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.

This past summer Elio Rojas had a little problem: two cars and only one driveway. It was possible, of course, to park both cars in the same driveway, but that was an inconvenience, an inconvenience Rojas figured he could do without. So Rojas, president of Miami's influential Latin Quarter Association, devised a simple solution: sacrifice some lawn in front of his house at 3014 SW Fifth St. in west Little Havana, and build a second driveway.

Rojas had another idea. He telephoned Luis Prieto-Portar, director of the city's Public Works Department, whom he'd met several months earlier at the popular Little Havana restaurant El Pub Calle 8. The sidewalk in front of his house wasn't in great shape, Rojas told Prieto-Portar. Could city crews come out and lay some new concrete? Sure, said the director, it so happens the sidewalks in your neighborhood are scheduled to be repaired. There's a city crew working just a few blocks east of where you live. When they finish, they'll move on to your street. Great, said Rojas. And while they're at it, could they pour a ramp for the new driveway I want to build? Sure, let's talk about it, answered Prieto-Portar.

The director of Public Works (137 employees, $14.1 million annual budget) doesn't cutomarily make house calls, but near dusk on Thursday, August 1, Prieto-Portar, along with Erno Rosa, the head of the department's operations division, paid a personal call on Elio Rojas at home. After the three men examined the sidewalk and the site of the new driveway, Rojas recalls, they sat in the Florida room of the house, sipped Coca-Colas, and discussed the repair and construction project. Public Works doesn't usually build driveway approaches for private residences, Prieto-Portar explained to Rojas, because even though it would be perfectly legal, the ramps from the curb to the sidewalk don't benefit the public. But as long as the crew was going to be working on the sidewalk, they'd make an exception and pour the ramp. The city would bill Rojas $50 for a permit to build on the public right-of-way, plus $150 for materials and labor. At this, Rojas says, he had an even better idea: as long as the city crew was fixing the sidewalk and building the ramp, why not go ahead and dig up the lawn, pour some more concrete, and actually build the driveway, finish the job?

That would be impossible, Rojas says he was told. "Erno Rosa said there is no way they can work on private property," Rojas recalls. "He said, `Even if you pay me, I can't do that.' So I said, `Fine. I'll just have to hire someone,' and that was the end of it."

But that wasn't the end of it at all. Months later, not only is Elio Rojas still getting by with only one driveway, but the Dade State Attorney's Office has expressed great interest in Prieto-Portar's role in solving the paving problem.

And while investigators scrutinize the Rojas saga, they're also probing another patch of concrete not very far away.

El Pub, where Elio Rojas and Luis Prieto-Portar first made each other's acquaintance, is a landmark on SW Eighth Street, for more than twenty years a gathering place for the city's Latin power elite. In late December 1990, a crew from Miami's Department of Public Works was hard at work there, too. Earlier that month Prieto-Portar and Jose Casanova, the city's planner for Little Havana, had approached El Pub's owner, Florentino Perez - who also happens to be chairman of the board of the private, nonprofit Latin Quarter Association, an organization that acts as the area's chamber of commerce - asking whether Perez would be interested in setting up a sidewalk cafe as an addition to his restaurant.

Applicants for sidewalk cafes are required to have liability insurance coverage of at least one million dollars, and must pay twenty dollars per year for each square foot of public sidewalk space they occupy. But the sidewalk alongside El Pub was too narrow to accommodate an outdoor cafe, so Perez says Prieto-Portar offered to have city crews - free of charge - pave over the muddy strip that ran along SW 16th Avenue between the existing sidewalk and the curb, thus creating a new public sidewalk and giving El Pub room to expand onto the old one.

"We had an agreement with the director of Public Works that they would do the construction in order for us to put in the first sidewalk cafe in Little Havana," says Perez, who considers himself a friend of Mayor Xavier Suarez and the four city commissioners. "We weren't supposed to pay anything to build this. Otherwise we wouldn't have started a cafe." Perez says he understood that the deal would also include a one-year waiver of the square-footage fee.

