Petty Cash

Miami city manager Cesar Odio loves to hand out taxpayer money to his friends. It's not under the table, but it is under the radar.

The pain of rejecting a needy church apparently was too much for Odio; less than a month later, in a defiant challenge to constitutional law, he wrote a check for $350 to the Greater Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a table at a "welcoming banquet." (Is it possible the overworked manager had forgotten that in 1994, at the request of Mayor Steve Clark, he donated $460 to the Friends of Corpus Christi Church for "outreach"?)

Of course, Macedonia Missionary Baptist might have avoided the constitutional problem altogether had its name been, say, the Church of Playa Giron. Miraculously, Odio always seems to find a way to help an organization affiliated with the Bay of Pigs invasion. Half a dozen groups with connections to the failed effort to topple Fidel Castro collected city checks in the last three years. Brigade 2506, the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, and the Mothers, Sisters, Wives, and Daughters of Bay of Pigs Veterans all received checks, the last group collecting $1000 every year for its fundraising luncheons.

Former Cuban political prisoners also have been well represented in the Odio checkbook. The Federacion Mundial de Ex-Presos Politicos Cubanos, for instance, received a $4500 "contribution" in November 1994. In 1993 the city purchased a table at a banquet in honor of former prisoner Polita Grau, one of the organizers of the early-Sixties Pedro Pan children's refugee movement. The Pedro Pan Foundation itself collected a $4500 donation in 1994.

When making those tough decisions about which groups will receive taxpayer money, Odio can draw on the expertise of his able staff. As an example, in February of this year he spent $600 on a table at a Facts About Cuban Exiles banquet. The chairman of the awards dinner committee was Carlos Migoya, husband of Odio's chief of staff, Christina Cuervo. In a pinch, Odio can turn to his own family for guidance. In mid-1995, for instance, he authorized a check for $1000 to the Associacion de Ex-Presos y Combatientes Politicos Cubanos. The paperwork accompanying the check provides no explanation other than that it was requested by De Yurre, nor is there any documentation of what the group did with the money. But the manager's mother, Sara Odio, is a member of the association.

All on his own Odio has found money for the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). He openly and proudly supports the Foundation's crusade to liberate Cuba from communism, and Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa is a close friend. From January 1993 through April 1996, Odio authorized the purchase of more than 50 pricey seats at CANF "gala dinners" and other events. Total cost: $11,500.

Some CANF donations have been less obvious -- but no less gracious -- than others. This past March, for example, Odio saw to it that the city was a "Gold Sponsor" of a charity art auction at the Hotel Inter-Continental. According to the check stub, the $4000 was an "international cancer and AIDS donation." Examination of other paperwork reveals that the International Cancer and AIDS Research Foundation did in fact benefit from the sponsorship. Further examination reveals that a "joint" beneficiary was CANF.

Odio also supports the arts by buying tickets -- lots of tickets -- to top cultural events. According to city records, he purchased 50 tickets for an "event" at the Manuel Artime Theater "to be distributed to senior citizens"; 100 tickets for a "Tributo a Bolito Landa" at Teatro Marti in October 1993; 200 tickets for the Brigade 2506 annual "musical event"; and more. Last year Rita Maria Rivero received a $1000 check from the city for 100 tickets to "Cuba, Su Musica y Sus Interpretes" at Miami Senior High.

While there is nothing new about top government officials receiving tickets to concerts or sporting events, it is unusual -- and an indication of Odio's imaginativeness -- for them to actually pay for the tickets. "We don't buy tickets for anything," says Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle. "We get in free to Oriole games at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, but that's our stadium. But as far as us buying tickets, especially large quantities of tickets -- for anything -- I've never heard of that happening."

That's probably because Naugle holds office in a city where the manager simply can't come close to matching Odio's creative genius for spending public money. "The city manager can spend up to $10,000 in Fort Lauderdale," notes Terry Sharp, budget director of Broward's largest city. "He has it so that as the full-time chief executive officer of the organization he has the flexibility to address issues as they come up between commission meetings. He doesn't have to wait to act."

Yet with all that money at his disposal, City Manager George Hanbury spent a grand total of only $40 on charity lunches, dinners, and galas in all of 1995, according to Sharp. By comparison, Odio spent nearly $50,000.

Inside the monstrously huge Metro-Dade government, with its four-billion-dollar budget, County Manager Armando Vidal can spend a cool half-mil without county commission approval. Remarkably, he doesn't spend it on Brigade 2506 musical events. "The county manager would never spend money like that without commission approval," insists budget coordinator John Topinka. "Nobody in the county would ever do that. We just don't do it, as a standard practice."

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