By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
For twelve years Charles Felton had not smoked. He'd quit cold. Quit forever, he told himself. Never again would he light up a cigarette and invite demon nicotine into his body.
Then in October 1993 he went to work for Dade County, and within a few months of taking over as director of the Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, Felton realized that an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, and emphysema was the least of his worries. Two and a half years later, the 52-year-old Felton sits in the smoking section of Don Shula's All Star Cafe, extinguishing a cigarette butt with one hand while reaching for his pack of Marlboros with the other. "I really should try and quit again," he says between table-rattling fits of coughing.
Now, however, is not the time.
Like the haze of cigarette smoke surrounding him, a cloud of a different sort now hangs over Felton. He is a director without a department, a leader with no one to lead. Six months ago County Manager Armando Vidal "reassigned" him from his command post in West Dade to an unused office on the 29th floor of County Hall following allegations he had misused county money to furnish his home with office equipment. "The whole thing was politically and not substantively motivated," he charges.
Felton acknowledges he spent $2538 to purchase a desk, three chairs, a file cabinet, a 27-inch television set, and a VCR for his Pembroke Pines home. He told investigators he believed the items had been approved, noting that former county manager Joaquin Avi*o told him he could set up a home office with a computer and a fax machine, and he assumed that furniture was part of the package. This past December the Dade State Attorney's Office cleared Felton of any criminal wrongdoing, but Vidal refuses to reinstate his corrections chief. Two audits of the corrections department are still pending, and Vidal says that until those are complete Felton will remain in administrative limbo -- temporarily assigned to a low-profile project -- while collecting his $113,000 annual salary.
Stubbing out another cigarette, Felton is barely able to contain his anger. "There was no desire to give me the benefit of the doubt," he huffs.
And he's right.
Charles Felton's problems have virtually nothing to do with a desk and a couple of chairs. They have even less to do with a pair of pending audits, which are so commonplace that Felton may well be the only department head ever removed while they were being conducted.
Instead Felton's current predicament is the result of Dade County's peculiarly vicious brand of politics, intensified in a department so torn by employee antagonisms that it would probably be better off if the inmates ran the place. No other county bureaucracy is as racially and ethnically divided -- and manipulated -- as corrections, held hostage as it is by warring factions claiming to be advocacy groups but which in fact are little more than instruments of sedition.
As director, Felton ultimately must take responsibility for some of that chaos, but much of it existed long before he arrived, and will almost certainly remain after he's gone. There still might be a last-minute reprieve for Felton, but the odds do not seem to be in his favor. Like any condemned man, all he can do now is stare at the clock and fire up another cigarette.
Felton could have done more to help his cause. When the controversy surrounding his home office became public, he managed to annoy his bosses further by using on-duty corrections officers and inmate labor to return the furniture to the county. Stupid. But it was in keeping with Felton's presumptive manner and his lack of appreciation for how his actions are perceived by others.
As the State Attorney's investigation into the purchase noted, Felton's conduct wasn't illegal, but it did show a level of "fiscal insensitivity" that was unbecoming a county official. Similarly, Felton was among those cited in a New Times investigation last year for running up exorbitant bills on his county-issued cellular telephone with long-distance calls to family and friends.
He came to Dade County believing he had all the answers when he didn't even understand the questions. He was far too sure of himself, and came across to those around him as cocky and arrogant. But when understood in the context of his career and accomplishments, Felton's attitude was not without justification. He was born in Mississippi Delta country but grew up in Nebraska, where his father worked in an Omaha packing house slaughtering hogs and cattle. His father died when the boy was just ten years old, and his mother singlehandedly raised him and his five brothers and sisters. Evidently she instilled in him an intense drive to succeed.
Felton graduated from the University of Nebraska, then went on to obtain a master's degree in social services from the prestigious program at the University of Chicago. He began his career in corrections in 1968 as a juvenile probation officer. By 1973 he was named warden of the state penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. He was only 29 and was dubbed by inmates and the media "the baby warden." Within a few years, he was appointed superintendent of the sprawling Cook County jails.