In late December a Public Works crew cleared grass and weeds from the site and poured the concrete, extending El Pub's sidewalk all the way to the curb. The cafe soon became a reality - fourteen tables, a bar, and potted ficus and bougainvilleas. But on January 16 the department sent Perez a bill for $2641.20 for the job, based on a payment schedule defined by the city code. "I had to call to remind them of our agreement," Perez remembers. On April 5, a Public Works construction engineer sent a memo to the accounting department, instructing that the bill be canceled. Perez didn't have to pay. In March Miami city commissioners had voted to waive the first year's square-footage charges for sidewalk cafes built in "target development areas" such as the Latin Quarter - with the aim of revitalizing those areas and encouraging growth.

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."

Work crew members insist there were no free lunches, no patio, and no offer from Rojas for the workmen to use his bathroom. And at least one member of the crew doesn't see it Rojas's way at all. For one thing, says Gavino Anton, Jr., after the men had torn up the sidewalks, Prieto-Portar arrived and had a conversation with crew foreman Bennie Thompson. Then Thompson ordered Anton and the rest of the crew to begin constructing a driveway in Rojas's front yard. "I thought it was really strange and I asked why we were doing this work, because all of us know you don't work on private property unless a tree falls down or roots have to be cut or something like that," says Anton. "[Thompson] told me those were his orders from the director, and if there were any problems, we were supposed to tell our supervisor or Erno Rosa to call the director. When the boss says do it, you know, it's what you have to do. So we went to work in the man's yard."

Anton says crew member Julio Lopez tore up the grass with a small bulldozer before the men quit for the day. When they returned to the city's operations yard, crew members alerted their supervisor to the unprecedented task they'd been told to perform. Erno Rosa immediately ordered the men to stay out of the private yard. "I've been doing this for seven-and-a-half years, and people are always trying to get you to do their driveways," says Anton, "but this is the first time ever I've seen something like this. This is like an army and the orders are passed along from the top. We can't even take a square of sidewalk out without the foreman approving. And the foreman doesn't do a thing without an order from his supervisor or from Erno Rosa."

Assistant State Attorney Richard Gregorie, the former assistant U.S. attorney who built the case against ex-Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, is looking into Prieto-Portar's actions. Gregorie, who has already questioned Rojas, Rosa, work foreman Bennie Thompson, and several crew members, also wants to know why only half of a bill for $600 was paid after a Public Works crew laid brick for a sidewalk cafe at the Calle Ocho Market Place at 1390 SW Eighth St. The prosecutor says he cannot comment about an ongoing investigation.

But Gregorie is not the first to investigate the way in which Luis Prieto-Portar goes about his duties. In July 1990, during the course of an investigation into the director's assignment of one of his employees to type a manuscript on city time, Sgt. Harvey Wasserman of the Miami Police Department's Internal Affairs Section determined that "aside from possible criminal conduct [Prieto-Portar had] committed several moral and ethical violations." Wasserman was unable to determine whether the manuscript was intended for publication or if it was, as Prieto-Portar insisted, a Public Works training manual. Wasserman did find, however, that Prieto-Portar had lied when he claimed he was unaware an investigation was under way until he was actually called in to be interviewed by police. The director had in fact been alerted by the typist, who was questioned by police before they called Prieto-Portar. The director later instructed the typist not to admit tipping him off.

After Wasserman completed his investigation, Prieto-Portar acknowledged having lied about speaking to the typist, saying he did it in a "misguided" effort to protect that worker. Prieto-Portar was reprimanded by the city manager. (Wasserman also found Prieto-Portar had taken "extreme literary license" on his resume, in describing manuscripts he had authored as "presently under review" by publishing houses. They were not.)

Today, if you drive through Little Havana, past the house at 3014 SW Fifth St., you'll see a newly repaired sidewalk and a freshly laid driveway approach that slopes gracefully upward from the street toward the house. Maybe you'll see Elio Rojas's wife standing at the front door, ruefully surveying the unblemished ramp and the muddy hole that still mars her front lawn. Maybe you'll see Elio Rojas, too, pondering the muck and the mess. The president of the Latin Quarter Association still has a little problem, after all, still has some driveway building to do.

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