Public Funds, Private Gain

Keeping the county's parks safe and secure is a high priority -- and highly profitable

Capt. Edwin Milian-Zabala is a hard-working member of the Miami-Dade Park and Recreation Department's security unit. Didn't know such a thing existed? You're not alone. But that doesn't mean the unit's employees don't work hard. In fact Milian-Zabala appears to toil endlessly on behalf of county taxpayers.

He put in nearly 2000 overtime hours between 2001 and 2003, according to a recently released audit by the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General. His total OT take in those three years: $51,854. The extra cash padded his $38,000 salary by an average of 50 percent each year. The audit also shows he worked fourteen days straight, including one nineteen-hour day followed by ten sixteen-hour days. Wow! That's one dedicated public servant. Who knew the parks were so busy?

Captain Milian-Zabala isn't the only devoted employee. His boss, acting Chief George Poulos, put in nearly 1700 hours of overtime in that three-year span, worth $55,219. Poulos earns $47,600 per year. Of course real chiefs are not eligible for overtime assignments. But "acting" chiefs, a designation that is supposed to last no more than six months, can earn the coveted time-and-a-half pay. Poulos has been acting chief for four years.

Department director Vivian Donnell Rodriguez: Facing 
a bad audit and huge embarrassment, she hunkers 
down and dodges questions
Department director Vivian Donnell Rodriguez: Facing a bad audit and huge embarrassment, she hunkers down and dodges questions

Milian-Zabala, Poulos, and two lieutenants -- the four highest-ranking members of the twenty-man unit -- grabbed 60 percent of all overtime jobs and money. They came in on their days off for assignments that should have gone to underlings. Because the brass earn higher salaries, their overtime is more costly to taxpayers. So who approved all that overtime? Milian-Zabala and Poulos themselves. According to the OIG audit, they also may have postdated overtime approval records, which raises questions about how much overtime they actually worked. One red flag: Milian-Zabala claims to have come in every day of a three-week vacation to sign overtime approval sheets. "Unlikely," the OIG report observes.

The audit didn't identify Poulos and Milian-Zabala by name, and it stopped just short of calling them thieves and liars, though it did state that investigators were "incredulous" Poulos was still acting chief after four years. Nor did the audit call for their dismissals. (Both men declined to comment.)

Too bad. We need to bounce the bums. They've shown they can't be trusted around our money. In fact the whole unit should go. Investigating them is becoming a full-time job for other county agencies.

In February 2000 the Miami-Dade Police Department's public-corruption unit arrested then-park security Chief Gustavo Giral and Ofcr. Jesus Hernandez for falsifying records and faking overtime. Giral allegedly made Hernandez pay him a cut of the fraudulent overtime. Both men were convicted and received probation. Now we have another overtime scandal. And the unit has only been around since 1997.

These episodes have also exposed the dismal hiring practices at the security unit. Overtime hog Milian-Zabala had been a City of Miami police officer for seven years until he was fired in 1989 as a result of the notorious River Cops scandal, in which about 100 officers were reprimanded, suspended, terminated, or arrested for their part in a widespread conspiracy to rob drug dealers. One guilty cop, Rodolfo Arias, testified he paid Milian-Zabala $1000 to keep quiet about drug rip-offs. If prosecutors hadn't been swamped with serious murder and trafficking investigations, it's likely Milian-Zabala would have been criminally charged. Instead the department fired him. Milian-Zabala fought his termination, but it was upheld by the civil service board.

Then there is Floyd Peters, a park security lieutenant. Peters was also a Miami cop, until the department fired him in 1992 for lying to supervisors. Civil service reinstated him with a twenty-day suspension, but he quit in 1998. In the OIG audit, Peters and the unit's other lieutenant are not named, but they cashed in a combined 3000 hours of overtime.

Bill Irvine, park department operations coordinator, explains that background checks revealed the terminations, but "no criminal charges were involved" and both men retained their state law-enforcement certifications, so they were suitable for hiring. And in Milian-Zabala's case, Irvine notes, "he has done nothing that has caused us to question his integrity."

Apparent malfeasance aside, why does the park department need a security unit? Despite the law-enforcement titles, the so-called officers can't carry weapons and aren't empowered to make arrests. The job has no educational requirements and is not licensed by any entity. The employees are poorly paid, which fosters an environment in which the unscrupulous are motivated to cheat. Their main function is to check park facilities at night -- in other words, they're gate-shakers. We'd be better off if the county contracted with a private company to do the job. Let them steal overtime from Wackenhut. (The county's transit department pays Wackenhut to patrol Metrorail, and saves money in the process. "We explored other options, including paying police officers and hiring our own security personnel, and this was the most cost-effective plan," says transit spokeswoman Tarnell Carroll.) Last year the park security unit had a one-million-dollar budget. Irvine says keeping the work in-house gives the department flexibility in covering special events -- which just happens to be where most of the audited overtime accrued.

Vivian Donnell Rodriguez is the park department's director. Responsive public servant that she is, she refused to take my calls and referred all questions to public information officer Yvonne McCormack-Lyons, who politely explained that Rodriguez wouldn't speak with me because the department is taking the next 90 days to thoroughly rebut the audit's findings.

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