Felton became the first black in the state of Florida to lead a corrections department in 1981 when he took over the jail system in Pinellas County. Ten years later then-president George Bush nominated him to be United States Marshal for the Middle District of Florida, but his appointment stalled in the Senate -- along with hundreds of other nominations -- owing to election-year politics. When Bush lost to Bill Clinton, Felton found himself looking for a new job.
The opening in Dade County seemed to be a wonderful opportunity, and Felton's impressive resume won him the job. But not long after coming aboard as director, he experienced his first taste of local politics. He had some immediate decisions to make after taking charge of the department, the most pressing being selection of his senior staff. One of the names that kept popping up for promotion was Donald Manning, an eleven-year veteran and a commander in the department. But Felton rejected the idea. "It was a situation where I was not enthusiastic about Manning," he recounts. "I felt that I needed some time to work with him." Furthermore, he says he was put off by Manning's attitude. "Manning knew his name was in the mix," Felton says, adding that when they talked, Manning made it clear he expected to be promoted, and even announced which of the three assistant-director slots he intended to assume: operations, which oversees the day-to-day running of the system. "He was saying, 'I want operations,'" Felton recalls. "It was very insulting. It didn't sit well with me at all."
After Felton decided not to promote Manning, he says, his immediate supervisor, Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera, told him they were going to have to explain that decision to Commissioner James Burke. Manning has served as his campaign manager in every political race Burke has entered in the past ten years. The two men are such close friends that for a time after Burke's separation from his wife, he slept on Manning's couch.
"They put me in a very difficult situation," Felton says. "I found it very annoying. There is a certain amount of power that elected officials have that you have to recognize. They have a feeling they are invincible, that they are not as vulnerable as we are."
On April 1, 1994, Felton says, he and Rivera met with Burke and the commissioner's chief of staff, Billy Hardemon. As tactfully as possible, Felton tried to explain to Burke that he had concerns about Manning's abilities and did not believe it was appropriate to promote him to the position of assistant director. Burke was incensed, Felton recalls, and repeatedly asked the director to reconsider. But Felton refused. "He was very unhappy," Felton says. "He was very unhappy and he was being very persistent: 'Why don't we put him in there temporarily?'" (It is a violation of the county charter for any commissioner to become directly involved in personnel decisions of county staff. Commissioners have the authority only to hire and fire the county manager and the county attorney; interference in any other area is punishable by removal from office.)
Felton says he has had general conversations with other commissioners about staff changes within corrections, but he has never encountered the level of "heavy-handedness" he experienced with Burke. Following that meeting, he believes, Burke considered him to be an enemy. "After that the attitude was set: 'We're going to get Felton,'" he says.
Not only did Felton snub Burke's closest ally in corrections, but one of the people he did promote in the general reorganization of the department was Anthony Dawsey, an active supporter of one of Burke's opponents in the last election campaign. Felton says Burke confronted him regarding Dawsey's promotion, and wanted to know how the director could possibly promote someone who, he recalls Burke saying, "wasn't with us."
Felton says he was only interested in promoting the best people regardless of their political connections. If it angered those in power, he says, so be it. He wasn't going to worry about the consequences. "I don't think you have any choice," he asserts. "You either roll over and do what they tell you to do or you are going to have enemies. Either you let them dictate to you how that department is going to be run or you don't and they are going to hate you. It's either one or the other."
Burke denies becoming involved in any personnel decisions within corrections. "I absolutely didn't do it," he insists. "I'm not the brightest guy in the world, but I can read and I know what the charter says."
Assistant County Manager Rivera acknowledges he attended a meeting with Felton and Burke on April 1, 1994. "I recall the meeting," Rivera says. "I don't recall the specifics of the conversation. I remember that during the meeting the commissioner raised some concerns that were generic about promotions. The commissioner may have brought up the name of Manning, but I don't recall."
Manning claims he knows nothing about the meeting and says he has never discussed with Burke A or anyone else A his desire to be promoted. "I never asked anyone for any position in this department," he says. "If that meeting took place, I think at the time Commissioner Burke was chairman of the public safety committee and he probably would have had some concern about who was being placed in what position and what their qualifications were."
