Sore Winner

Bruce Kaplan won his county commission race this past spring, but don't look for him when hey're handing out the Mr. Nice Guy awards

As Metro commission meetings go, this one was running relatively smoothly. Commissioners had agreed to ask voters to consider a new property tax, with the money to be earmarked to fight juvenile crime. They passed an anti-graffiti ordinance and a measure urging the federal government to build a new commissary at Homestead Air Force Base. It was a little past 7:30 p.m. on November 3, and all that was left to do was for each commissioner to announce any new appointments to the county's numerous voluntary boards and committees.

Having revamped the committee structure earlier in the year, the thirteen commissioners have been faced with the task of selecting more than 700 people to fill various posts. Depending on the size of the board, each commissioner gets to appoint one or two people. And with so many positions to fill, it has been a matter of custom that choices are approved without question.

And so it went during this meeting, with each commissioner's nominees winning swift ratification by colleagues without discussion or debate. Until Commission Chairman Art Teele reached the eighth name on his list of twelve.

"Mr. Chairman, I object to your appointment to the Film, Television, and Print Board," announced Commissioner Bruce Kaplan.

The person Kaplan found irksome was Jacqueline Basha, whom Teele sought to reappoint to the Film, Print and Broadcast Advisory Board, which seeks to promote Dade County as a locale for movies, TV shows, and photo shoots. A member of the board for the past year, Basha has worked as a political consultant in Dade for more than a decade, along with her husband Phil Hamersmith.

"Mr. Chairman, I would no more appoint someone who would go on TV as recently as two weeks ago and call you a criminal, than I'm sure you would appoint someone who had done that to me, as Ms. Basha has," Kaplan asserted, claiming that Basha had made derogatory comments about him while a guest of Michael Putney on WPLG-TV Channel 10's This Week in South Florida. Specifically, Kaplan fumed, Basha had branded him "a criminal" for the way he ran his commission campaign against Conchy Bretos in the spring. Both Basha and Hamersmith had worked for Bretos.

"I think that anybody that has exhibited very personal, continuing, and virulent animus toward any member of this commission is not qualified and they should not be permitted to serve on any one of these boards," charged Kaplan, whose district includes parts of Miami Beach and Little Havana. "This is a collegial body, Mr. Chairman, and if somebody is to be accorded the honor of serving on any one of these boards, then they ought to respect A they ought to respect each and every member of this board that appoints them."

His indignation rising, Kaplan continued, "We're not trying to turn this into a political football, Mr. Chairman. But I'll tell you what: Somebody who went on the Michael Putney show and accused me of being a criminal certainly in my mind doesn't fit the bill of being qualified to serve on any board in this county."

Teele clearly was taken aback. "I will take your objection under advisement," the chairman said. "I'd like to speak to Ms. Basha. As a courtesy to you, I will defer making that appointment." But he admonished Kaplan to be careful. "We should seek not a political agenda," he said. "I can tell you right now, ladies and gentlemen, when you all start letting people impose objections over you, the collegiality [of the commission] is going to break down real quick."

"I've got the tape in my office!" Kaplan bellowed as the meeting drew to a close. "I'll be happy to show you."

Jacqueline Basha didn't learn about the controversy until later that night, when she arrived home to hear a half-dozen answering machine messages from people who had seen Kaplan's outburst. The next morning she got a videotape of the commission meeting and watched as Kaplan lambasted her from the dais. "I was shocked," says Basha. "I have never before seen a county commissioner use his power like this to attack a private citizen. I wasn't even there to defend myself. It is a very dangerous precedent."

Basha says what surprised her most were Kaplan's accusations regarding This Week in South Florida A on which she was a guest along with Phil Hamersmith and Miami Herald political editor Tom Fiedler A which were utterly inaccurate. "I have never spoken about him in public in a negative way," she says.

In fact, a review of the September 5 segment of This Week in South Florida reveals that Basha only mentioned Kaplan once. During the twenty-minute discussion, which concerned an in-depth article that had appeared recently in the Herald's Tropic magazine, Basha complained that one of Kaplan's campaign workers also worked at Radio Mambi. That fact, she added, may have accounted for the Spanish-language radio station's harsh attacks on Bretos. She made no allegation of any "criminal" activity whatsoever.

