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Florida's controversial drug prosecutor. `Mad Dog' Merkle takes on Colombian dealer, state governor

Colombian cocaine magnate Carlos Lehder Rivas goes on trial in Jacksonville, Fla., next month as allegedly the highest-volume, most violent drug dealer ever arraigned. But it's the prosecutor in the case they call ``Mad Dog.''

While Mr. Lehder has been on the lam in the Colombian mountains surrounded by machine guns and guards for years, Robert W. Merkle, United States attorney for Florida's middle district, has been under a different sort of siege.

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The burly, tenacious, guitar-playing prosecutor has made an enemy of Florida's new Republican governor, many of the state prosecutors in his region, and some major newspapers. Both the state's Democratic senators and much of Florida's legal community would like to see him go.

But few dispute that he would make a tough and able courtroom case against Lehder in what promises to be a celebrated trial. Mr. Merkle's courtroom skills are reputedly formidable. And he is often deemed aggressive and persistent to a fault.

The Merkle critics argue that he is so overzealous in pursuing public corruption that he abuses the considerable power of his office and damages innocent people.

Not so, Merkle says. ``I do my work in federal, constitutional forums overseen by federal judges and the very strict requirements of the constitutional process.''

The last straw for Gov. Bob Martinez came last month, just a few days after his inauguration, when he took the stand as a defense witness in a mail-fraud trial. A prosecution witness said he bribed Governor Martinez in an earlier mayoral campaign, Martinez denied it under oath, and Merkle told the jury he believed the witness, not Martinez, was telling the truth.

Martinez promptly called the White House and asked for Merkle's ouster.

The incident, many say, was vintage Merkle. Martinez was not on trial, and no evidence corroborated the witness's claim. Even if a bribe had taken place, the statute of limitations had passed. Yet Merkle has pulled damaging accusations like this - often of public figures - into the court record, his critics charge.

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Merkle scoffs: ``What should I have done? Told Eddie Perdomo [the witness] only to give half of his testimony and not to mention Martinez because he is an influential public figure?''

The Tampa area, where Merkle is based, has a history of corruption among its public officials. Merkle scored a major victory in 1983 when he won convictions against three Hillsborough County commissioners for extensive bribe-taking.

In the trial, however, he drew his first winces from the legal community when he alleged that the real estate developers, two brothers who had been solicited for bribes and helped nab the commissioners, had tried to make a cocaine deal to obtain the bribe money. The allegation was never substantiated.

Merkle called together a grand jury to investigate State Attorney E.J. Salcines in Hillsborough County that spent three years probing allegations that drug cases had been fixed. No indictments ever came of it, but the probe cost Mr. Salcines reelection to office - his first election loss since he entered politics in 1968.

``E.J. has been destroyed politically and charged with nothing,'' says Ed Austin, state attorney based in Jacksonville. Mr. Austin, one of the state's most tenured and respected prosecutors, has seen his office come under Merkle's scrutiny when his chief assistant was indicted, and quickly acquitted, on corruption charges.

``There is no more powerful office in the country than prosecutor,'' Austin says. Simply by launching an investigation of someone, he notes, whether a conviction or even an indictment comes of it, a prosecutor can ``wreck people's lives.''

Merkle, Austin suggests, has not been sensitive to that power and is prone to ``hold people up to public scorn based on rumor and hearsay.''

Miami attorney Louis St. Laurent put together an 82-page report asking the US Justice Department to look into Merkle's handling of a corruption investigation of the Lee County sheriff's office. Mr. St. Laurent, a state attorney for 11 years, says that Merkle picks out targets, then tries to build cases against them. ``And he doesn't care who gets in the way, and actually doesn't care how the case is made.''

Merkle does have supporters, however. His unabashed pursuit of corruption has popular appeal. Jeannie Constantino, a Tampa businesswoman, and two friends started circulating petitions supporting Merkle last month. They claim that 88,000 signatures have come in so far. She is sending them to the White House and to Florida's US senators ``until they get tired of getting them and take some action.''

Says Ms. Constantino, who once heard Merkle speak: ``I like his tenacity. ... I feel comfortable that he's not a wimp who will let them get away with it because they've got friends in high places.''

Merkle, whose term ran out last year, was originally recommended by Sen. Paula Hawkins, who was defeated last fall. He now serves at the pleasure of the President.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility reviewed Merkle's performance once and gave him a clean bill.

Merkle notes that his conviction rate is at least as high as the national average, that during the past three years his district has ranked first out of 94 in the number of defendants per trial (a measure of more sophisticated, organized crimes), and that it ranked second last year in the number of defendants tried.

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