By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
It all started because the 42-year-old chairman of ScanShift, a Chicago-based software firm, felt sorry for Clement Mikelis, one of his neighbors. Mikelis, an elderly widower in the houseboat next door, wanted wheelchair access from his dock to the marina parking lot. He also desired a designated handicapped parking spot in the lot. "Why not ask Coletta for a ramp?" thought Lozman. "What's the big deal?" He offered to accompany Mikelis to ask their landlord, and this is how he remembers the meeting.
"Fuck you guys!" Coletta yelled. "You're not touching my fucking dock."
"What do you mean we can't build a ramp?" Lozman shot back. "You can rip it out when Clement drops dead. What's the big fucking deal?"
"Do you know who the fuck I am?" Coletta bellowed. "I can fucking kill you! I can have my boys take care of you! You could be drifting in the bay one day! What are you gonna do? You're nobody in this town!"
"Oh yeah? Come on, tough guy! Let's go! I'm not afraid of you!"
"That's it! I want you off my fucking dock! I'm fucking evicting you!"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" a bewildered Lozman responded. "You need help, man. They have medication for people like you."
Lozman is a tall, slender fellow with a deep voice and black curly hair that is receding from his brow. By day, from three IBM Thinkpads in his houseboat's upstairs bedroom, he runs ScanShift, a stock-quote display system based on the cockpit instrumentation technology he used as an aviator in the Marine Corps. The program -- which he began to envision during the fourteen years he worked as a floor trader in Chicago -- has made him a rich man who is often quoted as a market analyst in such papers as USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and the Wall Street Journal. He grew up in Miami, attending the Catholic La Salle High School and the University of Miami, where he earned a math degree at the age of nineteen and covered his tuition with shrewd stock investments.
Tired of the harsh Chicago winters, he decided to return to Florida and landed in North Bay Village, a community known for welcoming houseboat enthusiasts. Coletta's marina is home to a half-dozen or so. "I came back to enjoy a simple lifestyle," Lozman says, gesturing out toward the bay from the second-floor balcony of his houseboat. "I didn't come back to have a politically connected wise guy threaten to kill me."
His nemesis, Al Coletta, is a 65-year-old real estate investor who sports a spectacular tan and neatly trimmed mustache. Though he lives in Hollywood, Coletta owns properties in Miami and North Bay Village, including the marina and ground-floor retail space at the Bayshore Yacht and Tennis Club, 7904 West Dr. He also owns several condominium units in the building, including the 6881-square-foot penthouse with its panoramic views atop the eleven-story tower. Since 1963 the property has been zoned both commercial (the south side facing the causeway) and residential (the north side). For several years Coletta has been trying to obtain full commercial zoning for the penthouse in order to convert it to a nightclub -- much to the chagrin of the condo owners. Two times the North Bay Village City Commission has denied his request. This past May his third attempt was tabled indefinitely, and he immediately sued the city. (Coletta declined comment for this story.)
A few days after their showdown over the access ramp, Lozman says, Coletta served him with an eviction notice. He moved his houseboat, a teal-toned, two-story structure that resembles a seaworthy mobile home, to the marina at the nearby Gator Racquet Club, but kept up his visits with his former neighbor. And that just made Coletta more hostile. The marina owner would snap photographs of him at night, Lozman claims, and on one occasion jumped in front of his motorcycle. "He was all crazy," he recounts, "egging me to run him over. Then he tried to shove me off my bike." In late March Lozman filed for a restraining order against Coletta but the request was denied. (Under Florida law, a victim must present evidence of two or more violent assaults or stalking incidents.)
In April Coletta ratcheted up the conflict by trying to legally prohibit Lozman from visiting Clement Mikelis. Coletta accused him of trespassing on private property and went to court to obtain an injunction that would bar him from the marina. Not one to be bullied, Lozman turned around and hired his own high-profile lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey (whose famous clients have included Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives and presidential candidate Al Gore). "Coletta has a history of filing lawsuits to scare people," Lozman says. "I have the money to hire a good attorney, and I wanted to send Coletta a message that he'd met his match." (Coletta's maneuver fizzled when the Bayshore condominium association board of directors learned that, without their knowledge or permission, he had sought the injunction in their name and had even engaged their attorneys in the effort. Association president Horace Fonseca instructed the lawyers to drop the case.)
