Christopher Mazzella: Vigilante Unbound

This inspector general has crossed the line: Tristram Korten would like his readers to believe that Christopher Mazzella, the crime-fighting Miami-Dade County inspector general, is about to be fired by his boss, Kerry Rosenthal, chairman of the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, aided and abetted by lawyer Robert Meyers, the executive director of the commission ("Inspector Imperiled," July 29). Only when readers get to the ninth paragraph does Korten reveal that he worked for the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for about a year. It is apparent he absorbed all the prejudices of his former boss, Mr. Mazzella, to whom the piece is dedicated. In any case, Korten says it's his column and he has the right to express his opinions. So there!

Wrong. The ethics commission is a vital institution in protecting the public against government employees who violate the county's code of ethics. The First Amendment does not authorize Korten to do a kind of "soft" libel on the leadership of the commission. He is not, as you will see in a moment, today's Lincoln Steffens.

1. Korten, like any good novelist, immediately goes to motivation. Why do Rosenthal and Meyers want to "get" Mazzella, a hard-charging, case-winning, retired FBI agent?

Korten's answer: Rosenthal, a real estate attorney (note: He's not a crime-fighting, gun-toting prosecutor), and his co-conspirator and legal adviser Meyers resent, yes, resent, Mazzella's success! The OIG is doing too good a job catching people stealing public money and thus, in capturing the public spotlight, he leaves them in the dark. There you have it: envy and revenge. Rosenthal and Meyers just didn't get invited to the dance. Ugly, childish wallflowers.

Korten prints a couple of sentences from Rosenthal's letter to Mazzella wherein Rosenthal expresses his concern about Mazzella's alleged failure to adhere to his proper function under the county commission's charter. With only small snippets of the letter available to readers, it appears Rosenthal feared that Mazzella, the FBI war horse, was turning his office into an unsupervised private investigatory agency beholden to no one, and doing it under the guise of political independence. That sounds a little more serious than envy and revenge.

2. Korten carefully notes the parameters of the OIG's independence: He is insulated from pressures coming from such political entities as the county commission, the county mayor, and the county manager. But there is one additional aspect of Mazzella's independence that needs to be explicated: the OIG's administrative obligations to the ethics commission, its chairman, and its executive director. Korten just doesn't want to go there, leaving the impression that Mazzella is responsible to no one. Korten's failure of analytic nerve means something crucial is missing: Where are the checks and balances so central to democratic theory and practice?

3. But Korten senses that his failure to spell out the legal limits of the OIG's power opens the door to the specter of vigilantism. To Rosenthal's expressed concern that the OIG is responsible to no one, Korten, carefully examining various punctuation marks and scattered phrases in the ordinance creating the ethics commission, puts on his judge's wig and declares, "It's a matter of interpretation." Whose interpretation? Judge Korten comes right out and says it: Mazzella's.

4. Korten unwittingly provides some interesting facts that tend to substantiate Rosenthal's fears that Mazzella is seeking total independence of any controls, the key benchmark of the vigilante:

(a) When Mazzella was asked who he is accountable to, he mentions the county's budget office and the taxpayers of Miami-Dade County, carefully selecting bodies that are remote or ephemeral. He fails to go straight to the proper source of his authority and his paycheck: the county ethics commission. Korten's partisan brain lets this incriminating statement pass without comment.

(b) Korten describes Mazzella's attempt to gain total autonomy over his budget but draws no inferences from that. Of course, anyone who knows even a little bit about business and governmental organizations knows that freedom to control one's budget is a prerequisite for administrative independence. The best Korten can do to justify the OIG's power grab is to declare that other claimants on the ethics commission's budget were just wasting money anyway.

(c) When Korten describes how Mazzella literally fortified his office space by locking out everyone but his own personal staff, he is forced to peddle a truly incredible (i.e., not credible) explanation, one obviously formulated by Mazzella: His specially screened staff has access to super-secret police databases and must keep the doors locked. Super-secret criminal databases should be protected, but as everyone knows, you don't need to prop a chair under the door handle and lay a cocked .45 on your keyboard to be secure. Hey, Tristram! All you need is a sufficiently long password.

