Q: How Do You Misplace 3000 Trees?

A: If you're Dade County, you begin by paying $300,000 for allegedly inferior specimens, and then ...

Bureaucrats in the Dade County park and recreation department, like many other people in South Florida, want to put Hurricane Andrew behind them. But nearly five years after the storm, as they attempt to close their accounts on federal hurricane-relief spending, they're facing a problem: They can't find several thousand trees they paid for.

Specifically, the parks department has no record of receiving or planting 3105 trees purchased for $295,000 from Recio & Associates, the Dade landscaping firm run by Ricardo Recio. "It's an accounting problem," asserts Recio, a board member of the influential Latin Builders Association and an active campaign fundraiser for local politicians. Recio insists that county employees retrieved from his nurseries all the trees they paid for. Any indication to the contrary is just poor bookkeeping. "We hold that this is a county issue," he says. "The fact that they picked them up and that they don't know where they went is not our problem."

But John Upman, formerly the county's horticulturist responsible for all tree purchases, offers another explanation. "I don't think they were ever picked up," he says of the missing mahoganies. Furthermore, Upman alleges that the decision to pay nearly $300,000 to Recio & Associates had less to do with trees and more to do with politics.

Hurricane Andrew damaged or destroyed countless thousands of trees, including those growing at the county's South Dade nursery. Upman and his colleagues in the parks department spent several months documenting the losses at the nursery and at county parks and other publicly owned properties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reviewed those damage assessments and granted the county millions of dollars for tree replacement. According to Upman, the parks department was given a great deal of discretion in spending that money. For example, if a large oak tree had fallen in a county park, Upman was free to replace it with three or four smaller silver buttonwoods, or any other trees the horticulturist deemed appropriate.

To meet the intense demand for replacement trees, Upman scoured commercial nurseries and bought from several of them. Recio & Associates, upon request, furnished a list of trees available for purchase. In a November 12, 1993, memorandum, Upman stated his tentative intention to purchase all of Recio's available trees -- pending inspection. "That was just a 'blanket' purchase order, issued before the fact," Upman says today. "Under blanket purchase orders, you kind of preauthorize delivery of the stuff. Blanket purchase orders don't necessarily guarantee that you are going to buy."

A month later, when he actually visited the Recio nursery, Upman was disappointed with what he saw. "Trees were lollipopped, with a bunch of little branches on top," he recalls. "Loose staking had caused many trees to bend and flop over. Plus they did inappropriate pruning, and there was damage from the hurricane." Tom Trump, supervisor of the parks department's landscape agency, inspected the trees with Upman; through a department spokeswoman, he corroborated Upman's account. Recio's trees, he said, were in poor shape. (Trump's superiors at the park and recreation department ordered him not to speak directly with New Times.)

Upman says he did find "a few hundred" mahoganies, coconut palms, Alexander palms, and other varieties that met his standards, and he tagged them for purchase. The number, however, was far fewer than the 3105 trees Recio says he sold to the county. By the time a back injury forced him out of work in late 1994, and after Recio had been paid in full, Upman claims, the county had picked up no more than a hundred or so trees. "We didn't take almost $300,000 worth of stuff -- no way," he insists. (A knowledgeable parks department employee, who asked that his name not be used, confirms Upman's claim.)

Upman says he informed Guillermo Cutie, who was then assistant director of construction management, that if the county purchased any Recio trees other than those he'd tagged, they would just have to be thrown out. In Upman's opinion, the bulk of Recio's trees "would be a hazard; the county would be liable if the trees fell on anyone."

But according to Upman, Cutie claimed to be under pressure, and he authorized purchase of Recio's stock anyway. "I remember exactly what he said," Upman recounts. "He explained that [Recio competitor Manuel] Diaz had gotten quite a bit of business in planting out stuff after the hurricane, and this guy [Recio] was squawking about his fair share. I was the one who was supposed to advise people, and I told Cutie these things can't be used, and he went ahead and paid for them anyway."

Recio officials acknowledge that their post-hurricane supply of trees wasn't of the best quality, but the county was buying anyway. "The county helped out nurseries to the south by buying trees," explains Recio's daughter Ibis Pittaluga, who works as the company's controller. "At that time they were taking trees even if they were not perfect. They gave preferences to that area of Dade County to help it recuperate."

Today Guillermo Cutie is director of the entire Metro-Dade park and recreation department. He denies he was under pressure to steer business to Recio, and says he can't understand why Upman would say otherwise. "The little I was involved with [Upman], we got along fine," Cutie recalls. "He did mention to me that some of the trees have a low branching. I said to him, 'Well, don't accept the ones with low branches.'" Substandard trees aside, Cutie says there was still a plentiful selection available at Recio & Associates. "[Recio] had over 5000 mahoganies," he recounts, "and he had a bunch of trees that the [county] was interested in buying over and above the mahoganies." As for his department's inability to account for 3000 of the trees purchased from Recio, Cutie says he has requested an audit of the transactions.

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