Prosecutor Wins High Marks Battling Miami Vice
By Michael Isikoff and David Von Drehle
In choosing Janet Reno as the nation's first female attorney general, President Clinton yesterday selected a tough, battle-scarred Miami prosecutor with a demanding style and a track record of turning the most ardent political critics into loyal allies and friends.
An imposing 6-foot-2-inch workaholic who has been known to take her sleeping bag to the office, Reno was described by friends and colleagues yesterday as a public official of ramrod integrity who has 15 years prosecuting the tidal wave of homicides, drug smuggling and violent street crimes that has inundated Dade County, Florida. In that sense, her resume is far different from that of Zoe E. Baird, the corporate lawyer who was Clinton's first choice to be attorney general.
But Reno's most striking attribute, many of them said, is her shrewd political skill an asset that has enabled the 54-year-old Harvard Law School graduate to repeatedly win lopsided elections with substantial support among Miami's diverse ethnic communities.
"Janet Reno is the most accessible political figure in the state of Florida," said H.T. Smith, a prominent black Miami lawyer who was once one of her most vocal critics. "She returns every phone call. She's all over the community. People feel if they have a problem, they can speak to her. . . . I was one of her strongest critics, and in the past 12 years, she's convinced me she's honest to the fault, that race and sex played no part in her prosecutorial and employment decisions."
As Smith's comments suggest, Reno has been no stranger to controversy. She has been attacked for failing to vigorously pursue public corruption, bungling high-profile cases and sloppy management of the Dade County state attorney's office a 238-lawyer, $33 million-a-year unit that is one of the largest in the country.
Her relationship with the black community was strained for years by charges that she turned a blind eye to allegations of police brutality and was slow in hiring and promoting minorities.
These charges reached a climax in 1980 when four white Miami police officers were acquitted of charges that, using metal flashlights, they beat to death a black insurance man, Arthur McDuffie, during a traffic stop. The verdict touched off three days of rioting in downtown Miami with angry rioters shouting "Reno! Reno! Reno!" outside her office.
But in the years since, Reno has ardently "worked" the black community speaking at black churches and civic groups, extensively recruiting blacks and other minorities, and marching every year in an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, where she is now loudly cheered.
"She may have been naive in the beginning, but she's become more sensitive and responsive to the issues, and she's changed the institution," said Arthur Calvin, a black lawyer who quit the prosecutor's office over its handling of minority complaints in the early 1980s.
But Reno's political savvy is sometimes masked by an all-business demeanor that colleagues say may shake up the Justice Department.
A demanding boss, Reno takes a little black book to meetings where she jots down what any of her assistants say they are going to do in the next few days. "If it's not done, you better watch out, you're going to get a call in a week wanting to know why," said one assistant.
"She's extremely serious, no-nonsense, right to the point," said Mark Schnapp, former chief of the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in Miami who has worked closely with Reno on numerous corruption cases. "There's no schmoozing, no conversation. You don't walk way from a meeting with Janet saying, what does she really mean, because you know what she meant."
Reno's sometimes intimidating manner marked her courtroom style as well, although she now rarely appears before judges. Former American Bar Association president Talbot D'Alemberte, a former law partner of Reno's, recalled trying a tax assessment case with Reno in which she subjected one expert witness to a withering interrogation.
"She took him apart so much the judge said it was the best cross-examination he'd ever seen," said D'Alemberte. "She can be devastating. . . . She's a delight to deal with, but she doesn't put up with stupidity very well."
Yet Reno appears to inspire fierce loyalty among many of her subordinates. Several described her yesterday as unfailingly courteous and willing to listen to dissent. "Even people who disagree with her know that they have an opportunity to express their viewpoints," said Ray Havens, Reno's top investigator.
Reno is the oldest child of two Florida pioneers, journalists Henry and Jane Wood Reno, both deceased. Henry, a Danish immigrant, covered police for 40 years at the Miami Herald. Over time, her mother progressed from the writing life to the status of a full-fledged Florida character: a gravel-voiced woman who drank hard, talked blue and wrestled alligators.
Jane Wood Reno built her own house, as Clinton noted in announcing the appointment. And except for her time at Cornell University and Harvard and a brief period in Tallahassee spent redrafting sections of the Florida constitution Janet Reno always has lived in her mother's home, not far from the Everglades on a piece of land populated by screeching peacocks.
In the early 1970s, Reno was the staff director of a legislative committee that rewrote the state constitutional provisions governing the judiciary.
The legislative changes involved massive reforms. In a highly unusual move, the Senate asked Reno to come to the floor and explain the changes to its members. "It was unprecedented . . . to have a woman staff member on the floor of the Senate," recalled D'Alemberte, then chairman of the House panel. "A lot of reporters were saying, 'God, what the devil is happening here.' "
After losing a race for the legislature in 1972, Reno was hired by then Dade State Attorney Richard Gerstein where she quickly became a top assistant who specialized in juvenile court matters. When he retired five years later, Gerstein recommended Reno as his replacement, enabling her to become the first female state attorney at age 39.
By all accounts, Reno had a rocky start; in addition to the McDuffie case, her office saw a string of wide-ranging drug investigations blow up when an inexperienced prosecutor bungled the probes and wiretap regulatons were breached.
Since those early years, her record has improved. She has worked closely with federal prosecutors to win some high-profile corruption cases, including one of the nation's worst dirty cops rings. She has helped created a special drug court that has pioneered alternative sentencing for first-time, non-violent offenders. Her efforts to vigorously prosecute fathers who don't pay child support has won her acclaim from women's groups and even inspired a "rap" song.
"She chased you down to 15th Avenue, you tried to hide your trail," went the rap. "She found your a and locked you up and now who can't post no bail."
D'Alemberte said Reno once got a call from a school teacher whose class had heard the song. Could Reno come speak to the class? "My students are having a debate," the teacher said, "whether Janet Reno is a real person."
Special correspondent Anne Day in Miami contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company