Conclusions: I'll take Korten's word for it that the OIG's office has been effective in helping to build about 100 solid legal cases in six years against legally rotten government employees. However, it does not follow as a corollary that the OIG knows better than anyone else where to look for smoking guns. One can always build up a pretty good batting average by taking easy cases: stupid thieves who leave a paper trail a mile wide. The fact that so few of Mazzella's cases have been contested may say more about the lack of sophistication of his targets than the irrefutable character of the evidence collected by the OIG.

Summary: Before I leave, it's time for full disclosure. I met one of Mr. Korten's villains, Robert Meyers, in Miami Beach when I was supporting the passage of certain ethics legislation. I met him again when he came to Miami Beach to explain and support legislation that would require lobbyists to disclose their fees. That disclosure law was passed in Miami Beach and Meyers helped do that.

As for Kerry Rosenthal, whom I have never met, you may agree with Korten that Rosenthal is obsessed with administrative minutiae and doesn't know how to interpret the very statute that gave life to the commission he heads. But maybe he's just applying the theory of checks and balances. So there!

Morris Sunshine

Miami Beach

Christopher Mazzella: Never Threatened

If anything is threatened, it's Korten's credibility:Tris Korten's "Inspector Imperiled" was right in at least one respect. The Commission on Ethics and Public Trust (COE) does not have a 100 percent conviction record. It's more like 99 percent. Our successes, which Korten neglected to mention while he swooned over his ex-boss Christopher Mazzella, include ethics complaints filed against a county commissioner, the mayor of North Miami, a former county manager, former City of Miami manager, a Miami Beach commissioner, two Homestead city council members, the former North Bay Village mayor, and a prominent local lobbyist.

COE investigations also led to the removal from office of a community council member who was subsequently arrested and convicted, the removal from office of a county fire board commissioner, and the firing from city employment of a senior Miami Beach building official. All that with an investigative staff less than half the size of the Office of the Inspector General.

Moreover the vast majority of the more than 100 complaints the COE has handled in the past four years have been settled without a fight. Did we lose a few? You bet we did. But when you take elected and appointed officials to task, instead of low-level employees, a few defeats are inevitable. Clearly Mr. Korten does not have a clue about the hundreds of advisory opinions the COE issues, or the community outreach and training it does throughout the county. Either that or he just thinks they are not important.

It seems to me that the only thing in danger of "fading into irrelevancy" is Korten's journalistic integrity. Instead of fair, unbiased reporting, he chooses to dress up in his cheerleader outfit and do a "rah, rah" for his former boss. Put away the pompoms and the drama, Tris. Nowhere in COE chairman Kerry Rosenthal's letter to Mazzella was there even a hint of a possibility of the inspector general losing his job. In fact Rosenthal praised Mazzella's fine work. But when the Performing Arts Center, a project for which the OIG provided oversight since day one, is $67 million over budget, maybe "refocusing your agency priorities" as chairman Rosenthal, Mazzella's boss, suggests, isn't such a bad idea.

Michael Murawski

Advocate

Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust

Miami

Editor's note: In his column this week, Tristram Korten reveals a telltale e-mail that now figures in the dispute between Meyers and Mazzella. See page 22.

How About an Embargo for All the People?

One that also applies to Cuban Americans: Regarding Kirk Nielsen's article about the Bush administration's new Cuba restrictions ("Politics and Policy," July 29), I don't think they go far enough. It was my understanding that, according to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, Cubans are allowed into this country without further review because they are, by definition, political refugees. In these days of wet-foot/dry-foot, only those with legitimate claims of political persecution are allowed in if they are caught offshore. So if every Cuban in the United States is here because of political persecution (as opposed to being economic refugees like everyone else), then why would any of them ever want to return to a country where they must fear arrest?

As to remittances, I thought the purpose of the embargo was to keep American dollars out of Cuba. That's certainly the reason regular Americans like me cannot visit the place. So why would refugees who despise Castro want to prolong his reign by putting hundreds of millions of American dollars into the Cuban economy?

My opinion of the half-assed embargo we've had for more than 40 years? Either have one that is total and complete (no American dollars to Castro by way of remittances, no U.S. visas to Cubans, no tourism, and no phone tolls) or lift the embargo, allow open travel, and flood Cuba not only with American dollars but with American ideals, information, and material goods.

To have only certain people able to travel to a certain county is, well, un-American.

