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
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.
It didn't make the county police too happy, either, to get pulled off regular duty in their own neighborhoods and piss off fellow cops to boot. "We feel like schmucks going in there, doing that to the city guys," complains a county officer who asked not to be identified. Of the 43 county officers who worked the festival, 25 were pulled from on-duty posts in three districts -- Kendall, Doral, and Cutler Ridge -- which could have left those districts short-handed in an emergency.
This is the dirty little secret of the county commission's common practice of giving away free police time to special events. When it can, the county police department will use on-duty cops because it costs much less to pay them their regular wage than to pay off-duty overtime rates. It is one reason Commissioner Katy Sorenson votes against most of the resolutions, which have cost county taxpayers $1,862,003.24 in the past four fiscal years, plus $484,326.75 so far this year. "These are all unbudgeted monies," Sorenson explains. "Every time we waive these fees, it's something [unplanned] that comes out of the police budget, and that's not very fiscally sound."
Some of the expenses are for legitimate nonprofit events such as the recent March of Dimes Walk America, or for county events like the mayor's State of the County address. But other events, such as private, for-profit festivals like the Strawberry Festival, Expo Nica, or the Volvo Ocean Race, raise the question -- who is benefiting from the county's largesse, the public or a small number of promoters and vendors with friends at county hall? Or in the case of the Bob Marley festival, a county commissioner's business. "Some of these [nonprofit events] are appropriate expenditures," Sorenson allows. "But it's gotten to the point where almost every agenda has an item for free police service. I'm seriously thinking about doing a resolution prohibiting in-kind [nonmonetary] services for for-profit events." Sorenson says she's also asked the county's budget department to spell out the cost of these giveaways in next year's budget.
Another ugly little aspect of Rolle's rent-a-cop enterprise is the combination of arrogance and sneakiness with which it was accomplished. The arrogance came in abusing the public trust to use the county's police budget as a personal piggy bank for his private business. The sneakiness -- a nice attempt to distance himself from the matter -- was getting Commissioner Bruno Barreiro to sponsor the resolution (weeks after the festival) to give away, ultimately, $20,750.97 in county police services to a private, for-profit event that hadn't even asked for the favor. Why Barreiro chose to carry the water for Rolle isn't clear. Barreiro didn't return several phone messages left at his office.
Rolle's attorney H.T. Smith said neither he nor Rolle could comment because the ethics commission process hasn't finished. Although Rolle signed an agreement in April that the commission had probable cause to lodge an ethics complaint against him for his role in procuring police service for the Bob Marley festival, the settlement between the two parties hasn't been finalized. Smith instead took umbrage with New Times for "trying to embarrass a black commissioner." "I've got something to say, and you can quote me," Smith rails. "When is New Times going to hire black reporters? You're always reporting on black people and acting so high and mighty."
The ethics commission was expected to discuss Rolle's penalty at its Wednesday, May 22, meeting. Rolle is also facing three other ethics charges: for using his commission stationery to ask County Mayor Alex Penelas to add $275,000 for JESCA into his budget, for lobbying county staff during county meetings to avoid a $200,000 cut to JESCA, and for not recusing himself from a vote involving funds for JESCA and other community organizations. The maximum penalty for all four counts would be a $1750 fine and a public reprimand, a relative slap on the wrist in this town.
That may not be the end of the matter, however, as ethics advocate Murawski reveals that he has turned over his files to the public corruption unit of the State Attorney's Office. "They called and asked for it and I've met with them, but I don't know what they will do with it," he says.
Meanwhile, the State Attorney's Office, which is already up to its eyeballs in the case against former County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, is also looking into possible fraud that may have been committed by Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. WPLG-TV (Channel 10) reporter Jilda Unruh reported in February that Carey-Shuler, who works part-time for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was not actually working the hours she had claimed on her time sheets. Unruh and a camera crew surreptitiously followed Carey-Shuler for two weeks, documenting her activities, which didn't appear to have anything to do with her job in the school district's alternative-education division.
The State Attorney's Office declined to comment on whether criminal charges will be brought against either Rolle or Carey-Shuler. "Our office as a matter of policy doesn't comment, either positively or negatively, on possible ongoing investigations," states spokesman Ed Griffith.
Murawski said he couldn't comment on whether the ethics commission is also investigating Carey-Shuler. Knowledgeable sources outside the ethics commission, however, told New Times that an ethics-commission inquiry is indeed under way and centers around Carey-Shuler's alleged use of her commission staff for activities unrelated to the county.