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."

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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