Meanwhile Lozman's buddy Mikelis, a 79-year-old who wears a back brace and walks with a heavy limp, maintains that Coletta has harassed him as well. Coletta, he says, tried to evict him from the marina in early May. In the eviction notice, Coletta claimed that Mikelis was on a month-to-month rental basis and could be removed at any time without cause. Mikelis hired Matthew Dietz, a Miami lawyer specializing in discrimination against the disabled and the elderly, and Dietz has since requested a temporary injunction to stop the eviction, contending that Coletta is in violation of fair-housing laws. After serving the eviction notice, Mikelis says, Coletta confronted him at his doorstep. "He told me if I didn't shut up, he'd take care of me," says the World War II veteran, who keeps a nickel-plated .32-caliber pistol within reach. "That's my smallest weapon," he adds, his pale blue eyes gleaming. He also packs a .357 magnum inside a duffle bag along with a license to carry a concealed weapon.
The feud might have remained a bitter but unremarkable legal dispute between an irate marina owner and two outraged tenants had it not been for that April 4 court hearing at which Lozman sought, unsuccessfully, to obtain a restraining order against Coletta. During the hearing he discovered that his former landlord had friends in high places -- namely, on the North Bay Village City Commission. Lozman says he happened to look over Coletta's shoulder and saw that he was reading copies of private correspondence Lozman had written to Commissioner Bob Dugger about the motorcycle incident and other run-ins between the two men. And he remembered that Coletta had once boasted -- before their argument over the access ramp -- that he had "connections" at city hall. "He boasted that he had friends in the police department and on the commission."
Disgusted at the apparent political collusion, Lozman went home that day and set out to uncover the connections between Al Coletta and Bob Dugger. In the months that followed he became an expert on North Bay Village's organized-crime lore and more recent public corruption and skullduggery in his own back yard. Along the way he vowed to take down the man he calls a "wannabe capo." "Coletta is used to intimidating people around here," Lozman says, "but he fucked with the wrong guy. He and Dugger are finished in this town."
Incorporated in 1945, North Bay Village comprises three manmade islands -- Harbor, Treasure, and North Bay -- built on the muck dredged from the bottom of Biscayne Bay and linked to Miami and Miami Beach by the 79th Street (Kennedy) Causeway. During the Sixties the bayside town developed a reputation as the New York and Chicago mobs' private enclave under the sun. Known informally as Sin City, it was a place where a multitude of nightspots stayed open till dawn and hookers roamed freely, where Rat Pack celebrities hung out after their shows at the Collins Avenue hotels (Dean Martin owned a swanky joint named Dino's), and where, on Halloween night in 1967, Thomas "The Enforcer" Altamura was gunned down by Anthony "Big Tony" Esperti at the Place for Steak, a venerable restaurant popular with mobsters. According to one law-enforcement report from that period, police had "pinpointed Dade's largest concentration of undesirables in North Bay Village."
In the Eighties attention shifted to the village's police department, when the FBI took down three police officers who were later convicted of selling protection to an agent posing as a drug smuggler. Two years ago the village hired a new police chief to clean house -- Irving Heller, a former assistant director of the Miami-Dade County Police Department.
Growing up in Miami, Lozman remembered the old stories of North Bay Village's past ties with organized-crime figures. "Coletta's line 'drifting in the bay' just stuck with me," he says. "Who says that shit to people except mob guys?" Lozman conducted an Internet search and turned up articles on the mobsters who once called the island home, men like Charlie "the Blade" Tourine, the reputed capo for New York's Genovese crime family who, it was said, earned his nickname for his skill with a knife. Miami police had questioned Tourine after the 1976 murder of mobster Johnny Roselli, whose decomposed remains, stuffed inside a 55-gallon drum, were found drifting in Biscayne Bay. "Gee," Lozman quipped mischievously, "does Al know what happened to Roselli?"
