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.

Like many people looking for money, Maria Elena Duran turned to the City of Miami. She headed a parents' support group at Shenandoah Middle School and wondered if the city might sponsor the school's gifted-student program. Her letter asking for help arrived on the desk of Commissioner Willy Gort in February 1995.

Gort reviewed her letter. He receives hundreds of such requests for money every year, so he's become pretty skilled at spotting bogus appeals; this didn't seem to be one of them. He attached a brief note of approval and forwarded the letter up the city's bureaucratic chain of command.

Soon thereafter it landed on the desk of Cesar Odio.
Miami's city manager is the benevolent dictator over what the city refers to as "small purchases." The city code allows him to spend up to $4500 at a crack without the guidance, approval, or even the knowledge of the city commission. And while $4500 may be chump change in a city budget of $260 million, Odio knows that it is plenty of money to a concerned parent of a bright middle schooler, or to a soccer team in search of uniforms, or to a charity needing a handout.

Odio's small-purchase powers may soon evaporate, though, now that crotchety Joe Carollo has ascended to the mayor's office. The new mayor does not hide his opposition to Odio's independent disbursement of taxpayer money, and he refuses to recognize the manager's selfless generosity, or his genius for creative financing methods. By September, when a new commissioner is elected to fill Carollo's old seat, Odio might very well be out on the streets.

"Let me say this to you," harrumphs the mayor. "The impression I have gotten from what many people have told me is that this [small-purchase ability] has been used, overall, as a private piggy bank of the manager -- that he uses this money to promote himself and to win favors with different groups, different organizations, and different individuals."

Obviously Carollo has little appreciation for Odio's commitment to public service, for the fact that over the past decade the manager has made all his decisions about small purchases privately, away from the public eye. Miami's "good gray man" is simply too modest to seek publicity, no matter how much it might help his career. (He even refused to speak to New Times concerning this article.)

So New Times decided to give him the credit he deserves. We obtained and examined copies of approximately 550 checks for $4500 or less issued by Odio from January 1993 through April 1996. Mayor Carollo's respect for the manager is certain to skyrocket when he learns that, despite a fiscal crunch, Odio always found some way to help a Bay of Pigs veteran or a former Cuban political prisoner in need. The virtuous Cuban American National Foundation, headed by Odio's good friend Jorge Mas Canosa, was never left empty-handed, and neither were certain worthy local journalists.

Unfortunately, after all that generosity, there was no money left for Maria Elena Duran's program at Shenandoah Middle School. In a letter to Duran, Odio stated that "due to severe budgetary restraints" the city was unable to fund her request. As much as the manager surely would have liked to help her, the city had only so much money. Besides, on the day Duran's plea arrived at Gort's office, Odio had already spent his wad on seats to a Cuban American National Foundation benefit.

Before going any further, let's clarify something. New Times does not possess literally every city check for $4500 or less. That would amount to an awful lot of checks for an awful lot of mundane things required to keep the municipal machinery running smoothly, things such as $10.68 bags of mulch.

In assembling a portrait of Odio's spending savvy, we concentrated on checks drawn from a category of the city budget known as Special Programs and Accounts. This is the area where the city stashes the money it uses to pay employee benefits, donations to charity, and miscellaneous expenses. It is also where the city stockpiles cash for emergencies.

The emergency reserve account, in the hands of a resourceful city manager, can be an amazing thing. Nearly one million dollars is set aside to cope with the next nightmare hurricane or civil "disturbance" or infestation of blood-sucking chupacabras. But the money can also be used to solve more routine problems. All it takes is a reasonably flexible definition of the word emergency.

Surely there was an urgent need to acquire plants to decorate the podiums when the U.S. Conference of Mayors convened in Miami this past July. Records show that Odio hurriedly paid Costa Nursery Farms $552 from the emergency fund. Prompt service was necessary, and Costa got the job done. And no wonder. Its president, Jose Costa, is a member of Odio's rowing club.

Odio faced down another emergency on March 9, 1995, when he contributed to the Theodore Gibson Golf Tournament. Disaster struck again on May 3, 1995, when he purchased a table at a banquet honoring Metro-Dade Commissioner Art Teele. About a month after that check, yet another crisis; Odio hastily shuttled $1000 to the Dade County League of Cities to cover the entrance fee at the First Annual Mayor's Shotgun Golf Tournament.

Cuban Independence Day must have caught the very busy Odio by surprise in 1995. When it rolled around in February, he used emergency funds to order celebratory ads in 21 different Spanish-language newspapers. The ads featured outdated mug shots of Odio and of each city commissioner, a picture of a Cuban flag, and a simple headline: "ASaludo!"

