WAR!

It's difficult to say which is the more troubling revelation of the past week -- that Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas's office may have been corrupted by money-grubbing influence peddlers, or that the mayor was so naive as to think that firing Armando "I Know Where the Bodies Are Buried" Vidal wasn't going to get very messy. One positive thing about the way Penelas has handled the situation: At least no one is talking any more about how screwed up the City of Miami is.

The mayor's timing was extraordinary. Miami city government was in turmoil last week after Judge Thomas Wilson's decision to void November's mayoral election between Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez, owing to absentee vote fraud. The judge ordered a new election but did not specify who should be mayor in the meantime, prompting even more confusion. Derisive coverage of a city in chaos played everywhere -- from the front page of the New York Times to CNN.

Adding to the tumult was the disclosure a few days earlier that Miami's budget once again was spurting red ink, which prompted grave new concerns on Wall Street about the city's direction and which caused business leaders to complain that the city's instability was making it nearly impossible to attract new companies to town. Pan Am's financial collapse floated across the scene like a big dark cloud. These have not been sunny days for South Florida.

Given the upheaval, you might expect that Penelas would do everything in his power to make sure the world knows that Dade County -- the true seat of power in South Florida -- is solid and secure. But no. He decides this is the perfect moment to fire Vidal and throw county government into disarray. "The mayor's thinking was 'The sooner the better' in replacing the county manager," offers Brian May, Penelas's chief of staff. "If we had waited until things calmed down in the City of Miami, we would have only extended the bad publicity."

Maybe we've been wrong all along. Maybe it's not Xavier Suarez who needs to monitor his medication and get his bed rest. Maybe it's Penelas.

On Wednesday, the same day Judge Wilson ruled Miami's mayoral election invalid, Penelas called lobbyist Jorge Lopez in Tallahassee and told him to fly home and deliver a message to Vidal that night: Penelas wanted the county manager to resign. The next morning around 11:00 a.m. Penelas and May met with Vidal and Lopez. "The mayor said I have not been responsive enough to move his agenda," Vidal recalls. "He said he wanted a fresh start."

Vidal, of course, knew his relationship with Penelas had been deteriorating for months, but he was still surprised by the mayor's abruptness. Vidal says he asked the mayor for a few days to think it over, to give him his answer on Monday. "I thought I should be given the right to consult with my family," he recounts. Penelas refused. "The mayor said he wanted my resignation by 2:00 p.m., and I think he wanted me out of the office by 5:00 p.m. That floored me."

Brian May denies that the mayor wanted Vidal to clear out his desk by 5:00 p.m.; he was willing to give the manager a "couple of weeks" to leave. According to May, Penelas demanded a signed letter of resignation that day because Vidal had already leaked inside information to the media and county commissioners. "The mayor felt Armando was simply trying to buy time," May explains, "to mount a campaign to keep himself as manager."

May and other members of the mayor's staff have told me they expected Vidal to resign quietly. So add this to the list of troubling revelations: The mayor and his staff apparently are abominable judges of character. Anyone who knows Vidal understands that he would never meekly pack his things and slip away. Hell, the guy once threatened to deck me if I ever wrote about his wife. Pride, honor, dignity -- these are not abstract concepts for Armando Vidal. "They have destroyed my reputation," the manager charges. "They have affected my ability to make a living in this community -- unfairly so, I might add. I didn't plan this. I didn't make their decision; they did."

The firing has now escalated into full-scale war, and it's being played out as much in Hialeah and on Spanish-language radio as at county hall. Raul Martinez, a vociferous Penelas foe, has been rallying support for Vidal, while Herman Echevarria, who lost to Martinez in last fall's Hialeah mayoral race, is acting as an emissary for Penelas.

Truce talks failed over the weekend, despite attempts by Commissioner Natacha Millan to act as a mediator. Vidal is standing by his contention that he was fired because May and other members of the mayor's staff asked him to do favors for supporters, including Penelas confidante Raul Masvidal. Pledges Vidal: "Sworn statements by all those involved will substantiate what I have said."

May says he would be perfectly willing to give a sworn statement to prosecutors -- without immunity. "I've done nothing wrong," he insists. "I have no problem with that whatsoever."

Might Vidal have more surprises in store? According to one source, the manager claims to have kept a journal in which he documented each instance of the mayor's office asking him to do something in violation of the county charter. Vidal has also told supporters that on 21 different occasions, he was given orders by the mayor's office regarding personnel changes -- including hiring relatives of politically connected individuals.

"I'm not aware of any log the manager kept," May says. "But if he's got anything like that, he should take it to the State Attorney's Office."

Vidal refuses to discuss journals or lists of names. His only response is to smile broadly.

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