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
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By Kyle Swenson
This past February 9, when roughly 25,000 reggae fans descended on the Virginia Key Beach Park for the 9th Annual Bob Marley Caribbean Festival, the only visible blights on an otherwise successful day were choked parking lots and lots of rain. But the event ran smoothly, greased as it was by the beneficence of the Miami-Dade County Commission, which had generously provided 43 county police officers for free.
How this came to be puzzled a number of people, considering that the festival's promoters had already made arrangements to hire City of Miami cops as they have for the past eight years. A recent investigation by the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust cleared up the mystery when it charged that County Commissioner Dorrin Rolle had exploited his official position by getting the county to pay an expense that would otherwise have been paid by the James E. Scott Community Association, where Rolle earns $130,000 a year as president and CEO. His actions saved JESCA almost $10,000 in city services, but cost the county more than $20,000, as well as taking 25 on-duty officers off the streets of their own neighborhoods to babysit a reggae concert. (The other eighteen officers were off-duty.)
For weeks leading up to the festival, promoter Sharien Fogle worked with the city's special-events coordinators on traffic plans, security, sanitation, and all the usual issues that come up with any large event. Then, about a month before the February 9 showtime, Miami police off-duty coordinator Lt. Rene Landa got a weird call from the county's special-events people. "They basically told us the county [police] might work this [for free]," Landa recalls. "It kind of shocked me at the time because that doesn't usually happen. This is an event in the city and we always staff those."
The Bob Marley Caribbean Festival, which has been held in Miami throughout its history, asks patrons to donate food or money to a charitable cause. This year, JESCA was to be the recipient of the four dollars or donation of four cans of food per head asked by the promoters. In return, the festival promoters asked JESCA to foot some of the bill for the off-duty city police who were to work the event. Not a bad deal considering that Miami was asking just $9,590 for police services, and JESCA stood to make ten times that amount in cash and food from the 25,000 fans.
According to the ethics commission investigation and the accounts of several county and city bureaucrats involved in the affair, Rolle commission aide Dante Starks orchestrated much of the county's largesse for the benefit of his boss's day job, JESCA, an organization that contracts to provide various social services to the county, several municipalities, and the school district.
Starks is a former county police officer who was fired from the force in 1997 after being investigated in the alleged rape of a South Florida woman the year before. The investigation was later dropped because the woman failed a polygraph test. Starks maintained that he had consensual sex with her while on duty, the official reason he was fired. New Times also documented Starks's questionable career as a county cop, when his own department found that he had verbally and physically harassed five female officers (see "Dante's Inferno," New Times, April 13, 1995). In 1999 Starks was hired by Rolle, where he currently makes $50,000 a year as a commission aide.
It was Starks who prompted the call to Lieutenant Landa and other city officials, expressing the county's interest in the festival. Back at county hall, Starks was telling assistant county manager Sam Williams, who oversees police, fire, and other emergency services at the county, that Rolle wanted the county police to work the event. In at least four separate conversations (according to ethics commission notes), Starks told him that Rolle would be sponsoring a resolution (later sponsored by another commissioner) to get the police service gratis. "He told me the commissioner plans to sponsor a resolution," Williams confirms. "It's kind of a heads up for me, so the department can have the lead time to plan for it and not get caught short."
Starks was also working the back rooms in Miami, trying to get the city to back away gracefully from this lucrative job, to which it had first dibs. According to ethics commission advocate Michael Murawski, Starks met with Miami Mayor Manny Diaz's chief of staff Francois Illias, and told promoter Fogle that Rolle had spoken with Diaz about the matter. Starks also attended city meetings where he claimed that the county had agreed to provide the police service. "I can't comment on that," Starks told New Times. "I'm going to have to refer you to the boss on this one." Rolle also declined to comment on the matter, referring New Times to his attorney, H.T. Smith.
"There were a lot of phone calls back and forth [between city and county]," remembers Lieutenant Landa. "The promoter was telling us all along that she did not want the county because she'd always been happy with us. She wanted to keep the city police working it." (Fogle could not be reached for comment.) Finally the week before the event city and county staff had a meeting, at which Starks unequivocally told the city, "The county's working it." Landa admits that this upset some city cops, who resented the idea of the county taking work away from them. "We didn't appreciate that," he says.