By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
One secretary attended school and had skin treatments on the taxpayers' dime. Another employee was let out of work for jury duty ... on most Fridays between January 2005 and June 2006. And a third person — also paid by you and me — possibly used publicly funded help to feed clients to her realtor husband.
All of these allegations and more help explain why one of county hall's most long-lived and wily veterans, Metro-Miami Action Plan Trust President Milton Vickers, resigned last week. They give a pretty good idea as to why three prominent MMAP board members have quit in the past two months. And they almost surely had something to do with state prosecutors' December 4 raid of MMAP's offices.
The shenanigans might even shed light on why Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones is facing indictment.
"It's really, really bad over there," says one county employee familiar with the agency, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. "MMAP used to be a good agency. Now it's foolishness — they just recycle money to each other and their friends."
Created in 1983 after the Liberty City riots, MMAP was supposed to help inner-city Miami escape poverty by providing cash for businesses and down payment assistance for low-income home buyers. It also oversees a program for young offenders called Teen Court and gives money to two youth leadership institutes. The organization, which employs about three dozen people, operates without much scrutiny; it is independent of county commissioners, which means its director and board of trustees make all decisions on a $12.2 million annual budget.
There have been problems in the past. In 1998 a county audit said the trust didn't track thousands of dollars given to community groups. In 2002 administrative officer Arthur Jones pleaded guilty to accepting a $3,000 kickback for recommending approval of a $25,000 commercial loan, and served five months in prison. The same year Teen Court founder Ralph McCloud was charged with orchestrating a kickback scheme, but was acquitted. And in early 2006 the Miami-Dade Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said Teen Court staff "lacked in accountability" and that "files reviewed contained questionable and/or blatant falsification of documentation."
Vickers took over in May 2006, assumedly to clean up the mess. The third trust leader in five years, he had worked in the county's personnel office, at the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, and as chief of staff to Miami Commissioner Jeffery Allen.
He didn't turn things around, though. This past March the OIG received 18 complaints from MMAP employees regarding personnel matters, fraud, mismanagement, and other issues. Because of all the problems, county leaders discussed pulling funding. But virtually nothing was done.
Two documents explain the morass: One is a May 11 memo from Donald Allen, director of the Miami-Dade Employee Relations Department, to Cynthia Curry, a senior advisor in the county manager's office. The other is an August 22 report by Howard Piper, a county management and performance analyst, addressed to County Manager George Burgess. Among their findings:
• Joanne Hicks, a special projects administrator at MMAP, steered people who had received down payment assistance from the agency to her husband, a realtor. Hicks denied these allegations and has not been charged.
• Another administrator, Eric Johnson, is a mortgage broker. The county received reports that Johnson "wants calls from citizens who inquire about mortgages to be forwarded to him... [He] has allegedly been seen processing qualifying mortgage paperwork for citizens who later receive down payment assistance from MMAP." He denied wrongdoing and has not been criminally charged.
• Telephone operator Pamela King filed questionable time sheets, did homework on county time, and left early three days a week. Administrative officer Brian Clarke was paid for days off to study for and take the bar exam. Contract officer William Simmons took paid time to serve every Friday on a grand jury for a year and a half.
• Several other employees were found to have either not signed in or out for the day, while others were not charged leave time, vacation time, or sick days despite being absent.
• Vickers was aware of all of these problems yet did nothing — and even scolded people for talking to the county about the agency's inner workings. "Mr. Vickers called in all clerical staff to question who had snitched to the [county]," wrote Allen, the employee relations director. "Mr. Vickers referred to them as 'traitors.' Those who were in attendance felt intimidated by Mr. Vickers's demeanor and choice of words."
Vickers did not return calls from New Times seeking comment, but told the Miami Times in July that the employees' complaints and many of the other allegations were "disturbing" and untrue. "A number of lives are dependent on my being able to do my job well," he said. "I can't think of any circumstances in which I would compromise that."
MMAP spokeswoman Melba Gasque acknowledged Vickers was under a lot of "stress," but claimed he quit because his mother just died and his daughter was recently diagnosed with leukemia. "He tried to do his best," she said. "I think he resigned for quality of life reasons."
Trust board members New Times contacted seemed generally out of touch. Board Chair John T. Jones did not return three calls for comment. Tony Crapp Jr. said he resigned last month because he was too busy to attend meetings. Beverly Kovach left two months ago because her husband died. And Arthur Barnes declined comment.
County Manager George Burgess and Commissioner Dennis Moss, who once served on the trust board, also didn't return calls.
MMAP is unraveling against the backdrop of state attorney investigations that stretch into both county and city hall. In 2005 the organization gave $75,000 to the Yellow Moon Salon and Day Spa in Liberty City, which is owned by the brother of Commissioner Spence-Jones. The second-in-command at MMAP, a man named John Dixon, was the former director of the Black Business Association — a group that allegedly gave money to Spence-Jones to organize a concert while she was an urban affairs advisor for Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
The state attorney is investigating all of those transactions, sources say, and Spence-Jones is on the brink of being indicted.
MMAP's troubles have been hinted at in the Miami Herald, which has run vague stories but failed to name names. The Miami Times covered the situation a bit more thoroughly but also missed the most scurrilous claims.
Seven months ago, employee Relations Director Allen clearly foresaw the mess that's now unfolding when he wrote, "There are several allegations involving issues of mismanagement and malfeasance at MMAP's housing division. These are issues that cannot be adequately investigated by [employee relations] staff and, given the seriousness of the charges and the statements made by some of those involved, clearly warrant further investigation by other law enforcement and/or investigative services."