Go undercover for the FBI
Michael Kesti
Rotary Club of Perrine-Cutler Ridge/Palmetto Bay, Florida

I got to a place in my career as a lobbyist where I was getting tired of the corruption I was seeing. I had politicians asking, “What’s in it for me?” Through my friends in other agencies of the government, I asked to be introduced to an FBI agent in the public corruption unit. I began working with them on sting operations around the country, giving them advice on how best to plan and to proceed.

Ethics and The Four-Way Test are part of Rotary’s DNA. The Ethics Fellowship of Rotarians has resources at ethicsfellowship.org.

At a certain point, I said, “What about all the corruption in South Florida, where I live?” The problem was they couldn’t find someone who would cooperate with them on undercover operations. Finally they said, “We do know of one lobbyist we might ask.” I asked who. They said, “Go home and look in the mirror.” They wanted me to do covert operations myself! I grew up in a patriotic family, with a sense of duty to country, so I did not hesitate. I knew it was the right thing to do.

I had never done anything like they were asking — wear a wire and give bribes! The tough part is that I really had to play a certain role. The best way I can describe it is that I had to become an actor. I had to convince these politicians that I was getting paid a lot of money from my clients, who were actually undercover agents. So I would be driving a Porsche, or other luxury car, and taking these guys out for fancy dinners. I would make comments like, “Anything you need, Mayor, you just tell me. Anything!” I had one mayor who insisted he wanted to go to Las Vegas to have fun. You can imagine what he meant by that.

It took time to set up these stings. We had to establish fake businesses and build relationships. I’d say something like, “We’re going to make 50 grand from this one project, and 10 is yours if you want it.”

There was one operation where the target got suspicious and he showed up to a meeting with a police officer. Another time, a politician called me back and said he needed to return the bribe he’d taken from me. I wondered, if I show up, is someone going to do harm to me? One of those being investigated acted and talked just like a mobster from New Jersey. I said to the agents I worked with, “Hey, I want to make sure this guy’s not connected to organized crime, because if he is, I’m out of this operation.”

But I never doubted that I had protection. The feds were always listening on the wire. I also had a code word I could say if I got a bad feeling. And they always had agents close to me. If we met at a coffeehouse, they would be sitting two tables away. At dinner, they might even be the waiter or the busboy.

When my name leaked in the press, all hell broke loose, because nobody knew what I’d been up to, not even my family. I had a lot of explaining to do. My mom called and said, “Are you going to jail?” I said, “No, no, no, Mom. I’m one of the good guys.”

This kind of work does come with risks. My wife and I have been followed. We’ve had our tires slashed. I had my gas tank sugared. And a lot of people in lobbying, and in the political world, were upset with me. But the way I look at it — and a lot of this goes back to the philosophy of Rotary — you have to do the right thing and stand up. If you don’t stand up for something, you’re going to fall for everything.

— As told to Steve Almond