Haul of Shame

Waste dumps, illicit lobbying, paid supporters, hidden agendas. Or politics as usual in Miami-Dade County.

Gilbert approached the podium and asked whether Serra had attended a meeting with Cardoso, Echevarria, and Peerless president Kohn.

"Um, please elaborate," Serra requested.

"Sir, did you attend a meeting for approximately three hours on approximately August 25, 1999, on which you negotiated a settlement agreement?" Gilbert asked.

"I cannot answer the question because I haven't spoken to my counselor," Serra replied. "I feel like I am on trial here or something. Aren't we going to talk about the application?" The whiteshirts jeered.

It was now nearly 8:00 p.m. The commission took a break and the rest of those who had come from Hialeah headed for the buses. They were replaced by more greenshirts, many of them workers at the landfill and their family members. When the hearing resumed, some of the greenshirts came forward.

Stephen Helfman, an attorney representing the dump opposition, asked one: "Were you paid anything to be here today? Were you promised anything in exchange for being here today?"

"They don't have to pay me anything," responded Ramon Diaz. "It is a good project. Anyone who was interested in the benefit of the community would have come forward."

On the dais Commissioner Miriam Alonso fidgeted. After the testimony of two more pro-dump supporters, she spoke. "May I say something on the record?" she began. "I have the highest respect for Mr. Steve Helfman, but I deeply resent the question that was posed to the gentleman that was here before. In all the years I have seen zoning, I have never seen the question 'If you are being paid' and I really feel that because this person seems to be poor and Hispanic, maybe he was asked that question ... and I deeply resent that."

Helfman responded quickly. "That is very personal and absolutely untrue," he said hotly. "I have it on good information from several people during the day that several of these people wearing green shirts have been paid to be here. So I think it is only fair to ask at least one of them."

Shortly afterward Helfman continued: "Your lawyers have raised so many issues I don't know whether they will ever see a park," he exclaimed. "Forget about the park."

Helfman then made an impassioned plea for the commissioners to look at the money at stake, the real reason behind all the lobbyists and their presentations.

When Dasher attorney Robert Gilbert took to the podium, he continued in the same vein. He pointed out that in the financial disclosure, those involved with former dump owner Dade Recycling Center had not disclosed their interest despite having a written agreement whereby the company would receive "a substantial financial windfall" if the zoning were changed.

Lawyers for Peerless argue that Dade Recycling has no equitable interest in the landfill so technically they don't have to disclose the sales agreement.

But Gilbert wasn't done. He also alleged undisclosed lobbying. "[Cardoso and Echevarria] represent the interests of Peerless Dade," related Gilbert. "These two gentleman met with senior members of the county staff in connection with this application. Your file of lobbyists bears no indication that Mr. Cardoso or Mr. Echevarria have registered as lobbyists."

In September and October, Echevarria and Cardoso met with both the acting director of public works Aristides Rivera and the director of planning and zoning Guillermo Olmedillo. Both men sit on the Developmental Impact Committee. Rivera had lunch with the two in an unnamed Brickell-area restaurant, he testified in a deposition. Echevarria called him up, Rivera recalled, "to get acquainted with the DIC process."

According to Olmedillo's deposition, Echevarria and Cardoso met with him for fifteen to twenty minutes in his office. Anyone who enters the eleventh floor to get to the director's office will see a black sign reminding lobbyists they are required to register with the Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners. Olmedillo says he didn't ask the men whether they were lobbyists or even what role they had in the Peerless deal.

Olmedillo also said in the past three months he had met with Echevarria on another zoning issue. According to the county clerk's office, neither Echevarria nor Cardoso is a registered lobbyist for Peerless or any other company. According to Robert Meyers, executive director of the County Commission on Ethics, the two men's actions would be illegal if it could be proved they worked as lobbyists, and that they were trying to convince staff to work in favor of the dump proposal. "It is a fine line, no question about it," says Meyers.

Back in the commission chambers, at about 9:30 p.m. the residents in white T-shirts began emotional testimony. When told to keep to two minutes, infuriated activists rebuked commissioners for trying to hurry them along. After more than an hour, a weary Cardenas approached the podium one last time. He expressed regret that his client had ever pursued an agreement with the NDC and a lawsuit against Dasher. (Lawyers for Peerless say they are seeking a settlement.)

After the testimony Miriam Alonso again spoke.

She complained that antidump activists who assumed she was supporting the zoning increase had distributed her home phone number and that her husband, recovering from multiple bypass heart surgery, was forced to listen to slurs and angry commentary from constituents. "It has been ugly because of lies and accusations and offenses, and even threats of recall have been sent back and forth," she complained. "I want to put on the record that I will judge this application on the merits, on the facts presented today."

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