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
Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas earns $52,499 a year as vice president of public policy and government/community relations for the YMCA of Greater Miami. That's a handsome salary and a lengthy title for someone who doesn't have to put in a 40-hour work week.
In fact Seijas's duties and responsibilities are a mystery.
Neither the commissioner nor YMCA spokeswoman Charlotte Donn would comment, but this much is certain: Seijas rarely steps foot into the administrative offices at 1200 NW 78th Ave. She admitted that during an October 7, 2005 deposition. This raises questions, because many companies that do business with the county also contribute to the YMCA.
She was being grilled by Robert Pelier, criminal defense attorney for Nilo Juri. The perennial Hialeah mayoral candidate is charged with four felony counts of election fraud allegedly committed during Seijas's 2004 re-election campaign. Prosecutors say Juri reimbursed people with cash for campaign contributions to Seijas's opponent, Jorge Roque. The case is pending.
Pelier was interviewing the commissioner because she had tipped off investigators. Asked about her employer, she said she goes to the YMCA as "frequently as I'm needed." Seijas could not recall if that meant more than once a month. She affirmed that her salary is unrelated to time spent at work. She said she does not keep a calendar of her appointments or meetings related to the YMCA.
The commissioner couldn't even recall the last time she attended a meeting at the organization's office. "Not that I can remember right now," she said.
So several weeks ago, Miami New Times attempted to find out where she does go every day. On January 12, we spotted Seijas at an anti-strong-mayor rally at the AFL-CIO's headquarters in Doral, where she was the guest of honor. Two hours later, we phoned the YMCA. The president's executive secretary, Carter Parsley, confirmed that Seijas does not maintain a regular schedule. "You're better off leaving her a message at her commission office," she said. Around 3:00 p.m., Seijas's gold Lexus hybrid SUV was parked in its assigned space at her Miami Lakes condo. Calls to her home phone number went unanswered.
At 6:30 a.m. January 16, New Timesset up surveillance at Seijas's condo. She never emerged through the front door. Her Lexus didn't leave its parking spot, but three hours later, Seijas was chairing a committee meeting at county hall. At the YMCA, Parsley again suggested we call county hall to find her.
The following morning, Seijas traveled to Tallahassee for the special legislative session. She returned January 18. At 6:00 a.m. the next day, Seijas's SUV was in the same place it had been all week. New Times made several phone calls to her house. At 9:49 a.m., she answered. "Why are you calling from a private number?" Seijas grumbled. New Times inquired about her vehicle. "It's a hybrid, that's why I like it," she said. New Times stayed outside until 11:00 a.m. She never left home.
On January 23, Seijas underwent surgery on her broken arm and spent the following day in recovery. No office time on those days.
Is it possible the YMCA employs a county commissioner only to assure that it continues receiving annual grants from Miami-Dade County, as well as to attract private donations from construction companies and developers that do business with county government? Certainly no law exists barring lobbyists and county contractors from donating to a nonprofit that employs a county commissioner. But it sure doesn't seem ethical.
Since 1996, the YMCA has received $1,706,028 through the county's federally funded community-based grant program. In this year's county budget, which Seijas voted for without disclosing her conflict, the nonprofit received $89,500 to provide before- and after-school care. In addition, the organization took in $2.7 million from the Children's Trust, which opened in 2003.
Seijas served as a trust board member in its third year, but never voted on any funding allocations for the YMCA, according to spokeswoman Emily Cardenas. "Everyone on the board knew she worked there," Cardenas said. "It's not like she could twiddle her thumbs and not disclose her conflict." Furthermore the commissioner has never lobbied the trust on the YMCA's behalf. "We deal directly with their program directors and grant writers," Cardenas said.
The YMCA also relies on the generosity of some of Miami-Dade's most prominent citizens. Among them: real estate moguls Masoud Shojaee and Pedro Adrian. The pair gave $40,000 to the YMCA for its 2006 annual gala. The builders also gave $19,000 to Seijas-sponsored political action committees. Neither man returned calls seeking comment.
Developer Sergio Pino put up $26,000 for two pro-Seijas PACs and contributed $15,000 to the YMCA in 2005. He also didn't return New Times's calls seeking comment.
Only Odebrecht Construction CEO Gilberto Neves defended his personal and professional contributions to Seijas and her employer. Neves was chairman of the 2006 gala and has twice donated $500 to Seijas's re-election campaigns. In 2005 and 2006, his firm which built the overbudget Carnival Center for the Performing Arts and has contributed to problematic airport construction donated $80,000 for the galas.
"Our company's contributions have absolutely nothing to do with the county commission," Neves said. "It's a community service. I even donate my own free time because it is the right thing to do."