Say Hello to Your New Commissioner

Miami voters weren't going to let conflicts of interest or a two-bit felony conviction stop them from electing Angel Gonzalez

"Lord, thank you for Angel. Thank you for this family that stood beside him every moment and suffered so much, Lord. The will of God has manifested itself in the face of so many immoral things that have occurred. Let us say blessed is the Lord." Thus spoke Rev. Guillermo Revuelta, an evangelical Presbyterian minister and director of the anti-Castro group Municipalities in Exile. By his side was Angel Gonzalez, who less than an hour earlier had learned that a majority of voters in Allapattah and a swath of Miami north of Little Havana had elected him the new District 1 commissioner for the City of Miami.

"Amen!" shouted many in the flock of about 50 friends and supporters who stood in a circle under a tent at the city-owned Melreese Golf Course just east of Miami International Airport.

"We ask you humbly, Lord, that you bless all of those who are here and help them. And that these years in which they are going to govern might be blessed years so that your glory may manifest itself in the City of Miami through our brother Angel Gonzalez."

"Amen!" the crowd yelled and erupted in cheers and applause.

Gonzalez, who refers to Revuelta as one of his "spiritual guides," lifted his bowed head. A crucifix and American flag were pinned to the lapel of his blue blazer. The intense 57-year-old spoke into the microphone with a raspy voice, worn out from the election battle. "This has been a very, very difficult campaign," he began. "We have suffered enormously, my family as much as myself. I am a Christian man and first and foremost a man of the Lord in all of my things. I have no rancor or hate, but I will never be able to forget the evil damage to my daughters and my wife that this woman has brought upon my family." (Everyone knew he was referring to his defeated opponent, Liliana Ros.) "I will put it into the hands of our Lord, and I know that our Lord Jesus Christ will exact justice for me and will correct all this evil that has been done to my family."

Gonzalez then called on everyone to pray for the salvation of another wicked opponent, radio commentator Alberto Milian, who had the temerity to declare on WWFE-AM (670) that a 1999 felony voter-fraud conviction made him unfit to hold public office. But Gonzalez doubted the Lord Jesus Christ would forgive such a "vile and despicable" man. (Radio station owner Jorge Rodriguez sure didn't; he sold Milian's airtime to Gonzalez during the campaign and then permanently canceled Milian's show.)

His was a triumph for the "decent people" of District 1, Gonzalez continued, and "a victory that sent a resounding “No' to campaigns filled with mud and dirty personal attacks."

What in God's name had Liliana Ros done to warrant eternal damnation? Maybe, like Milian, it was her remarks about Gonzalez's deep involvement in the election fraud that eventually led to the removal of Xavier Suarez as Miami mayor. That sordid affair made headlines nationwide and heaped embarrassment upon Miami. "I know that according to the Miami Herald, he signed an absentee ballot for a guy who lives in Tampa. If you want to run city government, you ought to know that that's illegal," Ros scoffed earlier in the day in the parking lot of Residential Plaza, a high-rise home to scores of low-income senior citizens. The 59-year-old Republican activist, in a smart black pantsuit with white pinstripes, was greeting people as they arrived at the complex to vote.

Though Gonzalez didn't single them out, there were others besides Ros and Milian who felt strongly about his tampering with the democratic process. "The voter-fraud scandal arising out of the 1997 Miami mayoral election was a shameful episode in the city's history," said Joe Centorino, head of the public corruption unit at the State Attorney's Office. "Anyone connected with that episode bears some responsibility for the outcome." Centorino added he was barred from commenting specifically about Gonzalez's case because the new commissioner had secured a court order sealing his file and expunging his record.

"I'm very disappointed that someone who has been tainted by voter fraud has used the system in his favor and been elected to office," sighed Hugh Cochran, a private investigator and political consultant who spent three months leading a comprehensive probe of the 1997 election. "Gonzalez is very well-versed in using the demagoguery required to get votes from Spanish-language radio." (A former FBI special agent, Cochran is president of Campaign Data, Inc., and worked as a pollster for Manny Diaz's successful mayoral bid.)

Ros had other hellish things to utter. For example she had the nerve to question the integrity of the Allapattah Business Development Authority (ABDA), a nonprofit organization whose record of financial mismanagement prompted city and county officials to cut off funding. Angel Gonzalez is ABDA's executive director. "I don't think it operates at all," Ros sniped. "They got a lot of money and don't have anything to show for it. In Cuba we call it a botella. I don't know what you call it in English."