Manning is mistaken. At the time of the April 1994 meeting between Burke and Felton, county records show that Burke was no longer chairman of the commission's public safety committee, which has limited supervision of the corrections department. Rather, he was chairman of the finance committee, which has nothing to do with the operation of the county's jails.
Manning adds that he doesn't understand why this meeting is even being raised as an issue: "Obviously nothing happened from that because I didn't become assistant director."
Burke says he finds Felton's allegations disturbing because "as a fellow African American I've tried to protect him" from questions that have been raised about his conduct and character. "People have attempted to help this guy by not publicizing certain things that would be embarrassing to him," Burke claims. That may change, Burke warns, because "this guy has a big problem with the way he operates. . . . He thinks attacking me is the only way he is going to get to keep his job."
The type of political cronyism Felton alleges is certainly not unique to corrections. Several commissioners maintain a special interest in certain county departments that goes beyond the expected standard review. But other problems Felton began experiencing were indeed unique.
A form of bureaucratic apartheid exists in Dade County government. Out of the county's 59 departments, only eight have black directors, and only two would be considered to lead major departments -- corrections and solid waste.
While blacks make up 35 percent of the county government's total work force according to county records, they compose 63 percent of employees in corrections and 74 percent of employees in solid waste. These are the jobs nobody really wants -- dealing with society's refuse, human and otherwise. So they are taken by blacks, historically disadvantaged and perpetually segregated from mainstream Dade society. Some county bureaucrats argue that given the number of black employees, it is only appropriate that their department heads should be black as well. During the past fifteen years, for example, corrections has had black directors exclusively.
But as Felton discovered, this also has had the effect of marginalizing his department in the eyes of other administrators. "I'm not saying that it was deliberate or that it was anyone's fault," he says, "but what has happened is that they have created an organization that is viewed as a 'black department,' and it does not have the credibility or the respect that a lot of these other departments have." Such dismissive attitudes, he contends, extend to the directors as well: "Even though you may be eminently qualified, there will be people who will say you only got the position because you are black, and treat you accordingly."
This bureaucratic segregation has also bred resentment within the corrections department, especially among those who are not accustomed to being viewed as minorities in Dade County A namely, the department's Hispanic officers. In the past, corrections was viewed by Hispanics as a stepping stone to a career with Metro-Dade police, but increasingly it is being seen as an end in itself. Today 22 percent of the corrections work force is Hispanic.
Other Hispanics working for Dade County have awakened to their political power over the past five years, but those inside corrections are feeling left out. As a result, the Hispanic Association of Correctional Officers (HACO) has been demanding major changes in the county's hiring procedures. "Corrections doesn't represent the community," asserts Edgar Nieves, HACO's vice president. "We want the department to reflect the people who are paying the bills in the county." That means eventually they want 50 percent of the department's officers to be Hispanic.
Such a goal places them in direct conflict with the Organization of Minority Correctional Officers (OMCO), which is a predominantly black group. (Unlike the Police Benevolent Association, which negotiates contract issues such as salary and benefits for all corrections officers, OMCO and HACO are advocacy groups that push for the rights and political agendas of their dues-paying members.) OMCO's president, Sgt. Walter Clark, says he sympathizes with HACO's desire for equity but will fight it until all other county departments begin making efforts to increase their percentages of black employees. Why, Clark asks, isn't anyone talking about the dearth of blacks in the county's Building and Zoning Department (seventeen percent), or among Metro-Dade police officers (seventeen percent), or within the fire department (fifteen percent)?
Clark has been with corrections for 26 years, dating back to a time when the department was almost entirely Anglo. During the Eighties, when the number of corrections officers jumped from 500 to more than 2000, Clark helped lead the drive to recruit heavily in the black community. In light of the large number of black inmates, he believed it was important that the staff also be predominantly black. "Nobody is going to look out for black folks but black folks," he says. "Nobody is going to march for us but us. Nobody but blacks are going to protest the fact that in 1996 we don't have a black captain in the Metro Police Department. The highest-ranking black woman over there is a lieutenant."
