Dollars to Doughnuts . . .

And auto repair, and the occasional nephew. . . An edifying look at Miami City Commission candidates' financial statements

With the return of "crazy" Joe Carollo to the Miami City Commission returns the call to abolish the city government altogether. Rather than relive one more episode from Miami's dark and comical political history (Carollo and Jorge Mas Canosa nearly dueling over the development of Watson Island, for instance), some factions of Miami are repeating their recommendation to fold the city into one large and powerful county government a la Jacksonville or Indianapolis.

While a streamlined bureaucracy would bring certain benefits to the populace, the concept ignores one crucial fact: Miami City Commission elections are not only amusing entertainment, they're vital linchpins of the local economy.

Without the election money raised and spent every two years, local auto-repair shops might have to lay off mechanics. Fewer schoolteachers could moonlight as computer consultants. Without a city campaign, thousands of Fort Lauderdale dollars would not trickle down to the Little Havana bistros where they can do the most good.

A casual and unscientific examination of campaign financial records on file at City Hall shows that the most recent election of Carollo and re-election of Nixon-era appointee J.L. Plummer was conducted in true Miami fashion. Thirteen candidates collected A often in curious ways A a combined war chest of more than one million dollars. Then they spent the money any way they wanted.

Incumbent Victor De Yurre set the high-water mark for money raised. The $436,184 contributed to his unsuccessful re-election bid helped him buy posters, newspaper ads, and radio spots. It also helped him eat, and very well. Over the course of the campaign, De Yurre spent $13,855.92 out of his campaign coffers on food. His financial statements tell stories of $182 dinners at Mario's Il Palio Ristorante and $460 feasts at Malaga. Three times De Yurre dined at Cafe Sci Sci, owned by convicted drug trafficker Gionanni Tummolillo. The combined tab of $942.81 more than consumes the $500 the restaurant donated to De Yurre's campaign.

Margarita Ruiz, whose campaign was crippled by too little cash, also managed to keep food in her stomach. She spent $3183.88, or nearly ten percent of her total campaign fund, on food-related expenses. She didn't stop spending at the buffet line, either. Even more money A $3273.73, to be exact A went into her car. After spending almost a grand on gasoline, Ruiz spent the rest at two car-repair shops. More than $1381 went to Deel Volkswagen in Coral Gables. Though one might think Ruiz would have acquired the Deel endorsement (if for loyalty alone), records show that Deel donated $150 to the campaign of J.L. Plummer, Ruiz's opponent.

Vernon Clark, a surprising force in the black community who sucked votes away from De Yurre in that race, put his campaign money not into his car but directly into his family. Records show that Theo Clark, Vernon's nephew, was paid to provide "computer service" to the Clark campaign. His 26-year-old relative provided valuable aid, Clark explains: "I needed someone who had a computer to run the computer for me, to do the typing. He sent some letters out for me. Is he a computer programmer? No! He's a schoolteacher. But he owns a computer." Theo Clark was paid $700 for his typing skills.

Several high-visibility South Floridians, including former Knight-Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman and Cadillac dealer Norman Braman, contributed to various campaigns. And as usual, most of the more influential boosters found ways to exceed the $500 maximum contribution allowed by law. Budding sports mogul Bruce Frey, for instance, paid back De Yurre for supporting Frey's dream of a Canadian Football League franchise. Frey's donations, which totaled $4000, came in a variety of disguises: the BJF/IB Partners of Glencoe, Illinois; Bruce J. Frey; Miami Manatee Football; The BJF Group Ltd.; The BJF Group L.P.; Fleurette Frey; the Village of Kings Creek; and the Royal Arms Condo Ltd.

A more entrenched sports mogul, Wayne Huizenga, showed Frey why he owns the Marlins, Panthers, and Dolphins while Frey owns only an Arena Football League team that used to be called the Hooters. Namely, Huizenga picks winners. After supporting almost every candidate in the first round, Huizenga revealed his knack for handicapping in the runoff between Carollo and De Yurre: The incumbent was stiff-armed while Carollo scored more than $8500 in Fort Lauderdale money, most of it appearing to come from Huizenga or his corporate spinoffs. Contributors include Huizenga Holdings, H. Wayne Huizenga, G. Harry Huizenga, and Florida Airships Inc., which operates the blimp that flies overhead during Marlins and Dolphins games.

Campaign contributors without blimps who wanted to donate more than the legal limit of $500 often diversified their families. Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas, Jr., donated $500 to De Yurre. Another $500 was given in the name of Mastec, the company over which the younger Mas presides. A third $500 donation was made in the name of his wife Irma, who is listed in the records as a "housewife," though her address was given as Mastec corporate headquarters. "Yes, she does," said a Mastec receptionist when asked if Irma Mas works there. "But she is not here at the moment." Presumably she was out gathering a few throw pillows to liven up the office where she lives and sleeps.

Sometimes such family modifications can get a person in trouble. Stephen Helfman is a respected and well-connected lobbyist for Burger King, BellSouth Mobility, and other concerns. In April Helfman donated $500 to De Yurre's campaign. His firm of Weiss, Serota & Helfman also donated $500, as did partners Joseph Serota and Richard Weiss. "Housewife" Jaclyn Weiss ponied up $500.