He also found articles about Al Coletta's involvement in North Bay Village politics, including a New Times story prior to the 2000 elections. During that political season Bob Dugger was one of three candidates running with enthusiastic support from Coletta, who provided his "slate" with free campaign headquarters in a storefront he owns at the Bayshore condominium. He also paid for promotional materials, reproducing the well-known Uncle Sam recruitment poster and adding the slogan: "Come Join the Team." At the time, Coletta told New Times, he supported Dugger, who ultimately lost, because he wanted to see a city commission that would "give something back to the people for a change."
Dugger had also run unsuccessfully in 1998. It wasn't until this past November that he finally won a seat on the commission. (North Bay Village holds a municipal election every two years to fill the mayor's position and four commission seats.) Being political allies was one thing, Lozman figured, but then he heard that the ties went even deeper: Coletta had bailed his friend out of some serious financial trouble, a neighbor told him. So this past April, Lozman headed for the Miami-Dade County Clerk's Office to sift through property records and tax documents.
There, he says, he discovered some peculiar real estate transactions involving Coletta and Dugger. According to those records, Dugger in 1998 conveyed ownership of his waterfront home to his daughter, Rachel Suarez, who used a $485,000 loan from a local bank to pay off the existing mortgage. In 2001 Suarez fell behind on her loan payments and was about to lose the property to foreclosure. Coletta loaned Suarez $200,000 (secured by the house) to pay off her bank loan. But Suarez fell behind in payments on the Coletta loan and in 2002 transferred the property to him. Dugger and his wife, also named Rachel, still live in that single-story house at 7401 Beach View Dr., which today would sell for $1.2 million, according to real estate brokers in the area. "Why would Dugger do that," Lozman speculates, "unless he was in some sort of financial trouble?"
Lozman also learned that similar serpentine transactions took place involving several residential properties the Duggers owned in Miami and Southwest Miami-Dade. Records show that last year the Duggers transferred ownership of the properties to Coletta after they fell behind in monthly payments and he threatened them with foreclosure.
Dugger initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but then changed his mind, referring all questions to his attorney, William Dean. "Bob Dugger," says Dean, "is one of the few good politicians in this town. He tries to do everything appropriately and by the book." According to Dean, his client fell behind on mortgage payments on his residence in North Bay Village and turned to Coletta. "The Duggers were on the verge of foreclosure and their friend, Mr. Coletta, stepped in to help out," he says. Dean will not describe the Duggers as Coletta's tenants, but that is the term Dugger himself used in a recent letter to the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Dean would not comment on the other residential properties involving Coletta and the Duggers.
Deep in his sleuthing, Lozman found court records detailing Bob Dugger's financial woes. The IRS claims he owes the federal government roughly $100,000 in taxes, dating back to 1993. In 1998 the IRS filed tax liens against all of Dugger's properties in an effort to recover the money. In addition, since 1995 the state has filed 29 tax liens against Dugger's property management company, Timberlake Management, the latest issued just nine months ago. (Dave Bruns, spokesman for the Florida Department of Revenue, says his agency routinely files liens against individuals who fail to pay various state taxes. But 29 liens against one company, he notes, is unprecedented in his eight years on the job.)
Moreover, Lozman says, Dugger failed to list those liens in financial disclosure forms filed during his 1998, 2000, and 2002 campaigns, a felony under state law. "I'm sure my fellow residents would want to know their commissioner is a tax deadbeat," Lozman snipes. Attorney Dean says his client is working with the IRS and state tax officials to settle his debts. "As far as I know, Mr. Dugger has disclosed all the information he is required to under state law," he offers in reference to the commissioner's disclosure forms.
