By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Miguel Haddad's Auto Diesel Service Plaza, way out on West Okeechobee Road in Hialeah Gardens, has been the trucker's friend for 28 years now. The Citgo fuel pumps are open 24 hours a day. Drivers can take showers and naps, dine at the Mamma Mia restaurant, and have that oil leak or brake squeal checked out at the repair shop. Auto Diesel is also a friend of drivers who stick closer to home -- employees of the town of Hialeah Gardens. On the orders of mayor Gilda Cabrera de Corzo, Auto Diesel is the official provider of gasoline for all Hialeah Gardens city vehicles. Some people think that particular friendship is too cozy: For the past eight years, owner Haddad has also sat on the city council of this politically fractious municipality of 19,000.
The truck stop, located about a mile from city hall, is conveniently situated, particularly for police cars, which account for the vast majority of gas consumed by city vehicles. Also, city officials say, it's the only suitable 24-hour station in town; an all-night Shell is often almost inaccessible owing to heavy traffic in its vicinity, according to police chief Keith Joy.
Baloney, says Glenn Sime, who late last year filed a conflict-of-interest complaint against Haddad with the Florida Commission on Ethics. (A spokeswoman for the commission won't confirm or deny that a complaint is being investigated, but says it is the policy of the commission not to comment until a case is concluded.)
Sime used to be chief of police in Hialeah Gardens. In March 1995, when Cabrera de Corzo was elected mayor, she fired Sime and rehired three police officers he had dismissed. (One was Joy, the current chief.) Then the mayor hired the attorney those officers had retained to protest their firings, Jose "Pepe" Herrera, as the new city attorney.
Sime, a 22-year veteran cop, had moved from Hillsborough County to take the job as chief just two years earlier, when his friend George Hameetman was elected mayor. When Hameetman lost his re-election bid to Cabrera de Corzo, Sime didn't take kindly to losing his position. He thinks the stress precipitated the heart attack he suffered a few months later. This past September he filed a civil suit against the city alleging wrongful termination. The case is pending, along with similar lawsuits filed by five of his fired fellow police department staffers.
Throughout, Sime has made a point to stay informed -- and now, to keep the ethics commission informed. "[The city administrators] are just interested in taking care of each other," he says. "I was trying to do things the right way, and they got rid of me."
Keith Joy, the current chief, finds Sime's protestations hypocritical, and points out that Sime didn't go to the ethics commission back in 1993 when then-mayor Hameetman issued a memo to all city department heads advising that "we will be opening a gasoline account at ... Mike Haddad's place." Says Joy: "He didn't have any problem with it back then, but now he does. He obviously has other motives."
Sime counters that he only became aware that the deal might constitute a conflict of interest when then-City Attorney Roberto Rojas told Hameetman so, prompting a switch in May 1994 to Tropic, a station in neighboring Medley. At that time, his officers were told that they could continue to buy gas at Haddad's truck stop, which some did. (Rojas did not return phone calls requesting comment about what prompted the switch.)
Sometime around October of this past year, the city went back to Auto Diesel as its primary supplier. According to city clerk Charles Blazek, the mayor didn't need approval from the city council to make the change, nor did she put her directive in writing, so the exact date of the policy change is unclear. There is little doubt, though, that the city's patronage would be welcome; Blazek says total annual fuel expenditures are roughly $72,000.
Cabrera de Corzo was on vacation and could not be reached to comment for this story.
"There's nothing to this, and the [ethics commission] investigators who were here saw that," Blazek complains. "[Sime] is simply a disgruntled ex-employee who has been trying to disrupt the city administration at every turn."
Beyond the conflict of interest issue, the ex-chief finds Haddad's rates disturbing. Back in November, the last time Tropic in Medley submitted an invoice, the rate was $1.03 to $1.06 per gallon. Auto Diesel, meanwhile, was charging about $1.28. (Both stations append a discount to their rate. Tropic's is based on volume, while Citgo deducts an unexplained amount for "taxes.") Hialeah Gardens officials say the disparity is misleading because by using a station within the city limits, their local-option tax money is contributing toward their own road improvements.
Haddad says he can't comment until the ethics commission investigation is concluded. "I have never done anything wrong," he adds, bustling around his Auto Diesel office, whose wood-paneled walls are adorned with photo after photo of him posing with storied figures such as Bob Dole and Gen. Omar Bradley. "My credibility and my dignity are the highest.