The job is a plum posting for a rising star. Before his transfer to Miami, Johnson won praise for overseeing the Coast Guard's transition from the Department of Transportation to Homeland Security. He served as executive assistant to Coast Guard Comdt. Thomas Collins and shouldered heavy responsibility as director of operations policy. Johnson is a decorated graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School, and MIT's Sloan School of Management. Floridians should sigh in relief upon learning that a man of his influence and experience is here to protect our shores -- cost be damned -- from drug smugglers, illegal arms shipments, flotillas of Haitian refugees, and other unwanted visitors (don't forget that the 9/11 hijackers found it easy to operate in South Florida) slipping off boats under cover of darkness to plot their murderous attacks from within our own borders.
But protecting America is a demanding proposition. So demanding that upon considering the formidable tasks that awaited him in Miami, Johnson thumbed his nose at the District Seven commander's long-standing official residence -- the so-called "flag quarters" -- within the Coast Guard's Richmond Heights housing complex near Metrozoo in South Miami-Dade. It was too old, too outmoded, and too far from civilized Miami. To unwind each day and to assure victory in the war on terror, the commander would need something a little larger. And more modern. And with a pool. And for his wife, he'd like something not too far from fashionable shopping districts. And if possible he'd like neighbors a bit more socially connected than your average enlisted man.
The housing search produced an obvious choice: the posh waterfront Coral Gables enclave of Cocoplum. Johnson and his wife Janet, taking to heart our commander-in-chief's freewheeling approach to military spending, now reside in a 6200-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath home that costs taxpayers $111,600 per year in lease payments. Utilities, maintenance, and other upkeep (such as the cleaning service for the back yard swimming pool) are extra.
Extravagance like that may come as a surprise to anyone worried about massive federal deficits and reports of bare-bones funding for port security, interdiction, and other antiterrorism efforts -- but don't tell the Coast Guard. While Johnson declined to be interviewed about his palatial abode, his Miami support staff insists the new flag quarters are a wise use of funds. "The events of 9/11 and the transition into the Department of Homeland Security have greatly increased the visibility of the Coast Guard," explains Capt. Richard Murphy, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's civil engineering unit in Miami. He argues that "senior executives" like Johnson need a large and luxurious residence, "given the order of magnitude of the job and the fact that he must represent the interests of the United States." Murphy acknowledges that the Richmond Heights commander's residence (now standing empty) was set up for such entertaining, and indeed Johnson's predecessors -- including recently departed Rear Admiral Jay Carmichael -- often played host. The Richmond Heights home, while more modest, also had adjacent guest quarters for visiting officials, something the Cocoplum home does not. But other factors, such as proximity to Miami International Airport and to District Seven headquarters in downtown Miami, also were weighed.
Typically military personnel who choose to live off-base are allowed to purchase or lease a home on their own. They are reimbursed according to a Department of Defense formula that factors in local housing costs and the individual's rank. As a rear admiral with dependents, Johnson's monthly allowance for a home in Miami is $2667, perhaps enough for the common Coastie but hardly adequate for a commander with his eye on a home with a market value approaching two million dollars.
Johnson's challenge is not unique. Coast Guard officers in Miami frequently complain their housing allowance is inadequate. If the argument is deemed valid, the individual can forgo the allowance and live in a private home leased directly by the Coast Guard. There are about 30 such cases in South Florida. But the program is designed for low-ranking servicemen with large families, remote work locations, and other such special needs. As a senior officer with one of the highest allowances, Johnson does not qualify, according to Capt. Mike Lapinski, head of Integrated Support Command, an office that oversees the Coast Guard's housing services in South Florida.
Displaying military-style resourcefulness, Johnson circumvented the problem with a semantic twirl: His home would not be a house. It would be a facility. Thus he could bypass the housing office and its plebian mandate. Explains Murphy: "The duties and responsibilities of a district commander require engagement with other agencies, entertaining government officials, hosting events. The distinction here is that [the Cocoplum residence] is considered, representationally, a facility, in contrast to a house."
Whatever it is, Johnson's lavish home is leased (and paid for) through the Coast Guard's civil engineering unit, of which Captain Murphy is in charge. Murphy's unit typically negotiates real-property leases and related transactions. Johnson's home is the only residence his unit has ever handled. Officials in Miami say Coast Guard resource director Capt. Gary Blore, at headquarters in Washington, gave the thumbs-up to the unusual arrangement.
