By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
The county commissioner's corruption was petty, stupid, and - as far as the state attorney's office was concerned - perfectly legal: Charging the county $176.35 for two nights in a hotel room he never used: legal. Charging the county $310 for round-trip airfare to a destination he used only as a stopover: legal. Charging the county $225 for registration to a conference he did not attend: legal. Lying on a financial disclosure form: legal.
While Commissioner Barry Schreiber visited a girlfriend in New York in December 1988, taxpayers in Dade were shelling out money for his empty hotel room and other expenses in Washington, D.C. After the Miami Herald published a story about the bogus trip (approximate cost equalling that of a police detective's weekly salary), the state attorney's office conducted an investigation and decided that Schreiber had broken no laws and would not be prosecuted.
But then that's the way it tends to go when local politicians get caught taking things they shouldn't. Not that the Dade state attorney's public corruption unit doesn't bring cases to court. When it comes to going after dirty cops, for instance, the office is vigorous; and several city managers and other officials have been prosecuted. But in a county marked by a public perception of rampant corruption, only rarely do elected officials end up before a judge. Says a partner at one well-known Miami law firm: "Janet Reno's prosecution of elected officials isn't animal. It isn't mineral. It's vegetable."
Just finding the public corruption unit of the state attorney's office can be a task. The directory downstairs in the Metro Justice Building doesn't list public corruption, and the sign outside Room 950, which houses the unit, reads "Organized Crime & Narcotics." You have to ask around to find the folks responsible for prosecuting elected officials and cops and building inspectors. The eight lawyers in Room 950 are clearly a sharp bunch - quick on their feet and fiercely loyal to their boss, Janet Reno, who they say gives them broad authority and tremendous support. Reno, Florida's first female state attorney, a 52-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer whose family has lived in South Florida more than 60 years, praises the department in turn, calling its work among the most important her office handles. "The two most important things in the office are crimes of violence and public corruption," she asserts. "Violence undermines the very physical fabric of society, and corruption undermines the spiritual, internal fabric of government."
Yet public corruption unit files show that Reno, in her twelve years as state attorney, has brought to trial a total of five elected officials for violations of the public trust. Reno's records contain only these corruption prosecutions:
Former Surfside Mayor Louis Hoberman was found guilty of bribery in a 1978 case, former Florida City Mayor Thomas Karrick pleaded guilty to grand theft in 1979, former Metro Commissioner Neil Adams was convicted of gambling charges in 1979, former school board member Kathleen Magrath pleaded guilty to election-law violations in 1986, and former Circuit Judge Howard Gross was acquitted of bribery charges brought against him in 1987.
Prosecutors filed civil - but not criminal - charges against former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre in 1983 for election-law violations, resulting in a $35,000 fine. Reno's office has since brought civil charges against other elected officials for similar violations. Former Miami Beach Commissioner Ben Grenald, for instance, was fined $10,600 for illegally spending 1987 campaign contributions. Reno explains that she filed civil rather than criminal charges against Ferre, Grenald, and several others because "that would afford the stiffer penalty. It seems to be an effective way of sending a message in terms of these election-law violations."
If corruption cases are so important, why haven't there been more prosecutions in twelve years? The easy answer is that elected officials hereabouts are thoroughly honest, highly principled public servants who aren't capable of harboring a dishonest thought, much less pulling off a crooked deed. But answers, of course, are not always easy.
The office of the U.S. attorney, the state attorney's federal counterpart, has been prosecuting plenty of elected officials lately - including five in a particularly busy four months. Between January and April of this year, the feds convicted Sweetwater Mayor Irain Gonzalez and council members Carmen Menendez and Antonio Duran on extortion charges, and indicted Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Councilman Andres Mejides on charges of trading votes for cash and property. Another Sweetwater council member, Lucio Cobian, has agreed to plead guilty to extortion conspiracy charges. In August, former Sweetwater Councilman Hugo Alvarez was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to extortion. Prosecutors recommended he not be sentenced to jail, but when a federal judge sentenced him to federal prison, Alvarez changed his plea to not guilty. Last month prosecutors dropped charges against him, citing his cooperation in the case.
Other Dade officials whose offenses have been brought to light by the U.S. Attorney's Office since 1984 are John Lomelo, former mayor of Sunrise, who was convicted of mail fraud and extortion charges in 1984; former Hialeah Councilman Sebastian Dorrego, convicted in 1987 of extortion and making false statements (in 1988 he was again convicted on two counts of making false statements); and Silvio Cardoso, another former Hialeah councilman, who pleaded guilty to charges of bribery and was sentenced to probation in 1988. That's a total of eleven prosecutions in the past seven years (U.S. Attorney's Office records were computerized in 1984; they could not provide information for cases dating before that time).