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
On January 23, New Times published a cover story entitled "You Call This a Fairway?" revealing that, for nearly two years, Dade County Manager Armando Vidal had accepted dozens of free rounds of golf from the company hired to manage the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. The story also established that, at the same time Vidal was enjoying the firm's hospitality, he was recommending changes to the company's existing contract with the county that would financially benefit the firm.
The story was followed three weeks later by a column, "Bounty Manager," that chronicled how, in addition to free rounds of golf, Vidal had acquired other gifts from this company, including a case of wine and a new golf bag. The column also pointed out that the State Attorney's Office had begun a "review" of Vidal's actions to determine if a formal investigation was warranted. That review is continuing.
Adding a sense of irony to the story, I noted that, while this preliminary review was under way -- and on the same day Mayor Alex Penelas was in New York trying to convince Wall Street officials that the ethics of his administration were beyond reproach -- Vidal was celebrating his 50th birthday at a surprise party in his honor, and the guest list included some of the county's biggest lobbyists and influence peddlers.
Almost immediately after that column appeared, my phone began to ring with calls from irate readers. "You screwed up," one person told me. "I can't believe you did this," added another caller.
My mistake wasn't in attacking the county manager. As far as these readers were concerned, my criticism of Dade's top bureaucrat was certainly justified. Their anger was rooted instead in the fact that my column had been incomplete. "Why didn't you write that the state attorney was also a guest at the party?" complained one of the callers, who, like the others, had also attended the party.
My apologies. Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle was at Vidal's birthday party. For those who were aghast at my omission, Rundle's presence held significance because it suggested that the state attorney and the county manager are friends. And if they are friends, it might be difficult for Rundle, in her official capacity as state attorney, to investigate allegations of wrongdoing on Vidal's part.
Incredulous that anyone might think she's incapable of doing her job, Rundle says she was invited to attend Vidal's birthday party along with a host of other government officials, including Joseph Farina, chief judge of Dade's circuit court. "I was in and out," she says. "I've never socialized with [Vidal]. I've never had dinner with him." The state attorney says she knows Vidal only through her job, which often brings her in contact with county administrators. "We have to sit down all of the time and work on a variety of issues," she says, "such as Operation Clean Sweep."
As Rundle is well aware, the perception of independence is often as important as actual independence. She claims, though, that no one should doubt her office's ability to weed out corruption, and she notes that her staff charged three county commissioners with violating the state's Sunshine Law. (It should also be mentioned that the case was handed to her on an engraved, sterling silver platter by the Miami Herald and it still took her office nearly two years to complete the probe.) "We have an entire unit that does nothing but public integrity cases," Rundle says.
All of which now leads to last week's New Times cover story, "The Dumping Ground," that documented how the Dade County Aviation Department has become a wasteland of political appointees, as well as for friends and relatives of county commissioners. Rundle's "public integrity unit" may wish to brush up on the county charter, and specifically on Section 3.05, Restriction on Commission Members:
"Neither the Mayor nor any Commissioner shall direct or request the appointment of any person to, or his or her removal from, office by the Manager or any of the Manager's subordinates, or take part in the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative services of the county. Except for the purpose of inquiry, as provided in section 1.01a(20), the Mayor and Commissioners shall deal with the administrative services solely through the Manager and neither the Mayor nor any Commissioner shall give orders to any subordinates of the Manager, either publicly or privately. Any willful violation of the provisions of this Section by the Mayor or any Commissioner shall be grounds for his or her removal from office by an action brought in the Circuit Court by the State Attorney of this county."
Let's just take one example outlined in the aviation department story -- the hiring of Miriam Alonso's son-in-law, Kevin Miles. In October Alonso was elected to the county commission; by December Miles was given a $60,000-a-year job as a marketing specialist at Miami International Airport. If it turns out that Alonso requested her son-in-law be given the position, the State Attorney's Office could go to court and have Alonso removed from office for violating the charter.