The advertisements, which cost $500 apiece, ran in such esteemed publications as Libertad, Prensa Libre, and El Expreso, papers that tend to be passionately one-sided in their coverage of local politics. That side, perhaps coincidentally, is the side Odio is on. El Nuevo Patria, for instance, is published by Eladio Jose Armesto, who ran against Odio-bashing Joe Carollo in the July mayor's race.

Odio also recognized the civic value of subsidizing Proyecto, the glossy, full-color mouthpiece of the politically powerful Latin Builders Association. Because Proyecto costs more to print than the periodiquitos, it only makes sense that the city would donate more money. Instead of the standard $500 ad, Odio donated $4500 on July 31, 1994, to become a cosponsor of the magazine's twentieth anniversary. In October 1995, without even bothering to declare an emergency, he purchased two ads and a table at a Proyecto banquet for another $4500.

One publication Odio appears to have overlooked is La Verdad, which has a long history of promoting Carollo. During his first tour of duty at city hall (back when his hot-headed commie-bashing earned him the sobriquet "Crazy Joe"), La Verdad was in his corner. Even during his long political exile, when he showed little promise of ever holding office again, La Verdad kept the flame alive. When he did come back in an upset victory over Victor De Yurre for city commissioner in November, La Verdad claimed much of the credit.

"This was the paper that built up the image of Joe Carollo with his Cuban voters," boasts Hilda Inclan, a La Verdad guest editor and political columnist. "This is the only paper that supported him to get back on the commission. It is the paper where his name was made known initially, where he was given an image as a super-Cuban."

Carollo somehow managed to thoroughly alienate the paper's editors soon after he regained his commission seat. So complete was the break that La Verdad angrily opposed Carollo in the recent mayoral election. In fact, the paper has grown so stridently anti-Carollo that it might be a good time for Inclan to hit up Odio for an ad.

Actually, it appears she already has.
Inclan also publishes a magazine called Cruise 'n' Travel en Espanol. It's a professionally produced national magazine, she says, though it is published out of her house and claims a circulation of perhaps 33,000 copies an issue. This past March Odio decided that the City of Miami must have a presence in the magazine. He sent Inclan another one of the "ASaludo!" ads along with a check for $4500.

Conveniently, the cost of the ad was precisely the maximum amount Odio could spend without bothering his extremely busy bosses on the city commission. "If I tried to put certain items on the agenda, Cesar would say, 'Listen, take it off the agenda and I'll just give them 4500 bucks,'" recalls an appreciative Victor De Yurre, the former city commissioner. "That way it doesn't become an issue, say, if there was something controversial."

Hilda Inclan isn't the only local journalist to have been touched by the experience of Odio's beneficence. In July 1995, on the very same day that El Expreso publisher Angel Maldonado finally received his $500 check in honor of Cuban Independence Day, he also pulled in an extra $1250 for unspecified "professional services." Just three months earlier Maldonado had received a city check for $2000, again for his highly valued if nonspecific professional services.

"I never worked for the City of Miami in my life. Never in my life," Maldonado insists from his El Expreso office in Little Havana. But what about those professional services? "Oh, yeah," he says as the memory returns. "That was for advertising, for special advertising from a long, long time ago. I got it. It's no problem."

Maldonado's modesty should not deprive him of special recognition for his admirably unbiased and objective coverage of the city manager. Consider his dogged reporting of an incident that took place on June 30, 1994, outside Miami City Hall. Odio had apparently exchanged words with his nemesis, gadfly Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga. It seems that Gonzalez-Goenaga disparaged Odio's mother in some way, and Odio became -- well, let's let Maldonado tell it. The following excerpt, translated from Spanish, appeared in the July 8, 1994 El Expreso, the edition with the front-page illustration of Fidel Castro's head on a dog's body:

"Outside of City Hall, Manuel Gonzalez-Goenaga said something incorrect about Sara Odio, the much beloved mother of senor Cesar Odio, the city manager of Miami; a man of recognized honesty, who upon hearing these scurrilous barbs, went out in defense of his dear mother and confronted Gonzalez....

"We warmly congratulate our friend Cesar Odio for this noble gesture to defend his mother....This lady is a former political prisoner who served a sentence of ten years in the women's prison in communist Cuba, all to defend the democracy and liberty of her country and of the world. Yes, this lady is considered a modern-day Mariana Garjales, a Cuban woman who fought with love and tenacity for our cause."

The slogan of El Expreso, printed on the front page of every issue, reads, "A free forum for every responsible opinion."

"He wasn't even there!" bellows Gonzalez-Goenaga when shown the article (he already had his own copy). "How can he say what happened? Jeez! This is outrageous."

His sense of fair play always at the forefront, Odio has not overlooked Miami's vibrant community of Spanish-language radio broadcasters. Confrontational personality Carlos D'Mant received a $1500 check, made out directly to him, in March 1994. Officially the money was a "donation" covering the cost of 100 tickets to a banquet honoring D'Mant's "contribution to the community via radio."

