Native Son

Billy Hardemon has been running around Liberty City, and away from allegations of wrongdoing, forever

Why did Burke take money from Gary, allowing him to weasel in on what seemed to be a done deal? Hardemon has an explanation. Not the kind of explanation that would fly in court, but the kind that sheds light on the sociology of the backroom. "Burke loved Howard Gary. He idolized Howard Gary," explains Hardemon, searching for just the right phrase. "He was intoxicated by Howard Gary." In fact, Burke himself had brokered the partnership between Grigsby and Gary. "I think Jimmy Burke took the bribe because it came from Howard Gary," insists Hardemon. He believes, or says he believes, that Burke took the money as a favor to Gary, to ingratiate himself with one of Miami's black political icons.

Portions of the surveillance tapes -- embarrassing excerpts like Burke begging Gary to "tell him what to do," assuring him that he, Burke, was "like a robot, like an instrument" -- would appear to support Hardemon's hypothesis. But there is still one outstanding question: Why didn't he, Hardemon, also bite (especially when, as one former associate maintains, "Everybody knew that to get Burke's vote on something, you had to pay twice. You had to pay Burke and Billy")?

"Because I was for giving Grigsby the contract anyway," snaps Hardemon. "That deal was going to save a lot of Solid Waste jobs, which is a department where I had friends, and I liked that. [Hardemon had worked there since 1982; he left to join Burke's staff.] I was already willing to work on behalf of Grigsby." But wouldn't that have made it easier to accept the money? "Not necessarily," he says, smiling. "Howard Gary spent two hours trying to get me to take some money on FBI surveillance tapes. I was like, 'You want to help me? Donate money to my campaign.'" (Hardemon was himself running for a county commission seat in 1996.) Bottom line, he says: "I sensed I was being set up."

Hard times: Billy Hardemon facing the media during his bribery trial
Steve Satterwhite
Hard times: Billy Hardemon facing the media during his bribery trial
Earnestine Worthy thinks Hardemon wants to sell out the MLK Business Center (top)
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Earnestine Worthy thinks Hardemon wants to sell out the MLK Business Center (top)

Hardemon sensed right. Eventually a jury exonerated him on all charges. "Yeah, it was entrapment," reasons Hardemon, "but the problem with crying 'entrapment' is, well, you did whatever they were trying to get you to do." Burke, currently serving a 27-month sentence for his indiscretions, wasn't so smart. Or so lucky.

In 1996, while under investigation for his role in the Grigsby affair, Hardemon was rehired by the Miami-Dade County Solid Waste Management Department at a salary of $49,000, or, approximately, a five percent raise over what he had earned as Burke's chief of staff. True, he lost the job the following year, when he was accused of accepting illegal contributions during his 1996 county commission campaign, but that episode likewise ended with Hardemon on top: beating the felony rap (though he did plead guilty to sixteen misdemeanor charges), being reinstated by Solid Waste, and receiving $120,000 in back pay to boot.

In 1997, shortly after Burke was removed from office, Hardemon joined the board of the nonprofit MLK Economic Development Corporation. "Service," Hardemon says, quoting his mentor, former Miami-Dade County School District Superintendent Johnny Jones, "is the price you pay for the space you occupy." Hardemon does not mention that Jones, the district's first black superintendent, was convicted in 1980 of embezzling taxpayer money to pay for gold plumbing fixtures in his home. A little public money finds its way into your pocket and right away people think you're a crook.

Hardemon knows how it can happen. In 1991, he purchased the corner store in Liberty City where he used to work as a kid, renaming it Hardemon's Market. The store had been burned out in the protests that followed the 1989 fatal shooting of Clement Lloyd, a black youth, by Miami police officer William Lozano. Hardemon says he hoped to provide a resource to the blighted area. By 1993, however, the business had failed. So the city stepped in and bailed out Hardemon, purchasing the store and forgiving the loan.

Hardemon heard the whispers saying he had taken the city for a ride, an allegation he resents. "Sure, the $25,000 loan allowed [the Hardemon family] to buy the market," he says, "but then we were stuck like Chuck. We were barely operating when Hurricane Andrew hit and then we literally gave away the store to people coming up from [Homestead and the surrounding areas]. Fuck no, I didn't see money from that store. I lost money." Today a parking lot marks the northwest corner of NW 55th Street and 17th Avenue, where Hardemon's Market once stood.

Whatever Hardemon may have lost or gained with the corner market, his status in the community allows him to continue shaking the money tree. "Any politician who has to get votes out of [the Liberty City area] has to be his friend," says one well-connected source, "whether they like him or not. The only reason he got the money for the store is because politicians fear him."

Certainly he has little trouble getting them on the phone when he needs them. "I think if I called most of the elected officials in this town," he states confidently, "they'd call me back. I don't call them with bullshit." He cites a recent example. "We met with [District 3 County Commissioner] Barbara Carey [Shuler] and we said, 'We want to redevelop [the MLK Business Center].' She went out and secured a $100,000 grant for Tools for Change [another economic development organization] to come up with a plan."

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