Lozman uncovered another financial connection. In 2001 the Bayshore condominium association hired Timberlake Management as the building's maintenance company, at $1760 a month, a contract that continues today. "I gave Dugger the job based on Coletta's referral," says association president Horace Fonseca. A referral from Coletta would carry some weight with Fonseca -- property records show that Coletta holds the mortgage on his condominium. Coletta's influence doesn't stop there. In 2001 he loaned the condo association $200,000 for needed maintenance and overdue bills.
With such personal and professional connections to Coletta, Lozman argues, Dugger should not have introduced the proposed ordinance back in April that would have rezoned Coletta's penthouse for commercial use. Considering that Dugger lives in a house now owned by Coletta, and that his company landed a contract through his friend's intervention, the conflict of interest should be obvious. "If he doesn't do what Coletta tells him to do," Lozman says, "Dugger may find himself without a job and without a home."
By springtime, the former Marine's detective work had escalated to a battle cry on the Internet. He launched a Website, www.dumpdugger.com, to encourage people to send him information regarding allegedly unethical or illegal conduct involving Dugger, his wife, and Coletta. "It's been great for obtaining information I wouldn't have gotten otherwise," he says. Among the submissions, most of them anonymous, was what purported to be a copy of Coletta's criminal record. According to the document, which law enforcement sources identify as a report from the FBI's National Crime Information Center, Coletta has been arrested several times over the years -- for allegedly trying to bribe a Miami police officer, assault and battery, and operating a brothel. (Attempts to independently confirm the arrest records were unsuccessful. Although Coletta's name appears on local criminal court databases, no additional information is available, including disposition of the cases. One possible explanation is that all records have been sealed. Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, was unable to verify whether that is the case.)
Lozman also received an e-mail informing him of a State Attorney's investigation in 2000 which found that Dugger, two other commission candidates, and a mayoral candidate in the 1998 election had received improper in-kind support from the nation's biggest radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications. According to a memo summarizing the investigation, a company subsidiary, Clear Results Marketing, provided the candidates with free advertising worth more than the $500 limit on individual contributions to local candidates, expenditures the candidates also failed to report. The investigators found the candidates were unaware the contributions exceeded the state limit and therefore had committed no wrongdoing. Clear Results, however, was forced to pay a $3000 fine.
By now Lozman believed he had enough information to go to the authorities. Toward the end of April he met with Joe Centorino, head of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's public corruption unit. Recalls Lozman: "He was ecstatic with the information I brought forward. He told me with what I gave him, he had enough to indict Dugger. He said they could conclude their investigation in three months." (Centorino would not comment on the progress of his investigation.)
Buoyed by the possibility of seeing Dugger and Coletta in handcuffs, Lozman began to appear at city commission meetings to inflict collateral damage. At the May 13 commission meeting he publicly accused Dugger of not disclosing to fellow commissioners the existence of a 1979 memo from the city clerk's office, which addressed the refusal to issue a building permit to convert the penthouse apartment to a nightclub. The document had not been brought up during previous commission discussions, but Lozman contended Dugger must have known about it because he had access to the building's files as the property manager. "Dugger has tried to backdoor this zoning change for his soul mate Coletta, a matter that should get him fired as manager of the Bayshore property and censured by his fellow commissioners for trying to pull a fast one on them," Lozman boomed from the speaker's podium in the commission chambers.
"Do I really have to sit here," an angry Dugger pleaded to Mayor Alan Dorne, "and listen to these personal attacks?"
"Excuse me, I'm talking here," Lozman fired back.
The commission voted that night to table indefinitely Coletta's zoning request, despite threats by his attorney that Coletta was ready to sue. The next day Coletta did just that, bringing suit against the city under the state Bert J. Harris Act, which allows property owners who claim to be excessively burdened by zoning laws to sue municipalities over lost profits.
At the next public meeting, June 10, during a presentation before the commission, Lozman encouraged audience members in attendance to "keep the dirt" coming to his Website. "Dumpdugger.com has produced a wealth of information," he gleefully told them. "If Coletta hasn't killed me by the next commission meeting, I'll share some of that information with you at that time."