On-air personality Juan Amador of Radio Mambi collected on a series of $4000 "professional service" agreements with the city for assistance "with press releases, promotion, and coordinating of special events." In 1994, after receiving the final check on one contract, Amador received an additional $2000, without the commission's knowledge, for "work with the elderly."

Odio's cash subsidies, of course, aren't restricted to members of the Spanish-language press. Elena Carpenter, one of only two people on the masthead of the Coconut Grover (she's the general manager), sent Commissioner J.L. Plummer a letter in April 1996, in which she revealed her desire to pedal a bicycle from Orlando to Miami as a participant in the Florida AIDS Ride. "I would like to proudly wear the logo of the City of Miami for every mile of this challenging ride in the nationally televised event," she declared. After reminding Plummer of her position at her newspaper, she "hereby humbly request[ed] that the City of Miami sponsor me for this event by contributing the $1400 sponsorship requirement."

Plummer forwarded the note to Odio, who cut Carpenter a check. "I didn't see a conflict of interest because I didn't ask the city for the money as a journalist," Carpenter explains. "I asked it as an individual looking to help out a good cause. I didn't benefit from it. The fight against AIDS did."

Even public broadcasting has received help from Miami taxpayers. In March 1993, Victor De Yurre answered a WPBT-TV (Channel 2) pledge drive with a donation in his name -- but allowed Odio to pay for it with city money. According to Craig Brush, WPBT's vice president for marketing, the premium for the $1000 donation, which put De Yurre in the President's Club, was probably an umbrella festooned with the station's logo. De Yurre now says he doesn't recall if he kept the gift or donated it to the city. In fact, he can't even remember receiving a premium, which troubles Brush. "The umbrella clearly states, 'Channel 2 President's Club,'" Brush emphasizes, adding that he hopes the gift is somewhere around Dinner Key, where the station could use a little advertising.

Many charities depend on the support of government. For example, 62 percent of the budget of Catholic Charities is funded by the federal government, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy in St. Louis. The Jewish Federation relies on the feds for 59 percent of its budget. Metro-Dade County regularly donates to chambers of commerce and myriad other groups.

Miami is no different. The city's current operating budget lists grants to the Boys Club, Best Buddies, Ounce of Prevention, and other groups. Miami bureaucrats also supervise the distribution of millions of dollars in federal money to dozens of local nonprofits. All of this is doled out in plain view, and with city commission approval.

Still, there are always people who ask for more. The offices of every commissioner and the city manager are bombarded daily with letters and phone calls begging for assistance. "They just call us for everything," sighs Dulce Borges, Odio's assistant. "You'd be surprised. They feel that the City of Miami is the place to call for everything. They think of us as the big city and they just call us."

Judging from the stack of rejections on file in every commissioner's office, most requests for aid are denied. No surprise there, given Miami's rotten reputation as one of the poorest large cities in America. Cesar Odio's burden of management has only been exacerbated by that paucity of cash. Last year he was forced to cut $36 million from the city budget and slashed hundreds of jobs from the payroll. Officially there is very little money left over for random acts of kindness. Rejection letters went out to teachers who had to find some other way to pay for a school trip to Disney World, and to concert promoters who, despite asking nicely for a break, still had to pay full rent at the Manuel Artime Community Center in Little Havana. The reason for the denials is usually the same: "Severe budgetary restraints."

Budgetary restraints aside, Odio's spirit of generosity is sometimes frustrated by pesky laws. One example: In September 1995, the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church of Miami, located in the predominantly black West Grove, asked the city to consider placing an ad in the souvenir booklet published in honor of the church's centennial anniversary. But Odio was forced to turn them down, even though the ads sold for as little as $50 apiece. "Pleased be advised that due to a separation of church and state, the City of Miami cannot place an ad in the [booklet]," he wrote to the church's pastor.

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."

To receive money from Dade County taxpayers, charities and other private groups must complete a lengthy application form stating their precise intentions for the money. Then the request, no matter how minor, is brought before the full county commission for a vote. "Whether it is $1000 or $5000, the public wants to make sure there is accountability, that it is aboveboard and being handled in a forthright manner," reports budget director Steve Spratt. "We make sure the request is on the agenda. We ensure that the contracts are there. Even if it is a small dollar value, there is some accountability."

Over in Miami Beach, they do things a bit more like Miami. But only a bit. "Let's see," says Peter Liu, executive assistant to the city manager, as he studies a printout of all the charity galas the city has paid to attend. "We had one to Catholic Charities, that was a dinner honoring Monsignor Bryan Walsh's retirement. Then there was one to the Leukemia Society, and another one to the Community Action Agency. Okay, then, over two fiscal years, the city has paid a total of $2750 to attend charity events, balls, galas, et cetera."

