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
Mayco Villafaña is a decent man who has been communications director for Miami-Dade County for the past two and a half years. "Mayco always personified integrity and honesty when he worked for me," says former County Manager Merrett Stierheim, who also worked with Villafaña for years at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. "He was a professional committed to doing what was in the best interests of the county."
Last week the man who now occupies Stierheim's office, 34-year-old Steve Shiver, abruptly ordered that Villafaña be fired. The manner in which Shiver had his order carried out was disgraceful enough to suggest that its real purpose was to send a message to all county employees: The new manager will ruthlessly fire anyone he perceives to be a threat.
At 8:00 a.m. last Thursday, March 29, Villafaña met with Shiver's new executive assistant, Tom David. The meeting, held in Villafaña's office, lasted no more than five minutes. David quickly got to the point: Villafaña had until 2:00 p.m. to resign, or he would be fired. When Villafaña asked for a reason, David would only say the manager wanted to go "in a different direction."
Within minutes the stunned Villafaña was astonished a second time. A county employee from the Information Technology Department marched into his office and confiscated his computer. Humiliated, he had no choice but to write his resignation letter at his assistant's desk. "The manager has the right to assemble his own team of people. I have no problem with that," Villafaña tells me. "I do have an issue with the way this was done. They seized my computer like I was a criminal. I didn't deserve that. If they told me they wanted someone else in the position, I would have submitted my letter of resignation and we could have worked out a smooth transition." Villafaña pauses, then concludes, "This was all very distasteful."
Stierheim agrees. The manner in which Villafaña was terminated, he says, is "very disappointing; it leaves me cold."
Word of Villafaña's firing quickly spread throughout county hall, further eroding confidence in Shiver's ability to do his job. "I've been receiving calls from department heads and other county officials who are very upset with the way this was handled," Villafaña reports. "You don't treat anybody in that fashion, but you certainly don't treat your professional staff like this."
Shiver defends his decision to fire Villafaña and claims it was prompted by "philosophical differences." He wants someone who will be more "proactive." It's fruitless, however, to ask the manager what he means by proactive. "I'm not going to go into details about that," he sniffs.
Villafaña believes he knows why he was fired. "They think I was leaking information to you and other members of the press," he says. "They think I was giving you too much information about Chris Hebert."
Chris Hebert is the county manager's buddy. They've been friends since high school. The first thing Shiver did in his new position was to hire his pal, who has no experience working in county government -- or even municipal government. But that was no impediment to Shiver placing him on the county payroll at a salary of $67,000 per year with an executive-benefit package worth an additional $14,300.
Shiver and Hebert met while attending South Dade High School in Homestead. Shiver was dating the captain of the cheerleading squad, and Hebert was dating the co-captain. Besides sharing with Shiver an affinity for girls with pompoms, Hebert seems to have only one other qualification for a job in the manager's office: For the past five years he's worked as the appraisal department manager for Shiver's real estate company.
In addition to the hefty new salary and benefits package, Shiver gave 35-year-old Hebert the title "public affairs administrator," a newly minted county position with no job description and no known minimum qualifications. "No one understood what that title meant," recalls Villafaña. "We were only told he reported directly to the county manager."
About two weeks ago, along with reporters from the Sun-Sentinel (and eventually the Miami Herald),I began asking questions about Hebert's hiring. Until that point, Villafaña says, he'd seen Hebert only a couple of times and didn't know much about him. "Once we started getting all these calls from the press about Hebert, I realized there might be a problem and that I needed to find out what was going on," he recounts.
So Villafaña spoke with staffers in the county's employee-relations office and learned the manager had not followed regulations in hiring Hebert. As manager, Shiver has the authority to hire individuals who answer directly to him, but he still must adhere to certain guidelines. For example there must be a job description for the position that outlines responsibilities and qualifications. Job candidates' professional experience must meet the minimum qualifications. In addition prospective employees must submit to a police background check and undergo a physical exam, which includes a drug test. Says Villafaña: "I was told by employee relations that those things were not done."
Then Villafaña began fielding questions about Hebert's past. Reporters wanted to know if the county was aware Hebert had a criminal record.
In 1990 Hebert was arrested for grand theft and eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. In 1992 a bench warrant was issued for his arrest after he failed to abide by the terms of his probation. Also in the early Nineties, he wrote a string of bad checks that led to more than a half-dozen misdemeanor cases being filed against him. And since 1998 Hebert has been driving with a suspended license after failing to pay three speeding tickets. (Given the suspension of his driving privileges, the fact that Hebert's compensation package includes a $5200 car allowance qualifies as ironic. Furthermore no one in the county personnel department seems to have noticed that when Hebert filled out his employment forms, he presented a driver license that had expired January 4, 2001.)
On top of all this, a computer database routinely used by journalists conducting background checks on individuals produced a report that claimed Hebert had been arrested in 1990 for cocaine possession. The information provided by this database is not always accurate, and so last week Villafaña found himself responding to reporters' requests for verification.