Stephen Helfman's wife also contributed $500. Problem is, Gerri Helfman is no "housewife"; she's a news anchor at WTVJ-TV (Channel 6). And like many other news organizations, NBC does not "allow conflicts of interest in any sorts of activities," according to network spokeswoman Beth Comstock. Reached by phone last week at her New York City office, Comstock flipped through a policy manual to find the exact network position on staff politicking. "'NBC News employees may not participate in outside activities that could interfere or even appear to interfere with their NBC News assignments or compromise them as NBC News employees,'" she read aloud. The manual goes on to state that reporters can't contribute money to a candidate without approval of the news president. Summarized Comstock: "I think it's pretty clear that we would frown on anyone who entered into some activity that would compromise them as a journalist."

Gerri Helfman was reached last week at her station. "I didn't cover the election," she said. "Why did you call me?" Told that she was contacted because she apparently contributed $500 to De Yurre's campaign, she said, "Victor is a friend of ours and I supported him. There is not a conflict of interest, because I didn't cover his election."

Thirty seconds after hanging up the phone, Helfman called back. "I just pulled out my checkbook. The entry in my ledger is from my husband," she tooted. "The contribution was made by my husband out of our joint checking account, so therefore there is no conflict. I didn't write Victor a check -- my husband did."

Stephen Helfman, of course, had already donated his own $500. If the donation was made by her husband, then Gerri isn't in trouble with NBC News. But Stephen might be in trouble with the law for exceeding the maximum legal campaign donation.

City of Miami employees, unlike most journalists, are allowed to donate to political kitties, though few ever do for fear of backing a loser and suffering retaliation. Three former assistant city attorneys claim they were fired two years ago after they supported losing mayoral candidate Miriam Alonso over winner Steve Clark.

Eduardo Rodriguez, director of the department of asset management, found a novel way to contribute money while cloaking his identity. When he gave $250 checks to incumbents Plummer and De Yurre, he didn't identify himself as a high-level city official. Instead he went by his legitimate alter ego: a Surfside city commissioner. "Put down that as an elected official, I support my elected officials. Something like that," begs Rodriguez, who now must answer to a commissioner he didn't support. "I don't want to get into any trouble."

Rodriguez would have been safer donating to Seth Galinsky. The perennial Socialist candidate works for CSX Transportation in Jacksonville, but ran for the Miami City Commission by claiming to live at Pathfinder Bookstore on NE 54th Street. (Actual telephone conversation: "Does Seth Galinsky really live at the bookstore?" "Ah, no, but he spends a lot of time here.") Because Galinsky ran against De Yurre as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he successfully argued to the city clerk that the names and addresses of his contributors were confidential. Every person who donated A most contributions were in amounts of ten dollars or less A to Galinsky's grand total of $669 remains completely anonymous. Galinsky received 345 votes.

Right below Galinsky in the vote total was Rosa Green. Her 341 votes are remarkable for two reasons. First, she raised virtually no money. Second, she wasn't even running: Green pulled out of the race a month before the election, on a day when one of her campaign finance statements was due at City Hall. She explained in a letter to City Clerk Walter Foeman that she didn't "feel she had sufficient time to raise enough money to continue in the race for a city commission seat." That's an understatement. On September 22, the day she officially entered the race, Green went out and won the financial support of a family named Gordon. Charles Gordon, Mary Gordon, and Frank Gordon, all of NW Twelfth Street, donated a total of $500. Contributions petered off after that: Nobody added another cent.

The champion in the votes-per-dollar category was William Callaway. The actor, model, and De Yurre challenger raised even less money than Green. Substantially less. Zero dollars, in fact. He loaned his campaign $200, which covered the $175 application fee, his only expense. Callaway, whose sole platform was the secession of Coconut Grove from the city, still garnered 478 votes. That's an amazingly economical 37 cents per vote. If De Yurre had been that efficient with his campaign money, his $436,184 would have translated into 1,213,288 votes, enough to win Miami and probably Chicago as well.

The last-place overall vote getter was Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga, also a De Yurre opponent. The pugnacious gadfly, who was listed on the ballot by his nickname of Boom Boom, didn't raise any outside money, either. Like Rosa Green, he also missed a deadline to submit financial statements. His reasons went beyond mere lack of financial support, though. In a scribbled letter to the city clerk, Gonzalez-Goenaga explained that he missed the deadline because of his long-running feud with Miami City Manager Cesar Odio.

"By means of this letter, I Manny (Boom Boom) Gonzalez, is mailing the latest bank statement from my campaign account. . . . Apparently Mr. Odio didn't allow me to comply with the dateline, since I was not allowed to enter City Hall to comply with law," he wrote, referring to the city manager's attempt have him banned from city hall after he allegedly threatened to blow Odio's head off.

Despite his scraps with Odio -- and his dead-last finish -- Gonzalez-Goenaga has not tempered his political ambitions. "I'm announcing that I am running for strong mayor of Dade County," he declares. "None of the county commissioners supported me in the city election, so now they are going to pay.

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