You Make the Call

Last week the National Football League voted against bringing back the instant replay. Too bad. Sometimes the game just moves so quickly it becomes nearly impossible to make the right call. The same is true with local politics. Scandals and allegations of wrongdoing come and go so fast in Dade County the public isn't given a chance to distinguish the merely bad guys from the truly reprehensible.

Consider, for instance, the controversy at county hall swirling around our esteemed mayor, Alex Penelas. Most people probably have a difficult time judging whether Penelas is an earnest elected official interested only in serving the citizens of Dade County or a cynically ambitious political hack who has surrounded himself with a merry band of sleazy henchmen.

So as a public service, I am calling a time-out in order to review a few key plays involving the mayor and his chief of staff, Brian May. Let's go to the videotape:

Firing the Manager
Penelas claims he dumped Armando Vidal because the county manager was grossly incompetent and allowed scandal after scandal to run rampant. This in turn has hurt Dade's economy because it is scaring away companies that might otherwise consider relocating to South Florida.

Okay, now let's slow it down and take a closer look.
First, remember how Vidal became county manager. It was county commissioner Alex Penelas who fought valiantly to have Vidal appointed in December 1994. Then, after Penelas was elected mayor, he reappointed Vidal as manager, declaring on October 17, 1996, that Vidal was both "responsible and responsive" and that he was "diligent in making sure our government serves its real bosses: the people."

It's ludicrous for Penelas to attempt to divorce himself from Vidal. If he wants now to claim that Vidal is incompetent, then the public is entitled to reach one of two conclusions: Either Penelas is a horrible judge of character and so dimwitted it took him more than three years to realize his mistake, or the mayor is a cynical political opportunist who was perfectly willing to mislead the public about Vidal's abilities as long as that served his needs and those of his supporters. Vidal, as we all know, says he was fired because he resisted efforts by the mayor and his staff to steer business to Penelas's friends and political allies.

But let's give the mayor the benefit of the doubt, for a moment anyway. Let's say Penelas experienced some sort of epiphany in which he realized Vidal was a no-good bum of a manager; that Vidal's incompetence had brought disgrace (Penelas described it as a "hall of shame") to the people of Dade County; that Vidal probably cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in lost revenue and wasted spending.

So what does the mayor do? He offers this lout a generous severance package if he'll leave quietly. How do we know this? Well, Vidal says so, for one thing. But if you don't believe him, you can take the mayor's own word for it. "I think the value of his severance package has declined as a result of his decision not to resign," Penelas said a few days after firing Vidal. "I don't think anyone would expect it to be as generous as it would have been had he resigned."

Is Penelas actually suggesting that he was willing to hand over tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to a man he found to be demonstrably incompetent -- as long as he resigned quietly? Either Armando Vidal was owed his severance package or he wasn't. For Penelas to play games with this issue reflects more on his character than on Vidal's.

And what does Penelas really mean when he says his generosity toward Vidal was contingent on the manager's resigning? It's obvious: He means he was willing to shell out the cash as long as Vidal left and didn't say anything to embarrass the mayor. In Brooklyn we used to call that hush money.

But the minute Vidal began singing about Penelas's political cronies, the mayor declared he would veto any severance agreement that came across his desk. This is the kind of ethical leadership Dade County enjoys under Penelas -- a mayor who tries to buy people's silence, and when he fails, swears vengeance against them and attempts to destroy their reputation.

Brian May's Wife
In arguing that he was canned because he wouldn't succumb to political pressure, Vidal cited as an example conversations he had several months ago with the mayor's chief of staff. In those meetings, Brian May allegedly tried to goad the manager into granting a contract extension to the company that employs May's wife, Jenny Arias May.

Vidal contends that May talked to him on two occasions about extending a contract for the engineering firm Montgomery Watson, which was doing environmental work for the county's water and sewer department. The county commission was scheduled to vote on extending the contract last November; Vidal pulled the item from the agenda because the firm is being audited by the county following allegations it improperly billed water and sewer for a Washington lobbyist.

According to a March 11 article in the Miami Herald, Vidal claimed that May at one point told him he was being "a hard-ass" about the contract. Vidal says he replied that it was a conflict of interest for May to ask about Montgomery Watson. May called Vidal a liar, and in the Herald story denied having had any conversations -- of any kind -- with Vidal about Montgomery Watson.

Apparently May's tale has evolved.
When I interviewed him earlier this month, May admitted he had spoken to Vidal about the Montgomery Watson contract. He said that over dinner one night his wife had asked him why the county hadn't extended her company's contract. "She said Montgomery Watson had some extensions pending on a contract and asked me if I knew what was going on," May recalled. "I said I would gladly talk to the manager and find out what was going on. The next time I saw the manager I asked him what the status of the contract was. He told me and I said, 'Oh, thank you very much.' I told my wife what he said, and that was it. I thought it was a fairly harmless thing."

You have to know Brian May to appreciate just how amusing his current version of events is. The notion of May having a casual conversation with anyone is hysterical. He doesn't have casual conversations. He has agendas.

Ten years ago May was delivering Domino's pizzas for a living. Now he is arguably the second-most-powerful man in Dade County. You don't rise that far that quickly having casual conversations.

May is a jack-of-all-trades for Penelas. He is a key political strategist who is constantly cooking up new ways to sell the public on Penelas's carefully crafted image as an ethical reformer. He is also the mayor's gatekeeper; people who want to see Penelas usually have to go through the chief of staff. And when need be, he is also the mayor's partisan thug, a political kneecapper who sees to it that the county commission adheres to the mayor's itinerary.

May has worked off and on with Penelas since 1990. During Penelas's campaign for mayor, he was the guy who would pass dirt to reporters about Penelas's opponents. Simply put, this is not a man given to chitchat.

Even if his version of events is true -- and I'm betting there was a little bit more to the conversation than "Oh, thank you very much" -- he was wrong even to raise the issue. When I asked May whether he thought it was a conflict of interest to ask the manager about the contract, he sighed and said, "Yeah, maybe."

That sort of response should certainly raise the public's confidence in the Penelas administration. Sounds like both Penelas and May could benefit from taking one of those ethics courses being taught by the mayor's $100,000-a-year rent-a-cop, Paul Philip.

Church & Tower
If Penelas and May haven't had time to worry about ethics, it may be because they've been so busy holding secret meetings with the folks from Church & Tower.

But perhaps I'm confused. After all, those were meetings in which our brave mayor, tossing aside concerns about his own political well-being, stood up to the villainous sons of Jorge Mas Canosa and vowed to defend the interests of Dade County citizens no matter the consequences.

At least that's what I read last week in the Herald.
I do have a few questions, though. If Penelas is so proud of his conduct in this case, then why is he resisting so vigorously an opportunity to recount his experiences under oath? Twice in the past month the mayor has gone to court in an effort to block attorneys for Church & Tower from taking his deposition.

Could it be that Penelas is worried he might be required to admit that his actions weren't quite so principled? Is it possible, for instance, he would end up acknowledging that snubbing Church & Tower was a calculated decision designed to work to his political advantage? Could it be that Penelas made several crass political comments during those secret meetings and is now afraid the company's attorneys will force him to repeat them for the record?

On the day Penelas is finally deposed, with any luck they'll use a video camera as well as a court reporter. When it comes time to decide if he was out of bounds or not on this deal, it would be nice to have instant replay available.

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