Jailhouse Rumble

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

When Felton and Vidal got together again -- this time with Felton's attorney present -- the director says Vidal denied asking for his resignation, that he was merely suggesting it might be best if Felton quietly left after the investigation was complete. (Vidal declined to comment for this story.) Under the terms of Felton's "reassignment," he was to report to County Hall, where he would busy himself drawing up plans for a new juvenile assistance center. "It was purely a situation where they wanted to put someone else in the position," Felton argues. "And they have."

County Manager Vidal studied the roster of possible candidates to succeed Felton as interim director while the State Attorney's Office conducted its inquiry into the director's spending habits. The three assistant directors -- Ann Vendrell, Kevin Hickey, and Lois Spears A each had more than twenty years of service in the department. Any one of them would have seemed an obvious choice if Vidal had viewed this as a short-term, caretaker's assignment. They even represented a full range of racial and ethnic choices: Vendrell is Hispanic, Hickey is an Anglo, and Spears is black.

But Vidal skipped over them and promoted the one man he felt best qualified for the job: Donald Manning.

At long last Manning would have his promotion. Did Burke play a role in this move? "The only thing I can say is that the charter says that commissioners do not get involved in personnel decisions, and the person who appointed me interim director was Armando Vidal," Manning responds. "Now, I am not so naive as to believe that he did not know that I have a connection with one of the commissioners. But guess what -- there are several people in our department who have connections to several commissioners."

Rather than being viewed as sinister, Manning adds, his political connections should be seen as an asset. He says in the past he has worked closely with Burke, and commissioners Betty Ferguson, Art Teele, Dennis Moss, Katy Sorenson, Bruce Kaplan, and Gwen Margolis. "Because of my connections to them, that's one of the qualities that I bring to this department," he says. "I'm a person who can sit and talk to these commissioners via the manager's office and help this department get some of the resources it needs." (Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera says Manning's friendship with Burke and his being black played no role in his being named interim director.)

Manning took up his new responsibilities with all of the subtlety of a cell door slamming shut. With apparent disregard for the temporary nature of his assignment, he immediately began making personnel changes. He transferred two of Felton's closest allies, including Anthony Dawsey, who had worked in the Reverend Victor Curry's county commission campaign against Burke. The move infuriated Felton: "I asked, 'Why are these people being transferred?' and Manning's exact words to me were: 'If I'm director for even a day, I don't want those people around because those people are loyal to you. Those are your people.' And I said, 'I take it that means you are not loyal to me.'"

Manning says he reassigned Dawsey and the others to work directly with Felton at his new assignment because he was afraid that if they stayed, they might eventually be accused of trying to "sabotage" his efforts, and "to safeguard that from happening, to keep that rumor from happening," he moved them. "I felt it was in the best interest of this administration that they work with Mr. Felton," Manning says, adding that it is pure coincidence that two of the first people he promoted had worked with him on Burke's election campaign. "I felt they were all the most competent persons," he says.

Manning is proud of what he has accomplished in the past six months. He says he has further reduced the overtime budget and begun a recruitment drive in the Hispanic community for new officers. "Our department is one of the few departments in the county that is a majority minority, and anytime you have that sort of situation, that department seemingly comes under more scrutiny than any other department," Manning says. "Our department is not an old department, and we've gone through a lot of transitions, and we've been trying to find our way."

Charles Felton is also trying to find his way. After being cleared of any wrongdoing by the State Attorney's Office (prosecutors noted that he never tried to hide his purchases and filled out all the proper paperwork), Felton expected to be reinstated. But both Vidal and Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera decided he should remain out while two audits were pending.

The first audit concerns the department's use of emergency purchase orders, and whether corrections could be saving money if it used more-established county buying procedures. The second audit is examining whether the department misspent about $250,000 that had been earmarked for training but which seemed to have gone to other departmental functions. (The initial results of that probe indicate most of the money actually was spent on training.) Both audits are expected to be completed "soon," county officials say.

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