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 ...

An earlier departmental investigation suggests that a full audit is warranted. In the summer of 1995, the park and recreation department was in the midst of reviewing all hurricane-relief projects funded by FEMA. Department records revealed discrepancies in the purchase and receipt of trees from Recio & Associates. County officials then spent a year unsuccessfully trying to reconcile the matter.

Dick Jones, manager of outdoor resources, completed his report on the Recio purchases in August of last year. He examined records, interviewed staff, and looked for filing errors. "None of these efforts," he wrote, "brought answers to the question of approximately 3000 trees, which today are paid for but apparently not inventoried."

As part of Jones's review, Recio provided records that seemed to indicate the 3000 trees were indeed picked up from his nursery. But Jones, in his report, highlighted several problems with those records, which he referred to as "receipts." One receipt, for 600 mahogany trees, predates the initial purchase order. Another receipt appeared to be signed by county employee Victor Hernandez, but Hernandez was away on vacation on the day it was dated. Yet another receipt apparently signed by Hernandez was dated February 9, 1994, a day on which he was working in a different area of the parks department. According to Jones's report, Hernandez, who now lives in Boston, did not recall picking up the trees. A separate receipt for 605 trees of mixed varieties seemed to be signed by another county employee who later told Jones that the signature was not his and that he had no recollection of receiving the trees.

Jones continued with his list of problems. "These [receipts] reflect a grossly large number of trees per [receipt]," he wrote. "For example, [receipt] No. 19537 reflects that 1450 trees were received at basically one point. More practically, this number of trees would involve multiple truck trips to multiple points over multiple days, thereby resulting in multiple receipts." But as Jones pointed out, receipts 19536, 19537, and 19538, though sequential, spanned a period of nearly two months.

"These are not receipts!" declares Ricardo Recio, referring to the records Dick Jones found to be troubling. "These are just notes we kept for ourselves when people from the county came and picked up the trees." Recio says the notes do not reflect huge one-time deliveries, as Jones assumed, but a tabulation of several pickups over several days. The disputed signatures at the bottom of the records were not signatures at all, he says, but simply the name of the county employee who picked up the trees, as recorded by a Recio worker.

As for county employees not working on days when receipts were dated, Recio explains that those people were in fact at the nursery on the day the tabulations were begun, though they might not have been there on the day the last trees were picked up. "After Hurricane Andrew, [Dade County's] records were a mess," Recio recalls. "They'd just stuff papers into the back of their trucks."

Recio's daughter Ibis Pittaluga also finds fault with the county's record keeping, and she points to an item in Jones's report as an example. Jones questioned why Recio was paid nearly $300,000 for the trees when the only purchase order he could find was in the amount of $95,000. From the files at Recio headquarters in northwest Dade, Pittaluga produced a Metro-Dade "change order" authorizing another $200,000 for Recio & Associates. "This is in their computer," Pittaluga says. "They could just call it up. That's why I think there is disarray. I don't think it's a matter of stealing."

(Metro-Dade park and recreation department spokeswoman Beatriz Portela, in response to a request from New Times, searched for and located the $200,000 change order. "Sometimes we get things from different folders," she explained. "[Dick Jones] didn't have it in whatever file he looked at.")

Recio & Associates began as a family landscaping business 27 years ago. By landing lucrative government contracts, the company grew to become one of the largest landscapers in the area. Today a substantial portion of Ricardo Recio's business derives from such contracts. "We've always been fair," Recio says. "Whenever we see something that is not kosher, we've pulled out. We make a living off of government agencies. We can't afford to have problems with one and jeopardize our relationship with all the others."

Yet horticulturist John Upman, who is suing Dade County for alleged age and sex discrimination, among other things, remains skeptical of the entire episode. One of the four payments the county made to Recio, he notes, lacked a so-called department payment authorization stamp. "That's not standard procedure," Upman says. Recio's informal tabulation of tree pickups was also unusual: "There is no such thing as keeping track on your own. When a county employee picks up trees, he has to sign for them. That's the way to keep track. Anything else is not normal procedure.

"Cutie went ahead and paid for something we never purchased," he contends. "A good product was not available from Recio, so I never purchased it. We never picked up something that was garbage. It warrants, I believe, a federal investigation.

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