If the Suits Fit

The mayor of Hialeah Gardens has a taste for vulgarity, revenge -- and for costing the city big bucks in legal fees

Kidwell told Oliveros about them, and went to the mayor's office for a private screening. What they watched was footage showing Kidwell going to and from her Broward home, talking to her neighbors, and walking her dog.

The mayor's take on this? "She turned to me," Kidwell recalls, "and said, 'You know, I used to be very jealous of you because you were single and did all these exciting things, but you're very boring.'" The mayor denies ordering the surveillance.

Kidwell, while she remained at the rank of officer, did get new duties as the city's emergency management coordinator in 1996. She also began writing grant applications for the city, many of which were accepted. In 1997 the EEOC finally issued her right-to-sue letter. Kidwell retained William Amlong, a Fort Lauderdale employment attorney, and proceeded to sue.

Aww, yeah: Police Chief Joy receives the adulation of Mayor Oliveros (standing) along with councilwomen Lucy Valdes (left) and Fatima Morejon in an outtake from the photo shoot for the city's holiday-greeting-card (following page)
Aww, yeah: Police Chief Joy receives the adulation of Mayor Oliveros (standing) along with councilwomen Lucy Valdes (left) and Fatima Morejon in an outtake from the photo shoot for the city's holiday-greeting-card (following page)

Her lawsuit was eventually combined with that of Cathy Thurman, who had been a lieutenant under Sime but resigned owing to pressure in 1994 (before Oliveros's re-election); she, too, was suing because of gender-based discrimination and harassment. Kidwell held on longer, but in March 1998, Chief Joy booted Kidwell out of her nine-by-twelve foot office in city hall into a five-by-five foot office in a satellite station. She left under the Family and Medical Leave Act for three months of unpaid leave. And once again the city started videotaping her at her home. Kidwell says the city provided her attorney with more surveillance tapes of her (at least one dated after her medical absence expired and she was no longer a city employee) during the discovery process for her lawsuit.

"Every time they did something stupid that we could add to our lawsuit [like videotaping her, moving her to a smaller office, failing to promote her for four years], we'd be like, 'How could they continue to be so stupid, and when are they going to get caught?'" she asks incredulously. In February 1999 a jury found in favor of both Kidwell and Thurman, awarding some $110,000 to the pair.

Tony Sanchez, the same cop who allegedly shadowed and taped Kidwell, now is himself suing the city and the police department. Sanchez had risen as high as captain, but after a verbal confrontation with Chief Joy, he was busted to lieutenant, then reassigned, and eventually suspended with pay, confined to his home during working hours. He filed suit in 1997, contending that he was discriminated against because he was Cuban, and that Joy had unlawfully changed his work assignments as retaliation for perceived disloyalty.

Despite the success Kidwell, Scrima, and others have had in court and in settlement negotiations with the city, neither Oliveros nor Joy seem to have learned anything from their numerous spankings.

Harriet Lewis, who has represented the city, Oliveros, and Joy in many of these suits, notes the earlier wave of lawsuits emerged immediately after a change in administration, and that Oliveros's "progressive" approach involved restructuring some jobs and cutting others. She points out that, beyond the hefty Scrima, Kidwell, and Thurman verdicts, the city has paid out no more than $5000 to any individual plaintiff. "I agree with you [that it is a lot of cases]," she says, "but in such a small city, the rumors fly, and there's a lot of getting on the bandwagon. I just don't think they all realize where the bandwagon's going."

Another attorney says most of these conflicts could have been resolved before becoming lawsuits. "Part of the problem is that Gilda is stubborn," says José "Pepe" Herrera, a Miami trial lawyer who served as city attorney for Hialeah Gardens from March 1995 to February 1996. "When she gets you in her sights, that's it."

William Amlong, the Fort Lauderdale employment attorney who represented Kidwell and Thurman, echoing three other attorneys contacted for this story who had litigated against the city during Oliveros's tenure, couldn't find any good reason for the city not to have settled the Kidwell and Thurman cases. He chalks it up to Oliveros's irrational obstinacy. "You go into Hialeah Gardens, you're through the looking glass," he says. "And Gilda is the queen: 'Off with their heads!'"

Neil Chonin, a Coral Gables attorney who represented Diane Scrima, concurs. "There's a real abuse of power going on over there," he states. "In my client's case, [Oliveros's behavior] cost the city something like $320,000, not including attorneys' fees."

Testimony from the Sanchez case, which is still pending, touches on an incident that continues to be an embarrassment, both to Joy and the city as a whole. In February 1992 then-Captain Joy drove his pickup through an intersection in Hialeah. A Hialeah cop followed him, eventually into Hialeah Gardens, and pulled him over for speeding. At first Joy would not get out of his car as ordered, the police report states. When he did he became belligerent, allegedly shouting, "You don't know how bad you're fucking up!" The Hialeah cop smelled alcohol and noted that Joy appeared intoxicated, and he asked Joy to submit to a sobriety test. Instead Joy allegedly took a swing at him. The two scuffled, and the Hialeah officer arrested him.

Joy was charged with battery on a police officer, driving under the influence, and resisting arrest. After two years of court proceedings, he eventually pleaded no contest to resisting arrest and was placed on probation for a year; the other charges were dropped. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement placed his certificate on probation, where it remained until March 1999. In 1994, shortly after he entered his plea, then-Chief Glenn Sime fired him. The civilian Joy went to work on Oliveros's election campaign in 1995. After her victory she brought him back as a police officer, and appointed him chief later that year.

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