By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
On a mantel near his computer desktop, Arriola displays a shrine of family photographs. He and his wife have five adult children and two grandchildren. The Arriolas live in a six-bedroom, six-bathroom estate in South Miami, which they purchased in 2001 for $1.5 million. Joe drives a 2004 Jaguar, while Lourdes cruises around town in a 2005 Porsche.
Waiting outside Arriola's office is local developer and Latin Builders Association president Gus Gil, who made the unfortunate decision to cut down a black olive tree in Coconut Grove without the city's permission. Arriola's booming baritone voice vibrates the walls as he calls Gil into his office. What unfolds is reminiscent of the scene from Arriola's favorite flick, The Godfather, in which Johnny Fontane asks Vito Corleone for assistance.
A handsome fellow dressed in a pink-and-white striped guayabera and black slacks, Gil tells Arriola he is going to plant fourteen trees in the Grove to atone for his mistake.
Arriola is not satisfied. "Eso es una mierda," Arriola roars. "I want sixteen trees and $3000 for the city's tree fund."
A flabbergasted Gil balks. "No way," he responds. "It's either the trees or the cash."
"C'mon, it will be good for your conscience," Arriola insists. "You won't have to go to confession."
"Don't give me that bullshit," Gil retorts. "I've already planted six trees. I'll give you eight more and the $3000."
Arriola doesn't budge. By the time the negotiation is over, Gil has agreed to plant twenty oak trees and donate $4000 to the tree fund. "You're an abuser," Gil says to Arriola.
Later the same afternoon, after meeting with out-of-town investors interested in doing business in Miami, Arriola arrives at his office at Miami City Hall on Pan American Drive. Like his downtown office, the room is adorned with mementos, sports memorabilia, and family photos. Arriola settles into his office chair, ignites a Marlboro Lights menthol cigarette, and takes a drag.
On his desk rests a framed Far Side comic strip depicting the Devil sticking his pitchfork into a guy standing in front of two doors. One door has a sign that says: Damned if you do. The other door's sign reads: Damned if you don't. The Devil says to the guy: "C'mon, c'mon, it's one or the other."
Halfway through the cancer stick, Arriola takes a phone call from a disgruntled Miami taxpayer. Arriola puts August Barone, a 75-year-old retiree, on speakerphone. Barone demands an explanation about the fire fee controversy: "I want to know what happened to my money," Barone bellows. "Someone has created a fraud against the people of Miami, and I want to know what is being done about it!"
During the half-hour conversation, Arriola coolly shares his version of events with Barone while chain-smoking at least five cigarettes. As he relays his story to Barone, Arriola accuses the Miami Herald of making him look like a liar.
Barone: "But the people who were paying the fire fee where never notified about this settlement. That is the fault of the people running the city, not the Miami Herald ."
Arriola: "And I'm telling you we are trying to get your money back. That is why we went to court."
Barone: "You know it is very difficult for the average taxpayer to know who is telling the truth and who is telling a lie."
Two weeks after his conversation with the city manager, Barone says he doesn't believe Arriola when he claims he didn't know the seven million dollars was going only to the seven plaintiffs. Barone cites the testimony of Hank Adorno and former city attorneys Alex Villarelo and Charles Mays, all of whom refuted Arriola's version of events. Under oath, Adorno insisted Arriola was fully aware the settlement would go only to his clients. Under oath, Mays relayed that Arriola knew the city's strategy was to allow the statute of limitations to run out on certifying the lawsuit as a class action so no other taxpayer could make a claim against the city. Under oath, Villarelo denied advising Arriola that he should personally meet with Adorno to hash out an agreement.
"Someone is telling a lie," Barone reasons. "Are you to believe the many people who are telling the same story, or Joe Arriola, who is telling us something else? I can only assume that the city manager did what he would have done as a private businessman: He took the easy way out."
In the late afternoon on February 2, Arriola is doing his best not to pay attention to the commotion outside city hall. Several dozen people have gathered in front of the building, carrying placards reading: "Let Go of Joe!" and "Fire Arriola!"
For nearly an hour, about 100 protesters chant for Arriola's ouster. The impromptu protest was organized by 42-year-old paralegal Yvonne Bayona, a member of the Roads-Vizcaya Homeowners Association who battled with the city administration and Commissioner Joe Sanchez to save the majestic trees on Cuban Memorial Boulevard last year. During that brouhaha, Bayona had her own run-in with Arriola at a public meeting. "He kept saying things that were not true," Bayona recalls. "When I tried to correct him, he ordered two police officers to kick me out of the meeting."