To residents of this small tropical island, 300 miles southeast of Miami, Alexandria prosecutor William L. Cowhig is an easygoing American lawyer who owns a local bar, likes to fish with his kids for grouper, and sleeps late on weekends.
For U.S. officials investigating allegations of currency violations and political corruption stemming from the once-flourishing massage parlors and bingo games in Cowhig hometown his presence on this island has become a focus of their probes.
An album of photographs showing Cowhig and some of his friends at Cowhig's small hotel here on Queen's Highway has been shown by investigators to witnesses who later appeared before a federal grand jury.
Exuma is a lush spit of land astride the Tropic of Cancer, where news of the American investigations has not yet reached the island's population. The major interests here are taking life easy, swapping fish and shark stories, finding a good crew for the next sailboat race, and, hoping the tourist business will continue to increase.
According to Joanne Knowles, the real estate agent here who in 1971 sold Cowhig his Two Turtles club, Cowhig "had been looking for several years" for Bahamian property to purchase.
The small hotel complex Cowhig and members of his family bought is a walled structure of native stone, set in concrete, with a rusting cannon in the courtyard and coconut palm trees for shade. There is a pot-holed concrete one-lane road in front, and local weavers sit beside it to make and sell their goods.
The hotel itself is largely unused now, its rentable three rooms and three detached cottages boarded up. The only consistently successful part of the club is the bar, where rum-and-colas sell for $1.25 and the juke box plays reggae versions of John Denver's song, "Country Road."
The Two Turtles bar and hotel where owner Bill "Cowie" (as his name is pronounced here) sometimes has a drink with the islanders is seemingly far removed from the world where Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney Cowhig's name has been linked to some former law clients involved in Northern Virginia bingo operations.
Virginia investigators have questioned operators of two airports in the Washington area where Cowhig and James R. Fike, a former Cowhig client and convicted bingo game operator, have kept private planes. Each has flown to the Bahamas in private aircraft.
FBI agents have asked Fike if he had ever made any payments to Cowhig, or if Cowhig had ever requested the tear tab concession (a lucrative form of bingo) at his bingo games. Fike said Cowhig never sought money from him and has called the investigation a witch hunt.
Federal officials also are gathering information about the currency laws and banking acts in this small country, where the Chase Manhattan Bank once rented office space at Cowhig's hotel, and where Cowhig now keeps a small bank account at the Bank of Nova Scotia, according to an official there.
"Bill's nice guy, comes here a couple of times a year, likes to go fishing or scuba diving, or sleep late," said Reevers Turnquest, who since November has managed the Two T's, as the bar is known here.
"Sometimes Bill gives me a ride in his plane when he's going to Nassau, so I'm always glad to take him out fishing," said Clifford Dean, a local fisherman.
Dozens of other Exuma residents - including waitresses, taxi drivers, and barkeeps - echoed the appraisal.
According to land records in Nassau, Cowhig, his wife Shirley, his step-brother, Peter P. Colasanto, and Judy Colasanto, Peter's wife, bought what was then known as the Bahamas Sound Inn in George Town, on Exuma, for $172,500 on June 3, 1971.
The contract required full payment within three years, and this was satisfied with family money and a $150,000 interest-only loan from the First American Bank of Virginia, Cowhig has said. (A bank official in Alexandria said interest-only loans, in which the payment of principal is postponed, are "not uncommon," but declined to state how many such loans his bank has made.
(The interest rate, and the amount of payments Cowhig must make, are not known. Cowhig did not return a telephone call to his office in Alexandria's City Hall to discuss the matter.)
At the time the two turtles may have seemed like a good deal. The Bahamas by the 1970s had developed into a popular tourist resort and the site of numerous companies selling undeveloped land for investment purposes. There are no income taxes or real estate assessments here, Exuma's airport has a 5,000-foot long runway able to accommodate commercial and private planes, gambling is encouraged in Nassau and Freeport, and the country's bank secrecy laws provide a Swiss-like protection to depositors.
For about a year after the property was purchased, and before his successful run for the top prosecutor's jon in 1973, the Cowhigs and the Colasantos lived at the Two Turtles, according to their former neighbors.
The families had rooms on the second story of the hotel, and the Colasantos ran what is remembered as a pleasant restaurant above the bar. The Cowhigs children attended the oneroom George Town School next to the hotel. The family had to walk across the road to the colonial-style Government House to apply for Bahamian work permits, which the government requires for foreigners.
The Bahamian sojourn was intended to be the start of a life away from law, according to a Cowhig friend in Alexandria. If they could make a go of the hotel and restaurant, it might be a new career, the friend said.
"Then the bottom fell out of the Bahamas," said one veteran observer in Nassau. Inflation, independence from Great Britain in 1973, and the Arab oil embargo contributed to rising prices, less construction and few tourists.
The Cowhigs and Colasantos returned to the United States around 1972, reportedly unhappy with Bakamian the Two T's to a succession of managers, none of whom could make a success of it. One of the managers, Johnnie Wiley, said he paid Cowhig $200 a month for two years in rental on the bar, and an additional $150 each month during the last year in rental on the restaurant.
After his election as commonwealth's attorney, Cowhig, his family and friends made various trips to Exuma, staying at the Two T's. There were scuba diving lessons with boat captain Lesley Knowles, fishing trips with skipper Colin Rees, and the rental of Boston whalers from Minn's Water Sports. They often had steaks or fresh fish across the street at the Peace and Plenty, a well-established hotel and restaurant.
In 1974 or 1975, Cowhig held a slide show at the Old Dominion Boat Club, in Alexandria, and tried to interest friends, including attorneys who might have to face him in court, in buying time-sharing interests in the club, a standard type of arrangement in the Bahamas. There were no takers.
Last year he reportedly turned down an offer of $180,000 for the clb from a Canadian businessman.