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Mila, ever resourceful, managed to spin it to her advantage. "The septic tank did not work and the cabinets they fall from the ceiling," she asserted. "I moved because the house was a wreck. When the septic tank is blowing up totally and you don't have water and all the doors of the cabinets are falling on your head, I say that this is a scam."
Says realtor Joan Andre: "This is one of the slickest con people I have seen working Miami in a long time."
Even with deep discounts in rent, credit card payments, and canine costs (the seller of the Great Danes, Pennsylvania attorney M.J. Cohen, says he's still owed $700), Mila needed extra income to support her lifestyle. So she turned to the local business community. When she was successful in hooking up a Miami business person with a foreign client -- exactly what the city paid her to do -- she came to expect a little something in return. "See, she gave me this card here," says one Miami woman whose business benefited from Mila's international networking. She displayed a City of Miami business card with Mila's name on it and a percentage sign scribbled in the lower right-hand corner. "It means that she wants a percentage of the profits."
Mila was not shy about admitting that she asked for up to ten percent of the profits from referrals to this particular businesswoman, but argued that those referrals were not part of her work with the International Trade Board.
Some people might cringe at hearing about such arrangements, especially in light of the ethics codes that govern most public officials and their work. But for Commissioner De Yurre, Mila's expected surcharge was a matter for interpretation, not condemnation. She operated as an independent contractor, he points out, and she very well could have been working for different entities simultaneously. Yes, it would be wrong to "charge" for city business, he acknowledges, but it remains unclear for whom she was working when she asked for a percentage of profits. "I could go either way on that kind of thing," he declares. "I try to be as squeaky clean as I can to try to avoid any semblance of triviality [sic]. Don't think of Mila as you would think of yourself. You are talking about an individual who has grown up in a different environment. Maybe in her own mindset she's not doing something wrong."
In the mindset of another Italian, however, Mila recently did something very wrong. Achille Piovella is the president of Milanfair Overseas Exhibitions, an Italian company that sponsors trade shows. Earlier this year Piovella teamed up with Mila and and the city for something dubbed "Gold Italia," the first major European jewelry exhibition to be held in Miami.
Piovella and his associates were responsible for rounding up exhibitors, and they did a pretty good job. More than $12 million worth of jewelry went on display last May at downtown's Hyatt Regency Hotel. The City of Miami -- specifically Mila -- was responsible for attracting crowds to the event. That part of the equation didn't work so well.
In a scathing letter to Miami Mayor Stephen Clark, City Manager Cesar Odio, the International Trade Board, and Italy's consul general in Miami, Piovella ripped the city. "Our frequent letters to your project chief, Mila Cervone d'Urso [sic], in which we repeatedly asked to be informed about what was going on, urged the adoption of a variety of measures, expressed our concern over the lack of activity, and finally threatened legal action for compensation, consistently met with a wholly unsatisfactory response. We received only faxed nonreplies that made vaguely reassuring noises about results while disputing points that were clearly irrelevant to the real situation and our reasons for concern."
Piovella went on to complain that many Miami jewelers were not even aware of the exhibition, and he demanded compensation for the city's failures. Victor De Yurre acknowledges the event was a disaster, but protests that it was more the city's fault than Mila's. "Gold Italia is a tremendous concept," he says. "They were not happy to a significant degree with us because they expected more from us. We have a limited budget. They are used to getting more."
Despite a fiasco like Gold Italia, Mila was largely successful in protecting her public reputation. Part of that may have been due to her self-professed willingness to intimidate people. As she boasted: "I can kill my enemies with just one word. That is my business. Just one word." Jean Dolan, a respected realtor and a board member of Miami's Italian Film Festival, knows Mila well. And while neither she nor Mila would reveal the lethal word, Dolan was extremely circumspect in talking about Mila. In fact, she wouldn't discuss Mila at all, even though they have worked together several times. "Mila is leaving town," Dolan shouted through the slammed-shut door of her real estate office. "She can take her dirty business with her."
Mila also helped maintain her reputation by avoiding negative publicity. Over the years, the Miami Herald wrote about her on only eight occasions, and the stories ranged from innocuous to positive. When the Miami Beach-based Italian magazine Non Solo Pasta requested Mila's cooperation in preparing a profile, she not only agreed to be written about, she contributed to the actual writing. "Anything personal she wrote herself," admits Paola Lombardi, the magazine's administrative director. "She is a woman who cares very much about her image. She was a very powerful person and she knew it. People say, 'Oh, you know Mila? Now you can share in this power.' But I think a lot of people called her when they were in trouble and when they did, they found out they owed her a favor."