Tales from the Big House

De Cardenas's attorneys made one final appeal in court. They argued before U.S. District Court Judge Shelby Highsmith that the medical care de Cardenas was receiving at Krome was inadequate. In late January de Cardenas suffered an attack of Bell's palsy, which paralyzed the right half of his face. He also continued to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and circulatory problems.

During a hearing this past March 9, Highsmith described de Cardenas's continued detention as "patently absurd," and ordered INS officials either to find a proper medical facility to house de Cardenas or he would order him released. The next day the INS allowed the 53-year-old de Cardenas to go home.

More than 100 people stopped by his rented house in Coral Gables to wish him well his first day home. "I haven't paid for a meal in the last week," de Cardenas says with a smile. "Every time I go to a restaurant, somebody from another table asks for the check." He's been offered jobs and money. De Cardenas says he is stunned by the support: "I was talking to Jose Cancela about it and he said that if I had come back on December 12 like I was supposed to, I would have been just another prisoner who came back home. But what happened with immigration people feel is not fair and have rallied to my side."

As a man who cheated the city, paid kickbacks, then refused to cooperate when caught, de Cardenas deserved to be punished. He was forced to sell his home. He lost his business of 30 years and his reputation in the community. He paid nearly $200,000 in legal fees and spent a year in prison. All of which is fair and just punishment for his crime. For those losses he merits no sympathy. But the notion that he should sit indefinitely in a Louisiana jail, or even in a hospital bed at Krome, is patently ridiculous. It simply doesn't fit the crime and it transformed him into a martyr.

To his credit de Cardenas says he doesn't feel like a martyr. In fact he admits he feels pretty dumb. "I made a mistake," he declares, referring to kickbacks he agreed to pay to the city's crooked finance director, Manohar Surana. "I was very weak. I was into making money." The sad part, he says, is that he didn't even need the business. "I was living in a plastic world," he says. "I wanted more, more, more."

De Cardenas fights the urge to blame Surana for pressuring him into the scheme. But his contempt for Surana, who has yet to serve a day in jail, is evident. "I should have told somebody what was going on, that Mano was pressuring me," he says.

Why didn't he?
"Because I don't believe in that," he replies. "It's not for me. I was just raised that way -- never to turn people in. That's why I went to jail, because I wouldn't cooperate."

In his three decades at the center of South Florida politics, de Cardenas knows plenty about that world. "I've seen a lot of things, not only at Miami City Hall but all over the county," he says cautiously. "But I don't want you to get the impression that everyone is taking money. They're not." It's more subtle, he explains, a system of doing favors for people, of looking out for friends.

De Cardenas will have to find a job (probably in marketing though not involving politics), but he says his life has changed forever. "Peace of mind," he declares, "is more valuable to me than money."

His wife welcomes the change. "I think things happen for a reason," she says. "I think he needed to lose weight. He needed to change his priorities in life. He was a workaholic and business came first, and now he is more oriented toward the family and toward me. And to be honest, I needed that."

De Cardenas says he hasn't talked to Cesar Odio since the former city manager went to prison. Though they have both been released, they are still forbidden from talking to each until their probation ends in three years. "I wish I could talk to him, he's a friend," de Cardenas offers. "I'd like to talk to him about how stupid we were, how very stupid we were."

jim_defede@miaminewtimes.com

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