By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Miriam Alonso, the Miami-Dade County Commissioner whose politics are as shrill as her voice, is under criminal investigation for allegedly misusing campaign contributions collected during her successful 1998 run for re-election. The investigation is being conducted by the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade Police Department. Sources close to the inquiry say investigators are trying to determine what happened to thousands of dollars donated to Alonso's campaign.
Two of the key witnesses against Alonso are José Marrero and his wife Ursula. José Marrero worked as an aide to Alonso between December 1997 and November 1999.
According to Alonso's 1998 campaign finance reports, the commissioner paid Ursula Marrero nearly $8000 over the course of several months, almost all of it for what was described as "campaign work." The two largest payments to Marrero occurred after the September 1, 1998, election.
The reports state that Ursula Marrero was given $2961.65 on September 4, 1998, and $3500 on September 9, 1998. Sources familiar with the investigation claim that when investigators asked Ursula Marrero about the payments, she expressed shock and said that Alonso never paid her. "She says she didn't work for the campaign," relates one source. "She says she has no idea why the report claims she was given all that money." Ursula Marrero, who turned 63 this week, could not be reached for comment.
Alonso's campaign also reported paying more than $850 to José Marrero, who is 63 years old and is currently an aide to Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado. Sources say Marrero explained to investigators that while he did volunteer on the Alonso campaign in 1998, the records relating to his payments are inaccurate. According to the sources, he told investigators he remembered receiving one check for $496.02 to reimburse him for cash he had given to other campaign workers, but he did not recall any other payments.
All of Alonso's 1998 campaign finance reports were signed by her and by her husband, Leonel, who was the campaign's treasurer. It is a first-degree misdemeanor to falsify a campaign report.
In addition authorities are examining allegations that Marrero -- while on the county's payroll -- never actually worked for Alonso as a commission aide. His true role was that of a handyman maintaining rental properties she and her husband owned. Before Alonso hired him as a commission aide, Marrero worked for the county's water and sewer department as a semi-skilled laborer. His résumé also shows that from 1985 until 1996 he owned his own automobile repair shop.
When investigators first met with Marrero several months ago, he was shown videotape of him working on Alonso rental properties during hours he was supposed to be in Alonso's commission office. Sources familiar with Marrero's statements to investigators say he claimed he was simply fulfilling the responsibilities Alonso assigned him.
Marrero was also shown photographs of the "For Rent" signs posted at the rental properties. The phone number marked on the signs was in fact Marrero's county-issued pager, according to sources. Marrero told investigators he helped the Alonsos rent their various properties by showing them to prospective tenants.
Contacted at Regalado's office, José Marrero refused to discuss the investigation, saying he was warned by law-enforcement officials not to speak with the media. (This is not Marrero's first encounter with police. In 1985 he was arrested for allegedly driving while intoxicated and for possession of a controlled substance.)
As the Alonsos' handyman, Marrero sometimes purchased from Century Everglades Lumber & Building Supply (6991 SW Eighth St.) materials needed to maintain and refurbish their rental properties. Investigators suspect some of those items -- toilets in particular -- were paid for with money from Miriam Alonso's political campaign fund. "He picked up the toilets and signed the invoices," says a source knowledgeable about the investigation.
Alonso's 1998 campaign reports reveal two large payments to Century Everglades Lumber totaling $7064. Both were made September 29, 1998, nearly four weeks after the election. The reports claimed the expenditures were for "supplies."
Century Everglades Lumber is owned by Century Partners Group, a publicly traded company founded by Sergio Pino, a major campaign contributor to Alonso's 1998 campaign. Two weeks ago Pino acknowledged that Alonso has maintained an account at Everglades but said he was unaware of any investigation. "We have nothing to hide," he asserted. "You can look at anything you want."
New Times asked to inspect the invoices for Alonso's 1998 purchases. A week after offering the documents, the comptroller for Century Everglades Lumber, Luis Mendoza, said he was unable to locate them, adding that he was not sure if they had been lost, misfiled, or deliberately removed.
Neither Miriam Alonso nor her long-time chief of staff Elba Morales returned phone calls seeking comment on the investigation.
Miriam Alonso's 1998 campaign was a fundraising tour de force. She set records that year, collecting $535,000, more money than any commission candidate ever raised in South Florida. Alonso did it with the help of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and a legion of county lobbyists who lined up to hand her checks on behalf of clients who regularly do business with the county. In the past county commissioners would typically raise and spend less than half that amount.
The 1998 campaign marked another milestone for Alonso. Her lopsided victory established her as a force on the county commission after years of being considered little more than a political joke. Under the commission's new committee system, she was recently appointed by Penelas as chairwoman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where she oversees and influences all county spending. Flush with confidence, she has made no secret of her desire to run for county mayor in 2004.