Secrets and Sunshine

One thing is clear: Some county commissioners broke the law last December. Another thing isn't so clear: Will they ever be punished?

Former county commissioner Joe Gersten supposedly is still under investigation for an incident that took place three years ago. (Gersten reported his car stolen after allegedly smoking crack with a Biscayne Boulevard prostitute.) The State Attorney's Office spent nearly a year looking into allegations against Larry Hawkins before finally passing the information to the state commission on ethics, which then launched its own investigation. And it took two years for the Lee County State Attorney's Office (assigned the case because of a conflict in the Dade State Attorney's Office) to decide there was insufficient evidence to prove that Bruce Kaplan orchestrated the firing of his former rival, Conchy Bretos.

"These decisions are not based on politics at all," argues Rundle, who says the media ignore many of the cases her office does bring against public officials. "They are based on the evidence, the facts, and the law. We have to have a reasonable expectation of a conviction before we can proceed. It is the same in every case. That's our code of ethics. We simply apply that standard."

The Sunshine Law provides Rundle with two options: She can charge offenders criminally with a second-degree misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail and a $500 fine; or if the infraction is determined to be inadvertent, she can bring civil charges that carry a fine of up to $500. (Recently such a civil case was brought against El Portal Mayor George Eckert for holding budget workshops behind closed doors.)

If prosecutors are able to win a conviction for a criminal violation, Gov. Lawton Chiles has the power to remove the politician from office. (The governor can also suspend an official while charges are pending.)

Following a criminal conviction in this case, Rundle would have one more option to consider: She could ask a judge to overturn the commission's appointment of Armando Vidal as county manager, and force a new vote. One private attorney involved in the case asserts that such a move would send the strongest possible message to Dade's elected officials that the State Attorney's Office will not tolerate violations of the Sunshine Law. But doing so could severely disrupt county governmental operations, and in light of the powerful interests that backed Vidal, it could also prove to be an act of political suicide for Rundle.

Some people close to the case believe that Rundle must take some definitive action regardless of the political risks. Given the brazen nature of the apparent violations, her very credibility could be at stake. Says one local attorney: "It's the arrogance [of the commissioners] that gets me." Adds political consultant Hamersmith: "It would seem that if there was ever going to be a case brought for violating the Sunshine Law, this should be it."

When county commissioners met this past December 15 to select a new county manager, they had nine finalists from which to choose. In truth, however, only two candidates had emerged as serious contenders: Vidal, the county's public works director; and Cynthia Curry, an assistant county manager. Vidal is a Cuban American; Curry is an American black. The political struggle preceding the final vote had taken on an ugly, racially charged tone. It also had become a personal battle that pitted two powerful commissioners against each other. Chairman Art Teele, who is black, wanted Curry. Commissioner Alex Penelas, the board's Hispanic vice chairman, backed Vidal. Several commissioners appeared to be potential swing votes: Bruce Kaplan, Maurice Ferre, Gwen Margolis, and Natacha Millan. When the final vote was taken, Vidal won, but just barely.

Teele, who rarely loses a political battle, was enraged. Minutes prior to the vote, knowing his candidate was about to be defeated, he called Rick Sisser into his office and proceeded to bloody the cigar-chomping lobbyist by punching him in the face. The commission chairman later claimed that Sisser, in an attempt to discredit him in the black community, had spread rumors that Teele wasn't truly supporting Curry.

Following the vote, Teele's anger continued to fester. He complained that some commissioners were plotting to remove him as chairman, and he told reporters that the day before the vote he had met privately with Bruce Kaplan, who, he claimed, had sought him out to discuss the manager-selection process, a clear violation of the Sunshine Law. In a private meeting at Mike's Pub, a bar in the downtown condominium building where Teele lives, Kaplan reportedly confided that he wanted to vote for Curry but feared the political consequences, given that a large portion of his district is Hispanic. Teele later told the Miami Herald that he believed Kaplan's true intention was to gain information about the level of commission support for Curry. (Kaplan ended up voting for Vidal.)

But in his haste to cast aspersions on Kaplan, Teele implicated himself in a possible violation of the Sunshine Law, and his candor quickly prompted the State Attorney's Office to announce the opening of an investigation into the incident.

Both Teele and Kaplan promised to cooperate fully. Neither has.
In January New Times reported that Commissioner Gwen Margolis was also being investigated for her role in an alleged attempt to cut her own deal in the manager's vote. Margolis reputedly asked Curry to pass a message to Teele: If he agreed to support her interest in a certain change to the county charter, she would agree to vote for Curry. (The Sunshine Law prohibits commissioners from using intermediaries to circumvent its open-meeting requirements.) Teele told the Herald he used another messenger to inform Margolis that he accepted her terms. At the last minute, though, the deal fell apart after Alex Penelas offered more enthusiastic support for the charter change. She threw her support to Vidal. "I brokered my vote for the people," Margolis boasted unabashedly.

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