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.

On Kaplan's behalf, Rivera picked a fight with one of the most formidable foes of shady politicians: the assistant Dade state attorney in charge of public corruption, Joe Centorino. At the time, Centorino was investigating Kaplan for official misconduct and falsifying a mortgage application -- both felonies. Rivera publicly called Centorino's investigation politically motivated. Then he published a copy of Centorino's 1986 mortgage application in Heat. "Did Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino break the law by committing mortgage fraud?" blared the headline. Centorino's alleged fraud? He claimed to have been employed in the State Attorney's Office before starting work there. That issue was never questioned before Rivera brought it up. (The state attorney later agreed not to pursue mortgage fraud charges against Kaplan as part of a plea deal).

Rivera contends Centorino "has screwed with police officers throughout the years."

The irony of the situation -- cops attacking a prosecutor for going after slippery politicians -- doesn't amuse Centorino. "It was coming completely from left field. There was no rhyme or reason to it," the prosecutor says. "What I did to Kaplan had nothing to do with the PBA or police officers. It just shows that the PBA leadership is following a political agenda, not a law enforcement agenda."

When Kaplan resigned, he held a press conference. Standing behind him was Rivera. The FOP's Rodriguez, watching on TV, was reminded of then-Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez's request for FOP endorsement in 1997. Hernandez was under indictment for bank fraud and money laundering at the time. "I told him flat out, 'You've got charges pending against you. I can't endorse you,'" Rodriguez says.

Rivera's street-fighting political style has origins in his impoverished childhood in Manhattan's Washington Heights. His Puerto Rican father was a short-order cook in a deli and his Cuban-American mother was a seamstress. When Rivera was twelve the family moved to Miami because the weather was better for his brother Peter's severe allergies. The tactics for self-preservation Rivera learned in Washington Heights came in handy in northwest Dade, near Hialeah, where the family moved. Though Rivera says he despises violence, he hates bullies even more. Twice he was suspended from school for fighting, both times for defending a schoolmate.

Rivera did not intend to become a police officer. When he was thirteen, his father died in a car crash. To support the family, both boys found work. They scrubbed dishes, pumped gas, and did odd jobs to help the family. College was out of the question. After John graduated from Hialeah/Miami Lakes High School, he worked in construction and manned a hot dog stand at a bingo hall on Friday night. It was at that job he met an Opa-locka reserve officer who recommended police work.

Rivera worked as a Metro-Dade reserve officer from 1975 until 1978, then joined the force full-time. He soon became a hero. His first year on the job, Rivera ran into a burning building and ushered out some elderly residents. A year later he was nearly trapped in a burning building in Aventura and was treated at a hospital for smoke inhalation. "I loved it, I really loved that stuff," he says wistfully. His personnel file is stuffed with 63 commendations: for the fire rescues, for work investigating and arresting an extortionist, for capturing four car thieves while they dismantled a car, for helping to close nineteen houses of prostitution.

On January 3, 1983, as Rivera and some colleagues headed home after work in a caravan of several cars, one of the cops spotted an armed robbery in progress. The robbers took off. The officers gave chase on foot. The man Rivera was pursuing turned and pointed a gun at him. Rivera took cover; when the man turned a second time and pointed his gun, Rivera fired and hit him. The suspect escaped but later died in the emergency room. Internal investigators found the shooting justified.

Two aspects of Rivera's career have especially influenced his agenda as union boss. First are the injuries. Smoke inhalation, sprained wrists, knees scuffed while tackling subjects, a gunshot wound in his foot from a ricocheting bullet -- Rivera has been hurt on the job at least ten times. He says the wounds helped him to understand the hazards his comrades face. Then there are the less-common perils. One evening in April 1990, as Rivera and several other officers searched for a robbery suspect in the Washington Park area of North Miami Beach, gunshots sounded nearby. Rivera rushed over. A man had fired at Ofcr. Joseph Martin after Martin stopped a suspicious car. Now the officer lay wounded in the street, shot in the throat. Rivera and two others accompanied Martin to a helicopter. "He was in pretty bad shape," Rivera says, his voice falling to a husky croak. He later died. That event, he says, made him "obsessed" with the rights of slain officers' families: "You could say I'm a fanatic about police officers' rights."

