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
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In reality the councils represent the last thing Miami-Dade needed: another breeding ground for corrupt and ethically loose politicians who are beholden to the deep pockets of local developers. Since 1996 the makeup of the councils has been dominated by people in real estate and construction. Dozens of council members are realtors, zoning consultants, property appraisers, and roofers, and have had real and perceived conflicts of interest due to their direct or indirect relationships with developers. And most of these people were never elected at all. Of the 88 council seats currently occupied -- 10 are vacant -- 47 members were appointed to fill vacancies. If that's not enough, council members could appoint replacements for colleagues who leave their positions. Thus council members were soon appointing friends and cronies. The county commission passed an ordinance in February giving the commissioner for each district power to make those appointments, instead of leaving it up to the councils.
"There are serious problems with some community councils, and there have been since their inception," says Robert Meyers, executive director of the ethics commission. "I think it's more than a few bad apples, and they are receiving a good bit of attention from our office, the state attorney, and the Office of the Inspector General."
The ethics commission is in charge of enforcing the county's Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics ordinance. The commission can levy civil penalties against people who violate the ordinance. "Our focus," Meyers explains, "is to look for voting conflicts and [false] residency requirements. One conflict is enough to proceed against a community councilman." The county's inspector general, police public-corruption unit, and the State Attorney's Office focus on the activities of council members who allegedly violate the county ordinance.
There is no question investigators have gone after rogue council members with a vengeance.
In 2000, the ethics commission initiated an investigation that led to the indictment of Manuel G. Vera, a former West Kendall community councilman, and developers Javier Enrique Siu and Robert Vinas. The state attorney brought third-degree felony counts of unlawful compensation, mortgage fraud, and fabrication of evidence against the three men. Vera, a land surveyor, is accused of accepting a $425,000 home from the developers in exchange for favorable zoning approvals of their projects, according to court documents. That case is still pending.
The investigation into Vera, Siu, and Vinas also implicated Robert Curbelo, Jr., Jacqueline Nunes, Wilfredo Garcia, and Gwen Calloway, all of whom served on the council. Curbelo is a residential developer, Nunes a mortgage broker, Garcia an appraiser, and Calloway a zoning consultant. All four have resigned from the council.
The county Inspector General's investigation of Kathy (or Ketly) Achille, who served on the Biscayne Shores council, led to her removal from office in 2000. Achille had given a false address and was not registered to vote. She pleaded no contest, resigned, and served 40 hours of community service.
In July the state attorney's office charged Maytee Dulce Armesto, a former member of the Kendall council, with two third-degree felonies for knowingly falsifying her candidate certification for re-election. Armesto, the sister of Eladio José Armesto, the Take Back Miami-Dade spokesman, could face up to one year in county jail if convicted.
"Gus" Exposito was born on March 16, 1961, according to public records. He and his wife own a single-family home at 6264 Northwest Lane in Country Village. (His father, Agustin D. Exposito, is a member of the Northwest Community Council. I briefly spoke with him at his son's car wash on Miami Gardens Drive. Exposito, Sr. says he is going to resign from the Northwest Council. "Eso community councils son mierda," he said. When asked to elaborate, he clammed up. "It doesn't do me any good to talk to the press," he lamented.)
Exposito, Jr. first caught the attention of ethics investigators in 1999, when Barbara Hagan, president of the Country Club Civic Association, filed a complaint alleging Exposito was talking to developers before zoning hearings. In an affidavit to the Ethics Commission, Hagan said she believed Exposito was meeting secretly with the principals of Oakview Developers, who were proposing a 72-unit townhouse project in Country Club. Exposito was one of five council members who voted for the project, which was approved January 7, 1999. The Ethics Commission dismissed the complaint on September 9, 1999 when investigators could not find probable cause against Exposito. A year later, Hagan alleged in a police report that Exposito was threatening her to stop her from complaining to the EC about his dealings with developers; she also complained to the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM) about alleged pollution emanating from his car wash business, behind a Pizza Hut on Miami Gardens Drive and NW 76th Avenue. Miami-Dade police did not charge Exposito, Hagan says, because it was her word against his.
Ironically Exposito abused his power as a councilman to shut down a business rival, according to public records. Using his council letterhead, Exposito wrote letters in July to DERM and to the owner of Hand Car Wash, at an Amoco station on Miami Gardens Drive and 87th Avenue. He wanted to shut the car wash down even though county code enforcers did not find any violations.