Other People's Money

Nothing about Arthur E. Teele, Jr., is simple. He is a black Republican. He is mercurial, Machiavellian, and manic. He is paranoid, but often with good reason. He is charming in person, but can be abusive toward his staff, and he once punched out a lobbyist. He is married, but is known to have a flirtatious manner. He is religious and profane, and even his political enemies admit to admiring his skill and tenacity.

He is politically brilliant and has been the single greatest catalyst for action on the county commission for the past three years. And yet among his supporters he engenders a disturbing sense of doubt and fear, a feeling of distrust.

Those contradictions are the essence of Art Teele, and they extend to his personal finances, which are as difficult to comprehend and as troubling as the man himself. If his financial disclosure forms provide a map to his past, any journey using them as a guide will be full of detours that suggest both failure and success.

Indeed, examining the personal finances of any of the candidates for Dade County mayor allows for insight into the man's character. Attorney Alex Penelas earned slightly more than $100,000 last year, and stated he was paid even though he didn't actually do any legal work. "I stopped doing that when I got elected to the county," he told the Miami Herald. In Penelas's view, the law firm Shutts & Bowen keeps him on the payroll as a public service. He was "very lucky," he said, to even find a firm that would be generous enough to take in a county commissioner.

Another partner in Shutts & Bowen is Xavier Suarez, who has made the vilification of lobbyists a central theme in his mayoral campaign, even though he is a lobbyist himself and earned more than $250,000 last year for his efforts.

Maurice Ferre suffered a personal financial meltdown years ago and lists debts of nearly six million dollars on his financial disclosure forms. He has declared no appreciable income, at least none that he is willing to explain publicly. As he told the Herald, he didn't want to discuss one recent business deal in Latin America because he didn't want his creditors to find out about it.

As for Teele, he is part-time lawyer, part-time lobbyist, part-time businessman, and full-time politician. He hasn't filed income tax returns for 1994 or 1995 and says his attorneys are still negotiating with the IRS about how much he owes, though he acknowledges the amount could be as high as $195,000. From newspapers and radio stations to coal mines and real estate, over the past twenty years Teele has dabbled in numerous enterprises.

The 50-year-old commissioner grimaces at the thought that his financial disclosure forms -- which boast a net worth of $700,000 but also list more than a million dollars in liabilities -- will become the sole criteria in judging his suitability for office. "The problem with this snapshot is that it does not reflect the total picture," he says. "You are looking at a businessman who has been a very successful business person."

Upon graduating from Florida A&M University in 1967 with a degree in political science, Teele, an ROTC cadet, joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and was shipped off to Vietnam. In September 1968, he suffered shrapnel wounds to his left leg and was awarded a Purple Heart. Teele also earned a Meritorious Service Medal and two Bronze Stars, including one for valor. He was also promoted to captain.

After his tour in Vietnam, Teele remained in the service and attended Florida State University's law school as part of an army-sponsored program to produce attorneys for the military. He graduated in 1972 and was transferred to Korea, where he became the Second Infantry Division's chief prosecutor; he tried cases of murder, rape, and other major felonies. He finished his military career as senior aide and chief counsel to Lt. Gen. Henry Emerson, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps.

Following Teele's honorable discharge from the army in 1976, Emerson, a Republican, introduced his former aide to the GOP hierarchy in Washington. Even this son of liberal Democrats could see the opportunities being offered him: Teele promptly declared himself a Republican.

In his resignation letter to the army, Teele stated he was leaving the armed forces to pursue a private law practice in Florida. But in truth he was less interested in practicing law than in making money, filled as he was with entrepreneurial spirit. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, he owned two small, black-oriented newspapers (the Capital Outlook in Tallahassee and the Daytona Times), and a pair of radio stations (WJAX in Jacksonville and WRIF in Detroit) and eventually sold them all for a profit.

Throughout this time, Teele was active in Republican politics and fought hard for Ronald Reagan's candidacy in 1980. His reward: a presidential appointment in 1981 to take over the Urban Mass Transit Administration. Two years later he left the Reagan Administration, a newly credentialed expert in transportation matters, on the prowl for his next business opportunity.

He found it with a small Brooklyn company called Applied Electrical Technologies Corporation (AETC), which rebuilt subway motors. Teele bought the company for nearly three million dollars in 1985 -- paying $1.4 million in cash and assuming more than a million dollars in debts the company owed in bank loans. Teele took on several investors, including William A. Patch, a former army brigadier general who served with Teele and Emerson in Korea. Patch invested $150,000.

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