Sergeant Up in Arms

The hiring of the mysterious Zohar Lahav at $52,000 per year has critics of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo yelling foul

A slim, handsome man with slicked-back brown hair and roving eyes scans the Miami City Commission chambers. Glancing from one side of the hall to the other, he takes in everything. All four entrances to the room are monitored, as are the podiums, the audience, and the commissioners themselves. Before anyone arrived, several city workers say, the man looked for explosives in the wastebaskets and under the chairs on the dais.

He looks younger than his 31 years, despite the thinnest whisper of a mustache. The blazer he always wears may conceal a firearm he is permitted to carry in the State of Florida. Other state records reveal him to be a licensed private investigator. His words, while few, are colored by a thick Israeli accent. People call him Sheen, though his full name is Zohar S. Lahav. He is the City of Miami's sergeant at arms.

Beyond his title, not much is known about Lahav or his role in city government. Although he was hired three months ago by Mayor Joe Carollo, Miami's Department of Personnel has not yet assembled a file on him. A staffer says Lahav began filling out the required city paperwork soon after he was hired in September, but halfway through the application, at the point where he was asked to list his previous job experience, Lahav balked, called Carollo, and never completed the form.

His job description, according to Department of Personnel records, is astonishingly simple: He must "be responsible for keeping order during all city commission meetings." Beyond that, he has no defined tasks. Lahav is paid $52,219 per year, by far the highest salary on Carollo's ten-person staff. (The next highest wage, $39,900, is collected by both Marcela Loina, his office manager, and Marta Martinez-Aleman, an administrative assistant.)

Because the commission normally meets only twice a month, Lahav has plenty of free time to perform other duties. Carollo's political enemies, most notably former city manager Cesar Odio, insist that Lahav spends most of that time protecting the mayor. During a series of interviews on Spanish-language radio, Odio has bashed Carollo for hiring Lahav, calling the sergeant at arms Carollo's Israeli bodyguard.

Even Carollo's own staff fosters the perception that Lahav is first and foremost a protection accessory. "It would be fair to call him the mayor's bodyguard," says Sean Holt, a mayoral aide, "in that he goes everywhere the mayor goes. If the mayor stays out until 3:00 a.m., Sheen stays out with him until 3:00 a.m. too."

Carollo admits that Lahav has professional experience in safeguarding people. He worked for a private security firm before starting with the city, according to the mayor. "Before that he worked for the Israeli general consulate [in Miami], doing administrative work," Carollo adds. [According to a consulate official, he provided security.] "Prior to that he worked in the Israeli government in general administrative capacities."

But the mayor bristles at charges that Lahav was hired just as his bodyguard. "The security is only a minor part of the job," he insists. "Overall, he has administrative responsibilities. He helps me on scheduling matters; he conducts meetings with different people I might not have time to meet with. He is also a personal aide who keeps me abreast of the meetings I have."

In that sense, Lahav is not much different from Miami's previous sergeant at arms. Lael Schumacher came to work at the city in 1993, right after Mayor Steve Clark created the sergeant at arms position. Schumacher, a former Metro homicide detective and a friend of Clark, was working at the time as the county commission's sergeant at arms. He was granted City of Miami police powers upon his transfer to Dinner Key.

"Years ago, the city commission meetings were really getting out of hand," Schumacher recalls. "They often had to bring in the city police department because the meetings got so out of control. The type of people coming into city hall weren't really friendly. To begin with, they'd be carrying guns."

Despite this threat of gunplay, Schumacher encountered few security problems in his time at the city. He was so underused that he gradually assumed more administrative responsibility in the mayor's office. Toward the end of Clark's reign, as the mayor battled stomach cancer, Schumacher was virtually the chief of staff, in charge of, among other things, staff hiring and firing. (After Clark died in June, Schumacher returned to his old post at the county.)

Former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez did not employ a sergeant at arms or use security for the preponderance of his eight years in office. "I did have a few instances of death threats, and when those came about, the manager appointed some security for a short amount of time, but that was it," Suarez recalls. Nevertheless, he argues that Miami's leader needs to be protected. "A visible mayor of a major city needs to have security and needs to have some person with police powers to assist him," Suarez maintains. "Unfortunately, Miami has a tradition of not having that."

The polarizing Carollo contends that his need for security might be greater than that of any of his predecessors. He has already received several bomb threats. The mayor (a city commissioner at the time) considers a June incident, when someone reportedly removed three lug nuts from a wheel on his city-issued Jeep Cherokee, to be an actual assassination attempt. Still, he claims that the protection he requires is not coming from Lahav. "I have a security background myself. I feel I can avoid troublesome problems better than others. I have a better sense of taking care of myself than others."

The mayor of Atlanta receives "executive protection" from his police department. The mayor of Memphis, the first black politician to hold office in that racially divided town, employs a police bodyguard. Carollo says he was offered city police protection but declined for the sake of appearance. "I didn't want to take a police officer off the streets, so I hired [Lahav] out of my own mayoral budget instead of out of the police department budget," Carollo declares. (Schumacher was paid out of the police budget.) "I did that because if I didn't, then reporters like you would be asking me questions about it."

Lahav is not a sworn police officer, so he does not have police powers, as Schumacher did. That could impair his ability to fulfill his official duties, Schumacher states. "If there was an incident I could right then arrest them and ship them off to county jail," Schumacher explains. "This guy, he can't do anything. He has no authority. He'll have to call a policeman to take care of it."

Such criticism, Carollo alleges, stems from an improper focus on Lahav's job title. Instead of seeing him as the person responsible for maintaining order at the city commission meetings, or as a security specialist, see him as a valuable aide, Carollo pleads: "Sergeant at arms, administrative assistant. I could have called him whatever. I had a job vacancy to fill and I filled it with the best possible person available. That's all there is to it."

If there is anything more to it, Lahav is not saying. When reached by telephone two weeks ago, he declined to answer any questions about his job. "I'd really rather not talk until I get a chance to talk to Joe first," he said, reluctantly agreeing to an interview the next day at a scheduled city commission meeting. Uncharacteristically, Lahav didn't show up for the meeting until 11:00 a.m., hours after it started. "This is the first time he's ever not been here," said a perplexed Mike Shapiro, city hall's semi-retired security guard. When Lahav finally did show up, he retracted his decision to grant an interview, stating again that he would rather not talk.

Moments before, when he first walked into city hall, Shapiro told him that he had just missed a New Times photographer who had waited all morning for him to appear. Lahav's expression was one of relief, Shapiro reports. "Good," Lahav said with a smile.

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