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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.
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."
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.