Take My Son, Please

The irony in Centorino's comments, of course, is that his failure to move against Souto will only add to the public's cynicism. And it seems especially odd for a prosecutor to lament that elected officials are "rarely ... held legally accountable" for violations of the county charter when it is the prosecutor's job to do so.

Centorino's investigation touched on a number of other employees hired at the airport, most notably Mayor Alex Penelas's father-in-law and County Commissioner Miriam Alonso's son-in-law. Once again Centorino found he could not file charges against them. In the case of Penelas's father-in-law, Fermin Arrarte, Centorino said he could find no evidence that Penelas was in any way involved in the decision.

Although I believe the public-corruption prosecutor did his best, he missed certain opportunities to uncover additional evidence. For instance, he never interviewed Penelas or Arrarte. Moreover, since Centorino closed his investigation last month, I have spoken to two county officials who played key roles in seeing to it that Arrarte was hired by the airport as a clerk accountant. Both said they would have been willing to implicate Penelas had they been questioned by prosecutors. Centorino never subpoenaed them.

Finally there is the case of Miriam Alonso's son-in-law Kevin Miles. Alonso admitted that in 1995, while she was running for a seat on the county commission, she personally went to see the county manager about getting her son a job at the county. "I have known Armando Vidal through the years, and I made an appointment, and I called him," Alonso told investigators. "I don't recall the specifics, but I went to see Armando to provide Armando with Kevin's resume, and asked him that if he felt that he could find Kevin ... offer him an opportunity if he had one."

Alonso also said she met with Carmen Lunetta to see if he might hire Miles at the Port of Miami. As a result of Alonso's pleas, Lunetta arranged to get Miles a job with Fiscal Operations, the private company that operates the port's giant gantry cranes. Miles was hired by the company in October 1995 as a trade specialist and given a $60,000-per-year salary.

A year later, when Alonso won election to the county commission, she was named chairwoman of the commission's committee overseeing the Port of Miami. Vidal, in his statement to prosecutors, said he was worried there could be an appearance problem for Alonso if it became known that her son-in-law got a sweetheart job at the seaport. Also Fiscal Operations was under federal investigation.

The manager said he went to see Commissioner Alonso in her office to discuss what to do about Miles. "I was trying to avoid exactly what is taking place today," Vidal explained to prosecutors. "I was trying to avoid a conflict and an embarrassment. And I guess based on what we are going through today, I didn't do a very good job. So I went to the commissioner and I said, 'Listen, Kevin Miles, I'm going to transfer him out of the seaport. You are the person overseeing the seaport. I'm going to send him to the airport.'"

According to Vidal, Alonso didn't say anything. The only problem with Vidal's plan was the fact that Miles didn't actually work for the county at the seaport; he was employed by a private company. So technically Vidal couldn't "transfer" Miles to the airport. Instead the manager instructed his staff to create a brand-new position for Miles in December 1996 in the airport's marketing department and simply gave the job to him -- without advertising it and without anyone else being interviewed. Miles maintained his $60,000 salary, which made him the highest-paid employee in his department.

When he was interviewed by prosecutors, Miles didn't seem particularly grateful for Vidal's efforts. He told them that as far as he was concerned, county officials were "getting a bargain" by hiring him at $60,000. He also suggested that his fellow employees in the marketing department -- many of whom have expressed resentment at the way Miles was hired -- were not qualified for the positions they held.

One question prosecutors didn't ask Miles: If you're so damn talented, why does your mother-in-law have to keep getting you jobs?

Centorino decided that because Alonso asked Vidal to get her son-in-law a job before she was elected to the commission, her actions did not violate the charter. And because Vidal said he decided on his own to move Miles to the airport, Alonso could not be held responsible for that, either.

"The manner of Miles's initial hiring, the nature of his position at the port, and the procedure that facilitated subsequent hiring at the highest salary paid to any other airport marketing specialist appear highly questionable on public policy grounds," Centorino wrote in his close-out memo. "They raise serious questions about the fairness and openness of county hiring practices that do not fall within the purview of this investigation.

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