Felton says he tried to work with both groups, each of which claims a membership of about 500 officers. He offered plans to gradually increase the number of Hispanics in the department, but for OMCO any move toward that goal went too far; for HACO it was never enough. The tension between the groups could be measured in the complaints they filed. Since he took command, Felton has received hundreds of letters from OMCO's Walter Clark and from HACO president Cpl. Manuel Aladro outlining every slight, no matter how small. It was not uncommon for Aladro to write Felton three letters in one day. His complaints ranged from the serious to the picayune. For instance, if during a meeting Felton called on a representative from OMCO but failed to acknowledge a HACO officer, the director would get a letter admonishing him. "A lot of these letters from HACO, they are designed to create an atmosphere of discrimination to support a lawsuit," Felton believes. "Every little thing that happens, boom A they charge racial discrimination and they send in a letter. And the OMCO organization does the same thing. You spend all of your time dealing with these groups." Worse, he says, they would go behind his back to meet with commissioners and county administrators, undermining his authority.
During a recent interview, HACO vice president Nieves and HACO executive director Margarita de Pazos were asked how many times they've met with Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera.
"Several," Nieves said cautiously.
"Numerous," de Pazos said simultaneously.
Which is it? "Let's put it this way," Nieves said. "If I could have the same access to Commissioner Burke or [Commission Chairman Art] Teele the way they [OMCO] have, I'd be happy."
Whether Frank Dennis knew it or not, he was about to become a martyr A an unlikely role for a 24-year-old whose rap sheet included nineteen felony convictions. In the summer of 1994, he'd been arrested, and then released, on charges he'd pummeled his girlfriend with a bottle and a stick. Soon he was arrested again, this time on drug-possession charges.
On the morning of August 21, 1994, five days after his most recent arrest, Dennis was standing in the rear lobby of the county jail at NW Thirteenth Street and Thirteenth Avenue, waiting to be shipped off to another county facility. He was more than a little irritated about his pending transfer. How was his girlfriend going to visit him, he complained to corrections officers, if he was way out in West Dade?
While waiting for the jail van to arrive, Dennis was causing problems for the officers nearby. He had apparently been leering at, or making some sort of statements about, the posterior of a female officer. After a short while, Dennis eyed a nearby phone, walked over, and placed a call. He wasn't handcuffed or in shackles, and none of the guards noticed his movements for several minutes until a supervisor, Ofcr. Manuel Diaz, spotted him and yelled to another officer, Daniel Arocho, to tell the inmate he wasn't allowed to use the phone.
"I'm talking to my people!" Dennis shouted at Arocho when the officer told him to hang up. Arocho grabbed the phone from Dennis's hand, slammed the receiver down, and ordered Dennis back against the wall.
"You fucking Cuban, you hung the phone up on my people!" shouted Dennis, who is black. "I'll whip your Cuban ass! I'll whip your Cuban ass!" By now Diaz was standing alongside Arocho as Dennis finally moved against the wall. According to reports the two officers later filed, they decided Dennis should be locked up until the van arrived, and escorted him to a secluded portion of the building where the jail's holding cells are located. What happened next remains a matter of dispute. This account is drawn from official reports and depositions.
One witness, Ofcr. Curtis Wright, said that after Diaz and Arocho placed Dennis in the holding cell, the two officers returned to the lobby, put on protective latex gloves, then went back to the area of the holding cells. A few minutes later Dennis began screaming for help.
In a handwritten statement to investigators, Dennis concurred that the officers left the holding cell but soon returned. They were still angry, he stated, about the way he supposedly looked at one of the female officers and said they were "going to stop his punk ass" for being so disrespectful to a woman. "Then one of the officers hit me in the eye," Dennis wrote. "And I said, 'What's going on?' Then I grab the officer that hit me in the eye, trying to keep him from hitting me again. That's when three more officers jumped on."
Diaz and Arocho contradicted both Wright's and Dennis's account. They maintained that while they were escorting Dennis to the holding cell, the inmate sucker-punched Arocho in the face and then bit Arocho on the forearm. There is no disagreement, however, that a melee ensued, with several other Hispanic officers joining the fracas.
