Inspector Imperiled

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

In fact what makes the office so effective, in my opinion, is the staff Mazzella has hired. He didn't want a team made up only of retired law enforcement. He wanted people from different disciplines. The one thing they all have in common is a college degree. Among the investigators are accountants, former government compliance officers, lawyers, insurance and bank fraud examiners, ex-cops, and for a brief time, a journalist. It's a brilliant idea to have people with different training all examining the same issue -- that makes for some creative problem-solving.

Rosenthal's letter clearly shows that he is scared of Mazzella's success and autonomy. "While I wholeheartedly endorse the concept of maximizing the independence of your office, there must remain some degree of OIG accountability. Unfortunately, I believe your office has on occasion strayed from its mission over the years and you have publicly asserted more than once that your office is not accountable to anyone." Rosenthal gives no specifics on when or where Mazzella said this.

"I never said that," asserts Mazzella. "What I said was, when it comes to directing our investigations, I'm not answerable to anyone. In other words, no one can tell us when to open an investigation, and no one can tell us when to close one. In every other respect I'm accountable to all kinds of people, from the county's budget office to the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County."

Mazzella (right) with Rundle announcing arrests at the airport -- but really, doesn't he have anything better to do than fight all this crime?
Tristram Korten
Mazzella (right) with Rundle announcing arrests at the airport -- but really, doesn't he have anything better to do than fight all this crime?

Much of this comes back to Meyers, whose ethics investigators initially shared a suite of offices with OIG staff at 19 W. Flagler St. From the very beginning Mazzella was clear about his intention to put some distance between the two entities. He literally locked ethics staff out of the OIG offices by setting up coded security doors.

Harsh as that was, his reasoning was this: To qualify for a license to use criminal computer databases, the OIG has to do a rigorous background check on its employees, similar to those done at police agencies. It is more intrusive than the one for ethics employees. Mazzella maintains that the license would be in jeopardy if unauthorized personnel had access to his office.

Of course this created tension between Meyers and Mazzella. What didn't help was that as the OIG continued with its unbroken string of successes, the ethics commission suffered setbacks. It lost several high-profile ethics-violation cases, including one against Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños for lying under oath and another against county commission chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler for giving county funds to youth programs with which she was affiliated. And it failed in its effort to pass an ordinance requiring lobbyists to disclose their fees.

Mazzella's request to separate his budget from the ethics commission's budget (about $4.7 million combined) might very well have been the last straw for Meyers, whose office is drifting into irrelevancy.

Meyers, it turns out, had been complaining to Rosenthal about the OIG's growing power for years. "I had some discussions with the chair of the ethics commission," Meyers tells me. "I've talked about these concerns over the past six years with him."

And it was Meyers who actually wrote the letter to Mazzella. "The letter represents the opinion of the chair of the ethics commission and nobody else," he says, but Rosenthal "asked me to compose it, and then I sent it to him and he signed it."

The severe tone of Rosenthal's letter is remarkable given the OIG's track record, not just on criminal cases but in saving millions of taxpayer dollars. Rosenthal essentially put Mazzella on probation. "You will need to regularly report to the full Commission or the Chairman of the Ethics Commission to demonstrate that you are properly fulfilling the duties that you have been entrusted with." He demanded that Mazzella respond in writing by July 30. (In a conciliatory follow-up note, Rosenthal retracted the deadline but not the contents of the previous letter.)

It would be unfortunate if Mazzella has to waste a lot of time and energy on this fight, instead of battling corruption.

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