Inspector Imperiled

Incredibly, the job of one of the county's most successful and vigilant agents is on the line

Last week Miami-Dade Inspector General Christopher Mazzella stood beside State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle during a press conference announcing the arrest of nineteen people charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of gallons of jet fuel from the airport. Rundle gushed over Mazzella and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). "That office does a tremendous job assisting our criminal investigations," she told the assembled reporters. "I think all of you know the fine work he has done over the years."

Rundle's kind words were more than mere graciousness. She knows that Mazzella's organization will soon be fighting to exist as we know it, and she wanted to show her support. In fact Mazzella's job may be on the line.

Kerry Rosenthal, the chairman of the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which hired and can fire Mazzella, sent a sternly worded July 1 letter ordering the OIG to stop its criminal investigations. Mazzella is more likely to resign than concede to that.

"Particularly troubling is the fact your agency has taken on certain responsibilities traditionally reserved for law enforcement agencies, and I am at a loss to find the legal authority for the OIG to implement its mission in this manner. For example I am deeply disturbed when I read newspaper accounts of your office's involvement & 'arresting' alleged wrongdoers," Rosenthal wrote.

Instead Rosenthal, a real estate attorney in Aventura, insisted that Mazzella, a retired FBI agent, stick to number-crunching. "You will need to refocus agency priorities; that is, to focus more on audit and audit-related tasks and move away from criminal investigations," Rosenthal ordered in the letter.

To put this in perspective, the OIG has a 100 percent conviction rate for its criminal cases, all related to county employees or county money. Rosenthal's "concerns" are absurd. The OIG is doing too good a job catching people stealing public money?

But this isn't about an irresponsible agency overstepping its bounds. It's a political power play launched by the executive director of the ethics commission, Robert Meyers. Mazzella and Meyers don't get along. This year Mazzella sought to separate his budget from Meyers, a threatening prospect for the ethics commission director. Meyers counseled Rosenthal on what to put in the letter and even penned it for him.

The OIG began in 1997 with the task of rooting out waste, fraud, and mismanagement in county government. It was designed to be independent of the county's commission, mayor, and manager in order to insulate it from political manipulation. Instead the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, a group of five citizens appointed by different civic and legal groups, was established and empowered to hire the inspector general. At the same time, the ethics commission hired Meyers as its executive director. His staff includes people who investigate conflict-of-interest issues involving public officials. They don't have a 100 percent win record.

Before I go on, it's time for full disclosure: Starting in 2001 I worked as a special agent for the OIG for about a year. So I'm biased. Asking the OIG not to investigate crimes is a bad idea -- bad for county government and bad for residents. This is my column and that's my opinion. At the very least, it's an informed opinion.

I never arrested anyone, and never saw any of my colleagues arrest anyone. They don't carry handcuffs or guns. What they do is pore over reams of documents searching for evidence of wrongdoing, usually involving theft of public money. Contracts, tax returns, liens, water bills, electrical bills, parking lot entrance and exit records. Sometimes the evidence leads to a criminal case, at which point the State Attorney's Office is contacted. Then the OIG continues the investigation while consulting with the SAO. Sometimes it is an administrative matter and a department director will be given a report. If an arrest has to be made, the OIG will request the assistance of a police agency.

Let's go back to those arrest statistics: The OIG has put together cases that have resulted in more than 100 arrests since 1998. Only one case ever went to trial -- Barbara Dent, a water and sewer department employee accused of payroll fraud. She was convicted. All other defendants have pleaded guilty (some have avoided criminal records through pretrial intervention) because the cases are built on documents that are almost impossible to refute.

That's a stunning record.

Rosenthal, who didn't return two calls seeking comment, wants to put an end to this astonishing streak. He says that as soon as the OIG finds evidence a crime has been committed, it should stop what it's doing and turn the material over to the cops. Indeed the ordinance creating the office states: "Where the Inspector General detects corruption or fraud, he or she shall notify the appropriate law enforcement agencies."

It's a matter of interpretation. Mazzella maintains that's exactly what his office does; it just remains on the case following notification.

The reality is that a lot of these cases would fall through the cracks if OIG investigators had to turn them over to police. Miami-Dade's public-corruption unit is already busy. And with all due respect to police corruption investigators, the OIG's agents are better suited to the tedious work involved in these kinds of investigations. They get a rush setting up a spreadsheet.

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