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
Dawn was still streaking the sky over South Beach when FBI agents silently surrounded the art deco fire station on Jefferson Avenue. For months, they'd been watching a small, dapper firefighter named Chai Footman as he accepted more than $7,500 in cash and free drinks to protect popular nightclub Dolce. Now, as joggers from Flamingo Park stopped to gawk, the feds swarmed the station, grabbing Footman by his suspenders and throwing him into a squad car.
The strange scene repeated itself a half-dozen times that April 2012 morning, as the FBI arrested six other city employees ensnared in the nine-month anti-corruption sting. Also booked was another firefighter, Henry Bryant, who'd betrayed his badge by smuggling what he thought were kilos of cocaine for envelopes of cash. The chief target was Jose Alberto, the city's lead code compliance officer, who threatened hefty code violations to blackmail businesses out of tens of thousands of dollars. The feds nabbed four of Alberto's underlings too.
The arrests landed like a mortar in Miami Beach, a city already carpet-bombed by decades of corruption, and things have only gotten worse since City Manager Jorge Gonzalez resigned over the scandal. A bad cop was rehired despite beating up gay tourists. Miami Beach procurement director Gus Lopez was busted on 63 charges of demanding bribes for fixing contracts. Even Gonzalez's resignation was soured when taxpayers realized they owed him half a million dollars in severance.
By now, graft in this island city seems as endemic as sea oats. Brisk business, booming development, and a steady stream of tourism have so swollen the coffers that corruption appears almost inescapable.
But the reality is that the city has blown plenty of chances to clean up its act. Nowhere is this fact more obvious than in the Miami Beach Fire Rescue Department (MBFR), a force of 303 with a $62 million budget, the second largest in the county. Years before Footman and Bryant went astray, two employees — fire captain Edward Gonzalez and fire inspector David C. Weston — blew the whistle on rampant wrongdoing, only to be ignored, ostracized, and forced out.
A three-month New Times investigation has found strong evidence supporting the two whistleblowers' allegations. Dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents reveal a department with suspect leadership, little oversight, and a playboy culture that has led to multiple lawsuits. New Times has discovered the following:
• Millions of dollars' worth of fire permit fees went missing or were written off by inspectors, including those now charged with taking roughly $25,000 from club Dolce.
• City officials ignored repeated, detailed warnings about those missing funds.
• Top fire officials were warned about inspectors taking bribes from a South Beach hotel to ignore thousands of dollars in code violations, but did nothing.
• One powerful fireman, union president Adonis Garcia, has been accused of three assaults, bilking the county out of $76,000 in property taxes, and abusing his authority as a firefighter.
• A female firefighter successfully sued the department over repeated sexual harassment, including semen-stained clothing and death threats, winning $700,000.
• An African-American recruit was awarded $100,000 after alleging racial abuse, including being teabagged and called racial epithets by fellow firemen.
Taken as a whole, the facts paint the picture of a department wracked by corruption and racial and sexual abuse, 20 years after the Department of Justice sued to stop MBFR's discriminating ways. Amid these problems, Javier Otero, the department's chief, has continued to rely on bad apples like Garcia, a man who is now a captain and the department's spokesperson.
Otero disputes New Times' conclusions and says he takes seriously every complaint that reaches his office. "I don't have any reason to believe there is corruption in the department," Otero says. "These are nothing more than allegations from disgruntled employees."
Garcia also defends his record. "I've done nothing but try to do the right thing," he says. "At the end of the day, I've got nothing to hide."
But where there's smoke, there's fire, and thick plumes of scandal hang over MBFR. As Footman prepares to join Bryant in federal prison, the department's two whistleblowers are demanding to know why their supervisors aren't also behind bars, or at least out of jobs.
"There are so many lies and so much bullshit coming out of the department," says Gonzalez, the retired fire captain. "And it all starts at the top."
Holding a clipboard, David Weston walked through the splendor of the Fontainebleau's foyer. Beneath his brown wingtips lay a small fortune of new Italian marble tiles. Above his head glimmered golden crystal chandeliers. And all around him swirled the buzz of the mind-boggling $1 billion renovation.
But as the Miami Beach fire inspector roamed the palatial hotel, his thoughts were on the figures he couldn't see. Despite the historically expensive renovation, the city had valued the construction at just $115.5 million. That meant the city was losing out on millions of dollars in permit fees, Weston realized.
"It was ludicrous," he says. "And suspicious."
Weston soon began to notice other projects that seemed to be deliberately undervalued and fees left uncollected. But his complaints were ignored, and in 2008 he was suddenly axed. "They had something to hide," he says. "And they still do."
jose smith the city attorney has been the the longest and perhaps he is the corruption problem in miami beach.
Take a look at the New MB Risk Manager from MDC omg she worked with Risk Mgr. Miguel Solomon who fired for setting up fake insurance claims. Now MB has this adjuster from MDC to help City Atty Jose Smith settle cases with out anyone looking at anything.. Super Job HR dept, and the want to be City Manager Kathie Brooks... Is anyone paying attention to what they are doing???Hello Inspector General all the dirt is buried in the Risk Mgt Dept and the City Attorneys Office. Oh I forgot that is not open to Public Records...
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Sure sounds alot like the MIA /305 that I know. What, you didn't think the banana republic just went away, did you? Another example of how you can do whatever you want in Miami, as long as your money is green.