Rivera became one of the first Hispanics to rise through the ranks of the Metro-Dade force. After one year and four months on the job, he was promoted to the detective division. As the only Spanish-speaker in the northeast district, he was in a pivotal position when the Mariel boatlift started in 1980, bringing thousands of refugees to Miami. Metro-Dade swiftly assembled a task force to concentrate on the Marielitos. Rivera was an obvious choice for that force. He developed a specialized knowledge of the immigrants' criminal networks. His knowledge was so valuable that he was later chosen to give seminars about the behavior of Mariel immigrants to departments as far away as Pennsylvania.

Rivera seemed poised for greater things. In 1990 he was elected to the union's board of directors. In 1992 he wanted to study for the lieutenant's exam, so he transferred from the detective unit to the catacombs of the property and evidence bureau, where he hoped the slower pace would allow more time.

But soon friends persuaded him to run for union president. In 1993 he beat incumbent Mike Clifton, 1174 votes to 1117. Perhaps it was sympathy for the underdog that motivated Rivera to run. Or maybe it was lust for power. He is not very philosophical about the move: "I thought I could do a better job."

Rivera traded the brown police uniform and holster for slacks and polo shirts. Today Dade taxpayers supply most of his $74,400 salary. Running the county's PBA has been a county-backed job for more than twenty years. Metro-Dade pays Rivera about $49,000 -- and the Dade PBA augments it by $16,400. The state PBA pays him roughly $9000 for serving as treasurer. He works full-time at the PBA building on NW 106th Avenue, not far from police headquarters.

The PBA is the collective bargaining unit for members in 27 police departments, including Metro-Dade's, as well as jail officers. The PBA not only negotiates on employees' behalf but provides lawyers in job-related disputes. The only Dade police departments not represented by the PBA are those of Miami, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables, which are represented by the FOP.

Rivera's first cause as union chief was to lobby state legislators. He pushed to help pass a bill extending benefits to widows and children of officers killed while on duty, even if the widow remarried. The bill passed in 1993. Next he interceded in a contentious matter in Sweetwater. PBA members complained that Chief Charles Toledo and his brother, Assistant Chief Ray Toledo, were abusing their authority. The officers told the union chief they were sometimes required to walk the chief's dog. Worse, they claimed the chief occasionally dropped paychecks on the floor, then kicked officers as they picked them up. Rivera's plan was to attack, using lawyers as the front-line troops.

"In the past we had to slink away with our tails between our legs. Now we file all kinds of legal paperwork. In Sweetwater we just hammered 'em, and hammered 'em every day until they had spent so much money the mayor called me up one day and said they were on the brink of bankruptcy." In the retelling, Rivera assumes a boxer's crouch. "I always felt you have to fight fire with fire, and in our particular business you have to fight lawyers with lawyers." Charles Toledo was fired in August 1993. Ray Toledo was axed in May 1995.

The legal skirmishing was part of Rivera's plan to reshape the organization. "I was very big on creating the most powerful law department this PBA had ever seen," he says. Now, not only does the union have six in-house lawyers, up from two when he started, but twenty more are on call. Some are on retainer.

Yet Rivera is willing to cooperate with management. In the early 1990s, West Miami Mayor Rebeca Sosa called Rivera personally and said the City didn't have money for raises. If the PBA would delay requesting more money, she would make it up later, the mayor said. She has been true to her word, giving raises and even gym exercise equipment for officers in 1995. Rivera is "wonderful to work with," she adds.

The PBA's pugnacity has allowed it to manipulate some municipalities, but not Hialeah. Relations between the union, which represents about 270 of 300 officers, and administrators of Dade's second-largest city are extraordinarily bitter. Cops are accused of vandalizing buses and booby-trapping a police car. This spring a 60-year-old PBA employee was arrested for slapping up stickers around the city predicting that both Chief Rolando Bolanos and Fidel Castro would die this year.

Escalating tensions even prompted a mutinous protest. Sixty-one officers signed a petition in January asking Rivera to tone down his attacks, contending they hindered contract negotiations.

