By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Merrill Crews is the Republican Party candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in District 119, which encompasses a large portion southern Miami-Dade County. His campaign brochure features a picture of him with his wife and children, and a second snapshot of him with the family pet, a black Labrador named Deuce. They are the images of a serene, stable family man.
The brochure also stresses Crews's professional background, including his tenure as the chief executive officer of South Miami Hospital from 1979 to 1991. It lists his current occupation as executive director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami. "I have the business and leadership background to make a difference in the issues that most affect our district," Crews writes in the handout.
His campaign literature could use a little updating.
In August Crews was asked to resign his post at the Humane Society after board members concluded that his two-and-a-half year stint with the organization had been a dismal failure. Hired with the specific goal of raising money to build a new shelter, Crews failed to bring in any significant contributions.
Even more distressing are allegations by Humane Society employees that Crews was both verbally and physically abusive to them. One former employee, Flora Campos, claims he made bigoted and sexist comments. Another former employee, Ernesto de Palacios, alleges Crews assaulted him. And a third former employee, Nancy Fickett, says she was fired by Crews because she complained that animals at the shelter were being abused.
The allegations made by Campos, de Palacios, and Fickett have cost the Humane Society nearly $100,000 in settlements and judgments, according to court records and knowledgeable sources.
Crews's relationship with South Miami Hospital also ended on a sour note. According to various sources, he was forced out in 1991 amid allegations he was having a scandalous affair with a member of the hospital's staff.
Getting people to talk about Merrill Crews -- who is running against incumbent State Rep. John Cosgrove in next month's election -- is extremely difficult. Under the terms of confidentiality agreements he demanded from both South Miami Hospital and the Humane Society, officers of those two organizations are barred from discussing Merrill Crews's job performance or the reasons for his departure. "Unfortunately I am prohibited from talking to you about him," says Betty Amos, president of the Humane Society. "We have a resignation agreement that prevents me from saying anything." A spokeswoman for South Miami Hospital cited the same reason.
Even people who claim to be his friends are leery of talking about him openly for fear of saying something that might incite his quick temper. They describe the 59-year-old Crews as a throwback to Miami's redneck past, and as someone who is uncomfortable with what he perceives to be the takeover of Miami-Dade County by immigrants.
"Crews is from the old school," says a person who has known him for several years. "He doesn't understand the rules when dealing with women. He calls them 'honey' and 'dear' all the time. He makes remarks he shouldn't make about both women and minorities." This person claims to have been present when Crews made sexist and "racially insensitive" jokes. "He thinks nothing of it," says the source. "He's just a good ol' boy."
He survives in his jobs by charming his bosses and intimidating his subordinates. And he is said to have a rare talent for accomplishing both with relative ease. Eventually, though, his conduct catches up to him.
When Crews applied for the job at the Humane Society in 1995, questions about his behavior at South Miami Hospital followed him. According to a source familiar with Humane Society operations, Crews was remarkably candid about the problems he had at the hospital. He told board members he had been separated from his wife and became involved with a woman who worked at the hospital, according to the source. When he decided to get back together with his wife, he claimed the other woman tried to destroy him by accusing him of sexual harassment. Soon their affair became public knowledge and he was forced to resign.
Very little was written about Crews's departure from the hospital. Medical Business, a South Florida bimonthly journal covering the health care industry, wrote in April 1991 that after a monthlong internal investigation into unspecified charges, Crews resigned. An attorney for the hospital told the publication that the investigation centered on what the journal described as "Crews's administration of the hospital."
A source within the hospital industry maintains that members of the hospital's board of directors "were very surprised and disappointed" in Crews's affair with a member of his staff. "The board was concerned that it would blow up in their face and they would end up in court with a sexual harassment complaint," says the source, who added that Crews never seemed to comprehend that his actions were wrong and that he placed both himself and the hospital in a terrible position. "He doesn't quite get it when it comes to issues of ethics and conflict of interest."
Today Crews claims he departed South Miami Hospital simply because he "realized it was time to leave." But he refuses to elaborate. "I'm not going to comment on that," he says. "That deals with my family. Have I made some mistakes? Absolutely."