As the queries about Hebert continued unabated, Villafaña regularly met with Shiver and Tom David, the manager's executive assistant, to brief them on the reporters' questions. "I recommended that we needed more concrete information as to what the real charges were," he relates, "and that the police needed to be brought in to do a thorough background check."
According to Villafaña, the manager agreed. Carlos Alvarez, director of the Miami-Dade County Police Department, was ordered to conduct a background check. Alvarez was taken aback that such a routine procedure hadn't been completed before Hebert was hired.
Eventually the police department determined that Hebert had never been arrested for cocaine possession. The database was incorrect. But as Shiver and David waited for Alvarez's report, Villafaña continued updating them on the media's interest in this story -- particularly mine.
Two weeks ago I wrote an article about Shiver, documenting how he had lied to the county commission on a sensitive issue relating to the future development of Homestead Air Force Base. That effort to mislead the commission underscored for many people the belief that Shiver is neither qualified for nor capable of being county manager.
Since that article appeared, Shiver has obsessively attempted to counter it. He regularly brings up the subject in conversation and, like a desperate Captain Queeg, promises that Homestead Mayor Roscoe Warren and Vice Mayor Nick Sincore (whom I quoted to prove Shiver lied) are writing letters to New Times repudiating my account.
New Times is still waiting for those letters.
"The story you wrote about the manager was like a neutron bomb in this building," says Villafaña. "Everyone was stunned by it. It was very demoralizing."
When I began asking questions about Hebert, Villafaña reports, the manager wanted to know what could be done, not just regarding me but other members of the press as well. "They kept asking me how we could control and manage the media," he says. "I told them, you don't manage the media. We're dealing with public information."
Villafaña recalls that during one meeting last week, David made it clear he and Shiver were willing to mislead the public regarding Hebert. In trying to explain why Hebert had been hired for a position that didn't even have a job description, David suggested shifting Hebert from the nonexistent role of "public affairs administrator" to the already established position of junior assistant county manager. If the press asked, David and Shiver would say it had always been anticipated that Hebert would fill a junior manager position, and that Hebert was waiting for David to begin work before assuming that title. "That's how we are going to spin it," David declared, according to Villafaña. (David denies Villafaña's version of events and says he never talked about trying to "spin" the facts. "I don't use words like that," asserts David, who last fall ran for the state House of Representatives against Cindy Lerner and lost.)
When I told Shiver I had spoken to several senior officials in county government who were upset with the way Villafaña had been fired, and that they thought it demonstrated a lack of class on his part, the manager grew testy. "Well, I hope you print their names," he spit.
As if more evidence were necessary, it's now abundantly clear that Shiver realizes he will never earn the loyalty and respect of the men and women working within the county, so he will compel their allegiance through fear and intimidation. And for the record, my interest in Hebert was not sparked by Villafaña, nor did Villafaña "leak" any information to me. As one county insider said of Shiver: "There is a certain amount of paranoia setting in here."
It's also clear that Shiver has adopted an alarming set of professional standards. In his universe a dedicated and competent public servant like Mayco Villafaña deserves to be fired, while a man like Chris Hebert, with no credentials and a questionable past, is worthy of the public's trust.
At the least Chris Hebert is worthy of scrutiny, beginning with his confession arising from the 1990 theft charges. He was 24 years old at the time, attending college in Tallahassee and working as a waiter at a restaurant called Rooster's. According to court records, the owner, Walter Sidney Rayborn, caught Hebert and another waiter skimming money from the restaurant by "knowingly falsifying credit-card submissions from patrons in order to pocket the money." The estimated amount of money Hebert allegedly pilfered ranged from $700 to nearly $3000.
Rayborn told Hebert that if he confessed, he wouldn't be prosecuted. So Hebert proceeded to pen a seven-page confession in which he unabashedly tried to implicate just about every other employee in the restaurant. "Mr. Rayborn, I don't understand why you don't like me and you do like Derek," Hebert wrote, referring to the other person caught stealing from the restaurant. "It kinda hurts my feelings and makes me feel like I'm being ridiculed more than anyone else. What has happened has put a tremendous strain on me and made me feel very bad."
Hebert went on to rat out eight other waiters who supposedly also were stealing from Rayborn. He then identified bartenders who drank while on duty and members of the kitchen staff who took food. "Many friends of the cooks have received French dips, chicken tenders, etc.," Hebert asserted. "This is a fact because I have seen it done."
Hebert summed up the affair with a flourish of indignation. "The last thing I would like to say Mr. Rayborn is, even though my actions where [sic] in very poor taste and disrespectful to you, many, including your own peers, say that you are disrespectful to them," he stated. "I myself do not deserve respect for my actions and I took that on my own shoulders. But many of your employees, not counting us, steal for the simple reason that morale in your restaurant/bar is very low. This is because there are no rewards for good work other than money. People need more to work hard. How many times has Gary or yourself patted someone on the back and said good work son. I have been there almost two years and never seen it happen.
