By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
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By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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Katherine Fernandez Rundle is facing the most significant election challenge of her eleven-year tenure as Miami-Dade State Attorney, and she saw it coming. Eight years ago she ran unopposed. Four years ago political newcomer Al Milian came within eleven percentage points of defeating her. Backed by the county's powerful police union, the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), Milian has spent the past four years laying the groundwork for the upcoming November 2 election. Moreover, in this partisan race, an independent candidate, Gary Rosenberg, threatens to siphon off support from Rundle's traditional strongholds in the Anglo and Jewish communities.
To fortify herself, Rundle, a Democrat, has gone after the big money. With the help of fiancé David Efron, a wealthy lawyer active in Democratic national politics and Puerto Rican business and legal circles, Rundle had amassed $456,000 in contributions and loans by the end of August (the latest required reporting period). Through Efron's efforts, nearly $40,000 from Puerto Rico has poured into Rundle's campaign coffers.
Rundle dwarfs Republican Milian in fundraising, and her contributors' list reads like a who's who of wealthy, influential Miami: car dealers Norman Braman and Alan Potamkin; bankers Adolfo Henriques, Leonard Abess, and Carlos Migoya; Spanish Broadcasting System CEO Raul Alarcon; retired Knight Ridder CEO Alvah Chapman, Perry Ellis CEO George Feldenkreis, developers Leonard Miller and Martin Margulies, attorneys Robert Traurig and Cesar Alvarez. And in a race that allows corporate contributions, Rundle has raked it in, from major law firms to the Fanjul family's sugar companies.
But in this election season, Rundle is learning that cozying up to the rich and powerful can make you a target. Not long ago she stepped squarely into her critics' crosshairs when she attended an intimate fundraising event hosted by a politically active businessman whose daughter had a criminal case pending at the State Attorney's Office. Rundle maintains she knew nothing about the case, which prosecutors eventually dropped. Her presence at the businessman's office, however, was embarrassing for another reason -- at the time, he was under surveillance by the public-corruption unit of the county police department.
It's safe to say that politics was the farthest thing from the mind of 23-year-old Jacqueline Pino as she stood outside the South Beach nightclub crobar at 2:00 a.m. on July 4. She just wanted to have fun. Unfortunately her friend, Vanessa Gonzalez, got into a shouting match with another woman, pushing past cops who were trying to defuse the situation. When two Miami Beach officers placed Gonzalez under arrest, she allegedly said to Pino: "Fuck this, I'm going to jail, get the stuff out of my front right pocket," according to the arrest report. Pino then reached into her friend's pants pocket and pulled out a small baggie of cocaine, the report states. Both women were arrested for felony possession. Pino's lawyer, Juan Mourin, counters that police had given Pino permission to take Gonzalez's keys and wallet during the arrest and that she had no idea drugs were among the items. She has no prior record and, say family members, does not use drugs.
Pino is the daughter of Sergio Pino, founder and CEO of Century Partners Group, parent company of a conglomerate that includes real-estate, development, and construction-supply businesses. A former president of the Latin Builders Association, Pino has been deeply involved in local politics for many years and has had close ties to a number of elected officials, from Alex Penelas to Xavier Suarez, as well as indicted former county commissioners Miriam Alonso and Joe Gersten. His relationship with well-known county lobbyists Chris Korge and Rodney Barreto was once so tight they were known as "the three amigos." Despite his support of Democrat Rundle, Pino is an established Republican Party fundraiser and major supporter of Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother the president, who, Pino says, will be visiting his home in two weeks.
On July 22, while his daughter's criminal case was pending, Sergio Pino held a private get-together at the Century Partners office, 7270 NW Twelfth Street, to raise money for Rundle's campaign. "We got a group of friends together who gave her some checks," Pino says. "I have always supported Kathy Fernandez Rundle. She is a friend. She didn't know of this arrest and I swear I did not speak to her or anyone else about it. What happened to my daughter was a mistake and we didn't need anybody's help to clear it up."
Former county mayoral candidate and Century Partners board member José Cancela attended the gathering, as did businessmen Alberto Perez, Fausto Padron, Thomas Iglesias, and Cesar Llano, who works for the Century companies. Also in attendance was Jorge Lorenzo, whose H&J Asphalt and H&J Paving companies donated $1000. In 2000 H&J Paving was implicated in the Church & Tower scandal, in which auditors alleged the county was billed for work that was never done. Pino, his wife, and four of his companies -- Century Properties, Century Investors, Century Plumbing, and Century Duty Free -- each donated the $500 maximum at the event. Two more Pino companies had donated earlier, for a grand total of $4500. (During Rundle's 2000 campaign, Pino and his wife each donated $500, but none of his Century companies made contributions.)
Joe Robinson, supervisor of the State Attorney's felony screening unit, which processes 30,000 cases annually, says nobody knew who Jacqueline Pino's father was, and no one brought to Rundle's attention such a routine arrest. On August 3, prosecutors dropped the charges against Jacqueline. In an explanatory "close-out" memo, Robinson wrote that the arresting officers failed three times to respond to subpoenas, forcing prosecutors to reschedule court dates and finally drop the case. "If the cops don't show up three times, we don't do anything," Robinson says. (Miami Beach police spokesman Det. Bobby Hernandez supplied records indicating that all three subpoenas arrived late, after the scheduled conferences. "We never received the subpoenas on time," he says. "It's a shame the State Attorney's Office declined our request to refile the charges.")
