With Friends Like These

Alex Penelas has a problem. An image problem. After rising to power as a reformer, Penelas is now seeing his reputation challenged. Ironically (some might say fittingly), this attack comes not from the mayor's enemies but from some of his oldest allies, the very people who helped put him in power.

The public phase of this struggle began earlier this month, after Penelas fired County Manager Armando Vidal. The mayor said the manager -- the man he handpicked to be the county's top administrator -- was wildly incompetent. Vidal countered by claiming he was fired because he wasn't willing to do favors for the mayor's supporters, including a small cadre of lobbyists. The squabble offered the public a rare, insider's view of how business is conducted on the 29th floor of county hall. The State Attorney's Office is now investigating Vidal's allegations.

But another legal skirmish could further sully Penelas's noble facade. Church & Tower, the company owned by the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, last November filed a lawsuit against the county after Penelas terminated its $58 million paving contract. The mayor's action was prompted by critical stories published in the Miami Daily Business Review and a subsequent Miami Herald investigation that found the county had been billed nearly a million dollars for work that was never done.

In its lawsuit, Church & Tower posits that Penelas canceled the contract not because he believed the company had done anything wrong, but rather because the mayor was worried about how he would look if he didn't lash out at the firm.

The company may be right.
Depositions taken in the case over the past two months offer a glimpse into Penelas's administration. The most telling statements to date have come from Brian May, the mayor's chief of staff. (Penelas has fought efforts by Church & Tower's attorneys to take his deposition, but earlier this month a judge ruled that the mayor will have to comply with the company's request.) In February, over the span of two days, May was questioned under oath by a lawyer for Church & Tower.

Attorney Mitchell Bloomberg, of Adorno &Zeder, attempted to establish that the mayor's actions were driven by the fact that County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla had become an outspoken critic of the Church & Tower contract.

Q: Have you heard anybody say that Commissioner Diaz de la Portilla is a potential candidate for mayor against Mayor Penelas in the next mayoral election?

A: Yes.
Q: As a political adviser to the mayor, is that something that you are at least watching?

A: It's something that would be on my radar screen.
Q: You are concerned about it?
A: Not concerned about. Something I would be aware of.

Bloomberg moved on to a meeting held November 1 in the lounge of the Hotel Sofitel near Miami International Airport. Former Latin Builders Association president Sergio Pino arranged the private tete-a-tete. The participants included Penelas, May, Pino, Jorge Mas, Jr., and Juan Carlos Mas.

Q: How did the meeting start? Tell me as best as you can recall how it started, who said what.

A: Mr. Mas Jr. started the meeting and he looked at the mayor and he said oye, Alex, what you have here, and he pointed to Mr. Pino and he went like this [pointing to others], what you have here is the greatest political force in the State of Florida, and this is a team and we need to stick together and we shouldn't let Mr. Diaz de la Portilla make an issue of this paving contract. In essence, that's how it started.

Q: Did Mr. Mas at the meeting make mention of the fact that Church & Tower would like to continue doing the work?

A: Yes.
Q: So you recall that comment being made?
A: Yes. Obviously, that's what the mayor was responding to. He was saying -- when Mr. Mas made his comments early on about, you know, we have the political force, the greatest political force in the State of Florida, in essence what he was saying was we shouldn't be messing with this political force because it was very, very powerful. That was what came across.

Q: That's how you took it?
A: I believe that's the way the mayor had taken it, too, because he mentioned it to me afterwards.

Q: But Mr. Mas didn't say we shouldn't mess with this political force; that's the way you took it?

A: Yes, that's true. But he did say that the reason he was saying that and that he was making the point, this is a very powerful force and that he would get Mr. Diaz de la Portilla at the appropriate time.

Q: Mr. Mas said he would?
A: Mr. Mas said he would take care of Mr. Diaz de la Portilla at the appropriate time electorally. In other words, they would run someone against him and go after him and defeat him. That's what he was saying.

Q: Did Mayor Penelas at the meeting talk about the political ramifications of allowing Church & Tower to continue doing the work?

A: Yes.
Q: What did he say?
A: He said that he thought that the entire incident surrounding the contract was an embarrassment to both the county and the company and the subcontractors, and that his interest was to see that the taxpayers got their money back, and that he agreed with the manager that the work should not continue under the contract. And he also mentioned that Church & Tower should have agreed voluntarily to the [inspector general] when it was brought up, that this kind of snowballing effect is what led this incident to become as controversial as it was.

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