You Call This a Fairway?

So what if County Manager Armando Vidal enjoys free rounds of golf? And so what if his golfing sponsors keep money they owe the county?

For the past two years, County Manager Armando Vidal has accepted dozens of rounds of free golf from the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami.

During this same period of time, the county manager recommended changes to the company's contract that financially benefited the firm, the Muirfield Group. The most significant amendment, which was made against the advice of his staff and the county attorney's office, allowed the company to deposit the money earned at the golf course into its own private bank account instead of a county-controlled account, as the contract stipulated.

As a result the county has been unable to collect money owed to it under the contract. According to Dade County parks and recreation director Bill Cutie, the Muirfield Group currently owes the county $435,000. And at least $100,000 of that money has been past due for more than a year.

Chronicling recent history of the Golf Club of Miami reveals more than the golfing habits of a county manager and the fiscal delinquency of a local firm. It also offers insight into the insular and what some might call incestuous culture of business at county hall. And it may prove that in the county's highest political circles, it's not so much who you know but whom you golf with.

"The county manager was a golf fanatic," recalls Harry Ferguson, the former tournament director for the course, located at 6801 Miami Gardens Dr. "He would come out and play for free whenever he wanted. It was just the company's way of doing business. Everyone was on a first-name basis with him."

Glenn Street, a former assistant golf pro at the course in 1995 and 1996, also recalls Vidal being a frequent guest. "It was definitely a habit-forming situation on his part," says Street, who now works as a real estate agent in Tennessee. "The first time I saw the county manager I didn't know who he was. He just came in and grabbed a bucket of range balls and helped himself to a cart." Street was subsequently told Vidal's identity by the course's marketing director Carlos Morales, who then instructed Street to let Vidal play for free. "I just did what I was told," Street adds. "After that, sometimes Carlos would call in advance to say the county manager was coming out, and other times he would just show up."

Vidal usually golfed with lobbyist Jorge Lopez. "Most of the time it was the two of them together," says Street. "Sometimes they would bring guests, and their guests would be comped as well. They were usually pretty cordial and not very demanding. But they would basically help themselves to anything they wanted." That included food and beverages, Street says.

These outings may violate Dade's ethics and conflict-of-interest ordinances, which generally prohibit county employees from accepting gifts from firms that do business with the county. It also prohibits any county official from using his position "to secure special privileges or exemptions for himself or others."

Vidal, whose annual salary is $165,000, would not comment on the allegations. Requests for an interview with him, which were made both in writing and verbally through the county's press office last week, were rejected.

County officials say they are busy working with the Muirfield Group to recover the money owed. But the county has taken none of the steps it might normally take, such as threatening to terminate Muirfield's contract or to sue for nonpayment. Instead the county has taken a gentler approach. "We're trying to negotiate with the Muirfield Group payment of the money it owes the county," Cutie explains.

The notion that there should be any negotiation regarding money owed to the county has critics of the Muirfield Group incensed. "What's to negotiate?" asks Johnny LaPonzina, president of Professional Course Management, a company that competed with Muirfield three years ago for the Golf Club of Miami contract. "They were obligated to pay that money. It was part of the agreement. How are they allowed to get away with not paying?"

The Muirfield Group is currently owned by Sergio Vidal (no relation to county manager Armando Vidal). Sergio, age 68, is a member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and the Latin Builders' Association. He owns Gran Realty and Superior Mortgage Co. Inc., as well as Gran Travel and the Little Havana restaurant El Bodegon Castilla.

In the summer of 1994, when Muirfield was awarded the contract for the Golf Course of Miami, Vidal (who doesn't even play golf) owned only 36 percent of the company. The other 64 percent was controlled by Charlie DeLucca, who has been involved in the golf business for 25 years, and former Miami Dolphin great Nat Moore, who for the past 8 years has operated a company specializing in hosting celebrity and charity golf tournaments.

Moore and DeLucca say they were forced out of the company last year by Sergio Vidal. Both Moore and DeLucca are now suing him to try to regain control of the business. In their lawsuit, filed in September, DeLucca and Moore claim their names and reputations in the community were used by Sergio Vidal to win the contract in 1994, and that once the agreement was awarded Vidal conspired to strip the pair of their stock.

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