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.

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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