A Plot Thicker Than Asphalt

No one knows better than Mario Pons what a glorious document is the U. S. Constitution. Last month the public works employee for the City of Miami showed his appreciation by invoking his constitutionally guaranteed Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 266 times during a two-hour deposition.

Attorneys for Dade County had questioned him as part of their lawsuit against construction company Church & Tower for allegedly mismanaging the county's paving contract. The only question Pons was willing to answer: What is your name? After that you couldn't pry an answer out of him with a crow bar.

County officials suspect that Pons, using his city position, was creating a lot of work for one of Church & Tower's subcontractors, a firm called MBL Paving, and that in return MBL Paving was using a company Pons allegedly owns, Construction Services of Miami, Inc., to work as a subsubcontractor under the water and sewer department's paving contract.

"That would be a conflict of interest," declared Jim Kay, director of the city's public works department and Pons's boss, who as of last week hadn't heard of the allegations against his employee. "I knew he had been subpoenaed," Kay said, "but I wasn't sure what happened. I don't ask any questions when it comes to subpoenas."

When he learned Pons had repeatedly taken the Fifth, Kay grimaced: "That doesn't sound good." The State Attorney's Office recently requested information about Pons, he elaborated. As a city employee, Pons is required to disclose any outside work. Prosecutors wanted to know if he had reported any activity in the last couple of years, Kay said. All the city had on file was a notice that Pons was involved in selling real estate. "But that was years ago," Kay added. "There was nothing recent."

At least nothing Pons has reported to the city. Records at the Secretary of State's office in Tallahassee reveal a minimum of ten different companies listing Mario Pons as an officer. During his deposition, Pons refused to confirm if he was the Mario Pons listed in those records. (Pons did not return phone calls; his attorney, Robert Rosenblatt, declined comment.)

Trudy Novicki, chief assistant state attorney for special prosecutions, acknowledges that Pons's possible role in the scandal is being examined. "It is just one of the many things we are looking at," she said last week.

Last year investigations by the Daily Business Review and the Miami Herald found that the county had been overcharged hundreds of thousands of dollars for materials that were never used and work that was never done. As a result, work under the $58 million water and sewer department paving contract was halted and two county supervisors, Miguel Sierra and Jairaj Rajhunandan, were fired. The state attorney is conducting a criminal investigation.

The county has also sought to block Church & Tower from winning any new paving contracts. The firm responded by suing the county. The county has since filed its own suit against Church & Tower in an effort to recover some of its misspent money. During the past six months, estimates of how much the county may have been overcharged have skyrocketed, with some officials in recent weeks predicting the amount could exceed $15 million.

Church & Tower officials deny any wrongdoing and argue they merely managed the contract; the actual paving work was done by the company's subcontractors. If there was fraud, it was most likely committed by those subcontractors working in collusion with county inspectors. The involvement of Mario Pons, however, marks a new twist in the scandal. No longer confined to county hall, it has now spread to Miami city government.

Dade County is responsible for maintaining the water and sewer lines that run through all its municipalities, including the City of Miami. After county crews repair or replace one of those lines, it's their obligation to repave the street. Sometimes problems develop. For instance, the surface may not have been repaved to the city's standards. Shoddy workmanship can cause cracks or potholes to appear prematurely. It's also common over time for patched surfaces to settle into the ground, creating a small crater.

When problems occur, the City of Miami has the right to ask Dade County to return and fix the problem. That's where Mario Pons comes in. As the utility coordinator for the city, he compiled lists of sites in need of repair and forwarded them to the county, which in turn passed them on to MBL Paving.

From all indications, Pons was a very conscientious city employee, a real taskmaster in fact. Over the past two years he made dozens upon dozens of requests for the county to come back and repave sites, county records show.

County officials and investigators with the State Attorney's Office are now reviewing those records, as well as the sites themselves, to determine what work was done and whether it was necessary.

Suspicions about Pons surfaced several months ago when county auditors -- poring over the records of Church & Tower and its subcontractors -- uncovered invoices from a company called Construction Services of Miami, Inc. The auditors soon discovered through state records that the president of the firm was listed as Mario A. Pons. The name sounded familiar -- and with good reason. County officials were also seeing that name on all City of Miami requests for repaving work.

Pons, who has worked for the city for nearly thirteen years, was subpoenaed last month; his deposition was taken April 16, when attorneys for both the county and Church & Tower questioned him. They asked if he was in fact the president of Construction Services of Miami, Inc., if his wife was the company's vice president (as state records indicated), and if he had ever received any business or money from MBL Paving. To each of these questions and more than 200 others he fell silent, repeating only that his answers might be incriminating.

County records show that in December 1996 and January 1997, Construction Services of Miami received at least $13,800 worth of work from MBL Paving under the county's water and sewer department contract. (The president of MBL Paving, Paul Banks, did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

Attorneys for Church & Tower are quick to distance the company from Pons. "Mario Pons and his company had no direct contact with Church & Tower," says Mitch Bloomberg, an attorney for the construction firm owned by the family of the late Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. Bloomberg maintains that if fraud did occur under the water and sewer contract, it took place without Church & Tower's knowledge or consent. He notes that when Pons sent the county a list of sites in need of repair, county officials would bypass Church & Tower and send the list directly to MBL.

Bloomberg also asserts that Church & Tower had nothing to do with the decision to hire Construction Services of Miami and learned about it only recently. He says he is not even sure MBL was responsible for hiring Pons's company, noting that in some instances county inspectors would hire their friends to do work under the water and sewer department paving contract and then have them submit their bills through MBL. "Pons is probably one of those guys who were hired by the county inspectors and then told to bill MBL," Bloomberg says. "That's why we had him under subpoena as well. We've been trying to get him to testify for months."

The paving debacle is also having an impact on the planned downtown performing arts center. Last year Church & Tower was awarded a $3.4 million contract to act as the center's construction manager, supervising the various firms that would actually build the facility. But several months ago a member of the Church & Tower team -- an engineering consultant who was to act as a subcontractor -- claimed that his signature had been forged on the company's proposal. In response, the County Attorney's Office recommended that the contract be voided. Bill Johnson, the county official overseeing the performing arts center construction, has yet to make a final decision.

On April 25 Hank Adorno, executive vice president of MasTec, the parent company of Church & Tower, wrote to interim County Manager Merrett Stierheim asking why it has taken the county more than three months to decide if it is going to cancel Church & Tower's contract owing to the alleged forgery. He added that if the county wanted to remove Church & Tower, the company would be willing to step aside. But he said a decision needed to be made soon. Adorno accused the county of trying to use the performing arts center as leverage in the water and sewer department lawsuit. (Johnson was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.)

Adorno claimed that because Johnson has yet to make a decision, the performing arts center project itself was being hurt. Church & Tower had made more than two dozen recommendations about construction, he pointed out, and nearly all have been ignored. Adorno predicted that the arts center will therefore fall behind schedule and end up costing taxpayers more money. "To avoid harming the project or creating additional litigation, C&T is willing to negotiate a termination of its management agreement," Adorno wrote. "To accomplish this, we would have to obtain the consent of our other team members, who have, along with us, invested significant resources in the project."

Adorno did not say how much money he hoped to recoup from the county for the "significant resources" Church & Tower has invested so far. "I just want to work for somebody who wants to work with us," Adorno said in an interview last week. "If they don't want to do business with us, then fine. We just don't want to become the fall guys again when this project starts costing more money than was anticipated.

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