They Owe It All to Odio

Miami's infamous ex-city manager hired more than 100 staffers entirely at his own discretion. Guess who's paying them.

Inside, beyond a model of a proposed Cuban memorial museum, are two main halls. The meeting room, in the back, is equipped with folding chairs that face a podium. Lining its walls are display cases filled with grenades, helmets, and other mementos of battle. Toward the front of the building is a library that contains dusty history books about the Brigade, as well as an imposing wooden conference table.

It is at the end of this table that Ramon Conte sits, scanning a Spanish-language newspaper. Beside him in a leather chair sits a friend, who introduces himself as Luis.

Conte told Exito how he escaped from prison on a motorcycle and took refuge in Havana at a house filled with ex-political prisoners. For two and a half years before his recapture, he made himself invisible by wearing a revolutionary police uniform -- or better yet, a mailman's uniform -- allowing him to travel incognito. Now he is wearing a purple shirt with triangles of white and small red fleurs-de-lis. He has a thick chest, and long legs that are folded beneath the table. His neatly combed gray hair sticks to his scalp, except for slight wisps around his ears. Tinted glasses shade his eyes a heavy shade of blue.

I introduce myself, and tell him why I'm here: I read the Exito profile and also noticed he works for the City of Miami. I keep my eye on Miami, I say, and I've come to inquire what exactly he does for the city.

There seems to be some confusion. "City of Miami?" Conte says. "'Do?' For City of Miami?"

I break the question down to a more basic element. "Do you work for the City of Miami?" I ask.

"No," he says, not looking up from his paper.
I ask again. He responds again.
"I don't work for the City of Miami. I work here!" he barks, poking a thick index finger onto the hardwood tabletop. Luis, who has taken pity on me for my lack of foreign-language proficiency, helps out by translating Conte's lapses into Spanish. "I work for here, for the Brigade. I don't work for the city."

Luis asks where I had heard that Conte works for Miami. Angela Bellamy, the director of personnel, I say. "Bellamy? Bellamy?" Conte parrots. "I don't know any Bellamy." When I explain her role at the city, Conte says he's unfamiliar with the bureaucracy. "Personnel department?" he spits.

I persist. "Have you ever worked for the City of Miami?" He shakes his head no. "Have you ever collected a paycheck from the city at any time?"

He looks up finally, glares at me from behind his tinted shades. "No," he deadpans.

I start to ask another question. He cuts me off. "Me? Work for Miami?" He puffs up his cheeks and blows the air out his mouth, his lips vibrating a raspberry reply. Clearly the interview is over.

Luis asks for my New Times business card. I hand him one. Conte grabs it out of his friend's hand. As I walk toward the door, mentally calculating that Conte has collected more than $100,000 from the city for, in his words, not working, he is staring at my card. His eyes canvass my name, the newspaper's address, and the number where I can be reached at any time.

Not that I expect a call back.

Several days later I return to the clubhouse to visit Conte once more. This time I've brought along copies of a few of his time sheets, which are clearly labeled "City of Miami weekly attendance records." I also bring along my friend from the Brigade to translate.

Whatever the language barrier, the message from Conte is easily understood: Repeatedly he denies ever having worked for the City of Miami.

I show him the copies of the time sheets.
"Who gave you these?" he demands.
"I got them from the City of Miami Department of Community Development. They are public records," I respond. He looks at the time sheets, at the places where his signature is scrawled below the word STAFF. He looks at the handwritten sevens that span the page, and at the signature of Jose Miro Torra. He looks at me.

"This is my own personal business!" he thunders. "No more questions."
On the way back to the office, I stop by with a question for Angela Bellamy: Who ensures that Conte actually works in exchange for his pay?

"Ultimately it would be the responsibility of the person who signs the paychecks, don't you think?" she ventures in reply. She knows full well, of course, that she is that person.

Does Conte work for his pay? I ask.
"To be perfectly honest," she answers, "I didn't know who the man was until you mentioned his name."

There are 3100 employees still working for the city. Many, like Conte, serve in unclassified and temporary positions. And, Bellamy admits, Conte might not be the only one to have slipped through the system's cracks. "I can't say there aren't others like him out there," she sighs.

As I leave her office, Bellamy is talking to Basheva Wright about Conte's time sheets, and asking an assistant to draft a memo to the city manager explaining who Ramon Conte is, and where he can be found.

"They Owe It All to Odio," last week's story by Robert Andrew Powell about unclassified employees who work for the City of Miami, contained this question: Who ensures that city employees actually work in exchange for their pay?

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