The commotion in the holding cell attracted the attention of other officers. Six black female officers later came forward to say they were horrified watching the Hispanic officers beat Dennis. They claimed the officers had Dennis face-down on the ground and were punching, kicking, and choking him. "Help me!" they said Dennis screamed. "I've had enough! Help me! I can't breathe!" When one of the women, Ofcr. Sara Walker, approached the scene, she said, Dennis grabbed her leg and began pleading, "Sister, please help me!"
Walker wrote in her initial report that Diaz appeared out of control, screaming over and over again: "He bit Arocho!" When she tried to move Diaz away from Dennis, the officer shoved her so hard she nearly fell to the ground. Diaz claimed he didn't realize it was Walker and thought it was another inmate attacking him, but Walker said Diaz knew it was her and began shouting, "Get the fuck out of the way!" Other female officers recalled Diaz screaming at them: "All you bitches get the fuck from back here!"
Meanwhile, Arocho was in a panic himself. His forearm was bleeding and he, too, kept shouting, "He bit me! He bit me!"
"What do you expect!" Ofcr. Sylvia Simmons screamed back. "You all are kicking on him. Just handcuff him." But Arocho could only think about the possibility that Dennis might be infected with AIDS.
Eventually Dennis was handcuffed behind his back and his feet were placed in shackles. He was then dragged to the jail's medical clinic. Sara Walker followed them there and later said several officers continued "kicking, banging, knocking" Dennis while he awaited medical attention. "Enough is enough. Stop!" Walker recalled telling the officers, who then left the clinic.
As Dennis lay handcuffed in one of the clinic's cells crying and bleeding, Arocho was taken to Cedars Medical Center for treatment of his bite wound. News of the incident spread quickly through the jail.
A few hours later, when Charles Felton heard what happened, he ordered an immediate investigation. He knew in his gut this one would be trouble.
Within 24 hours, OMCO and HACO were circling the Frank Dennis beating, looking to see how it might best play to their own agendas. Copies of the initial incident report written by the officers involved -- which should have been kept confidential during the investigation -- began circulating throughout the downtown jail and were soon being faxed to other county jail facilities.
Clark, OMCO's president, called an emergency meeting on Wednesday, August 24, 1994, to address, according to the group's flyers, "the brutal beating of a black man at the Dade County Jail," and "the racial tension centered around the excessive use of force by Latino officers," as well as "the lack of confidence in the department's internal affairs bureau."
Several of the female officers who reported the attack received death threats and had notes taped to their lockers, some of which read, "Die Nigger" and "Down with niggers!! This means you. Cubans rule Miami bitch." Who wrote the notes remains a mystery, although it is not impossible to imagine that they were written by a black or an Anglo hoping to fuel racial animosity toward Hispanics.
On September 8, 1994, HACO president Manuel Aladro wrote Felton three separate letters dealing with different aspects of the investigation into the Frank Dennis case. In the most extensive of the letters, Aladro questioned the credibility of each of the six black female officers who witnessed the altercation, and suggested they were deserving of investigation themselves. In attacking Ofcr. Sylvia Simmons, for example, Aladro noted that "according to other officers' statements, she was conducting a conversation away from her duty post. Is this a routine occurrence?"
In his letters, Aladro wrote that "it is imperative that the ethnic and racial tension stop," but then went on to attack the six black officers, arguing that they couldn't be trusted because, among other reasons, "they are all from the same racial and gender group."
Racially charged flyers began appearing throughout the jail system on September 15, 1994. One of them, from a group called the International African Movement, launched a racist tirade against Cubans. "If you read the history of Spaniards (white Cubans) and their relationship with people of African descent, you will find that Spaniards have treated people of African descent as crudely as anyone ever has," the flyer stated. "And with the recent incident involving the savage beating of a black inmate by several Hispanic (Cuban) corrections officers, we believe this is an example of things to come."
A second flyer, this one unsigned, recounted some of the events surrounding the Frank Dennis incident and named the Hispanic officers allegedly involved. "As of today, nothing has happened to the attacking officers," the flyer noted. "Not yet anyway."
