relocated copyrighted material from article page --Bob Burton 02:22, 17 Aug 2005 (EDT)
Hank Asher -- a Boca Raton multi-millionaire called a patriot by a former Watergate prosecutor, consulted and admired by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- once smuggled millions of dollars worth of cocaine.
Asher avoided detection and was never charged with a crime during what he calls "the hazy period" of his life. The statute of limitations has long since elapsed on drug-running activities he admits spanned eight months in 1981 and 1982. Those reckless days, he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, drove him to depression and drug and alcohol abuse.
He didn't pay for his crimes in a jail cell, but a price was exacted by years of negative publicity and intense public suspicion. The climax came in August, when Asher walked away from the Matrix so it could proceed unencumbered by its designer's infamy.
Asher, now 52, made peace with himself.
"I go to sleep every night knowing that I've done much more good than harm," he said.
Indeed, Asher's notoriety has done little to deflate his clout among some influential crime-fighters.
Giuliani, now an international crime consultant, uses Asher in the hunt for terrorists. Brian Stafford, the former head of the U.S. Secret Service, is one of a handful of top law enforcement officers who work for Asher's database company. John Walsh, host of the TV show America's Most Wanted, sings Asher's praises.
To understand the contradiction of the public pariah with quiet influence is to understand his road to redemption. It is a path lined with powerful innovations and financial benevolence that have aided the hunt for criminals and the safe return of missing children.
"I have a great admiration for what he's doing, both in finding missing children and in coming up with creative solutions to terrorism, as well as owning up to his mistakes," Giuliani said. "People do a lot of things in life. It's a question of what you can do to make up for it, and Hank has done a lot."
In the months after he quit smuggling, Asher began down his road to redemption, his supporters say, helping the U.S. government deter drug trafficking in the Caribbean.
The effort, documented in the FDLE report, began when famed criminal defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who also owned a home on Great Harbour Cay, approached Asher. Bailey told FDLE investigators that he and Asher had concocted a plan that had Asher misleading traffickers into believing their arrests were imminent and Bailey negotiating plea deals that took the smugglers out of the business.
But it wasn't until 1993, with computer innovations credited with making criminal investigations faster and more efficient, that Asher became a respected ally to law enforcement.
"Hank Asher has done more to facilitate intelligence and information- sharing for police in the country than anyone I've ever known," FDLE director James T. "Tim" Moore said at his 2003 retirement party. "He's a patriot, a true friend."
"Every investigation we have ever had since the early '90s has used his program," said Phil Ramer, special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Office of Statewide Intelligence. "He transformed law enforcement, no question about it."
Even then, rumors were swirling about Asher's drug smuggling.
Federal, state and local agencies interested in AutoTrack researched Asher's background and came up with a 1987 Chicago Tribune story. The article, citing court records in a drug case, quoted Bailey as saying he was working with a pilot and former drug smuggler named Hank Asher to reduce trafficking in the Bahamas.
"We looked into" the allegations, John Walsh said. "Clearly, everybody did."
No one could find any signs Asher had been involved in anything untoward since, Walsh said.
Still many public officials were bothered by the perception of associating with a former drug smuggler.
"But the question was," Ramer said, "do we want to use this technology we'd never had before, or do we close our eyes and say we're not going to use it" because of old allegations?
Most agencies went ahead with AutoTrack, but several officials and agencies distanced themselves from the entrepreneur with the ugly history.
Though Moore gushed praise for Asher at his retirement party last summer, for example, in the FDLE report, Moore called Asher's smuggling activities "despicable" and denied reports that he and Asher were friends. And in 1999, amid more media reports of the smuggling stories, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency dropped their AutoTrack contracts.
But Asher continued to impress a host of credible crime fighters. In addition to Giuliani's and Walsh's association with Asher, former FDLE special agent Bill Shrewsbury, former DEA Deputy Administrator James Milford and the Secret Service's Stafford left law enforcement to serve in high-level positions at Asher's database companies.
Walsh was impressed by the genius of Asher's innovations, but also by his generosity. For 10 years, Asher has given Walsh's non-profit National Center for Missing and Exploited Children free, unlimited access to his database systems.
