Saturday, May 12, 2012

Corruption in South Florida: Here to stay

"The situation has gotten so bad that it has sparked an unprecedented uprising of protests in the community. In the past several months, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and Mesa Redonda, a group of powerful Hispanic leaders, have announced that they are organizing to find ways to stop corruption . ``We have had it!'' began a letter signed by 24 members of Mesa Redonda." -Miami Herald, Sept. 20, 1998

Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: Oh, thank you very much.
Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!
-scene from the 1942 movie, Casablanca.

Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez resigned last Wednesday.

He's the latest in a long line of South Florida public servants and politicians who have been ensnared - in varying degrees - in a web of greed, dishonesty, corruption and incompetence.

In Gonzalez's case, it may have been equal parts of all of the above that did him in. It may be months - or years - before we discover just how much damage Gonzalez did to the city he led for almost a dozen years.

But, Tim Elfrink at Miami New Times doesn't need months or years.

In a piece posted on New Times' website today, Elfrink concludes, "Thanks to Jorge Gonzalez, Miami Beach is now Dade's most corrupt town."
Gonzalez, who was paid more than the vice president of the United States and will draw a six-figure pension after he leaves office July 8, fostered the problems by creating a culture of fear in a hierarchy with few checks and balances.
So, why do South Florida taxpayers continue to fall victim to inept public servants and corrupt politicians, year in and year out? Is it something in our culture? Or is it something in the water?

Miami Herald staff writer John Dorschner attempted to answer that question in a September 1998, 5,000 word, page one story titled, "Corruption for the Love of Money."

Dorschner wrote:
Is there something about South Florida that tends to breed corruption? Do we have worse public officials than other places? Greedier business people willing to make deals by bribing public servants? These are the questions many are asking.

Alex Daoud has some answers. The ex-mayor of Miami Beach says he knows precisely when his own corruption began: He was sitting by the pool at a bayfront estate when a wealthy banker offered him $1,000 a month as a retainer. For this, he was to do favors, starting with putting the banker's son on a zoning board.

``The thought came up, `I should say no. I wasn't for sale,' '' Daoud says. ``But I looked at his mansion, his yacht, the chauffeur-driven limousine. He said, `You know, you could get a house like this.' I said, `Fine.' ''

Daoud eventually went to jail for 18 months for taking bribes. ``People say Alex Daoud was corrupt. Well . . . yeah! So were a lot of other people. I got caught. A lot of other people haven't been.''
Dorschner noted in his piece that Miami regularly shows up on lists of the most corrupt cities in America. But, he added...
Local officials think that's an exaggeration, but Joe Centorino, the top corruption prosecutor in the Miami-Dade state attorney's office, says: ``I am constantly amazed when I see people who don't have any ethical base, who see going to work for the government as like getting into any other business. That person is just motivated by greed and profit. And honestly, I think we've had more than our share of instances of that.''
(Today, Centorino heads the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.)

In his piece, Dorschner cited the factors that contribute to corruption:

Corrupt officials looking to enrich themselves.

The late Steve Clark, a veteran pol who was mayor of both Miami and Miami-Dade, may have summed it up best about how he and other politicians looked at elected office as primarily a place for personal enrichment. When told that Hispanics had become more than 50 percent of Miami-Dade's population, he responded: ``Let them have a chance at the trough, too.''

Alex Daoud says that when he began as a Miami Beach city commissioner, he wasn't thinking of personal enrichment, but from the beginning, he thought the economics were out of whack. Though commissioners were, and still are, paid only $6,000 a year, Daoud found himself devoting so much time to politics that he had little chance to build his law practice.

Daoud says his downfall began when, desperate for money , he was approached by Abel Holtz, a founder of Capital Bank, during his second term as commissioner. ``Abel Holtz seduced me. . . . He had me over to his . . . waterfront mansion, a magnificent location on the bay. One day after tennis, after everyone left, we were sitting down by his pool, and he said I had a bright political future. All I needed was some help from the right people.
Many disgraced politicians claim they slipped slowly into corruption , moving in minuscule steps so that they weren't aware ofwhat they were doing until it was too late. Not Daoud. ``I knew what I was doing. It starts like a cancer, a single cell, and then it spreads.''
Pay scale unappealing.
[Joe] Centorino, the prosecutor: ``Being underpaid is not an excuse. It certainly could be an argument for paying public figures a reasonable salary, but I don't think that's going to eliminate corruption .''
How often lobbyists bribe officials is debatable, but money is constantly passing from lobbyists to politicians in a completely legal way -- through campaign contributions.
The roots of corruption in South Florida run deep and can be traced back decades.

