You Are Cordially Invited

So you weren't among those lucky few who dined with the king and queen? Consider it a compliment.

It was one of those perfect Miami nights when the weather respected the pomp and circumstance surrounding a very special event. In this case it was a dinner at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens honoring the king and queen of Spain. The flowers were fresh, the food delectable, the dignitaries gracious. The April 2 affair was heralded as a showcase of Miami's elite, more than 400 of the area's most respected business, civic, and cultural leaders. Yet as Spanish royalty broke bread with the cream of Miami, a nagging question lingered in the fragrant air: Who selected this privileged assemblage of South Florida aristocracy? The short answer: Herman Echevarria, Hialeah power broker and advisor to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. It was he who marshaled the $80,000 in private donations for the affair, and he who largely named those worthy of a coveted seat at the fete.

One of the more curious aspects of the invitation list was the large number of Penelas cronies in attendance, apparently at the expense of truly notable locals. Lobbyists, political hacks, friends, and relatives colonized the 40 tables, yet not one president of a local university or college attended. No Tad Foote or Mitch Maidique or Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin or Eduardo Padron. And where were the cultural icons? New World Symphony artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas? Miami City Ballet artistic director Edward Villella? Florida Philharmonic music director James Judd? Impresaria extraordinaire Judy Drucker? Surely Jon Secada and Gloria and Emilio Estefan aren't the only cultural gems Miami had to offer the royal couple.

And what about the town's titans of commerce: Micky Arison, Phillip Frost, Richard Fain, Armando Codina, Joseph Lacher, Adolfo Henriques, Stephen Muss, Norman Braman? For that matter how about Rabbi Terry Bookman of Temple Beth Am? Not to mention recently retired U.S. Attorney General and hometown girl Janet Reno. Or Sen. Bob Graham. Or even newly arrived Miami International Airport director Angela Gittens. After all, seaport director Charles Towsley and his wife were there.

Instead King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia got an eyeful of virtuous luminaries such as Herman Echevarria (at the head table no less) and three of his relatives; his friend and business partner Manuel Machado; former Hialeah City Councilman Silvio Cardoso (who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in 1988); former Miami City Commissioner and Penelas confidante Manolo Reboso; lobbyist and Penelas fundraiser Chris Korge; and lobbyists and political operatives Jorge Luis Lopez, Dewey Knight, Michael Benages, Al Lorenzo, Bill Perry, Raul Masvidal, Ric Katz, and Seth Gordon, to name a few.

This wasn't the cream of Miami. It was the grease.

Or as Penelas political advisor Ric Katz put it in defending the guest list: "A very warm and friendly crowd of the people we like to be with." Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a long-time political foe of both Penelas and Echevarria, puts it another way: "From what I saw, it was a lot of his buddies, relatives, or friends. It was a place to say, “Look, you owe me for later.'" Echevarria counters that "every key important leader was invited. Some were not able to make it."

While several county commissioners and a smattering of politicians from Miami Beach, Coral Gables, Miami Lakes, and even tiny West Miami attended the gala, Martinez was not invited. Katz gamely argues that the emphasis was on trade between Spain and Miami. Most of the invitees, he says, were the same civic leaders and chamber-of-commerce types who showed up a couple of weeks earlier at the Mayor's Ball benefit for the United Way. "When you have 410 people invited, you know there are 2000 who would have liked to have been there," Katz ventures. "Maybe some were invited and couldn't come. Some people only have one tuxedo, and when you've worn it, that's it."

Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce president William Cullom figures he knew about half the people at the dinner, many of whom indeed have some sort of business or cultural connection to Spain. For weeks before the event, Cullom was receiving calls from people who thought the chamber was helping create the list and wanted to be included. "Everybody kept calling me hinting that I had something to do with it, but we didn't," he says. "Usually we contribute to these kinds of things. This time we weren't asked, and we didn't volunteer."

Cullom did wonder how the guest list was assembled, such lists being the sort of thing he puts together routinely for chamber-sponsored gatherings. "I was trying to figure out how you would decide who to invite to this," he recalls. "I was surprised that there weren't academic people -- presidents of the colleges -- but I don't know what the criteria were."

Discretion and good taste apparently were not among the criteria, at least as they applied to the head table, where Miami Mayor Joe Carollo blithely perched next to his escort for the evening, Isabel "Sissi" Fleitas, a shapely Sábado Gigante model about half his age. Some partygoers found that a little hard to swallow with their wine, considering as how the mayor is in the middle of a divorce and facing a battery charge for a much-publicized fight with his estranged wife. "I think Carollo was tacky as hell showing up with Sissi," complains one guest who sat a few tables away. "I mean, he should have gone with his mother."

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