Miami-Dade County

Alfonso Sepe, prosecutor and judge, dies at 88

Miami-Dade Judge Alfonso Sepe in 1992
Miami-Dade Judge Alfonso Sepe in 1992 Herald File

Alfonso Sepe boasted a storied legal career — he served as a top prosecutor targeting killers and thieves, then moved to the bench, where he won acclaim for fashioning unique sentences designed to keep people out of jail for minor crimes.

But it was Sepe’s final case that often colored his legacy. He did more than a year in prison for his role in Operation Court Broom, the notorious Miami corruption probe that led to the convictions of three judges, a former judge and six lawyers.

Even as Sepe lived out his later years in retirement, tending to his grandchildren while his health faltered, Court Broom’s legacy haunted him. He died Friday of heart and kidney failure at the age of 88.

“He feared his service to the community might be forgotten and overshadowed by that whole case,” said Phyllis Sepe, his wife of 61 years. “For his whole life and career to be tarnished like that, it’s just so sad. It bothered him a lot.”

Said Miami lawyer Jack Blumenfeld, who was mentored by Sepe as a young prosecutor: “It was a bad thing that occurred, but it wasn’t a measure of a man. He did a lot of good for this community.”

Sepe was born in 1927 in Brooklyn, the son of Italian immigrants. He joined the U.S. Navy toward the end of World War II, which ended before he saw combat, and briefly delayed his graduation from high school.

He eventually earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Cornell University, and followed his parents to Florida, where they had retired in Miami Beach.

Sepe opened a small general practice in downtown Miami’s Seybold building, scraping by until legendary State Attorney Richard Gerstein hired him in the mid-1950s.

He started off in the traffic division before working his way up, eventually heading major crimes while serving as the executive assistant for Gerstein. The cases Sepe prosecuted were among the most unusual in county history.

Sepe spearheaded the 1967 case against Dr. Harold Auslander, a physician with faltering eyesight who performed a botched abortion that killed a woman. Auslander was convicted of manslaughter and got probation. Sepe also prosecuted world-renowned jewel thief Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy.

“He was a great prosecutor,” said Miami defense lawyer Joel Hirschhorn. “Tough as nails.”

Mobsters were also his target. With a young Blumenfeld at his side, they tried infamous mobster Meyer Lansky after he was caught with barbiturates at Miami International Airport. A judge, however, tossed the case in 1970.

After 15 years with the State Attorney’s Office, Sepe was elected to the bench in late 1970. He soon made a name for himself, fashioning “alternative” sentences in the days when jail time was often the norm.

He frequently sentenced low-level offenders to cleaning up the Miami River, which in the 1970s had become heavily polluted. In May 1972, he had before him a 20-year-old Vietnam veteran who stole $250 to feed his hungry family. Sepe personally found him a job as an X-ray technician.

“I believe in the value of punishment, and I believe in maximum punishment,” Sepe told the press. “But I also believe in leniency when it is due and in doing something besides warehousing people in jails.”

An excerpt of one of Sepe’s talks to a defendant was even included in the nationally syndicated column “Dear Abby.”

In one case, Sepe sentenced a drug defendant, Michael Garrett, to play his guitar at the Hope Center for people with mental disabilities. Garrett wound up getting hired as a teacher and became the head of the organization’s music-therapy program.

In another case, Sepe encountered a young deaf-mute man accused of fleeing police. He ordered the man not to jail but to therapy at the University of Miami. In a follow-up hearing, the judge dismissed the case after the man learned to lip read.

“His mother reported he could now speak 20 words and for the first time, he called her ‘mom,’” said Anne Cates, Sepe’s longtime judicial assistant. “I still cry when I tell that story.”

“It was incredible,” said Hirschhorn, the man’s defense lawyer. “I still get goose bumps when I think about it.”

Sepe’s judicial career was derailed in 1975 when a convict’s wife reported that Sepe propositioned her when she pleaded for a reduction in her husband's sentence. Sepe resigned from the bench, even though a special investigation found insufficient evidence to prosecute. After seven years in private practice, Sepe was back, running and winning a new seat in 1982.

“The guy had as many lives as Richard Nixon,” said Miami defense lawyer Ted Mastos. “He was resilient. He kept coming back.”

But then came Court Broom, one of the largest federal-and-state investigations into judicial corruption in the country. A flamboyant defense attorney named Raymond Takiff, facing an IRS investigation, agreed to wear a wire to pay bribes in cases set up by agents.

In court chambers, restaurants and parking lots, Takiff handed out marked $100 bills to judges. With concealed cameras rolling, they accepted the money in exchange for appointments to lucrative taxpayer-funded special public-defender cases, bail reductions, the return of seized property and orders to suppress evidence.

One judge even sold the name of a confidential drug informant targeted for death.

During the sweeping investigation, agents bugged Sepe’s chambers for months, hoping to catch snippets of incriminating words between him and former judge David Goodhart, who was later convicted and sentenced to prison.

At a federal trial in 1993, his lawyers argued that Sepe was set up. Jurors acquitted him of 27 of the 32 original counts, but his retrial on five remaining charges was delayed for years by appeals and controversial rulings.

Finally in March 2000, the ailing Sepe admitted to accepting $150,000 in bribes to fix cases, rather than go to trial.

“He always maintained his innocence,” said his attorney Edward O’Donnell.

“He deeply regretted pleading guilty,” said Cates, his longtime assistant. “But he just wanted to get it behind him.”

Sepe is survived by his wife, Phyllis, daughters Arvi Balseiro and Cindy Ley-Sepe, sons Allan Sepe and Kevin Sepe, and 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

A Mass will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Rose of Lima, 415 NE 105th St. The funeral will follow at the Caballero Rivero Southern Memorial Park, 15000 W. Dixie Hwy.