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By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
THE RETURN OF CRAZY JOE CAROLLO
Within hours of his election this past November as a Miami city commissioner, Joe Carollo was busy extracting promises from his colleagues to appoint him chairman of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority. More commonly known by its acronym MSEA (pronounced mee-suh), the sports authority is a ten-year-old agency responsible for issuing the bonds that paid for construction of the $58 million Miami Arena. MSEA is still repaying those bonds using money generated by a one-percent tax levied on all hotel guests who stay in Dade County.
Each year MSEA receives its share of the tax revenue, pays off its bond obligations, and stores the remaining money in a reserve fund to cover any arena shortfalls. In the past, MSEA and its thirteen-member board operated in relative obscurity, but the organization's recently recognized wealth has thrust it to center stage. The sports authority has more than $22 million in the bank. By comparison, the City of Miami has a reserve fund of less than $5 million.
Carollo successfully lobbied his colleagues and was appointed chairman of MSEA. At first his interest looked like old-fashioned political vengeance, payback time for those who had supported his opponent in the city commission race, Victor De Yurre, MSEA's outgoing chairman. The agency's executive director, William Perry, and its attorney, Christopher Korge, were both De Yurre's friends and allies. Carollo approached his new responsibilities with all the subtlety of a sawed-off shotgun -- he fired Korge and forced Perry to resign.
The bureaucratic shakeup seemed a questionable way for Carollo to reintroduce himself on Miami's political stage, especially considering that he had spent months on the campaign trail assuring voters he was not the same man they had thrown out of office eight years earlier, the man whose nasty reputation for political bloodletting was well deserved. Carollo's scorched-earth tactics at MSEA threatened to resurrect his "Crazy Joe" image.
But there was nothing crazy about Carollo's thinking. And he wasn't acting alone.
During last fall's Miami commission campaign, Carollo had picked up an unexpected ally -- County Commission Chairman Art Teele. In a mailing to blacks throughout the city, Teele noted that Carollo may not be the most popular candidate in the African-American community, but the chairman was going to support him anyway and he encouraged others to do the same.
Carollo's victory cemented a political alliance with Teele that flourishes still. Following the election, during the Three Kings parade through Little Havana and the Martin Luther King Day parade in Liberty City, the two men sat side by side in a convertible, waving to the crowd, smiling and laughing -- the Thelma and Louise of Dade County politics.
Knowledgeable observers saw Teele's endorsement of Carollo as a carefully calculated investment, one he could later cash in and put to good use during the upcoming county mayor's race. After all, Teele had employed a similar strategy when he helped elect Miriam Alonso to the Miami City Commission in 1989. Alonso then threw her support behind Teele when he first ran for county commission in 1990, and helped lift him to a surprising victory over incumbent Barbara Carey.
This time, though, Teele didn't have to wait a year to see a return on the faith he'd placed in Carollo.
Months before Carollo was elected, Teele had been searching for a way to finance the construction of a new sports arena in downtown Miami, which he believed was the only way to keep the Heat from moving to Broward. But he was having difficulty coming up with the estimated $200 million a new arena would cost. He did, however, identify one potential source of money: the millions MSEA had squirrled away in its bank account. Those funds had been untouchable when De Yurre was chairman of the sports authority. That changed dramatically when Carollo took over.
Carollo's raid on MSEA might have evoked more outcry if the sports authority hadn't been perceived as a bastion of cronyism and financial exploitation; few people were willing to challenge Carollo when he declared that the authority was in need of a thorough housecleaning.
"Shortly after being appointed to MSEA, I started running into all sorts of deficiencies," Carollo recalls. "The bottom line is that it was basically an institution that was being run by Chris Korge. Bill Perry, even though he was the executive director, took his orders from Korge. They were pretty much doing anything they wanted without any scrutiny."
Over the years, MSEA's budget had ballooned from $438,000 in 1986 to $1.2 million in 1995. City Commissioner J.L. Plummer, a long-time critic of the agency, complains that when he was chairman of MSEA three years ago, he found many wasteful spending practices. "They had three memberships to the Downtown Athletic Club, which were costing $100 a month for each membership," he recalls. And even though the authority had its own skybox at the Miami Arena, Plummer says $12,000 per year was being spent to purchase floor-level seats for all the Miami Heat games. MSEA officials, according to Plummer, were also submitting exorbitant expense reports for $200 and $300 lunches at Joe's Stone Crab and Buccioni. In addition both Plummer and Carollo were shocked by Perry's and Korge's salaries. Bill Perry, who was De Yurre's chief of staff before becoming MSEA executive director, was earning close to $100,000. Korge, one of Dade's most influential lobbyists, was receiving $110,000 as MSEA's part-time attorney, plus another $65,000 to act as its lobbyist.