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
Check out this sad, sad e-mail exchange. It allegedly took place at Christmastime 2002 between cyber-Casanova Abel Lera and a county hall boss named Benigna Marko, a.k.a. Bennie. It smells like a breakup.
Benigna: I know you will be strong — please be. But I will not! I know myself. I have tried already.... I will try not to wallow. But, Abel, I can't help myself.... Please don't shut me out yet — I am not ready ... don't close the door.... Abel, here is my heart — tell me."
Abel: Bennie, let's see how you feel when you get back from your cruise. I'm really hoping (and will be praying) that you will see this is the right thing to do, and this is the right time to do it. But you make it very difficult for me to say no to you....
Then a few days later ...
Abel: Stopped in for a while this morning. Will be leaving soon. Remember to clean out your e-mails.
Benigna: Got the e-mails cleaned — I think — by the way — if something should ever happen to me — come in and delete my FIU folder okay!
Abel: I always thought u would be smart enough to delete it on your own!
Benigna: I am not sure how to take that — smart or stupid — that I am!
Abel: You should know better, call me paranoid, but no need keeping stuff that can come back to haunt you later.
Benigna Marko earns $142,704 a year as an assistant director in Miami-Dade County's planning and zoning department. Abel Lera is an $80,000-per-year manager who has received some hefty raises in the past few years. Guess who evaluates his work? That's right. Benigna. And your tax dollars pay their salaries.
The alleged e-mails recently came to the New Times office with an anonymous note claiming Benigna violated county ethics rules. "The reason for this letter is not to report an extramarital affair," the unsigned note states. "It is to report unethical work practices. Mrs. Marko should not be able to hire her lover and pay him at the expense of taxpayers."
Both Benigna and Abel declined to comment for this story, but Benigna's lawyer, Ray Taseff, says some of the exchange you are now reading is made up. He won't say which parts. The e-mails, he continues, represent "mean-spirited gossip by some disgruntled employee seeking to embarrass an outstanding public servant. We are not going to dignify this material with a response." (Abel's attorney, Terri Gutman-Valdes, can't say whether the e-mails are authentic; he deleted all electronic correspondence with Benigna from his hard drive.)
County ethics investigators are probing the matter.
Benigna (who is married to county building department coordinator Thomas Marko) began working for the county June 29, 1981, in the public works department. She worked her way up the county's bureaucratic ladder, from code enforcer to division chief and finally to assistant director. Her job is to develop the department's budget and manage its day-to-day operations.
Abel (who's also married, though thankfully not to anyone at county hall) started as an aviation department electrician 18 months later. After almost two decades there, he moved to the transit agency, working first as a computer technician and then as a $55,000-per-year supervisor. In 2003 he was rated an outstanding employee who demonstrated "initiative and creativity."
In 2002 the pair attended some of the same courses at Florida International University, according to their personnel files. By the end of the year, they were frequently sending each other notes via work e-mail and county-provided BlackBerries.
On January 6, 2003, Benigna wrote, "Hi I am out having lunch. Here is a question 4 u — do u love me?" A few weeks later she added, "Papi, did I tell you that I am upset with you?"
Abel's response: "Mami, lately you r upset with me quite regularly."
Benigna: I was going to get you a Valentine's card, but thought you might get upset.... I did and I wanted to, but I recognize the worries x-mas brought you — so I opted to hold back. You too are my Valentine! And, although ours is weird/special — I really enjoy you!
A few weeks later ...
Benigna: We are more than friends....Please try not to impose rules — because they are hard to accept (at least for me they hurtful) and they are even harder to follow.
Then Benigna apparently asked Abel whether he was upset with her.
Abel: Upset with you??? Don't think upset is the right word.
Benigna: What is the right word? Also, do I have your latest resumé? I decided I will work on your career development plan this morning.
Abel: Not sure what the right word is, doesn't matter, really not important — just needed a few days to breathe. Yes you have my resumé, multiple versions of it I think.
Benigna: Papi, do I make you not breathe? I thought I was your relief and thus you did breathe! Sorry ... can I hold you?
Abel: Can we be friends with some extra toppings? Yes. And can I just add the extra toppings when needed? NO NO NO....
Benigna: I just wished I sometimes didn't feel like I do — I know it makes it hard — but I think it is partly your fault....Well I guess I am sensitive.
Abel: I guess I should not open my mouth any more, seems every time I say something it creates problems.
A week later she sends him a directive:
Benigna: From now on, whenever you tell me that you are going to call me and you don't — you will have to grant me a wish! Okay?
Abel: Absolutely : -)
Benigna: Papi, don't be mad, but I need one of those passionate hugs from u — I am feeling down....
Then about midnight a few days before New Year's Day 2004, Benigna carbon-copied Abel a message she had sent to the county budget office. It requested an announcement of an opening for a manager position in her department. Guess who got the job three months later? That's right. Abel. He received a $2137 pay increase. It's the same position he now holds. In the past three and a half years, his salary has skyrocketed $23,063. He reports directly to Benigna, who wrote in his 2005 performance evaluation that Abel "has consistently surpassed the expectations of this rater by quickly providing solutions to issues."
Gutman-Valdes says Abel was more than qualified for the job. "He was interviewed by a three-person panel who rated him the highest over two other candidates," she says.
Sixty pages of printouts that appear to represent the e-mails began circulating in the county planning and zoning department early this year. Virtually all are conversations between Benigna and Abel. It's not clear who distributed them or why. Two zoning division staffers — who wish to remain anonymous — recall seeing the material, which they say was also shown to then-Director Dianne O'Quinn Williams. Moreover, the printouts appear authentic, according to a spokesperson for the county's information technology office, but the only way to check their veracity is by scanning the pair's computers.
The county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust is probing the matter, according to Executive Director Robert Meyers. County conflict-of-interest rules bar officials from using their positions to secure special privileges and exemptions for themselves and others. Asked if the e-mails prove anything, Meyers responded, "I can't answer that because we are investigating them."