On Johnson's behalf, Murphy's office placed ads in local newspapers, contacted 34 real estate brokers, and visited numerous properties before narrowing the prospects to four. Three were within Cocoplum and the fourth near the University of Miami along the Coral Gables Waterway. Johnson toured them all. His first choice, a waterfront estate on Paloma Drive in Cocoplum, was pulled from the market. He settled for his second choice a few blocks away. (The exact location is no military secret. Dial 411 and directory assistance will gladly provide his address and phone number.)
The entrance to Cocoplum is on the southeast side of the richly landscaped Le Jeune Road traffic circle. Despite the gates and the armed Wackenhut security guard, the streets are public and anyone can enter. Inside, a contest of architectural one-upmanship appears in full play as successively grander and more opulent mansions of neo-Mediterranean and modernist styles march toward Biscayne Bay. The newer homes are truly colossal, and come with price tags of five million dollars and more. Since the late Seventies, when houses began rising from the hardwood hammocks and mangrove-covered coastlines in what was once a public beach and park, Cocoplum has been among South Florida's priciest and most fashionable addresses. Celebrities and the moneyed executive class have flocked there for years. (The Cocoplum Homeowners Association, which must approve all prospective buyers, rejected O.J. Simpson's application a few years back.) Political fundraising events have become common, with Bill Clinton visiting more than once.
The Cocoplum cachet, not to mention its maze of quiet canals and unguarded coastline, also proved irresistible to Miami's cocaine cowboys and their associates. The neighborhood became synonymous with the free-spending excesses of such notorious figures as Leonel Martinez, Hernan Arboleda, Enrique Zamorano, José Antonio Fernandez, and other convicted drug felons who built lavish mansions there. (Law enforcement wags dubbed the place Cocaineplum.) One such felon, now serving time in federal prison on cocaine-smuggling charges, was photographed shaking hands with Vice President Al Gore at a Cocoplum fundraising dinner, touching off a brief White House scandal.
Johnson's modern, two-story home is modest by drug-baron standards. It is on a shady, dead-end lane, sitting atop a small berm to escape the storm surges from the canal across the street that connects to Biscayne Bay. Other than the white, second-floor balustrades, the exterior is mustard yellow. Above the front entrance a balcony overlooks the manicured yard and sloping garden. In back, behind a clipped hedge of orange jasmine, a narrow spiral staircase connects a second-floor balcony to an outdoor patio. Lounge chairs and a barbecue grill are scattered around the pool deck. On a recent Friday morning a Coast Guard enlisted man, recognizable by his blue work uniform, could be seen out front. He identified himself as a Coast Guard air-conditioning technician. Johnson's air conditioning was on the blink, he explained; he was there to fix it.
The Coast Guard signed a one-year lease for the home with options for four additional one-year renewals. Officials say they haven't ruled out purchasing it. For now, they insist, it's a bargain at $9300 per month. But the Coast Guard also acknowledges that the cost of operating the Richmond Heights flag quarters, when occupied, is only about $2000 a month, a figure that includes utilities, maintenance, and some expenses related to entertaining. So where are the savings? "Hosting and partnering is an important element of the interagency aspect of the Coast Guard," says Captain Murphy. "A house like this can serve a multimission function." Neither Murphy nor a media-relations officer could specify any special uses or events at the Cocoplum residence since Johnson arrived.
The point may soon be moot. Shortly after Johnson moved into his stately new address, the Coast Guard announced plans to phase out the Richmond Heights housing facility, which includes the flag quarters and 99 other residential units, despite a six-million-dollar overhaul less than a decade ago. Keeping it open just doesn't make sense, explains Captain Lapinski, when more and more personnel are choosing to live elsewhere. Occupancy is about 50 percent. "The perception among Coast Guard people is that schools are better in other areas. They also want to live in places where the traffic isn't so bad," Lapinski says. "And with the expenses for upgrades and refitting a facility like this, we feel we can realize a substantial cost savings by closing it down altogether."
According to Lapinski, the facility should be empty by late 2005; other officials estimate 2007. By the Coast Guard's calculations, the government will save about $500,000 per year if the remaining residents of the Richmond Heights housing complex follow Commander Johnson's lead and find more convenient and comfortable quarters in Miami's private housing market.