The Strange Case of the Driveway That Never Got Built

When the president of the Latin Quarter Association wanted a new driveway, he went straight to the top. The rest is mystery.

Luis Prieto-Portar, who was appointed director of Public Works in May 1989, acknowledges that he struck a deal with El Pub's owner. It didn't make any sense to charge Perez for the same kind of work his crews perform at no charge everywhere else in Miami, says the director, especially when the restaurant soon would be paying thousands of dollars per year in sidewalk-rental fees. Prieto-Portar contends that he did not initially promise the city would forgive Perez the square-footage fee prior to commissioners having voted on the matter, but he does say Perez agreed to help persuade other restaurateurs to open their own sidewalk cafes in the Latin Quarter, an area bounded by Flagler and SW Eighth streets, and Twelfth and Seventeenth avenues. "It was a good deal for everyone," says Prieto-Portar. "The Latin Quarter would get some revitalization, El Pub would get business and a certain amount of notoriety, and the city would collect the fees from the sidewalk cafes. We saw the costs of construction simply as an investment that would be paid back to the city down the road." And because the matter involved only a sidewalk, and sidewalks are the business of Public Works, Prieto-Portar says it was appropriate that he made the agreement with Perez. "I didn't feel I had to take it to another level," says the director. "The initiative rests on me and nobody else."

The Monday after Prieto-Portar made an up-close survey of Elio Rojas's hoped-for driveway, the Latin Quarter Association's president looked on happily as city workers began to rip up the sidewalk in front of his house in anticipation of the planned repairs. The details of what happened next are in dispute. Prieto-Portar says he has been advised by his attorney not to comment. Operations chief Erno Rosa, work crew foreman Bennie Thompson, and crew members Julio Lopez, Eugenio Torriente, and Willie Culpepper say officials from the State Attorney's Office have instructed them not to discuss the driveway. Assistant City Manager Wally Lee says no one from his office can comment about anything pertaining to the case, either. But no one told Elio Rojas not to talk about it.

He says that while he was home from work for lunch on Monday, he offered his hospitality to the crew members. He invited them into his back yard, he says, and ordered two pizzas from Pizza Hut for them, which they ate while sitting on his covered patio. He provided three liters of Gatorade, he says, and offered the use of a bathroom should the men need to use it during the day. When he left the house to return to work that afternoon, Rojas says, he asked that the men shut the gate at the end of the day.

He says he did the same the next day, Tuesday, although lunch this time was a twenty-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And when he came home that night, Rojas says, he was shocked to discover that his front lawn had been subjected to a major excavation, apparently the beginnings of a new driveway. "My wife was screaming that we had a swimming pool in the front yard," he recalls. "I couldn't believe what they had done. There was this huge hole."

He says the next morning he called Prieto-Portar's office several times to complain about the workers having torn up his yard, but the Public Works director wasn't in. That afternoon, without warning, an extremely agitated Prieto-Portar appeared at the Latin Quarter Association office to deliver some devastating news to Rojas. "He said he had been told he had to resign or he would be fired by 5:00 p.m.," says Rojas. "He said they called from city hall and said he had made the crew build a driveway and he was going to lose his job." According to Rojas, Prieto-Portar said he had no idea who ordered the work crew to begin construction of a driveway, and he asked Rojas to accompany him to City Manager Cesar Odio's office the next day to explain his side of the story. Rojas agreed.

That meeting was brief. Rojas says Odio simply told the two men that the matter was already in the hands of the State Attorney's Office and they were now responsible for any investigation.

Rojas, however, had developed an investigative theory of his own. As he was preparing to leave home that morning for the meeting with Prieto-Portar and Odio, he encountered one of the Public Works crew members, who volunteered some disturbing information. The other workers, he said, were out to get the boss man, Prieto-Portar, as part of some mysterious conspiracy. Based on that strange meeting, Rojas surmises that the workers had learned of his plans for a driveway, dug up his lawn, and informed Erno Rosa, their supervisor, that Prieto-Portar actually ordered them to do it.

Rojas also says that despite the fact that he'd bought the workers lunch and allowed them to use the bathroom in his house, he had overheard some of the workers insulting him, and that they also had nasty things to say about his colleague Florentino Perez, referring to the "alta sociedad" (high society) pages in the newspaper as "alta suciedad" (high filth), after seeing photographs of Latin Quarter Association members in the society column. "I don't know why, but for some reason some of those crew members have it in for Prieto," Rojas ventures. "I think they want to see him out."

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