By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
Offered a woman from Hialeah: "The way it was explained to me is that we are for a park called Miami Lakes and they are against it."
In fact this is a story about much more than a park; it's about lucrative landfills and the companies that run them; it's about the politicians and the lobbyists and the money behind the deals; and it's about the cynical manipulation of the system and of those elderly immigrants who traditionally have been the backbone of Miami-Dade's political machines. During the course of this day's hearing, specific allegations emerged about illegal lobbying, a co-opted community group, hidden financial interests, paid "supporters," and a proposed 368-acre park that opponents allege is an impromptu façade meant to greenwash a toxic-waste dump.
It was Peerless Dade itself that pulled the curtain partially open on this tawdry tale when the company filed a lawsuit in early September against one of the dump's principal opponents, Carl Dasher, in an effort to muzzle him. In depositions taken by Dasher's lawyer, unpleasant facts broke out like a rash that would not go away.
What exactly is Peerless Dade? And who is behind it? The answers are muddy at best.
According to a deposition taken from Peerless Dade president Kevin Kohn on September 28, the company belongs to a Jacksonville-based entity called Peerless Group, Inc. The firm operates under the name Peerless Waste Industries. According to state records, Peerless Waste Industries also goes by the name Eastern of Georgia, Inc., of which Kohn is also listed as president. Oddly enough Eastern of Georgia, Inc.'s address is 1001 Fannin, suite 4000, Houston, Texas. It is the same corporate address down to the suite number used by Peerless's major Miami competitor, Waste Management, Inc. Eastern of Georgia, it turns out, is a subsidiary of Waste Management.
Kohn insists the Peerless Group has no connection to Waste Management. He claims Eastern of Georgia was purchased by another company, which promised to dissolve the name but never did. "Given the confusion we should probably call Waste Management and ask them to dissolve that corporation," he says.
In 1998 Peerless Dade bought the Northwest Miami-Dade landfill from a company called Dade Recycling Center. In state documents the company's address is care of a firm called United Development & Management. According to Kohn's deposition, an employee with United Development and Management is ex-Hialeah councilman Silvio Cardoso.
The former politician had been a star running back for the University of Miami, but as a public official Cardoso had not fared as well. After serving on the council for eight years, he opted not to run for re-election after an investigation revealed he had interfered with an FBI probe into illegal kickbacks. Cardoso earned a reduced sentence by testifying against Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. Sentenced to 4 years of probation, 1000 hours of community service, and a $25,000 fine, Cardoso left public life and became a successful developer. (Repeated calls to Cardoso's Key Biscayne residence for comment were not answered.)
As part of the landfill sale agreement, Cardoso would receive a piece of future profits if he could get the zoning changed to allow the dump to expand, Kohn explained in his deposition.
Cardoso did not operate alone in this effort. He received help from Herman Echevarria, depositions revealed. Echevarria is a close advisor to Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and Commissioner Miriam Alonso, in whose district the landfill falls. As a Hialeah City Council president, Echevarria was a protégé of Raul Martinez until he unsuccessfully ran against the mayor in 1997. Now Echevarria is a pivotal player in an ongoing political war that pits Penelas and his supporters against Martinez.
Both Cardoso and Echevarria met with county officials to discuss the Peerless effort leading up to the commission hearing. Neither man is registered as a lobbyist with Miami-Dade County. At least one of the people wearing the green shirts believed it was Echevarria who was ultimately responsible for busing the seniors in from Hialeah to support the dump. (Echevarria declined to respond to over a half-dozen phone calls and a list of faxed questions for this story.)
It is unclear exactly what financial incentive Echevarria had in promoting the expanded dump. But in an article in the Miami Herald that appeared on October 22, the day after the commission meeting, Echevarria acknowledged he had a monetary interest in the Peerless deal.
Some residents who live near the landfill think Commissioner Alonso gave backroom support to the deal as well. A year earlier she had been a sponsor of a private bond-financing initiative to raise construction money for the Peerless landfill. Some of her angrier constituents even started a petition to demand her removal from office.
By 1:00 p.m., five hours after the bus riders had arrived downtown, the public hearing on the landfill had still not begun. The greenshirts were growing restless. Some had already eaten the prepared lunches given to them on the buses. One woman joked she felt like a child being taken to school. Lunch consisted of an identical box containing a ham-and-cheese sandwich, potato chips, juice, a cookie, and an apple. Some of the sandwiches didn't even have ham, a few groused. To kill time one woman scribbled on the side of a newspaper the name of a street where they were supposed to live, near the dump. She passed it to other greenshirts so they wouldn't have to say "Hialeah" in the unlikely event they were asked where they resided.