The arrest of prominent Washington lawyer William A. Borders Jr. Friday on a $150,000 bribery-related charge involving a federal judge in Miami climaxed an elaborate FBI investigation. It included telephone wiretaps, an agent posing as a businessman willing to buy his way out of a jail sentence and other agents secretly watching the judge eat dinner at a posh Miami hotel.
The extraordinary case marks one of the rare occasions when the Justice Department has approved a criminal investigation into the actions of a sitting federal judge, in this case, Judge Alcee L. Hastings, 45, of Florida's Southern District.
Borders, 42, a member of the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission that recommends selection of city judges, was charged with being a conduit for a $150,000 cash payoff in an effort to secure reduced sentences for two brothers who were convicted and sentenced by Hastings in Florida. Borders was released from jail yesterday after posting a $25,000 bond.
Hastings, who was in Washington Friday for a testimonal honoring Borders, returned to Florida and was interviewed by FBI agents there yesterday. Hastings has not been charged in the probe, and Justice Department sources said they are considering presenting evidence concerning the case to a federal grand jury in Miami.
Based on an account supplied by authoritative sources and an FBI affidavit filed in federal court in Alexandria, this is the government's version of what happened:
It began last July 20, when a former client of Borders told federal authorities in Miami that Hastings was soliciting bribes from defendants who appeared before the judge in criminal cases. The informant said the money would not be paid directly to the judge but instead was to be given to Borders, who he alleged was serving as a middleman.
The man said Borders allegedly asked him last March to approach two brothers awaiting sentencing by Hastings on racketeering-related charges and tell them that they could avoid going to jail if they paid a $150,000 bribe.
The brothers, Frank Romano, 61, and Thomas Romano, 65, had been convicted by a jury after a much-publicized three-week trial before Hastings on charges that they bilked a New Jersey Teamsters Union pension fund of $1 million. They were convicted on 21 counts of racketeering, mail and wire fraud, misappropriation of union funds and filing false income tax returns. The two remained free on bond while awaiting sentencing.
But the informant told federal investigators he never discussed the alleged bribe offer with the Romano brothers and no bribe was paid. He said he did nothing at that time.
On July 8, Hastings sentenced the Romanos to three years in prison and ordered them to forfeit $1.2 million in property. The brothers appealed and remained free on bond.
After they were sentenced, the informant told the FBI that Borders again asked him to go to the Romanos and tell them Hastings would now be willing to eliminate their prison sentences and place them on probation if they paid the $150,000.
Instead, the man, who was under indictment in Baltimore for drug-related charges, walked into the Miami U.S. attorney's office and started talking. Shortly thereafter, the Hastings-Borders probe, code-named "Apple-Eye," was launched.
A former FBI agent was called out of retirement to pose as Frank Romano, who was 61 -- six years older than the mandatory retirement age for FBI agents.
On Sept. 10, the informant placed a call to Borders' Washington law offices from Miami, and Borders agreed to meet him and the undercover agent at 8 a.m. two days later at Miami International Airport.
Several hours after the Sept. 10 telephone conversation, two calls were made from phones in Borders' law offices to Hastings' chambers at the federal courthouse in Miami, according to telephone records subpoenaed by government prosecutors. The next day, telephone records show two more calls were placed from a telephone at Hastings' Florida home to Borders' law offices here.
On Sept. 12, Borders met the informant at the Miami International airport and was introduced to a man the informant said was "Frank Romano."
Borders allegedly told the undercover agent, who secretly taped the conversation, that for $150,000 Hastings would reduce the brothers' prison sentences to probation.
It would be a two-step deal, Borders allegedly said: First, the judge would return to the Romanos part of the $1.2 million in property the government had seized after the brothers "put something up front" as the downpayment on the alleged bribe.
Then the judge would reduce their sentences to probation, Borders was quoted as saying.
As a sign that he could live up to his part of the bargain and that he was speaking for Hastings, Borders allegedly said Hastings would appear for an 8 p.m. dinner at a Miami restaurant on Sept. 16. The undercover agent told Borders to send Hastings to the main dining room of the Fountainebleau Hilton Hotel, a lavish hotel on the Miami Beach oceanfront.
At 8 p.m. on Sept. 16, Hastings had dinner in the main dining room of the the Fountainebleau. The FBI was also there and secretly watched the judge.
Three days later, the undercover agent met Borders at Miami International Airport and allegedly paid him $25,000 in "up front money," as the first installment of the $150,000.
As Borders left the meeting, agents said they noticed he darted around the airport in an apparent attempt to see if he was being followed. He then took a plane back to Washington.
Earlier this month, FBI agents received court approval to tap the phones of Borders' home, which he shares with his mother at 28 50th St. NE, and at his law office at 1621 New Hampshire Ave. NW.
On Oct. 2, with FBI agents secretly listening in, Borders and the undercover agent discussed the order Hastings was suppose to issue returning part of the Romanos' property, and Borders promised to find out when it would be issued.
Later that same day, a call was placed from Borders' Washington law office to Hastings' chambers in Miami, according to telephone records.
In a telephone conversation last Monday, Borders allegedly told the undercover agent that Hastings was about to issue the property order.
The next day, Hastings issued the order.
Law enforcement sources said that the Romanos had not filed a petition asking the judge to rescind his earlier decision and return the property to them.
Yesterday, Neal Sonnett, an attorney for the Romanos, was quoted as saying that Hastings had no choice but to issue an order returning the property. "In his order, the judge said it was a bad result, an absurd result, but that he had no choice but to rule that way . . . He Borders could have known that Hastings had to rule the way he did," Sonnett said.
Friday, Hastings flew to Washington from Miami, according to law enforcement sources. Borders met him at National Airport, and the two later went to Borders' Washington office.
The two men also registered at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel Friday and were given adjoining rooms, according to hotel officials.
Hastings reportedly was here to attend a black tie "Gala Celebration Dinner Cruise" on the Potomac River in honor of Borders, who until recently was president of the National Bar Association.
But Borders and Hastings never made it to the cruise.
Sometime after he picked up Hastings, Borders drove alone from his office to the Twin Bridges Marriott in Arlington for a prearranged meeting with the undercover agent posing as Frank Romano, according to court papers.
The undercover agent and Borders met in a car in the motel's parking lot. Borders was there to collect the final bribe payment -- $125,000, court papers allege. The parking lot was crawling with FBI agents.
Within moments after the $125,000 exchanged hands, Borders was arrested.
The man who allegedly gave him the money was not Frank Romano; he was an FBI agent.
The FBI immediately began to look for Hastings in an effort to question him.
But it wasn't until about midnight Friday that Hastings was finally located at a residence in the Fort Lauderdale area, according to FBI agent William E. Nettles in Miami. The interview lasted for serveral hours, Nettles said. He declined to disclose what was said.
Yesterday morning, Borders was transported from the D.C. jail, where he had spent the night, to Alexandria where a federal magistrate released him after a bondsmen posted a $25,000 bond.
He could receive a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine if convicted of the charge -- traveling interstate to promote or facilitate bribery.