Of course, with a munificent leader like Odio just across the causeway, Miami Beach rarely needs to pick up the tab. In September 1993, when some Cuban refugees arrived in South Florida from Mexico, Miami Beach's Eden Roc hotel gladly comped them rooms for five nights. There is no explanation on the check stub, but the City of Miami generously paid for the refugees' food. Cost: $635.

Odio is no narrow-minded manager. Yes, he's very big on supporting the arts and lending the city's financial assistance to the cause of a free Cuba, but he also finds money in the budget for the fun side of life. In the last three years, he has signed checks for baseball teams, softball teams, soccer teams, and cyclists. Typical was the Miami Amateur Baseball Association's 1995 receipt of $3000 to defray the costs of a tournament at Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium.

When it comes to sports, Odio is like most Miamians -- he loves a winner. Unfortunately, with the Heat and the Hurricanes in rebuilding seasons, the manager has had to look outside Miami for teams worthy of city support. In 1994 the American Youth Soccer Club, through Victor De Yurre, persuaded Odio to hand over a $2500 "donation" as the team prepared for a tournament in northern Florida. "We won the state championship and the city helped to pay for the bus to Tallahassee and everything," cheers Daniel Prenat, the team's coach and a club director.

The address on the check Odio sent the team is 10053 SW 72nd St., several mapfolds southwest of the Miami city limits. Prenat explains that the check address is actually his wife's business, Alpha Travel (organizer of several of the city's business trips). There was no fixed address for the team, but the players usually met at his house in Kendall, and played their games at Killian High School (Kendall) and Belen Jesuit Preparatory School (Kendall). "Well, the team is from here, from the Kendall area," Prenat acknowledges. "I am sure one of our parents probably knew somebody there who was able to set up a donation. Specifically how, I don't know."

De Yurre also requested, and Odio approved, two donations to the American Legion Post 31 baseball team. The total gift of $3500 helped the team meet expenses for tournaments held in 1994 and 1995. Odio courageously signed over Miami taxpayers' money even though Post 31 is actually located in South Miami.

Heck, South Miami is close compared to some other teams that received Odio's assistance. In the summer of 1993, for instance, the manager helped a Nicaraguan baseball team pay for nine hotel rooms for nine nights at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in downtown Miami. Final bill for the lodging came to $4590.

That total, by the way, exceeded the city's definition of a "small purchase," and to pay the full bill for the team Odio would have had to bother those ultra-busy city commissioners. But true to form, he devised an ingenious alternative. Records indicate that on August 23, 1993, Odio paid the first $4500 of the bill. On September 16, he paid the final $90.

Such innovative financing required boldness from Odio, a brash willingness to circumvent the Miami City Code, section 18-52.4(b), which states, "Procurement requirements shall not be artificially divided so as to permit use of small-purchase procedures...instead of the methods otherwise applicable."

Altogether, Odio spends approximately $250,000 per year on so-called small purchases from the Special Programs and Accounts budget. Naturally, much of that money is spent quietly on plane tickets for department heads traveling to Washington, D.C., or for other administrative conferences and meetings. But for some reason Victor De Yurre's American Express bills were also paid by Odio instead of being charged to the budget set aside for his commission office. Among his bills for trips to Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Canada, France, and Italy is a check covering one lunch at Caffe Baci, with a single guest, for $258.

A few expenditures are difficult to categorize. Odio's Thanksgiving 1993 donation of one pair of orthopedic shoes, at $73, was a worthwhile expense, certainly, though there is nothing attached to the check to explain who received the shoes or why. And one can assume there must be a good justification for the $400 purchase of two boxes of cigars and a "deluxe humidor" from El Credito Cigars on SW Eighth Street.

One of the most puzzling expenditures, however, went to an organization called the Salesmen Association of the United States of America. Earlier this year, Odio purchased 110 tickets to the association's anniversary banquet, at a cost just below the magic number -- $4500. In previous years when donating to the Salesmen Association, Odio has indicated that the tickets would be awarded to senior citizens.

Odio clearly had a darn good reason for this purchase. After all, why would an elderly person -- why would anyone of any age -- want a free ticket to a salesmen's convention?

The answer is stapled to the check. On a piece of white paper is a typewritten note to Odio encouraging him to buy the tickets. At the bottom of the letter, right below the closing expression of sincerity, is the signature of attorney Humberto Hernandez.

Hernandez, as anyone accosted by his omnipresent orange and green campaign signs knows, is running for a vacant seat on the Miami City Commission. He was once aligned with Joe Carollo, but they've had a falling out. If he is elected, he would likely buck the curmudgeon Carollo and vote to retain Odio as city manager. So of course it makes sense for Odio to respond to a man who obviously can appreciate this manager's heartfelt efforts to spend the city's resources wisely.

And considering Odio's brilliance, it makes sense that he would use city money to do it.

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