Chris Fulmer

Homestead

Omaha -- It Moves to a Latin Beat

The city's beloved "Little Havana" district is a tropical oasis: Max Castro is on target in exposing how a "small cadre of exile fanatics" in Miami dictate and hold hostage U.S. policy toward Cuba ("Triumph of the Zealots," July 29). A majority of the American people are against the embargo, both houses of Congress have voted to end it, and yet President Bush tightens sanctions, prosecutes Americans who travel there, and makes it almost impossible for Cubans here in the U.S. to help or see their loved ones. It's outrageous how this administration panders to the tyranny of a few with power and money. Everyone sees through this vote-buying.

It's a tragedy that this hostility and antagonism between Cuba and the U.S. has gone on for 45 years. The island is only 90 miles off our shores. If the anti-Castro fanatics had immigrated to Nebraska instead of vote-rich Florida, the embargo would have ended years ago.

Robert Emmerling

Miami Shores

Who's Calling Who a Zealot?

Max Castro, Fidel Castro -- what's the difference? When Max Castro says "it wasn't supposed to be this way," he sounds like a bride left at the altar. His bias, which is not so different from the comandante in Cuba with whom he shares his last name, is strikingly apparent in the hodgepodge of distorted facts and conjecture he calls an article.

While Mr. Castro makes a very compelling yet skewed argument, he fails to mention those things that would otherwise soften his position. Many of the people protesting these new restrictions are people who own businesses that specialize in sending remittances and packages to Cuba. Castro avoids mentioning that family travel is a widely abused system serving as a way to get products into Cuba for businesses, businesses that must maintain political silence to continue operations under the tyrannical Fidel Castro regime.

A large percentage of Cubans who go to the island regularly are not visiting their abuelita; they are mulas or mulos, people who are paid to take supplies to dollar stores on the island. Another large percentage of travelers to Cuba are people who practice sexual tourism. They go to Cuba because instead of paying for a prostitute in, say, Paris, where it will cost them a significant amount of money, they can go to Cuba and pay five dollars for a good time with a Cuban girl who is barely a woman.

Max Castro states that the cultural and educational exchanges recently curtailed were popular, but he doesn't explain why they've been so popular, especially with the regime in Havana. The regime is getting some of its population educated in the U.S. while we are getting the raw deal of having American college students conned into thinking they can expand their horizons by going to Cuba to "get educated" -- that is, studying The Communist Manifesto.

He also mentions that U.S. business and agriculture lobbies have come out against the embargo because they have a vested interest in Cuba. For those who are too ignorant to figure it out, their vested interest is money! They don't care about the humanitarian situation under Fidel Castro's regime; they care only about their bottom line.

Why doesn't Max Castro see himself as the zealot? What do you call a man who is constantly advocating trade with the regime in Havana? What do you call a man who has never, to my knowledge, condemned the tyrannical Castro regime? I call him a left-wing fanatic.

While he believes that we in el exilio, by supporting these measures, are handing to Fidel Castro the mantle of the defender of the Cuban family, we are not. We are showing the world that Fidel is the true divider, the one whose actions over the past 45 years have made these sanctions a necessary part of political life.

Keith Fernández

Pembroke Pines

Newly Arrived at Wal-Mart: Cuban Cigars?

The embargo has made millionaires of some greedy exiles: Max Castro's fine article detailing control of U.S. foreign policy by a small number of Cuban-American zealots missed one thing: the zealots' current financial advantage in maintaining the embargo.

Many of these pre-1975 Cuban immigrants dominate the Caribbean sugar, rum, and tobacco industries. If the economic embargo against Cuba is lifted, their near monopolies and tax breaks would end with the influx of better, cheaper Cuban products.

These same hard-line Cubans also receive huge payments from the CIA and the U.S. State Department to produce anti-Castro propaganda. As Max Castro suggests, this embargo is not just about the grudges of some elderly Cubans; it is also about their greed.

Edward Yates

Larkspur, California

Embargo Alternative: Flood the Zone

Open the gates and let America rush in: I ran across a link to Max Castro's "Triumph of the Zealots" on BuzzFlash.com. I must be among the 85 percent of Americans who believe that our nation's official policy toward Cuba is, in a word, silly.