Assistant County Manager Bill Johnson called it "too many loose ends" in a recent Miami Herald article that reported the county nixed a $15 million loan to ABDA. The county's director of the Office of Community Economic Development, Tony Crapp, told the Herald in 1999 that "highly irregular actions" in ABDA's contracting process prompted him to withhold a $489,000 loan for the nonprofit's Ralph Plaza One townhouse project at the corner of NW 38th Street and Seventeenth Avenue. ABDA has now received the money, but the housing project remains uncompleted.

More devil-speak from Ros about Gonzalez: "Remember that gentleman Obregon and the $800,000 Humberto Hernandez got and all of that? These are the same people."

The gentleman is Hector Obregon, who was sentenced to a year and a half in prison in 1999 for bribing Hernandez, who was a city commissioner at the time. (Obregon also received a one-year sentence and a $1000 fine for his role in the voter-fraud case.) ABDA, while Angel Gonzalez was deputy director, contracted with Obregon for the Ralph Plaza One project under a city-administered $1.1 million federal grant. But in January 1999, Miami City Manager Donald Warshaw cut off funding after several workers complained they were not being paid. An investigation of the project by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found "obvious flaws" in ABDA's system for ensuring public monies were properly spent. (ABDA has received about $3.3 million from the City of Miami since 1995.)

Ros also had the gall to suggest that perhaps Gonzalez and his supporters were demonizing her. "These people are making like we're doing a horrible campaign against the wife and the kid, and if you listen to my ad, it's not true!" Ros said, referring to her radio spot in which a male announcer boasts of her endorsements by Jeb Bush, Florida GOP chief Al Cardenas, and other Republican Party leaders. One of Gonzalez's radio ads featured his daughter Elizabeth saying she had been subjected to "terrible comments at school" because of defamatory attacks on her father. (She is an education major at Florida International University.)

Ros was gone by the time Gonzalez pulled his ruby-red Mercury Grand Marquis into the Residential Plaza parking lot late in the afternoon on election day. His entourage included his wife, Maria Elena; Fernando Casanova, a 71-year-old marketing specialist at the Miami-Dade Transit Authority; and Rolando Gaston, a garbage man with the city's solid-waste department. They mingled with poll workers and other supporters, posed for photos, and Gonzalez outlined his priorities: "We are missing a lot of sidewalks. Most of the streets are terrible. We have a lot of illegal dumping. We have many, many areas where lighting is not appropriate on the streets."

He said Warshaw's decision to halt funding of Ralph Plaza was the result of a "political vendetta" by Joe Carollo. "Carollo stopped the project," Gonzalez charged, "because I supported Xavier Suarez back in 1997."

Already smelling victory (he would end up with 4682 votes to Ros's 3664), Gonzalez showed no remorse about his electoral-fraud conviction. "There was no ballot fraud," he proclaimed defiantly. "What we were accused of was witnessing some absentee ballots. I witnessed 87 ballots. Out of the 87, four very old ladies claimed that they could not remember me signing as a witness." Unrepentant, he said he would have pleaded innocent but he didn't have the $20,000 it would have cost to mount a legal defense.

The new commissioner also has vowed to remain executive director of ABDA despite a finding by the Florida Commission on Ethics that to do so would be unethical and could lead to violations of state law. "The bottom line of the opinion was that there would be a prohibitive conflict of interest were he to serve on the city commission and were the city to enter into new contracts with the Allapattah Business Development Authority," explained Philip C. Claypool, the commission's general counsel and deputy executive director. "It appeared that his employment [by ABDA] would be either directly or indirectly compensated as a result of the contracts with the city." Gonzalez can avoid a conflict, Claypool noted, if ABDA does not seek city money while he is commissioner. If it does, Gonzalez could be penalized with fines up to $10,000 and removed from office by the governor.

Among the local officials who dropped by to congratulate Gonzalez on election night were City Manager Carlos Gimenez, the commission's sergeant at arms Pedro Pidermann, Commissioner Joe Sanchez, and outgoing District 1 Commissioner Willy Gort. Also in attendance was Republican state Rep. Manny Prieguez, who had campaigned for Gonzalez. State Rep. Gus Barreiro and Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who had made radio talk-show appearances for him, were there in spirit. After celebrating for a couple of hours, Gonzalez drove over to Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), where he denounced the Democratic and Republican parties for "doing nothing" to support the exile cause of a Castro-free Cuba. "There's no bigger terrorist in the entire world than Fidel Castro," Gonzalez roared. "One day Fidel Castro is going to plant a bomb and blow us all up. And no one does anything." He repeated that he was the victim of the dirtiest campaign he had ever witnessed. "I'm very happy because I defeated my opponent," he crowed. "I defeated a certain group of frustrated people who have never been anything in their lives."

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