A federal judge in Miami said yesterday that the FBI has informed him he is the target of a bribery investigation that resulted in the arrest last Friday of prominent Washington lawyer William A. Borders Jr. on a charge that he was a conduit for a $150,000 cash payoff to the judge.
U.S. District Judge Alcee L. Hastings, 45, of Florida's Southern District, also announced that he was voluntarily removing himself from all cases pending before him "during the investigation and until a final resolution of this matter is achieved.
"I feel the litigants of this court are entitled to the utmost consideration without the slightest hint of impropriety. The pending investigation of me does not allow for all persons to feel comfortable in court before me," Hastings said in a letter to the chief judge of Florida's Southern District, C. Clyde Atkins.
In a telephone interview from his Fort Lauderdale home yesterday, Hastings said that two FBI agents who interviewed him early Saturday informed him he was being investigated in the alleged bribery scheme -- one of the rare instances when the Justice Department has conducted a probe into the actions of a sitting federal judge.
He said the agents advised him that he had a constitutional right to remain silent, but said he told them it was not necessary for them to read him his rights. "I think I understand the procedures," he said.
"I particularly wanted to speak with them and I will continue to speak to them at the appropriate time," Hastings said.
However, Hastings said he would not answer reporters' questions about the case and declined to discuss the investigation. No charges have been filed against Hastings; Justice Department sources have said they are considering presenting evidence in the case to a federal grand jury in Miami.
Borders, 42, a member of the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission that recommends selection of city judges, was charged with being the middleman for the reported $150,000 cash payoff, allegedly in an effort to secure reduced sentences for two brothers who were convicted and sentenced by Hastings in Florida.
Borders' arrest Friday came after he allegedly accepted the final payment -- $125,000 -- from an undercover FBI agent posing as one of the brothers in the parking lot of an Arlington motel. The FBI has said that its undercover agent last month gave Borders $25,000 in "up-front" money in a meeting at the Miami International Airport.
It is not known whether Hastings received any of the money, law enforcement sources said.
Borders, who was released on $25,000 bond Saturday after spending the night in jail, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Hastings, who was in Washington on Friday for a testimonial honoring Borders, returned to Florida that night.
He said he flew back to Florida when he learned the FBI wanted to interview him because he was concerned about the welfare of his mother, who he said lives with him. The FBI said it located Hastings in the Fort Lauderdale area about midnight Friday.
Hastings said he met Borders at a house party in Washington many years ago, but "we've only been good friends in the last 10 years." He said the two are part of a group of lawyers who are also friends. "We've been to lots and lots of places --all of us," he said, adding that he and several of the others have been active in the National Bar Association, the premier professional organization for black attorneys. Borders is the group's immediate past president.
Law enforcement sources said that the evidence allegedly implicating Hastings to the purported bribe seems to be circumstantial. The evidence includes a telephone conversation between Borders and Hastings picked up on an FBI wiretap of Borders' phones earlier this month, sources said.
According to court papers, a government informant who was a former client of Borders quoted the lawyer as saying that Hastings was soliciting bribes from defendants who appeared before him in criminal cases. The informant alleged that Borders asked him to approach two brothers who had been convicted and sentenced on racketeering-related charges in a trial before Hastings.
Borders allegedly said that Hastings would be willing to strike the three-year prison sentence he had given the brothers and instead place them on probation, if they paid the $150,000.
After Borders allegedly received $25,000 as a first installment, the FBI said he told the undercover agent that Hastings would issue an order returning part of $1.2 million worth of property that had been seized from the brothers as part of their sentence on the racketeering charges.
On Oct. 6, Hastings issued an order returning part of the $1.2 million to the brothers.
Yesterday, Hastings said he has already spoken to several lawyers about the allegations, but he has not hired anyone to represent him.
"If I'm indicted, I will hire a lawyer," he said.