Perhaps contract problems arose in Hialeah because Mayor Raul Martinez and Rivera are the same type of leader -- headstrong, persistent, and charismatic. Martinez continues to rule Hialeah despite a series of scandals. In 1990 he was convicted of racketeering and extortion related to a kickback scheme involving zoning applications. He remained free while appealing the verdict; in 1993 voters elected him back into office. In 1996, after three unsuccessful prosecutions, the case was dropped.

Relations between Rivera and Martinez have been sour for years. Each side portrays the dispute differently. Rivera, ever the gentleman, posits that Martinez was picked on as a child for being overweight and has been taking it out on the world ever since. "In high school they called Raul masa boba," Rivera remarks, using Spanish that translates roughly as "stupid blob." "He was bullied so much that he's turned out to be a monster."

Martinez's view of Rivera is similarly genteel: "He's a bully, and he uses outdated tactics. He uses the tactics of terrorism. I dislike the man. I dislike his personality, I dislike his looks, and there's nothing in this world that will get me to sit down with him."

The clash was so serious that officers worked without a contract for more than two years. Finally, this past December, differences about hiring and raises were worked out and a contract signed. But the problems reflected a deeper concern that traces to lucrative pension benefits that officers won in 1992 during the tenure of former mayor Julio Martinez, Bolanos says. The chief believes those concessions cost so much that badly needed equipment such as new cars couldn't be purchased. By the time the contract expired, Raul Martinez was back in office. Martinez and Bolanos held firm against substantial pay raises, then bought the equipment.

Rivera was perturbed by not only the lack of raises but by a host of other issues. For instance, beepers were collected from officers and a take-home-car program was dismantled. Bolanos installed an electronic tracking system in cruisers to catch napping cops, then fired offenders. Rivera accused Bolanos of sacking the officers for political reasons.

During the impasse, Rivera used trademark tactics. The PBA took out ads, then plastered posters on bus benches and billboards calling for Bolanos's ouster. He ridiculed Martinez in Heat and even published a cartoon in the newspaper that depicted Martinez walking Bolanos on a leash. He even framed a T-shirt that read: "Bote Bolanos," which translates as "Throw Bolanos Out."

But it was during Martinez's re-election bid last fall against challenger Herman Echevarria that Rivera saw his chance. PBA members sporting shirts emblazoned with Echevarria's name picketed city hall. They carried signs calling Martinez a coward. In a video of the demonstrations, Rivera shouts through a bullhorn: "Raul -- Acobarde! Vente para afuera! Ponte los Pampers. Todos los dictadores siempre se caen. (Raul -- coward! Come outside! Put on your Pampers. Dictators always fall)."

Then on November 4 workers at Conchita Transit Systems, a busline owned by Martinez supporter Rene Gil, found signs of sabotage. Sugar had been poured into the gas tanks of four vans and tires were slashed on two others. "Hialeah Needs a New Leader" said bumper stickers stuck on the vehicles. Hialeah police investigated, but no one was arrested. To Martinez the perpetrators' identities were obvious: "I can't prove it, but I am certain police officers were involved." He cites an intercepted police-radio transmission he was told about in which two PBA members' names were used in conjunction with the incident.

Rivera scoffs. Union members would not stoop so low, he says. "Without a doubt, it was [Martinez's] camp that did this. He couldn't have bought any better press coverage than he received after the Conchita thing," says Rivera. "I'll tell you, I give him kudos. In Hialeah, Martinez is king, by hook or by crook."

After Martinez beat Echevarria, turmoil continued in the police department. On the night of January 14, Bolanos's son Daniel, a Hialeah police officer, was transporting three prisoners to jail. When he switched on the air conditioner of his squad car, pepper spray shot from the vents. The chief's son was temporarily blinded. No one suffered permanent injuries and the prisoners were transferred to another cruiser. Chief Bolanos believes a police officer tampered with the car. So far there have been no arrests in the case.

