What About Those Stinking Badges?

Hialeah City Council members take an unprecedented legal step to protect their reputations

A menacing presence stalks the streets of Hialeah. Though you may never notice (that's part of the insidious plan), the threat is real. Someone somewhere is seeking to masquerade as a member of the Hialeah City Council.

That's called "falsely personating an elected official," and it's a crime.
Last month the seven-member council passed Ordinance No. 95-61, making it "unlawful for a person to falsely assume or pretend to be an elected official of the city of Hialeah." The penalty: a fine of up to $500 and/or a jail term up to 60 days. Legal experts say it's unlikely that any other municipality has drafted a law like Hialeah's, which is modeled after the Florida statute against impersonating police officers. Of course it's unlikely any other municipality faces a problem on the scale of Hialeah's.

"Oh, you'd be surprised," says Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell, "at who'd want to impersonate one of us." Caldwell was the only council member to vote against the ordinance A because she believes it has no teeth. The others didn't go for Caldwell's proposed amendment to require all council members to turn in their badges (official-looking brass pin-ons they receive when elected that many ex-members laminate or otherwise preserve as mementos) upon leaving office. "I ain't giving nobody my badge," vowed Councilman Alex Morales during one of the council's three debates regarding the proposal. "I'm not going to vote for something that makes me a criminal."

Which isn't to say the ordinance as passed avoided dissension. "I can't think of any other municipality that would have this ordinance. This would be unique for the city of Hialeah," Mayor Raul Martinez was heard to assert skeptically during one period of discussion. Shot back Councilman Guy Sanchez, the law's author: "Nothing's unique in Hialeah when it comes to ordinances."

It is said that one ex-Hialeah councilman was stopped for speeding in North Bay Village several months ago but escaped with a warning after flashing his badge. Another ex-councilman purportedly used his former position to try to persuade a nightclub to accept a borrowed credit card.

Sanchez says he was motivated to propose the law after witnessing other instances of false personation (indeed, this is the correct legal term) firsthand. A photograph of ex-councilman and current council candidate Raymundo Barrios appeared in the periodiquito El Sol de Hialeah over a caption identifying him only as "councilman." This angered Barrios's political foes, who pointed out that El Sol is operated by Raul Martinez's wife Angela and that Barrios is a strong Martinez ally. But the final straw for Sanchez came when someone broke into his car, stole his checkbook and business cards, and proceeded to go around introducing himself as Guy Sanchez, Hialeah city councilman. "Trying to set me up," Sanchez concludes. "This kind of thing happens all the time. They're not only putting down the credibility of individual councilmen and their names but the city as a whole."

No one has been arrested (for theft or impersonation) in Sanchez's case. "I'm sure they're not going to send the police out after someone who says he's a councilman," muses Councilman Paulino Nunez. "I frankly don't know if it's going to be 100 percent enforceable." Nunez voted for the ordinance anyway, on the premise that "it doesn't hurt anything to have it."

And it just might save a career. If the law can dissuade even one prospective impersonator, that may result in one less opportunity for a questionable zoning deal, illegal lot swap, or construction kickback. And don't think that just because you're posing only as a politician the feds won't notice you. Past experience has trained investigators' sights on Hialeah. Look what happened to Sebastian Dorrego, Andy Mejides, and Silvio Cardoso, former councilmen removed from office after convictions or guilty pleas in corruption cases. Former mayor Henry Milander was convicted of stealing funds from the city, and current mayor Raul Martinez faces a second trial in March on federal corruption charges.

None of this daunts Evelio Medina, the 31-year-old community activist who is proud to tell people that he's a councilman, which, according to several council members, he does often. ("He did it right in front of me," recalls Councilman Alex Morales.) Medina did sit on the council for nineteen months in 1990-91, as a temporary appointment to fill a vacancy. But in the same way people still address George Bush as Mr. President, Medina has no problem being called Councilman Medina. "With people that count in Hialeah, I'll always be their councilman," he asserts.

Like everyone else in Hialeah, Medina has so far escaped arrest, though it's probably only a matter of time. Then again, given the new law's limited scope, Medina might consider doing his impersonating outside the city limits -- at least until Hialeah negotiates extradition arrangements with other locales. (A spokesman for the Hialeah City Attorney's Office cut short a phone interview before this issue could be broached, barking, "I don't want to talk about this. I have a lot of work to do.")

Medina, meanwhile, intends to remain unrepentant unto the grave: "You know what I'm gonna put on my gravestone?" he asks. "Two things: 'Screw it,' and 'Evelio Medina, City of Hialeah councilman.'

 
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