Jailhouse Rumble

If racial strife and political bickering were crimes, the entire staff of Dade County's corrections department would be locked up

"There was no beating," counters HACO vice president Edgar Nieves. "It was completely blown out of proportion. They [OMCO] used it as a race card. Every little thing that occurs between a Hispanic and a black is a race issue."

As tensions heightened, reports began circulating that fistfights were breaking out between black and Hispanic officers and that officers from one group were not backing up those from the other group in confrontations with inmates.

Felton blamed HACO president Manuel Aladro and OMCO president Walter Clark for the escalating crisis. He had warned both of them, he says, to stay out of the Dennis investigation. "But Clark and Aladro just kept going on," Felton recalls. "It was outrageous. It was a circus, an absolute circus. It was very dangerous. It was a very deliberate and direct defiance of my authority."

Felton says both HACO and OMCO exploited the incident for their own ends. "To keep the conflict going, to keep the racial tensions going," Felton asserts. "It brought attention to their organizations."

Finally, on October 3, 1994, Felton suspended both Aladro and Clark. He sent them home with pay while an internal affairs investigation commenced into their conduct. "For the most part, I do not believe people are seething with anger and hatred toward another member of the department because they are Hispanic or black," Felton says. "I think you have these organizations that are trying to get something, move their organization's agendas."

Once Aladro and Clark were removed, says Felton, tensions began to ease. But he had made two more fairly powerful enemies. "Both of them hate me with a passion," he acknowledges.

"Pick a fight with me -- I don't care, I'll fight you back," Clark responds defiantly. "I will fight back as long as I can breathe."

"It was not a high point," HACO vice president Edgar Nieves admits, referring to the relationship between HACO and Felton.

As Felton's first year with the county came to a close, he had managed to accomplish something no one ever thought possible: unite HACO and OMCO in a common cause. The only problem was that the two groups were now united against him.

After nearly four months, Felton lifted the suspensions against both Aladro and Clark, and the internal affairs investigation failed to find enough evidence to punish either of them for interfering in the Frank Dennis case.

On March 28, 1995, the State Attorney's Office concluded its investigation into the alleged beating, and decided not to press charges against any of the officers involved. "It would be difficult to find a more unsympathetic victim than Frank Dennis," prosecutor Dennis Bedard wrote. He also noted that the witnesses' statements were contradictory enough that "we would never be able to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the guilt of any officer."

As a certain measure of normality returned, Felton says, he went about the business of running the department. He cites among his accomplishments a significant reduction in the amount of money spent on overtime -- a fact that made him even less popular with staff members.

He successfully dealt with the issue of overcrowding and established a formal classification system for new inmates, something a federal judge had ordered Dade County to do years before. He also improved medical screening procedures for new inmates and instituted a more coherent plan for dealing with mentally ill inmates. He dramatically increased the number of inmates receiving GED diplomas, and worked toward developing the department's boot camp program for teenage offenders.

The corrections department, he acknowledges, was still plagued with problems, including a serious lack of supervision in the house-arrest program, which allows certain nonviolent inmates to be released from jail provided they agree to remain at home. Ironically, the commander responsible for this program was Donald Manning, who received a series of sharply critical memos about the subject from Felton and assistant chief Ann Vendrell. "Mr. Manning, this is my last appeal to you to clear up your area of responsibilities," Felton wrote on September 19, 1995. "If I don't see positive results within 30 days, I'm going to take corrective and decisive actions."

Felton never had a chance to follow up on his letter. A few days later County Manager Armando Vidal summoned him downtown. Felton says he had no idea what the meeting was to be about, and was amazed to discover that Vidal wanted to talk about Felton's home-office furniture -- which had been purchased more than a year earlier. Vidal explained that he had just learned of the purchase and informed the director he was sending the matter to the State Attorney's Office for possible criminal prosecution.

"I didn't understand it," Felton says today. "I didn't understand where they were coming from. I felt I had been set up, that this whole thing was orchestrated to get rid of me. This was bullshit."

The director claims that during the meeting, Vidal asked him to quit. "He said, 'I think the best thing for you to do would be to resign,'" Felton recalls. "It angered me. There was no justification for it."

Felton says he refused, and told the manager he wanted to hire an attorney. Before Felton and Vidal could meet again, however, news of the furniture purchases was leaked to WPLG-TV (Channel 10), which promptly aired a report on the pending flap.

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