The Kingmaker

In the soap opera that is Hialeah politics, Herman Echevarria might be poised to supplant Raul Martinez as leading man.

"That was a great experience back then for me," says Echevarria. "You learn when you're in public office you have to walk a straight line. Your political enemies can use even a perception against you."

Some find such comments disingenuous. "The guy is a thief and a crook and a liar," scoffs ex-councilman Julio Martinez, who served as acting mayor for about three years after Raul Martinez (no relation) was indicted. "I've told him to his face."

While Echevarria says he got out of the construction business soon after his run-in with the ethics commission, it took a while. Besides SAE Construction, incorporated in 1981, he formed three other corporations at different times in the late Eighties, each to handle different projects. By November 1988 the companies were dissolved, and Echevarria was facing several lawsuits from creditors.

The cause of his woes was the failure of Global Bank. In 1984, wanting to take advantage of federal bank deregulation and Dade's booming Latin market, Echevarria and 49 other Hialeah investors had each put up $50,000 to start Global. Echevarria was chairman; directors included his friend Silvio Cardoso, a developer and former councilman who was indicted by a federal grand jury in 1988 on charges of bribing an undercover police officer. (Cardoso received probation after pleading guilty, and in 1991 testified against Raul Martinez in his trial.) During that time of financial growth in South Florida, Echevarria recalls, Hialeah was home to 36 bank branches and offices. Today there are about a third as many.

The state ordered Global closed in 1988 -- the bank had had only one profitable year -- and the shareholders lost their investments. Auditors cited unwise lending practices, poor internal controls, and above-market rates paid for deposits, according to state comptroller Gerald Lewis. "There was no problem with Global Bank in reference to any ethical problems," Echevarria says. "None of us were really bankers. It was just a bad business deal, period."

Peter Castellanos, a long-time banker who was Global Bank president for a year and a half after its inception, says he resigned to protect his good name. After Cardoso and Echevarria, among other politicians, were named in a 1985 Miami Herald series detailing questionable zoning practices in Hialeah, Castellanos says, regulators called him from Tallahassee. "They're directors of the bank. What's going on?" Castellanos recalls the officials asking. "After I left [the directors] did pretty much what they wanted to do. The ones who suffered were the depositors and stockholders. I thought these people being from Hialeah, being politicians, they would want to look good."

According to court records, after Global failed, Echevarria was hit by lawsuits from three banks and a mortgage company seeking to collect on loans he'd stopped paying back. Attempts to garnishee his council salary and expense account were unsuccessful, as were endeavors to seize assets of several health care related companies with which he was then associated. His wife went back to work, and Echevarria negotiated payment plans with each creditor. He says his debt amounted to about $500,000 and is now down to $250,000. He's currently paying $500 per month to Continental National Bank of Miami, which obtained a $59,000 judgment against him in 1990. That same year Echevarria agreed to pay $350 per month to Capital Bank, which in 1985 had lent him $100,000. He owed Terrabank $219,000 but says he has paid that off.

In his work with the Chamber of Commerce and with the Hialeah Foundation, Echevarria remains heavily involved in the business community. The foundation, which has been in existence since 1989, has become more active in the past three years. A tax-exempt organization, the group spends only 17 percent of its annual revenues on actual donations to worthy causes, far below the 50 percent minimum recommended by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Its fundraising and administrative costs, which in 1993 came to 65 percent of its income, exceeds the maximum of 50 percent recommended by the council. Echevarria says the percentages are somewhat misleading in that the foundation raises money by staging events for the paying public, not by soliciting donations, and thus its overhead is high.

The celebration at the Caldwell headquarters on November 7, the night primary results were declared, seemed to distill the formula for political success in Hialeah, a formula that has never failed for Raul Martinez or Herman Echevarria, because it remains faithful to Hialeah's ethnic homogeneity and to the relatedness the populace feels despite the most emotional and personal of feuds. This night, a television under the blue-and-white-striped tent behind the building aired hour after hour of telenovelas, the medium that originally made Pepe Yedra famous among his fellow Cuban exiles. On this occasion they provided a flickering backdrop for the surprised jubilation of the crowd when Yedra was announced as the top vote-getter.

As is customary after victory is declared, Echevarria gathered with his candidates and other key helpers on a small platform next to the tent. Natacha Millan was there; so was Roberto Casas. The full moon shone on long tables laden with very American hot dogs and mounds of buns. Echevarria, in his customary role as leader, served as informal master of ceremonies to the obligatory speeches: thanks to the voters and workers, acknowledgement of the candidates, brief disparagement of Juri, calls for unity, celebration of family and friendship. "We invite with open arms the other candidates to join us as we move forward with this battle," Echevarria called out in Spanish -- campaigns are conducted almost exclusively in Spanish. "We can't rest on our laurels. We're all going to work together, shoulder to shoulder, with the support that you have given us, Hialeah. Thanks to our wives, thanks to our brothers."

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