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?

Prosecutors also investigated the circumstances surrounding a cocktail party held just days before the manager's vote. New Times reported that Natacha Millan had been invited to a reception at the home of Hialeah City Councilman Herman Echevarria to celebrate the recent election of Raul Martinez as mayor. Alex Penelas also attended. Following that gathering several county commissioners opposed to Armando Vidal privately complained that Penelas used the event to pressure Millan into supporting Vidal. Although Millan did eventually vote for Vidal, she denied that anyone at the reception talked to her about her intentions.

The Margolis investigation appears to have stalled when the sworn statements of Margolis and Curry failed to confirm the existence of an explicit deal between Teele and Margolis. (Both women spoke to prosecutors voluntarily.) Likewise, nearly everyone who attended the Hialeah cocktail party was questioned by prosecutors, and apparently no wrongdoing was discovered. But the meeting between Teele and Kaplan was a different matter.

Soon after opening his investigation, Assistant State Attorney Centorino asked Maurice Ferre to submit to questioning in the belief that the commissioner may have had information about both the Teele-Kaplan meeting and the Hialeah reception, to which he reportedly had been invited but declined to attend.

When contacted by Centorino, however, Ferre refused to meet voluntarily; he wanted immunity from prosecution. Centorino granted the request after some haggling with Ferre's attorney, George Yoss. It quickly became clear why Ferre needed protection.

According to several sources, Ferre told Centorino he had met secretly with Kaplan before the manager's selection. Accompanied by lobbyist Henry "Kiki" Berger, Kaplan reportedly visited a private office maintained by Ferre and engaged in a discussion about the upcoming vote. Ferre also informed Centorino of a telephone conversation he'd had with Teele the morning of the vote. The subject of that conversation, however, has not been revealed.

Both admissions by Ferre caught prosecutors by surprise, and the immunity agreement prevented them from widening their probe to include him. Ferre refuses to comment, noting that the terms of his deal with prosecutors prevent him from discussing the subject. Attorney Yoss also declines to discuss the case aside from expressing satisfaction with having secured Ferre's immunity.

While Ferre may have cleverly insulated himself from possible criminal charges, his testimony still could prove very useful. Prosecutors, for example, could decide to take action against Kaplan based solely on his meeting with Ferre. (Kaplan and his attorney, Steve Chaykin, declined to comment for this article.)

The State Attorney's Office, however, faces a potential problem in Kiki Berger. Long an ally of Kaplan, as well as state Sen. Al Gutman, Berger has been associated with some of the most divisive and controversial political campaigns in Dade County. Sources say he's been questioned by Centorino more than once, and that he did his best to contradict Ferre and to exonerate Kaplan. (Berger was unavailable for comment last week.) Bringing charges against Kaplan for meeting with Ferre thus could end up being a test of Berger's word against Ferre's, and that, according to several attorneys, hardly provides prosecutors with a "reasonable expectation" of conviction.

That potential scenario reportedly has led to considerable debate within the State Attorney's Office regarding Teele. Any case against Kaplan would be immeasurably strengthened if Teele were to testify about his own meeting with Kaplan. Two alleged Sunshine violations, in close proximity and pertaining to the same subject, would indicate a pattern. Furthermore, prosecutors could argue that Kaplan initiated the meeting with Teele, if not Ferre; phone records show he called the commission chairman several times before they met. (In his only public comment about the meeting at Mike's Pub, Kaplan said the encounter was a sheer coincidence.) Additionally, Ferre and Teele would be expected to perform excellently as witnesses whose combined testimony could overshadow a possible challenge from Kiki Berger, who also attended the Teele-Kaplan meeting.

Yet Teele, despite his earlier promises to cooperate, has refused to testify without first being granted immunity. "I've retained counsel and I have to follow counsel's advice," he says. "But I categorically deny that I had a meeting with Kaplan that violated the Sunshine Law. I did not violate the Sunshine Law." (Teele's defense is now reportedly based on the assertion that he merely listened to Kaplan and did not participate in any conversation about the manager's vote.)

So why not simply grant immunity to Teele and present a strong case against Kaplan? Neither Centorino nor Rundle will address that question, but a number of observers say the dangers of public misperception make such a tactic problematic. If Rundle were to pursue Kaplan by approving immunity for two commissioners already implicated in Sunshine violations, she could leave herself open to charges of bias. For one thing, Rundle is a Democrat; Kaplan is a Republican. For another, Rundle actively supported the candidacy of Conchy Bretos in her unsuccessful campaign for county commissioner, a campaign she lost to Kaplan.

Instead of granting Teele immunity, however, prosecutors could still decide to bring charges against him. After all, he admitted publicly that he met with Kaplan regarding the manager's vote. Witnesses for the prosecution could be Kaplan and Berger, most likely subsequent to a Kaplan conviction for meeting with Ferre. That approach, though, also comes with liabilities. If Kaplan is convicted, both he and Berger would later face credibility problems on the witness stand, increasing the risk of a failed prosecution. That risk alone, says political consultant Hamersmith, could be enough to dissuade prosecutors from charging Teele. "You cannot do anything in this politically correct town of ours without thinking of the ethnic and racial implications of all of this," Hamersmith contends. "Art Teele is the most powerful black politician in Florida, and if you indict him, you'd better damn well have a case you can win."

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