That veiled threat was deemed all the more serious when it was discovered that the flyers were being posted in areas where jail inmates could read them. It was bad enough having such material circulated among the staff, but publicizing the names of the Hispanic officers among correction's 4500 black inmates, and suggesting it was a matter of black pride that something be done, sent shock waves through the system.
Police Benevolent Association president John Rivera couldn't believe what was happening. As head of the official bargaining unit for all corrections officers, Rivera normally tries to distance himself from internecine battles such as those between OMCO and HACO. But with the situation escalating dramatically, Rivera wrote Felton a letter dated September 29, 1994, in which he threatened to go to the State Attorney's Office and demand a grand jury investigation into the jail's command staff for allowing HACO and OMCO to interfere with a criminal investigation.
"The PBA is resorting to this drastic measure because all of our efforts to persuade both the department and the county to curtail the activities of said faction groups have been to no avail," Rivera wrote. "As a result of continuous illegal and improper discussions, several officers have been threatened to the point their safety may be jeopardized. The department is fully apprised of the divisive agenda of said factions, yet it continues to tolerate and entertain such groups at the expense of the safety of its officers and other personnel."
Word of the Dennis incident had also spread beyond the corrections department. The weekly black newspaper Miami Times wrote a story about the alleged beating based on a leaked copy of the original incident report. On September 26, 1994, the local civil rights group PULSE (People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality) held a meeting with Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle at which leaders demanded a thorough investigation of the allegations. The Miami Herald published a story the next day, noting that leaders in the black community were drawing comparisons between Frank Dennis and Rodney King.
"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.
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.
"Based on all of the things that have happened," OMCO's president Walter Clark says, "it would not be in the best interest of the department for Felton to return." Clark likes the current arrangement, with Manning in charge and Ann Vendrell as his newly promoted second-in-command. "She's marching to the tune of Mr. Manning," he says cheerfully.
Ask Clark if he would have supported Vendrell had she been named interim director instead of Manning and he laughs out loud. "The manager wasn't going to do that," he says. And if he had, what kind of trouble might he have caused? "Let's put it this way," Clark grins, "it would have been very interesting, very interesting indeed."
"What's ironic about this entire thing," says HACO's Edgar Nieves, "is that OMCO is the one that lobbied tremendously to bring Felton in. And now they don't want him here? Come on. You brought him here, now you've got to live with him."
Equally ironic is the fact that HACO has turned on the person it once backed for director -- Ann Vendrell. Since working for Manning, Vendrell has become his biggest booster. In sharp contrast to her earlier criticism of his handling of the house-arrest program, she now has nothing but glowing things to say about Manning. "It is my sincere hope that as the department's transition period concludes he will be able to continue as director," she wrote in a January 29, 1996, letter to the county manager.
That letter, coupled with a recent Miami Times article in which she was quoted as saying she believed that a black should be in charge of the department, has infuriated HACO. "I was outraged and disgusted at this statement," HACO's executive director Margarita de Pazos wrote to County Manager Vidal.
HACO has also begun a campaign to undermine Manning. In a subsequent letter to Vidal, de Pazos noted that of Manning's first nine promotions within his senior staff, seven blacks were promoted, one Anglo, and only one Hispanic. De Pazos went on to decry the fact that out of 58 general promotions announced late this past month, only seven Hispanics moved up the ranks. "That's outrageous!!!" de Pazos wrote, her exclamation points driving home the extent of HACO's anger. "If this is any indication of Mr. Manning's agenda, it is hereby rebuked by this association and our affiliated organizations as well.
"If your advisers are telling you that things are fine at the Metro-Dade Corrections Department, nothing can be further from the truth," de Pazos continued. "Racial tensions are once again rising among staff members, and biased, slanted appointments on behalf of this interim director do not help matters at all."
De Pazos then pleaded with Vidal -- Cuban to Cuban: "Many of us fled a communist regime in Cuba to experience the American dream, but in corrections it has been the American nightmare. Enough is enough!!!