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American presidential candidates have it easy. When Bob Dole and Bill Clinton want to raise cash, they never need to leave the country. A growing subset of self-funded politicos, such as Steve Forbes and Ross Perot, has so much money that they never need to leave their houses to pay for the ads, signs, and funny hats required for a serious presidential run.
In Latin America, though, candidates aren't so lucky. A presidential hopeful from, say, Nicaragua, often must trek north to gather enough capital to propel him to his capital. Which is what brought former Managua mayor Arnoldo Aleman to Miami early in February. Not only did the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate pick up thousands of dollars in private donations to fuel his run at the October 20 presidential election, he also came within a whisker of collecting $2500 from City of Miami taxpayers.
The conservative politician arrived in town on Thursday, February 8, to gather ammunition for his campaign against Sandinista Front leader, ex-president Daniel Ortega. The main event of the visit was a Friday-night fundraiser at the Airport Hilton Hotel. Hundreds of guests. Dinners at $125 a plate. Some of the most influential people in the city would be there, including Metro Commissioner Pedro Reboredo, U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Jorge Mas Canosa, whose Cuban American National Foundation organized the occasion.
Another Cuban expatriate with a soft spot for Nicaragua, Miami City Manager Cesar Odio, signed on for the party too, reserving two tables for ten people each in the name of the City of Miami. Two days before the dinner, he asked the city's finance department to cover the tab with a $2500 check. The request was processed that night and stamped "paid" the next morning.
Odio quickly distributed dinner invitations to his bosses, the city commissioners. Vice Mayor Willy Gort received four, and RSVP'ed that he'd be attending. Commissioner Joe Carollo sent his regrets; he had other obligations. Miller Dawkins gave his two invitations away. (J.L. Plummer does not recall receiving any invites.)
Mayor Steve Clark, an Aleman supporter who was listed on the invitation as a member of the banquet's organizing committee, couldn't attend. Odio nevertheless dropped off four invitations. "They came to Paquita [Aldrich], our scheduling secretary," recalls Lael Schumacher, one of Clark's top aides. "She was told that the City of Miami had bought two tables."
Schumacher knew Aleman was running for office. He also knew of an administrative policy barring city officials from using "any city facilities, supplies, or materials for political purposes." It was that knowledge that helped propel him across the hall from the mayor's office to the only other office on the second floor of city hall. "I immediately went over to the manager and said, 'Cesar, this is a fundraiser for a presidential candidate in Nicaragua. I don't think taxpayer money should be spent in this way.'"
All color drained from Odio's face, Schumacher recalls, as the manager realized the potential ramifications of his error. But he quickly found an out. "He reads down to the bottom of the invitation and says, 'Look, it's not going to the candidate, it is going to the Foundation for Democratic Education,'" says Schumacher. (The foundation is a new nonprofit, one that El Nuevo Herald recently described as an arm of the Cuban American National Foundation.)
Odio might also have argued that the event wasn't a political fundraiser. Because campaign laws in Nicaragua prevent foreign donations to candidates, the dinner was declared a "homage," with proceeds going toward the purchase of a gift. Specifically, an armored car. (In January fifteen armed assassins attacked Aleman's caravan as it moved through a mountain village outside Managua. Three people were injured and a policeman was killed. Aleman was not harmed.) Aleman told El Nuevo that he needed $30,000 for the car and another $50,000 just to armor it.
But Aleman's Miami spokesman, Byron Jerez, told the Spanish-language newspaper that the money raised at the dinner will be spent on hats, shirts, and other campaign propaganda. WLTV-TV (Channel 23) and other news sources referred to the dinner as a political fundraiser. "I had checked with two other people and they had told me that it was a fundraiser for Aleman," Schumacher confirms. "That's how it was televised on Spanish TV -- as a fundraiser."
Schumacher demanded that Odio cancel the check, and the manager promised to comply. Odio did not cancel his plans to attend the dinner, however. He sat at table number three, with Gort as his guest.
Odio did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story, so it's unclear who ended up paying for the tables. Vice Mayor Gort says he doesn't know, but adds that Nicaraguan politics merit local attention in an international city such as Miami: "Anything we can do to help any of the countries south of the border -- to help democracy survive -- we should do."
According to Schumacher, Odio promised to stop payment on the check immediately. But bank documents show that payment was not stopped until February 14, one day after New Times filed a public records request for relevant documents. Dulce Borges, Odio's assistant, explains that the check from the finance department arrived on her desk Friday, February 9, hours before the fundraiser. She voided the check, she says, and sent it back to the finance department on the next business day, Monday, February 12.