"Mr. Rayborn, what happened to me has made me stand back and realize I have many faults, most people do. Thank you for being understanding."
Not surprisingly Rayborn took Hebert's confession, turned it over to police, and had him arrested. The charges were reduced to petit theft. He was given six months probation and ordered to pay $2000 in restitution.
Today Hebert says he never stole any money from Rayborn, that all he did was give away six steak dinners to his fraternity brothers. "It was a mishap that happened at a fairly young age," Hebert says. "Mr. Rayborn and I are now friends. I'm friends with his son and his family."
So why did Hebert write a confession describing how he bilked the restaurant by falsifying credit-card receipts? "Mr. Rayborn made me write something that would incriminate me more than I would be incriminated because he wanted to hold something over me," Hebert claims. "If you ask him, I'm sure he'll tell you that." Rayborn, who still lives in Tallahassee, says he likes Hebert and bears him no ill will. But when pressed for details about the events leading up to Hebert's arrest, he declines comment.
In 1992 a warrant was issued for Hebert's arrest after he failed to comply with the terms of his probation. He was picked up at his parents' home in Homestead on April 18, 1993. Hebert dismisses it as a simple misunderstanding that wasn't his fault. "I told my probation officer that I was moving, and I was going back home, and I guess the probation officer didn't relay that message to the judge," he offers.
Court records suggest a different story. On June 10, 1993, Hebert's attorney filed a motion to formally terminate his probation. The attorney noted that a warrant had been issued earlier for Hebert's arrest because he had failed to make restitution. "The defendant has, however, since the issuance of the warrant paid all of the money and has completed the community service that was ordered as part of the probation," the attorney wrote. The significant word here seems to be since, implying that Hebert didn't repay the restaurant owner or complete his community service until after the warrant had been issued.
According to records maintained by the Leon County Sheriff's Office, Hebert's legal problems weren't limited to theft from the restaurant. Between 1990 and 1992 he also faced eight separate misdemeanor charges for kiting checks all over Tallahassee. Hebert glosses over the charges as simply more youthful indiscretion. "I passed a couple of bad checks to Domino's," he shrugs.
After returning to South Florida, Hebert says, he ran into high school buddy Steve Shiver at a Home Depot shortly after Hurricane Andrew. Hebert was working construction at the time, but Shiver encouraged him to get a real estate appraiser's license. Hebert did so and then joined the firm for which Shiver worked. In 1995 Shiver decided to start his own appraisal firm. "We worked out of Steve's bedroom for about a year getting that company going," Hebert recalls.
When Shiver was appointed county manager, he immediately tapped Hebert to come along with him. "I have strong confidence in his abilities," Shiver says. "I know that when I ask him to do something, it gets done."
I first encountered Hebert about a month ago, when Shiver and I met for lunch. Hebert had driven him to the restaurant. Now, of course, it's somewhat amusing to know that the Miami-Dade County Manager was being chauffeured by a man who didn't have a valid driver license. State motor-vehicle records show Hebert's license was suspended on October 26, 1998. During an interview this past Friday, March 30, he offered this explanation: "I had a speeding ticket in Broward County that I thought my wife had paid. She didn't. It was a clerical error on her part."
I reminded Hebert that it wasn't just one ticket in Broward that had gone unpaid but rather two speeding tickets in Broward in 1999 and another in Monroe County in 1998.
"Exactly," he replied. "That has been rectified and taken care of."
"So you're saying you thought your wife had taken care of all three tickets over the years?"
Hebert's responsibilities at the county remain vague. He says he's been busy working on a variety of projects. "Pretty much a little bit of everything," he told me this past Friday. "United Way stuff. Ericcson [tennis tournament] stuff. Ahh, what else? There is a lot of paperwork I've been doing, too. Reading paperwork, routing the mail, taking tours with Mr. Shiver to get a general knowledge of how the county works. I just found out I am going to be a junior assistant for Tom David."
Hebert insists he did undergo a physical exam and drug test before beginning his new job. He says he was shocked to learn last week that reporters were pursuing false allegations he may have been arrested in the past for cocaine possession. "I've never done any drugs," he affirmed. "I've never used cocaine or marijuana. I'm a country boy from Homestead. I like Jack Daniels and NASCAR."
While the media have been raising questions about Hebert's required physical exam and drug test, his boss, the county manager, has gone eight weeks since his appointment without fulfilling the same county employment requirement. This past Sunday Shiver told me he was forced to cancel the procedures because of scheduling conflicts. Initially he made it seem as though the physical exam had been planned for the same day as a funeral for a veteran police officer, but he later admitted the funeral had taken place a day or two earlier. "Everything just got bumped around," he said.
Though I realized there was no artful way to approach the subject, I still felt compelled to ask Shiver if he had used any illegal drugs in the past few years. "I'm not going to go into that," he answered. "We've got too much work at hand." He did acknowledge it was a relevant issue, and that as manager he should be held to the highest standard of conduct. But he refused to respond to any questions about possible drug use in his recent past. "I'm not going to go there," he snapped.