Basha says Kaplan called her husband the day after the commission meeting and suggested the three of them meet to declare a truce. He also admitted, according to Basha, that he never actually watched Basha's appearance on This Week in South Florida. "He takes all of this very lightly," she says. "Like it's all some sort of joke. Well, I don't take a tarnish on my reputation lightly. Because of the very loud and public statements he made against me, I think it will always create a little doubt with other commissioners."

Basha turned down Kaplan's invitation. Instead she has written him a letter demanding that he publicly retract his statements about her. Besides copying the letter to every county commissioner, she also has sent a videotape of her appearance on the television show to Art Teele and to County Attorney Robert Ginsburg. And she has retained attorney Joel Hirschhorn to counsel her about possible legal recourse against Kaplan.

"It is widely known that I was one of Conchy Bretos's paid media consultants during the campaign," Basha wrote in her letter. "I was her friend before the campaign and I am still her friend today. If you have a problem with my personal and professional relationship with Conchy Bretos, I suggest that you confront me as a private citizen, instead of abusing your position as an elected official."

Having reviewed his copy of the videotape, Teele says he is furious with the way Kaplan acted. "Ms. Basha is just one in a long line of people who have been embarrassed or maligned by this commissioner, who is making it his business to conduct political vendettas from the dais," says Teele. "This is just a crybaby, knee-jerk reaction by a person who is clearly unable to be magnanimous in victory."

Kaplan feels the incident is being blown out of proportion. He says that within a few days of the November 3 commission meeting he told Teele he no longer objected to Basha's appointment. In a seeming reversal of his previous statements, he adds, "Jackie Basha is a very qualified person. She does a lot of very good work."

Teele's remarks about Kaplan, however, highlight a phenomenon that is not unique to Jacqueline Basha. Indeed, as those who keep a close eye on Dade's political machinations have noticed, people with ties to Bretos have undergone unpleasant experiences involving the man who won the District 5 commission race.

First there was Conchy Bretos herself. During the campaign, Kaplan drew sharp criticism for his smear tactics, including the fact that he and his supporters labeled Bretos a Communist in Little Havana and an anti-Semite in Miami Beach. On election eve, he took to the Spanish-language airwaves and charged that Bretos wanted to get rid of public housing and centers that served meals to the elderly. "My opponent," he declared on Radio Mambi, "wants to throw old people out of their homes to build condos." By the time Bretos had a chance to debunk the allegations, Kaplan had won the election.

Bretos, who was serving as executive director of the Dade County Commission on the Status of Women, was fired by her boss, Community Affairs Director Ari Sosa, only two months after Kaplan took office. The firing received thunderous publicity, with Bretos claiming the ouster was a political act of retribution orchestrated by Kaplan or his ally Natacha Millan, a fellow county commissioner. Although Sosa denied he had been pressured to fire Bretos, he was at a loss to adequately explain his reasons. Both Kaplan and Millan denied having had anything to do with Bretos's dismissal.

Since Bretos's firing, Gov. Lawton Chiles has appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the dismissal. The prosecutor also is examining the windfall of absentee votes that vaulted Kaplan into the runoff (nearly 25 percent of the votes Kaplan received in the primary were of the absentee variety).

And then came Jeff Donnelly. A 54-year-old high school teacher, Donnelly is one of the founders of the South Beach New Democrats, a group that last spring devoted a great deal of time and energy campaigning for Bretos over Kaplan, who is a registered Republican. When the City of Miami Beach needed to designate two official representatives to serve on the Dade County Library Board, both of City Manager Roger Carlton's nominees were unanimously approved by the Miami Beach Commission. One of those nominees was Donnelly. The library board also expressed its approval of the choices.

But in October, when the appointments were forwarded to the county commission, only one nominee was officially voted onto the board. Donnelly's name was placed in limbo -- neither confirmed nor rejected. The reason: an objection by Commissioner Bruce Kaplan.

