By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo was surprised enough by the results of his first request. Acting on a tip that then-city manager Cesar Odio was abusing his power to spend up to $4500 without city commission approval, Carollo asked Odio for a copy of every city check of $4500 or less issued in the past five years. The resulting carton of check stubs revealed thousands of dollars spent on events sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation, on advertisements in Odio-friendly publications, on donations to sports teams located outside the city limits, and more. (New Times wrote about the discretionary fund after discovering the box of checks in Carollo's office ["Petty Cash," Aug. 22, 1996].)
The bad news about the fund was only the first in a series of punishing blows to Odio's reputation. Within two weeks, Spanish-language radio personality Tomas Regalado won a city commission seat with a campaign promise to vote Odio out of power. Then the U.S. Attorney's Office accused Odio of seeking a kickback from a city insurance contract. Faced with his certain dismissal, Odio reluctantly retired from the city.
His troubles didn't end with his departure, though. Merrett Stierheim, Dade's top tourism executive, agreed to replace Odio on an interim basis. After only thirteen days of looking at the city's books, Stierheim discovered that the budget is not as balanced as it had seemed; instead, the city is up to $60 million in the red.
In a scathing report released on September 26, Stierheim blamed the deficit in part on "the misuses of discretionary spending authority." But Stierheim also criticized the Odio administration for withholding information about the city's finances from department directors and the city commission.
With this in mind, Carollo decided to try again with his check request. Using the exact wording he had before, he asked Deputy Finance Director Dipak Parekh for a list of every check for $4500 or less issued by the city in the past five years. This time he received what appears to be a full accounting -- and the difference between the two lists is significant.
"There are dozens and dozens of checks here that I didn't know about," cried Carollo at a city commission meeting last week. According to the first batch of checks, the total amount spent from the discretionary fund in 1995 was $214,780. According to the newer, more thorough figures, the total amount spent from the account in 1995 was actually $638,090, a difference of nearly 300 percent.
Among the previously unreleased checks were $4500 to the Sikh Association of Florida and $4000 to Manamark, a company owned by Jorge de Cardenas, a lobbyist charged with participating in the kickback scheme with Odio. Carollo accused the Odio administration of further fund abuses by dramatically illustrating how some of the money went to dubious causes. "Juan Amador Rodriguez," the mayor said to Christina Abrams, the city's new director of the Department of Conferences and Conventions. (Rodriguez, a popular personality on Spanish-language Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM 710), signed a $4000 contract with Odio in October 1995, two months before Abrams took office, to issue press releases and provide translations for the department.) "Did you find anything in your files that shows that this man has done work for your department?"
"No," replied Abrams. "There is no record in my department of those services being provided or of this gentleman in particular."
Carollo kept his eyes trained on Abrams, who stood behind a wooden podium facing the commission dais. "Do you know this gentleman?" he asked.
"No," Abrams again responded. "I have been the director of the department since December 1, 1995, and I have not come across this gentleman in that time."
Abrams took over the department upon the death of long-time director Tony Pajares. The contract with Rodriguez was signed before she took control. There is little chance Rodriguez got lost in the transition between the administrations: Abrams indicated that no one on the staff she inherited from Pajares knows Rodriguez either.
One day after Carollo's speech, Rodriguez told the Herald that he has never in his life received an illegal payment. Odio told the paper that it was all a misunderstanding.
Odio claims Carollo's criticism of the discretionary fund is tainted by Carollo's own wasteful spending. Last week, in a press conference on the steps of the federal courthouse after a hearing on the corruption charges, Odio highlighted the mayor's construction of a kitchenette in a city hall office directly adjacent to an identical kitchenette formerly shared by the mayor's and the city manager's staffs. "He spent over $33,000 on a new kitchen because he didn't want to use the one that was there," Odio huffed. "I thought he was crazy, but evil is a better word."
Evil or not, Carollo is not letting the discretionary fund fade away in the face of larger budget problems. He asked the city attorney to consider legal action to compel anyone who received a dubious check to return the money to the city. "We want to go through many of these checks that were issued and, if there is justification, to take legal action to recoup some of this money from these individuals," he barked. "I am of the opinion that we should do so immediately."
Stated Acting City Manager Stierheim: "I would concur."
Cesar Odio has repeatedly argued that any abuses of the discretionary fund are not his fault. He declined to talk to New Times about the fund but he told the Miami Herald that he authorized every check in response to a request from a city commissioner.
The argument is specious. While it is true that many of the check requests were forwarded to the city manager's office by commissioners, Odio cannot refute his sole responsibility for many other -- if not most of -- the requests. Furthermore, the argument downplays the complete and total authority Odio had to decide which requests from the commission to honor.
Vice Mayor Willy Gort, one of only two active commissioners to serve a full term in 1995, received about one request for city money every day that year, according to his commission aide Rosy Roig. Gort sorted through the requests, and if one looked like it came from a legitimate source, he would send it up to the city manager with a memo attached asking Odio "to see if there was any way to assist this worthwhile organization."
Commissioner J.L. Plummer, the other commissioner to serve for all of 1995, handled his check requests in much the same way. "J.L. was always real careful about how he worded the requests so that he wasn't demanding the money," explains Anne Sterling, Plummer's marketing coordinator. "He wasn't saying, 'Spend money you don't have.' He was saying, 'If there is any way possible, consider spending the money.' We'd forward all the requests up to Odio, and then he'd decide which requests to honor and which to reject."
Dulce Borges, Odio's former chief of staff and still an employee in the manager's office, says there were no set rules guiding which requests Odio would accept and which he would reject. "He would just review them when they would come up," she recalls. "It would just happen, with no formality. I'm sure he reviewed the backup they sent and took that into consideration, but overall, I can't tell you how he chose one request over another."
That might explain the arbitrariness of Odio's decisions. In Gort's 1995 file is a memo from Odio rejecting a donation request from One Arm Bandits, a team of handicapped softball players. That same year, Odio approved a donation of $1500 to the American Legion Post 31 baseball team even though Post 31 is located in South Miami. Odio rejected a request to place an advertisement in a fundraising booklet published by St. Luke's Missionary Church, stating that "the City does not make donations to any church related organization." Yet a year earlier, he donated $460 to the Amigos de Corpus Christi Church for help with "outreach." It probably didn't hurt that Odio's sister, Annie Laurie Mallo, is the Amigos treasurer.
Altogether, Odio received 22 request memos from Gort in 1995; he funded only 8. Odio declined to assist the Miami Italian Film Festival, but he did buy a table at the Centro Mater Annual Gala Ball "Nostalgia." He refused to donate $500 to a pregnancy prevention program at Miami Senior High, but he did spend $500 on 50 tickets for an "event" organized by Spanish-language radio personality Carlos D'Mant. "Odio made the final call on every request," reiterates Sterling.