In 1925, a Miami Beach police chief named Damon Lewis was sentenced to 5 years in prison for running a "dope ring."

But, when the talk gets around to more recent examples of corruption in South Florida, the name Sergio Pereira is almost always mentioned.

In 1985, Pereira became the City of Miami's first Cuban-born city manager.

From the Miami News, March 28, 1985.

Pereira, was a former assistant Dade County manager who some called "Slippery Sergio."

He liked hand-rolled cigars, heavy gold jewelry - lots of it - and designer suits. A proclamation from the Metro commission also noted that Pereira could "be Cuban, look white and act black."

Six months after he became Miami's city manager, he was tapped to become Dade County manager. And that's when things started to get interesting.

A Miami News story noted that Pereira's county-leased car was equipped with a mobile telephone, a siren, and a "Kojak style portable flashing [red] light."

Soon after taking office in January 1986, Pereira drew criticism when the press learned that he had spent more than $31,000 in taxpayer money on furniture for his new office.

Topping the list of expenditures was $9,400 spent on a green marble desk. Other office goodies included a $10,000 oak credenza, a $9,000 custom made leather sofa, and a $1,500 leather arm chair.

From the Miami News, Feb. 14, 1986. (Click to enlarge.)

Pereira explained that he worked long hours and needed to work in a comfortable environment.

Pereira's executive assistant told the Miami News, the "expensive office furniture is needed to enhance the county's image when the county manager is entertaining foreign visitors who may want to do business with the county."

(However, Pereira was a rank amateur when it came to splurging on office decor. 

In 1987 the media learned that Miami City Commissioner Rosario Kennedy spent $111,549.71 - more than five times what the city first estimated - decorating her city hall office. The cost was "$10,000 less than the assessed value of her home," according to the Miami Herald. Incredibly, Kennedy told the paper, "Nobody told me anything about a budget. I was not involved in it at all. I was involved in the colors .")

Pereira suggested that news stories about the cost of his office furniture were anti-Cuban bias.

From the Miami News, Jan. 24, 1986.

But, Pereira was just getting warmed up.

Before he left office two years later in 1988, the egotistical county manager managed to keep his name in the news with various ethical lapses that included...
  • ...taking flying lessons in county police helicopters. In July 1987 the Herald reported, "If he had taken private lessons at the going rate of $350 an hour, his 29.4 hours in the air would have cost him $10,290. In an interview Monday, Pereira said he took up flying at the suggestion of county pilots. "I felt it would be good for morale," he said. "It's done wonders for them out there."

  • ...buying stolen suits. In Oct. 1987 the Herald reported "The Dade County Grand Jury indicted County Manager Sergio Pereira ... for buying stolen designer suits from a cut-rate haberdasher who peddled clothing from a rented Miami duplex."

  • In a line right out of Casablanca, the grand jury exclaimed, "We find it shocking that public officials and other prominent citizens did patronize this duplex." The charges against Pereira were dropped a month later.

  • ...failing to disclose a 1985 land sale that earned him an estimated $127,000 with no investment of money on his part. The Herald reported the deal on Jan. 27, 1988.
  • Pereira had run out of chances....and excuses.

    On Feb. 10, 1988 he resigned.

    According to the Herald, "his decision to leave came as the Herald prepared to publish a story that said he did not report his sale of two houses in Hialeah on his 1985 income tax return."

    Pereira, in typical fashion, once again blamed the "Anglo media" for his troubles. So did many in Miami's Hispanic community.

    "It is clear that the unrelentless and unethical actions of some members of the media have contributed to a serious and unhealthy situation for our community and county government," the Herald quoted Pereira as saying.

    But, at least one of Miami's media outlets came to Pereira's defense.

    The Herald's Celia Dugger reported...
    By late afternoon, rumors swept through the Metro administration building that Pereira would resign. Throughout the evening and night, television and radio stations interrupted their programming to announce the inevitability of Pereira 's resignation. Each cut-in was brief and followed by regular programming -- except on Spanish-language WQBA-AM.

    WQBA, which has vigorously defended the county manager in recent weeks, aired a special call-in program for listeners to express their outrage.
    The host of the call-in program was the station's news director - and future Miami mayor - Tomas Regalado.

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