A Bullet Dodged
Two weeks ago the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust met in a closed-door session to hear evidence that Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños lied under oath when he claimed he was not aware that his own son had a criminal record before hiring the boy as a Hialeah cop. Bolaños was not present for the meeting. Perhaps he was busy running the county's fourth-largest police department. Or maybe he was confident his presence would not be required. He did not return calls to his office.
Chief Bolaños had reason to be self-assured. So far he has made it through this scandal unscathed. Indeed he seems to be the Kevlar cop, armored against accountability. Despite ample evidence he was blatantly untruthful during a criminal investigation into police-brutality allegations against his two sons, no one has held him responsible for his actions. Not his boss, Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez (who was not available for comment). Not the prosecutors to whom he lied, but who nonetheless declined to charge him with perjury. Not the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which investigated whether Bolaños violated the moral-character rules governing police conduct. And as it would turn out, not the ethics commission.
When the closed session ended, the five-member commission voted to drop charges that Bolaños violated the county charter's "truth in government" provision, which mandates that local public officials tell the truth during official proceedings. In essence the chief skated on a technicality. While investigating Bolaños, the commission, formed in 1997 as an independent agency, discovered that its authority to mete out punishment was not clearly defined. So commission members were not certain they had any enforcement powers should they have found the chief guilty. "Essentially it was dismissed on technical grounds, not for lack of merit," says Robert Meyers, the commission's executive director. "They didn't get to the question of whether he violated the charter [by lying under oath]." Meyers says he will now ask the Miami-Dade County Commission to clearly grant the ethics panel full enforcement powers.
All these inquiries stem from lengthy statements Bolaños gave to prosecutors from the public-corruption unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office in July 1999. Prosecutors had charged his two sons, Rolando Jr. and Daniel -- both Hialeah police officers under their father's command -- with beating a prisoner bloody. While being questioned, the chief repeatedly denied any knowledge of Rolando Jr. having been arrested as part of an international car-theft ring when he was seventeen years old and living at home. The chief also denied knowing that his son later testified in court against his accomplices.
Other revelations from the investigations included Rolando Jr.'s drunk-driving arrest in Georgia and the fact that brother Daniel had been rejected by the Miami Police Department because he admitted taking illegal steroids. All of which called into question the ability of the Hialeah Police Department to conduct a thorough background check -- at least on anyone related to the chief.
Contradicting the chief's statements were the Fort Lauderdale officer who arrested Rolando Jr. and said he met with the chief and his wife in the family's living room to discuss the matter; a Hialeah lieutenant and family friend, who said the chief confided his worries the arrest would hinder his son's future career in law enforcement; the chief's secretary, who remembers her boss saying on the day of the incident that his son had just been arrested for car theft and he needed to go home; even the chief's wife, who remembered police meeting with the family.
Prosecutor Bill Altfield declined to charge Chief Bolaños with perjury because the lies were not related to the police-brutality case against the two sons. "While Chief Rolando Bolaños presented false testimony during the course of the [police-brutality] proceeding, the answers given were not material to the proceeding at hand," Altfield wrote in a close-out memo last July. "However, this does not relieve Rolando Bolaños, Sr., of his ethical duty to speak the truth when placed under oath."
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) took its cue from Altfield when it examined the chief's conduct. A report by the department stated that "misconduct does not meet the criteria established ... for possible disciplinary action" because the statements were not material to the criminal case. The agency further buffered Bolaños by adding, "The denials made by Bolaños of some of the questions asked were technically not lies, given that factually incorrect information was contained within some of the questions." (Before becoming Hialeah police chief, Bolaños was special agent in charge of South Florida for the FDLE, which certifies individuals to work as police officers in the State of Florida.)
Michael Murawski, the ethics commission's "advocate" (in effect its prosecutor), thought the commission could make the matter stick. "I looked at the statements he made, and I looked at the statements given by people who contradicted him, and it's pretty clear to me he wasn't being honest," Murawski says. Unlike the State Attorney's Office, the ethics commission can prosecute an official for lying under oath even if the lie is unrelated to a criminal investigation. So Murawski filed charges last August.
"Yes, I guess that's frustrating," Murawski reflects. "But I'm glad we brought to light problems [with the commission's enforcement powers] that we can now correct." He adds that there is no double-jeopardy rule, and the commission may, if it chooses, revisit the issue. Possible penalties include a public reprimand, fines, and a recommendation for removal from office.
Meanwhile the Bolaños brothers' trial is scheduled to begin Monday. Rolando Jr. is charged with two counts of felony official misconduct, each punishable by up to five years in prison, and one count of misdemeanor battery. Daniel is charged with three counts of felony official misconduct and one count of misdemeanor battery.
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