By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
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It's no secret that Hector Pesquera, special agent in charge of the FBI's South Florida operations, is friends with convicted felon Camilo Padreda. It may not be a secret, but the friendship is strange enough that it's now the subject of a preliminary investigation by the Department of Justice.
Padreda, a pre-Castro Cuban police officer, Miami businessman, and admitted corrupter of public officials, pals around with Pesquera. They pose for photographs at award events, and even reportedly go shopping together. Padreda has told me that Pesquera "is a good friend."
The mystery has always been why? Why would one of the most powerful law-enforcement officials in the region risk his reputation by flaunting this friendship? It's not just that Padreda pleaded guilty to felony charges of defrauding the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development when he was a developer a decade ago. It's also this: For most of two decades Padreda repeatedly was involved in acts of public corruption. His 1991 guilty plea in the HUD case was part of a deal in which he received a lenient sentence in exchange for his cooperation with federal prosecutors in the extortion trial of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. (The feds said Martinez extorted a $150,000 bribe from Padreda for a lucrative construction contract. Martinez denied the charge and eventually beat the rap.)
Under oath at Martinez's trial, Padreda confessed to a host of other criminal acts, including paying a $40,000 bribe to former county Commissioner Jorge Valdes in 1985 to rezone a parcel of land, an allegation Valdes has denied. In addition, Padreda admitted offering a $50,000 bribe to former Miami City Commissioner Demetrio Perez for his vote to hire Sergio Pereira as city manager. (The money, placed in an escrow account, was never delivered because Pereira, who later became county manager and is now a lobbyist, was hired without need of Perez's vote.) Way back in 1981 the feds indicted Padreda and two others for embezzling $500,000 from a Texas savings-and-loan institution that was a suspected front for the Central Intelligence Agency. The charges were later dropped. Investigators and a federal prosecutor subsequently said they believed the spy agency intervened to have the case dismissed.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks Hector Pesquera and Camilo Padreda make a strange pair. According to two local law-enforcement sources, concerns that Pesquera allowed Padreda inside the FBI's North Miami offices, and that Padreda may have viewed sensitive information there, worried FBI staff members so much they complained to an outside law-enforcement agency, which this summer contacted the Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility. "The DOJ has acknowledged receipt of this information," says one of the sources, who works at the outside agency.
The other source, who is not affiliated with that agency, tells me he spoke with a local individual who, in mid-July, was interviewed on the subject by two DOJ officials from Washington. According to this second source, FBI staffers are loath to complain internally, which is why an outside channel was used. "People were uncomfortable [with Padreda's presence] but were unwilling to make a fuss," says the source. "They didn't want to jeopardize their careers."
I also tracked down a witness to another encounter between Pesquera and Padreda. A police officer, who asked not to be identified, was having a café and pastelito at the Gran Paris Bakery in a strip mall on NW Seventh Street and 30th Avenue in late August 2001. While there he saw the FBI chief and Padreda enter the Miami Gold Joyería pawnshop next door. When the officer, who knows both men, finished his snack and left the bakery, he bumped into them as they were exiting the pawnshop. "Hector came out looking at a gold Rolex watch," the officer recalls, "and he tells Camilo: 'Thanks for taking care of this for me.'" My source shrugs. "Hector knows that everybody knows who this guy is, yet he hangs around with him anyway. He has no qualms about it. It's amazing."
This anecdote, if true, is serious. Did Pesquera accept a gift from Padreda? While the FBI has no policy about fraternizing with ex-cons, its ethics rules prohibit taking gifts from people either under investigation or who have a business relationship with the agency. (Padreda, who could not be reached for comment, has in the past organized parties for the FBI office.) Pesquera won't talk to me, so I don't know if Padreda gave him a gift. But I do know that the DOJ is aware of the pawnshop incident. The outside law-enforcement agency included that information when it contacted the Office of Professional Responsibility.
Pesquera is not alone in befriending the crafty Padreda. James Milford, the Drug Enforcement Administration's former top man in Miami; ex-Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez; and Paul Philip, who preceded Pesquera as special agent in charge of the local FBI, all have the distinction of being close to the man. To his credit, Philip, now with the school district, was the only one of those three who talked about his relationship when I wrote a story about Padreda earlier this year ("A Friend Indeed," January 30). Philip recounted that when he was with the FBI, Padreda helped him arrange a meeting with Cuban exiles at a critical time. The two then became friendly and would have lunch occasionally, he said, adding that he was careful never to accept gifts or allow Padreda to pay for anything.
What is it about Padreda that draws veteran lawmen to him like a tabby to catnip? "He brags that he can get people jobs," says the cop who witnessed the pawnshop incident. "I remember him bragging in a restaurant one time that he was trying to get [former U.S. Attorney] Guy Lewis a federal judgeship. People fall for it." Perhaps not coincidentally, Pesquera is rumored to be retiring from the FBI at year's end. Padreda might (or might not) be helpful in hooking up the G-man with a cushy job for his golden years.
In fact Pesquera was mentioned to Miami Mayor Manny Diaz as a candidate for police chief back in 2002. Ironically it was Pesquera's very association with Padreda that led city officials to take a pass. Padreda had alienated Diaz when he told the mayor to back off from criticizing his buddy, police Chief Martinez, or he'd denounce the mayor on Spanish-language radio.
Maurice Ferré recalled that when he was running for mayor in 2001 he met with Chief Martinez; during the meeting "Camilo just walks in. He had Hector Pesquera with him." Later Padreda told Ferré: "You know, Pesquera and I are best friends, and in fact I brought him over to meet the chief." Supposedly Pesquera was there to explore the city's top-cop job.
Padreda's friendship with Chief Martinez gave him unparalleled access inside the Miami Police Department. I've spoken with many cops who saw him freely wandering the halls and entering sensitive areas. So it's legitimate to ask if his friendship with Pesquera gave him similar access to the FBI offices on NW Second Avenue and 163rd Street.
Pesquera has had a successful career fighting crime. A native of Puerto Rico, he joined the FBI in 1976, and after postings in Tampa; Montevideo, Uruguay; and Washington, D.C., ended up becoming the first Puerto Rican to head the FBI office in San Juan. In 1998 he became the first Hispanic to be appointed special agent in charge of the bustling Miami office. He's led investigations into drug smuggling, Cuban spy rings, and public corruption. He should know better than to risk squandering the trust and integrity he's earned over the years.
Ten months ago, when I first faxed questions to his office, Pesquera refused to talk to me. He refused again this month. Apparently he doesn't feel any obligation to explain himself. This happens to veteran managers in the FBI, I'm told. It's an infectious form of arrogance that afflicts top dogs when they lose touch with the people they serve.
It may be easy to brush off a pesky reporter, but that won't be an option when the Department of Justice comes knocking.