By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Mayor Alex Penelas flew to New York two weeks ago to tell anyone on Wall Street who would listen that Dade County is being led by ethical people whose honesty is beyond reproach. Hoping to distance himself and the county from the negative publicity swirling around the City of Miami, the mayor pledged that his administration will not tolerate even the appearance of wrongdoing. In a meeting with reporters from the Dow Jones News Service on January 29, the mayor defended a decision to exclude certain bond companies from doing business with the county because of doubts about their integrity. "If there's any question, then we should just skip over those people until those question marks are answered," Penelas declared.
The entire trip was a brilliant lie.
The same day the mayor was touting the rectitude and independence of Dade government, County Manager Armando Vidal was celebrating his 50th birthday with a party in his honor in one of the banquet rooms at Miami International Airport. The fete, which was organized by county staffers, on county time, was initially intended for county employees, such as department heads and assistant county managers, as well as members of the county commission and their staffs.
But in assembling the guest list, Vidal's minions decided to include the county's most powerful lobbyists and influence peddlers -- many of whom were major fundraisers for Penelas's mayoral campaign. It was an understandable decision for Vidal's staff to include these all too familiar faces, since they now enjoy free reign over the 29th floor of county hall, where both the manager and the mayor have offices. Among the lobbyists in attendance at the party: Jorge Lopez, Armando Gutierrez, Tom Carlos, Chris Korge, Rick Sisser, Dusty Melton, Susan Freed, and Al Duffy. Developers such as Jesus Fernandez were also invited.
The affair provides another glaring example of the incestuous relationship county administrators have with Dade's core group of lobbyists. A view reinforced a few days later with the mayor's own state of the county speech, which was delivered during a luncheon organized by another prominent lobbyist, Rodney Barreto. The cost for the luncheon was underwritten by twenty local companies who paid $2500 each for a table. Both events increase the perception that access to the upper echelons of county government is restricted to those with money, power, and insider connections.
The 150 invitees to the manager's birthday bash enjoyed a buffet complete with grilled dolphin, roasted chicken, baked ham, wild rice, baby carrots, and a salad bar. There was also a large birthday cake.
Those attending the party were charged $15 per person to cover both the cost of the food and a gift for the manager -- a keychain with a miniature version of the key to the county attached, as well as a charm with the number 50 engraved on it. The food was provided by the catering firm that operates the airport hotel. Last week I called the hotel's catering office, explained that I was interested in having a party just like the one thrown for the county manager, and was told the price would be between $20 to $25 a person.
The $15 charge afforded to the manager's guests, catering officials explained, was a "special price" because the affair was sponsored by the county, which runs the airport. Ordinary citizens, without connections at county hall, would have to pay more.
Dade County Aviation Director Gary Dellapa acted as master of ceremonies for the two-hour shindig, and managed to toss a few gentle barbs at his short-tempered boss, including one about Vidal's penchant for golf. Everyone laughed. The reason for the joke was that New Times had just published a cover story revealing that for the past two years Vidal had accepted dozens of rounds of free golf from the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. And during the same period Vidal accepted these free outings, he recommended changes to the county contract that financially benefited the company, known as the Muirfield Group. Perhaps adding to the humor was the fact that the Muirfield Group owes the county at least $435,000, with $100,000 of it past-due for more than a year.
Well, if folks at Vidal's birthday party found it humorous to see the manager's ethics questioned, then they will probably bust a gut laughing at the latest developments. Following publication of the story titled "You Call This a Fairway?" the Dade State Attorney's Office has begun a preliminary review of the manager's conduct.
During this initial phase, which is expected to last three to four weeks, investigators will gather information and interview potential witnesses to determine if a formal criminal investigation is warranted.
In another development, a review of county records last week revealed that Vidal accepted more than just free rounds of golf from the individuals operating the Golf Club of Miami. According to his most recent financial disclosure form, Vidal reported receiving a case of wine from one of the owners of the Muirfield Group, Sergio Vidal (no relation to the manager). Although there is a space on the form to fill in the value of the gift, Armando Vidal left it blank. The only description the manager provided was that the case contained twelve bottles. "Oh, you can get a case of wine for anywhere from $44 a case up to $5000 a case," says Chip Cassidy, the wine buyer for Crown Liquors. "It varies depending on the type of wine and how old it is. Someone just bought at auction a case of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in New York for $5200."