Take My Son, Please

Since his election five years ago as a Dade County commissioner, Javier Souto has developed a reputation for delivering bombastic, often nonsensical speeches from the dais. But any snickering is muted by the genuine respect Souto enjoys from his colleagues. A Bay of Pigs veteran, he is considered a man of honor, someone you may not always agree with politically but whose motives you wouldn't question.

Which is why it is so disappointing to discover that he is a liar.
Last year Javier Souto lied to me. When I asked him if he played any role in helping his son get a county job at Miami International Airport, he said no. He was emphatic. His son, he insisted, responded to a newspaper advertisement and applied for the job.

That was a lie.
Souto would not admit the truth until he was placed under oath by the Dade State Attorney's Office. And even then he confessed his role only after discovering that then-County Manager Armando Vidal had already revealed to investigators that Souto personally spoke to him about securing an airport job for his son.

Last month the State Attorney's Office concluded an eleven-month investigation into hiring practices at Miami International Airport. The probe was initiated after a story I wrote called "The Dumping Ground," which described how the airport had become a repository for friends and family members of county commissioners. The county charter states that commissioners may not "direct or request the appointment or removal of officers and employees in the administrative services of the county." If the state attorney believes a commissioner has violated this provision, she can remove that commissioner from office.

During their long investigation, prosecutors gathered damning information against Souto. Vidal, in his sworn statement to investigators, recalled that in the latter part of 1996 he was meeting with the commissioner on a variety of county matters when Souto suddenly handed him a copy of his son's resume.

Q: And Commissioner Souto told you something about his son?
A: Commissioner Souto discussed his son with me.
Q: What did he say?

A: Basically that his son was interested in changing jobs because I think he was working for the state in some kind of a correctional role either as an adviser or something like that, and he's a very good kid with an excellent background and to see if I could help.

Q: When he said, "I'm going to ask you to help him," what did you take that to mean?

A: To help him.
Q: Specifically meaning what? Did you understand that he meant he would like you to hire him or find a job for him?

A: I understood it to mean that if we had an opportunity to hire this individual, that I would hire the individual.

In his later sworn statement, Souto admitted discussing his son Frank with the county manager. "I would say, I think my request was, 'See what you think, I think he is a good guy.' That is what I said. It was very quick and one of these where you did other things, by the way, you know, maybe what I may want to know about this, that is what I said," the commissioner tried to explain.

Souto also said he may have discussed his son's need for a job with other county officials. "I may have said to some friends in the county that he is a good guy, that sort of thing," Souto testified. "I may have dropped his name. I said not with the intention of pressuring anybody or anything; but saying, you know, I guess I am proud of my son, he is applying here, that is it, you know, not with the intention of forcing anybody, because I don't do that."

In addition to Souto's personal efforts, the commissioner's wife contacted county officials on her son's behalf. According to a report prepared by prosecutors, Berta Souto met with then-Assistant County Manager Tony Ojeda. "Berta Souto is apparently an old friend of Ojeda's," the report states. "Ojeda said that following Mrs. Souto's overtures, he met with Frank Souto and then also referred the matter to [personnel director Maria] Casellas."

In February 1997 Frank Souto was hired in the airport's safety and security division at $26,000 per year.

Despite the admissions by Souto and Vidal, prosecutors decided last month not to file charges against the commissioner. In closing the case, Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino said he determined that Souto's actions did not constitute "a sufficient evidentiary predicate for removal" from office.

Centorino somehow concluded that Souto's handing his son's resume to Vidal -- and then asking the county manager to look it over and see if he could find a job for his son -- was not the same as making a formal request that his son be hired.

Centorino did, however, scold Souto in writing, declaring that his conduct had "an air of unfair influence." Centorino went on: "It is exactly this type of action which fosters a common perception of favoritism and political influence in the hiring of public employees. Such perceptions undermine confidence in the integrity of government and underlie much of the cynicism that permeates public discussion of government affairs. The conduct that causes such revulsion in the citizenry is particularly insidious because it is behavior for which officials may rarely be held legally accountable."

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