Iron John

In five years PBA boss John Rivera has transformed his police union into a major political force

John Rivera, his hulking frame trussed up in a sharply creased tuxedo, smiles broadly as the starched and sequined crowd streams into the ballroom at the swank Westin Resort in Miami Beach. A three-foot-high ice sculpture of a police badge glimmers on a table. Hundreds of people nibble on shrimp and sip chilled white wine. A string quartet plays Cole Porter.

Rivera offers his meaty palm, then a hug, to guest after guest. He kisses the women. He chats for a brief moment with each guest, then slips away. Although the evening was advertised as an event to honor officers' heroics, it was as much a testament to Rivera, the 42-year-old president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association. Among those who file past the labor boss of police politics are some of Florida's most powerful people: State Rep. Elaine Bloom, State Sen. Al Gutman, and Secretary of State Sandra Mortham. Judges, county commissioners, and small-town mayors are here too. The politicians need what Rivera has: manpower, money, and a reckless will to reward friends and destroy enemies. "We've gotten so strong we can make or break kings and queens," Rivera says smugly.

Since taking the helm of the PBA in 1993, Rivera has transformed the union into a political juggernaut. "It's not that John is just good. It's that he's head and shoulders above the rest," says Ernie George, president of the state PBA and a West Palm Beach police sergeant. Rivera has tripled the number of Dade PBA staff lawyers to six, increased membership from 4900 to 6200, brought in more dues, and won numerous concessions from state and county governments. He also nearly quadrupled the union's political campaign contributions, to $65,000 per year.

But critics complain about Rivera's enhanced power. Some officers, as well as citizens, are concerned the Metro-Dade sergeant has dangerously blurred the line between police and politics. Though paid by the public to defend the law, Rivera has forged ties with a string of ethically challenged politicians. Among them: former county commissioner Joe Gersten, who fled to Australia in 1993 amid a scandal involving a hooker and a crack pipe; Senator Gutman, who was indicted last week on charges of Medicare fraud, money laundering, and witness tampering; and former county commissioner Bruce Kaplan, who resigned in disgrace April 16 after pleading no contest to lying on a financial disclosure form.

Others are alarmed by Rivera's hyperaggressive campaign tactics, including hurling public insults and renting billboards to attack his enemies. His self-proclaimed war against Hialeah City Hall has provoked accusations that Rivera and his people sabotaged vehicles and assaulted insubordinate officers. A campaign against a Dade public corruption prosecutor that his critics term a sophomoric vendetta. And the director of Dade's jail system, Donald Manning, has questioned Rivera's ethics. Says Rolando Bolanos, Hialeah police chief and Rivera's archenemy: "He has taken the police profession back 40 or 50 years. He is marrying police and politics. That can only lead to corruption."

After the May 16 cocktail reception at the Westin came the banquet. Sometime between the filet mignon and chocolate mousse, Bruce Kaplan and wife Janitza showed up. Kaplan, in a crisp blue suit, zigzagged through the maze of tables to Rivera and they embraced with gusto. Despite Kaplan's resignation and guilty plea, he was welcome. (Janitza recently lost a race for her husband's old commission seat to Bruno Barriero).

Later in the evening Rivera affectionately introduced Kaplan, who pledged to donate $2500 a year to a PBA emergency fund. Everyone applauded. PBA honchos gave him a standing ovation.

Rivera and his team at the PBA have no problem with Kaplan's malfeasance. They believe that public concerns about his transgressions will fade in a year, but union members will continue to benefit from policies Kaplan championed: take-home police cars, payments to those who suffer heart attacks even away from work, and long-term benefits to officers injured on the job.

The Kaplan-Rivera relationship worries Lt. Tony Rodriguez, 37-year-old president of the City of Miami Police Department's union, the Fraternal Order of Police, which competes with the PBA. "I thought John went overboard with that. I think once a politician has been arrested and pleads guilty, to publicly come out in support of him is wrong."

Rodriguez's criticism is less than objective, Rivera points out. He runs a rival union.

"I am not your friend [only] as long as you can give me something," Rivera wrote in the April issue of Heat, the Dade County PBA's newspaper. And "Bruce Kaplan ... wasn't just my friend. He was your best friend, too."

Rivera traces his admiration of Kaplan to 1993, when the commission candidate came to PBA offices seeking endorsement. Kaplan told the screening committee that he knew the association was committed to Gersten, the incumbent, and asked for PBA support only if Gersten didn't run again. Unlike many other candidates, he promised no favors in exchange for union support. "Bruce kind of caught us by surprise," Rivera says. "We never had a candidate say that to us before."

As it turned out, Gersten didn't make the runoff. Kaplan got PBA backing and won the seat.

For the next few years Kaplan was "law enforcement's number-one friend," according to Rivera. He lobbied with tenacity to protect the take-home-car program. That plan was a perennial target of the Herald's editorial page and of commissioners seeking to trim expenses. To the union, it was a way to increase police presence in neighborhoods. Rivera describes Kaplan as bravely standing in the breach deflecting criticism, even pushing to expand the system.

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