By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Luther Campbell
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On July 23, Sharon Franklin went to the Miami-Dade elections office in the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami to register as a candidate for the Country Club of Miami Community Council. One of fourteen local zoning boards that approve (or not) applications in unincorporated Miami-Dade, it had been chaired for the past two years by Agustin "Gus" Exposito.
As she walked up to the glass-encased counter where candidates submit their paperwork, Franklin bumped into Exposito, her old nemesis from countless battles. He turned pale on seeing Franklin: "I think Gus was a little shocked to see me," the 53-year-old community activist laughed. "He had this look on his face like, 'What are youdoing here?'" Although Franklin has been an irregular attendee at community council meetings, she felt compelled to oppose Exposito, whose controversial six-year run ended when he recently resigned.
"I'm running because I don't like how Gus [does] things," Franklin explains. "He seems easily swayed by developers." But when she saw him, she thought the 41-year-old Gus was filing again for re-election.
Three days later she learned that her opponent in the September 10 vote was not the ethically challenged Exposito, but his employee, Edward Redondo, a supervisor for Exposito's Town & Country Car Wash in Kendall and a reported partner in his Hialeah-based Z-Jeff Roofing Inc. But Franklin feels she's still running against her long-time foe anyway. "I think Gus is doing a lot of things behind the scenes," Franklin said. "I think this guy is going to be his puppet."
But it appears that Exposito's seeming fervent support of developers and builders in his community may have finally caught up with him. His resignation from the Country Club community council came shortly after the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, the county police's public corruption unit, and the State Attorney's Office launched an investigation into allegations that Exposito had broken the county's Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance, and the state's Sunshine Law (which prohibits elected officials from discussing voting matters in private, and from trying to influence officials' votes).
In the past two months, investigators have interviewed witnesses who claim Exposito was trying to get Stuart Arguello, a fellow councilman, to change his vote on a denial of a zoning application by the Capo family, influential West Miami-Dade developers, to build a mixture of single-family and townhouses on a vacant parcel between Interstate 75 and NW 97th Avenue. The project had been voted down 3-2 by the community council. Exposito was one of two council members to vote in favor of the $75 million deal.
Investigators also want to know how Exposito was elected to the council despite having two felony convictions. (According to public records, Exposito was sentenced to eight months in prison in April 1990 for possession of counterfeit Federal Reserve notes. A year later he was sentenced to Federal Prison Camp Eglin for one year for mail and credit card fraud. In addition, he received 36 months' probation and was ordered to pay $2854 restitution for intent to defraud by credit card. State law prohibits convicted felons from holding elected office.)
But investigators refused to elaborate: "I can't comment on investigations that we may or may not be working on," says Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission.
Although Exposito insists he resigned to focus on family and his businesses, his detractors allege he's simply gone underground.
Gus may also be laying low since he's been implicated in the public corruption case against former county commissioner Miriam Alonso and her husband, Leonel. According to court documents, Exposito recanted his statement that he had been paid $3000 for working on the Miriam Alonso anti-recall effort in 1999. When initially questioned under oath by state prosecutors, Exposito said he had received the money as payment for distributing flyers in Country Club and other expenses. The court documents say Exposito flipped his story after a recent meeting with the Alonsos, who told the former community council man that they should all "stick to their stories."
Exposito declined to be interviewed for this story. "I don't want to make the newspapers anymore," he told New Times. "I saw the community council as a way of giving back [to the community], but it's a thankless job. People just want my head on a platter." His protégé Redondo didn't respond to requests for an interview, either. The phone number listed on Redondo's election forms is disconnected.
The Exposito investigation is the latest in a string of scandals and controversies that have dogged Miami-Dade's community council system since its inception (through a voter referendum) in 1996. Sixteen community councils were created to handle requests for zoning variances in the unincorporated area of Miami-Dade, where more than one million people live. (Two councils have since been abolished after residents in Miami Lakes and Palmetto Bay voted to become muncipalities.)
The councils were seen as a way to relieve the Miami-Dade County Commission of a thankless, time-consuming job plagued by insider dealing and back-room lobbying; simultaneously, the change was meant to encourage grassroots democracy by shifting zoning decisions to the neighborhood level.
Each council has six elected members, who have to run every four years. A seventh member is appointed by the county commissioner who represents the district where the council resides. Councils meet once a month to handle requests for zoning changes, and alternate months to discuss local community issues. Members receive $100-a-year honorariums.