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A few dozen firefighters from across the county lean on a truck at Station 58 in West Miami-Dade. It's around 9:30 p.m., and they're puffing cigars, munching on cake, and telling stories. At the center stands Alvio Dominguez, a 40-year-old veteran celebrating his last shift before shipping off with the Army National Guard for a second tour in Iraq.
Suddenly, the station chief's booming voice cuts through the chatter: "Everyone, back to your home stations!"
Baffled firefighters drop their cake, grab their gear, and file out. Then the chief gruffly pulls Dominguez to a backroom and orders him to hand over his badge, ID, and uniform shirt: He's under arrest.
That March 28, 2007 gut-punch began more than three years of legal hell. Dominguez, winner of a Florida Distinguished Service Medal and Combat Infantry Badge, was eventually convicted of 16 felonies for a heinous crime: overbilling for college tuition payments.
An appeals hearing is scheduled next month. The case provides a stark and telling contrast to revelations of malfeasance by another local military vet: Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz. He wrangled hundreds of thousands in contracts at Miami International Airport for a construction company where he earns a $120,000 annual salary for, well, being a commissioner. No criminal charges have been filed against Diaz.
While the commish takes home $55,000 in taxpayer benefits along with the six-figure salary, Dominguez's life has fallen to pieces. His wife left with their daughter after the arrest. He lost his job in 2008. He had to retire from the military last year. And not long after the night in jail, his house went into foreclosure. It's a Dade tradition: The minnows get nuked while the whales swim free.
"I got railroaded," says Dominguez, a 42-year-old ringer for Heat-era Robert De Niro with a graying goatee, slick hair, and an incendiary stare. "I'm just trying to get my life back."
Dominguez was born in Cuba in 1968 and moved with his parents to Spain in 1972. They relocated to New York two years later and then settled in Miami Beach. Dominguez grew up Catholic, graduating from St. Patrick Elementary and Archbishop Curley High. His dad, also named Alvio, supported the family as a registered nurse at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Before his senior year of high school, Dominguez enlisted in the Army Reserve. "I wanted to fight for this country that had adopted me," he says.
He soon enlisted in the National Guard and served a hitch in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. Back in Miami in 1995, he applied to become a firefighter and, as a veteran, moved to the front of the class.
He loved the work. "Being a soldier prepared me for the stress, and being a firefighter helped me brace for the gruesome parts of going back to war," he says.
And Dominguez never shied away from a fight.
"If I had to describe Alvio in two words, it would be cocky and confident," says Capt. Antonio Barroso, who served with Dominguez in the Guard from 1999 until he retired. "He talks a lot of shit, but he's a great leader who'd do anything for his soldiers."
Dominguez first clashed with county administrators in 1999, when he left for military officer classes. His bosses said he failed to give enough notice, and ordered him to enter counseling. (Dominguez still disputes he didn't tell them he was leaving.)
It was the first of dozens of skirmishes during his military service. Dominguez is the kind of guy who gets under his bosses' skin, especially when he thinks he's right. His first tour in Iraq — as a first lieutenant in charge of a 38-man infantry platoon — was cut short after six months because he clashed with superiors. He later transferred to a new unit in Homestead where he was promoted to captain.
And he picked a fight with his fire department bosses over a ten-year anniversary raise that nearly everyone receives. Administrators tried to deny him of it because he had missed work for Army officer training. Then, in 2004, he started online business studies through St. Leo University near Tampa for little more than $1,000 a class.
He applied for county reimbursement, as well as money from the GI Bill. Both were provided. He never tried to hide the double-billing; he keeps evidence of a November 2004 email argument with a secretary on the issue. A few months later, Dominguez protested to the firefighters union that "this seems to be discrimination against those who have been granted benefits for service in the military."
His timing was bad. In November 2006, the county's Office of the Inspector General wrapped up a sweeping investigation. It found nearly $200,000 in tuition program fraud owing to a raft of double-dipping, such as failing to report scholarships and discounts.
The vast majority of offenders were ordered to repay the extra fees. That list includes nine other firefighters (mostly captains or higher) who pocketed a total of $7,258.50. None was criminally charged.
But five months later, Dominguez was arrested at his going-away party. He was held overnight in county lockup and slapped with eight felonies (which were soon doubled to 16). His face was plastered on the TV news and in the Miami Herald. He was accused of pocketing $7,235. (In fact, Dominguez's documents show the difference was closer to $3,000.)