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What first caught Roberto Sobrado's attention was the Mercedes -- that now-legendary blue sedan. But quickly Sobrado's eyes fell to the driver, a plump man with a round face. "I took a look and I realized it was him," Sobrado recalls. "I've seen his picture in the paper."
County Commissioner Joe Gersten was pulling up to the Four Ambassadors, a waterfront hotel/condominium complex on South Bayshore Drive near downtown Miami. The commissioner and a second man parked directly in front of the entrance. "He just left the car running; he didn't give the key to anybody," says Sobrado, who was standing only a few feet away, waiting for a valet to retrieve his truck. "His car was blocking the other cars that were coming in. He walked into the lobby with this other guy, and when one of the attendants tried to get into the car, Mr. Gersten came out of the lobby, shouting at the guy not to touch his car."
According to Sobrado, Gersten walked up to his Mercedes and opened the rear door on the driver's side. The commissioner then leaned in, opened a briefcase, removed a handgun, and tucked the weapon into his waistband. "He said, `If you touch my car, I'll shoot you,'" Sobrado recalls. "I was watching everything up close. For a second I thought he was actually going to shoot the guy. But he didn't point the gun at him; he just put it in his waist[band]."
Sobrado's account is the first eyewitness report of the December 2 incident and clarifies a contradictory version of events published this past Saturday in the Miami Herald. The alleged threat, and a similar confrontation involving Gersten and parking attendants a week earlier at the same location, has sparked yet another investigation of the embattled Metro commissioner by the Dade State Attorney's Office.
Gersten's attorney, Richard Sharpstein, has acknowledged the commissioner was in the Four Ambassadors with a handgun that evening but has denied he tried to harm or intimidate anyone. Sobrado was angered when he read Sharpstein's comments in the Herald. "His lawyer is saying he never threatened anybody, and that's a lie," Sobrado argues. "I was there. I had a front-row seat to what happened." (Neither Gersten nor Sharpstein returned messages from New Times.)
Sobrado, who works as a craftsman for local decorators, was delivering a set of ironwork boxes he had just refurbished to a Four Ambassadors resident. A 32-year-old native of Argentina who has lived in Miami for a decade, Sobrado kept his valet parking receipt in order to prove he was at the Four Ambassadors on December 2. The receipt shows he arrived at 6:12 p.m. His client, the condominium resident, confirms Sobrado was there.
After Gersten retreated inside the building, Sobrado approached the attendant, who told him that Gersten showed him a badge and claimed that, being a county commissioner, he could have the valet arrested. "The attendant was pissed off about the way he was treated," Sobrado says. "I talked to the attendant briefly and then I got my truck and I got out of there." Though the attendant declined to file a report with police, the encounter still gnaws at Sobrado. "I think it is unfair what this guy did," he says, "pushing people around and trying to show everybody how powerful he is."
Investigators for the State Attorney's Office confirm they are looking into at least two allegations concerning the commissioner's conduct at the Four Ambassadors. If Gersten did threaten the valet with a gun, even if he didn't point it at him, the commissioner could be charged with a felony: aggravated assault. If Gersten carried his weapon into one of the Four Ambassadors' bars, he could be charged with a misdemeanor for bringing a gun to an establishment that serves alcohol.
Ray Havens, chief investigator for the State Attorney's Office, has been searching for witnesses to the December 2 incident and is eager to interview Sobrado. "I'll talk to him any time, anywhere," says Havens. (Sobrado was scheduled to speak with investigators this past Monday.) As for the reluctant parking attendant, Havens says if prosecutors decide to bring a case against Gersten, the valet would be subpoenaed to testify.
For more than seven months, Gersten has been the subject of an investigation by state and federal law-enforcement officials, who have been examining allegations that Gersten misused his position as chairman of the commission's powerful finance committee to benefit friends and contributors, and to exert control over contracts at Miami International Airport.
In addition, prosecutors are attempting to determine whether Gersten, in connection with the theft of his Mercedes this past May, filed a false police report, had sex with a prostitute, and smoked crack cocaine. Gersten has denied all allegations.
That the Four Ambassadors incident involves the Mercedes and parking problems comes as little surprise to some observers. Within Metro-Dade circles, the commissioner's parking habits are legendary. "His car would stay on the curb at the airport for two or three days," notes one county official. "And everyone knew better than to tow or ticket it.