Sources within the City of Miami Beach and Dade County say Kaplan blocked the appointment because of Donnelly's participation in the Bretos campaign.

As of this week, Donnelly's name remains in the netherworld of Dade politics. Sources say Miami Beach officials are privately meeting with Kaplan in an attempt to expedite the matter. Kaplan says he expects to meet with Donnelly in the near future. The reason he initially blocked the appointment: "I had been told that [Donnelly] sent some sort of a mailing around saying I was a homophobe." That information proved to be false. Kaplan says he hopes the whole matter will be cleared up soon. Donnelly, meanwhile, is saying little. "I've not heard from the county commission, I've not heard from the library board, I've not heard from anybody in writing," he says.

One former Bretos supporter has managed to gain appointment to a county committee. Bobbie Mumford, a political consultant who advised Bretos on strategy within the black community, has been named to a special task force to welcome the National Association of Television Program Executives, which holds its annual conference in Miami Beach next January. More than 15,000 TV honchos are expected to attend. But according to several sources -- both within county government and outside it -- Bruce Kaplan didn't make it easy.

Taking an early interest in the host committee, Kaplan noticed Mumford's name on a list of proposed members. Some of those who were involved in the process say the commissioner was furious at the ex-Bretos worker's inclusion and that Kaplan backed down only after he was named honorary co-chair of the committee along with Commissioner Maurice Ferre.

Bobbie Mumford herself denies that Kaplan ever raised a concern about her appointment to the committee. "Bruce Kaplan and I have a wonderful camaraderie," she says, politely refusing to answer any other questions. Kaplan's comment on his new alliance with Mumford: "She has proven she is a dedicated community leader."

Members of county boards and task forces aren't the only Conchy Bretos allies who have found themselves on the wrong side of Commissioner Kaplan. After budget hearings earlier this fall, Kaplan verbally berated Diana Gonzalez, the head of the Department of Development and Facilities Management (DDFM). The commissioner has since demanded that an audit be conducted of DDFM's books.

The first division within DDFM to be scrutinized is Planning and Asset Management, which counts among its senior officials Felix Madera, one of Bretos's closest advisors during her campaign. Madera also was featured prominently in the Herald's late-summer Tropic piece about the Bretos-Kaplan battle. (During the commission race, Kaplan produced an affidavit signed by Raquel Regalado, which was photocopied and distributed all over Miami Beach. Regalado, who used her Radio Mambi program to rail against Bretos, swore she had overheard Madera make an anti-Semitic remark. Madera signed his own affidavit stating he never made any such statements, as did nearly a dozen people who had been present at the time he allegedly made the slur.)

"It certainly is a strange coincidence" that Madera should be subjected to such scrutiny, laughs one DDFM official who asked not to be identified. "Unless of course it's not a coincidence."

Kaplan says he wasn't aware Madera worked for DDFM, and that his disagreements with the agency had nothing to do with the election campaign. Moreover, he adds, he bears no postcampaign grudges and is not mounting any sort of vendetta. "I'd rather all these people became my friends," Kaplan asserts.

Commission Chairman Art Teele -- who was a major Bretos supporter himself -- is not convinced. He says that as he watches Kaplan operate, he is reminded of the antics of the very commissioner Kaplan beat in the primaries: Joe Gersten. "Everything that Bruce has been doing has been textbook examples of the way Joe used to operate," says Teele. "It's all vintage Gersten."

Others point out that while Kaplan has been more blatant in his moves, he is no different from any other politician. "Isn't that what politics has always been about?" muses one official, who did not want to be identified. "You reward your friends and you screw your enemies."

"I think it is unfortunate to interject politics into these appointments," says Jacqueline Basha. "The campaign is behind us. I was perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones. But I'm surprised Commissioner Kaplan continues to be obsessed with these personal vendettas against those of us who supported Conchy Bretos."

Teele says he will push once again for Basha's appointment to the Film, Print and Broadcast Advisory Board. In the meantime, Basha is waiting for her apology.

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