitten one said that he was "shocked" that Coffey resigned. "I want to see him reinstated," he said to the Sun-Sentinel. "He bit her, but not like a crazy man."

F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead wrong: There are plenty of second acts -- third acts, fourth acts -- in American public life.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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