As Sweetwater Turns

There was nepotism on the police force and a councilman got busted for hawking fake IDs. But a slew of investigators haven't even begun to sort out the perpetual brouhaha that masquerades as city government.

"All she's trying to do is go around and make noise and try to make us look bad," Bango says, once the proceedings have formally ended. Clutching a Styrofoam cup half full of coffee and breathing heavily, the council president complains that Aguirre stacked the gallery with supporters. "She's salivating over Mitro; she and her allies are like vultures. This is a mockery. I'm pissed."

At this Bango unleashes a rollicking laugh. A huge smile spreads across her sweat-glistened face. "And this meeting has been very soft," she confides. "This was very mild-mannered."

Mention of the City of Sweetwater unfailingly brings a smile --hough whether it's due to amusement or discomfort is not always clear -- to the face of the most dour law enforcement official, at least among those who have had the opportunity to visit the municipality on business matters. Several agencies, in particular the Metro-Dade Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, have expended so many hours in Sweetwater that they might be wise to consider opening their own outposts in the burg.

But no agency knows the route into Sweetwater like the public-corruption unit of the Dade State Attorney's Office. "It's not unusual for us to get more than one call a week from one faction or the other over there," sighs Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino. "It's a constant barrage. Ms. Bango is a regular caller. Mr. Mitro was a regular caller until recently. Ms. Aguirre. There are other municipalities that generate more than their fair share of complaints, but the political nature of the complaints in Sweetwater is a standout factor."

Most of the allegations, says Centorino, are sorted out with one phone call. But plenty make it to the investigative stage. "I can't think of a time in the last few years when there wasn't something open," the prosecutor says. Indeed, according to State Attorney's Office records, the agency has opened and closed at least ten investigations involving Sweetwater -- and that's just since 1990. Among them are the following:

A complaint filed in 1992 by a failed council candidate, William Anello, alleging that political corruption tainted the appointment of a successor to a deceased council member. The case was closed with no finding of criminal violation.

In September 1992 Mayor Aguirre alleged that Mitro violated the state Sunshine Law by visiting four council members at their homes, where city business was privately discussed. After the mayor failed to respond to four requests for substantiating information, the probe was closed.

Also in September 1992 Mitro accused Aguirre of stealing food that had been donated to the City of Sweetwater to assist in the Hurricane Andrew relief effort. Aguirre denied the allegation and the State Attorney's Office closed the investigation for lack of any supporting evidence.

In October 1992 Reynaldo Bango, husband of Gloria Bango, accused the mayor of having her personal vehicle repaired at the city motor pool at taxpayers' expense. Investigators learned from the city's director of maintenance that on various occasions Aguirre had asked him to repair cars belonging to her and her boyfriend. "The practice of allowing the city's mayors to use the city garage for personal car repairs is apparently a longstanding one in Sweetwater," reads the investigative report. The mayor claimed to have followed tradition "with an innocent intent," the report continues, and while the practice "may be a highly questionable one on a public policy level...[the excuse] provides a solid defense to any criminal charge of theft."

Also in October 1992 Reynaldo Bango alleged that then-police chief Charles Toledo had claimed 60 hours of overtime while he was actually on paid administrative leave to attend law school in New York. The State Attorney's Office closed the case without finding any criminal violation.

In February of this year Mitro accused Aguirre of breaking the Sunshine Law by refusing to provide him with a copy of a list of schoolchildren who received bicycles donated by the Latin Builders Association. The investigator determined that the mayor had incorrectly withheld the records because she had misunderstood an earlier State Attorney's Office opinion regarding the same matter. The official concluded that Aguirre had not intentionally violated the law.

State Attorney's Office officials continue to prowl Sweetwater today. According to sources from city government and law enforcement agencies, investigators are probing allegations of criminal behavior at the police department, which has also drawn the scrutiny of several other agencies in the past year, including the FBI, FDLE, and the Metro-Dade Police Department. In addition, police chiefs from the cities of Homestead and North Miami Beach, at the request of current Sweetwater Police Chief Ralph Hernandez, are conducting an internal affairs investigation of the department.

Although spokesmen from these agencies won't publicly discuss ongoing investigations, their line of inquiry makes it apparent that they are scrutinizing the laundry list of allegations Mayor Aguirre detailed in her August 1993 memorandum explaining Assistant Chief Ray Toledo's suspension. "After careful consideration and due review of all facts available at this time," Aguirre wrote, "I have decided that there exist reasonable grounds to belief [sic] that you have violated, subverted, and disregarded various laws, rules, and the regulations, and that your conduct has been unprofessional and constituting of conduct unbecoming [sic]." In the memo, Aguirre accuses Toledo of the following:

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