By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
In 2001, when Vishnu Maharaj was hired as facility manager of the Crandon Park Tennis Center, the complex took in only $9400 per year in court fees. Corrupt employees pocketed cash instead of putting it into the register. The courts were in disrepair, and player amenities, like water coolers and benches, were scarce.
By November 2006, court fee revenue had grown to $86,000 annually a 900 percent increase. Costs had been reduced by fifteen percent. Patrons could call the park and be matched with a player of equal skill. There were new ball machines. The four red clay and grass courts, out of operation before Maharaj's arrival, were in top condition.
Then, in November, Maharaj's immediate supervisor, Tim Byrnes; and an employee with the county's human resources department, Yolanda Fuentes-John, asked him to resign. The claim: "He had essentially been running a private business [at the tennis center] for nearly six years," says Vivian Rodriguez, director of Miami-Dade County Park and Recreation.
Crandon Park is one of South Florida's most prominent sports venues. The 13,300-seat stadium was completed in 1994 in a lush area on pricey Key Biscayne. It's home to the fifth-largest tournament on the professional tour, the Sony Ericsson Open (formerly the NASDAQ-100 and, before that, the Lipton), where the world's top-ranked players (Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick) compete for a $6.9 million prize before some 270,000 fans. The event is broadcast in 150 countries. The facility also hosts junior tournaments featuring nationally ranked players like Brennan Boyajian of Weston and Lauren Albanese from Coral Springs. During nontournament time, Crandon is home to coaches and staff of the United States Tennis Association's Youth Development Program, which trains the top young players in the country.
Before working at Crandon, Maharaj already had a lengthy tennis resumé. A native of Trinidad, he traveled to the United States in the Seventies because of tennis. "We were a family of seven kids, and we all came to this country on tennis scholarships," he says. After playing the game at Georgia Southern University and coaching for a short time, he ran a tennis resort on St. Simons Island in Georgia for more than 25 years.
When he arrived at the Key Biscayne facility, Maharaj found a mess, he says. Employees would close the pro shop and go to lunch, leaving a note on the door. The bathrooms would often be locked during operating hours. The shop phone would go unanswered. Only ice-cream bars and Powerade were available for purchase.
Maharaj began his reformation by remedying the customer service problems. He took boxes of inventory from storage and placed the contents on display. Other changes followed. "Because I'm a tennis player, when I go to a facility, I expect to be able to get something to drink, to get my racket repaired, to have water on the courts and a bench where I can sit in the shade."
He also cut costs: Upon arrival, he says, the facility's electricity bill was as high as $172,000 per year. Water heaters for showers used only during tournament time ran all year. Lights were left on unnecessarily. Soon Maharaj had shaved approximately $20,000 off the power bill.
And revenues increased. The reason, Maharaj contends, is that he required employees to stop pocketing fees and letting people play for free. Meeting room rentals had generated no income the year before his arrival, but according to Maharaj, groups had been meeting in the clubhouse for fifteen years.
"Our revenues couldn't have gone from $9400 to $85,500 just like that," he says. "It was easy to increase the numbers because I made sure the numbers went into the register."
Despite the crackdown, Maharaj was well liked by many. Paul Roetert, managing director of the USTA Player Development Program, describes him as professional and courteous, adding that the facility was always in "great shape" during Maharaj's tenure. Two employees at Crandon both speaking anonymously for fear of reprimand say he was a good boss, they enjoyed working with him, and he turned the place into a functioning business.
This past year, Maharaj received an award on behalf of the county at a convention of the Florida chapter of the USTA, which named Crandon Park its Member Organization of the Year. The county gave him a raise each year his annual salary rose from $34,000 to $50,000.
So why did he have to go? For five years Maharaj and his staff operated a racket-stringing machine in the pro shop. He advertised the service in county literature, and estimates fifteen to twenty rackets per month were repaired. (A staff member at the pro shop says the number was as high as twenty per day before the tournament.)
The machine was Maharaj's own. He supplied the materials and charged $25 for racket stringing, $10 for employees and players of the USTA Youth Development Program (which comprised the bulk of the work, says Maharaj). Five dollars of that fee was commissioned to the staff member who strung the racket. Of the remainder, 10 percent went into the county register and 90 percent into Maharaj's pocket.
Then, this past fall, someone sent an anonymous letter to the park and recreation department informing it of the stringing business, which is a breach of county policy. The letter also claimed Maharaj was driving a county pickup truck to and from his residence, a violation of a rule prohibiting use of public property for personal use. The county performed an audit and, on November 16, asked for Maharaj's resignation.
County officials estimate Maharaj earned $7500 from his business. Maharaj claims he made less, citing the money he spent on strings, clamps, and the machines. He also notes that the park is closed to the public for 35 days before the tournament and 45 days afterward.
For Vivian Rodriguez, director of Park and Recreation, the situation was clear-cut: "Nobody would deny it was a good idea, but the proper way to do it is to establish a fee and run it through the register. We don't have people getting a 90 percent cash take." She added that Maharaj's supervisor, Tim Byrnes, was demoted for not having paid closer attention to what was going on. (Indeed Maharaj says Byrnes gave him verbal permission to drive the pickup truck to his house.)
Nonetheless Maharaj says the situation is unfair. He had loaned his old tennis rackets to the facility for rental. "We did more money on rental rackets than we did on stringing," he says. "Every penny went into the register, and the county didn't own any of those rackets." (Racket rental was discontinued after Maharaj left and took his rackets with him.)
After the accusations against him came to light, Maharaj sent his own dirty laundry list to County Manager George Burgess. It alleged, among other things, that Director Rodriguez had been given free racket stringing, had taken tennis balls and a sweatshirt from the pro shop, and had accepted the gift of a tennis racket from Wilson.
Rodriguez denies each accusation. "He responded with a series of inaccuracies and half-truths," she says. "We don't even sell rackets at the pro shop."
As for the free racket stringing, Rodriguez says Maharaj was "trying to ingratiate himself with me and the supervisors." The half-case of balls that Maharaj alleged she stole? "Those were kept in the department," she says. "Several years ago we did a series of employee tennis afternoons because we wanted to encourage the sport at his suggestion." The balls were used at the employee tennis clinic.
Maharaj also claimed in his list that he once had to escort an intoxicated County Commissioner Sally Heyman from the 2005 NASDAQ-100 Open. "You've got to be kidding," responded Heyman when she was informed of the charge. "Very rarely do I drink and never was I escorted out." She added that her attendance was limited at the event anyway, because she donates most of her tickets to local organizations for fundraising purposes.
Maharaj says his supervisors pocketed liquor provided by tournament sponsor Bacardi and that Byrnes took home eleven cases of tournament hats and two dozen junior tennis rackets. Rodriguez says the hats were given to volunteers parking cars outside. Byrnes declined to comment.
The future of Crandon Park's management is currently in limbo. Rodriguez says the county is doing a tennis market study. One possibility is to go the way of Miami Beach, where tennis complexes are run by private contractors. For now Crandon will be without racket rentals and repairs. And Maharaj must resign himself to finding a new job. "I really liked what we were doing in Miami-Dade," he sighs. "I would like to do the same type of thing elsewhere.
"Any time I have a chance to do something for the game, I do it," he adds. At least in this case, even when it goes against county policy.