Busted!

Greed, thievery, corruption, and betrayal -- the sordid tale of Miriam Alonso's downfall

Two weeks ago, as Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher Mazzella waved a 47-page affidavit at reporters in support of the arrest of former county commissioner Miriam Alonso, he declared: "The arrest warrant filed today could be a syllabus for a course titled Corruption 101."

Alonso, looking haggard, had turned herself in, along with her husband Leonel, at the Doral headquarters of the Miami-Dade Police Department and then disappeared into an explosion of TV lights and shouted questions from the press. This was the second go-round in four months for the Alonsos, who earlier had been arrested on a variety of corruption charges. The additional charges severely complicated the Alonsos' legal problems, but perhaps more significantly, represented a milestone for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

Since Rundle assumed the top prosecutor's job in 1993, following Janet Reno's appointment as U.S. Attorney General, a shocking number of prominent public officials have been charged with corruption: Miller Dawkins, Cesar Odio, James Burke, Bruce Kaplan, Humberto Hernandez, Alberto Gutman, Carmen Lunetta, Pedro Reboredo, Donald Warshaw, and Demetrio Perez, Jr. Eight of those individuals were brought to justice by federal prosecutors (Rundle did successfully charge Hernandez with vote fraud, but only after he'd been convicted in federal court on money-laundering and mortgage-fraud charges). The two men whose cases were the sole province of the State Attorney -- former county commissioners Kaplan and Reboredo -- managed to avoid trial and the threat of prison by cutting deals with Rundle's office.

Some people saw these two cases as examples of Rundle's tepid approach to public corruption. In particular the Reboredo plea agreement, reached in May 2001, rankled certain local law-enforcement officials who believed he should have been charged with a felony. In response, when Miami-Dade Police detectives last year began making a case against Miriam Alonso, they did not inform Rundle as they normally would, which prompted speculation that the cops hoped to take their information to the U.S. Attorney's Office for tougher federal prosecution. One source with knowledge of the Alonso investigation told New Times last year: "The people working on this don't want anything sent to the State Attorney's Office."

Eventually the police and the SAO settled their differences and the Alonso case stayed with Rundle. The result: more charges and more serious charges brought against an elected official than any in recent memory.

In April of this year Miriam and Leonel Alonso, along with Miriam's chief of staff Elba Morales, were arrested on multiple corruption charges ranging from grand theft and money laundering to "exploitation of official position." The Alonsos were alleged to have looted Miriam's 1998 re-election campaign treasury of at least $54,000, money they then simply used. (Miriam was also charged with ordering a county employee to spend substantial time working as her personal handyman.) Miriam faced one misdemeanor and three felony counts. Leonel was charged with eight felonies. Fourteen felony counts were brought against Morales.

The new charges filed September 4 included a slew of felonies and misdemeanors; notable among them were alleged crimes committed after the Alonsos' April arrest -- fabricating evidence and coaxing potential witnesses into lying to investigators. Overall, though, the alleged crimes seemed familiar -- looting a treasury of nearly $80,000 in donations from contributors who believed they were helping Miriam battle an effort to recall her from office.

Also familiar was the presumed motive: the personal enrichment of Leonel and Miriam Alonso. Not that the duo are in dire need of enrichment. In her most recent financial-disclosure form, filed July 1, Miriam declared her net worth at $2,720,489, wealth principally derived from at least fifteen rental properties she and her husband own in Miami and Hialeah.

Motivation aside, the stakes are now extraordinarily high for both the Alonsos and Rundle. If convicted at trial of all charges, Miriam and Leonel could spend the rest of their lives in prison. If, on the other hand, they seek a plea agreement with Rundle, the pressure will be on the State Attorney to extract at least one felony conviction and some prison time for both.

The report below is the unedited text (except where summarized in italics) of the arrest affidavit describing the most recent charges against the Alonsos. It was sworn to by Miami-Dade Police Ofcr. Antonio Rodriguez and Miami-Dade Inspector General's Office special agent John Kennedy. Far from being a dry legal document, it is, as Inspector General Mazzella put it, a kind of textbook on malfeasance.

But more than that, and thanks largely to the testimony of former chief of staff Elba Morales, it provides a rare glimpse into the psychodynamics of greed and corruption. The chilling details of the Alonsos' schemes to steal and defraud are matched by their ruthless demands to collect ill-gotten cash, even during the grieving for Morales's deceased husband. When they become aware they are under investigation, the Alonsos recklessly conspire to conceal their alleged crimes by enlisting friends and associates in a coverup. In time paranoia takes hold, allies defect, and a grand betrayal leads to the conspiracy's collapse.

-- The Editors

What started in the fall of 1999 as the most parochial of issues -- a bunch of Miami Lakes residents opposed to a Jacksonville company's plans to build a 90-foot dump nearby -- has since evolved into a momentous tale of political corruption. The company proposing to build the dump, Peerless Dade, hired heavy hitters to lobby its case to the Miami-Dade County Commission, including state Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas. Political consultant and former Hialeah councilman Herman Echevarria, who is close to Mayor Alex Penelas, disclosed that he had a financial stake in the project. Opposing the issue were Miami Lakes activist and lawyer Michael Pizzi and community councilman Carl Dasher. When it appeared that county commissioner Miriam Alonso, whose District 12 covered the area affected, was taking the side of the developers, Pizzi announced a plan to start a recall campaign to force Alonso out of office. In response, the Alonso camp started the political action committee (PAC) "Concerned Citizens of District 12" to raise funds to fight the recall effort. Investigators say that no funds were ever raised or expended under this PAC. Instead a bank account under the name "Neighbors of District 12" was opened at Union Planters Bank on November 9, 1999. Monies donated to fight the recall effort were deposited in this account, even though Alonso knew by then the recall was a dead issue.

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