Let us instead crush Fidel Castro with kindness.

Andrew Grabiec

Los Lunas, New Mexico

Embargo This!

Why do you think the Diaz-Balarts are such hardliners? The outrageous, unconstitutional, and definitely not conservative Cuba travel ban is not just a political ploy. In its latest form it also constitutes gratuitous cruelty, implemented for the sake of a family feud.

Family feud? That's right. Ultra-hard-line Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his sidekick brother Mario are cousins of Fidel Castro! Didn't know that? Just do some Googling! If they could push a button and destroy Cuba and everyone in it to get rid of their hated kinfolk, I'm sure they'd do it.

They have no reason to visit there, nor would they dare. So why should they care about separating lonely, grieving, even terminally ill family members? They're a disgrace, and so is Dubya for catering to them.

Richard Rosichan

Miami Beach

Take Your Pick: The Exxons or the Kalashnikovs

For Cuban nationals, the prospects look grim: I live in West Virginia but follow news of Cuba on the Internet, which is the best source because national network news is mostly muted on the subject of Cuban politics. I look forward to the day I can visit a free Cuba with Cuban culture still in place. But I do not look forward to George W. Bush's smoke-and-mirrors plan for the island nation. (I'm beginning to think that the "evildoer" sits in the White House.) Neither do I support Fidel Castro's regime.

Unfortunately I have little hope for the people on the island. They will be ruled by either corporations or the military. My hope for the citizens of Cuba is that they gain their freedom and independence rather than remaining chess pieces in a game of power politics.

Shirley Grose

Summersville, West Virginia

Regime Change: The Final Frontier

Bush's heartless new rules are just a ploy: Thanks for the Cuba articles by Kirk Nielsen and Max Castro. When I first learned about the U.S. government's new restrictions on travel to Cuba, I cried. I cried because my abuela is 102 years old and I'm not sure if she'll be alive to greet me next time I'm able to visit. I cried because my family is being pushed away from me. The embargo has never hurt the Cuban government; it has only hurt the Cuban people on and off the island.

I've always been skeptical of the U.S. government, especially now under the presidency of George W. Bush, whose Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba is just another ploy to take over a country and install its own man in a new government. Basically this will mean the U.S. will be able to move in and clear the way for companies like McDonald's and Exxon.

I have been to Cuba, and I've seen how the government is not working for its people right now. At the same time, I never want the U.S. to set foot in Cuba. My only hope is that Bush will not be re-elected and that Kerry will rescind these new sanctions.

Marta Cabrera Estévez

Brooklyn, New York

Humberto, Investigative Bulldog

Next up -- a hard-hitting VIP room exposé: Congratulations are in order to Humberto Guida for taking an objective look at the state of Nerve Lounge in his "BuzzIn" column "Nerve Damage" (July 29). Most of the time his articles read like advertisements for Mynt and other lounges of the bourgeoisie, but this one was more objective and investigative.

I know the poor guy gets ripped on a lot, but I'll give credit where credit is due. Believe me, not a week goes by without some sort of controversy in clubland.

Dan Vidal

Miami Beach

He Is Not Crazy!

Xavier Suarez as gossip item: I am dumbfounded by the ability of some people to see the negative aspects of certain situations without even considering reasonable doubt. As an example, consider Brett Sokol's "Kulchur" column about "crazy" Xavier Suarez ("No More Mayor Loco," July 22).

Despite stories from reporters across America, who must have heard something through the grapevine while forgetting to do their research, Xavier Suarez is far from crazy.

What does his name mean to me? Well, it means a lost opportunity for our community. It also means that our community appears to be so incapable of making informed decisions that its main recourse is gossip. Now that's crazy.

Maria Pestonit

Miami

Clarification of the Virgin

She may spin, but she doesn't buy: It amused me to find Lauren Reskin (a.k.a. DJ Lolo) showcased in "Set List" (July 29) and described as the "buyer" for Virgin Megastore in South Miami. Please be advised that Lauren is not and has never been a buyer at Virgin. Moreover, she works a total of seven hours per week, if that.

Just thought I'd fill in Mosi Reeves on this error since integrity and accurate facts are integral parts of journalism, plus a vital part of a successful and open music community.

Juan Oyarzun, inventory director

Virgin Megastore

South Miami

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