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Padreda, meanwhile, weathered the scandal relatively unscathed. But his luck would not hold.
In the mid-Eighties the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami launched one of its most ambitious corruption investigations. The feds probed what was believed to be a construction-extortion racket run out of Hialeah City Hall by Mayor Raul Martinez. A grand jury indicted Martinez in 1990.
Padreda was one of the first snared in the net cast by the feds, who alleged that Martinez extorted a $150,000 bribe from Padreda to win a $7 million contract to build low-income apartments. Instead of charging him in the Hialeah scheme, however, prosecutors disclosed their investigation of Padreda's Casa del Lago project in Kendall. They threatened to go after his daughter, whose company installed fixtures in the HUD-insured project. The threat worked. Padreda agreed to cooperate in the case against Martinez and also pleaded guilty to two felony counts of defrauding the federal government: falsifying documents to pad construction costs, and hiding subcontracts to family members.
When he took the stand in the Martinez prosecution, Padreda didn't merely cooperate, he gushed like a geyser. In addition to the bribe he allegedly paid Martinez, he recounted the $40,000 bribe he paid to Jorge Valdes for his zoning vote; the $2200 he spent on improvements to the home of Miami City Commissioner Miller Dawkins; and his offer of a $50,000 bribe to Demetrio Perez, at the time a city commissioner. (In 1985, Padreda testified, he and Al Cardenas, now chairman of the state Republican Party, offered Perez the cash if he'd vote for Sergio Pereira as Miami city manager. Money was actually placed in an escrow account, according to Padreda, but the deal never went through because Perez's vote wasn't needed. Cardenas later acknowledged he met with Perez -- to explore the possibility of fundraising for the commissioner in return for his support of Pereira.)
The jury convicted Martinez. An appeals court overturned the conviction, and the case went back to trial, which ended in a hung jury. A retrial ended the same way. Prosecutors decided not to try Martinez a fourth time. It was a bruising defeat for the feds.
"I never took a penny from Camilo Padreda," insists Martinez, who since the final trial has continuously won re-election in Hialeah and still occupies the mayor's office. "I never asked him for any money. When he testified at my trial he produced a document that was an outright lie. The government knew he had lied, had committed perjury, and they never went after him."
In 1991, after hearing heartfelt testimonials from prominent civic figures like assistant county manager Dewey Knight, Jr., a federal judge sentenced Padreda to two months house arrest, two years probation, and fines and restitution totaling roughly $116,000.
In the wake of his guilty plea, a dejected Padreda retreated from the main stage. This civic-minded citizen no longer dreamed of projects to help the poor. He curtailed his efforts to reach out and reward public servants for their devotion to duty. These were tough times. Even his publicly subsidized housing empire seemed to crumble around him in what has become a legacy of bankruptcies that left taxpayers footing the bills.
Airport Seven, the office building he developed in 1986 with a city-secured $1.4 million loan, was foreclosed upon in 1991. The $17 million Casa del Lago project, the one in which Padreda pleaded guilty to defrauding the government, was also foreclosed upon by the government and found to be so structurally defective it was deemed uninhabitable. Another HUD project called Fontanar Park went bankrupt in 1991.
But Padreda's thirst to help people could not be permanently curtailed. He seemed determined to insert himself in public life once again, and eventually found a new role -- a facilitator for law enforcement. "He is like a cat," says a veteran of Miami's political arena who knew him years ago. "You never know where he'll turn up, and when you toss him away he lands on his feet."
Padreda re-emerged on the scene in early 1996, after a Cuban jet shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes. An FBI informant in Miami named Juan Pablo Roque turned out to be a Cuban spy and was suspected of involvement in the incident. Rumors spread through the exile community that the FBI had set up the Brothers' planes for the kill. Padreda offered to help.
"The word spread that the FBI was involved in this homicide," recalls Paul Philip, the FBI agent in charge of the Miami office at the time. "We had our first bomb threat in twelve or thirteen years. Someone came and told me there was a hit on me.... I thought, 'This is getting out of hand.' And that's when Camilo steps up and asks, 'Would you be willing to come to this meeting and defend yourself?' I went to that meeting and we spent two hours talking to these people.
"That took some stones to do that," Philip continues. "To say, 'Folks, these are my friends. I invited them here. Let's hear what they have to say.' There was a time when you took your life in your hands doing stuff like that."