"He did it because he deeply cared," said the center's executive director, Ernie Allen. "I can tell you on a very personal level that people in American law enforcement have a great trust and confidence in Hank Asher."
That confidence grew after the Sept. 11 attacks, when out of what Asher called sheer horror, he created the Matrix.
The information-sharing database melds commercially and publicly available records with sensitive investigative data. Only law enforcement officers with security clearance are allowed to use it. Queries result in names, phone numbers, addresses and histories on possible terrorists, pedophiles and criminals, as well as photos and comprehensive backgrounds on a suspect's network of family and friends.
The federal government has committed $12 million to make the Matrix available across the country. But in the 18 months before government money was available, Asher used $20 million of his own and gave the government free, unlimited access to the technology.
"What was done at Hank's insistence after 9-11 is as patriotic as anything I've seen in my life," said Miami attorney Jon Sale, a former federal Watergate prosecutor. "Without being melodramatic, I have no doubt that in some ways his system has something to do with the fact that there hasn't been another terrorist attack."
But once again, Asher's past intruded. As 13 states stood poised to join the Matrix last summer, the smuggling stories resurfaced, prompting several agencies to reconsider.
Rather than stay and jeopardize the project, Asher quit the board of his company, Seisint Inc., put his stock in a blind trust and announced he would have no decision-making ties to the Matrix.
"I did it for the good of the country," Asher said.
Others may argue that he did it for the money. If Matrix is successful, Seisint -- and as a major stockholder, Asher -- stands to make millions.
Giuliani, among others, thinks Asher's motivation is altruistic.
"Maybe it's the guilt he feels for what he did when he was young, but he's deeply dedicated to trying to help people," the former mayor said. "He's a man of extreme talent, and he's used that talent for good."
According to the August 3, 2003, AP article "State [of Florida] contracts with company founded by man linked to smuggling," Hank Asher was "implicated two decades ago in a Bahamian drug smuggling ring." Asher was "hired by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to help create a 13-state anti-terrorism network (Multistate Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange Program) being launched with $4 million in Justice Department funding."
- "Millionaire Hank Asher of Boca Raton, a friend of recently retired FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) director James 'Tim' Moore and a major political contributor, was never charged with drug smuggling. He served as an informant and witness in several trials, and was identified by other FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) informants as someone who provided police protection for smuggling operations."
- "Asher's first company, DBT Online, Inc., bought him out for $147 million in 1999 after the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration suspended its contracts over Asher's past and concerns that the company could potentially monitor targets of investigations.
- "Asher has not charged FDLE for many of his services, McLaughlin said. Seisint, Inc. technology has been demonstrated for Vice President Dick Cheney and Gov. Jeb Bush.
- "Documents filed by prosecutors in Chicago identified Asher as a pilot and former smuggler who lived in the Bahamas near a small airport once used by smugglers."
One day earlier, on August 2, 2003, the St. Petersburg Times reported that
- "In an attempt to identify potential terrorists, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is using the services of a former drug smuggler turned millionaire.
- "Hank Asher, 48, a computer technology expert who lives in a $3-million Boca Raton house, has founded several companies that retrieve huge amounts of electronic information about individuals."
- "FDLE files say informants identified Asher as a person who provided police protection for smuggling operations in the Bahamas. Asher was listed as a witness in drug trials from Gainesville to Chicago, and once was represented by famed attorney F. Lee Bailey. Documents filed by prosecutors in Chicago said Asher was a pilot and former smuggler who lived on Great Harbour near Cistern Cay, a small island airport once used by smugglers.
- "After severing ties with DBT Online, Asher created other companies and grew even closer to law enforcement officials. In 1999, he merged two companies into Seisint Inc. The new company supplies Accurint, a database that provides detailed information on individuals. Seisint also supplies specialized information to law enforcement agencies around the country.
- "FDLE began doing business with Asher's first company in 1993. It is clear from 1993 records that FDLE officials knew they were dealing with a drug smuggler. Some officers questioned whether Asher's company could be trusted. No additional background check was conducted in 2001, when the relationship grew closer."