That Old Familiar Face

When you hear the name Maurice Ferré, what comes to mind? Something positive? Negative? Anything at all?

Last week Ferré provided this explanation of his business dealings: "I do business with different entities; some are partnerships and some are corporations. All of it is out of Miami and most of it is offshore -- Honduras, Venezuela, and other Latin-American countries and Puerto Rico. My main business now is in Puerto Rico.

"My average income is in the low six figures every year. Most of my income is made from investments I have with two different entities and First Union. And that's how Mercedes and I live every year, off the income of those investments.

"In addition to that, I put deals together. A cement company in Honduras -- I made a handsome profit in stock. Then I did a deal which is actually previous to that, but I didn't get any payment for it until 1999. It's a coal operation, an existing, ongoing coal operation in Venezuela. I put that deal together. And out of that, when I got paid -- and it took a long time to be paid -- I made a very handsome return for my work.

Attorney H.T. Smith says black voters are asking, "What has Ferré done for us lately?"
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney H.T. Smith says black voters are asking, "What has Ferré done for us lately?"
Attorney H.T. Smith says black voters are asking, "What has Ferré done for us lately?"
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney H.T. Smith says black voters are asking, "What has Ferré done for us lately?"

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"Those are the types of things I do. Right now I'm involved in real estate development, tourist and residential involvement in Puerto Rico. But I'm not going to get into the details of that. It's not in Miami and has nothing to do with the mayorship of Miami, so I'm not going to talk about that. If [the Puerto Rican business partners] were to come to Miami, I would disclose that, if they said they were going to do business in Miami.

"I always wanted to be mayor of Dade County and mayor of Miami, and I knew that sooner or later I would be back, so I purposely stayed out of Miami in doing business. It used to be that everything I did in Miami ended up being a conflict of interest.

"Making money is not a difficult thing, so I can just as well do a deal in Honduras or the Dominican Republic or in Trinidad or anywhere. My standards are simple: I don't want to travel more than three hours to do business. I've had offers in Brazil and Argentina, but I won't do them."

Ferré remains insistent that state law does not require him to disclose any details of these foreign business dealings. "I know what the law requires of me and I know what I have to disclose," he asserts. "Those are deals out of the country. They are private."

That's simply incorrect, says Philip C. Claypool, general counsel and deputy executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics. "You have to report that," he stresses. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to say that a deal outside of Florida doesn't have to be reported if it's benefiting someone inside Florida."

Although Claypool says he's unable to judge Ferré's financial-disclosure forms fairly without consulting the candidate's income-tax returns (which the commission uses to determine disclosure accuracy), he does say Ferré has been less than forthcoming about his finances in the past.

While Miami's mayor, Ferré neglected to disclose five "unsatisfied judgments" between 1979 and 1982, Claypool reports. In 1984 the Commission on Ethics recommended that Ferré be fined $1000 after he admitted withholding the information. In 1993 the commission received two complaints (one from Joe Carollo, notes Claypool) that Ferré had not disclosed several outstanding debts related to Maule Industries, a business owned by his father that went bankrupt in 1976. Ferré acknowledged the infraction and was hit with another $1000 fine. The commission, according to Claypool, "also recommended public censure and reprimand, which means the governor would say in his executive order that Ferré had violated that part of the state statute."

There are three penalties for willfully withholding information from state-mandated financial-disclosure forms: disqualification, censure, or a fine not exceeding $10,000. "Disqualification is rare," Claypool says. "That's happened once in the commission's history."

Controversy over Ferré's financial affairs hasn't been limited to disclosure forms. During his mayoral battle in 1985, a court ordered him to pay $70,000 in fines for accepting illegal campaign contributions four years earlier. (Ferré managed to avoid paying that fine until June 1996, when he was running for county mayor.) In 1989 another court found that he tried to hide $1.4 million in consulting fees by transferring them to his wife. Mercedes was ordered to pay that amount plus attorneys' fees to City National Bank of Florida, a Maule Industries creditor.

Marie Petit, Ferré's political advisor and a close friend for many years, blames the media for exaggerating the candidate's financial quagmires: "The press [in the Eighties] didn't see that right before their eyes Maurice was changing. [After the collapse of Maule Industries] he had to look for another way to butter his bread. He never really had to do that before." Petit concedes she knows little about Ferré's personal business. "He puts deals together," she replies, unable to elaborate.

Manny Alfonso, Ferré's 33-year-old campaign manager, doesn't know much more. "He's a businessman," Alfonso says. "I don't know what that entails. He works with a lot of people in Puerto Rico, I think."

Even Ferré's wife claims she doesn't know details of her husband's business arrangements. Veteran political consultant Ric Katz has known Ferré for almost two decades but he too is unsure how the politician makes a living. Katz, though, believes voters won't be thinking about such things come this fall. Like many others, he speaks dreamily of Ferré's long-ago administration. "Our city is ready for uplifting," he muses. "The next mayor needs to excite people's imagination. They're tired of this city living on the edge of bankruptcy. We want something special that's not about getting by, but getting ahead. And I have to say that Maurice has a reputation for focusing on great ideas."

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