Martinez says another example of trouble occurred as he drove to work on April 16. At 8:40 a.m. he spotted a man pasting a bumper sticker onto a lamppost at Palm Avenue and 49th Street. Martinez confronted him. "When I stopped him, I didn't know what the stickers were. I said 'Look, I just saw what you did and it's illegal. Now go back and take that sticker off.'" The lawbreaker was Gabriel Zamora, a 60-year-old maintenance worker for the PBA. And the stickers he was putting up read in Spanish: "Bolanos is corrupt and incompetent" and "Fidel and Bolanos will die this year." When Zamora refused to undo his work, Martinez called the cops. Zamora told arresting officers the PBA paid him to slap on the signs. Then a PBA lawyer helped plead Zamora's case, which has yet to come to trial.

Rivera denies PBA involvement in the incident. A PBA lawyer helped only because Zamora is an employee, he says.

"Bullshit," Martinez shoots back when told of Rivera's response. "If they didn't tell this man to do this, where did he get the money [to print anti-Bolanos materials]? And what motivated him to print up 200 bumper stickers and go pole by pole in the city?"

Where will it end? The union members who petitioned Rivera to tone down in January have an idea. Sgt. Eddie Del Toro told the Miami Herald that his union leader needed to "stick to the issue" of the contract. That month officers received an eleven percent pay raise to be phased in over three years. (Bolanos says the PBA's tactics backfired. Six months earlier the union was offered eleven percent over two years, but Rivera gambled that Echevarria would win the election).

Rivera contends he learned one thing from his experience with Martinez: guerrilla politics Hialeah-style. "I've learned from Mr. Martinez. He's a pro, politically."

If Rivera was stalemated in Hialeah, he may be checkmated in South Miami. Some union members in the small city off U.S. 1 accuse the union boss of not tolerating criticism from within. They recently won the right to hold a vote that could remove the PBA.

At the heart of the South Miami controversy is former PBA representative Louis Fosse. A pugnacious ex-New York City cop, Fosse filed several grievances against Chief Rafael Hernandez in 1996. Union members had complained about the chief's favoritism for a few cronies. Rivera, who got along with Hernandez, told Fosse to knock it off. Fosse refused. In early November 1996 the union yanked Fosse's status as PBA representative for South Miami but allowed him to stay in the union.

Left with a vacancy, South Miami's PBA members had to vote for a new representative. They chose Fosse again. Rivera's office, claiming that Fosse was handing out pamphlets from the FOP, the rival union, kicked Fosse out of the union for good on November 26.

"Fosse had a personality conflict with Hernandez that became very evident," Rivera says. "We had to figure out whether Fosse was doing things for the benefit of the members or the benefit of Louis Fosse."

Fosse declined comment.
The dispute heated up even more during the recent election of PBA friend Julio Robaina as South Miami mayor. On election day, South Miami Capt. Dan Salerno, a PBA member, issued Rivera a parking ticket as he campaigned outside the polls for Robaina. Afterward Salerno (who supported Robaina's opponent) was summoned to PBA headquarters and reprimanded by the board of directors, which viewed the ticket as a political act.

Last month at the request of 23 South Miami officers, including Fosse, the state approved a vote on decertification, which could result in the union's demise.

Rivera is unmoved by the brouhahas in South Miami and Hialeah. He is firmly in control of the union, and most members support him. "We have more than twenty departments in the county and trouble in only two or three of them," he says.

The union chief is looking forward to two pet projects: ousting Bolanos and county jail director Donald Manning, who has recently replaced officers with civilians in his department. Corrections officers say that Manning has created a hostile work environment and that morale has plummeted. Manning counters by calling the PBA's attacks on him "unethical."

At the June 3 meeting of the PBA board of directors, Rivera announced a more ambitious political target: Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay. Rivera blames McKay, now a leading gubernatorial candidate, for reducing pension benefits during an eleven-year period beginning in the early 1980s. "I vow and commit to you I will do everything in my power to see if we can't get somebody else in the mansion next election. Hopefully we will not give him a second chance to screw with our pensions," he told the members. "This means we'll have to get out there, get bumper stickers, get signs. Because when we do our thing, you all know how effective we can be."

As the meeting broke up, it was clear that among this bunch no one is going to question Rivera's aggressive political involvement. In most members' eyes, that works. As Metro-Dade Ofcr. K.H. Dooner puts it: "We're getting a lot more benefits. One thing's for sure -- he's one hell of a fighter.

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