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It was May 22, near midnight, when Coral Gables attorney Manny Alonso-Poch was imbued with the spirit of giving. At that late hour, he donated to the citizenry of Dade County a ship that will become an artificial reef for divers from around the world to enjoy. The story of Alonso-Poch's gift may be truly inspirational. Then again, it may be the tale of an avaricious attorney who tried to stiff the public. You decide.
Some background: As reported earlier in New Times ("Shape Up and Ship Out," March 12), Alonso-Poch is the de facto owner of a 275-foot derelict cargo vessel, the Ocean Freeze, which has been illegally docked next to Bicentennial Park for more than a year. Alonso-Poch's association with the ship started when he represented crewmen in a wage dispute. Alonso-Poch's company, Gulfstream Marine Enterprises, acquired the vessel at a public auction in April 1997.
During the past year, Alonso-Poch has irked a lot of people. Coast Guard officers have pressed him to move the vessel from its downtown mooring. They fear that a hurricane or other bad weather could cause the Ocean Freeze to break free, crash into the nearby bridge to the Port of Miami, and kill hapless motorists. City of Miami leaders contend the ship has interfered with construction of the American Airlines/Miami Heat arena. And the Bayfront Park Management Trust has sent notices of overdue payment because Alonso-Poch stopped paying dockage in May 1997. Nearly everyone considers the blue and red rusting hulk an eyesore. Local scavengers have gutted the ship, stealing copper wire, tubing, and other salable items.
Authorities have tried to dig into Alonso-Poch's wallet to make him move the vessel. The Coast Guard fined him $25,000 late last year, which he is appealing. The city upped his daily docking fee in February from $125 to $3000. Manny still didn't man the ship.
During the legislative session that concluded May 8, State Rep. Bruno Barreiro (R-Miami Beach) nearly bailed out Alonso-Poch. He persuaded the legislature to agree to pay the attorney $165,000 for the Ocean Freeze. Under that agreement, Alonso-Poch would then have "donated" the ship for an artificial reef. The deal fell through when Gov. Lawton Chiles, scouring the state budget for pork, spotted the allocation and heard it oinking. He vetoed it.
Another setback came May 14 when the Miami City Commission voted to sue the lawyer and the crewmen for dockage fees. In a May 18 letter to the defendants, City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa criticized Alonso-Poch for inadequately maintaining and securing the vessel. Garcia-Pedrosa recommended that he donate the vessel to the Atlantic Gamefish Foundation, a nonprofit group that had offered to sink it for an artificial reef. Past dockage fees would not be voided, the manager wrote. On Friday, May 22, the city attorney put together the complaint against the crewmen and Alonso-Poch. The total amount: $382,107.20.
That very night, Alonso-Poch donated the vessel. "We were on the phone about 11:30 at night and I was telling him he had to avoid future liability," says Cliff Kunde, executive director of the Gamefish Foundation. "He finally agreed."
Told of the events, Capt. Dave Miller, who heads the Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, chuckles. Miller and other Coast Guard officers accused Alonso-Poch of lying about plans to move the ship. The attorney denies that allegation.
Despite his act of charity, Alonso-Poch is not off the hook. The city has reiterated that it will not forgive the fines, says Assistant City Manager Christina Cuervo. "No, we won't write them off," she says. "We will pursue the case."
Alonso-Poch claims he tried to donate the vessel for months. He notes that he has spent almost $40,000 in docking and security costs.
"Sometimes you lose," he philosophizes. But he says he will fight to avoid any further expenses. He believes he should not be held responsible for the fees, as he was only an attorney hired by some crewmen.
Alonso-Poch is no stranger to controversy. He is partner in the Coconut Grove eatery Sloppy Joe's, which riled neighbors this past February when the owners won an extension of the hours during which they can sell liquor. And he was involved in a proposed $30 million hotel, retail, and parking garage project that would wrap around the Coconut Grove Playhouse, much to the displeasure of some Grove residents.
The Ocean Freeze will likely disappear soon. Kunde, who plans to sink the vessel this month in 250 feet of water off the coast of South Dade, was reached last week as he composed a letter to Alonso-Poch. "We thank you for coordinating the donation of the Ocean Freeze," it read.