Miami-Dade County

Ex-commissioner convicted in ’90s for bribery is found dead in Georgia; wife charged

Commissioner James “Jimmie” Burke in 1996.
Commissioner James “Jimmie” Burke in 1996. HO

James “Jimmie” C. Burke, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner who was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for accepting bribes in the late 1990s, was found dead Saturday in his Georgia home, his brother James J. Burke said.

Waycross police arrested Jimmie Burke’s wife, Sonia Burke, 58, and charged her with murder.

According to police, Sonia Burke called 911 just after 4 p.m. Saturday to report that she was having a hard time breathing. When paramedics arrived, she pointed them to a bedroom, police said. After forcing their way in, paramedics found Jimmie Burke, 68, dead.

Sonia Burke was arrested and taken to the hospital to be treated for a possible overdose, police said. While police are still investigating, Waycross Police Chief Tony Tanner said in a news release that it appeared Jimmie Burke died from “gunshot wounds during a domestic dispute.”

James J. Burke said Sunday “they were having problems.”

Friends and family of Jimmie Burke remember him as a good father, friend and person who “made a difference” in the community.

Yvette Ivelisse Rodriguez-Burke, who knew Jimmie Burke for more than 40 years, was married to him from 2005 to 2007 and has a daughter with him, said Sunday she was “in shock.”

“He was just here last week,” said Rodriguez-Burke, who lives in Apopka in Central Florida. “He’s a great father. He doesn’t deserve this.”

Burke, who had six children, was married seven times. He married Sonia Burke in 2014, according to her Facebook page.

“On September 28, 2014 I married a most amazing man,” she posted. “He appeared suddenly, stated his case and swept me off of my feet. We are two parts of one and I love him very much.”

Jimmie Burke’s Facebook page gives a glimpse of his life in recent years: acting in local theater productions, spending time with his children and grandchildren and reminiscing about the past.

On May 6, he changed his cover photo to a picture of his smiling granddaughter, who graduated from high school.

Burke, who was first elected Miami-Dade County Commission in 1993 and served in the House of Representatives before becoming a commissioner, was caught in a public corruption scandal that rocked Miami in the late 1990s. He was charged with bribery and money laundering and removed from office. Also indicted: Burke’s former top aide, Billy Hardemon, and California business leader Calvin Grigsby.

All denied wrongdoing, but Burke was ultimately convicted after he was caught on videotape accepting a bribe. Neither Hardemon nor Grigsby were convicted.

After being sentenced, Burke addressed his constituents.

“I believe God has something planned for me,” he said at the time. “I know I’ve lost the trust of the people I represented. I lost the respect of people who watched me through over 20 years of public service. I’m not blaming anyone else. I’m here because of what I did and I don’t want anyone else to think anyone did anything to me . . . I sincerely regret my part in the events that brought us here today.”

James J. Burke said his brother, who was a lawyer by trade, first ran for office because “he really believed he could make a difference.” While serving in the House of Representatives representing Liberty City and Brownsville he was selected as the state’s first black speaker pro tempore. He also served as the president of the Miami-Dade County chapter of the NAACP and pushed for better representation in black communities.

“Jimmy Burke had the biggest heart of anybody I’ve ever known,” said Joel Maxwell, former city of Miami deputy city attorney, who knew Jimmie Burke for 40 years. “He was my friend and he was loyal. He made some missteps, but his heart was always in the right place. Everyone who knew him could attest to that.”

After serving 21 months in prison, Burke was released and soon married Rodriguez-Burke. Rodriguez-Burke said her husband struggled to reinvent himself.

Around 2007, he went back to Waycross, Georgia, where he was born and raised. His brother said he served as an editor for a community newspaper.

Activist Tangela Sears, who kept in touch with Jimmie Burke, said he left because “Miami shut the door on him.”

“When you are in power everyone wants to be your friend,” she said, describing him as an intelligent man and great friend. “When you lose it you find out who your true friends are.”

Carli Teproff: 305-376-3587, @CTeproff

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