Did Sergio Pino have any qualms about raising money for Rundle while his daughter's case was pending? "No, I didn't have to think about anything pending because I knew it was going to be okay," he says, repeating that he believes the arrest was a mistake.
Rundle, however, should have known better - arrest or no arrest.
For years law-enforcement officials have been interested in the intersection of Pino's political connections and his business interests. Rundle was well aware of this. In 2002 a task force working from her office arrested county Commissioner Miriam Alonso and charged her with three felony counts related to laundering political contributions. Police subpoenaed records from one of Pino's companies, where Alonso had an account and allegedly diverted campaign money to buy materials for her rental properties. Investigators also learned that Century Duty Free gave Alonso's chief of staff a loan to buy a home. (Pino was a key Alonso supporter, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for her election campaigns. Her case has yet to go to trial.)
In addition, sources say, federal and local investigators have been scrutinizing the county contract awarding Century Duty Free a license to operate at Miami International Airport. Pino freely admits he's been something of a magnet for law enforcement. "I've been investigated five times by the State Attorney's Office," he says. "When I meet with them, I never bring a lawyer. I never talk to Kathy about it. I have not done anything wrong. I have a very, very clean conscience. When you do business with the county, you get investigated."
Perhaps no surprise, then, that when Pino held his fundraiser for Rundle, Miami-Dade corruption cops had his office under surveillance. Law-enforcement sources won't discuss the stakeout, but say investigators saw Rundle enter, then leave with envelopes. The corruption detectives subsequently visited the Miami Beach officers who had arrested Jacqueline Pino, according to a Miami Beach Police Department source.
Miami-Dade police, now recognizing they faced a potential conflict of interest should their inquiries lead to an investigation of the State Attorney, gave their information to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).
Rundle's office was alarmed to learn from me that Miami-Dade police were looking into her relationship with Pino. As a result, Rundle instructed José Arrojo, chief assistant state attorney in charge of special prosecutions, to offer assistance to Miami-Dade police and FDLE. Arrojo called Maj. Michael Trerotola, head of Miami-Dade's public corruption unit. "I said, öLook, there's an allegation communicated to us by the media .... You are welcome to come down and look at the files and talk to anyone you need to," Arrojo recounts. "His response was: öSounds to me like the officers failed to appear for a number of prefiles and there's nothing for us to look at.'" Arrojo says when he called FDLE in Tallahassee to offer assistance, he received a similar response. (Trerotola declined comment. FDLE spokeswoman Kristen Perezlouha in Tallahassee said, "We have not opened an investigation on this information.")
Says Arrojo: "It is obvious to us that this is nothing more than political muckraking three weeks before the election, and that's unfortunate." To bolster that contention, he notes Rundle's opponent, Al Milian, has boasted that Maj. Carlos Gonzalez, who until recently headed the county police department's public-corruption unit, has endorsed his candidacy and donated $250 to his campaign.
Gonzalez famously clashed with the State Attorney's Office over the handling of several corruption cases. And since Gonzalez was in charge when the corruption cops monitored Pino and talked to the Miami Beach officers, Arrojo suggests there could be political motives: "You may have a handful of partisans nosing around for the next article in a union newsletter," Arrojo says. (The PBA newsletter has relentlessly attacked Rundle.) "It seems to me somebody with a political ax to grind reached out to some cops and said, 'Do you know about this?'"
Prior to confronting Rundle about the Pino contributions, I interviewed her regarding the election and her fundraising efforts. She said she had been cautious. "I sent out my contributors list to the FBI, Miami-Dade police, FDLE, and the U.S. Attorney's Office. And I asked [corruption prosecutors] Joe Centorino and Richard Scruggs to please take a look. I did this just in case I missed someone we had a case against, or a current defendant. As far as I know no one has said anything." Rundle adds that if a defendant or target of an investigation had contributed, she'd return the money.
In fact, Scruggs says, two weeks ago Rundle asked about a rumored investigation involving Pino: "I found out his name had come up in an investigation, but he wasn't the main target. Kathy decided she would have no further contact with him. We were in the process of determining whether to send the money back when someone leaked the story. If there was a problem, I wish somebody would have told us rather than playing ögotcha!' twenty days before the election."
At this point, Rundle says, she hasn't sent back any money. Quite the contrary, the checks have been rolling in, with the most notable bundle coming from Puerto Rico, where Rundle's office has no legal jurisdiction and from where she received no contributions in the 2000 election. This year, though, 43 individuals and 33 companies donated the maximum $500; two more individuals donated $300. This is clearly the hard work of fiancé David Efron. "I'm a very good friend of Mr. Efron," reports Miguel Velez, a San Juan engineer who donated $500. "So because of him I put some money in her campaign."
Rundle acknowledges the help. Efron, she says, "is an incredible support system for me. He's also a very astute, intelligent lawyer, and I value his input greatly." But, she adds, there's more to the Puerto Rican contributions than her fiancé hitting up friends and associates. "I never really realized how many Puerto Ricans own and do business in Miami-Dade. They are incredibly supportive."