The High Cost of Homeland Defense

Thanks to generous taxpayers like you, Miami's top Coast Guard officer has a very swanky address

Displaying military-style resourcefulness, Johnson circumvented the problem with a semantic twirl: His home would not be a house. It would be a facility. Thus he could bypass the housing office and its plebian mandate. Explains Murphy: "The duties and responsibilities of a district commander require engagement with other agencies, entertaining government officials, hosting events. The distinction here is that [the Cocoplum residence] is considered, representationally, a facility, in contrast to a house."

Whatever it is, Johnson's lavish home is leased (and paid for) through the Coast Guard's civil engineering unit, of which Captain Murphy is in charge. Murphy's unit typically negotiates real-property leases and related transactions. Johnson's home is the only residence his unit has ever handled. Officials in Miami say Coast Guard resource director Capt. Gary Blore, at headquarters in Washington, gave the thumbs-up to the unusual arrangement.

On Johnson's behalf, Murphy's office placed ads in local newspapers, contacted 34 real estate brokers, and visited numerous properties before narrowing the prospects to four. Three were within Cocoplum and the fourth near the University of Miami along the Coral Gables Waterway. Johnson toured them all. His first choice, a waterfront estate on Paloma Drive in Cocoplum, was pulled from the market. He settled for his second choice a few blocks away. (The exact location is no military secret. Dial 411 and directory assistance will gladly provide his address and phone number.)

The entrance to Cocoplum is on the southeast side of the richly landscaped Le Jeune Road traffic circle. Despite the gates and the armed Wackenhut security guard, the streets are public and anyone can enter. Inside, a contest of architectural one-upmanship appears in full play as successively grander and more opulent mansions of neo-Mediterranean and modernist styles march toward Biscayne Bay. The newer homes are truly colossal, and come with price tags of five million dollars and more. Since the late Seventies, when houses began rising from the hardwood hammocks and mangrove-covered coastlines in what was once a public beach and park, Cocoplum has been among South Florida's priciest and most fashionable addresses. Celebrities and the moneyed executive class have flocked there for years. (The Cocoplum Homeowners Association, which must approve all prospective buyers, rejected O.J. Simpson's application a few years back.) Political fundraising events have become common, with Bill Clinton visiting more than once.

The Cocoplum cachet, not to mention its maze of quiet canals and unguarded coastline, also proved irresistible to Miami's cocaine cowboys and their associates. The neighborhood became synonymous with the free-spending excesses of such notorious figures as Leonel Martinez, Hernan Arboleda, Enrique Zamorano, José Antonio Fernandez, and other convicted drug felons who built lavish mansions there. (Law enforcement wags dubbed the place Cocaineplum.) One such felon, now serving time in federal prison on cocaine-smuggling charges, was photographed shaking hands with Vice President Al Gore at a Cocoplum fundraising dinner, touching off a brief White House scandal.

Johnson's modern, two-story home is modest by drug-baron standards. It is on a shady, dead-end lane, sitting atop a small berm to escape the storm surges from the canal across the street that connects to Biscayne Bay. Other than the white, second-floor balustrades, the exterior is mustard yellow. Above the front entrance a balcony overlooks the manicured yard and sloping garden. In back, behind a clipped hedge of orange jasmine, a narrow spiral staircase connects a second-floor balcony to an outdoor patio. Lounge chairs and a barbecue grill are scattered around the pool deck. On a recent Friday morning a Coast Guard enlisted man, recognizable by his blue work uniform, could be seen out front. He identified himself as a Coast Guard air-conditioning technician. Johnson's air conditioning was on the blink, he explained; he was there to fix it.

The Coast Guard signed a one-year lease for the home with options for four additional one-year renewals. Officials say they haven't ruled out purchasing it. For now, they insist, it's a bargain at $9300 per month. But the Coast Guard also acknowledges that the cost of operating the Richmond Heights flag quarters, when occupied, is only about $2000 a month, a figure that includes utilities, maintenance, and some expenses related to entertaining. So where are the savings? "Hosting and partnering is an important element of the interagency aspect of the Coast Guard," says Captain Murphy. "A house like this can serve a multimission function." Neither Murphy nor a media-relations officer could specify any special uses or events at the Cocoplum residence since Johnson arrived.

The point may soon be moot. Shortly after Johnson moved into his stately new address, the Coast Guard announced plans to phase out the Richmond Heights housing facility, which includes the flag quarters and 99 other residential units, despite a six-million-dollar overhaul less than a decade ago. Keeping it open just doesn't make sense, explains Captain Lapinski, when more and more personnel are choosing to live elsewhere. Occupancy is about 50 percent. "The perception among Coast Guard people is that schools are better in other areas. They also want to live in places where the traffic isn't so bad," Lapinski says. "And with the expenses for upgrades and refitting a facility like this, we feel we can realize a substantial cost savings by closing it down altogether."

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