Creative Nepotism

How did Miami commission candidates spend their excess campaign funds? On family and friends, of course.

The state of the Magic City's finances is downright dismal. Administrators are so desperate for cash that they are trying to lease open land to developers. Mayor Joe Carollo is shaking down people who park in the urban core with a twenty percent tax on private lots. And the municipality's bond rating is so bad that citizens might as well learn to live with wrecked roads and dilapidated parks.

So maybe office seekers should consider depositing every spare penny in the corruption-plagued city's bank accounts? No sir. Not in Miami. Following last November's election, three candidates had more than $119,602 left in their campaign coffers, according to recently filed campaign documents. By state law commissioners Tomas Regalado, Wilfredo "Willy" Gort, and former commissioner-for-life J.L. Plummer (who was defeated by newcomer Johnny Winton) had but three months to dispose of the cash. So what did they do with the money? They spent it on family, friends, and others for questionable expenses once the camera lights were off and the public stopped paying attention.

Florida law sets out specific ways aspirants can shell out campaign money after election day. They can purchase advertising to thank constituents, pay bills for pre-election services, cover the cost of closing a campaign office, return the funds to contributors, donate it to charity, or, as any patriotic Miamian would do, deposit it in the general fund.

One example of creative postelection spending comes from our neighbors to the north. Back in 1998 Broward County Commissioner Scott Cowan paid his daughters $10,000 for clerical work and long-time friend Sam Fields $37,500 for consulting and other expenses. (Read Broward-Palm Beach New Times's October 22, 1998, story, "To the Victor Go the Spoiled Children.") The big-buck campaign seemed especially bizarre because the incumbent was unopposed. And then there was the minor detail that one of his daughters lived in Gainesville. In November 1999 the Florida Division of Elections charged Cowan with 53 violations of campaign law. The case is still pending.

Regalado's ledgers compare favorably to Cowan's. The commissioner and Spanish-language newsman, you will remember, is plagued by personal financial problems and pays the Internal Revenue Service $500 per month to cover past tax problems. He kept more than ten percent of his $45,383 postelection surplus close to home. He paid his wife Raquel $5000 to operate a telephone bank that called voters to solicit support. She also served as his campaign treasurer. In the closing days of November, the election fund also reimbursed her $2462.13 for out-of-pocket expenses, according to Regalado's final campaign finance report, which was submitted to the city clerk's office February 8.

Next time Regalado runs for office, he might want to reconsider choosing Raquel as his money manager. The state elections commission fined him $6450 for consistently missing the deadline for filing finance reports. He couldn't charge his campaign contributors for that peccadillo because state law prohibits the use of campaign funds to pay the penalty. But he did clip his generous supporters to pay for sloppy bookkeeping. A review of the record shows some checks were not dated and others were written out of order. So First Union National Bank demanded $488.82 in penalties, which came from the campaign funds.

The commissioner responds some of the bookkeeping problems occurred because campaign manager Alex Diaz de la Portilla abandoned him during the heat of competition to run for the state senate seat vacated by felon Al Gutman. (Like Regalado, de la Portilla won. New Times has not reviewed his campaign reports.) Raquel took over the campaign from there. Also complicating matters: His mother, Carmen, died at the end of January. In response to questions about money paid to his wife, he said Raquel used the out-of-pocket $2462.13 to buy advertising, and that she earned the $5000 in salary. "She did work and everybody knows it," says Regalado. "To say that I pocketed the money through her would be a very cynical thing to say. It's completely legal and the last penny is accounted for."

Commissioner Gort also shared much of his $27,219 leftover cash with family and friends. He doled out $4000 to former aide Richard Kuper for consulting, and $2500 to his nephew Alex Gort for campaign-related photos. The check to Alex was written to Gort Photo Studio, Inc., which has a storefront on Alcazar Avenue in Coral Gables. Florida records list Wilfredo Gort as the firm's vice president. The records also show Gort Photo was dissolved in 1995 for failing to file an annual report. Although it is not against the law for the company to conduct business without renewing its corporate license, it is foolish, says Ray Revell, a supervisor at Florida's Division of Corporations. "They have lost their corporate cover. If someone sues them, the owners become directly liable, not the company.... They are only hurting themselves."

The commissioner explains that he did not benefit personally from the expenditure. His nephew snapped publicity photos of the candidate at campaign rallies and community events. And the Wilfredo Gort linked with the photo studio is his father, whom he pledged to immediately advise of the oversight. "I worked there until 1980, and then started my own business," says the commission vice chairman. "It's all perfectly legal."

The next big spender was J.L. Plummer, whose postelection account held more than $47,000, the result of an apparent political blunder, since he lost to Winton. Plummer ignored his humiliation at the polls and rewarded friend and campaign manager Julio Rebull, Sr., and family with $31,500, more than half the leftover funds. That included $11,500 to Ana Maria Quintana, Rebull's daughter and a former Plummer aide. (At city hall she earned $2700 per month.) Two calls to Plummer, Quintana, and Rebull were not returned, but a source close to the campaign described Quintana's duties as tracking funds on a ledger and supervising precinct workers on election day. The commissioner also wrote out a $1000.26 check to Cigna Healthcare in Melville, New York, which paid for Quintana's health insurance, the source said.

In addition Plummer paid Linda Eads, the wife of Coral Gables City Manager Jack Eads, $970.96 for hosting a thank-you dinner. And, as reimbursement for auto expenses, the former commissioner took home $1329.54.

Paying family members to work on a campaign is not forbidden, says Division of Elections senior attorney Bucky Mitchell. "Although it sounds somewhat suspect, it is legal," he comments. And paying for campaign workers' health insurance? "That one is somewhat unusual, but if the insurance was compensation for work performed on a campaign, then it is allowed," the lawyer says. "Violations would depend on the facts and circumstances of the individual expenditures.... If someone wants to file a complaint, they would do it with the Florida Elections Commission in Tallahassee."

Gort challenger Liliana Ros took a more altruistic way out of her campaign. She returned $2030 to contributors. "People give you money for your campaign, your election," she says. "That's where you should spend it."

jose.jimenez@miaminewtimes.com

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