Meanwhile another North Bay Village commissioner was feeling some heat. Just nine days after Lozman's keep-the-dirt-coming rant, Commissioner David Murray Fleischer, who had received campaign support from Dugger and Coletta, was arrested and charged with bribery and "corruption by threat of a public servant," both third-degree felonies. Fleischer, a first-time candidate who was elected in November along with Dugger, was accused by the State Attorney's Office of demanding special treatment from city employees based on his position as an elected official. Prior to the arrest, Lozman says, Fleischer had warned him, in what he took as a threat, to stay away from Coletta. "He told me Coletta was a dangerous guy and that I'd better watch myself," Lozman recalls. Fleischer, who has since been suspended from office by Gov. Jeb Bush, did not return phone calls seeking comment. The case against him is pending.
At the July 31 commission meeting, Lozman was again present, distributing to commissioners and audience members copies of Coletta's alleged FBI rap sheet with a cover page titled "Portrait of a Pimp." Below the title, a sentence read: "Why is Dugger pushing the Pimp's penthouse nightclub agenda?"
"What a great evening this is tonight," Lozman began as he stepped up to the public podium. "One commissioner charged with felony corruption and bribery, arrested and relieved of his duty -- one to go. Dugger, you will be joining your comrade-in-corruption, Fleischer, in the near future."
"Mr. Lozman," Dugger interrupted icily, "it's time for you to leave." He motioned for two police officers to remove Lozman from the meeting. As he was hauled out, Lozman launched a parting salvo: "Dugger's and his soul mate Al Coletta's days of intimidation and fear on the politics and citizens of this city are over!"
Following the expulsion, Commissioner Dugger took a moment to address the crowd. He would recuse himself from future discussion or action on Coletta's zoning request or his lawsuit against the city, he announced, and he explained that he'd conferred with the city attorney shortly after the November election and was told he had no conflicts of interest. He'd also sought counsel, via a July letter, from the Miami-Dade County ethics commission, which concurred with the city attorney but with the caveat that a perception of conflict existed. "For this reason I am going to abstain from voting on this issue," he declared in a solemn voice. "Please stop harassing me, my wife, my children, and my friends."
But Dugger didn't tell the ethics commission the whole story. In fact he failed to explain in his letter to Robert Meyers, the commission's executive director, that Coletta had actually bailed out the Duggers when their investment properties and residence were about to fall into foreclosure. He also failed to mention that his friend helped arrange for his company to manage the Bayshore condominium. "Our opinion that Mr. Dugger didn't have a conflict was based on the information he provided," Meyers says now, declining to comment on whether the commission would have ruled differently had it known of Dugger's true relationship with Coletta.
Lozman is lying on his bed, ruminating on the past eight months as he gazes out at the pink-and-blue sunset over Biscayne Bay. He still can't believe the drama he's been through since his blowup with Coletta back in February. "He's destroyed his little empire over a stupid handicap access ramp and a parking spot," Lozman says incredulously. "It just doesn't make any sense."
The battle itself doesn't make sense to Lozman's friends here and in Chicago, either. "They've asked me why I'm playing Russian roulette with this guy," he relates. "They've told me to get the fuck out of here. But Marines don't retreat in the face of adversity."
Nevertheless he has taken Coletta's alleged threats seriously, and he expresses frustration that neither Coletta nor Dugger has been criminally charged since his first meeting with corruption prosecutor Joe Centorino in April. "Maybe the State Attorney should hire another public-corruption prosecutor to pick up the slack when Centorino's not there," he jokes, referring to the weeks Centorino was away on vacation this summer. "How do you allow a guy you're building a case against to stay in office?"
Lozman admits he went to the State Attorney as an insurance policy on his life. "In case I wind up dead one day, drifting in the bay," he says, "I want it on the record that Coletta is the first guy to look for."